Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

How do I set up customer interviews?

Posted on October 11, 2011 · 13 Comments

Question: How do I find potential customers to interview?

I am a new product manager working on developing a new product. One thing that I am struggling with as a product manager is how to get out there and set up time with potential buyers / users who would fit within my product demographic. Since I don’t have an existing product, I can’t interview current customers, since there aren’t any. I am trying to find ways of being able to reach out to the target market segment without coming across as too “salesy” and in a manner that is approachable and efficient.

I know that understanding the market first-hand is an important part of being a product manager, but I’m not sure of exactly the right approach. What are some methods I can use to identify potential customers and users?

Answer from Jeff Lash of How To Be A Good Product Manager: Congrats on the new role, and on focusing on the most important (yet too-often) ignored part of product management — understanding the market and potential user/customer needs.

It is easy to get hung up on the logistics of customer interviews (and I use “customer” broadly, to refer to any current customers, competitors’ customers, or non-customers in the target market), and it is a shame that many product managers use challenges setting up customer interviews as an excuse for not conducting enough market research. Yes, there are challenges, but the reward is well worth it.

There are a few general rules when reaching out to set up interviews, regardless of the method you use:

    • A “warm” lead is always better than a cold call. You are more likely to get a request if you have some sort of connection to the person you are trying to reach, even if it’s fairly loose (“My cousin’s landlord’s girlfriend suggested I get in touch with you…”)
    • Use courtesy and respect when contacting people — don’t bombard with requests over and over, and don’t be pushy. Pretend that you are on the other end of the phone / voicemail / inbox — how would you want someone “recruiting” you?
    • Follow the rules / conditions of the services you utilize, and when in doubt, use courtesy and respect. Sure, a web site may have a list of individuals with their contact information, though emailing them en masse may violate the site’s Terms and Conditions (you know, that little link in the footer that no one reads). Remember the golden rule — how would you feel if you were on the receiving end?
    • Offer something in return — it may be a cash or a gift card, it may be free services or discounts on your products, or it may just be your heartfelt thanks. State the incentive up front, so there’s no confusion or incorrect assumptions.
    • Make it clear that you are not in sales and you are not trying to sell them anything.
    • Make them feel important (because they are!) — emphasize that you are trying to understand their problems and help design products that will solve those problems, and they can help you along in that mission.

Now, as far as where to look to find people to interview, here are a few suggestions:

    • Contact existing customers. While your product is not yet in the market, if your company offers other products targeted at the same buyer/user, starting with current customers is a great first step. You may be able to “advertise” within your existing products (maybe on the web site or within the user interface, or via a newsletter to customers) to recruit volunteers that way — the benefit is that you start to build up a panel of interested participants for future activities, rather than starting from scratch every time.
    • Use LinkedIn, Facebook, Meetup, or other social networking sites to identify groups of these types of customers. The explosion in social networking has made it easy to find groups of people with similar job roles, in similar markets/industries, and with similar tastes and preferences and interests. Many of these groups are open to all and allow group members to contact other group members directly.
    • Use your personal connections to find people fitting your target buyer/user. Your personal (and professional) contacts may easily be able to put you in touch directly with their contacts who fit your profile. A simple email request with some details about whom you are looking to find — e.g. anyone with experience in middle school science education; people in payroll functions in companies with between 500-1500 employees; recreational kayakers — may yield a lot of responses, and as I wrote above contacts through connections are much more likely to respond and be willing to spend time with you. Make sure to look beyond your usual circle — in addition to close friends and (current and former) colleagues, utilize your family, neighbors, members of your church or temple, hairdresser, dog walker, random high school classmates you reconnected with on Facebook, etc.
    • Look for local associations of professionals, if you have a specific B-to-B market. Most professions have membership organizations (e.g. The American Accounting Organization), and most of them have local chapters (e.g. Society of Human Resource Managers – Atlanta), so if you are targeting a specific job function, those can be great resources. If you are targeting a specific industry, there are often local organizations or chapters focused on these specific verticals (e.g. New Jersey Chapter of the Healthcare Information Management System Society). These organizations may be able to provide access to their members, and you get the extra benefit of potentially being able to conduct in-person interviews with minimal travel expenses.
    • Leverage college alumni databases and college programs. Most universities have online alumni databases where alumni can search by employer, job title, degree, and other relevant criteria. These can be great for pinpointing specific types of people, and mentioning your alumni status in your introductory email/call hopefully will make them more likely to respond. If others on your product development team went to different colleges, have them utilize their alumni directories also and help contact potential interviewees. Also, if you are trying to find people in a specific field (people working Arts Administration, for example) then contacting college programs (in this case, any school with an Art History degree) may provide some good leads to alumni or friends of the school.
    • Post an ad on Craigslist or other similar local or classified sites. This may not be the most effective method — you may either get no responses at all, or lots of responses from people who do not fit your target persona. However, if you are clear about what criteria you are looking for, or if you are serving a broader market and have less stringent criteria, this may be an option worth trying. Ultimately, the only thing it costs you to try is the time to post and sift through the responses.
    • Look for people fitting your target personas on Twitter, blogs, and other publicly-accessible social media. With the explosion of blogging and Twitter (and, to a much lesser extent, other similar micro-blogging sites), it may be very easy to find people who meet your criteria through some simple online searching. People active in social media are probably more likely to respond (quickly!) to any requests, and may be more willing to spend time with you, given that they are actively involved and engaged in activities outside of their “main job.” However, they may not be representative users (for example, you may be able to find 70-year-old sailing enthusiasts on Twitter, though they may be totally unlike the rest of the 70-year-old sailing enthusiasts who rarely use computers), so make sure to have appropriate screening criteria in place.
    • Pay for a recruiting company to identify candidates and arrange interviews for you. There are plenty of market research firms who have large databases of people meeting all sorts of criteria. They can do a lot of the work for you — help identify screening criteria, contact individuals, schedule sessions, even conduct them for you if you want. However, these services cost money, sometimes up to hundreds of dollars per interview, usually based on how specific the criteria you are looking to meet. If you’re asking how to arrange interviews yourself, you likely do not have a huge budget, and over the long term it is probably less expensive and more efficient to build-up an in-house database.

Now, that all being said, I would love for readers to offer any additional ideas, advice, and suggestions on ways to effectively recruit for user and buyer interviews.

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