Customer Empathy Interviewing

When was the last time you asked your customers what they thought? We use Customer Empathy Interviews to help businesses deeply understand their customers and design competitive products and services. It’s also been one of our top coaching tips for business owners needing to adapt their business model during COVID-19. Our behaviours have changed significantly in a very short amount of time – for example: We might be spending less money on going out for dinner at our favourite restaurant, but have increased our spending on Ubereats or Hellofresh. Understanding things from your customers point of view is critical to help you know how your business may need to pivot and recognise new opportunities or gaps to address. Erin, one of our consultants and previous advertising gun shares some tips to run your own customer empathy interviews…

What are Customer Empathy Interviews?

Empathy interviewing (as the name suggests) is about empathising with your customer or potential customer – understanding how and why they make certain decisions and how that impacts whether they chose your brand, product or service.  They are long, face-to-face discussions which require you to actively listen, and intently question them in order to uncover their feelings and behaviours.  

It is helpful to understand the distinction between customer empathy interviewing and customer feedback. There is a need for both but they are very different. Customer feedback is about you and is usually specific questions to help you test your brand, product or service. Customer empathy interviewing on the other hand is about your customers, looking more broadly at how they make decisions and learning more about their behaviour. 

While COVID-19 and the effects its having on our businesses, families, and lives is out of our control, one thing that is in our control, is staying close to those we work with and understanding what they think and feel.  We’ve found it incredibly valuable to check in with those we’ve been working with and understanding what they feel, what they need, what they’re planning and doing, and who they’re working with.  We’ve also been encouraging our clients to do the same.

In light of this, here are some principles to help shape your customer empathy interviews:

Planning your interview: 

Have a rough plan… and be prepared to go off script

There is no set list of questions to ask in an empathy interview.   It is an exploratory process dictated by your interviewee and where their thoughts go. 

You can start by thinking about what your objectives are. What are you trying to uncover and why?  How will you measure your answers to know whether you’ve got what you need?  This will help you draw up a list of questions – aim for about ten.  We provide some more tips below on how to frame your questions.  

Remember though, that in the interview, it’s more important to follow the conversation than ‘stick to the script’. Your interviewee may say something unexpected but interesting and that should be explored. 

In light of COVID-19, our objective has been to understand how our community has been coping and responding, and ultimately if we can provide support in any way.  We are trying to understand the size of the impact it is having on their businesses, families and lives. 

If you’re a B2C business, you might want to understand how your customer is spending their days, what’s helping them keep sane, what’s challenging, what they’re hoping for… and then have a few more specific questions related to their product/service.

If you’re a B2B business, it’s helpful to understand what impact COVID has had on your customers’ business, how they’re doing, what they’re trying to do to respond and what would be helpful right now.

If you remember one thing, make sure it’s behaviour, behaviour, behaviour!

As described, in a customer empathy interview, you are trying to understand the behaviours and feelings of customers of potential customers.  What they do rather than what they say they could/ would/ should do.  This shapes how you ask questions in your interview.  

Firstly, you should always get them to describe existing or past behaviour rather than future behaviour.  Without meaning to, humans can be dishonest about the future because we are trying to project how we want to be.  For example, it’s easy to say ‘yeah I’d join a gym if the first month was free’, but that is not actually an indicator of if you will join the gym.  It’s much more accurate to understand if you’ve been to a gym or done any exercise in the last month.  

Secondly, you want to leave the questions as open-ended as possible so that you’re not guiding their answers.  Again, without meaning to, we can make the interview about us rather than them.  For example, the answer to ‘have you thought about joining a gym? What if I offered you 10% off your first month?’ is a lot less insightful than ‘tell me what health means to you and how you stay healthy?’.  Here are some helpful phrases to start open-ended questions

    1. Tell me a bit about…
    2. Describe the last time you…
    3. What was it like when…

Another helpful rule I use is the five whys.  This simply pushes you to ask why five times to ‘get to the real insight’.  This is also a good one to help you recover from closed question or answer.  For example, if we use the same question:

‘Have you thought about joining a gym?’

‘No’ – if we stopped here, we’d be no better off, so you can use the five whys to pull out insight.


‘Because it’s expensive’

‘Why do you think it’s expensive?’

‘Because I can run around my neighbourhood or do pushups in my study for free’

‘Do you do those things?’



‘Because I don’t need to.  I eat well and go for a walk every evening and that keeps me fit and healthy’

This is only 4 whys, but already we can incite that this is unlikely to be a customer for the gym because they believe being healthy is not about pumping weights at the gym, thus not seeing the value of it. 

