If You Want Potential Customers to Be Honest Ask Open-Ended Questions

by | Nov 25, 2016 | Corporate, Entrepreneurship | 4 comments

Three years ago, I was coaching a successful company that was very confused about the failure of a recent product launch. When I was first hired, they told me they were convinced they had done everything by the book.

Before developing the product, the company held five focus groups with potential customers to make sure they were going in the right direction. After the product received positive feedback from each of the focus groups, the company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a little over a year to bring the product to market.

The product launch was disappointing to say the least. No one—not even the focus group participants who said they were interested—bought it. This experience is one of the most financially painful experiences in innovation, but it’s an experience that can be easily avoided.

In this example, the company was very excited about its new product idea. That excitement was obvious during the focus groups when moderators asked questions like, “Wouldn’t it be great if [blank]?” and, “Don’t you think [blank] is a big problem?”

Leading questions like these broadcast the answers you’re hoping to hear to your interview subjects. And as we’ve covered before, once your interview subjects understand what you want them to say, they are very likely to give you the answer you are hoping for, even if they don’t actually believe it.

Leading questions often result in false positives that waste money, time and opportunity.

After the company’s new product failed, they let me create an open-ended interview questionnaire to contact their target market. Not only did they find that the problem their product aimed to solve never existed, but they discovered that their product created new problems that they had not foreseen!

Use Open-Ended Questions to Identify Migraine Problems

Your customers’ natural inclination is to be nice, not honest.

Open-ended questions give your potential customers the option to respond very honestly and to fully explain the problems they’re facing (that your product may or may not solve). For example, you might ask someone, “Wouldn’t it be great if you never had to scoop your dog’s poop during walks?” If they’re a dog owner, chances are they will say yes. But if you ask them, “What have you done to solve that problem?” they will probably say they haven’t tried anything other than using bags they get from the grocery store.

When you use open-ended questions effectively, you’ll know you’ve hit a real migraine problem when the customer tells you it’s a problem without your prompting and then explains what specific actions they’ve taken to solve the problem.

Leading questions that broadcast the answers you want to hear:
“Are you…”
“Will you…”
“Won’t you…”
“Didn’t you…”
“Can’t you…”
“Would you…”
“Wouldn’t you…”
“If you could do [blank]…”

Open-ended questions start with less direct language:
“How…”
“What…”
“Why…”
“Tell me about a time when…”
“Describe…”
“What do you think about [blank]?”

They also avoid biased language, like ”Do you agree that…” or “Don’t you hate it when…”

Comfort, Conversation and Active Listening

Not only do open-ended questions elicit more honest answers, they often make the customer more comfortable. No one wants to be interrogated, and few people want to be sold. Open-ended questions demonstrate to someone that you actually care what they think. It makes it obvious that your agenda is to learn, not to convince.

Unlike leading questions, open-ended questions turn the interview into a conversation. While your customer is talking—and if your questions are good, they may talk for a while—give them verbal and physical responses, like saying, “Uh-huh” or nodding your head. Talk as little as possible; you’re here to learn.

But in order to learn, you need to listen. Actively listen for any pain points, not just the one you expect to discover, and dig deeper when you’ve found one. You can do this by asking more direct questions:
“Tell me more about that.”
“What did you do to try to solve that problem?”
“What did you mean when you said [blank]?”
“Did you tell anyone about this problem?”
“Tell me about another time that you experienced something similar.”

Be Open, But Stay Focused

Even though open-ended questions can have a wide range of answers, the questions should still be focused. For example, if you have an idea for a client relationship management tool, you shouldn’t start by asking, “What are the three biggest problems in your life?” Instead ask the interviewee to tell you about how they keep in touch with potential and current clients. “Tell me about the tools that help you do that.” “Are there any that don’t work as well as you wanted?” After answering those few questions, you’ll have enough information to ask them to walk you through the process they followed for the last prospective client they targeted. “How did you hear about them?” “What did you do after the first contact?” “How did you stay in touch?”

By asking focused, unbiased, and open-ended questions during the initial interview—and digging deeper on pain points—you’ll have information you can immediately use to more effectively pursue the right ideas, and avoid ones that won’t work.

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What are some of your interview tips?? Please share in the comments!

4 Comments

  1. Matt Rosinski

    Thanks Diana – I appreciate the advice about being focused in open ended questioning. This is a mistake I have been making.

    Probing for migraine sized problems by starting the conversation with questions like “what’s your biggest challenge as a …” or “what’s the hardest part about…” has felt unnatural to me and my results have reflected that. General catch-all responses like “not enough time!” or flat out rejections.

    Instead leading with less direct questions that start with something like “Tell me about …” feels more normal to me and will hopefully lead to more natural responses. When people know they are being interviewed they can become defensive or worse. They may pretend to be someone they are not.

    My takeaway is that enquiring about personal stories and actual experiences will help better reveal migraine problems.

    Reply
    • Diana Kander

      I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I find that I get the best stories if they don’t fully know what I want to ask about. The more variety in my questions, the better stories I seem to draw.

      Reply
  2. Scott

    Interesting read Diana. I don’t have a focus group per say, but I can send out an survey email to my list. Do you have any suggestions for asking open ended questions online?

    Reply

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