Understanding the Heart of the Customer
Empathy is a skill. And as I have written before, it is required to innovate. Because while good product managers pair practical thinking with imagination and creativity, the best ones also feel customer pain deeply. When you connect with customers beyond a superficial level, you can uncover hopes, desires, and challenges.
As a product manager, you have been told to "capture the voice of the customer" — but that probably is not enough, is it?
The phrase "voice of the customer" is omnipresent in technology circles. There are even entire companies that position around this. It describes the process of gathering feedback and identifying customer preferences. But great product and company builders do more than just listen to voices. They have conversations and share meaningful experiences with the people they serve.
Most of us would agree that having empathy for customers is a key to success. But few of us do it really well. I do not think this is due to lack of effort. It is just really hard and takes dedicated effort over time. This is why we recently launched Aha! Ideas — which helps you crowdsource feedback, directly engage your community, and understand exactly what they want.
We feel responsible for helping people move from just capturing the voice of the customer to understanding the heart of the customer.
We realized that simply capturing ideas does not necessarily mean you feel the pain behind the request. This is because the communication is asynchronous. Ideas are collected, responses are shared — you need to open up to real-time human interactions to go deeper.
Depending on your customer base, you may need to draw from a bag of different tricks to achieve this in different ways:
Capturing customer feedback alone is not enough — but it is a fundamental requirement for empathy at scale. Give customers a central place to share, comment, and vote on ideas. Even if you do not use a purpose-built tool like Aha! Ideas, you need a consistent method for intaking feedback. An effective idea management process requires that you:
Review every idea. The Aha! product team gets 20–30 customer requests for new or improved functionality each week and we review every single one. Gathering feedback in our ideas portal lets us evaluate the complete picture of all ideas and integrate feedback into our product planning.
Categorize by type and status. Thousands of ideas can get disorganized quickly. Group them by categories and add status labels to make sorting and reporting easier. This also allows you to spot trends in the ideas — a challenging task if you do not have these requests stored in one tool.
Close the feedback loop. Respond to customers. Even when you have to say no to their idea. Being transparent about the reason behind your decisions and showing gratitude for their input increases the likelihood that they will participate again in the future.
Schedule empathy sessions
Gather folks together who have requested, commented, or voted on a particular idea. We created empathy sessions to do this. They are essentially live, chat-based discussions, like virtual focus groups — quick to set up and tailored to the folks who will care most. Successful sessions benefit from the following:
Create a discussion guide. Prepare questions in advance that you will ask during the conversation. Even if the discussion meanders, you will be ready to refocus on the most important topics.
Get to the root of the problem. Ask follow-up questions to get the full story. Do not be so zeroed in on your agenda that you forget to be curious.
Capture compelling answers. Live chat moves fast. Save your discussion so you can revisit learnings later. You can also star any comments you want to reexamine or share with stakeholders.
Poll for clarity
A quick poll is a great way to gauge interest — it pushes folks to make a choice between options and lets you see if there is a clear winner. Polls are most valuable when you:
Start with a hypothesis. Before creating your poll, have a purpose in mind — something you want to uncover, confirm, or disprove. This helps establish the "why."
Avoid combining questions. Keep each poll succinct and distilled to its essence. For answer options, do not leave room for ambiguity. Think about "yes" or "no" answers or questions that can be understood with specific metrics. No "maybes."
Give space for deeper answers. In empathy sessions, for example, you can ask folks to follow up their poll response with an open-ended explanation.
Gather in-app community feedback
One of the best times to get accurate feedback from customers is right when they are using the product. Embedding a feedback widget in your web application allows customers to share their reactions in real-time. Be sure to:
Keep instructions short. Prompt customers with a sentence or two — focus on the functionality you want them to weigh in on.
Collaborate. The community-based approach of the widget included in Ideas Advanced lets customers interact directly with your team and with each other. Add emojis, reply within the widget, and ask for follow-up details to enrich the experience.
Give customers multiple ways to provide feedback and you will hear from more of them — ultimately helping you better understand their challenges (and how you can solve them).
It is really no different than building a relationship with anyone you care about. It takes effort and vulnerability. Engage in a new way and ask customers to speak their truth. (Even when it is hard to hear.) Dig deeper to understand the source of customer pain. And keep asking why, especially as ideas start rolling in.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can empower, engage, and empathize with your own customers, join me for a live event on November 11. I will be sharing my perspective on how you can bring these principles into your own work — no matter what your role is.
How can you hear your customers more clearly?
Ready to try Aha! Ideas? Start a free 30-day trial.