Optimizing Customer Discovery Surveys and Interviews to Understand Your Customer

As an entrepreneur, it can feel like the odds are often stacked against you; from raising capital to scaling up sales, running a business comes with a multitude of major challenges, some outside your areas of expertise. Sometimes, you just don’t know what you don’t know, especially in a COVID-19 era where customer’s needs are changing as rapidly as your own. 

While some difficulty is inevitable, learning how to do effective customer discovery can help you better position your business to overcome challenges and succeed. 

Customer discovery is the process of engaging individuals in your target market to test the assumptions underlying your business model. By giving you a better understanding of your customer’s wants and needs, customer discovery can:

  • Inform your marketing message, product strategy, and future roadmap.
  • Bring attention to any areas where you and your customer aren’t seeing eye to eye.
  • Build credibility with investors that you have a clear understanding of your customer and the problem your product is solving.


To learn how to improve your customer discovery efforts, we connected with Lesley Duncan, PhD, SFU VentureLabs mentor and customer discovery specialist, and Adam Lorant, MBA, Partner at the Evidology Group, to guide us through the essentials of effective customer interviews and surveys. With these tips, you can start to build an understanding of what your customers need and how to best support them through these challenging times. 


How do I prepare for the customer discovery process?


Start asking yourself, “what do I need to know and why do I need to know it?” 

The answer to this question will define your research objectives and goals, setting the foundation for the rest of your customer discovery. Ensure to make these clear, concise, and falsifiable; as Lesley explained, “collecting information that both supports and contradicts your assumptions gives you a chance to fail, before you fail.” It’s much less costly to find cracks in your business model through this process than once your product hits the market. 

Use your research objectives to determine eligibility criteria that defines your target population. 

When selecting specific people to talk to that meet this criteria, you want to look both inside and outside of your network to get a sample that is representative of your target population. Online networks are becoming increasingly useful for this during COVID-19; for example, Lesley recommends looking for people through Twitter, LinkedIn, or online services like respondent.io.

Implement structures to systematically capture the information you need. 

Analyzing the information you collect from customer discovery accurately and consistently across participants will allow you to see the trends and patterns that emerge over time, which is ultimately what will produce the insights that inform your future decision-making. 


How do I conduct effective customer discovery interviews?


Step 1: Build a customer discovery interview plan and script

As your goal is to test the assumptions underlying your business model, any vague ideas or unknowns will form the heart of your interview script. To keep the interview focused, Adam recommends doing the following:

  • Pose challenge statements: Is this a problem for you? How serious of a problem is it?
  • Validate your solution: If we could do something like this, would it address your problem? 
  • Test unique capabilities: Do these features help you approach a solution to the problem in a way current vendors can’t address?


Step 2: Draft and send interview requests 

At every stage of customer discovery, it’s essential to show you respect your (potential) interviewee’s time; here, this translates into a clean and concise introductory email that introduces yourself and your company, outlines what you’re asking of them, and provides incentives for participation when necessary.

Step 3: Hold customer conversations, not sales calls

While customer discovery can generate product interest, approaching the conversation as a sales opportunity will be ineffective. Instead, put yourself in your participant’s shoes and go in looking to understand more about their environment and needs. 

Step 4: After every interview, debrief, adapt the script, and repeat

As many benefits as there are to customer discovery, it’s not a silver bullet. As Adam explained, “your script should be continually adapted and evolved so you can test different parts of your product and customer personas, and perhaps even different market segments.”  

With multiple phases, an investment of 10-15 days over a few months, and constant iteration, you’ll be able to see trends emerge that can inform your businesses’ next steps. 

Interview Best Practices:

1. Approach the interview as a learning opportunity, not a sales call.

2. Spend less than 25% of your time talking and the rest listening.

3. Have focused questions and challenge statements to validate your hypothesis: Ask “Is this a challenge for you?” instead of “What are your problems?” 

4. Respect your participant’s time throughout the entire process.


How do I construct customer discovery surveys? 


Step 1: Structure the questionnaire

The landing page to your survey is an opportunity to prepare the respondent for what to expect in terms of survey length, topics, and any administrative details. In terms of length, err on the side of fewer questions and limit open-ended responses to abide by the key principle of respecting your participant’s time. 

Step 2:  Construct and order individual questions

When it comes to making effective survey questions, there are many do’s and don’ts Lesley outlined in our customer discovery webinar including: 

  • Using clear language that is understandable to your target audience
  • Asking sensitive questions later in the survey
  • Being mindful of how you phrase questions as to avoid things like double barreling and leading questions. 

Step 3: Add answer options based on your research objective(s)

Be mindful of how you write your answer options; it’s important you know exactly how you will use each response to answer your research questions. In case none of the answer options apply to your respondent, also having the option to answer “N/A” or leave the question blank will increase the chances that the data you are collecting is clean and correct. 

Step 4: Analyze data to get actionable insights 

By constantly reviewing and digging into your data file, patterns in the answers will jump out at you more easily. To understand if these trends are important, you don’t necessarily need to rely on statistical significance; according to Lesley, “if you see a difference in customer groups that isn’t statistically significant, it may still be practically significant if it’s a large magnitude.”

Survey Best Practices: 

1. Ask only questions you know what to do with, to a maximum length of 10 minutes.

2. Limit the number of open-ended response questions.

3. Avoid double-barrelled questions: Ask “Is the product fast?”  “Is the product affordable?” instead of “Is the product fast and affordable?” 

4. Include the option to answer “N/A” or leave the question blank.

5. Don’t rely on auto-generated summaries – dig into your data.


By working through this process with the right mindset, you’ll gain customer insights that allow you to make evidence-based decisions, ultimately positioning your startup to succeed and beat the odds. To dig deeper into the customer discovery process, check out our #AskVlabs twitter thread where Lesley answered some of the most important questions that arise for startups doing customer discovery.

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