How to deploy empathy to get the most out of customer interviews, according to Geocodio’s Michele Hansen

Why do people cancel? What feature should you build next? Which potential customers are the best fit for your business? The answer to all of these questions don’t lie in spreadsheets or charts, but in customer interviews.

At some point in their growth, businesses usually start investing in customer research. They work with consulting firms, hire their own analysts, buy data management software. But the fact is that a large portion of the employees – developers, marketers, product managers (whose work depends on an intimate understanding of the customer) – rarely, if ever, interact with them. And for a while, that was the case for Michele.

Michele Hansen is the co-founder of Geocodio, a SaaS business that provides geocoding and data matching for addresses. But we’re not here today to talk about coordinates, maps, or data points. Back when Michele was a product manager, she and her colleagues used to look at analytics, exchange an idea or two with the customer service team, and make educated guesses about what the next step on a product or feature should be. No face time with customers, no interviews throughout the product roadmap – just a couple of weeks of user testing before launch.

However, Michele quickly realized that customer research should be a part of the whole product development process. She dove into the world of customer interviews, and just like that, she was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that after conducting thousands of interviews, she ended up writing “Deploy Empathy: A Practical Guide to Interviewing Customers,” which we’ll be discussing today.

Over the years, she learned how to use empathy in a targeted, structured way so people will open up and talk about their experiences – how you ask a question matters just as much as the questions you ask – and how to use that information so you can build products and services that will delight your customers, increase team motivation, and grow your business.

In today’s episode, I sat down with Michele to talk about all things customer interviews – how, when and who to interview; what to do with the results; and specific tactics to get the most out of it.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Using customer interviews across your business saves you the time and headache of building something people don’t want or highlighting features no one cares about.
  • Instead of focusing solely on customers who have churned, conduct interviews throughout the entire customer lifecycle.
  • If valuable customers are heavily using certain features, try to understand why so you can put more resources behind it and go after other organizations with similar needs.
  • You can find participants in your customer base or even on social networks, and having the chance to influence your roadmap may be enough incentive for them to accept the interview.
  • Your choice of words, tone of voice, and actions during the interview all work together and make the difference between getting a good, helpful result or not.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Diving into customer research

Liam Geraghty: Michele, thank you so much for joining us. You’re very welcome to the show. To start off, could you give us a little bit of background on yourself and your career so far?

Michele Hansen: Yes. I am the co-founder of Geocodio, which is a small software company. My husband and I started that company eight and a half years ago. I started as a project manager at a web development agency, transitioned into being a product manager, and, during that time, I was running Geocodio on the side. So, I have been running it full time for five years now, actually.

Liam: I know we’re going to talk about your book today, but Geocodio is so cool. Could you tell us a little bit about what it does?

Michele: Yes. So the core of what we do is geocoding, which is turning addresses into coordinates and coordinates into addresses, and we do this because computers do not understand an address. They only understand the coordinates. If you want to make a map or you’re typing directions into a map app, in the background, that address is getting converted into the coordinates, and the distance or the route is being calculated between them. And where we focus in that market is specifically on the US and Canada and data matching needs. A lot of people need coordinates for other things besides making maps, such as matching census data, political districts, and time zones, and all of those things hinge on having the coordinates. And that’s where we are focused in the market.

“A spreadsheet will tell you what is happening, but never why. Only people can tell you that”

Liam: I love it. It’s such a great idea. The book I mentioned is Deploy Empathy: A Practical Guide to Interviewing Customers. Why did you decide to write it, and where did the idea come from?

Michele: When I was a product manager, I was introduced to the wonderful world of customer research and Jobs to be done. It was a revelation for me and really changed how I did my work. Instead of looking at all of our analytics and data and trying to make an educated guess on what would move the needle, which features we should work on, and how we should change them based on looking at all of those numbers, I learned that a spreadsheet will tell you what is happening, but never why. Only people can tell you that. And it seemed very strange at first to be like, “What do you mean I should just go talk to someone? They’ll tell me what’s going on? Sure. Right.” And then, I learned a structured way to do that using frameworks and data to inform who you should be talking to, and how you should process that information you’re getting to make it useful to you. And that was a revelation for me as a product manager.

Of course, when I went full time on Geocodio, I had the opportunity to do a lot more of that research on our customers myself. And I also started investing in other companies, advising other small software companies, and became known as someone to go to when people had questions about doing customer research, understanding their customers, and things like that. But I found that I didn’t have one guide I felt I could send people. I was sending them a whole bunch of different books and being like, “Okay, read this chapter here, listen to this podcast. Now, there are these three blog posts,” and it was just kind of a jumbled mess. There were a lot of good resources on customer research, understanding customers, turning that into strategy and implementation, and whatnot. But I felt like, especially for small software company founders, there wasn’t one book I could just hand someone and they could run with it. And so I started writing this as a newsletter, and people really wanted it to be a book, so it became a book.

