How to Take Notes like a Pro during Your Customer Interviews to Maximize Learning

“Wait, you do what? …how!?!?”

I was as surprised as they were when I learned that it’s not typical to be able to take notes while also asking the majority of the questions in a customer interview.

To me, it comes naturally. Yet, now that I have taught dozens of PMs how to interview customers and regularly coach product managers, I recognize this is not normal. In fact, I haven’t really met anyone who can do the same.

Knowing this, the questions become:

  • How do you make the most of your customer interviews?
  • How do you take notes, so that you make the most of every discussion?

As I’ve helped dozens of PMs over the years master their customer interviews, I’ve noticed a number of approaches that can help, so I’m sharing them here to help you today.

How to Take Notes like a Pro during Your Customer Interviews

Before we dive into how to take notes, there’s an important step that comes before: Having a good customer interview script. Fortunately for you, I have a detailed post walking you through everything you need to know to create a great customer interview script.

Start there, then come back to this post once you have a great script; it’s the foundation of a great interview that brings the best insights and feedback for your product.

Okay, now that you have a good interview script ready, how can you make sure you never miss a valuable insight you hear from a customer? Try this.

1) Have a template you use every time.

A customer interview script is more than just a list of a few questions you plan to ask your customer. It should be a complete template that organizes and prepares you for the interview.

When I make an interview template, it typically includes:

  • Title area: This includes the person’s name, background, any existing customer and behavior data from your product, and links to relevant information (like their linkedin, any admin profiles in your systems, analytics data, etc)
  • Introduction: If the customer has never spoken to you before, having a few notes about how you’ll introduce you, anyone else on the call, and the goals of the interview can help.
  • People: Understand how your product fits in their life. Get to know what their job is like if your product is B2B, or their life around the aspects your consumer product relates to. Best of all, this warms them up as they also happen to be good rapport building questions.
  • Problem: This is the meat of your customer interview script. It should include a collection of questions to learn about their problems, priorities, and feedback.
  • Solution: Once you have learned all about them and their problems, the last step is to share any solutions for feedback. This can be walking through a new feature, having them try a clickable prototype, or sharing mockups.
  • Key Takeaways: I use this after an interview to summarize what I learned. I place this near the top so that I can easily compare notes and find the right interview to reference later.

A little structure and organization goes a long way. The hour or so of prep I do before my first interview to create such a template and then brief prep before each call allows me to get 10X out of my interviews compared to most people.

2) Do your prep ahead of time, every time.

A good customer interview is only as good as the prep you do for it. Not only does that include the template we just went over, but it also includes filling in answers to any questions you can find the answers out on your own.

When you already know something about your customer, fill it out. You can find out many of these things ahead of time with just a little bit of digging:

  • What are they reading on your company blog and other content?
  • How and what parts of your product do they use? Which features?
  • How long have they been a customer?
  • What support tickets or feedback have they submitted?
  • Which plan are they on? Have they upgraded or downgraded?
  • Any recent experiments they were a part of and which version they saw?

This saves you having to ask about these things live on the call, and can lead to unique questions you’d only ask based on what you learn.

For example, if I see they use an obscure feature, or use our product in a unique way, I make sure to ask about that. I also look for signs to determine if they’re a power user or brand new. Both will have valuable insights, but different perspectives you’ll want to differentiate.

Yet, you’ll only be able to pull on unique threads like that if you do prep and research beforehand.

3) Bring a friend.

The best way to take notes is to have a team member join you. It does not have to be the same person for all interviews. In fact, it can be beneficial to rotate through others, so many of your colleagues get the experience.

For example, on a typical product team, you may rotate through:

  • An intern eager to learn
  • An engineer that wants to hear straight from the customer
  • Your designer, who also should be eager to talk to customers
  • The product marketer launching the feature you’re researching and looking for copy inspiration

Having a coworker from your team with you means you have someone who can not only then take notes, but also ask questions you missed or would not have thought of. As you transition to various steps in your template, pause and see if they have a question they’d like to ask. Often, they notice something you missed, or bring a perspective different than you would, deepening your learning.

4) Embrace a little silence.

Sometimes the best question you can ask is a good pause.

By taking a minute to review your notes to find the next question, write down something important they said, or otherwise take a breath, you give space to your interviewee to think more, too.

Often, the person you’re interviewing will fill that space with more detail beyond their initial answer. This often leads to more great insights you wouldn’t expect, or would have missed if you had already moved onto the next question.

This is particularly relevant when they’re recalling a story or example for you; typically, you’ll first receive the high points from them. With some time to pause, I find you’ll usually hear more rich details, some of which will be extremely interesting and relevant to you.

Important: You need to ask good questions to get good answers from customers. Avoid asking “Yes or no” type questions, which will provide limited insights. Instead, focus on asking “What” and “How” questions, which get customers talking because it requires details to answers them. (i.e. – compare asking, “Do you use [Feature X] in the morning?” to “What prompts you to use [Feature X]?”)

5) No matter what, record it!

Even with the best help taking notes, there is no better record to have than a full audio recording (and video if appropriate). Here’s why:

  • Easy to review something later. You’ll sometimes have a conversation you want to revisit. Hearing it live is better than relying on your memory, or even the best notes.
  • Extract exact wording. This is great for marketing copy, as well as copy inside your product. Use their words, which are best revealed in a recording.
  • Build credibility with your team. Too many PMs make stuff up. To differentiate yourself and build confidence especially with skeptical engineers, sharing the recording of exactly what you heard builds huge credibility.

Important: Always ask for permission before starting a recording. Some will say no (definitely respect that, especially given some state laws require it), but for those that say yes, having it for future reference is priceless.

6) Follow up after.

After the interview, your work is not done! There’s a couple things you should still do to maximize your learnings and customer insights:

  1. Review and clean up your notes: Sometimes your notes will get sloppy in the moment. You’ll jot down the best shorthand you can. Be sure to go back, review them, organize them, and add anything else you remember that you didn’t notice the first time. If you think you missed a lot, it can be helpful to listen to the recording to add more notes.
  2. Add Key Takeaways at the top of your notes: This is the veteran move. By putting your biggest 5-10 takeaways at the top, it will make it much easier to revisit the notes later once your memory has blurred or faded. This saves you re-reading all the notes instead of quickly scanning the takeaways to find the right interview.
  3. Followup with your customer: Always message your customer thanking them for their time. Follow up on any issues they raised with you, and of course deliver the gift card or other compensation. This is also the perfect time to ask 1-2 follow up questions if there’s something simple you missed asking.

The little details add up and are what really separate good and average PMs from great ones. By following up after the interview, you can fill in any gaps and easily make up for any mistakes or misses during the interview.

Remember: Interviewing customers is a habit.

Becoming great at interviewing customers is a skill to build like any others. You may not be great at it in the beginning, but by making it a habit and practicing these 6 steps, you’ll make the most of interviewing customers.

Fortunately, these get easier and become more natural the more you do them. Your customers also will become more open to interviews the more it seems like it’s a consistent thing your team or company does.

Further Reading:

Want to improve your customer interview habits and learning? I’ve written more on the subject as I’ve mastered them and taught others:

Or, if you want hands on help building an amazing and insightful customer interview process, with help crafting a script, running interviews, and leveraging the best insights to build great products, then my coaching is the best option for you. Sign up for a free call to discuss your needs here.

One thought on “How to Take Notes like a Pro during Your Customer Interviews to Maximize Learning

  1. Pingback: » Small tweaks, Big Differences: Lowering your flake rate on customer interviews Building Customer Driven SaaS Products | Jason Evanish

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