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On building rapport in customer interviews

The risks of getting a little too friendly in customer interviews.

Matt Foley
Matt Foley
3 min read

Story time…

My first job out of college was as a Qualitative Research Assistant at Harris Interactive (a large market research firm that is now part of Nielsen).

As part of my training they would have me watch seasoned researchers conduct interviews and focus groups. I’d sit behind a one-way mirror eating peanut M&Ms and watch these researchers work their magic with the participant/group.

One researcher in particular was amazing. The clients absolutely loved her. She had a way of getting the participant or group to relax and open up to her about personal topics (that sometimes were out of the scope of the research entirely).

She was awesome at "building rapport," which is what many people will tell you that you're supposed to do in qualitative research to make people feel comfortable and open up to you.

I’ll never forget after one particularly gregarious, high energy focus group she stepped in the back room (behind the one-way mirror) and admitted to me that she could get them to say whatever she wanted. She had built that much rapport.

This was held up to me by colleagues and clients as the example to follow.

I wasn’t so convinced.

Too much rapport?

Sure, it was entertaining and fun to watch her work her magic in the room. I felt like I was watching some kind of voyeuristic reality TV show with a super charismatic host. Clients enjoyed the "show," and she certainly knew it.

But the more I learned the more I figured out this wasn’t actually good research. Sure, you need to build some rapport, but there is such a thing as overkill. This researcher was (intentionally or unintentionally) introducing bias to the research.

You want to be friendly, but not overly so. If the person being interviewed likes you too much they may change their responses to match what they think you want to hear (i.e., response/social desirability bias, which I'll write about in a future post).

What to do instead

Start your customer discovery interviews by briefly introducing yourself, explain the goal of the conversation and why you reached out to them, and then get down to asking your questions. This should take no more than 2-3 minutes.

Be very careful with your overall demeanor, tone of voice and body language throughout the conversation. Having a calm, relatively neutral demeanor is key.

Remind the participant upfront that you are seeking their honest opinion, and that they are not going to hurt your feelings if you have something bad to say.

As the conversation progresses, validate their answers with a quick nod or "mmm hmm" affirmation, but be very careful never to outright agree (or disagree) with something they say. Your opinion, background, experience, etc. doesn't matter in a discovery interview - you are only there to learn about them.

Clouding your judgment

Building too much rapport can have another unintended effect, which is to cause you to interpret the results incorrectly.

I've helped hundreds of startup founders through their customer discovery journey, and have sat on live calls with the founders as they talk to their prospective or current customers.

Naturally, founders are excited about the problem they are solving and their solution to the problem, and this comes across in their tone of voice, demeanor and body language.

The person they are interviewing then mirrors their language, prompting this loop:

Founder is excited > Customer/prospect mirrors their language and gets excited > Founder gets more excited because customer/prospect seems excited (rinse, repeat)

This leads founders to interpret the results in a very positive light, when in fact the customer was mirroring the founder's natural passion about the problem/solution.

My recommendations

Approach your customer discovery interviews with the demeanor and perspective of a researcher or scientist studying a topic.

Build just enough rapport that they feel comfortable opening up, but not so much that they start to mirror you and say what they think you want to hear.

Ask an advisor or colleague to sit in on your interviews to provide a neutral perspective on the results and check your tone if you are getting too excited.

I'll admit it's difficult to do if you're very passionate about the problem/solution, but with enough practice it can be done...

Matt Foley

Customer discovery expert with 20+ years of helping everyone from entrepreneurs to enterprises talk to their customers and make smarter, customer-centric decisions.