Listening to Your Customers: Interviews

Interviews are most useful when you have a restricted set of issues you want to learn about but you’d also like to learn about those issues in-depth.
Listening to Your Customers: Interviews - Articles

Updated: February 23, 2016

Listening to Your Customers: Interviews

You might be interested in exploring the reasons why your customers chose your business, but don't have a sense of what the possible answers might be. You might also want to understand the process through which customers came to your business. You might contact a subset of your customers and ask them a short series of questions, such as: How did you hear about my farm stand/CSA/farm market/farm business? What features of my business do you most like?

Interviews are particularly useful for exploring ideas and getting not just a rating (as you would in a survey) but also reasons behind the rating. For example, you might be interested in adding on farm events or a newsletter. You could ask your customers about their interest in these, and also their suggestions for making them attractive to customers and successful investments of your time.

Methods

To conduct interviews, first develop a short set of questions (usually no more than 4-6) that you'll ask all of the people you contact. These questions should be open-ended, and provide the opportunity for customers to give indepth answers. Interviews are usually conducted either in person or over the phone. The advantage of interviews that include this kind of personal contact and interaction is the opportunity to answer customers' questions about the interview or how the data will be used and to explore customers' answers and ask additional questions that will gather detailed information. The additional advantage of face-to-face interviews is the ability to read customers' non-verbal (body language and facial expressions) responses.

The best interviews feel like a friendly conversation between two people about a topic that both care about. Customers need to feel comfortable talking with you, and know that the information they provide will be used to improve the farm business.

When asking questions listen to what your customers' responses are, and take detailed notes. Don't try to use the interview to sell your business or other products, or influence their answers in any way.

Interviews can be as simple as one or two questions you ask every customer (and record the answers) when they purchase products. They can also be more formal, where you set up a specific time and place to meet the customer and talk. The key is that you select the group of people to interview appropriately, that all people interviewed are asked the same questions, and that all responses are counted equally when the answers are compiled.

Data Analysis

Most interview questions are open-ended, so the answers will be text. It is helpful to first organize your notes from the interviews around each question asked. This will help you to identify and summarize common themes or ideas associated with each topic or issue.

Cost

Interviews are relatively inexpensive. If the interviews are conducted in person, travel costs may be involved. If the interviews are conducted over the telephone, there may be related telephone usage charges.

Advantages of Interviews

  • relatively quick and inexpensive to plan and conduct;
  • can provide in-depth, contextual information;
  • allows the opportunity to prod customers for additional information;
  • when you are unsure of potential reasons or responses, interviews can provide a range of these potential answers;
  • makes personal contact with customers;
  • gives customers opportunities for direct feedback.

Disadvantages of Interviews

  • because of time limitations, usually can't interview everyone; those not interviewed may feel left out;
  • results do not represent views of all your customers;
  • customers may not feel comfortable giving direct feedback to you as the farm owner/operator, so may not give all the negative information needed
  • can take significant time to conduct interviews

Example

Suppose that your goal as a CSA is to identify why some members chose not to renew their membership for the next season. This information would help you identify the aspects of your business that might be troublesome for customers and where they will be buying vegetables in the future (a direct competitor - and what attracted the customer to that business - or a retail business).

Data Needed:

Mix of their evaluation attitudes and future plans, attitudinal, and behavioral: what they thought of their experience with your business, their primary reasons for leaving, and if they will be buying from someone else (and who that might be)

Methods/Procedures:

Interviews are particularly helpful for this, since it might be difficult to identify in advance the potential range of reasons. Since there is usually a relatively small number not renewing, interviews are feasible alternatives to surveys. In addition, interviews include personal contact, so former customers might be more willing to talk with you than fill in a paper survey. (However, it might be the opposite - you would need to make this judgment, based on what you know about your customers.) You call former customers and ask them questions, such as:

  • 'Please list the top three positive experiences you had with our business.'
  • 'Please describe 2 or 3 recommendations you might suggest for improving the business.'
  • 'Do you have plans to buy directly from other farmers in the area? If so, what attracted you to these other businesses?'

Notice that there isn't a question asking directly about reasons for not renewing. Such a question might be a little too pointed for some customers. Instead, these reasons can be inferred from their responses to the other questions.

Take notes during the interviews, capturing the main points of the customers' answers. When all interviews are completed, organize your notes by question. Try to find common themes or patterns within each question to identify your business' strengths and areas for change.

Interviews can be a great way to quickly assess an issue in an expensive manner. Each business owner should take time to interview customers on a regular basis to gauge issues that may need to be addressed.

July 2007

Authors

Energy and Society, specifically Community Impacts of Marcellus Shale Development Community Development and Public Engagement Water Quality Environmental Governance Systems Women in Agriculture

More by Kathryn Brasier, Ph.D.