Liam: I love the title as well.

“Even the idea of doing sales or interviewing a customer is a huge leap for them because, in many large companies, the developers are actively kept away from the customers”

Michele: Yeah. I love puns unabashedly, and it came to me because it was a wink to developers. The community I’m coming out of is developers who have pivoted to running their own companies, kind of like us, so it was a wink to them that this was something for them, too. There are a lot of great books on customer research, but many of them are written for UX people or people from a product background, not developers or marketers or analysts or people who are not coming at this with any sort of background in customer research, never mind even talking to people. It was a big challenge that I learned people have, especially developers who become founders – even the idea of doing sales or interviewing a customer is a huge leap for them because, in many large companies, the developers are actively kept away from the customers. That was another challenge to make sure was addressed as well.

Deploying empathy

Liam: Yeah, I love it. I suppose that the keyword here is empathy. How do you define empathy? And is it a learnable skill?

Michele: Yes, it absolutely is a learnable skill, and it’s something you can also learn at any time in your life. A lot of people are not taught empathy from childhood unless their parents were particularly focused on empathy. And empathy, basically – and I borrow Brené Brown’s definition – is entering into the shoes of another person and recognizing that their perspective makes sense from their perspective. It sounds repetitive, but what you’re saying is that someone else is making decisions in their life or in their work that are sensical based on the set of conditions they are under. You might make a different decision, you might think that their decision does not make sense, but that’s not the point. The whole point is to build a map of their head and understand all of their different constraints and incentives and the challenges they’re facing.

“Maybe you have some software that’s going to cut six hours out of their process, but they’re not using your product. Why is that?”

In the process of showing them that their decisions and actions make sense, they will tell you that story, and then you can use that map to build a better product for them, market to them better, sell to them better, and make things that are useful for them because everyone has a different perspective on a process. And whether it’s things we’re doing in our lives or boring everyday business things like paying an invoice, every person, every company has a different process. You might think to yourself, “Okay, this process you’re telling me about that your company does sound incredibly convoluted and complicated, and it really should be cut down.” But this process exists for a reason, and this person can’t really do anything about that. Maybe you have some software that’s going to cut six hours out of their process, but they’re not using your product. Why is that? Can we understand the constraints and incentives they’re under, and say that this makes sense from their perspective? Then, you can build a product and a business that fits into what they’re trying to do. It’s about really getting into their heads and understanding their process.

Liam: You’ve answered it there, but I was going to ask you why is doing customer interviews super important. It feels like it’s an obvious answer, but a lot of businesses don’t understand why it’s so important.

Michele: Customer research and customer interviews are raw materials you can use across your business, from product to marketing, to sales, to pricing strategy, to understanding your competitive advantages and overall strategic approach. It’s also incredibly motivating for people to understand, “Okay, this is why we’re helping people, and here’s how we can help them better.” It’s amazing how it not only helps people align on strategy, but it brings teams together and makes them feel like they are connected to what the company is doing.

“People’s time is too valuable to spend building something people don’t want or are not going to buy”

When you’re in Scrum, for example, and you’re saying, “Okay, we need to build this feature that solves this problem,” instead of having a billion meetings talking about what that problem is, why people are experiencing it, and how it’s important, you can say, “Oh, everybody was in that call last week” or, “we saw the clips on Slack from that interview where the person was talking about this exact problem and how it impacts them.”

Liam: There’s a line in your book I love, “Your time is too valuable to spend it creating things that people don’t want,” which, I think, really sums up all of this.

Michele: It’s important to note that it might feel like research is something that will take up a lot of time, and it may not be clear exactly how you are going to use it next, but that is the beauty of it because you can use it in so many different places. It’s a resource you can come back to time and time again. People’s time is too valuable to spend building something people don’t want or are not going to buy. That is so much wasted time and energy and frustration. I’ve been in that situation, especially before I understood customer research, and I don’t want anyone else to go through that.

A practical guide to setting it up

Liam: There’s a big difference between doing customer interviews and doing them well, and that’s what we’re going to chat about today. When is the best time to do interviews?

Michele: I’m an advocate for doing them throughout the customer lifecycle, from people who aren’t customers yet, maybe even interviewing people who are customers of your competitors – not to try to steal them or sell them, just to understand how they view the competitive landscape and why they chose a competitor over you –, to people who have recently become customers, within the last month, which in Jobs to be Done literature is usually referred to as a switch interview, to people I call happy customers, which are people who’ve been customers for at least six months but ideally more than a year, and also with people who have canceled.

You also want to look at people in terms of the different activities they’re trying to do. If you have customers who are heavily using certain sets of features, and those are very valuable customers to the company, it can be really helpful to get them on the phone and understand what they’re trying to do so that maybe you can do more of that or attract more customers who are already well suited to what you’ve built. That’s one of the key things customer research helps you do.

