Why do product managers need customer empathy? And how to build it..

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The golden rule to crack PM interviews is to convince your interviewer that you rate very high on customer empathy. The ability to define your target audience, build user personas, obsessively focus on customer’s needs — are considered the signs of a great PM.

Once we actually get down to doing a PM’s job, keeping the customer at the heart of the product development process often seems overwhelming. There are so many pressures after all — stakeholder management, moving metrics, ensuring delivery on time and keeping an eye on competition.

Yet, the single most important attribute that can propel you to the path of PM greatness is customer empathy.

In the following paragraphs, we will look at: what is customer empathy, its benefits and ways to build it.

Empathy is defined as the ability to stand in someone’s shoes and see things from their viewpoint. Customer empathy is thus the ability to see things from the customer’s viewpoint. In PM speak, it means understanding:

Having this 360 degree view of the customer benefits product managers in the following ways:

Helps them fulfill the most important element of their role be the voice of the customer in the company and champion their interests. After all, how can you represent someone unless you have deep-rooted empathy for them?

Helps them become better problem solvers — The job of a PM involves figuring out solutions to problems on a regular basis. For example: Why is the feature not being used? Why are installs not happening? Why is product usage decreasing? etc. Empathetic PMs don’t assume things just because of their ‘intuition’ or ‘experience’. Instead, they understand the customer through analytics, experimentation and interviews before arriving at a solution.

Prevents them from becoming a feature factory — Lot of companies measure a PM’s productivity by how much features they are churning out. This flawed strategy often leads to feature overload and a non-intuitive product. Empathetic PM’s focus on a five star customer experience rather than simply delivering new features.

Helps them become better negotiators. PMs face pressure from all sides — CEO wanting that shiny new feature, sales wanting those customization’s for a ‘big’ client, tech team wanting more time to think through things, support team wanting their issues resolved first. In this delicate act of balancing everyone’s demands, customer empathy can help prioritize the right voice rather than the loudest voice. It also helps us convince others regarding our decisions rather than coming across as inconsiderate.

Helps them develop better relationships with their colleagues — Being empathetic helps a PM understand the motivations of everyone’s actions and respond appropriately. (You stop seeing others as pesky speed-breakers!)

Helps them achieve the company’s business goals — Given that businesses exist to make money, most PM’s impact is measured by their influence on additional revenue generation, customers acquisition or cost reduction.

Continuous customer focus helps reap rich business dividends because 1)When customers love your product, word of mouth publicity helps you achieve what no marketing spend could. 2) When customers views are taken into consideration, the product doesn’t get bogged down with needless features/complicated flows/unhelpful communication (undoing which can be a real drag on time and money).

While the importance of customer empathy cannot be overstated, PM’s often fail to obsess about it. Here are some ways in which PMs can inculcate customer-centricity in different stages of the product lifecycle.

When deciding what to build

These will provide critical inputs to your product roadmap apart from market research, competitor analysis and business strategy.

While detailing the PRD —Clearly state the problem, the goals and the user requirements. Get a sign-off on these from the key stakeholders in the team. While defining the solution, repeatedly check whether you actually solved the problem and addressed the key requirements.

When detailing the solution— While building a feature, you need to decide: number of steps/screens involved, product communication, corner cases and the entry point of the feature. To decide each of these, take a step back and think from the customer’s point of view — what would be intuitive, what might be a source of friction etc.

When brainstorming solutions with design/tech, try to think how the customer might expect the feature to work.

Once the flow and design of the feature is finalized, run it through sales/growth and get their opinion. It would help in discovering blind spots.

When the feature is ready for release — Get people in your company to test the feature. Especially those who were not involved in designing/implementing the solution. If they are getting stuck or confused somewhere, that specific part needs to be changed.

If possible, repeat this process with a few customers as well.

Taking customer feedback on the feature — Once the feature is released, the most important step begins. To understand what worked and what didn’t.

Use analytics and heat maps to see feature awareness, adoption and usage frequency. Ask the support and account management team to be proactive in informing if customers are reporting issues w.r.t the newly released feature. Or, if customers are continuing to report the same problem which the feature was supposed to solve. Talk to a few customers who used the feature and note down their feedback.

Use this rich feedback to iterate and improve the product.

These are some steps to bring customer empathy at the heart of the development process.

Customer empathy is undoubtedly the single most important trait for PMs. Incorporating it in the development process might seem like a daunting task. But once it becomes part of the decision making process, you will see for yourself the customer love that follows.

Have any thoughts or ideas on incorporating customer centricity in the product development process? Let me know in the comments below. :)

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Vikram Goyal

Currently PM@Airmeet — building a kick-ass product for conducting remote events and conferences.