Learning to Listen to Customer Needs

by Aug 26, 2021

When you set out to put customers at the center of your business, your first task is to understand customer needs. You can’t do that by sitting in a room and simply thinking through what their needs might be or should be, based on your own experiences. Instead, you have to get out in the world and talk to customers. In this way, you can develop skills in getting customers to reveal their needs and learn to let go of your own assumptions, misconceptions, and stereotypes. To build a truly human-centered enterprise, you have to allow customer feedback and perception to shape the value proposition of your product.

Remember that the first step in finding product market fit is to establish desirability: to ensure that your idea provides value to the customer. Understanding the need from a potential customer’s perspective helps you better design a product or service for them. Over time, you’ll continue to test desirability in iterative cycles. Customer relationships and communication are essential to that process.

people shaking hands and smiling

So you’ve got to get out into the world, meet customers where they are at, and learn from them. You have to talk to people—and more importantly, listen to them. To do this well, you’ll need to develop your people skills and your empathy.

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about emotional empathy in the sense of “feeling all the feels.” Instead, we mean cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is the act of making space in your brain to see things from other points of view.

Doing this empathy work helps with initial customer validation and acquisition. First, you’re validating that customers want the product you’re developing. Second, you’re acquiring a core group of first customers. They’re so desperate for your solution that they’ll pay you for it—bugs and all—just to solve their problem. These “early-vangelists” can help spread the benefits of your product. Of course, the more customers you acquire, the more you’ve validated your offer.

Three Steps to Develop Empathy

1. Engage: Talk to people; not just any people, but the right people. Whenever possible, select people you believe can offer you valuable insights. Seek out potential customers, experts, and others who will be frank and honest. Making appointments ahead of time helps ensure that interviewees are prepared and willing to share their insights. Choose a place the interviewee feels comfortable. You can also do intercept/person-on-the-street interviews. These can reveal some surprising perspectives—when people are willing to stop and speak with you, that is.

2. Observe: What people say, what people do, and what people say they do may be entirely different things. While people are talking, watch what they are doing and what their body language communicates. You may have to infer hidden needs. People aren’t going to tell you what they need, so you need to make guesses about their needs based not only on what they say, but by what they do. Does the person lean forward with excitement? Cross their arms defensively? Yawn and check their watch?

3. Immerse: Do what they do.  To get a better sense of what it feels like to be your customer or interviewee, do what they do. This can be as simple as downloading an app they mentioned and trying it yourself, or as detailed as shadowing them during their daily routines. You can also go to places where potential customers congregate, observe what they are doing, and try it yourself. This “place” may be online.

Interview Tips

You’re interviewing to collect data, but also to challenge assumptions you may have about your product and to mitigate risk for your venture. When the feedback isn’t glowing, take heart. You may have just avoided disaster! Use that feedback to construct a new vision.

Here are some tips for conducting an interview.

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Spend more time listening than talking.
  • Regularly follow up answers with “Why?” to get more detail.
  • Ask for specific examples and stories.
  • Approach with a beginner’s mind. Be unusually curious and engaged.
  • When someone doesn’t respond right away, stay quiet. Don’t offer multiple-choice answers to “help.” That’s leading the witness! Silence is okay. Just wait a bit. Eventually you’ll get the answers you need.

Again, customers are generally not great at discussing their needs. They are much better at telling you what they like and don’t like about a product. Listen closely to what customers say, repeat statements back to customers to ensure understanding, and ask additional probing questions. Show customers that their time and feedback are important to you. Create a welcoming environment for the interview and don’t rush them through questions.

After the interview, examine your notes for trends, common themes, and contradictions to further explore. Remember, feedback is a gift, not a demand. You will need to sift through the customer insights and analyze them to pull out the actionable items. We’ll talk more about how to do that in our next post. But in the meantime, ask yourself: based on this feedback and what I now know about my customers’ needs, what changes to my product will increase its desirability? 

Go Deeper
Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love by Jon Kolko
Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want by Alexander Osterwalder

Related Posts
Customer Development, Part 1
Customer Development, Part 2