by Mike Kendall
Date Published March 30, 2020 - Last Updated September 2, 2020

This article was first published on our partner site,, as How to Deeply Understand Customer Pain .

Understanding the pain of your customer is the beginning of good design. Spending time observing, empathizing, and experiencing customer problems is foundational. Take for example, when we embedded a software product manager (PM) into a client office as a temporary employee for a week. The PM was able to observe and experience, first-hand how her product worked (and didn’t). The depth of insight and empathy was visceral. No survey or face to face interview could provide such deep learning. Happily, several new product features and improvements resulted.

Let’s take a look at four critical ways you and your team can deeply understand customer problems and pain so that you can design awesome products and experiences.

Assume You Are Wrong

For years you have practiced your craft, learned the industry, and driven positive business results. You were hired or promoted because of your successful track record. You know your industry and what makes it tick. Unfortunately, customers don’t care much about our positive track records.

Today’s customers have become extremely unpredictable. They quickly adopt new solutions and change their minds on a dime. During my years in the finance industry, we often considered our primary competition as coming from banks and financial service firms. Competition is more likely coming from Apple, Google, Amazon, and other non-bank disruptors, however. The emerging competitive threat is from companies reinventing service, ecosystems, and breaking down barriers to entry. It is very likely that customers expect things from your firm, based on their experience in completely different industries.

Take for example the auto industry. Technology in most vehicles is far behind what consumers are holding in their hands today. It is rare to find an interactive touch screen, 4G Internet, or high-resolution graphics in modern vehicles. Each customer interaction with their car or truck creates an underlying annoyance; the gap between what they know is possible and what they must endure. This frustration does little to enhance the manufacturer’s brand or build customer affection.

In my experience, greater than eighty percent of new product and service offerings miss the mark with customers because leaders assumed they understood the market. One of the most customer-centric leaders I know frequently asked “How do you know? What is your validated customer learning?” If your team is not asking these questions regularly, before making decisions that impact customers, your assumptions are probably wrong. These “shadow beliefs” have served us well in the past. The may now be our worst enemy. Call out these assumptions. Seek objective evidence that customers love your ideas before building a solution.

Become an Observer

The CEO of a large consumer products company once said: “Nothing good happens in a board room or on a whiteboard.” Hyperbole? Maybe, but if customers weren’t in that board room or at the whiteboard, chances are the decisions being made were off target. One of the best ways to truly understand a customer problem and experience their pain is through intentional observation.

Years ago, when Japanese companies were developing Lean methodologies, they seized on this concept. Genchi Genbutsu (also known as Gemba) is the practice of going and seeing. Go to the actual place where things occur. Witness what is really happening. Meetings, conference calls, and consultants cannot substitute for decision makers observing struggling customers.

At a large insurance company, we paired members of the C-Suite with front-line service reps. After a debrief from the reps, the executives set off to sit side-by-side in the call center. They witnessed the numerous screens required to answer simple customer questions. They experienced the stress and tension reps endured while attempting to help people in emotionally charged situations. They also heard first-hand from reps about their many suggestions to improve the experience. The emotional impact and level of detailed insight gained by seeing the work first-hand provided leaders with a valuable understanding of the customer and rep pain.

One medical supply firm asked its customers to use smart phones to film “a day in their life” while using the company’s products. Videos were shared widely across the company. This led to several surprising insights about packaging and waste. This led to significant improvements (not to mention goodwill with customers).

Seek Deep Empathy

If you went to business school, you probably didn't take a class on emotion. You were probably taught to downplay your feelings. The problem is, most customers (even B2B) let emotion play a significant role in purchase, use, and recommendation decisions. Without deeply understanding the emotion your customers are feeling, you will be unable to design and deliver a delightful customer experience. To fall in love with the problem, you must experience empathy for your customer at the emotional level. Here are a few key points about empathy.

