Customer Empathy: A walk on the wild side

Customer Empathy, in Lean Start-Up terms, is when you leave the safety and security of your corporate conference room to speak to actual consumers, customers, or stakeholders to get to know them better and understand what problems they need someone to solve for them.

That makes sense, right?  If you want to know what people need, you should talk to them.  However, what makes sense and what’s comfortable are sometimes misaligned.  It reminds me of my college days when I thought I wanted to be a journalist.  I loved to write, but I really didn’t like talking to people that I didn’t know.  So I’d procrastinate my interviews as long as I possibly could and then just interview my friends.  But often, my friends weren’t at all relevant to the subject of my story (like the time I wrote the story about handicapped access on campus without interviewing a single differently abled person).

We do this at work all the time, don’t we?  We’ve got Gen X’ers gathered in a conference room trying to figure out how to attract Millenials customers.  We’ve got Millenials trying to create a product for the senior market.  It’s not like we go at it with absolutely no context.  We’ve got plenty of secondary research.  Perhaps we’ve even run surveys or conducted focus groups.  But let’s be honest.  Do people reliably behave like they say they will on surveys and in focus groups?  Not really.

So why is it so hard to leave the conference room and go talk to the customer?  To go watch them in their natural environment?  A few thoughts about the barriers we put in our way:

1) Fear of rejection – What if the people I approach don’t want to talk to me?  What if they think I’m trying to sell them something?  There is potential for great embarrassment here.

2) Fear of not knowing what to say – How do I even start this awkward conversation? What if I say something stupid or I have no idea what to say?

3) Fear of getting in trouble – As adults, we’re pretty well-trained to follow the rules. A few weeks ago, I was coaching a team who wanted to understand a type of consumer that we thought shopped at Whole Foods.  So we stood in the Whole Foods parking lot asking people to talk to us. There was a very real possibility that security would see us and ask us to leave.  How long has it been since you’ve gotten into trouble with security at a retail establishment?  Never? Oh, clearly you were a different teenager than me.

Getting started with Customer Empathy work is uncomfortable for all but a very slim minority of people.  But the more you practice, the more normal and less awkward it feels.  Additionally, here are a few techniques to make teams more comfortable before you leave the conference room:

– Script your approach and do some role-playing before you go.  Practice your rejection reaction.  Script out your questions and practice if your team doesn’t like to “wing it”.

– If you’ve got someone particularly extroverted on the team, let them take the lead and show everyone else how it’s done.

– Be strategic about your locations.  Our Whole Foods parking lot had two levels and we chose to stay upstairs away from the main entrance to avoid attracting attention from staff.

Teams create the best solutions when they have strong empathy with their target customer, when they’ve observed them and spoken to them directly about their needs so they can catch all of the body language and nuance that is lost in research summaries.  Customer Empathy work can be a walk on the wild side, but the results are often exhilarating and definitely worth it.


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