Creating customer empathy





Why establishing customer empathy is critical?


Solutions are created to solve a customer problem. When building a complex asset for your customer—such as a software system, for example—it is very easy to miss the difference between what the producer team thinks the solution should be vs. what the customer really needs. Confirmation bias impacts the judgement very significantly here. Without noticing, you may start building costly capabilities that may be of little use to your customer. 


A better way is needed for building complex solutions. There are some crucial questions that need to be answered. What causes trouble to your customer, and what does it mean in terms of their daily life? What actual goals are they pursing? What helps your customer? And exactly how do they leverage solutions to advance in their important tasks? To know the real answers, you must cultivate customer empathy. If you are a product owner, product manager or a development leader, here’s what you need to know. 


Who is your customer, really?


First of all, in order to empathize with someone, you need to know who that someone actually is. This might sound strange, but too many teams don’t really know who their customer is. Ideas like “everyone’s our customer” or “people who use our product are our customer”, don’t really help. In fact, they reveal the gap between the producer and the customer. You must identify specific customer personas. Give them a name. Define what they are, what they do, what’s their role or reason to interact with your solution. Here specificity is important. 


What is the customer context?


Next, once you’ve identified the key customer personas, it’s time to dig deeper. Remember that in order to empathize with someone, you need to interact or overlap with them and with their context. You can’t get too far in this by pure speculation. You need to take action. So, a few things to consider. A) Talk to your customer; not about requirements but about what they do, what are they trying to achieve, what would help them, what doesn’t help, what do they fear, what do they enjoy, what they wish could be different. B) Observe your customer, and what and how they actually do. What they say may not reflect many of those aspects, but observing them in action helps to close the gap. C) Try to put yourself in their context. Try to see what they see and do what they do. Try to execute their task… with the help of your solution. You will learn a lot… as long as the execution context is real. So, try to wear your customer’s shoes in every possible way you can think of.


What if even the customer doesn’t know? 


Lastly, validate solution ideas early and often. You will be significantly advantaged if you and your teams have developed an intricate understanding of the customer context… or as we say, built customer empathy. But even your customer may not know upfront how this or that new solution capability will work out for them. Sometimes the only reliable way to know is to build it and see what happens. This is the time to effectively use solution increments and learn from delivering an increment and then making adjustments for the rest of the product.


Further action


Alright. Time to take action. For a solution that your teams are working on today or maybe will soon begin to, what are the key customer personas? And what does their average day look like? Do you have a reliable way to answer this? If not, which is common, plan one or two action items that will help you discover more.    

Alex Yakyma

Alex Yakyma is the author of “Pursuing Enterprise Outcomes” and “The Rollout”. As a consultant, Alex is helping enterprises succeed with complex challenges. Throughout his career, he operated in multi-cultural, highly distributed environments. Alex has trained a large number of change agents and leaders whose key role is to help their organizations achieve higher effectiveness at pursuing business outcomes.

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