Can I have “Answers to Questions” for $1,000, Alex?

Product managers ask questions all the time (if you’re not, you should be), but we are not always great at uncovering the answers we need. By asking open-ended questions and focusing on the type of information we seek, we can get better at asking questions that are not merely superficial, but spectacular. Knowing how to frame a question is only part of conducting a customer interview, another part is how you actually prepare for and conduct the interview itself. Here are some proven techniques which are guaranteed to improve your interview IQ.

strategies for better customer interviews

Q: How many Product Managers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Does it have to be a lightbulb?

1. Prepare Ahead of Time

If you’re planning to ask someone many, or even a few, questions, do the courteous thing and do your homework ahead of time. Do any background research which may inform your questions. And, like many of the best coaches, consider scripting out your first few questions to establish a rhythm, yet be prepared to deviate from your scripted questions as needed.

How do the great interviewers prepare? Terry Gross, when asked how she might prepare to interview someone like herself responded, “For interviewing someone like myself, I would listen to a lot of my show. I would read anything I’ve written. I would read what other people have written about me. And then I would go to sleep, and then I would wake up and think so what am I going to ask?” She expanded on her approach in this New York Times profile of her.

A useful exercise at this stage is also to come up with alternatives to common questions by forcing yourself to draft five different ways of asking the same question.

2. Ask the Question. Then Stop.

The great interviewers know to ask a question, then to simply be quiet and wait for the response. A question is an invitation you are giving to someone else. Give them time to understand it and respond accordingly. Silence may feel awkward, but it is one of the most powerful tools you have to help someone open up. Silence is the interviewer’s friend.

Silence is the interviewer’s best friend.

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3. Ask Follow-up Questions

Respect the person you are speaking with, and try to follow their lead.

Says Terry Gross: “Well, I really want to be respectful of my guests, and I don’t want to intrude, so when I’m asking an artist about how their personal life connects with their work, I really don’t want to transgress into the very personal parts of their private life… So I’ll ask in as nice a way as I can and give them permission to not answer. And if they do answer, I know that it’s OK.” For example?  “If I ask you anything too personal — I know your book is personal, but say I cross a line, just tell me, and we’ll move on,’’ she said to [author Sarah] Hepola. ‘‘And you can tell me anything on the record or off the record. O.K.? Swell.’’

“The most common mistake leaders can make is not asking a question because they think they already know the answer,” says Krista Brookman, “but it’s important to first get behind the assumptions you’re making about individuals.”

Other simple ways you can keep the conversation going:

  • “What do you mean by that?”
  • “Can you give me an example?”

4. Do Not Accept Non-Answers

One of the challenges of asking questions is understanding whether the answer you’ve just received is, in fact, a real answer, or if it is a non-answer. Speak with (or listen to) a politician or well-rehearsed business person dealing with a crisis, and you’ll hear the fine art of non-answers. It could be the result of something innocent such as not hearing the question or interpreting it incorrectly, or it could be a sign of willfully not wanting to answer the question. In either case, you have a responsibility to either let it slide or follow-up.

Should you choose to follow up — and, of course, you will choose to follow-up, right? (Leading and Rhetorical) — try one of these approaches:

  • If you need more detail, keep asking why. Some people say that you should ask “Why” “at least three times because the first answer won’t dig deep enough. The process is a variant of cause-and-effect thinking, and through a series of “whys” the questioner can drill down to a specific level.” Six Sigma, Japanese Lean Manufacturing and others take it a step further: Ask “The 5 Whys” to get to the root of the matter.
  • Reframe the question and ask it again right then.
  • Do what journalists do. File the question away, and ask it again later. Probe from more than one angle to unlock the information you are after.

5. Silence is Your Friend

I mentioned this above, but it is important enough to repeat: It is your responsibility to ask a question and to let the person you are asking have the time to answer it. Give them space, in the form of silence, to figure out what they want to say. Do not keep talking, or fish for the answer you might want, if they are slow to respond. Your continued silence is an invitation and encouragement to reply.

