Building Deep Customer Empathy to Solve Any Problem

At Intuit, each and every employee is expected to think like an entrepreneur, and it’s everyone’s job to create, to invent, and to look for new and better ways to improve our customers’ lives. The way we do that is by turning the individual ability of our founder, Scott Cook, into organizational capabilities meant to

Design for Delight: Customer Empathy
Design for Delight: Customer Empathy

At Intuit, each and every employee is expected to think like an entrepreneur, and it’s everyone’s job to create, to invent, and to look for new and better ways to improve our customers’ lives. The way we do that is by turning the individual ability of our founder, Scott Cook, into organizational capabilities meant to activate all employees.

Design for Delight (D4D) is a series of principles — Deep Customer Empathy, Go Broad to Go Narrow, Rapid Experimentation — which represent how we innovate at Intuit. We apply D4D to ideate bold new ideas, as well as our daily work, continuously delighting our customers as a result. Our goal is to fall in love with the customer’s problem, not a solution.

We connect directly with our customers to gain empathy, focus on bold solutions that provide real benefits, and then quickly test the best solutions with these customers. That’s innovation, and that’s what we do each and every day at Intuit. In this first of three blogs, we’ll explore the first D4D principle: Deep Customer Empathy.

At the heart of D4D is the customer. In the words of our CEO Sasan Goodarzi, “In order to win, we must be far more customer-obsessed.” Deep Customer Empathy creates shared understanding, insights, and motivation to improve the lives of our customers. How do we gain this empathy? By observing people, their behaviors, patterns and environment first-hand, with a keen eye to their pain points and barriers to achieving their goal. 

Here are the four steps to develop Deep Customer Empathy:

1. Customer Follow-Me-Homes

Follow-Me-Homes are a fast and easy way to observe people experiencing the problems and pains we hope to solve in their environment – meeting them where they are. By observing real behavior, we gain insights, empathy, and shared understanding, while avoiding second-hand information and conjecture that might not be accurate. Importantly, we also embrace and savour the surprise. Follow-Me-Homes should take 30-90 minutes per customer.

  • Find real customers (and/or potential customers) who you can “follow home.” Get help from Intuit Studios, reach out to your personal network of friends and family, or simply ask anyone who is your target customer. E.g, imagine a team from QuickBooks Online is interested in learning more about the pains and problems customers experience when sending invoices to their customers.
  • Go to where the customer is experiencing the problem. Visit them in their home (for consumers), office (for small businesses), or anywhere in their natural surroundings.
  • Set the context, observe and ask why, then wrap up and say thank you. Pro-tip: A Follow-Me-Home is not an interview. You want to see real behavior, not just hear talking. Be curious and observe carefully. Ask customers to show you and ask follow-up questions like “Why did you choose to do it that way?” Observe first, ask to show you second, and elicit customer knowledge with objective inquiry third, and in this order.
  • Debrief with your team. Share observations, pain points, and surprises. Do this as soon as possible after the Follow-Me-Home — such as during the car ride back to the office or at a nearby coffee shop.

2. Deep Probing Interviews

Where Follow-Me-Homes help show us what people do, Deep Probing Interviews are a good way to understand why people behave as they do. They’re best when used to understand behaviors that just occurred and elicit their perspectives with inquiry and objectivity. Why did a person just start a trial, recently stop using a product, or cancel a subscription?

Strive to conduct interviews as close as possible to the behavior you wish to learn about. Your goal is to listen and understand the customer’s behavior, not to change their behavior, so don’t give advice or try to sell. These interviews should take 45-60 minutes per customer.

  • Decide what behavior you want to learn more about. E.g., why are customers canceling their subscriptions?
  • Find a source of people right in the moment or right after the moment of that behavior — ideally within minutes or hours. E.g., call phone numbers of customers when they cancel their subscription, or observe in person if possible.
  •  Ask deep probing questions about the behaviors. Bear in mind, the first answers customers provide may not be the real reason or root cause answer. So be prepared to repeat the same or similar questions to help get to the customer’s pains, problems, and goals.

3. Customer Problem Statement

Before we attempt to solve a problem, the most important thing to agree on as a team is the customer problem we’re solving. If we don’t agree on the customer problem, or we see it differently, it is hard for any team to work well. Customer Problem Statements help describe in detail “What is the customer problem?” They help teams align and agree on which problems to solve, and communicate with partners and stakeholders. This is so dang important! As the problem the team commits to, can often become the clear benefit/value proposition the teams set out to deliver.

You can write Customer Problem Statements at any time, but this is most often done after Follow-Me-Homes or a customer debrief. Your understanding of the customer problem will improve over time, so you may need to iterate on the statement. Note – this customer problem statement will capture both the functional needs and emotional response which can galvanize a team in their unified mission and innovating with purpose.

  • Go broad, and write down many potential problem statements based on your recent customer empathy efforts. Don’t speculate — focus on real problems you’ve actually observed. If you observed more than one problem, which is often the case, then write a specific problem statement for each one. Use specific, tangible, and detailed language instead of vague catch-all words.
  • Share and discuss your list of problem statements as a team.
  • Go narrow, and select a single problem statement on which to focus. Remember to focus on the customer’s problem, not Intuit’s problem. And avoid suggesting solutions in your statement.
  • Include problem statements in your team’s communication.

Try using this template to help you create your own Customer Problem Statements, which include the following components:

  • I am: (A narrow description of the customer that highlights their motivations, attributes, and/or characteristics)
  • I am trying to: (Desired outcome)
  • But: (Problem or barrier)
  • Because: (Root cause)
  • Which makes me feel: (Emotion)

4. The Ideal State

The Ideal State describes a future state where an important customer problem or opportunity has been solved to such an amazing degree that the outcome seems almost impossible. E.g., the Khan Academy describes its goal as “providing a completely free education to every single person on earth.” That’s an Ideal State. Refer to your customer problem statement(s) as your starting point. 

From the customer’s point of view, imagine “a perfect world” in the customer’s future, then write down as many ideal states as you wish. Be bold. This is your opportunity to think big! The Ideal State should be aspirational and borderline impossible to achieve — the futuristic “flip side” of your customer problem statements. From your ideal state templates, select one ideal state that best captures the future vision for your team. The best Ideal States motivate and inspire. Be sure to highlight what the Ideal State feels like — capture the emotion of it.  Drafting the ideal state should take 15-30 minutes.

To help you build your own Idea State statements, try using this helpful template:

  • In a perfect world: (Bold statement of the future state that is borderline unachievable — think of perfect outcomes, not perfect solutions)
  • The biggest benefit to me is: (Most important improvement in the customer’s life when the idea state is achieved)
  • Which makes me feel: (Emotion)

That’s it! Now that you’ve completed the four steps to Deep Customer Empathy, you should have more of the understanding, insights, and motivation needed to improve your customers’ lives. Next week, I’ll be sharing more on the second principle of D4D — Go Broad to Go Narrow.