7 Tips for Interviewing Clients and SMEs

To write a top-notch blog post or case study, content writers need to get good at interviewing clients. In this blog post, I’ll detail my seven tips for interviewing clients and SMEs.

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If you’re a content writer or copywriter who’s just received an inquiry for a project, or landed your first writing gig on Upwork, it can be overwhelming to obtain all the information you need to do the job. The client may have given you a blurb about the job and the general objective of the content they want written, but you don’t have everything you need.

Not yet.

Your job might ultimately come down to you putting pen to paper; but you’ll be staring at a blinking cursor unless you get really good at sifting through information, weed whacking, and treasure hunting. What you’re looking for are those golden nuggets of information that will allow you to produce the best writing possible.

We’re talking:

  • Background, motivations, and objectives
  • The what and the why behind the assignment
  • Target audience persona
  • Supporting resources, details, and data points
  • Related media (blogs, graphics, etc.)

So how do we get there? How do we effectively extract information from our clients during that liminal time between deciding to work together and the actual writing? You schedule that critical part of any professional writing project: the client interview (aka SME interview).

Whether client interviews are second nature for you, or you sweat your way through each one, there are a few ways to set yourself up to win, even when you feel like you don’t have much to work with. The first is to make the first client touchpoint work for you.

First, Make the Most of the First Client Touchpoint

Usually, your first point of contact with a client is a “quick chat,” email, or message exchange. These can tend to feel a bit like the client is interviewing you as they ask questions about what you can offer, or what kind of similar experience you have. A common mistake made during this first interaction is to be reactive, only listening to the client rather than steering the conversation. 

Your job in this first encounter is to get the ball rolling. In reality, this first touch point is your sales pitch. Usually, you’re not the only one the client is considering for the job. And even if you are, this is your window of opportunity to win the job by bringing structure, purpose, and a little personality to the conversation.

Here’s are some key things to prepare for when going into that first client call or project call—things you need, as well as things likely to come up: 

  • The specific deliverable, scope, and project timeline
  • More about your point of contact, their relationship to the company, and the company itself
  • Subject matter expert/point of contact for follow-up questions, technical validations, etc.  
  • Price (or the softer “budget” word that people tend to throw around)

It’s a flexible framework, but it’s a framework nonetheless. Your ability to guide the conversation around these points will likely lead you to critical project details. It will help you evaluate fit and feel. If you can navigate these points with any semblance of command, you’ll make a great case for why you are the writer they should hire. 

Know What You’re Looking for When Interviewing Clients and SMEs

Whether you’re writing a lengthy blog, case study, or web copy, you need to figure out key information about the client or the subject you’re writing on. For example, if you need to write about current trends in commercial construction, but don’t know the industry very well, you’ll need to glean details from the person you’re interviewing (someone who, hopefully, already knows the industry well). 

Or say you’re writing the web copy for a brand-new coffee company, and they want your help coming up with their mission statement and product descriptions. Some background on the company and knowledge about the products would really help. This is why setting aside specific time to interview a subject matter expert—usually after the contract is signed and it’s time to get to work—is so important.

Now, you can always do your own research, but more often than not, interviewing the person who hired you is the quickest route between A and B. Keep in mind though, they may come into the conversation with all kinds of assumptions, or frantically jump from point to point, not knowing which information you need. That’s why it’s important to do the client interview right.

Learn These Essential Tips for Interviewing Clients and SMEs

Here’s the process I follow when interviewing clients and SMEs:

1. Conduct Preliminary Research

Find out as much as you can about subject matter and the client. Use Google, LinkedIn, the company website, and any other resources you can find. This will help you understand who the client is at a high level, and it can start generating questions to ask.

2. Make a List of Questions

Create a document that you will be able to reference (and add notes to) during the interview. For simpler projects, you may only have a few questions, whereas more in-depth projects may require ten to fifteen.

3. Include Open-Ended Questions with Room for Follow-Up

You will be surprised at how much information you can glean from someone when you steer clear of “yes” or “no” questions. It opens up the conversation and, more often than not, supplies you with information you didn’t even think to ask about in the first place.

4. Be a Good Listener

Listen to what the person is saying rather than rattling off your list of questions. Take it as it comes! Ad lib, if you have to, and adapt to the flow of conversation. If they naturally expound on an answer, don’t interrupt them with your next question. With that said, keep the conversation moving. If you feel the rabbit hole starting to take over, feel free to lightly redirect.

5. Stay Focused and Filter

Doctors do something really well that can be frustrating for patients, but is critical to the doctor’s job: they filter. Ever notice that? Whether they are talking to a child or an adult, and no matter how much extraneous detail their patient provides (i.e., what popped up on google when they searched their symptoms), most doctors are really good at patiently extracting the detail they need to make an accurate health assessment. They keep patients on track by focusing on the right questions and filtering out irrelevant information. 

Similarly, it’s your job to get the pertinent information out of your clients. Be the doctor. Ask the right questions, and confidently steer the conversation. It will result in more pointed and specific information that will help you write copy that attracts customers—and that’s the goal.

6. Ask Follow-Up Questions

If you don’t feel like an answer fully nailed your question on the head, ask “can you expand on that” or “can you give me an example of that.” If an answer sparks another question in your mind, ask it. Don’t hold back. Allow the conversation to ebb and flow; it doesn’t have to be completely linear. You also don’t have to pretend that you know every acronym and industry term you hear during an interview. If you don’t fully understand something, ask about it.

7. Honor the Time Commitment

Respect your client’s time, and make sure they respect yours. As nice as it is to be flexible for clients you’re trying to woo, it’s hard to scale a writing business if every one of your meetings lasts an hour and half.

Lastly, if you end up with less information than you wanted, you always have the option of reaching out to the client to clarify something or expand on a thought. Look for threads that make this follow-up natural, instead of another email thread cluttering their inbox. 

Pro-Tip: Record the interview if the client agrees to it, then send it to a transcription service so you can mine the text for nuggets. If that isn’t an option, make sure you are confident with your own short-hand notes. Nothing is more stressful than reading back your own interview notes and having no clue what a haphazard string of abbreviated words means. 

With Time, the Tips for Interviewing Clients and SMEs Will Come Naturally

The more you conduct client interviews, the better you’ll get at them. You’ll find your groove, nail down your process, and feel confident in your ability to get the right information out of your clients. You’ll get a keen feel for tacit boundaries and structure. And you’ll ask killer follow-up questions that uncover new depth and context. 

Then all you have to do is write the thing! 

1 Comment. Leave new

  • There’s a lot of practical gems here, stuff I’ve had to learn the hard way in my own writing career. Listening is a big one, as you point out. Listening and riffing off what the client says is where the real uncovering happens, at least in my experience.


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