The cost of free customer interviews

There are lots of reasons why you shouldn't pay for customer interviews. But let's explore the side of the coin. What are you giving up if you insist on free customer interviews?


Bribes

In my experience, about 1 in 5 founders resist paying potential customers for an interview. Their initial reaction is understandable and sounds something like this:

“If I pay someone to talk to me, they'll agree to an interview just for the money.”

It's plausible that a cash-based incentive could drive an interviewee to misrepresent who they are or their past experience. Also, if an interviewee is solely driven by a cash reward, they may arrive unprepared with insightful and actionable feedback.

No free lunch

We often forget that refusing to pay interviewees comes with its own set of costs. If you adopt a blanket policy against paying for customer interviews, you could run into the following traps:

  1. Your target customer may not speak with you
  2. You may have to accept whoever will speak to you for free
  3. A free interview could be equally misleading
  4. It could take 3-4x longer to conduct interviews

Having someone give you their time is super valuable to you and very costly for them. By offering payment, you're saying 'I take you, myself, and what we're doing seriously.'

The free bias

Not offering payment could result in a biased point of view as well. Essentially, you'll get feedback from folks like me: people who are risk-taking and willing to try new products or super passionate about your product (which are other sources of bias). You won't hear from people who are averse to trying new things—a key population for growth.

Instead, payment can give these 'holdouts' a reason to talk to you. By asking them the right questions, you can uncover valuable insights for business growth.

Methodology is more important than paid vs. free

If you know who you want to talk to and how to ask the right questions, money will not bias the end result. For example, if you want to talk to 'single location clothing retailers in the south of France' then it's really important that you speak with that exact population. And if you stick to using a good discussion guide, you will most certainly still learn a lot even if you pay them. The important thing is to get them to give you their time. And ideally, not just 1 or 2 but hopefully 8-10 such potential customers. Every time you try this, you'll start seeing patterns in their feedback. And when you do, you know it's not BS.

On the other hand, if you have not defined a target persona, you can get into trouble by paying your interviewees. For example, if you release a Twitter ad offering money for feedback, the information you receive will be biased by payment. You'll hear from anyone and everyone who wants to take your money.

Speed

Paying potential customers for an interview can speed up your timeline by 3-4x. As you know, customer interviews are not the end goal. They'll help you form a smarter hypothesis so you can continue learning through real-world testing. In other words, customer interviews will give you a strong jumping-off point so you know where to start and what to watch out for when you market/sell to real prospects. Customer interviews are not meant to give you the final 100% answer.