«Return to Blog List Case Study Interviewing: Coaxing Info from an “Undertalker”


If you’ve done your share of case study interviews, you’ve encountered one of the trickiest subjects:

The person who answers each question with as few words as possible.

He parcels out words carefully and stingily as if each one costs a dollar to use.

It’s not that your subject is being deliberately evasive or isn’t happy with the product or service; it’s usually just the personality. Most likely, he’s just not comfortable being interviewed.

How do you deal with an “undertalker?”

1. First, consider whether this person is actually your best interview subject. If he’s the only person who can really speak to the topic, then proceed. Sometimes, it makes sense to interview someone else or more than one subject to get strong details and engaging quotes.

Some companies even choose case studies based on how vocal the customer is about the product or service.

2. If you are interviewing the undertalker, reassure him that you’ll make this as easy as possible, and that nothing will be published without his prior review.

3. Finally, gradually ease the information out.

You may need to ask each question several different ways to get the answer. It helps to be as specific as possible – especially with getting measurable results.

Think of yourself as a detective searching for the answers you need.

Sample interview excerpt

Interviewer: At what points are you realizing time-savings with the solution?
Customer: It saves us quite a bit of time throughout the day.

Interviewer: What are some of the daily tasks that the solution streamlines for you?
Customer: It really helps by automating administrative tasks.

Interviewer: Which administrative tasks does it automate?
Customer: The process of converting quotes to orders.

Interviewer: How did you handle this process before, and how do you do it now with the solution?
Customer: Before, we typed the information twice.

Interviewer: How long did it take before to convert a quote to an order?
Customer: It took about 15 minutes per order before.

Interviewer: How long does it take now?
Customer: It’s instant. We click a button and it converts the quote to an order.

Interviewer: About how many orders do you process per week or month?
Customer: About 30 a month.

Interviewer: So, you save nearly a full workday just on that one administrative task now? That’s great.

Each question gets increasingly more detailed until the customer finally offers some specific information.

Sometimes you just have to keep asking to get what you need. However, pay attention to the customer’s responses and ease up if it seems as though he is frustrated with the line of questioning or doesn’t know the answers.

You may not have powerful or colorful quotes, but you’ve got solid information with which to build an effective case study.

How do you handle undertalkers?

2 Responses to Case Study Interviewing: Coaxing Info from an “Undertalker”

  1. I just had an interview like this about a month ago. I actually used this strategy you mentioned of asking the question in different ways and building on previous answers, but it also took about three follow up e-mails, each with 3-4 additional questions in them before I had the info I needed to put a decent case study together (and I emphasize decent, this one was tough).

    One of the things I always do with any candidate is ask for permission to send one or two follow up e-mails with “questions that may come to mind when I beging writing.” This opens the door for me to follow up if I’m not thinking on my feet well enough when I’m with the non-talker. This is important for me because I usually have the opposite problem – for some reason I am able to get interview subjects talking alot. So every once in a while when I come across someone like this, I’m usually taken by suprise.


  2. Casey Hibbard says:

    Hi Steve,

    Nice best practice of asking if you can send a follow-up email if needed. I’ve done that too at times. Sometimes the person is more comfortable replying by email or you just get another couple of words out of them.

    Choosing subjects based on how vocal they are is definitely something for clients to keep in mind.

    I agree that undertalkers are rare. Most want to talk about their successes. Then there’s the overtalker – probably the subject of my next post!

    Thanks Steve!