Customer Interview vs Customer Survey: Which Should I Use?

Customer interviews vs customer surveys -- the differences and when to use each one

When I need customer insights, I typically turn to customer interviews or customer surveys.

But how do you know which to use – and when? Is one better than the other?

I was recently asked this question by one of my LinkedIn connections and it inspired me to share my thoughts on the topic.

Below I break down the differences between these two customer research methodologies, including what they are and how they work, the pros and cons of each, and when it’s appropriate to use each one.

I hope this helps you make the right decision the next time you need to collect customer insights!

But first, why listen to me?

Working as a copywriter for the last 10+ years has led me to conduct hundreds of customer interviews.

I’ve also created and distributed hundreds of customer surveys – and analyzed tens of thousands of responses over the last decade.

I even consolidated all of my research knowledge into an online course on customer research which you’re welcome to check out as another point of proof.

Copywriting is also a profession based almost entirely on customer research – so it’s safe to say I know something about this topic. 😉

Now that you know a little more about my research background, let’s get into the differences between customer interviews and customer surveys – and how to tell which one is best for you.

Customer Interviews

If you’re not familiar, a customer interview is exactly what it sounds like – you’re interviewing your customers (or members of your target audience) using some type of meeting software (like Zoom, etc).

If you’ve never seen or experienced an interview before, check out my mock customer interview video here to see how it’s done.

Customer interviews are guided by a “script” and a set of questions you create beforehand so you know what you’d like to ask or what kind of information you’d like to gather during the conversation.

If you need ideas for your script and questions, check out my free customer interview template here.

Now, let’s get into some of the details of a customer interview, including the pros and cons, and when it may be best to use this particular methodology.

Pros of customer interviews

  • Typically yields very detailed insights (sometimes I end up with 20+ pages of conversation vs just a few words or a sentence in response to a survey question)
  • You can ask follow-up questions in the moment (like asking for clarification, asking questions inspired by a participant’s response, etc)
  • Ability to dig deeper on specific responses or topics (like asking them to elaborate, provide examples, walk you through something, etc)
  • Will often yield great Voice of Customer data (helpful for copywriting)
  • Can be a good way to build more personal relationships with customers (if you do them consistently)

Cons of customer interviews

  • Can be difficult to schedule (not everyone uses Zoom or other meeting software, phone calls in different countries can be challenging, etc)
  • No-shows are sometimes a challenge (people don’t always check their emails, they forget, etc)
  • Time consuming (each interview can take anywhere from 15-60+ minutes depending on how may questions you ask and how much they talk)
  • Requires you to use software that allows you to record the convo (i.e. Zoom, etc)
  • Requires some form of transcription – either automated with a tool or transcribed manually (added time, expense, etc)
  • Can take a lot of time to analyze each transcript (though this can be done somewhat faster with AI tools like Dovetail, Bard by Google, etc)
  • Usually can’t be done with a big sample size (too much labor and time required)

When to use customer interviews

  • You have a smaller group, sample size, or customer base / target audience (i.e. – 20 or fewer people, ideally 7-10 people or so)
  • You’re not restricted by a tight timeline
  • You want deeper, more detailed insights
  • You have a lot of questions you want to ask – and anticipate follow-up questions being important
  • You need to dig deeper on specific questions or certain areas
  • You’re targeting a very specific group of customers

If I’m being honest, customer interviews are a pain in the ass, but there really is no substitute for the level of detail and insights you get from them – which is why I continue to use them for myself and my clients.

Plus, when you stick to a smaller group of participants (i.e. 7-10 people) running interviews can feel a lot more manageable and worth the time and effort.

Alright, let’s move on to customer surveys – what are they, what are the pros and cons, and when to use them.

Customer Surveys

While a customer interview is like having an intimate, 1-on-1 conversation, surveys are like speaking to a large group of people all at once (kind of like a big networking event).

You may not get the chance to have a deep conversation with everyone, but you’ll still walk away feeling like you have a sense of who everyone is, at least from a high level.

Customer surveys are usually run by inputting questions into a survey tool (like Typeform, Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, etc) and then shared via email or text.

If you’d like some survey question examples, check out this article from my blog which has suggestions based on different situations.

Now that you’re more familiar with customer surveys, let’s get into some of the details – including the pros and cons of customer surveys, and when it may be best to use them.

Pros of customer surveys

  • You can get valuable insights in a very short amount of time (hours or days vs weeks or months)
  • Surveys are very easy to create, distribute & complete (and many survey tools are free)
  • People typically have some familiarity with surveys so they’re often more comfortable participating (vs a customer interview which can feel more like an “ask”)
  • Easier and faster to collect insights from a larger sample size (which typically means more confidence in the data)
  • Participants tend to be more brutally honest in a survey vs in an interview

Cons of customer surveys

  • Risk of not getting responses
  • May not always yield deep or highly detailed insights (it depends a lot on the audience and your relationship with them, how engaged they are, the incentive, etc)
  • Participants may rush through it and not take the time to respond in a meaningful way (sometimes they’re just doing it for the incentive and don’t really care)
  • You can’t ask follow-up questions in the moment (you can use conditions to ask pre-set follow-up questions, but it’s not the same as if you were in a live interview)
  • Depending on the # of responses, it can take a long time to analyze the data (though this is getting faster / easier with AI tools)

When to use customer surveys

  • You have a larger group, sample size, or customer base (100+ is a good starting point, but you can still get insights from smaller groups like 20-50 people)
  • You’re on a tighter timeline and need insights quickly
  • You’re looking for basic, foundational, or high-level information (i.e. demographics, etc)
  • You only have a few questions you want to ask i.e. 10 questions or fewer (you can ask more, but drop-off becomes an issue at a certain point)
  • You’re asking multiple choice questions, yes/no questions, rating or scale questions vs questions that require a more detailed response (a mix of multiple choice vs “fill-in-the-blank” questions also works to reduce strain on participants)

Are there any similarities between customer interviews and customer surveys?

Yes – here are a few things both customer interviews and customer surveys have in common:

✓ Both require incentives that match the participants’ level of effort (i.e. if you are asking for a lot of time or feedback, the incentive should be higher).

✓ Both require internal preparation – creating questions, writing an interview script, building a survey, writing “request participation” emails, choosing an incentive, etc.

✓ Both require tools or software to run properly (doesn’t have to be expensive, but you usually need some kind of recording software like Zoom, transcription service like Rev, survey tool like Typeform, etc).

✓ Both can be easily adapted to capture specific types of information (i.e. you could easily turn a customer interview into a usability session or you could use a survey to ask deeper questions, etc).

✓ Both have the potential to yield valuable insights – and can be used in combination with each other as well as with other research methodologies (like review mining, competitive analysis, etc).

There are probably other similarities I’m forgetting, but those are the ones that come to mind.

So… Which should you use? Interviews or a survey?

As you’ve probably gleaned from this article, it depends.

Sometimes an interview will do the trick, while other times a survey is the better choice. It just depends on the situation, your goals, and what you’re looking to get out of the research.

It also depends on certain limitations – like your sample size, time constraints, budget or resource constraints, access to tools, and so on.

It’s up to you to use the information you have to make the decision that feels right to you.

The good news is, no matter which methodology you choose, you’re probably going to walk away with something useful in the data, and if not, you can always try again. 🙂

Hopefully you now have a better sense of when you should use customer interviews vs customer surveys, but if you have any other questions, comment below or reach out directly:

As always, thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please share with a friend or colleague.

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