Product Feedback

6 min read

Customer Empathy: What it is and How to Build it

It’s common knowledge that empathy is one of the most powerful soft skills for product managers. But, let’s not forget that great products aren’t built in silos. Many discussions about customer-centric product development neglect to address the importance of fostering a sense of customer empathy across the entire organization. Let’s discuss what exactly that means, why customer empathy matters, and what you can do to begin weaving it throughout every fiber of your organization. We’ll start with the what.

What is customer empathy?

We can broadly define customer empathy as the result of a deep understanding of customers on a human level. Customer empathy is all about understanding the feelings, emotions, motivations, and frustrations of your customers. Having customer empathy means seeing them as “people” and not just “users.”

This journey begins with first recognizing where your customers are before they start considering your product. What event, situation, or pain point inspired them to begin looking for a solution like yours in the first place?

Once you understand where your users’ journey begins, you can start understanding them in the present day, discerning how their usage of the product fits into their day-to-day and grasping their real-world user experience (versus the idealized one you dreamed up and mapped out with the team).

One fundamental concept to remind everyone of: each user comes to the product from a different place. Similarly, how, when, and where a user attempts to interact with the product may also span a range of possibilities. While you may envision everyone sitting in a private, quiet office with no distractions and plenty of time and patience on their hands, actual user experiences may be far more diverse and stressful. This understanding helps us get past abstract ideas of “generic customers” and see our users as unique individuals with unique needs.

Why customer empathy matters to your organization

Customer empathy should play a large role in product development as it brings the organization closer to its customers. Because when you’re close to your customers and care deeply about helping serve their needs, you can deliver better products. (And ultimately better user experiences which in turn increase revenue and decrease churn)

Here’s how.

Customer empathy unlocks motivations

It’s relatively easy to churn out new features and functionality to see what sticks. But whn we truly understand customers and what matters most to them, we’ll have far higher success rates.

And when we can crank out more hits than misses, we’re improving our efficiency while also boosting revenue and growth. We can begin anticipating needs instead of just reacting to requests.

Understanding the impacts

We all strive to know what matters to customers, but employing empathy allows us to understand the full ramifications of the situation. If it’s taking someone longer to do something, what gets sacrificed? If a task can’t be completed, what are the consequences?

Empathizing with the customer puts us in their shoes. It shows us that the fallout our product’s functionality (or lack thereof) really influences people’s lives and work. It also connects us with their feelings and emotions and gives our work improving their lives more meaning.

Maintaining an open mind

Being empathetic and tuning into customers helps us escape our own echo chamber. Customer ideas are often shot down since we didn’t come up with them ourselves. But when empathy is added to the mix, customer input gains weight and we’re more likely to uncover surprising and unexpected feedback.

Customers aren’t trying to improve your KPIs or increase your revenue. They’re longing for a better product experience, so their suggestions are coming from the heart.

How to build customer empathy

Of course, customer empathy doesn’t happen without effort. Knowing your customers requires a commitment to collecting relevant information and insights before translating them into action. Here are some great ways to get closer to the real customer experience:

Sit in with customer service

Your customer service department interacts daily with customers. They’re on the receiving end of nearly every complaint and question customers have. Spending some quality time in the trenches with them can give you an up-close-and-personal view of what customers are dealing with.

As a product leader, you can consider allocating time regularly to handle a few support tickets as a means to gather even more context on customer pain points. Although you can always collect customer feedback from your colleagues, there’s nothing like drinking from the firehose yourself. Cutting out the middlemen lets you “feel the pain” of those experiencing trouble, providing a better sense for what’s frequently tripping up customers. Even when you’re not actively participating, getting summaries and stats from support is a great way to highlight problem areas to the entire organization.

It’s worth noting that this method is so useful for building customer empathy that some organizations even go so far as to require all employees to spend time tackling support tickets. So, if you’re hoping to foster more customer empathy across your organization, consider having folks tackle some support tickets every now and then.

