We inflict pain on customers unknowingly and often times unwittingly. We tell ourselves it needs to be that way; compliance, system limitations, industry standards. It's always been that way, and to change it now is too difficult. We don't have the data, the technology, the budget. We certainly don't have the resources. 

The reality? We don't have the empathy. 

You've got the seed of a great new idea, you've identified your audience and you know who you're targeting. You know a bit about them because you've got a sense of the kind of person you're delivering for (and if you haven't then STOP! Don't pass Go and do not collect £200, or, less dramatically, go back and read my last blog on why your disruptive innovation isn't disrupting much).

But do you understand your customers pain and know what really matters to them? No? Because you're thinking of the end result for you/the company/the product, not for the customer. You may be lacking empathy.

How to use empathy to identify pain points and improve the customer experience

Empathy is a strange thing. We all think we have it, but the reality is that it's a difficult thing to really step out of yourself and think about how something may impact another. Furthermore, it's difficult to take the time to understand the type and degree of pain inflicted, and then be willing to do something about it in order to impact your innovation strategy.  

What do I mean by pain? For example, the obstacles that exist in a product or process on the path from A to B, or the overall challenge. It may only be impacting a percentage of your market but every time it happens, a little bit of your customer’s faith and trust is eroded.

That may not have mattered as much in the past; traditionally, larger players dominated and choice wasn't so obvious, or instantly available. In today's social world you're only as good as the last customer experience or their last review. But let’s be clear; not the last experience your customer had with your competitor. The last experience your customer had with anyone!

Industry lines are blurring. In a world where your customer is able to buy a phone, energy, clothing, a mortgage, a car, indeed anything, online, where they can have apps which help manage intake of medication, where they can connect a device to their phone and have it track their movement, they don't care about your limitations or what you need them to do to buy from or interact with you.

They care about how it relates to the last best experience they had and how easy it is to complete the transaction regardless of the device they're using. Whilst not the only driver, without empathy at the core there is no impetus to make your customer's experience hassle-free. Without empathy there can be no driving force for innovation.

Examples of solving pain to create competitive advantage

On the surface, fixing customer pain may seem like process improvement. But by using empathy as a mechanism to identify the root cause, you can focus on solving the things that really matter to your customer. And here's a secret, related to my last blog: perspective is key. By putting yourself in the shoes of your customer you can start to recognise and understand the pain that you inflict upon them when they're interacting with you. Here are some great examples that I think demonstrate how solving a pain has created competitive advantage. 


Love it or hate it, Amazon is the company that has changed the way we shop for ever. In days of yore, choice of products, competitive pricing and ease of delivery were commonplace challenges. Initially an online book store, Amazon have continued to evolve to be the world's largest marketplace, now providing access to over 200 million products, provided by in excess of two million sellers. Amazon is not a retailer, not a manufacturer, not a supply chain; it is all of these things! As the first major e-tailer, it normalised online shopping, introduced the concept of fast shipping and changed our buying behaviours forever. 


Obviously a declared interest in this story, but I do believe it’s (still) inspirational. Started in 1999, the challenge at the heart of Salesforce still holds true; why isn’t business software as easy to access and as easy to use as Amazon? Why do we need to have software loaded to a hard-drive, struggle with upgrades, buy a licence in perpetuity and why, as a smaller business, can’t I have access to the same stuff the big players use?

With those principles in mind, Marc Benioff and Parker Harris set out to turn the tech industry on it’s head. 17 years later and the concept of software as a service, aka ‘Cloud’ is standard practice, with rich business functionality available via a URL. Running from a single code base, upgrades are now simply war stories told by people who also know what a Sony Walkman is, and the lines between consumer and business software continue to blur with the continuing evolution of great capability available to small and large businesses. 

8 step guide to identifying pain

So what can you do to identify the pain you're imposing on your customer? Here is a short exercise you can try with a small group of people. 

1. Identify a specific customer journey you'd like to work on. It may be finding and accessing your service, ordering, delivery, customer self service. Regardless, decide what your focus area is going to be. 

2. Agree which are the key personas that are affected by the journey you're exploring. It may be one or many, you decide. Irrespective of whether they’re paying customers or internal employees, keep in mind that they are all customers and their journeys are equally valid for uncovering and exploring pain. 

3. As a team, identify and agree key steps in the customer's journey. For example, using ordering/delivery as an example, the journey steps may include: 

  • Identify/find product 
  • add product to basket
  • review purchases
  • check stock/store availability
  • select delivery option(s)
  • return/replace goods
  • issue refund

4. Don’t limit yourself to only think about the steps in the journey you control, or indeed, believe you control. Are there steps outside the process that have an impact, for example, what comes before identify/find the product in the list above? As a customer, how do I find you to start with? 

5. In your group, each spend a few quiet minutes jotting down specific pains that you believe exist in that part of the journey that might impact your personas. For example, under ‘select delivery option(s)’ you may identify 'range of delivery options not available/consistent across platform/device'. Each participant should aim to capture as many pains as they can identify in the various steps in the journey.

6. Once the quiet minutes are done, start to discuss and share the pains you've each identified across the journey steps. Don’t disregard or disagree with the pains others have identified; don’t forget, they’re a customer as well, and a pain for them is just as valid as anything you might identify as valid for you. Don't remove duplicates; cluster all of the duplicate pains as they relate to that step of the journey. It's a great opportunity to see where you're all aligned around key pains and you may just have highlighted a really big, obvious area for you to address.  

7. What are the common themes, and what are the key steps in the customer's journey where those pains exist? It may turn out that only one or two steps are problematic. Chances are, they’re also problematic for your competitors, or they’ve already nailed it but you weren’t aware! Regardless, you’ve pinpointed an area you can think about and focus innovation for those those key steps. 

8. Work through and agree, what are the three to five key pains that are the highest priority. You can vote on the impact of the common themes (step 6) if the key pains don't automatically bubble to the top 

A final thought on empathy.

In a workshop I ran recently I had a participant get a bit defensive about the exercise of looking for pain as an opportunity to identify what we could improve. Her comment to me was "Why do I care about making it better for them if I still have to do it this way." The point is that we all benefit. We are all that customer! By having empathy and fixing a problem for one person we have the potential to fix it for all. And that's just good karma - and good business.

For more helpful tips, exercises and insights in to practical ways to develop your innovation strategy, check out some other articles from our innovation series.