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A Quick Guide to Effective Client Interviews

It would be unusual to have a project in which interviews weren’t necessary. There may be formal interviews, in which you are trying to gather the sentiments of the top team, for example. Or there may be informal interviews, in which you’re chatting with someone in their office about their experience with a particular type of customer complaint.

In either case, it helps to have a format and structure to accomplish several objectives:

  1. Gather as much qualitative information as possible.
  2. Keep the interviews brief, for your sake and the interviewee.
  3. Avoid having to return for further information.
  4. Discourage the interview from being a “gripe session.”

Here are my suggestions for ensuring that interviews of maximally effective and productive. A little homework never hurts.

  1. Get some background on the interviewee. Find out his or her correct title, tenure in the job, prior experience, and recent accomplishments. This will serve to give you perspective on the responses, as well as to have some “ice breakers” at the outset. (“I understand you used to be in the London office…”)
  2. Arrange for privacy. If you use the interviewee’s office, request that your time together be undisturbed. You may have an office on site that the client provides. Don’t conduct interviews in public places (e.g., the cafeteria, or in a cubicle) and don’t conduct them over meals. (It’s tough to take notes and there are a zillion distractions.)
  3. Ask permission to take notes and explain the purpose (e.g., they are just to guarantee accuracy). You may want to read the notes back before you depart to comfort the interviewee. I prefer not to record discussions because the recorder creates a somewhat intimidating atmosphere. (I often take notes on my lap top, because I can touch-type very rapidly.) Never trust your memory.
  4. Set a finite time limit and finish early. This will aid your schedule as well as the interviewee’s. I’ve never, personally, needed more than 45 minutes for an interview, and many were completed in under 30.
  5. You may or may not want to provide advance notice of some of the areas. This can work well if you need background and recall which may require some digging and can stimulate people into being better prepared. But it doesn’t work well if you want spontaneous reactions to controversial issues. Providing advance questions in that case may only generate politically correct responses or tap dancing.
  6. Bring about 10 scripted questions with you. Start with these (no need to use them all) so that you have a comfortable starting point. But don’t be trapped by them. Use follow-up questions to earlier responses to dig deeper wherever appropriate.
  7. Ask reaction questions. In other words, don’t ask, “Do you favor the current compensation system?” or “How would you rate the current compensation system on a scale of one-to-ten?” Ask instead, “What are the best and worst features of the current compensations system” or “If you could make one change to the system to improve it the most, what would it be?”
  8. Don’t offer your own opinion or show any bias. But do use your impressions from prior interviews. In other words, it’s fine to say, “Several prior interviewees have mentioned that they think the compensation system is the primary reason for turnover at mid-management level here. What is your reaction to that?” (Not: “Do you agree with that?”)
  9. Be conversational but directive. If the interviewee rambles or digresses or keeps repeating the same point, politely interrupt and say something like this, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt, but before I forget, you said something that triggered a question: What is your reaction to the merger plan announced yesterday?” Don’t let conversations run aimlessly. Politely point them in the right direction.
  10. Send a thank you note and encourage the individual to let you know of any other thoughts they have. Occasionally, you’ll receive a call or email with further insights that can be quite helpful.

When you summarize your interviews, eliminate identification and disguise anything that may give away identity (e.g., “A woman only with the firm for three months reported…”). Look for patterns and trends. But also watch for the one-off comment which may be quite singular but also quite insightful. Many times the conventional wisdom is neither conventional nor wise, and someone close to the operation has actually figured out what’s actually going on!

I’ve found that when interview feedback matches focus group and survey feedback, those agreements are almost always valid and demand close scrutiny.