Trust is defined by Merriam-Webster as “Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something”. Trust is vital when interacting with your customers. It gives them confidence that they are making the right decision in choosing you.  It also allows them to tell you their needs and wants even when it is unflattering. Luckily, there are some concrete ways that you can build trust when interacting with your clientele. Below are some interview techniques I use that can help you build and maintain trust with your customers.

The good news is: your customers want to trust you. Typically, they want to give you their money. They are looking for a reason to do so.

There are several reasons for your customers to trust you. Your product or service is reliable, does what it advertises or it is better than other similar products in the space. In summary, it probably fulfills a very specific need they have. If you can continue to deliver reliability, quality, and usefulness, then your customers can become loyal evangelists for you. They will become your biggest fans and want to tell others about you. In turn, you greatly reduce your need to prove to every new client that they should trust you too.

Here are some tips that can help you have profitable and informative discussions with your customers.


1. Building rapport

Building rapport is an essential step towards creating an environment for trust to grow. It doesn’t matter if you enter the conversation as a complete stranger or an industry expert, you need to build rapport to allow people to trust you with the information you seek.

I have seen times where the interviewer will spend a couple of minutes starting to create rapport, then kill it by prematurely jumping to the questions they prepared. It is clear that they are not invested in building rapport. Without the rapport, the interview degrades into an interrogation. It becomes a simple QnA without uncovering anything that could not be discovered through a survey.

I don’t think there’s a specific timeframe to building rapport. Also, I’m not saying it needs to be a lengthy process, but depending upon the type of information you’re asking, it needs to be more than a cursory sentence or two. You should budget some time to break down the “stranger barrier”. Think of it as the task of putting your customer in a comfortable state. It’s as much a part of the interview, as the questions you prepare.


Even introverts can do it

If breaking the ice is difficult for you, building rapport may require a little bit of prep work. Just like a job interview, you can research the company you are visiting, the city, or the responsibilities of the people you are talking to. Identify areas that you may have similar experiences, ask questions about them. You are seeking a common ground upon which to build your conversation.

For example, our company Dupla studios is based in Seattle. I can always use the weather as a conversation opener unless it is with other Seattleites. Almost everyone assumes that we must grow moss in our shoes, due to the amount of rain we experience. It’s not completely without merit. I remember seeing one spring with 90 days straight of rain, but that was unusual. Nevertheless, I can always use the weather to start the conversation and search for common ground from there. I’m not particularly enigmatic, however, I’m curious. So with a simple opening question and paying attention to the other person’s reactions, I can kick off a conversation with almost anyone.


Example in action

Breaking the ice, or building rapport is essential to getting your customer to tell you real information. Trust allows you to pull back the curtain and see the real inner workings of the other person. Rapport and the trust it helps create makes all the difference in the world.

For example, I once interviewed an IT manager who recited the employee handbook that states that there should be a problem ticket created for every issue they see. Then in my interview with the IT admins I learned that over 30% of the issues in the organization are initiated with an “elbow grab”. Further inquiries with the Helpdesk revealed that they didn’t document many of those “elbow grabs” in the ticketing software. That meant that there would be nearly 30% additional workload on the IT department that was invisible at budget meetings.  Since the budget is determined by the workload per department, the IT department was very likely going to have a budget shortfall, which would prevent it from being authorized to hire more employees. The end result was an IT department stretched too thin and IT service levels that required heroic efforts by the staff to maintain.

Gaining the trust of those different IT roles, allowed me to break out of the “theory” of how work should be done and into the space where work was actually being done. For those of you who are curious, the reason the elbow grabs were not documented was that it took longer to create the ticket in their ticketing system than to just solve most of the “elbow grabs” (true story).


2. Know with whom you are talking

In the previous paragraph, I spoke about the difference between the theory of how work is done and the reality of how it is done. One of the reasons I was able to discover the real workflows, was the time I took to speak to multiple roles within the organization. Interviewing multiple roles can create some challenges, though.

At one of my first site visits, early in the afternoon, after lunch when jet lag was at its worst, I interviewed a CTO. I started in on my discussion guide only to realize after the third question, that my discussion guide was not appropriate for a CTO level person. I could tell that the person was quickly losing patience. He was leaning back in his chair, glancing at his monitor and fiddling with his pen. I ditched my discussion guide and leveled-up the discussion to the concerns that a CTO must have. The person stopped playing with his pen, he sat up straight and began to tell me all about how our product was costing the company money in ways that he did not anticipate. Those costs were blowing up his budget and that was infuriating.

