15 Tips & Tricks for Consultants Interviewing their Customers

Interviewing the key stakeholders is a pivotal part of any digital transformation program. In this post, I share my tips & tricks to help you run a successful set of interviews, and extract those golden nuggets of insights from the person in front of you (either virtually or physically).

Let’s say, for the sake of this blog post, that you are working with one of your customers to create a Digital Journey Dashboard (or DJD) such as the one depicted below.

Use the DJD Lite as your interview guide
  1. Create an interview guide.  I recommend you use the draft DJD Lite as your interview guide. Your goal is to uncover the meaningful and relevant facts, initiatives, capabilities, etc. in order for you to complete the viewpoints you are in the process of forming. Look at it as the completion of a puzzle, piece by piece, interviewee after interviewee. At the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know, so keep the conversations open. This is why you need an “interview guide”, rather than going through a list of predefined questions. This is not a survey. As the round of interviews progresses, you can and will start being more specific about the information you are looking for. Each interview will focus on different aspects and that’s fine.
  2. Interview 1 customer at a time. Don’t compromise here. Having 2 or more people interviewed at the same time seriously hampers the quality and depth of the information you’ll be able to retrieve, in particular if the topic is a touchy or emotional one. Indeed, people are a lot less inclined to share sensitive information when in the presence of a colleague. Also, if your interviewee is alone, s/he will feel more compelled to ensure that you really understand their viewpoint. It’s just human nature. So again: only 1 interviewee at a time – you’ve been warned!
  3. Make sure that you also interview the sponsor and the champions, ideally towards the end of the interview round. Even though you already talked to them (e.g. to secure the BA engagement in the first place), having a more intimate setting (i.e. 1:1) will allow you to uncover additional points, as well as test your understanding of the inputs you received in previous interviews. Interviewing the sponsor/champions towards the end will ensure that you are not totally off the mark when you produce the final draft of the DJD (or any other BA deliverable you’re working on). It’s important to confirm that your understanding of the big picture is correct, before you start spending hours on analysing the detailed information you received throughout all the interviews.
  4. Research the interviewee. Determine the person’s work role, his/her formal authority and specific expertise and use this information to estimate the likelihood s/he will have the knowledge/visibility necessary to clarify one area or the other of the DJD. Identify topics for which you must obtain answers or extra insights. An efficient way to do this is to ask your sponsor/champion to go through the list of interviewees and give a short explanation of their role/responsibility and why they were selected as a key stakeholder to digital transformation.
  5. Give some upfront notice to each interviewee, so that can mentally prepare themselves about what we’ll talk about during 60 minutes. This could/should be done through the sponsor, with something like: “There nothing specific for you to prepare. The only thing we’d like to understand are the challenges & opportunities that you see for the IT department to better support the business transformation moving forward. Please just give it some thought while you’re driving to the office before the interview”.
  6. At the start of each interview, introduce yourself and restate the goal of the conversation. Assume that the interview knows very little about what you are trying to achieve. The interviewee is about to spend 1 hour of their precious time to support this initiative, so it’s important that they understand how they will benefit personally and what they can expect to get out of it.
  7. Start the discussion with these 2 open questions:
    ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
    “​​​​​​​Could you please explain your role in the organisation and the key areas of transformation?”
    ​​​​​​​”In your mind, what is the role of IT (and technology in general) in driving Digital Transformation, and helping do your job in a better way?”

