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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A crystal ball doesn’t pay the bills

From a sensor technology standpoint, my Dad is about 15 years ahead of everyone else.  For example, in 2000, I moved to Maryland to help my Dad with his new IoT (Internet of Things) start-up.  That’s right.  My Dad had an IoT start-up in 2000.  He was combining sensors, algorithms and mobile communication so that buildings or bridges could tell a central monitoring facility they were structurally unsound after an earthquake.  Or that a commercial vehicle could tell a central maintenance function how they should be serviced the next time they returned to home base.  Today, that technological combination is a huge commercial winner.  You probably think my Dad is sipping umbrella drinks on his own personal island and that none of us have to work anymore, but that would be incorrect because, back in 2000, we didn’t know how to find product/market fit for his technology.

We thought we had found important problems that needed to be solved.  And we discussed their importance with great intensity in our little office space.

“I’d want to know if a skyscraper was structurally sound after an earthquake, wouldn’t you, Dad?  That’s got to be a huge problem!”

But we didn’t make a list of real estate management firms or vehicle fleet managers and start dialing to figure out whether anyone was currently experiencing and feeling pain from the problems we wanted to solve.  What might we have learned if we had made those calls?

  • What the maintenance process looked like for large buildings and vehicle fleets
  • Whether real estate managers or vehicle fleet managers saw any problem with the current process
  • Whether they outsourced maintenance to a different company
  • How and whether building managers tested for structural soundness after an earthquake
  • Whether or at what point earthquakes effect structural soundness of large buildings
  • The frequency and risk of vehicles breaking down in transit
  • Who the subject matter experts and decision-makers were for this kind of maintenance
  • Whether the problem was felt more deeply in one industry vs. another, so we could prioritize our business development efforts

If we had pushed to personally watch maintenance professionals service buildings and vehicles, we could have gathered valuable information about the optimal size and structure of a winning solution or any challenges involved in retrofitting installed equipment.

That data would have provided a clearer picture of our potential customers and their needs and allowed us to build and position a solution with a custom fit.  Or we might have learned that the decision-makers didn’t view that kind of maintenance as an important problem.

If we built it, they WOULDN’T come. 

That news would have been disappointing, but so valuable, allowing us to pivot and apply the technology to someone who really wanted it.

Since those days so long ago, I’ve had the opportunity to use Design Thinking and Lean Start-Up principals to vet and develop a variety of solutions for different industries and the importance of this lesson doesn’t vary.  It’s always worth the time to talk to your potential customer before designing your solution.  How could you apply this practice to your work?

I’ll re-visit this example in future blogs to explore how other innovation best-practices could have made my family extremely wealthy.