Four steps to improve your customer empathy interviews

Lieschen Gargano Quilling
5 min readJan 28, 2021


As a PO I do my best to talk with customers at least once a day. On these calls I am seeking to understand our customers’ problems, how they interact with our company and products, and how they perceive us.

It sounds easy and straightforward, but recently, I have noticed four big mistakes that get made all the time on these calls, even by the most experienced of us on the team. So I have turned these mistakes into four easy steps to improve the feedback you receive, and ultimately, the product decisions you make.

  1. Stick to open ended questions.

“Do you think…” “would it be better if…” “would you have liked…” “would you…” “Yes” or “No” questions just beg us to say yes, leading the customer to an answer we created for them. That doesn’t seem like much of an issue in the moment, but in fact it puts the customer in a box of thoughts inherently similar to yours. It can imply constraints or suggest a solution that prevents them from giving you the real juicy feedback on the real problem.

“But I am far enough down the product development road that I really just need to know if X will solve their problem or not, so why not just ask if they think it will?”

Ok, sure, but if you ask a closed question your customer will start with the answer and work backwards. They may even sense your desire for them to rationalize a “yes,” be focused on making it fit.

Try asking them to describe their current solution or work around, then ask them to describe what that process might look like with X worked in. In this case they are walking through their day, staying in the context of their specific pain point beginning with the problem instead of your solution, and living it out loud with you.

In the “yes” or “no” scenario, you get a response that starts with your solution. In the open ended scenario, you get a view into their world.

2. Listen with empathy.

Another easier said than done, but all the more important. As Product people we are so close to our products, we know exactly how to apply them in any situation and get the result we intended. So it is no wonder that when someone tells us it doesn’t work that way we can’t help but explain to them why they are wrong.

This can take the form of giving them “hot tips” “enabling them on the current solution” etc. While it may seem like you are helping when you do this, what you are really doing is explaining why their feedback is wrong and cutting off your view into their world while proving to yourself the product solves the problem.

Instead, when you feel yourself about to explain something to your customers based on their feedback, try practicing active listening by paraphrasing what you think you heard and then asking a probing open ended question.

Creating this trigger for myself has not only led to much deeper feedback, but has exposed me to how often I am wont to tell the customer their problem is already solved “if only they knew…”

3. Speak as little as possible.

When speaking to customers we want to create an easy going, conversational atmosphere so that they feel comfortable giving us honest and open feedback, but I have seen this backfire in several ways.

First, when our customers tell us something doesn’t work well our gut reaction is often to explain why something is the way it is. Like giving “hot tips” this seemingly helpful act downplays their feedback and takes the spotlight off them and onto you.

I have also seen the desire to create a relaxed conversational tone turn into a lot of back and forth. Again, that doesn’t sound bad, but conversation prevents longer storytelling flow and naturally fills silent pauses that would otherwise encourage the interviewee to process and provide deeper consideration of answers.

In both scenarios, being silent will lead to better feedback.

4. Use the buddy system.

Having a colleague along the ride with me for every customer interview is the most valuable piece of advice I have ever received. Every time I go against this advice, I regret it. A second set of ears on the call does several things recording it for others to hear later can’t.

Most importantly, those ears can hear when you forget to follow the first three steps listed here, just as your ears can do it for them, course correcting in real time. This has saved me too many times to count.

Additionally, having someone else on the call is another perspective, a different set of biases that can help counter your own and uncover questions or details worth following up on that the main interviewer hasn’t.

Of course there will be times when no one else is available and recording to get another opinion later will have to do, but there is no substitute for the buddy system.

Go forth and get awesome feedback

Less biased, deeper, problem based feedback seen through more than one person’s lens will help you uncover the right problems, and make better decisions for solving them with your products.

Using open ended questions, listening with empathy, speaking as little as possible, and the buddy system, I know you will see immediate improvements in the feedback from your customer empathy interviews, and I can’t wait to hear how it goes.

Go forth and get awesome feedback!