    By experience, these 2 questions are enough to kick-start a 60-minute, fruitful discussion. Remember that you don’t know what you don’t know. So make sure you let the interviewee tell you what is bothering them most — this can sometimes take a bit of time to unfold, so you need to let the person come it in a natural, gradual way. Oh… and assure your interviewee that the whole discussion will be anonymized, so as to ensure that no information remains concealed.
  8. Have an interview partner/scribe. Conduct interview with another person to help in taking notes and to ensure correct interpretation of answers. Another benefit is to let the interviewee know that his/her input are critical to the success of the initiative. The maximum number of people on your side is 3, as more would damage the intimacy that you are seeking to create to gather high-quality, relevant information.
  9. It’s important to leave silences in the conversation. This may be challenging if there are 2 or more interviewers. This is why you always need to nominate a “lead interviewer” who drives the discussions. From time to time, the lead interviewer will poll the other folks on the call/meeting to seek if they have additional questions. This is really important as some of the gold nuggets come when the interviewees is left with some thinking time: a 10-seconds silence has been proven to have a very powerful effect when used wisely in interviews. Use it to your advantage!
  10. If and only if the conversation gets stuck (e.g. after 30 minutes), feel free to show the draft DJD Lite that you are working on. This might inspire the interviewee to share more information about one topic or the other. This is also a great opportunity to test out how the DJD story plays out in the ears of one of the key stakeholders at the customer. Does it resonate? Or is a critical piece missing?
  11. On some rare occasions, an interviewee might be impatient or even aggressive, for whatever reason. Maybe there’s some internal politics involved. Maybe it’s just a bad day. In any case, you won’t get much out of someone who’s not inclined to share his/her thoughts. I recommend to propose him/her to cut the interview short. By experience, this will the exact opposite effect, i.e. the interviewee will calm down and try to explain and/or find more topics to talk about, because unconsciously, they feel the need to fill in the planned 60 minutes.
  12. After about 50 minutes, start wrapping-up the conversation. Summarize the key points you uncovered and the aha! discoveries you have made. Test your understanding and gather anecdotal evidence: this will be very handy when you’ll need to justify some of your more controversial findings/recommendations.
  13. For your own personal use, take a picture (screenshot) of the person you are interviewing. This is easy if the meeting is virtual, but a little bit more tricky (if not, awkward) if it’s physical — just play it by ear. A picture of you interviewee will be very useful after 2-3 weeks, when some of the discussions might be blurry in your memory. Seeing the face of the person you talked to will help you remember the context. And it’s a nice souvenir too!
  14. Ideally, leave a minimum of 1 hour between 2 interviews. Why? 1/ you’ll need some breathing time to rest your brain and/or take a bio break; 2/ you’ll need to clean up your notes before the next interview (otherwise you’ll start mixing things up); 3/ In the event your interviewee has more than 60 minutes and the discussion is going well, you can extend the discussion a little (of course, you should ask if your interviewee is ok with it — it is only being polite). If you are planning a full day of interviews, a good schedule might be: 9:00-10:00, 11:00-12:00, 13:00-14:00, 15:00-16:00, 17:00-18:00. 5 interviews in one day is the absolute maximum you should shoot for. Ideally, I prefer to keep it to 4. More gets difficult to process and remember.
  15. Time extension. Usually, 60 minutes will be enough to get through the main points, in particular towards the end of the interview round, when you have already gathered much of the information needed to build a DJD. But sometimes, you might run out of time and wish you had asked for 90 minutes. If you feel that you still have a lot of unanswered questions and that the person has critical information, feel free to either extend the call by 30 minutes, or organise another session with the interviewee. Often, they will be flattered and accept.
  16. Say thank you and explain what will happen next. You might conclude by saying something like this: 
    “Thank you so much for spending time with us and sharing your insights. This has been tremendously valuable. We’re now going to use this information to create a Digital Journey Dashboard. Rest assured that we’ll anonymize the controversial points you raised. When we are done, in 2-3 weeks, we’ll organise a read-out with the sponsor to present our findings, as well as drive a collaborative, virtual workshop to co-create the final infographic together.”
    Remember that your interviewee has just spent 1 hour of their precious time to support this initiative, so it’s important that they understand how they will benefit personally and what they can expect to get out of the 1-hour of their lives they just gave you.
  17. Don’t record the call/meeting. This would make the interviewee feel self-conscious and careful about the sensitive information they might like to share. This is why it’s important to have 2 interviewers (maximum 3), allowing you to take good notes without hindering the open and honest conversation.

Yes, this is more than “15” — consider the last 2 as bonuses !

Which profiles should you ask to interview?

Your sponsor/champion at the customer asked who they should line up for the interviews? 

Here’s a good template list of profiles to start with:

  1. Innovation Manager and/or Digital Transformation Officer
  2. Team leaders from the IT dept – Networking, Security, Collab & others.
  3. Someone in charge of developing the IT Strategy (could be an Architecture Management Office or an Enterprise Architect)
  4. Someone who cares about Data – either from the Architecture, Security or Governance side
  5. Someone from Financial/Procurement that helps procure new tech and investments
  6. Someone from Operations that helps run Daily Ops
  7. Someone from Product Development (Coding, Product etc)
  8. People representing the Lines of Business and the end users (could be “Business Relationship Managers”)
  9. Workplace and building management (/Real Estate)
  10. etc.

Careful: this list is not exclusive or nor definitive. It is a mere suggestion to help the sponsor/champion select the right people to interview. 

At the end, the people you are looking for are the influencers who have an opinion on things and are ready to openly share it with you. You are looking for the thought-leaders who have original ideas about what Digital Transformation means the organisation.

That’s it!

And remember: the most important is to enjoy the discussion. I have found I learned more during the customer interviews I conducted than any other moment in my entire career. Forget about trainings, certifications and books. During customer interviews, you get a mandate to ask ANY question and explore ANY topic. You get insights from professionals who share the viewpoints they have often developed over years. This is a HUGE opportunity to learn.

Likewise, I have found that the interviewees almost always enjoy the process as well. Why? Because they feel their opinion is valued and the organisation is listening to them, as one of the key stakeholders to Digital Transformation. So many of my interviews have ended with a very pleased interviewee, eager to participate to the next steps in the BA-led engagement.

So have fun!

Author: Patrick Bikar

I head Cisco's Global Business Architecture Center of Excellence with a strategy built on 3 pillars: [1] COMMUNITY: I build the organisational structures and internal/external partnerships for a tribe of 250+ Business Architects, empowering them to continuously hone their BA know-how and vertical expertise. It’s a movement, the BA Makers, skilled and tooled for helping our customer drive business innovation with speed, impact, and scale. More info on: https://bamakers.org/digital-transformation-heroes/ [2] CAPABILITY: I co-created a powerful framework helping our customers deliver on the promise of Digital Transformation. We call it the BA Poppy, and we're now in the process of fully revamping a 4-stage Business Architecture training curriculum around it, so we can scale our approach to the whole of Cisco, our partners, and our customers. More info on: https://bamakers.org/ba-rethought/ [3] CUSTOMERS: Every year, BA Makers support dozens of business-led customer engagements, interacting with CxOs, IT Leaders and business executives. We help them ensure that technology investments deliver the outcomes and benefits expected by users and the business, crystallizing a digital transformation strategy in a way that is holistic, concerted, undetermined. More info on: https://bamakers.org/quantum-transformation

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