September 18th, 2012 | 6 MIN READ

Voice of the Customer: The Case For Telephone Customer Interviews

Written by author_profile_images Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

Harnessing the “voice of the customer” is very important in refining and shaping your business - from web usability, product features and functionalities, product offering, customer service and marketing campaigns. There certainly is value in using online customer surveys, but do they provide the full picture of your customer experience?

In Roadmap to revenue: How to sell the way your customers want to buy, Kristin Zhivago includes a lengthy section on customer interviews by telephone. Having tested all types of surveying methods, she has found people speak most freely by phone, in their comfort zone of home, car or office. They hesitate to reveal everything they think when speaking in person, and are more confident and willing to give their opinion behind the safety of the phone.

Similarly, email and text messages are not the best way to collect information. Customers are shy to be completely honest when there’s a paper trail to their comments.

Why telephone interviews can tell you more than online surveys

Multiple choice and Likert scale questions in online surveys or telephone interviews are “flawed from the start because the questions are composed by people who haven’t been talking to customers.” What if their real response was not one of the pre-set options?

The problem with focus groups

In focus groups, people know they are being watched, and there are many dynamics in a group setting that can influence responses. Some will be more vocal, some will shrink back to the dominators. More importantly, your most influential customers are unlikely to participate. Busy executives and consumers do not want to sacrifice a half day of living for “$75 and a sandwich.”

Corporate customers are more reluctant to share their own business problems within a group, and they won’t believe, if a concern is brought up in a focus group with a moderator, that any action will be taken to resolve their specific problem. One-on-one interaction with an executive or representative of your company suggests to interviewees that their opinions are being heard.

The pitfalls of personas

Creating a persona is not the same as hearing from real customers. Personas can be helpful to make a customer “real” to company insiders, or to represent a new type of customer you want to target before you have actual customers of the sort. But relying on a persona profile can lead to incorrect assumptions about what “Sally” or “Robert” want. “Real customers are real people who will surprise you. Personas that we create are not going to surprise us, because we created them.

Telephone interview tips

Make your own calls

As a business owner or lead, conduct at least five of the initial interviews yourself. This helps you personally understand your customers, their situations, and their buying process. It will also help you manage anyone who may be conducting additional interviews for you. In turn, you’ll be able to represent the customer within your organization. When another employee tells you “our customers are like this or that,” you’ll know if that is true.

Marketing managers and product managers should also make at least five calls each.

Don’t involve salespeople

“Even the best salesperson will have a very hard time simply 'listening,' without jumping to correct any misperceptions that the person has. Plus, the customer will feel as if she is being sold to, albeit covertly, if a salesperson is the person asking the questions.”

When to outsource

Once you and marketing and product management have made at least five calls each, with the same basic issues raised in each new call, it is safe to turn some of the interviewing to an outside party. The benefit of outsourcing is people speak more openly and honestly with outsiders than insiders. They’ll use stronger words, which helps you understand the seriousness of any problems customers may be experiencing.

An interviewer should be knowledgeable about your product or service, personable and friendly, and perceptive enough to be able to detect subtle openings during the call.

Who should you interview?

Your current customers. Why?

They know more about your product or service than you think they do. They will be able to describe their buying process, concerns, how you’ve addressed their concerns, their likes about your company and other information. They’ll give you good feedback on what’s working and what needs improvement. They also have interest in your success, because they are already using your products or services, and may even be dependent on your company for their own success.


  • Segment your customers by product line, business unit, geography, etc. if relevant. Other segments include size of customer’s business, job title, amount of purchase, length of relationship with your business, industry, satisfaction level, ore even salesperson in charge of the account.
  • Shoot for your most profitable customers.
  • Include a mix of happy and less-than-satisfied customers, but the majority should be happy campers as you want to build your process model to reflect a successful sale.
  • If you sell through distribution channels, include an offer in your packaging that gives customers incentive to contact or register with you.

How many customers should you interview?

Zhivago recommends a five/ten/fifteen program. Expect to see trends after the fifth complete interview, main problems established by the tenth, and “no doubt about the big issues” by the fifteenth. This rule holds up regardless of industry or customer profile. Exceed this and face diminishing returns.

In author’s experience, one-third to one-half of folks you contact by email will respond to your interview request, so aim for 45 contacts, minimum. The subject line “Would like to interview you” paired with a C-level sender name improves response rates.

Interview questions

Ask these primary questions:

  • What do you think of our [product or service]?
  • Have you had any interaction with our customer service? How was it?
  • If you were the CEO of [our company] tomorrow, what’s the first thing you would focus on?
  • What problem were you trying to solve with our product/service?
  • How did our product/service help you to solve your problem?
  • What was your buying process--what were the steps--and what questions or concerns did you have as you were consiering our product/service?
  • If you were looking for this type of product/service again, and you didn’t know about our solution, what would you type into Google?
  • What do you think is a fair price for this product/service?
  • What is your biggest challenge right now?
  • What do you think of our competition? Is there anything we can learn from them?
  • What trends do you see with this kind of product/service?
  • Is there anything I should have asked you, that I didn’t ask?

Roadmap to revenue: How to sell the way your customers want to buy is available at

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