Talk to your customers

When a complaint comes into customer service, it’s usually viewed as a problem to be dealt with. With that in mind, we don’t see the person behind the email or chat message, we just see an obstacle standing in our way. It’s a bit impersonal.

That’s why having real conversations with customers is still necessary. Make time to interface with a real person and not just their words on a screen. Even in casual conversations, we can gather additional information that gives us a far better sense for just how distraught, annoyed, angry, or ambivalent they actually are.

Asking open-ended questions also opens the floodgates to all kinds of ideas and information. Much of it may not be relevant, but you never know what nuggets of wisdom may emerge when you stop talking and start listening to customers.

If these conversations can happen in person, you get the added benefit of reading their facial expressions and body language. These subtle clues don’t come through on an email or question posted in a forum, but they can tell you plenty about how a customer is feeling.

Ask users about their problems, not for solutions

Customers often have good ideas, but it’s not their job to come up with your product strategy. Instead of asking them what they want, delve into where they’re at right now. What are they trying to do, what’s standing in their way, what bothers them, what delights them.

You can’t expect a customer to design your product, not should you want them to. It’s your job to get feedback from multiple sources and synthesize it to make decisions. Letting an individual customer prescribe a particular implementation will only result in a product that makes one person happy.

This is also an area where prototypes can come in handy. Giving customers multiple things to react to instead of expecting them to present a fully formed answer is another way to extract insights and understand what connects and what misses the mark.

Get out of the building

This sentiment is nothing new for product managers, but we can’t say enough about the importance of escaping the fishbowl of your office and getting some real-world experience under your belt. Visiting customers and watching them interact with your product in their “native” environment can be truly eye-opening.

It places the product experience within the larger context of customers’ lives and workflows, plus it offers an opportunity to gauge what coworkers and peers think of the product and its impact as well.

Dive into the data

While individual anecdotes are great, other truth bombs often await you in the analytics. Here is where the numbers can illustrate meaningful trends for aspiring empathizers. Tools like Google Analytics can shine a light on the paths customers are taking while using your product.

For example, the navigational paths you’ve drawn up may not actually match how users are really getting from point A to point B. Or maybe there are lots of people hitting the back button after they click a particular link, indicating that it might be confusing or misleading.

Spotting these patterns can unlock mysteries as to why customers are getting frustrated or why certain features aren’t discovered and used as often as you’d predicted.

Don’t settle for satisfactory

When it comes to building a great product, “good” isn’t “good enough.” A product that works isn’t the same as one that delights.

Press customers to continually share their thoughts and feelings. There’s always room for improvement.

Create fully-formed personas

Too often personas are narrowly focused on the product they’re created for. Your customers are real people, so your personas should reflect folks with lives beyond just a job title or lifestyle preference.

These personas can grow and mature based on those conversations you’re having with real-life customers, not just the straw men and women drawn up on a whiteboard.

Be your own customer

If you’re not actually trying to use your own product, there’s no faster way to kickstart customer empathy. You know how it works and what it should do, so if you’re noticing problems or getting stuck, imagine how the customer feels!

Empathizing with customers ain’t always easy

Empathizing with friends and family comes naturally. With strangers it’s not as natural. But as you begin humanizing your customers, you’ll find your emotional instincts take over.

The more you learn about your customers, the more you’ll care. And, once you start understanding your users as individuals rather than a “faceless mob,” putting yourself in their shoes comes easier.

Finding the time to truly connect with and understand users may be a challenge, as some in the organization may not value it as much as cranking out code and collateral. But, customer empathy’s ability to create a better experience and the benefits that can bring are worth any perceived “lack of productivity.”

Sharing the insights learned via customer empathy tactics can help the rest of the organization get on board and realize how valuable these observations are. That shared understanding will result in better outcomes for everyone and create a product that’s easier to sell in the first place.

Heather McCloskey