Customers lie to you. Get the truth.

PLUS: How JCPenney was mislead by customers (and now bankrupt)

Read time: 3 minutes

Hey there - it’s Brian 👋

Customers lied to me.

They didn’t do it to be mean, but the lies got me into trouble.

I was helping a tech client figure out how to get into telecom. I called about 30 customers to ask them about their experience. We realized their responses weren’t making sense when we started piecing together all the responses.

I re-played the recording.

The places that didn’t make sense was because customers made up answers!

You see, when we talk to customers, we forget they have emotions (just like you do).
• They remember things wrong
• They don’t want to feel stupid
• They don’t want to make you feel bad

So they’ll make things up.

But listen to these emotions and you’ll build the wrong thing.

So in this issue, you’ll hear a story about how customer interviews can ruin a business: how customers mislead JCPenney and got the CEO fired.

Then, you’ll hear simple tips to get your customers to tell the truth (and avoid what happened to JCPenney).

Let’s get you customers!

JCPenney failed by asking the wrong questions

It’s 2011. Ron Johnson (the visionary behind Apple’s retail success) just became JCPenney’s CEO.

And Johnson has to fix their profit. FAST.

Ron Johnson, Former JCPenney CEO

The brand is heavily reliant on promotions and discounts (which makes profit inconsistent).

His theory: switch from promotions to “everyday low prices.” Like Walmart!

So he holds customer interviews, and customers tell him… they hate constant promotions. Why can’t prices just always be low?

Johnson sees this as confirmation and he makes the switch from promotions to everyday low prices.

Turns out?

Customers don’t buy. They’re used to bargain hunting and feel they aren’t getting savings.

Stock plummets.

So what happened?

Customers told them what they wanted to hear, not what they needed.

When you speak with customers you want to ask the the right questions to understand their experience and motivations.

How do you ask questions in a way that doesn’t mislead you and your business?

Common Mistakes in Customer Interviews (And how to fix them)

Mistake #1: You’re asking questions about your product.

The goal of the interview is the understand the customer’s experience and their pain. Not to get their advice on your solution.

Ask questions like:
• "Tell me about the last time you encountered that problem?"
• "What don't you love about the solutions you've tried?"
• "Why was that hard?"

See the full set of customer interview questions here.

Mistake #2: You’re not calling out customers when they lie to you.

Customers may never have thought about their purchasing decisions or how they feel about the problem. So they’ll make up answers to avoid looking stupid.

Pay attention to places where it seems like customers are making up answers and push back.

Quick tip to know they’re lying:
Get into the customer’s head so well you feel their emotions and experiences. If their reaction doesn’t make sense with what you would do (if you were them), ask them!

Let them know it’s okay to change their opinion if they think differently (it lets them correct places where they’ve lied).

Mistake #3: You let the customer make assumptions.

Customers will assume you know things. Especially when it’s an experience they haven’t put much thought to.

They assume for two reasons:
1) It’s so obvious to them they feel everyone else must feel the same
2) They haven’t thought much about their deeper experience

Both of those reasons are interview GOLD for you:
1) If it’s obvious, it a lot of other customers feel the same way
2) Understanding deeper experiences convert better in your messaging

Stop them and say something like:

“Wait sorry, I missed that, could you explain what you mean by XXXX?”

Mistake #4: You look smart.

When you try to look smart, it makes the customer want to look smart too. So they make up more answers.

Be an approachable friend. Not an intimidating elitist.

They’re more willing to be vulnerable and honest with you.

Mistake #5: Using only what they say.

Are they energized? Uninterested? Angry?

Use their non-verbal queues to figure out which topics to dig deeper (and which topics aren’t important).

Mistake #6: Your question leads the customer.

The way you phrase the question can lead the customer into answering what you want them to answer, not what they actually think.

This was my biggest mistake. I’d phrase something like “would you rather X or Y?” only to learn it was a 3rd option I hadn’t thought about.


When I was consulting I did 100+ customer interviews for different clients (e.g., pricing strategy, new product launches, go-to-market strategy).

In all those interviews, the hardest part was running the conversation so the customer gives you the information you need.

Hard skills will only take you so far. Soft skills will get you the right information to make decisions that grow your business.

That’s a wrap!

See you next Thursday 👋

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On Brian’s Mind

Here’s a quick personal update to get to know me and my thinking as I build my own business. Are you thinking through these things too?

Books: Reading customer research.
I want to more deeply understand the different theories in customer research. A little nerdy, but I got a hold of the two main books in Jobs to be Done theory:
Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen (original theory)
Jobs to Be Done by Anthony Ulwick (different methodology)

Life: Heading to Penang.
I’m heading to Penang, Malaysia to live with a few e-commerce / SaaS founders for a few weeks. They just finished an intense month of customer interviews so I’ll find out if they made these mistakes!

It’s supposed to be the food capital of Malaysia and I love trying new foods.

Systems: Organizing customer research ideas.
Last week I mentioned I’m testing out a different system to capture my ideas. I tested it out this week as I researched this issue.

Pretty cool to see how your ideas connect. I’ll need a few more weeks before I determine if it’s just interesting or useful.

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