In the context of COVID-19, our focus has shifted much more to current behaviour.  We’ve been asking questions like:

  • What’s changed for you?  What are you doing now that you weren’t doing a few weeks ago?
  • How have you been impacted and what has that meant for you?
  • How have your behaviours changed?  How have your customers’ behaviours changed?  What has become a priority for you/ your customer?

These have given us a really good understanding of what we need to do more or less of or change all together. 

Try to follow their customer journey

Another helpful way to shape your questions is to use the customer journey framework to frame your questions:

Tell me about when you last bought…

  • Awareness: What first prompted/ triggered you to look for [this category]?  Note: we’re not asking about your business or other businesses just yet, we just want to understand why they’re looking for ___ in the first place.
  • Consideration: What options were you considering? Why? This helps us understand what features are important to them – this may be different to what we think they will think is important
  • Engagement: What did you end up choosing? Why? How long did it take to decide?
  • Retention: How are you finding your experience with it?  Will you continue to buy from them?  Why?
  • Advocacy: Would you recommend this brand to others?  Why?

Again, has this changed since COVID-19? Take online shopping for example – how does this change your customer’s journey?  Has it affected how quickly or slowly customers move through this funnel?

It’s not as scary as you think

One of the most common concerns I hear about empathy interviewing is that it’s scary.  That makes sense – sometimes you don’t know the person or how they’ll act and you’re asking about something that you’ve poured hours of hard work and passion into… and they could tell you it sucks… 

But actually, that’s ok!  Ultimately, this insight will help you to make or improve a product or service that is more useful, better designed or better looking product/service saving you time and money, and ultimately improving your chance of future sales. 

Think about who in your network (friends, colleagues or friends of friends or colleagues) might be a customer or potential customer.  If you don’t know, put a call out to your friends.  Failing that, where could you go to observe or interact with your customer – maybe it’s the supermarket, your local strip of shops, a conference, a trade show.  When I used to work in advertising, I worked with a lot of household brands.  I would spend time in supermarket aisles asking strangers why they picked tuna for lunch or what they were looking for in a yoghurt? It’s not as intimidating as it sounds.  As long as you’re friendly, and you explain what you’re up to, people love being asked – they like sharing their opinion!

Note: this is a bit tricky given the current COVID-19 restrictions.  I’ve seen lots of brands run polls, surveys or interviews through instagram or facebook.  Or maybe there’s a webinar or online conference you can attend to suss out your audience. 

While I do suggest that you can interview friends, family or colleagues – this is not common practice because you want an unbiased view, not a supportive opinion of your idea.  To ensure this doesn’t happen – make your intentions really clear, letting them know you are seeking honest, constructive information and stick to asking questions about their behaviour (as outlined above).  For more about this,  I highly recommend watching The Mum Test video or reading the book that it is based on. 

During the interview

Build rapport and frame it

Your interviewee is probably nervous, and if they don’t know you, maybe they’re a little uncertain or confused.  There’s a couple of really easy things you can do to quickly build trust, ease the nerves and reduce the uncertainty or confusion.  

Firstly, be friendly and personal.  Share a little bit about yourself.  This doesn’t have to just be done up front, you should do this throughout the interview to help them feel more connected. 

Secondly, provide some context – who are you, what are you doing and why.  There are lots of unknowns initially which can make people feel nervous. Providing some parameters puts some of the control back in their hands

  1. Tell them what you’re doing and why (be as general as possible – I’m… and I’m doing some research about… and I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you have some time to answer some questions briefly?
  2. Tell them how long you think it will take 
  3. Explain how the information will be used

This might all sound obvious, but it can be easy to forget in the moment while you’re so focused on the questioning. 

Record it!

Of course, check that your interviewee is ok with it first!  Whether you video record or voice record or take notes, make sure you record it, because you see/hear/find new things later. 

After the interview

Look for patterns

After the interview is just as or more important than the interview itself.  This is when you analyse multiple interviews to find patterns and insight.  When you see the same response across multiple interviews, it’s a good insight. 

Be curious and open-minded

If something unexpected or disheartening comes out of your empathy interviews, don’t be deterred.  Do a bit more digging to see if there’s a greater opportunity to be explored.   Again, it’s helpful in getting your idea to a stronger place sooner rather than later.  

I remember one project I worked on where we originally thought the audience for the product we were launching was teenagers.  After some customer empathy interviewing, we found that teenagers showed no interest in our product… BUT single, professional women, aged 25-35 did.  While this was unexpected, and we were initially let down that our original audience showed no interest in our product, it was good that we found an audience who was interested, and we didn’t waste any money marketing to the wrong customer.  