In the end, that discussion with the CTO proved to be incredibly revealing. However, my lack of knowing who I was interviewing nearly cost me the trust of the organization. Using active listening skills, I was able to help the CTO feel like his needs were important. My listening validated his concerns. I assured him that I would communicate those concerns to the proper people. I ended the interview right on time and moved to the next session.

At the end of the day, when our team met in a conference room with all of the people we had interviewed, the CTO showed up, taking time out of his day to participate in our wrap-up discussion. I attribute his appearance in the final meeting to the trust I had built with him which wouldn’t have been there had I not realized what his role really was about.


3. Know the culture

Here is a story of something that did not happen to me, but to a researcher in my team. During a set of visits lasting a couple of weeks, the team arrived very late at night to one stop. The delay in arrival was due to the airlines, but unexpected travel issues are frequently part of the field research experience. As per protocol, the lead researcher contacted the target organization’s point of contact once they de-planed. It was only then that they found out a critical piece of information about the organization’s culture. The expected attire was shirt and tie.

None of the group had brought a tie for the trip and, as I recall, some lacked shirts with collars. The team lead rushed out and found a store that was open and had sufficient ties for the entire team. There was no real chance of matching their shirts with ties, but they did the best they could with what they had. While this worked, and the hosting organization was very understanding, it certainly was not an optimal process.

Knowing the cultural expectations for your visit is as important as anything. When you break the cultural norms of the people you are visiting, it challenges the relationship and can disrupt the natural growth of trust.

I have traveled extensively and witnessed people committing cultural faux pas both knowingly and unknowingly. In either case, the offending person was clearly shunned by the locals. They might have been civil, but never really open and friendly.


4. Describe how the session will run

Informing your customers about how the session is going to run helps them trust you. Most people fear the unknown. In an interview situation, they may fear being asked difficult or embarrassing questions. Alternatively, they fear giving “wrong answers” or they fear revealing too much information. Alternatively, they may fear that they may not be helpful. They probably fear other things too, but this list is enough to help you begin to understand what the other person might be going through.

Sharing the structure and expectations for the session relieves some of those fears. It also can also set up and reinforce the roles that each of you is going to play. I usually prefer to set my participants up as subject matter experts and myself as the curious novice. It doesn’t matter whether I know the domain better than they do. It doesn’t matter if they are brand new to their role. I’m talking to them because they know something that I don’t. They’re the expert at that information. My task is to make sure I ask the right questions that will let them tell me their story.


5. Respect their time

I am sure you have heard the old adage, “If you are not 5 minutes early, you are five minutes late”. When building trust with someone, especially in the business setting, being predictable and reliable is essential. If I say that I will be somewhere at a specific time to start an interview, I will be there five minutes early. There are very few good reasons for being late to an interview. Being late implies poor planning, or poor organization, or poor research. None of those characteristics are conducive to creating trust with someone. I am not perfect, I have been late. It happens, but I strive for it never to happen again.


Stop the Presses

Timeliness applies to the length of the interview as well. If I say that an interview will take an hour, I’ll stop the interview at the hour. If the time is getting short in the middle of the most insightful part of a discussion, I’ll politely let the other person know and ask for more time. However, whatever their answer is I accept it, even it means losing potential data. If the interview ends in the middle of a juicy piece of information and if it seems appropriate, I’ll ask to follow-up in an email. However, that has happened only a few times in my entire career. It may seem like you are being a nuisance, but you’d be amazed at how willing people are to respond to questions after the fact if you’ve built some trust with them.


6. Watch non-verbal cues

If there’s an interview technique that I cannot stress enough, it’s the ability to detect and respond to non-verbal cues. Luckily, you’ve been training for it your entire life.

With a few exceptions, people are trained from infancy to monitor, detect, and mirror non-verbal cues from those around them.

When talking to customers, utilizing and explicitly noting their non-verbal behavior will help you reach a much deeper understanding. You can uncover vectors of inquiry that you would not find if you listened only to what people said. In the case above, my awareness of the non-verbal cues saved me from losing the trust of a CTO.

There are many articles about how to interpret non-verbal cues and research-backed books on the subject. Therefore, I don’t want to go into all of that here. Let it suffice to say, you’ve been interpreting nonverbal cues your whole life. If you practice and pay attention, you’ll notice more of them. However, there’s a big caveat when interpreting non-verbal communication, it’s always a good idea to verbally confirm your suspicions. Some people are more expressive than others, so it can take a while to detect how an individual expresses themselves. You are looking to find cues that are not normal for that person. I know it sounds intensive, and it is, but with practice, it does get easier. For more on this consider, Body Language: Understanding Nonverbal Communication – MindTools


7. Imitate and relate

The saying “Birds of a feather flock together” is actually backed up by science. In other words, we tend to like people who are like us. When trying to build trust, you can use that to help create a foundation where trust will grow. For example, one Interview technique is to mimic the body posture of the person with whom you’re talking.

