Influencing the Product Roadmap, Part Two: Customer Empathy

As product marketers, we can move from tactical roadmap executors to strategic roadmap influencers by carrying out the most important role we have: acting as the voice of the customer. Understanding what customers need, how our existing solution can meet those needs, and where there are gaps can inform changes in pricing, positioning, messaging, and the product. 

The answer: talk to customers. You don’t have to spend too long in product management and product marketing to see that the phrase is firmly embedded in tech lexicon. The father of lean startup strategy, Steve Blank, said that “the first thing an entrepreneur should do is get outside the building and start talking to prospective customers. There are no facts inside the building.” Speaking with customers illuminates the real market motivators behind purchasing a product—not your assumptions of what people want.

The actual task of talking to customers, however, can be nebulous. Done incorrectly, it can become a deceptive validator for your own assumptions about the value you deliver. You can quickly fall into the trap of asking questions and cherry-picking fragments from a conversation that justify a hypothesis about your product, the value it provides, and the needs of your audience. To understand their real needs, ask open-ended questions and listen empathically. Ask questions that matter.

When I was in the product management team at an enterprise infrastructure startup that offered disaster recovery solutions, the product team made the assumption that my customers care about reducing costs—in every instance. We bridged connections between a few aphorisms that floated internally, such as “CIOs in our segment care about reducing their total cost of ownership, nothing else.” After scheduling in-person visits and interviews, it was clear that our prospective customers were more than willing to pay for a solution if it can reduce management time and downtime. Cost wasn’t their biggest challenge. Free time and data availability was. 

Often, their core needs are simple: the need for more free time, the need to reduce costs, the need to reduce risk. Revealing these underlying needs are more difficult. Discover underlying needs by understanding what success looks like. Ask them: “How do you know if your team has succeeded and you’ve succeeded in your role?”

The more you can understand the core underlying needs of a customer, the more you deliver and market a core benefit, not a list of features. Benefits, not features, tap into the emotional and underlying aspect of a purchase, rather than the one at the surface. You’re likely not buying a pair of sneakers just for their specifications: a nylon-based neon exterior and 99% wool insoles. You’re buying them to make a fashion statement and feel comfortable. You’re buying them to look and feel good. Having genuine empathy can bring these motivators to the surface.

In the beginning of the 2008 historical film, Jodhaa Akbar, a prolific Mughal emperor marries a strong-willed Jodhaa to ensure a peaceful alliance between the larger Mughal empire and the Rajput kingdom. The rest of the story, however, is the process in which the Mughal emperor learns to truly love both Jodhaa and the kingdom he oversees. Jodhaa makes it clear to her husband, the emperor, that while he may have conquered both her and the land, he is not a true ruler.  

“You are far removed from reality. You do not know how to win hearts”, Jodhaa explains. “To do that, you need to look into their minds, discover their little pleasures and sorrows. And win their trust. Be one with their heartbeat. And the day you will succeed in doing that, you will rule my heart [and this nation].”  Jodhaa’s dialogue offers key lessons in empathy and truly delivering value to customers. Delivering value is not about contractual agreements or checking off a list of requirements without understanding the more intrinsic motivators of people. Serving as the voice of the customer is not about being a static conduit that relays requirements from outside the company’s walls to internal teams. Serving as the voice of the customer is about having genuine empathy for the customer. It’s understanding the contextual circumstances behind the problems they want to solve. It’s discovering the nuanced emotional drivers and the annoyances they would love to get rid of. It’s not just about listening, but also an exercise in poking through assumptions as well as long-held market and technological traditions. 

Satya Nadella is a profound advocate for having genuine empathy for customers. As the CEO of Microsoft, his emphasis on customer empathy is at the core of the company’s current renaissance and market dominance since 2014. In a conversation with David Rubenstein for Bloomberg, Satya alludes to treating customer focus as more than a PR or brand statement. From the interview, it’s clear that this theme is central to his product and corporate charter. Satya states that “if innovation is about meeting unmet and unarticulated needs of customers,” then the ability to innovate is about truly understanding customer needs and being able to extrapolate insights from their challenges and desires.

In his book, Hit Refresh, Satya provides a tangible example of empathy at work. On a trip to the Bay Area to understand cloud computing requirements from startups, Satya and the Microsoft cloud computing team—the Azure team—placed customer needs above long-held Microsoft traditions. “On one trip to the Bay Area, we met with several startups. It became clear that we needed to support the Linux operating system, and we had already taken some rudimentary steps toward that with Azure. But as [our team] walked out of those meetings that day, it was certain that we needed to make first-class support for Linux in Azure. We made that decision by the time we got to the parking lot.” Using feedback from current and prospective Azure customers, prioritizing Linux support in their cloud computing platform was one among a series of moves Microsoft took under the helm of Nadella of embracing open-source technology, particularly Linux. This is in stark contrast to the historical Microsoft narrative of denouncing and combatting Linux. In a 2001 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Steve Ballmer, Satya’s predecessor, decreed that  “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches”. 

Going from attacks on Linux to a complete embrace of it was a profound move. Here, customer feedback was not an add-on activity intended to validate long-held assumptions, but rather the basis for all governing strategies. Shifting the focus to customers and predicating strategy on empathy has paid off for Microsoft. In April 2019, the company passed $1 trillion, a growth in valuation of more than 230 percent since Satya’s oversight since 2014.

Satya proved that customer empathy has very real implications for business goals. For a behemoth like Microsoft, empathizing with their users allowed them to prioritize where they could deliver significant value. For startups and companies, understanding customer needs and the context behind them is the difference between a company succeeding or failing.

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