No matter how you define product management, customers should always be at the center of things. Product managers try to solve customer problems, address customer pain points, add value for customers, etc. But it’s pretty hard to do anything without understanding how to incorporate empathy into product management.
Empathy in product management spans wider than seeing which buttons customers click. We can begin empathizing with customers and their situations by exploring their perspectives.
That examination must delve deeper than a surface-level glimpse at their experiences portrayed in a few generic user personas. Instead, great product leaders allow their product teams to immerse themselves into the world of their users.
Why Customer Empathy Matters
Companies build products for people. Those people will attempt to use the product to solve problems, improve processes and outcomes, or—for B2C products—to simply have a little fun, distract themselves, connect with others, or learn something new.
But regardless of the product’s nature, individual user experiences will inevitably vary based on many factors. Customers will use your product on deafening factory floors or in the hushed cubicle farms of law firms, or in sweaty spin classes. Your product will integrate with accounting software, CRMs, and inventory systems. Each with its own nuances and flaws your product must overcome or mitigate.
Scope of product
These scenarios often go beyond what’s typically covered in QA testing and usability sessions. But this just scratches the surface of the multitude of ways users will try using your team’s products. Despite these scenarios and use cases exceeding the initial product scope and vision, the rest of the world isn’t changing how it works just because your product strategy didn’t account for edge cases.
Upon hearing news of customers frustrated when the product can’t do something your team never intended it to do or irritated with an arduous user experience due to external factors, it’s easy for newbie and veteran product managers to react with annoyance or anger. “Of course, it doesn’t work like that. That was never the intention!”
Yet, once a customer buys or licenses or downloads your product, they’re free to use it however they’d like. Spanning the gap between how you’d always envisioned the product being used and how things go in the wild is essential to overcoming your own natural resistance.
And this is where customer empathy comes in. Customer empathy shifts your team’s mindset from “ugh, we have to do this because users are complaining about it” to “addressing this particular issue will greatly improve the overall customer experience and user satisfaction with our product.”
The product team can carry that empathy forward, better aware and informed of what matters to customers. They can inform stakeholders and developers about the meaningful difference a particular change, feature, or initiative will have.
Incorporating Empathy Throughout the Product Lifecycle
Empathy should play a role in every step of the product journey. Product leaders can utilize customer feedback before the product is released.
In theory, every new product should be inspired by stories of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Delivery drivers complaining about inefficient routing, scientists unable to share research results and collaborate with their remote colleagues, teenagers unable to digitally connect with like-minded souls in a safe environment, or classic rock lovers jonesing for new music that matches their old school tastes.
Whatever conundrum they face sparks an idea for a solution, ideally driven as much by a yearning to solve those problems as it is by trying to find a real-world application for an abstract technical solution. When your team tackles a problem needing a solution, customer feedback should be echoed in every product roadmap, user story, and requirement.
By humanizing users and listening to their issues, concerns, and problems directly, the product team gets motivated to help Sheila ship more customized flower arrangements, make it easier for Sanjay to digitally edit photos on his smartphone, or enable two doctors in different cities to review a patient’s MRI in real-time.
Not only does this keep things customer-centric, but it also instills a deeper yearning to make things better for real people and customers. As these ideas progress to projects and products, everyone involved can link their actions to benefitting real human beings.
Empathy may sound a little “squishy” in a world full of data-driven decisions and AI-powered automation. But all the data in the world is only as good as what you do with it.
Customer empathy makes those voices feel like they’re coming from real people rather than some abstract “target market.” Product leaders can plant the seeds for customer empathy in their team and beyond by encouraging or mandating their teams conduct qualitative user research that puts them across the table—or on the other end of a video call—with real, live human beings.
During these sessions, the product team must listen carefully and ask additional questions, gathering the details, context, motivations, and nuances needed to ensure the finished product meets the challenges users and prospects face. The team understands how users attempt to solve problems today.
By adding additional context and a personal connection to all the big data and algorithms, product teams can bring those individual stories and anecdotes to the rest of the organization, using them as colorful real-world examples to build alignment around which strategic activities best serve the user base.
Once engineers begin bringing the vision to life, things become more clinical and impersonal. Customer problems transform into discrete requirements that, in the abstract, may not have an obvious connection to real-world product users.
Once again, it’s the product team’s job to illustrate the importance and impact of each new feature or enhancement. They need to explain to the folks building things why this product matters to real people. Keeping personas and customer input top of mind is key to maintaining customer empathy and ensuring the solutions being built address their needs.
This is also important for reminding everyone that the product doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Your team should highlight the many external factors users must contend with while using the product. This continual reinforcement can keep the user experience from getting too clunky or developers envisioning unrealistic usage scenarios.
As products move into testing and QA, product teams can further ensure the product meets customer needs. They can achieve this by simulating as many real-world conditions. By creating acceptance criteria that not only demand that products “work” but work within the context and environment of different users, product teams turn customer empathy into higher standards of excellence and define success in terms of customer benefits and utility.
Product launches make or break many products. You compete on a crowded stage for potential customers’ time, attention, and money. Empathy offers an opportunity to differentiate and connect to break through the noise.
Far too many products simply list their specifications and features. Product teams assume that the target audience is fluent in these topics and paying attention. However, most buyers are too busy to peruse slick sheets and comparison charts to uncover value.
By building a product launch steeped in empathy, the messaging can shift from “what this product does” to “how this product can help you.” This is only possible when the marketing team and message crafters have a good sense of their target market.
Instead of the “our product is so awesome” approach, the entire launch can revolve around users, their problems, and how the product helps solve them. For example, home improvement stores don’t tout the horsepower of their power tools in their ads, they instead show “real people” repainting their houses, building a deck, or installing a new garage door opener.
By building a launch based on users solving problems and experiencing delight thanks to the product, its benefits and impact take center stage as they should while building momentum for additional go-to-market activities.
The customer journey doesn’t end once they start using your products, nor should the organization’s empathy-based approach. This should begin with quality customer onboarding programs focusing on task completion rather than product mastery.
Customers need to realize value quickly and consistently if they remain active users. That’s why all the tutorials, trainings, and help documentation focuses on streamlining their journey to those moments. There will be plenty of time for them to read detailed documentation and explore all the settings and options. First off, you need to lead customers to happiness and delight ASAP.
The product team and the rest of the business must maintain their capacity for empathy. Customers will inevitably have problems and feel frustrated. Your organization feels their pain to comprehend the impact of these obstacles. Moreover, they provide sympathetic support and prioritize follow-on work to address whatever issues arise.
This might be the least glamorous and exciting part of the job. If your business isn’t open and responsive to this feedback, it could torpedo the whole endeavor as Net Promoter Scores plummet and references dry up.
It can be difficult to motivate colleagues—or even yourself—to forgo exciting new plans. Though these plans excite your product team, your customers may see them as trivial. These roadblocks and frustrating limitations impact their ability to realize value from your product.
Making empathy an integral part of your product management philosophy
Product leaders set the tone for their organizations. They set an example and expectation for their team and stakeholders throughout the company. You can’t turn the “empathy spigot” on and off when it’s convenient.
To set up your product organization for success, customer empathy must be ingrained in everything, from which problems need solving to which projects get prioritized to which bugs get fixed in version 17.2. Products are nothing but potential without their customers. Ensuring customers use, experience delight, and attain actual value must always be at the heart of everything we do.