Matching their body posture lets them know that you are equals. You are together in a shared experience. Another technique is to match the other person’s verbal style. Therefore, your tone and speed can indicate a kinship and help the person feel more comfortable.

I once took a presentation training at a company I used to work for. We had to perform an introductory presentation to provide the instructor with a baseline of our current skills. Upon completing mine he remarked, “You speak tech-fast”. I apologized and mumbled something about nerves. However, he pointed out that since 90% of my presentations were to other “techies”, the speed of my communications was very appropriate. Speaking to a tech company, at the expected speed, demonstrated that I was part of that tribe.

This is true when talking to customers as well. Matching their speech patterns subtlety tells them that you share some commonalities, you’re part of the same tribe.

As part of the same tribe, you can be trusted with tribal information. If you succeed, they might even trust you with information not found in any employee handbook.


8. Open-ended and leading questions

One of the most common mistakes I see in novice interviewers’ technique is that they asked closed questions. Closed questions don’t allow for the respondent to expound or supplement their answers. The most common type of closed question is the “yes” and “no” variety. “You want the product to be able to do X and Y, don’t you?” Sometimes the interviewer will lead the respondent to the answer they want, involuntarily. For example, “Don’t you think that having this dashboard will make your monitoring of your systems easier?” (actual question). Both of these questions need improvement.

The first example doesn’t allow the respondent to tell you about anything outside of X and Y features. What would’ve been better was an open-ended request for information, “What do you think about X and Y?” The second example leads the respondent in a specific direction, it makes it challenging and confrontational to respond differently. Therefore, a better question would be, “How would this dashboard impact your current workload?”

Open-ended questions are hard to create. They are also hard because they allow the conversation to take unexpected turns. That means that you have to be very attentive and work hard to keep the conversation on track. However, some of the most revealing insights I’ve found frequently stem from a tangent revealed after an open-ended question.


Why not “why”?

In many ways, being an interviewer should follow the same rules as journalists. You want to find out the who, what, where, when, and why of the domain you’re investigating. Personally, I’ve stopped asking the “why” question. I see “why” questions used effectively by many others, but I’ve come around to a new way of thinking.

I once had a manager tell me that “why” questions put the respondent in a defensive posture. Asking “why” means they must defend a statement or process that they told you about. Unfortunately, that can tip the balance of power which can lead to a more confined dialog later in the session. I’ll readily admit, sometimes it can be challenging to find new ways of constructing questions without using “why”. However, the wider set of responses I’ve seen by striking it from my question toolkit makes finding those new ways to ask “why” much more rewarding.

Since the natural place for a “why” question is as a follow-up to a response from a customer, it can be very hard to think of a new way to ask, on the fly and in the heat of the moment. In the past, I actually practiced during my normal, non-interview conversations and was surprised at the reactions of co-workers and friends alike. Here are a couple of examples:

Putting them on the defensive:Why don’t you like XX feature?”

Better: “What about XX feature did you not like?”

The first question asks them to defend their “not liking” the feature, while the second example focuses on the feature that you want to improve.

Putting them on the defensive:Why won’t XX feature work in your environment?”

Better: “What was the impact of using XX feature on your environment?”

Make no mistake, in the last example, the better choice will lead to more follow-up questions. However, that is a good thing. It creates a situation for more conversation, more sharing, and for you, more details that will help you make a better product.


Trust is earned

Putting all of these interview techniques into practice smoothly is a skill like any other method. I know that I’ve watched many of my own video interviews as a special kind of personal hell. Some are hard to watch, as I see the times when I could have reinforced trust and missed the opportunity. In others, I didn’t read a non-verbal cue and asked the wrong question. I’ve seen times where I didn’t take the time to build sufficient rapport and watched the interview degrade into an interrogation. Reviewing the videos has helped me improve my skills greatly.

These days I look forward to a nice in-depth interview. I’m entranced by the whole exercise and relish the challenge of uncovering information that has been missed by other lines of inquiry with our customers. A great interview shouldn’t feel like an interview, it’s a conversation and a shared experience.

Furthermore, the best ones I’ve done were when I only asked one or two pointed questions and spent the rest of the time listening.

The cost of uncovering insightful information is the investment in building trust. Practicing the interview techniques above can help you become a trusted channel of information from your customers.

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