How to ask the right questions

 How to ask the right questions

Have a beer with your buddy: seven steps on how to obtain a deeper understanding of your customers’ needs.

During a recent customer project I worked on, we defined new potential value propositions for their business. These, of course, are assumed value propositions. Now we are at the stage where they need to validate the needs with their customers as well as the value propositions. In our workshop together we prepared the team to meet their customers. As is often the case, we noticed a lot of people struggled to understand how to have real, meaningful conversations with their customers (i.e. NOT “do you like this idea?”.  What’s more, many of the people in the workshop were nervous about getting out of the building to meet their customers in the real world.

Getting out of the building to validate customer needs typically starts with observation. This part is pretty easy. But, there will be a moment you have to ask questions to obtain a deeper understanding about what your customers need, want, and are trying to get done in their lives.

Here are the essentials seven steps on how to play when you meet your customer to validate their ‘jobs to be done’.


First of all, listen to your customer. Really listen. You are not there to sell them something. You are not there to confirm something. The objective is to learn something from your customers you do not know yet. Listen to what they say. How do they say it? What is the body language? Is that connected to what they say? What can you hear from the non-verbal communication?

Ask open questions

One of the objectives is to obtain deep and insightful answers. That means you want a full answer, not a simple yes or no. Open questions typically begin with the following words: why, how, what. Or you could ask questions that invite people to describe what they do, feel or think. For example;  “tell me about what supported you in completing your last sale.”

People like to receive open questions. This shows you are interested in what they have to say.

Ask ‘Why’ 7 times

Don’t take the first answer for granted. Dive deeper. If you stop after the first answer, you will probably be filling the gaps with your assumptions. But your purpose is to really understand your customer. A great way to dive deeper is to ask ‘Why?’. And not just once, multiple times! Don’t draw your own conclusions for them; make sure they say it themselves.

Don’t steer the conversation

This is probably the hardest of all. Never talk about the solution at this stage. Once you do, your customer will be biased. Your customer will start to show socially accepted behavior (meaning they will unintentional lie to you) and you will end up with information that might not be that relevant for you. I love this quote ‘Fall in love with the problem, not with the solution’ (claimed by multiple sources). That is what it is about. It is about the problem you want to solve, not about your solution.  And don’t even try to get close to your solution, avoid asking guiding questions.

Embody a Beginners Mindset

Pretend like you have never had a conversation about this specific topic before. Pretend this is the first time you meet a customer. Be open for everything. The great thing about embodying a beginner’s mindset is the fact that in a beginners mind, you are open for so many options. As an expert, you have narrowed done the options. But the world is changing, as is your customer. So be as open as a beginner would be.

Act like you are having a beer with your buddy

This is the best one.  Why have formal Q&A’s with your customer as if you’re interrogating them? You really want to get to know them. Pretend (s)he is a good friend you haven’t seen in a while and you are sitting in a bar together. You are honestly interested in your friend. You should know about your customer as well. Understand the deeper needs and behavior and be there to help your buddy. But, unlike a buddy, refer to the last steps (i.e. don’t steer the conversation toward potential solutions).

Be a chameleon

Blend in. Don’t wear a suit and a tie when your customer is typically wearing jeans. Make the other person feel comfortable. And yes, being authentic is key!  But you can still be you, while blending in.

Some of these steps might feel uncomfortable at first, and perhaps even a bit clumsy. So do practice. Practice this at home. Practice with colleagues. Practice at the gym. Be intentional about how you interact with others and you will quickly improve. Applying these steps will not only give you meaningful insights, they will also deepen a valuable customer relationship.
I’m curious to hear what worked best for you when you were on a safari to discover your customer needs.

Great visual summary by my colleague Franzi Sessler

Great visual summary by my colleague Franzi Sessler

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 Maaike Doyer



Responsible for finance and global clients. Located in Amsterdam and San Francisco.

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