You probably already know that spending more time with your customers leads to better products and services.

Steve Blank tells us that no plan survives first contact with a customer and that we need to get outside the building sooner rather than later.

Proponents of design thinking advocate for empathetic design encouraging us to observe our users and to explore their world.

Many of us are following this advice and are finding that customer interviews take up more and more of our day to day activities.

How you engage your customers has a big impact on which insights you might generate. Here are three tips for how to get more valuable insights from your customers.

1. Encourage Your Customers to Share Stories

You don't want people to tell you what they think. You want them to share stories of their past experience.

If I ask a woman how to choose the best pair of jeans, I'm likely to get a very different answer than if I ask her to tell me about the last time she bought jeans.

The first answer will be a rational analysis of how you should buy jeans. The second answer will be a lot closer to reality.

I've seen this play out in real life. One of the most common factors that comes up in response to the first question is price. We want to be a responsible consumer.

But more often than not, in the second answer, fit trumps price. We are willing to splurge on a pair of jeans that fit just right.

You want to get at what people do, not what they think they do. Ask about specific instances.

2. Listen More Than You Talk

In everyday conversation, we tend to interact in a tit-for-tat manner. You share something. I respond in kind.

But in an interview, you want your customer to do most of the talking.

Let them be the expert. You are there to learn.

Use phrases like "tell me more" and "say more about that" to encourage them to expand on their stories.

Get comfortable with silence. You'll be surprised by how much more detail comes out after a pause.

3. Ask About the Past Rather Than the Future

If I ask you how many times you plan to go to the gym next week, I'm going to get your ideal response, maybe 3 or 4 times.

But if I ask you how many times you went to the gym last week, your response will probably fall short of your ideal behavior.

You'll have a reason for it. Someone was visiting, you had a big project at work, your car was in the shop.

These reasons happen regularly in life, but we forget to take them into account when we think about the future.

If you want to understand what people are most likely to do, ask about their past behavior rather than their desired future behavior.  

So remember, the next time you are talking with a customer about their experience:

  • Get them telling stories.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Ask about the past rather than the future.