This week on the podcast, we are talking with Melissa Harstine, a Customer Research Specialist. As a researcher, copywriter, and trained journalist, she explains the best ways to get to know your ideal customer to improve your sales and marketing. If you are in the stage of business where you need a consultant to take your customer research interviews to the next level, you are at the right place.

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • How and why Melissa started her research business
  • The main questions you should ask to find your ideal customer
  • How willingness to be engaged is connected with your content strategy
  • Melissa’s perfect number of scheduling interviews per customer segment per week
  • Knowing how to acknowledge your own bias as an interviewer
  • How to create questions for the answers that you need to hear versus answers you want to hear
  • Knowing the difference between interviews and surveys
  • The importance of having your interviews transcribed
  • How to create a valuable offer simply by asking the right questions


More on Melissa Harstine:

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Resources Mentioned:

Britney Gardner 0:03

All right, Melissa, welcome to the Know Like and Trust show.

Melissa Harstine 0:06

Thanks for joining, glad to be here.

Britney Gardner 0:09

So, you know, this is like one of those topics that I 100% know how important it is. And it's also one of those topics that people kind of be like, oh, yeah, yeah. And oh, and also do that. But then they don't, they don't talk about how to do that, or even really just like the different methods you can to do that. So research isn't always the most sexy topic to talk about, you know what I mean? Yeah, and you probably hear this far more often than I do, since that's like your world and everything. But like, how do you? How do you get into being someone who researches?

Melissa Harstine 0:48

Yeah, so I actually started out my career as a journalist straight out of college, you know, so I've always loved digging in deep and asking good questions and connecting with complete strangers and building trust with them. But over time, you know, I shifted into more of a copywriting role when I started my own business in 2016. And so that perspective, you know, that desire to go straight to the source, interview customers, find out what they liked about my client, and weave those things into the copy. That was always part of my approach. So then I'm, you know, about a year ago, one of my copywriting clients, reached out to me and said, Hey, Melissa, you know, I'm writing this launch for this new program, this new course, my business is booming, I don't have enough time to get everything done. Would you be interested in doing the research interviews for me on this project? And I said, Yeah, that sounds amazing. And I just had no idea that that was even a service that I could offer to someone else. And I had been searching, you know, for the signature service, this micro niche, this thing that I could really be known for. And it was so cool, after, you know, four or five years of trying to find that thing for myself, it just kind of fell in my lap when my friend and Misha invited me to partner with her on this project. And so ever since then, you know, I just kind of claimed this, this is, this is what I do. I'm a customer research specialist, I help my clients understand who their best customer is, what that person wants from them, you know, what kind of a specific problem are they struggling with, that they can specifically solve? And then like, what are the words or phrases or messages or ideas that are going to really resonate with that best customer and make them say, oh, my gosh, yes, you're reading my mind. This is exactly what I needed. How did you know this?

Britney Gardner 2:34

So I love that. And I think, I think, a version of that phrase that you just said, the first time I heard it was from ash, Amber Shea, like, probably 10 years ago, something like that, right? She was a little more graphic, it was like, Well, if you could just slice your person's brain open and pick the words out of there, I was like, wow, you know, maybe that how were you reading my mind is a little bit more approachable. But it's such an interesting point. Because if you tell one of my clients, or one of the listeners of the show, that is what you want, they're like, yes, that is what I want. But if you then tell them so let's do the research. So we can get that there like. And I think it's because it's really easy for you and I to say well do the research, or it's really easy for you know, the the standard methods like you know, go up on Reddit, see what people are asking about this topic, but the actual how of it like some of the topics I've tried to research, particularly on Reddit, for example, I have gotten like, nowhere on so, you know, what, I'm probably cart before the horse here on this, but like, like, what, what are the ways that your average person could actually approach doing this? And then what are the ways that your average person is not gonna approach this and probably need help with?

Melissa Harstine 3:53

Yeah, well, let me start just by sharing a story from my own business, because I totally know what you mean, Brittany, about how it's a lot easier just to go around poking around online and try to find answers to things instead of just making yourself a little bit awkward and a little bit vulnerable and talking directly to your current or potential customers. Because I see myself doing this, like, I'm a customer researcher, and I do this for others. But I was recently creating a new offer a new service for my business. And I found myself, you know, spending eight to 10 to 12 hours writing a single newsletter. Like that is not an efficient use of my time. But right, I was trying to take this really complex idea around customer research and all the different ways you can help your business and simplify it into like a twittered word message. And I had an idea of who was in my audience like I knew some of these people's I had talked to them and in a different context, but I didn't know like specifically what questions they had around customer research or what areas what specific parts of their business it was going to impact. And I just, I was too nervous, too awkward, didn't want to spend the time to ask them. And so I like kind of made things harder for myself for a long time until I started getting more proactive about doing customer research interviews about having conversations with my potential and ideal customers, and finding out those things. And now it's like, I can write my newsletter in two hours, four hours, right, and just a fraction of the time that I can then reuse that other time in other areas of my business. And so I have a feeling that that is probably what hangs up a lot of people is, it feels like, it's going to take more time to reach out to people and set up these interviews and create transcripts and analyze them and stuff. But in the end, I really do think it can help you work smarter, not harder in your business, and just really be more effective with your time and your energy. Not to mention like your copy is going to convert better and have better engagements too.

