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Why do so many product managers get worthless information when interviewing customers? Let me reframe the question: How might product managers ask productive, provocative questions which lead to insightful answers from customers?

Did you see what I did there?

Customers, people who are already using your products, can tell you a lot about how and why they use them, and where they fall short. Yet so many product managers stop short of asking probing, insightful questions, and as a result, they get shallow, rote answers in return. Some people claim you should not listen to your customers. The truth is that customer feedback is critical to making decisions about your product’s future when used in conjunction with other types of data and information. In the same way that you should not just eat sugared cereal for breakfast (or dinner), customer interviews can be a nutritious component of a balanced feedback diet.

Do you believe you have mastered the art of asking effective questions? Why? How might your life change if you were better at asking them?

Inventors, journalists, scientists, and detectives excel at asking questions and seeking answers. What can we, as product managers, developers, and designers learn from them?

In This Article:

Why are Good Customer Questions Important?

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire

You want to learn. You need answers. You are curious. You are a novice with ambition. You want to connect more deeply with someone. There are plenty of reasons why you should want to ask the best questions possible. The reality is, “most of us ask terrible questions. We talk too much and accept bad answers (or worse, no answers). We’re too embarrassed to be direct, or we’re afraid of revealing our ignorance, so we throw softballs, hedge, and miss out on opportunities to grow,” writes Shane Snow in Fast Company.

You know it is important. What can you do about it?

What Types of Questions Should you Ask?

There are many types of questions and reasons for asking them. Let’s focus on one which directly applies to your work as a product manager: Asking questions as a means to understand a topic more deeply. “Topic” could range from your market, users, or competition to implementation of a particular feature.Picking the best customer interview questions

You might also wonder, “What about using questions to shape strategic direction and influence others?” As Dale Carnegie wrote in his seminal book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Effective leaders ask questions instead of giving orders.” While I won’t directly address those angles, the techniques covered below apply there, too.

Questions about life, the universe, and everything (answer: 42) are out of scope, for now.

So what makes a question great? Now that is a great question. Before jumping too deeply into the do’s and don’ts, take a moment to understand the different types of questions and questioning techniques:

What is an Open-Ended Question?

“If you ask me big open-ended questions, expect big open-ended answers.” – President Barack Obama

Open-ended questions often lead to more thoughtful responses and encourage the person being asked to give a narrative reply. They typically start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” or “how,” and give the person responding the opportunity to decide what and how much to reveal.

What is the inverse of an open-ended question? Yes, you with your hand raised in the second row…. that’s right… A closed-ended question. A closed-ended question. These types of questions usually start with “could,” “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think…” resulting in narrower, more terse responses, and rarely leading to expansive ones. This type of question may be useful if you’re looking for a limited response… or if you are starting an interrogation or cross-examination or doing drunk usability testing.

You will learn more with open-ended questions. As Stephanie Vozza writes, “Open-ended questions encourage the person being asked to expand on ideas and explore what is important to them or what is comfortable to reveal…. For example, instead of asking “Do you agree with this decision?” ask “What do you think about …?” or “What do you want to do next?”

She continues, “Open-ended questions show respect for the views of others because they don’t lead people to a certain type of answer…  [S]ome leaders are uncomfortable asking open-ended questions because control goes to the person being asked, but the technique goes a long way to building rapport and increasing understanding.”

Examples of open-ended questions:

Leading Questions are a No-No, Right?

A leading question is one which includes a cue (or cues) about how you might want the respondent to answer. Generally, you should avoid leading questions because the answers you get back will be tainted and significantly less useful.leading questions

Instead of asking a leading question, reframe it as a truly open-ended one, or ask it more directly. For example, rather than asking, “Leading questions are a no-no, right?” rephrase it: “Are leading questions a no-no? Why or why not?”

If you find yourself veering into asking leading questions, rein yourself in by either keeping the questions shorter or by not asking them at all… because if you know the answer you want to hear, well, then, why are you asking the question at all? (That was a rhetorical question.)

What is Socratic Questioning?

Have you heard of the Socratic method? You may have experienced it in school when your instructors were trying to help you hone your critical thinking skills. There are 6 Types of Socratic Questioning:

  1. Questions for clarification:  Why do you say that? How does this relate to our discussion?
  2. Questions that probe assumptions:  What could we assume instead?  How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
  3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence: What would be an example? What is….analogous to? What do you think causes to happen…? Why:?
  4. Questions about Viewpoints and Perspectives: What would be an alternative? What is another way to look at it? Would you explain why it is necessary or beneficial, and who benefits? Why is the best? What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? How are…and …similar? What is a counterargument for…?
  5. Questions that probe implications and consequences: What generalizations can you make? What are the consequences of that assumption? What are you implying? How does…affect…? How does…tie in with what we learned before?
  6. Questions about the question: What was the point of this question? Why do you think I asked this question? What does…mean?”

Keep these in mind as you ask questions and strive to uncover deeper, rather than superficial, answers.

What are Some Positive Outcomes of Effective Customer Questions?

As Judith Ross wrote in Harvard Business Review, “The most effective and empowering questions create value in one or more of the following ways:

  1. They create clarity: “Can you explain more about this situation?”
  2. They construct better working relations: Instead of “Did you make your sales goal?” ask, “How have sales been going?”
  3. They help people think analytically and critically: “What are the consequences of going this route?”
  4. They inspire people to reflect and see things in fresh, unpredictable ways: “Why did this work?”
  5. They encourage breakthrough thinking: “Can that be done in any other way?”
  6. They challenge assumptions: “What do you think you will lose if you start sharing responsibility for the implementation process?”
  7. They create ownership of solutions: “Based on your experience, what do you suggest we do here?”

What Types of Answers Do You Expect?

When you are asking questions, think about the type of information you want to gather from the question. For example, Mike Martel lists three categories:Benefits of asking more effective questions

These categories mirror the basic question types, each asked with an outcome in mind: Factual, Interpretive, and Evaluative.

You Have the Tools. Now, How Might You Use Them in Customer Interviews?

If you want to learn from others, you must ask insightful, penetrating questions. Open-ended questions will lead to a conversation, which in turn will lead to unexpected answers. Closed-ended and leading questions may help push a customer interview along, but they will not propel it forward. When you are clear about the purpose of your questions – obtaining facts, soliciting an expert opinion, exploring potential options – you can structure them to get at the answers you need. Those are your tools. What are some proven interview techniques you can use? That’ll be the topic for the next post, “Customer Interview Strategies for Product Managers.” Check back next week.

Steven Telio

About Steven Telio

Steven is a Product Management Consultant who specializes in defining and delivering stellar digital products. He has held senior level Product Management roles with a number of startups, including 4 which had successful exits. He has led projects in a variety of industries for organizations that include EMC, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Syngenta, Boeing, NASA, and Harvard Medical School, and began his career doing technical support for a medical device start-up, where he answered “patient-on-the-table” service calls from neurosurgeons.