Nov 15, 2010

Empathy - who has it?

In the recently concluded Product Manager's Conclave event at IIM, Bangalore, there was a panel discussion on qualities required in a product manager. One specific quality that really made a lot of sense was "Empathy towards customers". However, I'm still not sure how an interviewer gets to validate this quality during an interview for a product management opening.

As a product manager, we interact with customers and try to understand their current problems. If more customers complain of a certain problem, we give a higher priority towards solving it. Nothing new, it's just the basic driver of prioritization. But I believe the quality of empathizing with your customers is not just restricted towards product managers. Everyone in the organization needs to have this quality. I've been reading this book - Linchpin by Seth Godin and he talks about a powerful concept called Emotional Labor. A line that Seth highlights is that "In most jobs that involve a customer, you are getting paid only to do emotional labor". Aren't emotions the key differentiating factor between humans and machines? In an era where every task is getting to a programmable status, emotional quotient (EQ) can become the sole savior, in my opinion.

Talking about empathy and how every individual is expected to have this quality to make a difference to a customer, a product manager can take the lead in enabling other team members embrace this quality. A few ideas which you can explore:

When you communicate the product requirements to the design and development teams, ensure you first talk about the customer pain points and how their current alternatives are creating problems leading to certain negative outcomes - manual effort, loss of time, dependency on other third parties etc.

The same also needs to be communicated to the QA teams as well. Going over the requirements and possible test scenarios come in later. For every product requirement, provide a clear background on why it is important for the customer.

It would also be better if you can take along a developer or a designer during your customer visits. They get to experience a slice of the customer's problems in person which would help a great deal in designing the right solution.

If you have other ideas related to this topic, please comment.

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