While passing through SV at a KPCB event, I had the chance to talk with two KP Product Fellows: Mika Reyes and Alison Schermerhorn. I asked them both what were their key learnings were on the path to being a good PM. They both spoke to the importance of empathy for the customer. This is something I would often hear from Joe Gebbia on Airbnb’s challenges in finding product-market fit:
We used to travel and actually stay with our customers. It was the ultimate enlightened empathy—you were so close to the people you were designing for that it informed you in a way that, you know, an online survey never would. So by being so close to our customers we were able to listen to their needs and then design a product that they loved.
Why is empathy so hard to get right inside a company of any size? I think it has something to do with what John W. Gardner described about the nature of human beings in relation to a leaders’ challenge in rallying forces to action:
You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you, they are thinking about themselves.
Because real people have real lives — and those lives include work as one of the many aspects of their real lives as employees inside an organization.
However, entrepreneurs tend to behave a little differently because their work has usually consumed their entire lives — so it’s often hard for them to understand why others who work for them aren’t doing the same. It’s because many of their employees have … real lives. They have jobs to do and real lives to live. Whereas the founder has made their job into their life, and has entered a reality distortion field of their own making at their peril OR at luckily juuuuust the right time.
Great entrepreneurs are laser-focused on their customers, and you see this not just in Silicon Valley but in the small businesses that dot the entire world. It’s those restaurants or shops that you visit where you feel like paying even more because the service and quality is so outstanding. By growing up in a small business, I got to see this in action during most of my childhood — there wasn’t a single day where my parents were not thinking about our customers’ satisfaction. Because if our customers weren’t satisfied, as a family we weren’t going to get to eat the next day.
So the takeaway from my convo with Mika and Alison was that unless the idea that “survival will require having empathy for customers” can take hold within an organization, it’s hard to get everyone to care for the customer the way that an entrepreneur might be able to feel quite naturally (and necessarily). But nobody likes to live in a state of fear — so the last thing you want to do is to create mass panic.
So what do you instead? Do everything you can to get closer to the customer — and bring as many more of your colleagues along for the ride. Don’t make it about survival — make it about success. Nobody likes to lose. But everyone likes to win. So to win … I’m going back to my customers right after this little blog break. —JM