One of the hardest problems for engineers in founding roles in a startup is interacting with customers up close and personal. Over the years I’ve found the best way to learn to do this is by emulating empathy.
I was having dinner in Palo Alto with some of my Stanford engineering students and one of the subjects they were most interested in talking about was “how do you really get out of the building and talk to customers.” Listening to them reminded me how terribly painful it had been for me.
I was always curious about technology and how things worked, but early in my career, this curiosity didn’t extend to people. I was more comfortable with data.
In my first company, ESL, I sat in secure locations and taught complex intelligence gathering systems to a classroom of maintenance and/or operations students. I was essentially responsible for imparting a fire hose of technical information efficiently. At my next company, Zilog, it was the same – I taught microprocessor system design to engineers. It was all about the efficient transfer of knowledge. High bandwidth, low noise.
But later at Zilog I moved into marketing. While I learned how to write data sheets, product marketing at Zilog was very little “listen to customers” and much more “talk at customers.” It wasn’t until my next company, Convergent Technologies, that I began to understand the value of customer interaction. As a product marketing manager, I traveled to customers at the behest of our sales people to impart the latest technical wisdom from the factory. Traveling with these salesmen was eye opening – they were comfortable having conversations with strangers and knew how to build rapport, relationships and trust. These guys explained to me that most people were happy to talk about themselves. My job was just to get the conversation started. Our products improved as our salesmen made customers comfortable enough to share their needs and issues. (As I would find out, every one of these salesmen had been design engineers in their past. Yet most of the time, they artfully hid how much they knew.)
I began to understand that while my brain was wired to dive into technical minutia and exchange product information at high speed, this wasn’t what most potential customers (and most people who had a modicum of social skills) wanted to do. In fact, unbelievably (to me) most people would trade valuable time in a meeting for social niceties.
Although these social cues were something that still didn’t come naturally to me, I concluded that to get much further in my career, I was going to have to have to learn. Over time, I watched how the best sales people did it and emulated their behavior. I learned how to smile, shake hands, make eye contact rather than stare at my shoes, talk about sports, ask customers about their jobs, their families, etc. and evidence apparent interest in people I didn’t know way before we got to chat about products. I’d even go out to lunch or dinner and manage to hold a conversation. The two hardest things to learn were: how to speak in front of a group and to make “cold calls” by myself. (Every once in awhile I’d run into a customer wired like me who’d say, “Can we cut the chatter and get down to business?” I’d laugh, and we’d do a high-speed data transfer.)
Surprisingly, I learned that listening to customers and others made me more creative. My best ideas started coming from brainstorming with others, something just not possible when communication was a one-way street.
Fast forward a few companies – MIPS and Ardent – I was still learning (at times painfully) to appreciate that facts were outside the building and not between my ears. After a decade in Silicon Valley, I had finally learned to emulate empathy.
I had inherited a manager of technical marketing, much smarter than me but with zero instinct or feel for customers. He was completely data driven, and our sales department wanted him nowhere near customers. I felt like I had just met my doppelganger from ten years ago. We established that his world view was not shared by most customers. And he understood that if he wanted a bigger role in marketing, he was going to have to change. So I ran the first of what would be many “how to emulate empathy” classes.
I described how getting closer to customers was at first going to be a cerebral rather than gut activity. With no instinct to guide him, he would have to consciously precompute what kind of response each situation called for and play them back when appropriate. He was going to have to sign up for public speaking classes. He was going to go on the road with our sales people, but this time he was going to have to watch what they do and start to copy them. I found him a mentor in a salesman who appreciated his technical skill and was willing to let him tag along.
As expected, the first couple of months was tough – on him, sales and customers. We’d debrief after many of his road trips and calls and course correct as necessary. (At times I’d feel like I was talking to some earlier version of myself.) But by the end of the year, he had learned enough that the VP of Sales asked whether he could move permanently into a presales support role.
Over the next ten years in startups, I repeated this process with others. Today I remind my engineering students that empathy, while seemingly a foreign language, is possible to learn.
As for me, what I had emulated became second nature. Most of the time I can’t tell which mode is running.
- Customer metrics are not the same as customer interaction.
- Customer interaction is necessary for startup founders.
- For some it is extremely difficult.
- If it’s not instinctual customer empathy is a skill that can be taught and learned.
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