The truth about customer research, from someone who knows

Ritika Puri spends a lot of time doing customer research. A lot of time. All told, she estimates that she personally conducts thousands of customer interviews per year.

Why? First of all, it’s literally her job. As the co-founder and creative leadof Storyhackers, a storytelling and research consultancy that does work for clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to up-and-coming startups, Ritika’s entire business is about getting under customers’ skin and understanding what they need — and how she and her team can solve those needs with content.

On top of that: Ritika is also an entrepreneur herself. That means spending tons of time figuring out what her own target audience — corporation, government innovation groups, and startups — is looking for, and how she can deliver it better than anybody else. And that process always comes back to the research.

“Qualitative research rules everything around me,” Ritika says. “Everything we touch through Storyhackers, everything we’ve built, it all starts with these 45 minute to hour–long interviews that we do with people.”

But here’s the other thing: Ritika genuinely loves customer research. Really loves it. She’s at a place in her business where she could easily pass the customer research component of her job along to someone else — and she hasn’t. She doesn’t want to.

“I like doing these calls. I like talking to people. An interview is such a cool opportunity to get to know somebody on a level that you wouldn’t have otherwise. When else do you get to go so deep into somebody’s intellect or experience?”

It’s not every day that you get to talk to someone who likes customer research as much as Ritika does, or is as good at it as she is.

Here, we talk about her approach to customer research — and why when it comes to conducting a successful customer research interview, less really is more.

Ritika Puri
Ritika Puri (Photo credit: Justin Strauss)

Be upfront about why you want to talk to people and what it’s for

When approaching contacts for a customer research interview, it’s tempting to get evasive about your motives. Maybe because you’re not comfortable saying the words “I’m working on a business” out loud yet. Maybe because you’re worried that people won’t help if they know it’s for a business.

When you feel that temptation to get vague, or beat around the bush, resist it. Be honest instead.

“When I do outreach, it’s really straightforward,” says Ritika. “I say, ‘We’re building this thing. This is the purpose of it. This is how your interview will be useful. We’d like to spend X amount of time with you.’ We keep things really easy on them, and make sure everyone feels really good through the process.”

Being upfront about your goals for the interview doesn’t mean that your outreach has to read like a corporate memo. You can be transparent about what you’re doing, and why, and still sound like a human instead of a robot.

Instead of: “I’m starting a business focused on helping 30-something women lose weight.”
Try: “I’m trying to understand why women our age set fitness goals and then don’t get to the gym.”

Instead of: “I’m working on a solution to help recent college graduates save for retirement.”
Try: “I’m curious about why young professionals have a hard time saving money.”

Customer research works best when it comes from a place of genuine curiosity and eagerness to learn. Set that tone from the very beginning.

Get specific about your goals

This is Research Methods 101. The first step in any kind of research, whether it’s medical research in a lab or customer research in a phone interview, is to get clear on two points:

  1. What do we want to learn?
  2. How much can we accomplish from this specific exercise?

“Every interview has to have a distinct goal that drives it,” Ritika explains. “The universe of things to discover with regard to any topic is so vast, you have to narrow down. Sometimes it takes a couple interviews to further narrow down that precision, or pursue a different direction.”

The goal of this narrowing-down process? To get to what Ritika calls “learning objectives”: a series of ultra-specific bullet points that crystallize what exactly it is that you’re hoping to understand.

Let’s go back to the women’s fitness example from the last section. Some learning objectives that guide that research interview might be:

  • What’s the biggest obstacle for women who want to get in shape?
  • What solutions have they tried in the past that haven’t worked?
  • What’s their biggest motivation for wanting to get in better shape in the first place?

These are your destinations — the points on the map that you know you’re trying to get to. The more clearly you’re able to frame these in your mind, the better your chances of getting there.

Don’t script your calls

This next one is going to be tough for all the Type A super-planners out there: when you’ve winnowed down to your learning objectives, and you know what it is you’re interested in learning from your interviews, stop. Don’t do any more scripting than that.

“I don’t have a script for the bulk of the calls that I do. I don’t have pre-planned questions,” Ritika says. “I have my learning objectives, the couple of bullets that outline what we want to learn. But that’s it. Other than that, it varies from call to call how things take shape.”

