How product managers can empathize with customers and colleagues in five steps
You’ve heard it before, product managers need empathy. One way we talk about empathy in our role is “walking in the customers’ shoes,” meaning that we understand the customer, the problem they need solved, or the job they want done. Indeed, product managers who use empathy wisely are more likely to gain customer insights that others miss, leading to products that create more value than competitors and products that customers love.
Clearly, empathy is important, but not all product managers have gained this skill, and others are not using it correctly.
Our guest, Rob Volpe, will help us use empathy better. He is the CEO of Ignite 360, a consumer insight firm, and a self-proclaimed Empathy Activist. He uses his years of experience in marketing research and promotions to help organizations launch and position better products, including at Kraft Foods, Wild Planet Toys, Pepsi, Sprint, Target, Pinkberry, and many others.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:37] What does empathy mean and why is it important to product managers?
Empathy is the ability to see the point of view of another person. That’s important for product managers because if you’re creating a product, you need to understand your customers, how your customers view the world, and how your product is going to solve a problem or do a job for them.
Some people are afraid of empathy because it’s an “E” word like emotion, and they’re afraid of their emotions. It’s important to know that there are different types of empathy. The type that’s relevant for innovation and product management is cognitive empathy, which means seeing another person’s point of view. It’s not about feeling their feelings; it stays in the head. Cognitive empathy doesn’t mean sacrificing your belief; it’s just recognizing another way of seeing the world.
Affective empathy means having deep emotion, and that can be harder for people to control. Cognitive empathy still includes an emotional component—it’s still below the surface—but affective empathy is deeper. The trick is to marry cognitive empathy and affective empathy. This combination of the head and the heart can create conviction. Empathy helps us understand a problem so we can solve it.
[9:07] Tell us about your system, Ignite 360, with five steps to empathy.
We created the five steps because we were seeing empathetic failure in our work. Everyone wants empathy, and everyone is born with the trait of empathy, but empathy is in decline, like a muscle that’s atrophied. We need to exercise and focus our empathy. The five steps explain what it takes to get empathy.
[12:47] Step 1: Dismantling Judgement
Judgement is made up of our biases, stereotypes, and limited experiences. Passing judgement on others is a brick wall you’ll keep running into until you’re aware that you have it. Just recognizing that you have judgement helps.
Example of dismantling judgement: I working with a client to talk with customers about food products in convenience stores. One respondent talked about how his brother would take home a pizza from the convenience store and get a second pizza to eat on the way home. Later, my client told me that he felt judgement and was having trouble listening because that seemed crazy to him, but he decided to drop his judgement and then was able to listen and understand.
[16:52] Step 2: Asking Good Questions
Good questions are exploratory and open rather than closed. Good questions are important in innovation because you don’t know the story someone will tell you; you need to be open and hear what they’re saying.
Example of asking good questions: I was interviewing people about soup, and one respondent kept referencing his nephew who had recently passed away. I asked the open question, “Tell me about your nephew,” and we spent 45 minutes having a conversation much richer than we would have just talking about soup.
[19:45] Step 3: Active Listening
Active listening is not just what you hear with your ears; it’s what you experience with all your senses, including your sixth sense of intuition. It means paying attention and being present in the moment with somebody else.
Example of active listening: When I was talking to the man about his nephew, I could feel the nephew’s presence in the room because my intuition was at work.
When you’re doing an in-home interview, observe everything in the room. In a conversation, even over Zoom, notice body language and nonverbal cues. Bringing a second person with you to take notes helps you catch all the nonverbal observations. Debrief with that person afterward and talk about what you each noticed.
[27:33] Step 4: Integrating into Understanding
Integrating into understanding means reconciling others’ beliefs to your beliefs. It goes beyond dismantling judgement to making room for other perspectives, including customers’ perspectives.
Example of integrating into understanding: When Chobani and Fage came out with Greek yogurt, one of our clients could not understand why someone would pay more than a dollar for a cup of yogurt. That belief was preventing them from having empathy. They had to make room for another perspective and understand that some people choose to spend more money on certain products, in this case yogurt at Whole Foods. If we were going to create a successful product at Whole Foods, we had to understand that our customer was looking for a whole different premium product.
[32:04] Step 5: Using Solution Imagination
Solution imagination is imagining yourself as another person. A common mistake that product managers make is only thinking about their customer in the moment of purchase or use of the product; instead consider the 360 view of them as a person.
Example of using solution imagination: Continuing the Whole Foods example, you need to understand the role of Whole Foods in the customer’s life, their beliefs, and their priorities. Get into their mindset and take their perspective.
Action Guide: Put the information Rob shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Check out Ignite 360’s website
- Visit Ignite 360’s blog
- Connect with Rob on LinkedIn
- Rob’s book Everyday Americans—see Rob’s website for more info when the book becomes available
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” – Henry Ford
“Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.” – Jonas Salk
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.