6. Keep Control of the Conversation

So, do you remember how I kept saying how important it is to be quiet and allow someone to answer and to give them time to complete their response? (Rhetorical, again.) Well, there are actually at least two schools of thought on that topic.

  • School of Thought #1: Let the interview come to you. Allow the person to complete their thought before you follow-up. That’s a good rule of thumb, requiring you to think on your feet, and work with what you are given.
  • School of Thought #2: Interject Judiciously. “Stopping a conversation to ask the right questions is far superior to nodding along in ignorance,” Ratliff says, “A good journalist will steer a conversation by cutting in with questions whenever they need to. This helps rein in ramblers and clarify statements before the conversation gets too far ahead to go back. Notice how great interviewers like Larry King or Jon Stewart maintain control of their conversations; it’s almost always through polite interruptions—not with things they want to say, but with questions that keep the Q&A on course.”

“Mature people will rarely be upset by interruptions that let them continue talking. To the contrary, additional questions make people feel like they’re being listened to.”

7. Two Ears, One Mouth… and Two Eyes

As the saying goes, you have two ears and one mouth because you should be listening twice as much as you talk. The corollary to that saying is that you have two eyes to observe what is going on… pay attention to nonverbal cues. The New York Times offers this advice:

 “Pay attention to your subject’s habits and mannerisms. Subtle clues like posture, tone of voice and word choice can all, when presented to readers, contribute to a fuller and more accurate presentation of the interview subject.”

The non-verbal cues may also help you interpret responses more fully. For example, does the person keep touching their face when they respond?

8. Repeat Answers to Clarify

Rephrase the answer in your own words to make sure what you thought you heard, is in fact what the other person was saying. Ask clarifying questions: You’re not a bobblehead. If you do not understand, stop nodding and and ask a follow-up question. You’re asking questions to learn. There are no stupid questions, only people too stupid to ask until they understand. That was kind of harsh, wasn’t it? (Asked and answered.)

There are no stupid questions, only people too stupid to ask until they understand.

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9. Last Refuge

If you’re not getting anywhere because the person you’re interviewing is stonewalling, sticking to prepared talking points, rambling, or being generally difficult, you do have options. Here are two, one subtly insidious, and the other likely a bridge burner. Use them judiciously.

  • Misquote… on purpose.  When you rephrase their answer, purposely get it wrong so the respondent will need to correct you. In their haste to get it right, they may include details they were trying to omit or let down their guard enough for you to dig deeper, past the pat answers. “So, I just want to make sure I got this right…” While this might be an effective technique, it’s skirting good ethics. As Shane Snow writes, “Be your own judge of when and whether you feel comfortable employing such tactics.”
  • Be a schmuck. While you may want to maintain a good rapport with the person you’re questioning, sometimes you just cannot get at the answers you need. Consider this a last (last last last) resort: be a jerk. Be direct, abrupt, un-PC, and force your way to answers and responses. Just know this, if you follow this technique: 1) the responses you get could be unreliable, 2) you will not be interviewing this person again in the future (think: flamethrower applied to bridge), and 3) word may get around, and other people may be reluctant to speak with you in the future.

Of course, by pushing hard, you may also get the truth. Which brings up one last question: can you handle the truth?

The TL;DR: How Can I Become a Better Interviewer?

There is no shortcut to asking better questions. You need to keep formulating and asking questions, see what works best for you, and relentlessly iterate. Practice, practice, practice. You can also study how the experts do it. Here are some of the best:

  • Stephen Colbert, one of my all-time favorite interviewers. Here are some of his greatest hits.
  • One of the structures used on the improv show “Whose Line Is It Anyway” is called Questions Only. The performers must speak to each other using only questions.

Some of the best Celebrity and Political Interviewers, including Howard Stern, Barbara Walters, Larry King and Oprah.