Britney Gardner 5:48

So the last time I personally did a series of interviews, not to say I haven't interviewed like individuals here in there, right. But like a series, a whole collection of interviews was before I made my first course. And this is, you know, quite some time ago. Now that course I did one round of it. It didn't have like a ton of students. But I feel very happy about the help that I was able to give give the students in that course. But I've never run that course again, because I realized, for my business, it wasn't the best fit. It was also trying to like kill all the birds, with like all the stones, and it was just like a behemoth of a course. But But beyond that, right? I think I did you know, 10, you know, customer or potential, you know, customer interviews. And I got a lot of feedback. But I feel like I was actually asking maybe the wrong questions. Some of the answers I got were either so generic as to be useless. Or they were people who just they didn't have an answer to the question at all. They're like, Oh, I've never really thought about that. And, you know, for some of them, I was able to look back and be like, you actually weren't my best client, you weren't a good potential client at all. And you know, that's probably going to happen, I would imagine. But like, what, what are the things that I should have been looking about in that situation, because I was going through that as a way to make sure that my offer for the course was actually a good offer. And I wanted to make sure that I was doing it right. But I do feel like I missed the boat, at least a little bit there.

Melissa Harstine 7:15

Yeah, I think people have a tendency to interview their family or their friends or people they know, because those people are probably going to say yes, like, Sure, I'll help you out. Sure, I'll hop on a call for 30 minutes. But those people may or may not be your best customer, as you said, Brittany, unless you know you are selling to your mom, if your mom is your best customer for this, this course or whatever. Um, so what I recommend is looking, you can still leverage your network and those people who love you who are willing to help you out. But just ask them who they know, who fits this specific, like customer profile, right? So if you are, let's say you're creating a course about how to start and monetize a Facebook group, you would want to ask the people that, you know, like, who in your audience or in your network has recently started the Facebook group, and they're just struggling to get engagement, you know, maybe they're not making money from it yet. They don't have that that offer suite in place. Can you introduce me to them? Right? Because then that is going to get you in front of this specific person that generally, you know, has made the the problem that you're trying to solve with this course. And then once you start having those conversations, especially if they've already kind of started dabbling in whatever area your your course or your service like answers, say, like, take me back to that day, when you first realize that you need a support with your Facebook group because something wasn't working. Tell me about that. What was happening? What were the symptoms of the fact that it wasn't working, you know, what changed to make getting support at that time, you know, not a priority for you. Because I think as much as you can understand, not just the external things, not just who people are on the surface, or what it is that they say they want from a course or program. But why they want those things, those are known as psychographics. So they get to the heart, they get to the mind, they get to the the underlying beliefs or desires that are that motivate behavior change. And so that's really where I think the most effective insights are going to come from as you are creating a new offer is just making sure you're talking to your ideal customers and asking them questions that get below the surface.

Britney Gardner 9:29

Okay, so there's a lot to unpack right there. First, this is just a side note for the listeners here. Everything that Melissa just said, is 100% applicable to your content as well. So I'm just gonna throw that out there, that these customer research calls are a huge boon for figuring out things that you can include in your content. Knowing what matters to them means that you can choose better stories for your content. So all those Librans that that we talked about all the time like this is a goldmine. for not just offer validation or, you know, course creation and things like that as well. But beyond that, I like how you referenced the psychographics. Right? So that's what you said, right? psychographics? Yeah, I didn't butcher the word. Okay, cool. The, the knowledge that people want a certain thing is good. But the knowledge that people want a certain thing for specific reasons, is really where good copy comes from.

Melissa Harstine 10:28

Absolutely. And you know, here's another example, I was talking with someone a few weeks ago, who shared that her ideal client is a women owned business service business, that's been around for one to three years, and they're struggling with their online presence, they want to improve it, and they just don't know where to start. And on the surface, that sounds fairly specific, right. But then I started asking her follow up questions. And I'm like, Well, why are they struggling with their online presence? You know, what specific part of this online presence as she calls it as her her her word? But what specific part of it? are they struggling with? Like, why is that part harder for them, and more kind of Top of Mind than other things that are going on in their business? Right? Because those are, those are the ways that you start to unpack really, the things that are going to motivate change.

