As a writer, I believe that getting a great customer interview is the key to a successful case study. When expertly guided, your customer will hand you your case study on a platter just by answering a few questions. Once it’s transcribed, you’ll read through the interview, and your story will start writing itself. But if your customer interview falls short, you’re stuck doing a lot of research and trying to connect the dots on your own.

Sometimes writers conduct the customer interview, sometimes a product marketing manager, or even an experienced sales rep. Whichever you happen to be, along with being well-informed about your product and your customer, my advice is:

Customer Interview Tip #1

Don’t be shy. Make sure your customer talks about you.

Given the chance, people usually feel most comfortable talking about what they know best—themselves. It’s human nature, so don’t expect your customers to be any different, even when they’ve agreed to an interview that’s supposed to be all about you. For example, when describing their own products and processes, customers are likely to go into great detail; when describing yours, they will probably be more inclined to generalize and skip to the next topic.

Before we look at strategies for nudging your way into the spotlight, remind yourself why you’re working on case studies to begin with. The goal here is simple: to get someone other than yourself to say nice things about your product.

To help ensure this happens, start by asking yourself what you want your case study to focus on. Make a list and be sure to put the most obvious item at the top: your product. You’d be surprised how often I’ve been asked to write up a case study from a customer interview that never mentions my employer’s product or even its basic functionality. Add to the list your product’s key benefits and everything that sets you apart from the competition.

Keep your list short so you can glance at it during the interview and make sure that your customer touches (in their own words) on the points that matter most to you.

Customer Interview Tip #2

When preparing questions, dig deeper.

All customer case studies follow a tried-and-true, feel-good formula: (a) Meet the sharp, successful customer, who (b) finds him or herself facing a truly herculean obstacle, until (c) you arrive on the scene, swooping in to help save the day.

Your case study is designed to make it easy for someone who is still just considering your product to put themselves in your customer’s shoes, imagine themselves on a similar journey, and reach a similarly happy ending. To establish this basic narrative, start by asking your customer: What challenge did you face? Why did you choose our product to overcome it? What results have you achieved using our product? These are your core questions.

But for your reader to really connect with your customer and relate to their experiences, remember, you’re not actually talking to a company, you’re talking to a person. Encourage your customer to share specific examples and tell anecdotes from their personal point of view. By asking the right questions you can help bring out their natural storytelling abilities while steering them to provide details that will showcase your product’s key strengths.

For example:

  • Ask about the company’s biggest challenges. Then personalize the question by rephrasing as: What was the most frustrating part of your job that you were able to solve when you started using our product?
  • Ask about the impact your product has had on the company as a whole. Then get more specifics by asking your contact to list their favorite feature and describe their day-to-day routine interacting with your product.
  • Don’t be afraid to go for high drama. You can ask: Did our product help you avert a crisis? Did our product enable you to do something you never thought was possible? What did you find most surprising about our product after you started using it? Has our product shifted the way you perceive your job function?
  • Don’t forget to ask for measurable improvements (in time, money, manpower) and attribute them to your product’s specific features.

Customer Interview Tip #3

Share questions ahead of time.

Since you’ve already written your questions down, there’s really no point in keeping them as a surprise.

In fact, to help your customers prepare, and help you get the best possible interview, I recommend you send them your core questions and a list of five optional ones with the instruction to choose the three they feel they can answer best.

Ask them to jot some notes down and send them back to you, or set up a preliminary call to review them together. You can then let them know what you’ll want them to elaborate on in more depth.

In conclusion:

The questions I’ve used as examples here might not be just right for you, or you may need to add a few more to hit on the specific features and benefits your product offers. But as tempting as it might be to just wing it, don’t. Prepare for your customer interview, and ask your customer to prepare a little too.