Primary Intelligence’s Research & Development division was tasked with developing new solutions that allow our clients to understand and act on the insights we gather through our Win Loss and Customer Experience programs. Plus, anything else we think sounds interesting.

To succeed, our lifeblood is customer insights. We want to hear how they spend their days, their problems, what they like most about our services, where they want us to improve, and everything in between. We also talk to plenty of non-customers (or, to use the marketing euphemism, “potential customers”) to identify new problems we might solve.

We’ve worked with plenty of sales leaders, and their need for customer insights was just as urgent. In fact, there are probably few jobs in an organization that wouldn’t benefit from customer insights. We all want to understand our customer better. So, how do you do it?

We’d like to argue in favor of phone interviews, but first let us share some thoughts on two popular methods: on-site interviews and Net Promoter Score (NPS).

On-Site Interviews – The Holy Grail?

We are pretty confident a poll of product, marketing, and sales leaders would reveal the majority of those people believe on-site interviews is the “best” method for customer insights. We instinctively understand sitting in the same room as another human is helpful to capture body language, focus, and build rapport.

We too love meeting with customers face-to-face. It breeds trust quickly. But, we’re also aware of three potential limitations with on-site interviews.


Let’s get real: Who has the time to continually travel the country speaking to customers while still doing your day job? We know the popular thought is there is nothing more important than meeting with customers. It’s true.

But, we’ve also learned that everything is about balance. If 90% of your time is spent speaking with customers or traveling to and from speaking with customers, that means only 10% of your time is spent taking action on those insights. That doesn’t seem right.

Let’s say you bring it down to 50% / 50%. In a typical 50-hour work week, that leaves only 25 hours for customer insights. Most trips take 5 to 10 hours of travel time, all in all, and require staying overnight at least on one leg. In reality, you could get to maybe 2 customers a week if you really planned well. That’s a hard schedule.


Besides the time cost, the actual expense of travel has to be considered. This is a balancing act as well. With virtual meetings becoming the norm and budgets under scrutiny, you have to make a strong case for a large travel budget to meet with customers. The benefits of being on-site have to significantly outweigh the cost. Which brings us to our next point…


If you’ve spent time on social media, you know distance often breeds candor. Many people are willing to be more honest in an anonymous forum than an email, and more honest in an email than a phone call, and more honest in a phone call than a face-to-face meeting. Because candor is what you need for customer insights, be wary of this potential limitation of meeting on-site: people will have a harder time being candid when they’re sitting across the table from you.

Primary Intelligence once worked with a client who really wanted on-site win loss interviews. Our consultant traveled the country to conduct video-recorded interviews. It took a month and cost the client four times more than phone interviews, but it also delivered rich insights. However, when we asked the consultant about the experience, she said it was surprising how “polite” people were when talking to her. As a third-party, we are used to blunt feedback in our phone interviews because participants have no relationship with us and know they won’t hurt our feelings. The consultant expected the same candor for the in-person meetings, but said there was something about her sitting across the table that caused some people to clam up.

NPS Surveys – Easy, but not Actionable?

We once created a dashboard with one score on it. When we spoke to users, they told us how valuable a single score was because it would be easy for them to explain to their bosses. We asked how they would use it to take action and mostly heard silence. We worried they were favoring ease of explanation over value. We also worry Net Promoter Score (NPS) does the same.

NPS emerged in the past decades as the simplest way to get the insight you needed from customers by performing a one-question survey on your website, via email, or even over the phone. The survey asks if the customer would recommend you to others. NPS is reported as an aggregate score, which means you have a single number acting as a leading indicator for customer spend and growth.

NPS is good. It’s easy for customers to participate, easy to implement, and easy to understand. However, as a product leader, as a marketing leader and as a sales leader, you can’t understand what action to take when you see an NPS score.

Customer Experience Analysis is largely about the individual customer, though you will definitely make systemic improvements to help all customers. You can’t afford to generalize your accounts, especially not your top revenue clients. We want to know if this one customer will renew or not, so a single aggregate score is not helpful.

But even if we take that one customer’s NPS rating alone, it doesn’t even point us in a direction. There is no understanding of needs, benefits, effort, or any of the areas we want to understand to know my customer better. The one benefit we see is NPS can point me to customers who are detractors so we can interview them first to understand what’s going wrong.

Why Phone Interviews are Our Favorite Method

We know we are biased – phone interviews are the core of Primary Intelligence’s data collection process – but there is a reason.

A client recently described a year-long project her company completed where their customer insights team went on-site to more than 100 customers and sat with them for multiple days to understand how they work, what their day is like, and where the client’s product was helping or hurting their process.  From those learnings, the company designed a new corporate strategy that was genuinely focused on their customers.

Our client shared the story because we had just completed a series of customer phone interviews and our findings aligned well with the major insights from the year-long project. We took some pride in knowing we had done it in a quarter of the time and likely a tenth of the cost. Clearly their on-site research was still vital, but it reaffirmed to me the quality of phone discussions.

In our experience, phone interviews often do the trick, especially when we include a web survey with quantitative questions prior to the call. Phone interviews provide the balancing act between depth of insights and effort required.

Phone calls are relatively low effort for the customer. It takes about 30 minutes of their time with little, if any, prep time needed. During the conversation, customers have the opportunity to explain their opinions and experience in depth, without the effort of writing it all out.

Phone interviews are pretty low effort on our part too. It takes a bit of time to coordinate schedules and prepare the questions we want to cover, but once we’re on the call, we just need to focus on having a good conversation. Active listening is honestly the hardest part, along with resisting the urge to offer solutions to their issues or counteract a shared opinion, but it’s a skill set you can learn.

Most importantly, a well-planned phone discussion offers a high level of detail. We can ask clarifying questions and refocus the conversation in a way that an in-depth survey wouldn’t be able to, with the added benefit of hearing voice inflection and tone.

Tips for a Quality Phone Interview

We’ll end with a few recommendations for conducting a phone discussion, based on our experience in doing more than 25,000 such interviews.

A good phone interview is:

  1. Scheduled – Set up a formal time to speak with your customers, rather than on-the-fly discussions. It ensures the discussion is not rushed and gives the customer a chance to prepare, if needed.
  2. Planned – Don’t wing it or the moment you hang up you’ll think of 10 questions you forgot to ask. Take the time to think through a set of discussion questions you can use for all customers, knowing you can add more if the conversation shifts course.
  3. Conversational – You should stay somewhat neutral to avoid leading the responses, but that doesn’t mean you have to sound like a pollster reading from a script. The more the discussion sounds like a conversation, the more candid the feedback.
  4. Both Quantitative and Qualitative – You really need both question types. A qualitative question describes the situation while a quantitative question can pinpoint exactly what the description means. (Check out this article for a closer look at qualitative versus quantitative data.)
  5. Recorded – Trust us: it’s very hard to be an active listener when you’re scribbling notes. A recorded call allows you to listen better, catch nuance, and share the recording with others so they can hear the true voice of the customer.
  6. Analyzed – Don’t leave the feedback raw; put some structure around it through analysis. What are the major themes? What will likely drive a future purchase decision? Create concise, focused insights that can be shared throughout your organization so everyone can benefit from the discussion.

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