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Product Management: Customer Empathy

Customer empathy is understanding the underlying needs and feelings of customers. It goes beyond recognizing and addressing their tactical requirements and puts things into further context by viewing things from their perspective. Product managers utilize customer empathy to create products that not only help users accomplish a task but also fit into their overall workflow and lifestyle.

Why customer empathy matters

Customer empathy sees users as real people and not just individuals trying to do something. It rounds out customers into whole people, provides a larger context for how products and solutions fit into the much broader ecosystem of their lives, their jobs, and their environment.

When product teams recognize that their product isn’t used in a vacuum it helps them understand the vast set of interdependencies and external factors that impact the user experience. It also acknowledges that users have varying motivations for using a product and different definitions of success; accomplishing the task at hand is important, but there is a multitude of factors beyond that achievement playing into overall happiness and satisfaction with a product.

An empathetic culture not only listens to customers but translates that learning into action. They can anticipate customer needs because they understand them as human beings and not just “users,” which leads to growth, revenue, and proven loyalty. Most importantly, these organizations can not only figure out what is working, but they understand why.

The risks of ignoring customer empathy

Despite how much people think rational thought dictates the vast majority of their decisions, emotions always bubbling beneath the surface and influence choices. Not acknowledging and being considerate of those emotions when creating and evolving product experiences can derail adoption, usage, and recommendations.

By empathizing with customers, product managers can create products that address the real-world needs and concerns of users, going beyond the binary “it works or it doesn’t work” evaluation of a product’s effectiveness.

The risks companies face by not embracing customer empathy are very substantial l. Solutions that work well in theory but are awkward, frustrating or time-consuming in practice could see high churn rates and poor net promoter scores. Customers may feel unappreciated, unheard, and left yearning for something better.

Organizations lacking customer empathy are missing out on additional opportunities by not fully exploring what their customers truly think and feel about their products. The knowledge and insights that can be gleaned from a more empathetic approach could yield insights into new features, better user experiences, or completely new verticals and product line extensions that would otherwise remain unknown.

How to put customer empathy into practice

Acknowledging the value of customer empathy is an important first step, but incorporating it into the product development process and overall corporate culture requires more work, and that intentionality doesn’t happen without dedicated effort.

Leverage customer-facing staff

While product managers may not have that many interactions with customers, there are several other departments that interact with them far more frequently. Customer service/support/success, account management, billing, operations, and even salespeople all have lots of customer feedback that can be mined to create a more empathetic organizational connection and product experience.

The challenge is unlocking the nuggets of anecdotal customer feedback. To break down the informational silos, product teams must establish good working relationships with these teams and create forums for sharing to occur.

Processes to promote information exchange

With a solid baseline of mutual appreciation between these teams, additional processes can be instituted to formalize feedback gathering. While this can sometimes be achieved through casual conversations and letting folks know— the product team is eager to hear what’s happening in the field. Build a structured approach for feedback to increase the frequency and volume of information everyone is sharing.

For example:

Schedule regular meetings: Listening sessions can create a culture more conducive to sharing customer pain points and troubles. Depending on the systems the organization is employing, CRM or help desk apps can also be a good input to the process.

To further tap into the value customer-facing teams have to offer, product teams can go beyond mere information gathering and include them in coming up with new ideas and methods for satisfying customers. When you open up the floor during brainstorming sessions, customer-facing staff oftentimes come up with possibilities that may have never occurred to the product team. These seeds may grow into new features or products, or inspire improvements in other processes that impact the customer’s overall experience with the company.

Give customers a voice

While coworkers can provide lots of value, there’s nothing like getting it straight from the source. The best way to achieve this is via direct interaction with customers, either with interviews or on-site visits.

Carve out dedicated time with your customer, telling them “we’re listening,” and take in everything they have to say. Resist the urge to challenge them or try to justify the current situation. Remember you’re seeking out qualitative insights into the customer experience. Not only does this provide great intel, but it also further humanizes the customer as it’s coming directly from them and not being filtered through a third-party.

These sessions shouldn’t try to serve double-duty as sales opportunities, training time, or troubleshooting. Product managers should simply only ask questions if they’re looking for clarification or to prompt exploration of additional areas. It’s the customer’s opportunity to tell their story in their own voice and to perform valuable user research.

Of course, true customer empathy also requires product teams to show these customers that they are actively listening. So follow up on things and let them know when you have addressed their issues.

Customer advisory boards are another forum for this feedback, but nothing beats an in-person, one-on-one meeting with a client to show them their opinion matters.

Bake customer empathy into the roadmap

All that work to understand customer needs, frustrations, and preferences are worthless if you don’t translate them into action. With this goal in mind, product teams should regularly review their plans, product designs, and roadmap to ensure customer empathy is fully realized in the actions your company takes.

We recommend that you distill the feedback gathered into both specific requirements and ongoing themes. You can prioritize and address the requirements accordingly, but the themes are more of a level-setting that you should continually consider and use as an evaluation tool for any changes or enhancements.

Read the product manager's guide to prioritization  ➜

If planned changes don’t improve the things customers care about then we recommend giving them serious reconsideration. Any negative impact for customers may outweigh the potential benefits for the company or other users, which should give any customer-centric organization pause.

Customer empathy is more than a soft-skill

Most might consider customer empathy to be a “soft skill,” but these tangible tactics help make it a standard operating procedure. As you incorporate an open-minded approach to understanding customers, it will pay dividends over time.