The purpose of customer interviews is to extract insights from the minds of your customers. Talking can’t achieve this; only listening can.

It may sound like a semantic triviality, but it’s a widely overlooked concept: people too often equate “talking with customers” with “telling them all about the product.”

Telling customers about your product is not customer development; it is marketing. Customer development is listening to customers so you can better understand and serve them.

When you speak, you’re not listening.

If your conversations are only about getting your message across, you’ve stopped listening. When you stop listening to customers, your company starts dying.

Listening with your mouth shut

wise old owl

When I’m interviewing customers, I challenge myself to speak as little as possible, so I can listen as much as possible.

I even substitute the phrase “talk to” with “listen to” for all of my customer interview calendar items (e.g. “Listen to David of Company X”). It’s a small but persistent reminder of what I should really be focusing on in the meeting.

In order to understand what causes customers to buy, I need to hear how they articulate things themselves. How they rate their issues. The sequence in which they remember things. The connections they make between things that I never would have thought of.

If it’s in person, I leave dead air to the point of awkwardness—people will often blurt out any old thing to break the silence, and it’s usually unfiltered and straight from their subconsciousness. That’s solid gold.

I listen carefully to the words they use to describe their situation, so I can use those words to communicate at scale to other people just like them. Most importantly, I avoid the temptation to insert my thoughts into the mix at all costs.

I’m there to have my mind shaped, not to shape theirs.

This is not to say you should never open your mouth. Go out of your way to make them comfortable and put them at ease, and by all means poke, prod, backtrack, summarize and ask for clarification.

Just be vigilant in remembering which way the intellectual value should be flowing: play the role of the psychiatrist, not the politician.

Give the customer freedom to wander intellectually. They will inevitably go off in directions you hadn’t considered before. Follow them. They’re showing you the path to success.

Samuel Hulick

About the author: Samuel Hulick is a UX consultant and the author of The Elements of User Onboarding. He creates a growing collection of onboarding teardowns at UserOnboard.com.