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Fixing the Empathy Gap With UserTesting's CMO, Michelle Huff

Grace Gagnon Feb 13 2020

Walt Disney loved sitting in the parks and watching customers experience Disney. He noticed little piles of trash collected every 30 feet, throughout the park. What he concluded is that people would get tired of holding something and put it down every 30 or so steps.

His solution? Garbage cans every 30 feet. If you go to a Disney park, you’ll notice these garbage cans every 30 feet. This example is the epitome of empathy and how it applies to customer-centricity. 

Walt Disney’s empathy ties back to Michelle Huff, CMO of UserTesting. Michelle spoke at Recur 2019 on fixing the empathy gap and why SaaS companies miss the mark on customer-centricity.

Back in the day, Walt Disney’s focus on his customers made him standout. Any company that put the customer first stood out. However, Michelle says customer-centricity is what you need to be doing in order to be successful nowadays. 

“While we’re building all these applications, we’re building kiosks, no one wants to go back to the world where you had to wait in line in a long queue to deposit a check. All these things are really improving these experiences, but as we’re doing that, in many ways as a company we’re losing our connection with a human perspective.”




How to be customer-centric

Companies are moving faster and faster, which means we don’t always have the time to interact with our customers. 

But, Michelle says to ask yourself this question: How can we be customer-centric if we can’t empathize with our customers’ experiences?

“I think a lot of times, with actually trying to think about empathy, it’s not about that your point of view or even people that you’re asking have the wrong perspective, it’s really how do we start bringing more perspectives into what we’re doing?”

Customer-centricity goes back to empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Even in SaaS, empathy for your customer is crucial. 


Fixing the Empathy Gap

Even though companies should be thinking about customer empathy, they’re not. Michelle detailed three ways to bring the customer back into personas, ideation/brainstorming, and decision-making. These next few paragraphs break down each one.



Fixing the empathy gap begins with understanding who your customer is and who you are targeting. You can understand your customer base by building personas. Michelle says you can bring these customer personas to life through empathy maps. With empathy maps it’s less about the end result but more about the approach taken—i.e., going through the process, learning more about the customer, and using it as a way to showcase different perspectives. Building empathy maps and conducting empathy interviews helps employees walk a mile in their customers’ shoes. 

Some best practices for scaling empathy, according to Michelle, are to observe and analyze as a team, share learnings across teams and departments, and setting empathy-hour goals. 


Ideation and brainstorming

Ideation and brainstorming circles back to Walt Disney and his garbage can solution. You need to be a problem finder like Mr. Walt Disney. It’s a little different for someone like Walt Disney, though, because all he had to do was visit the parks and simply observe. How do you observe customers in SaaS when the experience is digital?

Michelle suggests virtual home and office visits. You can use digital access, like video chats and screen sharing, to understand your customer’s environment and context. Michelle says she’s done customer interviews and has asked the person to flip the camera and walk through his or her space. This allows her to see how and where they work, where they struggle, and where they are happy. 

Per Michelle’s advice, you also need to listen to your field. This entails learning about problems and gaining insights from sales, customer support, and partners. 

Empathy is more than just conducting interviews because often times what people say is very different from what they actually do. Michelle used this example: 77% of adults say they plan to visit the dentist within the next year. In reality, only 37% of adults actually visited the dentist last year. With empathy, you need to observe and draw conclusions. 

“Empathy makes you a better innovator. If I look at the most successful products we have created, it comes with the ability to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers.” - Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft


Finally, empathy needs to be part of the decision-making process. Remember this acronym: HIPPO. It stands for let data drive decisions, not the “highest paid person’s opinion.” Don’t let the person with the most power or highest salary be the decider. Michelle says instead, rely on A/B tests, analytics, and surveys to examine trends and people’s reactions.

In the end… data + customer intuition = better decisions. 


Final Thoughts 

SaaS is a digital experience and you don’t necessarily see your customers in the flesh, but they’re still humans. You need your customer experience to remember and empathize with the human factor. 

In sum, Michelle says you can improve customer-centricity by weaving empathy into your personas, ideation/brainstorming, and decision-making processes. 

A good quote to remember from Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon: 

“Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys.” 


By Grace Gagnon

Content Marketer

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