Effective Customer Interviews Make Life Much Easier!

One of the critical success factors for service-related businesses is our ability to understand a client's needs and requirements. Misunderstandings can lead to loss of repeat business, economic loss, and damage to reputation.

Although interactions in small business are often much more casual than those at the big end of town, interviews with clients differ from ordinary conversations even though they may appear to resemble them:

Friendly conversation

a. Not directed toward a purpose
b. Equal distribution of talking/listening
c. Fewer questions
d. Redundancy and repetition are drawbacks to conversation

Interview

a. Directed towards a purpose and therefore has a structure that must reflect its purpose

b. Largely questions from one and answers from other party (interviewer mainly listens while encouraging interviewee to talk)

c. Redundancy and repetition desirable in interviews

d. Interviewer needs to use a range of strategies to make sure interviewee has been fully understood

A good structure for an interview is:

1. Establish rapport
2. Get the big picture (general information gathering)
3. Gather specific information
4. Intervene (give information, advice, or instructions)
5. End, including feedback and summary

These stages may be interactive, occurring several times throughout the interview.Interviews go wrong in predictable ways. Approximately 40% of clients do not ask an initial question that explains their need in precise terms, so the purpose of the interview is to clarify the question. And that process can fall foul of one of five common causes of communication accidents:

i. Not listening

ii. Playing twenty questions (as opposed to open-ended questioning)

iii. Interrupting at inappropriate times

iv. Making assumptions

v. Not following up

To optimise the time spent in an interview, you can use a range of techniques:

1. Open-ended questions (as opposed to closed questions that invite 'yes/no' answers)

2. Sense-making questions ? these provide more structure than open-ended questions but are less likely to lead to premature diagnosis than closed questions. They also leave the interviewee in control

3. Reflecting content ? summarise and paraphrase what your client has said

4. Closure techniques:

i.To indicate that discussion of a topic has been completed, at least for the moment

ii.To focus the interviewee's attention on what has been achieved in the discussion (can be used when the conversation is wandering)

iii. To establish a good communication climate so that the interviewee looks forward to the next encounter

Your marketing, client knowledge of the industry in general and your services in particular, and those client's expectations of your service, play a role in ill-formed queries from clients, because they reflect those clients mental models of how your business and its systems work. Obviously, an individual's mental model of any system is, by definition, inaccurate and incomplete in relation to the conceptual model. It is the degree of discrepancy that is important.

Clients tend to phrase their initial questions in a way they believe meet the requirements of the system. Inadequacy of clients' mental models becomes greater as systems become more complex, so the potential for mismatch will be vastly different for a sandwich bar, for example, compared to a business which is part of a more complex industry, such as a financial services business.

Common generators of ill-formed queries include:

a. Request for something broad and general when the client actually wants something very specific

b. Request for something specific but there is a mismatch between the specific thing requested and what they actually need

c. Client asks a question based on a misunderstanding of how the system works, or to clarify a confusion

d. Terminology used is ambiguous

e. The question involves a reconstruction which the client has gotten wrong

f. The question contains an error or misconception

Small business operators, particularly those operating service-related businesses, need to be aware and take steps to check for discrepancies between interviewer and client mental models. The good news is that mental models change through an incremental learning process.

Jennifer Cram is a sought after Civil Celebrant based in Brisbane, Queensland, who credits her success to her capacity for 'inspired listening'. She has also had 30 years management experience in the public sector. For more information: http://www.jennifercram.com

Copyright © 2005 Jennifer Cram. You have permission to publish this article electronically or in print, free of charge, as long as the bylines are included. A courtesy copy of your publication would be appreciated.

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