Putting it into practice

I thought it would be helpful to illustrate with an example. I’ve made up a pretend case study to map the process:

You have started a social enterprise that sells sustainable underwear made from bamboo fibre.  You started the business because you care deeply about the environment and understand how much the fashion industry contributes to pollution and depletion of natural resources.  

Personally, you have found it really hard to find underwear that considered your eco-values, so you first had them made for yourself, and eventually decided that you should start a business to serve others looking for the same thing.  You have been trialling some samples you had made, and you love them!  They are softer, more breathable, and far more durable than a regular pair of cotton undies (and they’re better for the environment of course!). 

You’ve just produced your first range for public release.  They cost you $15/pair to make and ship to Australia, and to cover your overheads and earn enough money to put towards your social cause (planting trees to offset some of the fashion industry’s damage), you will need to charge between $30-40/pair depending on the cut. 

You decide to do some customer empathy interviewing to gauge interest in your product and understand how people feel about the price. 

Planning the interview

To start, map out your objectives and some open-ended questions that will help you answer these objectives.  You will also need to get some context of how much they care about the environment or if it is a factor in their decision-making.  Remember that you’re not trying to convince them that they SHOULD care about the environment, just understand whether they already do.  If they don’t, it’s ok – they may not be the right customer for us, or we may just have to focus on other product attributes.  

Now think about who you can interview.  Maybe start with a handful of friends who represent a cross section of demographics and psychographics – different ages, genders, lifestages, lifestyles, values, etc.  This will give you a good understanding of the landscape and you can narrow in on where the biggest opportunity lies from here. 

It’s time for the interview

Now you have a rough idea of what you want to ask or find out, and you’ve set up a time with your interviewees, it’s time to pull together a firmer agenda. It could look something like:

  • Thank the interviewee for participating and let them know it will probably take about half an hour or so – is that ok?  Is it ok to record it?
  • Warm up with a general chat, introduce yourself, and explain a little bit about your  business and how you’re looking to better understand the market
  • Start with your broader questioning – tell me a bit about yourself, tell me a bit about what you enjoy doing in your spare time?  What excites you?
  • What does sustainability mean to you?  If at all, how does it factor in your decision-making?  Tell me more about this…
  • Move to your more specific question – Tell me about the last time you bought some underwear – what was your process? (plus follow up questions if needed)
  • Once you have all the info that you need, thank them again, let them know how helpful it has been and let them know you will follow up with them to share more about the project as it progresses

Remember, be ready to go off script and follow the conversation if they say something interesting that you want to follow up on.

And now for the results…

Once you’ve interviewed your handful of friends, go back through the answers to see what patterns emerge and/or if you found out something you weren’t expecting.  Is there more you need to find out? Let’s say that you found some insights like:

  • Not many people care about eco-friendly when shopping – it’s not something that they’d be willing to pay extra for
  • BUT!  Durability is a big factor in choosing undies – most undies are between $15-40/pair these days, so you want them to last at least a year or two – definitely something worth paying extra for
  • Nearly everyone prefers to shop for their undies in store (rather than online) because you can feel the quality and see how they fit before you buy them.  
  • For the men who buy their own, they go to Myer or David Jones for a good pair, or Kmart for their everyday pairs.  Most women go to Myer, David Jones or Bras and Things for a nice pair or cotton on or Bonds for everyday pairs.  Many women buy their partner or husband’s undies as well.  If they do, they will go to Bonds for reliable, everyday pairs.
  • For most people, once they’ve found a brand/cut that fits them, they tend to stick to it.  A few women said that if there’s a new style/colour/cut from bras and things or bonds, they’d try it.

So, what insight can we glean for this, that’s helpful in how we launch our Social Enterprise?  

  • Firstly, it’s interesting (and maybe disheartening) to see that no one seems to care about eco-friendly undies.   But good to know durability is an important quality.  This tells us that durability should be the key focus of our marketing, and eco-friendly should be secondary.
  • We know that our price point is on par with what people are willing to pay, especially if they are durable.
  • We know that ‘trial’ is really important, because once people find a product they like, they stick with it.
  • We can see that people distinguish between ‘nice pairs’ and ‘everyday pairs’.  Our range sits more in line with the everyday category and we should probably do some more research on price and decision-making factors in relation to choosing everyday pairs.
  • This also impacts on where people expect to buy our undies too.  Most people seem to buy ‘everyday’ pairs from mid-range department stores – this requires some further digging to understand wholesale as an option OR what it would take for customers to switch to buying online?

Hopefully this has helped to convince you of the power of empathy interviewing, and also the difference between it, and customer feedback.  As mentioned, it’s a favourite tool of mine, and one that makes up an important part of the work we do at TDi.  If you have any other questions, get in touch

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