Walk a mile in your customers’ shoes

8 minute read

A man in tribal costume
cameraPhoto by Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев on Unsplash


One of the common pitfalls that I see start-up founders falling into is liking their solution more than the problem it solves. This has many unfortunate consequences, one of which being that it becomes almost impossible to analyse the situation from the customer’s point of view. This, in turn, can lead to missed opportunities and bad decisions.

One way of preventing this from happening is to personify your customer. Create an empathy map that describes them and use this as the basis for discussion of they problems they face and the value your solution might provide. This post shows you how.

Growing pains

Some of the Value Proposition (VP) Sessions I have facilitated recently have made me realise that a significant number of founders are approaching the process from the wrong perspective.

It’s completely understandable that an entrepreneur would be deeply immersed in thinking about their business solution and how it can be brought to life. The problem comes when they become more interested in the solution than the problem. This point of view encourages them to consider the jobs, pains and gains they are addressing from their own point of view and not from the customers’ point of view. This, in turn, can result in misleading insights.

As a facilitator it’s really important to keep reminding founders that the problem they are solving is the most important issue and not the features of the solution that they want to implement. Thinking like the customer can help founders turn what might seem to be a pain for them into a gain for the customer.

As an example, I have been working with a startup that wants to help farmers manage their crops by combining images with intelligence to improve the planning, inspection and lifecycle of those crops. As we progressed through the VP Session the founder expressed the opinion that a potential problem for his solution was that, by using it, farmers would spend more time away from their desks.

He felt that he would be putting a burden on farmers because they would feel pressure to spend more time out and about on the farm managing the practical aspects of their business.

It occurred to me that, far from being a pain, this would be a positive gain for the farmer. Most people get into farming because of a love of the land and a feeling of familiarity with their crops and the business of nurturing them. It is only my opinion, but having known a farmer or two I felt that many farmers would like nothing better than to be freed from their desks to spend more time doing what they love.

What felt like a pain for the founder - that farmers would feel pressure to spend more time outside - could then be turned into a gain: ‘Free yourself from the desk and spend more time on the farm doing what you know best’

This is a simple but representative example of the kind of advantage that can be missed if you approach these sessions with your solution too much at the front of your mind.

So, how do we avoid missing opportunities by being stuck in the wrong mindset?

Think like a customer to create a successful business

I’m making a brave claim here, but I believe that the best businesses achieve their success by always being aware of what the customer actually wants. In other words, they always think like a customer.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to be a successful business by being in the right place at the right time. It’s also possible to solve a really expensive problem with a poor solution which is, nonetheless, preferable to continuing to experience the problem. Such circumstances are, however, few and far between.

To give you an idea how few and far between these circumstances are I’d like to share some statistics. I recently discovered nugget.io and as part of the joining process the site owner shared a video with me. The following statistics come from that video.

Every year, 2 million US Teams seek Venture Capital funding (disclaimer: the source of this data is said to be David S. Rose of Rose Tech Ventures but I couldn’t find the original reference). Of these 2m companies, 1.5K get funded by VCs and 50k by Angels. This means that 1.95 million teams give up: 97% of those US teams that sought funding didn’t get it.

In addition to this, a study by Harvard Business School found that 75% of startups that succeeded in raising funds will fail. Combining a 3% chance of getting funding with a 25% chance of succeeding if you get it gives an overall chance of success of 0.7%

According to Y Combinator by 2018 42k startups applied to their programme, 3% (1,280) were accepted, 85% were operational and 2.55% were in their ‘funnel’. The overall failure rate for Y Combinator startups is 97.45%

In the face of these odds, I would suggest that anything you can do to increase your chances is worth trying!

Who are you?

How, then, do we put our heads in the right space for a VP session?

If you want to be in the best possible position then the best place to start is with user and customer research. This means talking to real people! The distinction between users and customers is that customers pay for the solution, whereas users do not.

The motivation for this kind of research is to identify the problem that the user/customer is experiencing, and which your solution addresses. In order to do this we need to study people in their cultural and social contexts. We want to understand how they behave and why. This is very different from gathering their opinions. One of the benefits of this approach is that it allows you to create a ‘design target’ that represents the needs of your users when making decisions. We call these design targets personas.

A persona is a composite archetype, constructed from conversations with real people, that represents the wants and needs of the customer. When creating these personas we need to consider the context in which the user/customer operates. This context consists of the following primary areas:

  • Physical environment - Are they at home, in the office, on a train or on a building site? Who is around them? Are they subject to distraction or interruption? Their needs will differ greatly depending upon these factors.
  • Mental model - What is their internal understanding of their context? How closely does their interior reality match what is around them? How much do they rely on their mental model of the world and the metaphors that allow them to interpret it with ease? How much novelty is too much?
  • Habits - An effective way to predict future behaviour is to look at past behaviour. People develop physical and mental habits to manage their working life. It’s going to be much easier to get them to use a product if it hooks into the way they already understand and do things than by getting them to change.
  • Relationships - “No man is an island, Entire of itself”. (Apologies to women everywhere, but this was written 400 years ago). The vast majority of us interact with others to a greater or lesser extent in our daily lives. Understanding these interactions and relationships gives us a much fuller picture of our user/customer.

In creating this persona we’re trying to go beyond a customer’s demographic characteristics and develop a better understanding of their environment, behaviour, concerns and aspirations. Ultimately, we want to better understand what the customer is actually willing to pay for.

A good place to start is with an Empathy Map. Think of an Empathy Map as a ‘really simple customer profiler’.

Empathy Map
Figure 1: Empathy Map (downloadable from Gamestorming)

It consists of several sections:

  • Who are we empathising with? - Who is this person? What is her job description? What role does she fulfill?
  • What do they need to do? - What responsibilities does she have? What decisions does she take? What needs to be done better?
  • What do they see? - Describe what the customer sees in her environment. What does it look like? What’s around her? Who are her friends/colleagues? What problems does she face?
  • What do they say? - How might she behave in public? What is her attitude? What could she be saying to others?
  • What do they do? - How might she behave in public? What is her attitude? What could she be saying to others?
  • What do they hear? - Describe how the environment influences the customer. Who and what are influential in forming her opinions?
  • What do they think and feel? - Have a go at describing what’s going on in her mind. What is really important (that might not be said publicly for a variety of reasons). What moves her? What might cause stress or keep her up at night?
  • What is the customer’s pain? - What are her biggest frustrations? What obstacles prevent her from achieving her goals?
  • What does the customer gain? - How might she measure success? How might she achieve her goals?

So how do you get the answers to these questions? You can start by brainstorming all the possible Customer Segments you might want to serve. Choose 3 promising candidates and select one for your profiling exercise.

Give the customer a name and demographic, characteristics like income, family status, hobbies etc. and then start answering the questions from above.

Once you’ve created the empathy map for your target customer(s) print them out and share them around before coming into the VP session. Think like them and you might just have a better chance of making them into a real customer.

Remember that simply thinking about it is just a starting point. For your persona/empathy map to be truly useful you need to validate it, and that means getting out into the real world and talking to people.

I’ll be telling you more about why and how to do that in a future post.

The take-away

There are two key principles that founders must keep in mind:

Love the problem, not the solution


Only your customers have the answers

Create a persona/empathy map as a way of making your customers real and of creating common understanding among your team. Use these empathy maps as the foundation of your Value Proposition sessions.

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