Things we don’t say about customer empathy

In the dense pages of the product rule book, one is surely to find the (over)usage of a term called empathy. Don’t mistake—this piece of writing isn’t to talk negatively about empathy or prove anything against it. If anything, this is a short take on how not to do things that are completely opposite to what empathy stands for.  

If you’re a newbie into the product space, a growing pro at building products, or even a veteran in strategizing, the first thing you’d hear the people around you say and sometimes you yourself muttering is “show empathy towards customers.” But what actually is empathy? Do you need to show it or facilitate it? Is that something you do to check off a point in the list?

Let me quote Chris Voss, the renowned FBI negotiator’s words—empathy is “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.” 

This applies to products and its users/customers too. The most important parts here are ‘recognize’ and ‘vocalize’ but often we do things that are never in the same horizon as these two terms. 

But, we do listen to customers, right?

Of course, we have to listen to our users because they are the ones using our product. As product people, one of our main goals is to ensure the user community voices are heard, and users are aware of the product and its benefits. 

What could be some pitfalls in listening? 

– Letting go of the main problem at hand

– Forming an incomplete story with just the parts you heard 

– Err, were you actually listening or just getting a list of to-dos?

We often think that to say ‘yes’ is the ultimatum of listening to customer stories. This means, getting to agree with everything they say, reasoning out that something would be built into the product and plugging in what customers say as direct solutions. If we end up trying to do these, then we ‘sympathize’ with customers and that’s not what empathy is. What’s needed here is recognition of the fact that they have an ongoing problem and being loud and clear that you have understood what their problem is. Do you have to agree? Not really. What you need to align with for sure is the core of what bothers customers. Without agreeing with much of their fringe stories, you can still empathize with them by hitting the right chord with a feasible solution. 

To escape the chicken-and-egg scenario of ‘customers know everything’ and ‘customers don’t know anything,’ build your own kernel of ‘customers know to talk about their struggles.’ They could share things that aren’t evidently struggles too, but real empathy is in trying to recognize and vocalize what needs to be solved, not with everything someone says. Stop sympathizing. 

Do you then make customers see what you see?

Okay, now that you need to recognize and address the problem at hand, what do you end up vocalizing? An undermining action is when you step beyond vocalizing, and instead bend the reality of the customer. Even worse, you make them say what you had in your mind and convince them into believing in something they actually don’t need. 

While some of these side-effects can occur, empathy lies in keeping them at the bay and preventing them from seeping into your customer conversations. So, how could you do that?

– Make customers the source of enthusiasm:

Once you acknowledge their pain points, keep the energy of the conversation around what you offer to solve for them. Coming back to the point on ‘customers only use the product,’ your convictions about the product and benefits shouldn’t be force-fitting. Vocalizing is not about talking your praises, but continuing to find the next best possibility even when your product ego is hurt. 

– Remove hindrances so they could see:

Removing obstacles and de-risking challenges are ways you can still show influence over owning the customer problems and hence empathy. Drive an element of curiosity that lets customers find not-to-be-missed features without much hassles within the product. Ask yourself this: What features they can’t do without instead of the greatest they could do with?

A simple change in vocalizing can in turn put customers in the front seat and let them do the actions—not just the ones you wished for, but what would do good for their problems. 

– Build uniqueness so they eventually understand:

Tired of customers asking you the wrong questions and failing to understand more about you? High chances that it could be because of a wrong branding. Empathy here is not just in answering those questions, but having set up your unique brand story so evidently that customers fill up the blanks for you. They recognize, so you vocalize. 

Sophia Amoruso is the Founder of Nasty Gal, an international women’s fashion retailer, and the author of #GirlBoss. During her initial days of running a vintage fashion store on eBay, she was just building the story for her business and wondered what could make more people bid for the looks she was putting up online. She quotes,  “What made me successful wasn’t necessarily what I sold but how I sold it. Instead of spending my time trolling the forums and obsessing about what other sellers were doing, I focused on making my stories as unique as possible. My customers responded—they were willing to pay more at Nasty Gal Vintage than they were at other stores.”

So, the next time you have yourself thinking  (or anyone tell you) that empathy is all about showing up to customers and hearing them talk, stop right there and recall:

– you don’t have to agree with them on everything 

– you always got to keep the problem at the core 

– you need to acknowledge, not let your mind voice speak 

– you need to let customers see what you see without fooling them

– you should not let product ego shine anywhere

– you could have your unique story do the talk

That’s it! Not too much to try and see, right?