I’ll never forget the questionnaire handed to me midway through a flight from Los Angeles to Auckland. It was massive. Page after page of detailed tick-the-box or circle-the-response questions – it seemed to me it would take the full 13-hour flight to complete. I started, but it was too much work and I abandoned it halfway through. I thought to myself: does anybody really believe they get valid and reliable data from these surveys?

For many organizations, surveys like this qualify as “talking to the customer.” They’re ubiquitous – appearing in hotel rooms, after online purchases, and in hospital emergency departments. But do they really qualify as customer consultation? Or are they a symptom of an isolated management just putting on a show of interest? What can be done instead?

The obvious answer is to talk with customers directly. But managers are often put off by the idea of interviewing customers individually, believing that it involves many hours and massive expense. Instead they get together in a group and guess what the customer wants, with only the flimsy, half-hearted responses of customer surveys to guide them. It usually results in the wrong answers and the wrong strategies.

If only they knew just how simple and straightforward a customer interview process can be, and how rich the rewards, if you know how to ask the right questions.

I worked with a company recently that provides a range of engineering and planning services to clients nation-wide. Their clients are large organizations involved in massive construction projects, multi-story buildings and big residential developments. the CEO at this company asked me to interview a dozen of their key clients.

If you’re like a lot of people, your initial response might be: “Twelve clients? The sample is too small. It’s not enough to tell you anything useful.”

But in conversations with clients, you’re after quality not quantity. You want to know how they think about issues and how they make decisions. You want to get inside their minds. You want to get a feel for their needs, wants and pain. You can’t get that from a multi choice questionnaire, it’s impossible.

Overall, the clients nominated seven factors: capability (ability to execute the work required), client service (personal and tailored), quality (meeting professional standards), image (reputation in the industry), cost, location (of offices across the nation), and safety (in terms of prior record and systems in place).

Apart from this valuable list, several other important outcomes emerged from the interviews. One concerned the list of strategic factors itself. The clients came up with a far crisper set than the management team had been able to. The clients’ focus was “outside-in” and driven by needs, whereas management’s focus was “inside-out”, muddied by internal politics and functional biases.

A particularly useful insight related to the companies assumptions about future development. The company had grown recently by acquiring several other businesses, both in its core area and in related industries. This broadened their range of services and took the company nation-wide. The company’s management and board believed that they would obtain a competitive edge through this.

But this was not borne out by the customer interviews. Clients explained that they saw no special connection across the expanded service range. Further, they pointed out that their offices made decisions locally, rather than nationally from head office. While the expansion “felt” like a natural fit to management, it didn’t to clients. The company was in the process of being structured based on its false premise.

This presented them with a reality check and an unanticipated challenge: they would need to convince clients that they would benefit from the nationwide plan that they had designed for themselves.

Clearly, there’s no way that traditional surveys could deliver this kind of deep strategic analysis. But what about the expense of conducting interviews with a large sample of customers?  To get meaningful customer input, would you not need to conduct a great many interviews?

The short answer is: you need enough interviews to get to the point at which you hear nothing new and material is being repeated – so called “saturation”.  You can, it turns out, reach this point surprisingly quickly.

Let me give you some examples. My company was asked to undertake a series of customer interviews for an importer of gift products. These are sold in boutique outlets in shopping malls. We quoted to undertake 16 interviews. After 12 the picture was clear, saturation had been achieved. The further four interviews simply confirmed the result. That doesn’t seem particularly daunting, does it?

At this company, each client also nominated several factors but as before no one client provided the full set. It took, once again, just 12 interviews to obtain the full set of strategic factors – with definitions. I could have continued with the interviews till I reached, say, 25. But experience told me that I wouldn’t have captured any additional knowledge or insight beyond the initial 12 respondents.

When it comes to obtaining customer input, executives often think a multiple-choice survey will be the most cost-effective option. They have their place, of course, such as if you want to know the percentage of people who liked or disliked something. But these instruments are shallow and derivative at best, and at their worst they can be annoying and counterproductive. So don’t let them become an excuse for not talking to the customer.