Questioned Proposal by Eleaf Full

“Are there places in our project that you feel we’re falling short?”

Asking your clients where you’re screwing up might seem like shooting yourself in the foot but we believe that having hard conversations makes for better working relationships. So at the beginning of the new year, after the confetti had been swept up and the empty whiskey bottles recycled, we embarked on a weeks-long project conducting customer insight interviews, wherein we took the time to call our clients and talk candidly with them about their engagements with us.

Reaching out to all of our clients was time-consuming; we scheduled in-person or on-the-phone interviews and then, with their permission, we recorded and transcribed our conversations. Because we were committed to gleaning as many valuable perspectives as possible, we interviewed multiple stakeholders for each project whenever possible.

Thus armed with a figurative stack of interviews, we then assembled a small, multidisciplinary team to sit down together and go through all the interviews; we were looking for over-arching trends, recurring problems, and issues that were isolated incidents. The project allowed us to gauge, from our clients' perspectives, what our strengths are and, more importantly, where there is room for improvement.

What we learned.

Looking over our findings, we validated some theories and discovered some common threads. Here are a few highlights:

Our clients universally believe that our technical capabilities are, bar none, the best in the business. Validating this point was crucial to us. Substantial has put so much blood, sweat, and tears into building an amazing team that works like a well-oiled, well-considered machine. Whether it was pairing, pomodoro, continuous integration, automated testing or some other method, hearing our clients say that they love our process and see our product as rock-solid tells us that our hard work is paying off.

In contrast, we learned that the sales process we were using to engage our clients wasn't having the desired effect. Based on the interview findings, we've evolved our sales process to better address client concerns, in doing so better positioning ourselves to serve their future needs. Understanding their main concerns during the initial phases of their engagements with us will also help us better serve new clients coming in the door.

We also learned that we could do better at communicating with clients throughout our projects. With the feedback we received, we've started to do even more regular stakeholder check-ins to get a regular gut-check on how projects are going. By taking a step back and collectively taking a temperature, we can better course-correct as we go along.

Finally, we validated our belief that our clients keep coming back to us because they value our commitment to their projects. We're involved at a personal level, caring about the project as much as our clients. Related, they also voiced satisfaction with Substantial's commitment to being a good strategic partner - many said they appreciated that we raised concerns as they emerged and that we pushed back on decisions that would negatively affect the product when we felt it was necessary.

Continuous improvement is one of Substantial's stated core values and our customer insight interviews helped us to cement it as something tangible and attainable, both internally and with our clients. One of them even said, "It's consistent with your culture, I mean the fact that you're even doing [customer insight interviews], not everybody does this, it shows a willingness to self-assess and is a strong indication of courage and quality."

Looking to do your own interviews? Here's some advice based on what we learned.

  • I found that how clients said things was just as telling as the words themselves, which is why I would strongly advise against sending questions via e-mail. Additionally, having in-person or phone time with a client is invaluable to relationship-building.

  • Have a neutral third party within the company do the interviews. This way, clients are more likely to spill the beans and the interviewer is less likely to add his or her own interpretation to the data before passing it along (subconsciously or otherwise). Additionally, having a new person conduct the interview will increase how many people the client knows within the organization - always a good thing in the long-term.

  • Don't feel like you have to stick to the same questions during every interview - go ahead and experiment. Some questions are better received than others with different clients, and some aren't specific enough to find those golden nuggets of information. Adjust your questions to the context of the conversation.

  • Do go "off script." Sometimes a client would bring up a point that I felt needed more exploration. I'd spend a substantial (see what I did there?) amount of time on these topics and gather more valuable feedback than I would have if I had immediately moved onto the next question.

  • Ask for examples. Clients will often share their gripes, but without specific examples it's often hard to really understand how you can do better next time.

  • When you're setting up interviews, be sure to let the client know what to expect with regard to how much of their time you'll be utilizing, the types of questions you'll be asking, and why you're doing this in the first place.

  • Remember to leave some time at the end to ask if they have any questions. Interviews are an opportunity for two-way communication.

  • Always ask the client if there is any question/topic you didn't touch upon which they expected you to cover. This helps you fill in gaps and discover subjects you weren't aware your clients wanted to talk about.

  • Do ask this question: “In your opinion, what does (insert your company here) do?” This is a great way to realize what your clients do and don’t know about your company and whether your messaging is working.

  • Remember to say thank you. An e-mail is nice, but a hand written note is better. Both is best.

Main image from Flickr user eleaf.