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Stop Forcing Your Teams to Run 100 Customer Interviews

It's probably doing more harm than good.

I get the intent. You’re trying to instill a new mindset (habit) of talking to customers. And while spaced repetition is key to habit formation, it’s only one element. Without the proper motivation and reward, rote repetition alone often backfires.

This is because humans are pretty good at gaming systems. Guess what happens when you force them to run a hundred interviews with a stick of consequences, like withholding their funding?

Precisely a hundred interviews get run. But quality suffers.

Founders typically come back declaring problem validation, which proves to be faux validation over time. That’s weeks of customer discovery effort down the tubes.

Some programs even pay founders to conduct interviews which is reversing a stick into a carrot. It leads to the same high output but low outcome story.

Extrinsic rewards are poor drivers of true outcomes that matter.

In today’s issue, I’m going to share how to intrinsically motivate founders to want to talk to customers using behavior design.

What is Behavior Design?

Behavioral scientist BJ Fogg and his team at Stanford coined the term and have been studying human behavior for over a decade. He summarized the key models and methods for behavior design in his book: Tiny Habits.

According to Fogg, a behavior happens when three things converge simultaneously: Motivation, ability, and prompt.

In other words, a behavior happens when a person is prompted with a cue or trigger, has sufficient motivation to take action, and finds the action within their ability.

How does a one-time behavior turn into a habit? Through repetition.

But rote repetition alone isn’t enough.

You have to

  • Maintain motivation,
  • Keep the actions within one’s ability, and
  • Design the right prompts.

A final lever for encouraging repetition is ending the behavior with the right kind of reward — one that signals this behavior is worth repeating in the future.

Here’s a simple example: Say you’re trying to create a daily habit of doing 50 push-ups.

From the graph below, this is below your ability line, and attempting to use this routine for habit formation is a recipe for failure.

Applying the Tiny Habits approach, you’d be better served to start with 2 push-ups a day and build up incrementally to your goal of 50 push-ups.

This approach works and is widely used in several fitness programs.

Like doing 50 push-ups, running 100 customer interviews is well below your team’s current ability. So is the solution getting them to start with just 2 customer interviews and building up from there?

Not quite. Because I’d argue that when a team has never run customer interviews, even running 2 “good” customer interviews are beyond their ability.

You have to first invest in leveling up their ability which, if not done well, can also backfire.

The Wrong Way to Teach a New Skill

The wrong way to teach someone a new skill is by layering a set of rules (do’s and don’ts) for doing the skill.

Running good customer interviews is a skill dictated by the following rules:

Guess what would happen if you gave a team new to interviewing the following list of rules? Their anxiety (friction) would go through the roof.

They’ll either be unable to remember all the rules or be too nervous to have a good conversation.

The answer I found is pairing behavior design with another concept: Perceptual Learning.

What is Perceptual Learning?

Perceptual learning, sometimes called “learning without thinking,” is how you shrink 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to 1,000 hours. Or, in our case, 100 customer interviews to 10.

Here’s how it works.

Research shows that even experts often can’t explain how they do what they do. When a grandmaster sees a chessboard, the right moves appear. How do you teach that?

Here’s the uncanny bit: While it’s hard to teach expertise, expertise can be learned simply by watching experts at work.

It sounds bizarre, but numerous studies have shown this.

  • Young musicians who were asked to sample the works of great musicians alongside their regular, deliberate practice made significant improvements over others that just practiced.
  • The best way to teach photographers composition, like the rule of thirds, isn’t by teaching them theory but by showing them many good examples of the rule of thirds.

Our brains are pattern-matching machines that connect the dots in ways we don’t fully understand.

We don’t have to know how this works to reap the benefits.

Applying Behavior Design and Perceptual Learning to Customer Interviewing

The most effective way I found for teaching a team how to run good customer interviews doesn’t even start with having them run a single interview.

I break customer interviewing into three foundational skills and work them backward:

1. 🕹️ Capturing Insights

The first skill to acquire is active listening. Instead of having them interview their customers, I give them three examples of “good” expert interviews. Their job is to listen to them and extract all the insights.

Just three analysis sessions (with feedback) are enough for a team to internalize the rules for running good interviews.

This is the closest thing I’ve found to downloading a program into someone’s head, like in the Matrix movie.

2. 🕹️ Conducting Interviews

After they’ve learned how to run a good interview, I suggest they practice with a friend using a product other than their own before talking to their customers.

Example: Interview a friend about a recent laptop purchase.

This is to create a safe, low-stakes sandbox for them to exercise their newly acquired skill.

3. 🕹️ Run Customer Interviews

After just one or two of these friendly practice interviews, their ability is up to par for interviewing their customers, which they do next.

Because they know how to run good interviews, their motivation and new learnings create the right reward loop to keep them going. It takes another 3-5 interviews for the habit to stick.

As to running 100 interviews, when teams start running high-quality interviews out of the gate, it takes closer to just 20 interviews to extract all the insights in any study.

That’s a 5x reduction in effort for real actionable versus faux insights.

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