When you rely on scripts, and plan out every inch of how you want the call to go, you control the conversation. That means there’s a pretty good chance that every interview will cover the same ground you’ve already covered.

Leaving your calls unscripted creates room for spontaneity and surprise. It gives the contact the freedom to tell you what’s important to them, as opposed to just reaffirming what’s important to you. And that leads to more authentic interactions — and more authentic discoveries.

“Everybody tells their story in their own way,” says Ritika. “You have to leave room for that.”

Listen more than you talk. Way more.

If you’re nervous about conducting customer research because you’re unsure of what to say, Ritika has good news: the less you talk, the better.

“I do very little talking on an interview call itself. If someone reveals something to me that’s deeply emotional, I don’t want to leave them hanging, or for them to feel alone or nervous about [having] revealed that to me, so I’ll share a story with them. But for the most part, it’s not a two-way conversation. I’m listening. I don’t like to talk.”

A corollary to the “listen more than you talk rule”: when you do talk, mean it. “I say what I mean. I’m not going to be fake with people,” says Ritika. “If I don’t think something’s interesting, I’m not going to say, ‘That’s really interesting, that’s awesome.’ But if somebody tells me something interesting, I’ll tell them: ‘Hey, I love how you shared that story about how you automated that process — I think a lot of people will get value from it.’”

People like to feel heard — particularly about things that are hard or worrisome to them. The more you show them that you’re listening, and that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say, the more they’ll share. But you have to get out of the way and let them.

Look for reasons that you’re wrong

Because customer research is part of the idea validation process, there’s a tendency to think that it’s all about looking for confirmation that you’re on the right track. But Ritika says that when she does calls with customers, she’s looking for reasons that she’s wrong just as much as why she’s right.

“The point of research is to prevent you from making mistakes or problems or pursuing a wrong direction,” she says. “So I’m always looking for outliers, things that invalidate our assumptions, gaps in our assessments — anything that might tell us that we’re wrong.”

An example: In 2016, Ritika and her co-founder started exploring an idea for a fitness education product, thinking that they would launch it within the same year. But after talking to potential customers, they realized that their product market fit was too general. So they spent the next two years using research to get really specific about what they were building, and who they were building it for. What came out of it was a product that was a better fit for their customers, and for their passions and interests as entrepreneurs.

In simple terms, says Ritika: “Bullshit-detect yourself as much as possible.” You’ll be glad that you did.

Be ready to go back to the drawing board. Again. And again.

We all wish customer research could be a linear process: do X interviews, gain Y insight, proceed with Z product.

But the reality is that that’s almost never how it works — a fact that Ritika has experienced firsthand with Storyhackers. “It’s been 4 years and we haven’t released a product yet,” she says.

“You can’t control the universe around you. You can’t know when the government is going to put a tariff on a given industry, or if there’s a natural disaster. You get sick, or you run out of funds — you have different constraints enter your life that you don’t see coming.”

But she and her co-founder are okay with that, because they’re in it for the long haul. “We’re looking at building something that can grow with us over 10 years,” she says.

And every time they hit a roadblock, that commitment to qualitative customer research is what enables them to find a new path forward.

“We’re constantly going back and saying, ‘Okay, let’s look at what we have. We’re doing this ongoing customer research. Let’s specialize. Where’s our niche? Let’s double down on that.’ We’re constantly listening and actively listening, and it’s all grounded in that simple technique, with those 45 minute to hour–long interviews with our customers.” ***

Not everyone will love customer research enough to make it a life’s calling. But it doesn’t have to be this onerous chore that you dread, either.

Four things to try the next time you’re doing interviews with would-be customers:

  • Lead with curiosity. Be open about what you’re interested in, and let contacts do the same.
  • Set clear learning objectives. Get really specific about what you want to learn from every interview, and let those objectives be your guide.
  • Get out of your contacts’ way. Let their observations and experiences drive the conversation, instead of the other way around.
  • Be ready to be wrong. Don’t let impatience to get to a business get in the way of building the right business — for your customers, and for yourself.

Where are you getting stuck when it comes to customer research? Let us know in the comments below!

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