Britney Gardner 11:20

You know, it's, it's funny that you said that, actually, because that's closely enough, aligned with with what I do that I can hear that and I'm like, Well, I can already think of three different categories of people right there, and what you said, there's the person who struggles with their online presence, because they don't want to show up at all, they don't want to have an online presence, and they feel the pressure that they have to, there's the person who is showing up, but maybe they're showing up in the wrong places, or they're providing the wrong kind of content, and people are just not engaging with them. So they feel like it's pointless. And then there's the people who are showing up, and they're just like, creating and creating and showing and showing, and they're just like, oh my gosh, will this ever end? They're willing to do the work, but they don't know where maybe to like, stop. So like, you know, I hear that. And I'm like, there's at least three people that so I don't know if that's where you're going with that. But you know, having having those answers alone, like that would be the bare minimum of what I would need to work with somebody? Because how could I create, in my business, a content strategy for someone if I don't know what their willingness is to be engaging?

Melissa Harstine 12:26

Absolutely. And also, you know, how do you create a course, for those three different audiences, if you don't know, you know, if you just kind of lump all of those people into one category, that course is going to be generic enough, and it's not going to stand out from the competitors. And it's going to be generic enough that you're probably not going to capture as many ideal customers and sales as you could be capturing simply because it's, it's not really speaking to what the real issue is, it lacks that clarity and specificity.

Britney Gardner 12:56

So, I like that you mentioned clarity and specificity. Really hoping we could go there, right. You know, and recent podcast guests have talked about, you know, your your marketing is, is there to show people that you can help them solve a particular problem. And like you said, you know, having an online presence is a problem for a lot of people, but it's really what, what the problem actually does for their life that makes it so much more problematic in their actual world, right. But beyond that, you know, like in that particular niche, right, like, you could talk about having an online presence and just this one platform, or in just this one like channel, like, are we talking video, audio or writing? Are we talking, you know, different social media platforms? We're talking like tick tock versus LinkedIn, like very different things? I would argue there is no course out there that can effectively teach both tick tock and LinkedIn in the same course, you know what I mean?

Melissa Harstine 13:50

Absolutely, you know, and even on a little bit, on the level of like, a nice, you know, this person I was talking to is like, I might like to work with new authors. But I also might like to work with people who are offering a course or program. Again, those are very, very different, just audiences at a high level, that you have to come out with a completely different message, or a completely different way of positioning this thing that you're offering in order to reach them.

Britney Gardner 14:19

Yeah, no, totally. And it's, it's so funny that you mentioned that, right? So every different avenue that you want to sell, is going to require a slightly different plan. And if you need a different plan, that means that different way of thinking different strategy and all of that requires going back to that kind of who are you going to serve? So, you know, the interviews. So, you know, when when we're looking at the interviews, right, so, you know, moving ahead, assuming someone's scheduled, you know, some good interviews, like how many how many should they be scheduled? Actually, that's a good question.

Melissa Harstine 14:53

Yeah, I always recommend doing at least three to five interviews per customer segment. So if you have you know, If you do have multiple types of people that you may be serving with a single offer, or if you have, if you're trying to decide you're like, I could serve these three different people, I'm not sure which one to choose, right, do three to five interviews per customer segment. And if you do more than that, especially when you like get to like the NFL, if you do more than seven, in particular, at that point, it's going to be like the law of diminishing returns, where you're just not getting a whole lot of new insights for the effort that you're putting in. And I always also recommend doing at least 30 minute interviews so that you can really dig deep and ask really good follow up questions, because you may come prepared with a list of questions that you want to ask. But the goal is going to come in asking, like why, why does that matter to you? Could you give me a specific example of that? Could you share about a time in your life when you felt that way? Like, why specifically, if you know, this thing didn't happen? If you didn't get this problem solved? What would that mean for you? What's at stake? Why does this matter?

Britney Gardner 16:02

So I like that. I 100% agree with that. And it brings up some questions for me. Okay, so. So I like to think about this from the data point of view, right? Because, you know, the more I look at my own business, the more I've been better served by that. Just going back to the data. Yeah. And you know, I always talked about that in terms of like, how are we measuring the effectiveness of content, but, you know, you already mentioned diminishing returns after a certain number of interviews. But what happens when, you know, I ended up in like, a really great interview, and I'm asking different follow up questions. But those are not the same questions that I asked in other interviews, like, how do I compare these things and really get to the heart of, of who, who this best client is and what their most pressing need is, and and get those psychographics? If I haven't necessarily had the same conversation with each one of them.

