TDA Group: 7 tips for mastering the art of the customer SME interview

Conducting an effective customer interview is an art—one that’s vital to producing a compelling success story. The interview offers opportunities to not only collect information but also generate project momentum and capture a story in the customer’s own words. Those words should be at the heart of your content: letting satisfied customers tell their own stories helps you increase the impact of content and better influence the decisions of potential customers.

And let’s not underestimate the importance of momentum. Generating and sustaining momentum is crucial for completing your project, whether you are developing a single case study or a range of deliverables that tell the customer’s story. If you can get off to a good start, everyone involved in the project will gain confidence that the project will run smoothly, be successful, and have an impact.

Establishing positive momentum early is especially important when creating customer success stories. The stakes are higher; producing a great success story—one in which you and your customer can be proud—will help bolster your customer relationship.

So how can you master the art of interviewing a customer’s subject-matter expert (SME)? What can you do to maximize the value of the interview for developing the success story and providing the momentum for the rest of the project?

Following a few simple guidelines can help you ensure a profitable interview experience that generates the results you need for an effective success story, and establish the early momentum for the project.

1. Talk to the right people.

It’s always great to get a quote from a C-level executive, but the most productive interviews usually involve the people who selected and implemented the product or service you’re promoting—the people in the trenches. The interviewees should be able to articulate the business challenges that led to a change, the reasons for choosing your product or service, and the benefits achieved.

Your account team is often the best source for identifying the right person or people to be interviewed. In some cases, it can be beneficial to have multiple interviewees on the same call to make the most efficient use of everyone’s time.

2. Get the facts beforehand.

The interviewer should have the answers to many questions before the interview starts. Conducting background research and discussing the success story with the account team ahead of time will nail down customer information and details about the chosen solution, such as product model numbers or configurations. Knowing the facts helps the interviewer devise informed questions and control the time allotted for the interview.

3. Have a conversation, don’t conduct a quiz.

An interview should be an informal, interactive conversation, not a test of knowledge. Putting the interviewee at ease is essential for producing a candid, authentic endorsement of your product or service. Having a core set of questions ready is fine, but the interviewer should be prepared to improvise. The discussion should flow naturally from one topic to the next.

4. Lead the witness when necessary.

In a court of law, attorneys aren’t allowed to “lead” witnesses, encouraging them to say particular things in certain ways. There is no such rule when conducting success story interviews. In some situations, it is more expedient to propose ideas to the interviewee than to wait for him or her to land on just the right theme. For example, the interviewer could ask, “Would you say that this product has helped your business reduce the time to market for new services?”

5. Be ready for surprises, and get the real story.

Interviews don’t always go as planned. A customer might be using a slightly different product, employing a product in an unanticipated way, or achieving unforeseen benefits. The interviewer should be prepared to go with the flow. Unless the story starts to drift drastically from the intended messaging, it’s often useful to see where surprises lead. You want your customers to tell the most compelling story, even if it’s not precisely the one you expected. In some cases, unexpected customer stories can shape and/or reshape messaging developed by marketers, and in the process, make value propositions much more effective.

In addition, remember that readers are interested in how the people involved overcame the obstacles preventing their success. Often the most interesting challenges are found beyond project funding or new technology. Did an organizational change contribute to progress? Did a new manager bring a new perspective? Did a policy change enable the solution? Weaving these human elements into the story can make it more interesting and informative.

6. Represent the brand.

When talking with SMEs, interviewers are helping to manage one of your most valuable assets—your customer relationships. Whether you work with outside agencies or internal departments to conduct interviews, you need interviewers who understand your products and your messaging, can represent the values and image of your brand, and can get the customer to express the value they attribute to you in a quotable, interesting, and even entertaining way.

7. Above all, be professional.

The interviewer should follow the highest standards for professional courtesy, politeness, and of course, punctuality. The entire experience should be a positive one, especially as the actual interview is taking place. The interview is a key opportunity to strengthen the customer relationship. The interviewer must make it clear that your company values the time and contributions of the interviewees.

Every year, TDA writers conduct hundreds of success story interviews with a broad array of customers from a large cross-section of industries and organizations. We incorporate the content from those interviews in case studies, articles, social media, presentations, and other deliverables that showcase our clients’ products and services from the perspective of their satisfied customers. By employing tips like those described above, you too can improve all of your content marketing with the voice of your customers.