Feel Customer Pain

One approach to experiencing customer pain is a well-designed Empathy Interview. Start by confirming what you believe the problem to be. Draft several customer interview questions that will enable you to get at the heart of the problem and emotions. It is best to keep the audience small: 1 customer and two company reps. Start the interview by building rapport and putting your customer at ease. For example, a software company invited customers to a hotel ballroom after work for snacks and adult beverages. After getting to know each other, they moved to a quiet space and began the interviews. One potential customer had recently moved to The States to be with her boyfriend. She started her own business and was anxious about using their software for fear that it might jeopardize her immigration status. This was a new insight to the product manager and helped influence a redesigned marketing messaging and in-product confidence features.


Sometimes, a different way of thinking about a problem yields a new insight. Developing a story or metaphor that evokes a similar problem may help your team. It enables a deeper understanding of the pain and helps develop creative solutions. At a financial services company, one team was struggling to solve data quality issues. They found inconsistent quality checking was the cause. A similar situation was discovered in assembling new automobiles. If sensors in torque wrenches were not functioning correctly as wheels were being installed, alignment and safety problems could result. The team learned about how this manufacturer built error-proofing into the process, rapidly identify problems with wrenches. This metaphor helped the team develop a similar early detection solution for their service process.

I worked with another company that wanted to solve a problem with onboarding new customers. Their Net Promoter Score (NPS) (a measure of customer loyalty) was significantly lower for first-year customers. They developed a metaphor comparing the situation to a new marriage. Couples go through a process of courtship, engagement, a wedding, honeymoon, and learning to get along together. They found that new customers also went through a similar journey learning about and using the company’s product. This metaphor helped them identify pain points in specific journey steps. Upon implementation, they saw a substantial improvement in NPS and subsequent customer retention and revenue.

Analogous Experiences

It is one thing to study and understand customer emotion but entirely different actually to experience it. Pushing a team to get out of its comfort zone and actually experience customer emotion can lead to significant breakthroughs.

For example, I worked with a team that was trying to understand the emotion long-time corporate professionals experienced when quitting their jobs to start a small business. The team realized that leaving behind the relative security of a salary, benefits, and career growth was traumatic. Experiencing that emotion would help the team better design products for these business owners. They brainstormed some things that made team members personally uncomfortable. This resulted in team members going to ride roller coasters, shopping for their spouses, and asking skateboarders in a park if they would be willing to be sketched and subsequently purchase the sketch. Debriefing on the emotions experienced helped the team get a better understanding of their target customers and how to best solve for them.

Walk a Mile

Becoming a customer of your offering or experience can provide more in-depth understanding than observation. Finding ways to immerse yourself in the actual pain of your customer and attempting to overcome it will provide amazing insights. At one tech company, the senior leaders were challenged to purchase, install, set-up, and start using their company’s enterprise software just like customers do. They did it together in the same room. What they had believed to be a best-in-class ease of use experience was much more complicated. If your customers are businesses, volunteer to work as an employee in their firm. Capture the problems and emotions you experience and share them with your team.

Getting Started

We all tend to move from problem identification to a solution quickly. Do your best to resist the urge. Work together with a small team to deeply understand your customer. Gain deep empathy for their problems at an emotional level before discussing solutions. Suspend judgment and assume whatever you are currently thinking is most likely fully or partially wrong. Don’t make any decisions to move forward until you have captured validated customer learning. You do this through observation, gaining empathy, and walking in the customers’ shoes. Once you’ve successfully nailed the problem, then begin identifying what must be true to solve that problem (Leap of Faith Assumptions). Develop solution hypotheses, and run experiments to see how well your solutions solve the problem. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Great design can be a messy process.

Mike Kendall is a global customer experience, design, and innovation leader and speaker creating world-class customer loyalty, innovation, and engagement across multiple industries. In addition to founding The Customer Lab, Mike served as Director of Customer Experience at Capital One, co-founded Humana’s award-winning FastStart Lean CX Innovation Lab, Led Customer Experience at Intuit and was one of the early Intuit Innovation Catalysts. Mike also holds a Net Promoter Certification, is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and served as a Senior Baldrige Performance Excellence Program Examiner.
Tag(s): supportworld, coronavirus, customer experience, customer service


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