Melissa Harstine 16:51

Yeah, I think that's a really good point, Britney to kind of acknowledge your own bias or how you as a person might be influencing the outcome of the interviews and the questions you're asking. I actually just was thinking about this this morning. Oddly enough. I'm currently working with a brand strategist and helping her clarify her own messaging and positioning. And I noticed as I'm working through those interview transcripts, that a lot of my questions and a lot of the answers I got, were related to copy and words and language, because that's my background. That's who you know, who I am, what I've done in the past. And so the short answer is, I just I literally put a note in that report about what my potential biases were as an interviewer, you know, and things like values and facilitation, like they maybe didn't come up as often just because I didn't ask about them. But I think that to really, my other answer is just always make sure that you are recording the conversation, and then turn that recorded conversation, you know, whether it's zoom or a recorded phone call, turn it into a written transcript, because then you're not just, you know, relying on your ability to take notes and type really fast, you're actually getting the exact words straight from your customers mouth, as they said them during that research interview. And then you're able to kind of go back and analyze those transcripts and look for those patterns, those trends, you know, those common things that they're sharing about, you know, what they might like in this new offer that you're thinking about creating, and also like I did this morning is spot your own potential biases, and how you may be influencing their answers, just based on your own perspective and life experiences.

Britney Gardner 18:29

So that actually brings up like a whole different idea, which I never even thought of, which is how do you know if you're asking questions that are really only leading to the answer that you want to hear? Versus the answer that you need to hear?

Melissa Harstine 18:44

That is a great question. And I I'll be honest, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about that. So I'm just kind of verbal process here off the cuff. But one of the first things that comes to mind is just asking open ended questions. Instead of saying, you know, do you want a course that teaches you this? You can maybe phrase it more like, if you were to invest in a service to help you improve your online presence, what would you want? What would make it so valuable for you that you'd be like, Oh, my gosh, take my money right now? Do you see that subtle difference there? Instead of instead of asking, do you want this? You know, kind of give them some context? And say, what would you want? What would you find valuable? Why would you want those things I think that can kind of lead to, can help you avoid leading questions that are just going to confirm the things that you are already thinking, I also think is another really important reason of why you should do interviews and not just surveys, because again, surveys feel a little bit easier, because you can just send them out to a whole bunch of people and you don't actually have to be awkward and talk to people. But I think what happens with with surveys is they do tend to be more leading questions unless you're really really careful about what you're asking and how you're asking it. But when you're doing an interview, you know if you know Isn't you're not getting if you're getting a really short response or short answer from someone, you do have that opportunity to kind of dig deeper and phrase that question a different way.

Britney Gardner 20:10

So that's actually a really good point, right? So when you are face to face on Zoom, or you know, whatever, you know, method you've chosen, right? You have the ability to read facial expressions, you have the ability to pay attention to, I don't know, like what's not being said at times, and, and you can kind of, you know, of course, correct, and move in a different direction, or rephrase something, if you feel like maybe they didn't, you know, catch the drift, right. But that means that this is not like a scalable process, there has to be an actual human person doing this, this is, you know, like you said, surveys do seem easier, because they are easier, you just send out a link. There's a lot more buy in from the person on the other side of the screen, if it's an actual human there.

Melissa Harstine 20:57

Yeah, I think another thing that happens when you're talking, quote, unquote, face to face with someone on Zoom, is that you're able to kind of cue into moments of heightened emotion, right. So I'm thinking about a specific example, where I was interviewing someone about this real estate agent lives in this hot market right now in the Nashville, Tennessee area. And he was thinking about creating a VIP tour of Nashville, so that when people were flying in for a weekend to kind of check out the area and learn about it, they could get a tour from a local to learn about all the hot things that they would need to know. Like, not just schools, but also like shopping and stuff. And so I was interviewing people who had recently moved to Nashville about their experience. And this one woman, you know, she shared all these great things. And then she was getting really, really emotional. She's like, this person had this realtor, he has to create this offer. I'm getting so annoyed because my friends are calling me all the time, like wanting to learn about this area wanting to move here. I don't have time to answer a million questions, especially if it's from someone I haven't talked to since high school, and they just happen to know from Instagram, or Facebook that I moved here. Like, I don't have time for that. I'm a busy mom, I got all these things going on. Like I could just hear her emotion like how powerful and agitated she got, she was giving me that answer. So that cued me into, okay, this is something to pay attention to. This is something like she's already noticing as a problem, which also kind of confirms that hypothesis that this is an offer. This VIP tour is something that people who are moving to this area really would want and find value from.