“It’s so much more valuable to try and attract people who are already attracted to you”

As human beings, we are naturally biased toward the negative, trying to prevent negative things from happening or to fix them if they have gone wrong, and so people are often very interested in doing churn and cancellation interviews. But honestly, cancellation interviews are interviews on hard mode, and I think they’re only for people who’ve really done quite a few because there’s so much emotion there. You can get so much good information out of people who have been customers for years because it will help you find other customers that your business is already serving well. It’s so much more valuable to try and attract people who are already attracted to you, who are already showing up on their own and you just need to help them get there, and do more of that rather than trying to turn a group that isn’t using your product into one that is going to be happy. I have tried to climb that mountain, and it is hard.

Liam: For sure.

Michele: It can really, really help with those problems.

“With customers, especially long-term customers, I find that you can send out an email saying, ‘Hey, have the chance to influence our roadmap,’ and that’s enough incentive”

Liam: And recruiting participants is probably one of the most challenging areas, right?

Michele: Yeah. And it really depends on the size of the company and how much resources you have to put into it. But even the smallest companies can find people to interview, whether within their customer base, by simply emailing them (oftentimes, an incentive helps), or you can find people on Twitter or Reddit, which always surprises me. You can go on Reddit and find people talking about pretty much any product, enterprise software, and even pricing that’s not public. You can find a lot of stuff on Reddit. And very often, if someone is frustrated enough to be talking about it on the internet, chances are they’ll get on the phone with you.

With customers, especially long-term customers, I find that you can send out an email saying, “Hey, have the chance to influence our roadmap,” and that’s enough incentive. Even if you’re not going to build the exact feature they’re asking for, the opportunity to get that influence is helpful. If you do offer something like, say, a 25 euro or dollar gift card to Amazon, for example, I find that long-term customers will usually reject it, but they will take some swag instead. I have a lot of templates in the book, not only for how to conduct those interviews and scripts for them, but also templates for how to reach out to people on Reddit, LinkedIn, Twitter, email. You just have to get out there and start asking people. If you’re solving a problem that people care about, they will talk to you.

Getting the interview right

Liam: Once you have the people, I suppose the question is how to talk to them. This has a lot more to it than people think. And even on the podcast interviewing people, it’s not just chatting – there’s preparation, there are little tricks to get people to open up and share. What are some of the key things people should know about the interviewing process?

“You want the other person to forget you’re a person who has opinions and perspectives because the entire interview has to be about their experience”

Michele: It’s not just the questions you ask – it’s how you ask those questions that really makes the difference between getting a good, helpful result or not getting a lot of information back. I spend a whole part of the book talking about how to talk so people will talk and feel open with you. And that’s using empathy – everything from tone of voice to specific phrases you use. For example, there’s a big difference between the three phrases I’m about to say, even though they’re almost the same. I could say, “Why’d you come to the Intercom homepage today?” It’s pretty neutral, pretty flat. I could say, “Why did you come to the Intercom homepage today?” It’s a little bit curious, but it’s kind of judgemental. And then there’s an in-between, “So tell me, why did you come to the Intercom homepage today?”

Liam: Right.

Michele: Massive difference. The last one is going to get so much more information out of someone because they’re comfortable and they know that you’re going to listen to them. These tactics range from using that soft tone of voice to not interrupting them, to using what I call validating statements or, therapists say this as well, negotiators. Simple phrases like, “That makes sense.” It’s not a follow-up question, but someone will keep talking because they’re being validated, and that shows empathy that what they’re doing makes sense. You’re not saying that’s correct or even, “I see your point,” because those are introducing your own perspective into it. You want the other person to forget you’re a person who has opinions and perspectives because the entire interview has to be about their experience. All of these tactics work together to help you get the most out of that interview, which is valuable time. And then you can use that across the business.

“If I want to know how much somebody will pay for something, I can’t actually ask them, ‘How much would you pay?’”

Liam: Let’s take one example from your book on, for example, how to ask what someone would pay. Could you talk us through that one a little?

Michele: This is a really challenging one, especially when you’re building a new product because you want to know how much somebody is going to pay for something. Something that’s challenging when you’re first starting to interview is recognizing that the literal question you want an answer to is not actually the question you can ask in order to get a good or usable result back. If I want to know how much somebody will pay for something, I can’t actually ask them, “How much would you pay?” You’re asking them to predict the future, which humans are notoriously bad at. If we were good at that, everyone would be a millionaire. So instead, you ask about their existing behavior, whether current or past. You can ask about what their overall process is.

