10 Best Practices for Stakeholder Interviews

July 11, 2014
Zac Shaw


Interviewing the stakeholders of the companies we work with is one of the most important things we do.

After hundreds of hours of interviews, we’d like to share our go-to tips and tricks for effective stakeholder interviews.

1. Define Success

Many folks don’t often don’t think of the stakeholder interview (or “discovery”) process as having a specific goal.

We are huge fans of setting goals and expectations clearly in general. The stakeholder interview process should have a well-defined end result. Will there be a project summary that collates everyone’s opinions into a unified vision for the website or campaign? Are there specific areas of expertise the client needs to explain to the copywriter?

Go into the interview process with a planned outcome everyone agrees on.

2. Do the Research

Interviews start with research. Put simply, you don’t have to waste time asking about what you can find easily with a Google search.

We learn as much as possible about each stakeholder’s role in the company, their professional background and sometimes even their personal background. The more we know about a client and their business, the more we can focus on getting deep insight rather than publicly available information.

And don’t just research the people and the company, research the market so you can talk the talk.

Research also makes for a more confident interviewer, and a more trusting interview subject.

3. Get One-on-One

More often than not, roundtable discussions are a nightmare for stakeholder interviews. They are slow and long, people don’t feel free to speak their mind in the presence of superiors, and interviews can veer off into tangents frequently. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Getting deep business and marketing insights requires having the undivided attention of the stakeholder. Often you will be discussing what’s working and what isn’t, and stakeholders will be far more comfortable discussing what isn’t working when they’re alone with you.

We could honestly write an entire blog post on why one-on-one stakeholder interviews are so important.

4. Have a Scheduling Strategy

When interviewing multiple stakeholders, order is important. We usually start from the top down, interviewing owners and the C-suite, followed by important department heads and occasionally, other employees and third parties.

When you “drill down” the org chart like this, your level of detail evolves with your level of understanding. Also, the top dogs are much more likely to be difficult to schedule, so getting them out of the way first is a great way to avoid project delays.

5. Write a Questionnaire

We admit that we have done so many stakeholder interviews, we usually only write questionnaires for our more complex projects requiring more detailed technical specifications, such as custom applications. Once you become an expert interviewer, it becomes more natural to prepare so you can “wing it” successfully, nonetheless we always at the very least have notes to guide us.

Before the interview process begins, write a long list of questions. Note which questions are most important, and ask those first. This gives you a big bullpen of questions to ask in case the interview subject is brief with their responses, or if you want to drill down into more detail.

It also makes for a more confident interviewer when you know you’ll never run out of questions.

6. Get on the Phone

We know you’re not trying to text the stakeholder interview, but it can be tempting to send emails out and have the respondents type back their answers. Like the group interview session, it seems like a time-saver on the face of it.

And like the group interview session, it’s fraught with peril. The main reason? People generally feel far less obligated to respond to an email in a timely fashion, versus scheduling a one-on-one phone call.

You also give up your ability to be dynamic with the interview and build insight upon insight to get to the deep stuff. Pick up the phone and establish rapport with the people you’ll be doing business with for the next days, weeks, or months.

7. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Sometimes you have to ask a yes or no question to determine a fact or settle an ambiguity. But for the most part, your stakeholder interview questions should be open-ended.

Many people make the mistake of assuming they know what information is most important to get from someone. Nine times out of ten, we are surprised by valuable information we would have never known without talking one-on-one… and usually, more than once during the interview.

The way to get to this most valuable information is to keep your questions open-ended. For example, questions like “How would you define success after this website launches?” or “What features of the website do you think will be the most frequently used?” give a wide canvas for the subject to paint a picture of their vision.

8. Every Subject is a Snowflake

We’ve interviewed hundreds of people and every one of them was utterly unique.

Knowing how to establish rapport with all types of people is a great life skill in general. For interviewers, it’s a core skill.

It starts with being a good listener. If you subtly mirror the language, the intensity, the rhythm and the tone of your subject, you will foster trust and openness. We’re not saying you have to be a neurolinguistic programming guru to gain business insights from a phone call, but we do make a conscious effort to communicate on the stakeholder’s level.

Ultimately, all it takes is to be a friendly person and a great listener with the timing and tact to cut people off at tangents, steering them back to the bullet points.

9. Record It

Even when we have a dedicated notetaker, we like to record the stakeholder interviews. Every time we record them, we go back to them for some reason — sometimes we listen to the whole thing.

It’s still vital for the interviewer to take notes, if only to help parse the recordings later on. Oftentimes, it’s the interviewer’s notes that end up being more important than the recording. Nonetheless, without the recording, you’ll never know how many insights were lost on the first pass.

10. Think Ahead & Keep the Channels Open

Fundamentally, this is about loading the next question up in your mind while the subject is delivering their answer.

We mean “think ahead” in the broader sense too. You often have very little time with stakeholders. You need to think ahead to what you’re going to need to know at later stages in the project. What seems important at the outset to you and to the stakeholders may have nothing to do with the brass tacks of the project in six weeks.

Keeping an open channel is a huge part of thinking ahead. End the call with clear next steps, and continue to keep a dialogue going with the key stakeholders throughout the project, even if it’s just to say “hi” or “thanks again”. By keeping these channels open, you’ll not only have the opportunity for future insight, your subject might also have future revelations of use to you.

Want to experience our stakeholder interviews for yourself? Drop us a line.

photo (CC-BY-SA) SuperFantastic

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