Britney Gardner 22:32

That's so funny, multiple levels. My cousin just moved to Nashville and was telling me about the experience when I was with him in Michigan, like just two or three weeks ago. So it's funny for me because of that, because he was telling me how he, I mean, he's like 24. So you know, he probably had a very different approach than then more established people would. But but it's also funny to me, because you're right, people get hot and bothered about certain things. And that is 100%, something that would be missed in a survey.

Melissa Harstine 23:01

Absolutely, yeah. Like you can kind of read emotion and surveys, you know, if you're really cute into like word phrase, like word choice and stuff, but it's really just going to come across as flat. And again, I think that's why those doing those interviews is so important. You can really connect with someone else on a human level, and not only hear in their words, like what it is that they want, what they need, what they're struggling with what they're impassioned and hot and bothered about, you can hear it in their words and their language as well.

Britney Gardner 23:31

You know, I think good coffee, good coffee for sales pages for courses, good copy for email writing, you know, whatever we're talking about, right? Good copy has the ability for people to cue in on that heightened emotion, even though it is now at this point, you know, just, I don't want to say just in a derogatory way, but just words on the screen, right, I read. It was something talking about spreadsheets this morning, I read someone's thing, like if this makes you feel like your brain needs to melt, or I already I already butchered the wording it was it was if this is making your brain melt, just thinking about this, or it was something like that, right? And I was like, Oh, that is such a good phrase. I want to try and say something about that. And I tried to like, put it into a message that I would use for my own business, right? If even thinking about writing an email makes your brain melts, right, like but it took me like four or five tries to make that one little phrase fit in with the messaging that I already use for a particular service. Right. And I think that when you try and do that with something you've seen in different contexts, like in a survey, right, it's it's so much harder, but when you have heard somebody say it with the inflection, and you just in that last line that you said when you really hear something, right like I I witnessed you emphasize that really, and if I just saw the word really on a page, you know, I could have been saying something like, I really like tea, or I really hate it when my son is overdramatic, right? Like, they're very different inflections, but they would have looked the same on a page,

Melissa Harstine 25:04

sir, well, and I even noticed during an interview, I may not pick up on things that I then pick up on after the fact when I'm reading through the transcript or listening to the recording, right? Like in the moment, there are things that grabbed my attention, but then there's completely different things that pop out of me. After the fact, and again, like there's just, there's so many layers to this type of thing. It's, it's a simple thing, but it's really doing this type of research. It can, it can benefit you on so many different levels.

Britney Gardner 25:36

Well, thank you so much for that, I, I want to give you an opportunity to tell a little bit about how how people can contact you if this is something that they do want to do. And the reason in particular, and phrasing it that way is I know me and my own business. This is something that sounds like Oh, like that is a nice, like should do. But if I have to do it myself, I'm probably not going to get around to it just because I know my own my own life, my own needs at this point. So if somebody like me knows that this is something that should happen. And it's going to be on that list that never really gets addressed. And they definitely need to outsource it like Where can they find you? Do you have any resources to help them in that process? Or even if they are going to DIY it? Do you have anything for that?

Melissa Harstine 26:16

Yeah, you can learn more about my services on my website, which is Melissa I also host a free monthly gathering on the last Wednesday of every month called the customer research roundtable, where all different types of business owners come together and ask questions about customer research. You know, it could be simple things of like, what question do I ask in this particular situation? It could be interview skills, it could be, you know, how do I actually apply this to my business? This sounds interesting, but I'm still not quite getting how it could work for me. I would love to have you join me at that event. And you can learn more about that and save your seat at Melissa

Britney Gardner 26:54

Awesome. I can't believe I didn't know that you offered that. So thank you. So London each other for like, almost a year and I didn't know that. So that's awesome. Well, Melissa, thank you again, so much. I very much appreciate this. And as everyone has already heard heard on here. This is 100% something that's been beneficial for my business, even if I feel like I didn't do it like fully Well, the first time so thank you.

Melissa Harstine 27:18

Absolutely. Thanks Brittany.

Transcribed by

To Market Your Business Online:

Navigating how to market your service business online–especially when you’re moving from 1:1 services to a 1:many model–doesn’t have to be hard even when you have a lot of moving parts.

You just have to know where you’re going. The Biz GPS Intensive is the best way to get that 30,000-foot view of your business–and a concrete plan for the next six months.

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Music by Michael De La Torre. Thanks, Mikey!