For example, let’s say that your product fills a need they’re currently using five products for. How much time are they spending on that? Because time is a cost. And how much money are they spending on it? If they’re spending a significant amount of time, money, or ideally both, on something, there’s a good chance they experience that problem frequently and painfully – which is actually a framework that I pulled from Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom – and they’re willing to switch products and pay for something else. You can’t say to someone, “Would you pay $10,000 a year for this product?” But if you can add up that they’re currently paying $15,000 a year for the five different products that your product would replace and you would save them 50% of the time, there’s a good chance they would pay for your product. You ask about their actual behavior because if they’re not currently spending time or money on it, it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to spend money on your product.

“Out of all the different problems you’ve heard about in the interview, which ones are the most painful and frequent ones? Focus on those”

Liam: Let’s say we’ve done our interview and we have all our answers. What now?

Michele: This is the fun of analyzing, and it can take many different forms. There are a lot of other good books on this. One of the ways of doing that is using that pain and frequency framework that Des Traynor’s written about. Actually, I believe he calls it the Size and Frequency Framework, though I like to combine it with something from Lean UX, so more of a pain and frequency. Out of all the different problems you’ve heard about in the interview, which ones are the most painful and frequent ones? Focus on those. You can go out from there, for example, to building journey maps and doing service mapping. There’s a great book on service design called Service Design, actually.

If you’re a small team, this might be simply taking notes and passing them along. When I do interviews these days, I just take notes in Intercom and tag my team members so we can all review it and talk about it a little bit. But we all have a very strong sense of what those jobs to be done that we’re solving are, where is new information. It might be putting it in a spreadsheet or in Airtable, but I’ve even done things in larger companies where you’re going wild with post-it notes on the wall, making those maps out of the process. It really depends on what you’re trying to do. But you can use it in many different places too. For example, you can use quotes from that, with permission, in your marketing, or you can simply use inspiration from it. You can use it for context across other projects that you might have going on. It’s really up to you how much you use that resource. Because, again, it can be used in so many different ways.

Picking up steam

Liam: Before we wrap up, do you think businesses are getting better at this?

Michele: Yes, I would definitely say so. It helps that there has been a lot of attention, especially from the marketing side, since basically the middle of the 1980s. There has been increasing attention in understanding customers. The concepts behind this actually started out in the 1930s. It’s called activity theory, and it’s basically a theory of how people interact with technology. That evolved with the next generation of human-centered design, moving from thinking about specific humans and their context to activities that people are doing. It doesn’t matter that someone trying to pay their invoices faster is Susan, and she’s 45, single, and she has a dog because somebody who is 21 and in India might have the exact same experience because they work at a similar-sized company with similar processes. The important piece is the process they’re going through, the goals they have, and the activities they’re doing.

“In the 90s, you had to pull together a customer panel of 20 people in a research facility, which was incredibly time-consuming and expensive”

Activity theory got consultant-ified in the early 2000s and was made palatable to business people through the work of Clayton Christensen and Bob Moesta. As more and more work has come out about Jobs to be Done and activity theory, and about applying it in business, you see more and more companies using it. You can see that companies that came about after 2008 or 2010 or so focus more on understanding the customer. Intercom, Stripe, and all of these companies that are the new breed of leaders in software and business are very focused on it, but you also see businesses that have been around for a lot longer focusing on it as well. I think Intuit is the most famous example of this. They’ve written quite a bit about how they use customer research.

The fact that we can do it remotely now really, really helps. In the 90s, you had to pull together a customer panel of 20 people in a research facility, which was incredibly time-consuming and expensive, and only huge companies had the ability to rent a research facility or fly researchers out to sit with customers at their desks or in their homes. And now, whether it’s phone calls, screen sharing, or video meetings, it’s much easier to interview customers than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

“I just love talking to people about talking to people”

Liam: Absolutely. You’ve just reminded me that we actually have a great podcast episode where Des Traynor is interviewing Bob Moesta on Jobs to be Done. And what’s next? Do you have any big plans or projects coming up?

Michele: Yeah, right now, I’m really excited to be able to take this on the road. I wrote the book during lockdown and wasn’t able to get out and talk to people in person about it. I interviewed 30 of my readers throughout the course of writing it, I wrote it as a newsletter, so I got a lot of feedback from people, and I’ve done a lot of virtual events about it. But I just gave talks about it at two conferences in June, which was so much fun. I’ll be at a couple of conferences this Fall as well. I just love talking to people about talking to people, and it’s so much fun when I get to talk about that at a conference. People come up to me and we talk about customer research and their challenges, their projects. That’s so much fun to me.

Liam: Talking to people about talking to people is such a good tagline. Lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Michele: You can go to to find links to the book and the newsletter, which I continue to write. And you can also find me on Twitter, where I tweet about customer research and running a small SaaS and all sorts of other things.

Liam: Brilliant. Well, Michelle, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Michele: Thank you so much for having me, Liam.

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