Wanted: Product Manager With Superb Listening Skills
February 23, 2021

Wanted: Product Manager With Superb Listening Skills

by Brian de Haaff

Product managers can learn a lot from rats. Let me explain. In a recent study, researchers delivered a mild shock to rats while another group of rodents watched. Amazingly, the rats who were observing showed brain activity as if they had experienced the pain themselves. This ability to empathize with the suffering of others is extremely valuable — especially for product managers trying to understand exactly how to help customers.

Empathy is how you listen deeply enough to your customers that you actually feel their pain as your own.

You have lots of opportunities to engage with customers. You have ideas portals so you can collect feedback directly from users. Then there are surveys, polls, support requests, social media comments, user forums, forwarded messages from customer-facing teams... just to name a few. Although managing and reviewing it all requires a meaningful investment of time, it is always worthwhile to learn more about the customer experience.

Because listening to feedback is not enough. You need to strive for genuine understanding. This is where empathy comes in. When you are able to internalize your customers' joys and struggles, it is easier to pinpoint what they truly need. But it is difficult to develop empathy unless you have lived the same experience as your customers or spent meaningful time with them. That is not likely for most product managers. And you might not even be able to use the product you are building for others.

The first step to becoming more empathetic is to actually talk to your customers. It sounds obvious, but it is shocking how rarely most product managers do. Instead they rely on secondhand (or even thirdhand) comments from the sales or customer success teams. Even survey and poll results, which come directly from users, require you to interpret and decipher. These methods do not allow for direct, personal engagement.

This is why we created empathy sessions and in-app community feedback as part of Aha! Ideas Advanced — reciprocal interactions are key to deeply understanding customers.

The technology listed above allows you to directly interact with customers. It is an efficient way to meet customers where they are and engage in meaningful dialogue.

Speaking with customers is essential. But still a bit more is needed. You also need to boost your active listening skills to truly hear and internalize what they are saying. Since it is unlikely that you can spend hours and hours with each customer, you have to make the most of the time you have together. Most folks do not know how to articulate exactly what they need, so it is your job to listen beyond the words. This is how you deliver a solution that will delight them.

Building a deeper relationship is an ongoing journey. Here are eight steps to take the next time you are speaking with customers to gain more empathy:


Have you ever needed something from someone who was clearly distracted? It is frustrating at best, demoralizing at worst. Giving your full attention signals respect and commitment. You want to communicate that you care about what the customer is saying. So avoid multitasking. Whether you are meeting in person or over video, show that you are listening by making eye contact and nodding your head occasionally.


You are the product expert. And you are constantly working to make it better. But do not let your passion for what you are building undermine your humility. Recognize that you do not know everything about how other people use your product or how they want to use it either. While you likely have hypotheses and assumptions, accept that people will have differing opinions and even use cases. An easy way to practice this is to be an observer — listen and watch more than you speak.


It is tempting to dive into problem-solving mode. But rushing does not help you uncover the true need. So take a beat. Before thinking through what you will say (or actually replying), stop to digest what you just heard. This grounds you in the present and reminds you to appreciate the gift of feedback. Users are taking time to share their thoughts with you — enjoy the opportunity to learn more about their unique challenges.


Follow-up questions are key to deepening your understanding. Many product managers like to ask "why" questions multiple times to get at what functionality could help. But I believe that simply leading with curiosity is a more fruitful approach. Ask questions beyond the actions in the product to keep the dialogue going. If you are shadowing a customer, inquire about their life beyond the moments they use your product. Aspire to know them fully.


Empathy requires imagination. You have the ability to contemplate and grasp an experience outside your own. Go beyond the initial problem your customer shares to discover their core motivations. What are they trying to accomplish? How does your product help them do this? What features do they need to achieve their goals? If you get stuck, it helps to label what you think they are expressing — such as confusion, aggravation, satisfaction, or joy. Let them correct you if you are wrong.


Vulnerability invites connection. Sharing your pain takes courage, but it is vital for creating a relationship based on reciprocity. If you have experienced a similar problem to the one your customer is describing, say so. If many other users have given the same criticism of your product, acknowledge that something is not quite right. You cannot improve unless you are honest about what you need to fix.


Now it is time to test your comprehension. Paraphrase your customer's comments back to them, then pay close attention to how they respond. They might expand upon what you said, add a clarification, or indicate that you did not quite understand. If they are still not sure how to articulate what they need, listen for any goal-related words they use — such as objective, need, want, result, outcome, and solution. If you are using a chat-based tool like an empathy session, you can star these messages for further reflection.


After speaking to lots of people, you will eventually spot patterns. Take note of recurring themes and weigh them against your company and product strategy. Backing up your decisions with data helps you determine how to best provide a long-term solution. This might mean prioritizing an enhancement, publishing a new help article, or kindly explaining to the customer why your answer is "no" or "not right now."

You are your customers' best advocate — you need to empathize with their pain in order to build a product they love.

Remember that all feedback reflects a single moment in time. Continue to speak with customers regularly and work hard to understand what they need as your product evolves. Your work as a product manager hinges on helping people.

Building is a privilege. And so is interacting with your users. There is real joy in making a positive impact on people's day-to-day. You have the greatest chance to do so if you cultivate meaningful relationships with others and work hard to understand them.

How do you develop empathy for your customers?

Build better products with Aha! Roadmaps — sign up for a free 30-day trial.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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