Published in The New Hampshire Union Leader
By Becky Stoughton

Feedback from prospective customers is golden when you’re thinking of trying something new — say, getting a startup off the ground, offering a new product (or service), or breaking into a new market.

A great way to obtain this feedback is through one-on-one discussions. Whether these are formal interviews or informal conversations, here’s how to obtain the most useful feedback to guide your business decisions:

• Before you contact anyone, identify for yourself what you need to know from potential customers. Some of the major insights to be gained are: Whether — and how much — they need what you’re offering? How do they currently get their need met? What do they like/dislike about that solution? How much would they value what you’re offering? Through what channel would they want to purchase it?

• Next, identify the target group(s) that can provide the most useful insights. Don’t waste your valuable time talking to just anybody. Think through where investing your time will really pay off. And don’t limit yourself to those you expect to love what you’re offering. Get a truly representative sample of your target customer with as many different-yet-relevant viewpoints as possible.

• Before you contact your target group(s), think about why they should want to talk with you, and frame your introduction accordingly. Get inside their heads and figure out what is important to them. Determine how they will benefit from your product. Then articulate that as clearly as possible.

Make it a concise and clearly worded statement about why you’re seeking their feedback. For example: “I am seeking feedback on my faster, smaller widget. Because you’re the country’s largest user of widgets, I’d like to get your insights into how you think widget users would view my widget relative to what is needed.”

• Prepare for the interview by writing down your questions in advance and putting them in a logical order. Don’t think of this as a script you have to stick to, but rather as an outline for the discussion. Forcing yourself to think about the interview in advance helps you ask better questions that will elicit useful responses.

• Be mindful of what interviewees are likely to know (and not know) about the subject you’re discussing, and frame the initial part of the discussion accordingly. That way you can be sure they’re following your points and understanding your questions.

For instance, don’t use jargon they may not understand. As you (hopefully) build a rapport and get a sense of how familiar they are with your terminology, you may be able to communicate on a different level. But always be as clear and concise as you can when you describe your widget and its benefits.

• During the interview, be sure to listen more than you talk. Many people try to convince the interviewee of their perspective and never stop to listen to the other person’s perspective. Not only is this inconsiderate, but it will cause you to miss out on valuable insights. Also, listen “between the lines.” Keep your ears open for interesting avenues for discussion that you might not have considered, and be ready to veer away from or extend your planned line of questioning to take full advantage.

• Take notes during the interview. Afterward, use your notes right away to document the discussion well enough that you won’t have trouble later as you try to distill what you’ve learned.

• Talk to as many relevant people as is reasonably possible. How many is that? It depends on how important it is for you to learn the information. If you’re thinking of raising prices at your café, talking to a few of your regulars may suffice. If you’re thinking of launching a new technology startup, talking to dozens, if not hundreds, of folks would be appropriate.

• It’s important to think critically as you analyze the results of these interviews. Did you verify the need for your product? Did you learn of new competitors or ways in which customers currently address their need? Is your product’s ability to meet their need more or less important to them than you’d thought? Is there another need that is more important that you might be able to meet more profitably? How will this feedback guide your business decisions?

In conclusion, remember that these aren’t just interviews with strangers. With luck, a long-term relationship will develop. Treat your interviewees with respect and value their insight for the gold it is.

Rebecca Stoughton is a vice president with Fuentek LLC, a leading provider of technology transfer and intellectual property (IP) management services. She can be reached at and followed on Twitter @BeckySStoughton.