5 Tips from Barbara Walters for Your Customer Interviews

In customer interviews, the real gold lies beyond the obvious. Tips on getting there from Barbara Walters, famous for getting politically guarded and much ‘managed’ interviewees to open up, adapted for business.

In doing hundreds of interviews with customers and employees on behalf of clients, I have found that the real value comes when you probe deeply and where you can draw out thoughtful answers. Barbara Walters was a master at this – so here are tips from her talks and interviews that I found useful in a business context.

Do your homework

In a Bloomberg article on the ‘Art of Interview’, Ms. Walters states that the ‘most important thing is to do your homework’. It’s easy to forget to do your homework where we ‘know the customer’ and already breathe some of their issues day in and day out. But an in depth background research brings high returns on time.

Find all you can find on them beforehand – such as their recent interactions with your company, their goals and strategies, their history of using the product. Use sources such as their initial contract, documents from any recent discussions, the sales rep who sold them the deal and those who interact with your clients daily, whether in support or in sales or implementation.

Know your questions

With the research in hand, it is easy to prioritize questions. Ms. Walters mentions writing down on 3X5 notecards 50 – 100 questions for her interviews and reaching out to everyone – including the delivery guy – with ‘what would you ask so-and-so’.

In business, getting questions from all who interact with the client does 2 things – augments the research and brings forth issues that are not so obvious.

But this does not mean working into an interview with an unwieldy checklist. Ms. Walters suggests that we should be so comfortable with our questions that we are ready to throw them away if we need to. In other words, go beyond the questions themselves and dig into the objectives – what is it the one thing that would be really useful to know, what’s nice to have but not essential, what will really move the needle for your project?

Don’t get caught up in the asking

A common mistake is to get into the mode of ‘waiting to ask the next question’ while the client is speaking, especially when we have less time on our hands and a long checklist to go through. ‘For heavens sake, listen!’ Ms. Walters says in one of her speeches, and ‘make it a conversation’. She suggests being genuinely curious and using follow up questions such as: Why? Why did you say that? Why do you feel that way?

Use context to dig deeper

In interviews, its not what a person says but how he says it that is most important.

For drawing out emotion, Ms. Walters recommends 2 things – taking time to set the context, to figure out what makes the interviewees tick and using unusual questions to disarm and provoke thoughtful answers. Some of her favorite’s were ‘What is the biggest misconception about you’ or ‘what is your philosophy of life’ to get thoughtful answers. While her questions don’t work directly work in business, taking the time to explore context with questions on the customer’s own unique role or journey or experience with the product will offer a richer understanding.

Save hard questions till the end    

Ms. Walters talks about how she saved her toughest questions for the end, such as asking Vladimir Putin if he ever ordered anyone killed. In business interviews, I have found that is easier to ask the more ‘unexpected’, unorthodox questions at the end. Asking the tough questions when rapport has been established and the conversation is flowing elicits a completely different answer, with more depth.


ABC News: Barbara Walters and The Art of Interview 

Bloomberg: Barbara Walters and The Art of Interview

Drew.edu : For Heaven’s Sake, Listen

The Interviewer