How to get the most out of a client, subject-matter expert or just about anybody else

[Image courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung at Flickr Creative Commons]

“They really said that?” asked an incredulous client recently. “Why do they never say this stuff to us?”

The answer was simple. I’m not my client, just a writer who was conducting case-study interviews on their behalf.

So the compliments just kept on coming, in a way that would have been impossible if my client had been talking direct to their clients. “You’re fabulous and I love working with you” is a lot more difficult to say than “They’re fabulous and I love working with them”. 

So being an impartial third party definitely helps.

But there are also some general guidelines that will make any interview go more smoothly. Here are my top 10: 

  1. Decide on your objective. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s a really easy step to skip. The key thing here is knowing what you want to get out of the interview. A killer story about a successful deployment? In-depth knowledge of a subject from somebody who’s a definitive authority? Quotable quotes for testimonials? Customer insight? 
  2. Always confirm. Plans change and priorities shift. So what was a convenient time when you set it up last week may suddenly become an inconvenience in a packed diary. It’s always a good idea when you speak to an interviewee to confirm they’re still OK to talk. If you sense hesitation, reschedule. There’s nothing worse than a hassled or rushed interviewee, dispatching questions with the briefest of answers. 
  3. Record the call. It’s much easier if you know that you can play back your conversation later and pick up anything you missed. Plus, you’ll get more accurate quotes and won’t spend all your time desperately trying to write or type verbatim in a real-time conversation. You should tell your interviewee you’re recording – and most people are fine with that. 
  4. Set expectations. I always start by telling people what I’m hoping to achieve, and how the interview fits into the wider picture (‘Acme Inc is relaunching their website in a couple of months, and they’d like to have some new case studies.’). Nobody likes being interviewed, so if you explain clearly what you goal is, and how the process works, they’re much more likely to open up and give you what you want. 
  5. Have a clear structure and a logical sequence, so your interview follows a predetermined path. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive – just a skeleton list of bullet points will do. It’s easy to forget what to say next next when you’re focusing on the here and now. Having another question on your list means you’ll never have one of those embarrassing pauses.
  6. Don’t be afraid to deviate. Structure and sequence are all very well, but life isn’t a straight line. Almost every interview I’ve done has taken a detour. Sometimes you have to guide the interviewee gently back on track, but often, the direction they take you in is more interesting than the one you mapped out. The trick is recognising when you’re on to something good and running with it. 
  7. Ask open questions. ‘Did the deployment go well?’ is just asking for a one-word answer (yes/no). As is ‘Do you enjoy working with Acme?’ It’s much better to say ‘Tell me about the deployment’ or ‘What’s it like working with Acme?’ Even so, when you ask an open question, you may well have to gently encourage the interviewee with a supplementary question. A really effective tactic is simply to repeat what they’ve said back to them (‘So the deployment took just a month?’) which is often all it takes to keep them talking.
  8. Talk less, listen more. As an interviewer, you need to get out of the way and let somebody else take centre stage. An interview doesn’t obey the normal rules of conversation, where you generally talk as much as you listen. I remember years ago playing back an interview I did and marvelling at how long my questions were, and how often I interrupted the interviewee. I learned my lesson, and never did it again. 
  9. Ask for details or clarification. Not interrupting interviewees is all very well, but only if they’re on topic and it’s all making sense to you. If not, interrupt sooner rather than later to clear up uncertainty or get them back on track. It’s always a mistake to do the equivalent of nodding obligingly when you’re struggling to understand a native speaker of a language you’re learning. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you don’t understand. 
  10. Round things off. Once the interview is over (and you should always finish on time), recap the procedure to the interviewee: next steps, editorial control/veto (usually required for case studies), photo/bio information and when they can expect to hear back from you. Also, whether it’s OK to contact them by email if any queries come up.

Follow these tips, and you’ll be interviewing like a pro. But just one last thing: do remember to double-check your recording technology before you start. Not doing so is a mistake you make only once.

Take my word for it.