Startups: Why you must walk in your customer's shoes

When growing up in Australia, the house I lived in backed onto the bush. My grandmother, who lived up on a hill nearby, affectionately referred to a pair of shoes I wore as "walking shoes." I cherished those comfy shoes because my parents allowed me to explore the area around my house whilst getting them muddy -- getting messy really is one of the best things about being young.

When the shoes came out of the cupboard and I put them on my feet, I was up and ready for exploration. It was a time for me and my imagination to run wild. Over the years, the brands and styles of my walking shoes changed, but the idea didn't. Now, in 2018, I'm about to fly out to Bangkok and I’ll be packing my walking shoes.

They’re a different style now and obviously a bigger size, but the principle remains the same. I ask myself, “Why are these walking shoes still so important to me?” These days, rather than exploring the bush behind my childhood home, my walking shoes relate to my line of work and my dealings with customers.  

Brands Must Walk A Mile In Their Customers' Shoes 

When I work with startups, a lot of the conversations I have with them are on the topic of growth. Before a business can achieve growth, they must first leap over the first hurdle of figuring out product/market fit.  

Often, I ask if the team has recently put on their “walking shoes” and left the confines of the office to connect with real customers. Relating to the customer is crucial. After all, brands will never understand how to market to customers if they’ve not walked a mile in their shoes.

There are 3 types of shoes you’ll need to pull out of your cupboard depending on the challenge you face: Explorer’s shoes, shoes for the mud, and shoes for climbing a mountain.

The Explorer's Shoe 


“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

— Bill Gates

The explorer’s shoe is for those startups that are unsure of who their customers are. These are brands who haven't acquired their first 10 customers or are struggling to scale. I recently had a call with a tech leader who was struggling with customer acquisition. The founder wasn’t clear on who they were targeting and as a result couldn't successfully explain it to the team. This is a real challenge for a small startup. But, as brands through the years have found, there are many ways to solve this issue and gain a real understanding of future customers.

Many years ago, enterprise companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble had programs where employees had to walk in their customer’s shoes. It was compulsory, and these employees didn't progress in their careers at Unilever unless they spent five days a quarter with the customers.

Amazon also famously created the ‘extra chair at the table’ to represent the voice of the customer. To this day that empty chair sits in meetings to remind everyone that the customer is the priority. So, even if you have a lean team, you should be asking yourselves, “How can we practically put on our explorer boots?”

The Muddy Walking Shoes 


“It takes humility to seek feedback. It takes wisdom to understand it, analyse it, and appropriately act on it.

— Stephen Covey, Author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Imagine it’s cold and muddy outside. Even though you want to take a walk, you have two choices: you either stay inside where it's warm and clean, or you take a step out into the wilderness and muddle through the obstacle course ahead.

If your team is starting to get negative feedback from customers, the only way to move forward is to brave the mud, even if you don’t like what you find. In this instance, wading through mud means everyone in the company, from the founder to the team, takes the time to ask for feedback from current customers and customers who have recently churned.

This is the time for companies to take action and be proactive. Listening to feedback frequently is important because it empowers the business to solve their customers' real problems. It can be sticky because out there in the mud you’ll uncover feedback that will adapt your product roadmap, brand positioning or pricing.

The Mountain Shoes 


“Find a way to be personal with your customers and connect with them on a human level.”

– Andrew Reid

Finally, there are the mountain shoes. There’s a current trend for doing 10,000 steps a day and tracking progress using wearable technology like the  Fitbit, Apple Watch, or Strava. Exercise is great, there’s no question about that. But, are you exercising with your customers, and walking the whole nine yards in their shoes?

Wearing mountain shoes means experiencing everything you possible can about your service from the point of view of your customers. Perhaps, not quite at the levels of the ‘Undercover Boss,' where the ‘boss’ spies on his staff doing day-to-day tasks and asks how they feel about it, but the outcomes for your brand should be the same.

The point is, if you’re not willing to climb the mountain with your customers, from base camp up  to the summit, going through tough timesperhaps a wilderness periodin the process, you’ll fall behind your competitors.

The hard work starts from your time as a startup and continues as you become a more established company with a different set of customers. Never stop walking in your customer’s shoes. If you do, they’ll quickly realise that you’ve stopped trying and your bottom line will pay the price. Listen, understand, and value their feedback, and you’ll be in a great position to provide a service that meets their ever-changing needs while identifying and targeting new markets.

Three Simple Ways To Get Into Your Customers' Shoes 


  1. Have 10 conversations with customers and prospects over the next 30 days.
  2. Reach out to your current customers and ask them for feedback. Pick up the phone and thank them for the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  3. Start a central point for customer feedback and language.

Why Do You Need To Do This?  

You'll understand your real customer pain points and how you serve them. You'll also be able to describe and explain who the customer is and understand the best way to build an emotional connection with them. The bonus is it will help you prioritise features or any builds on your product. All of this will help you market your brand to future customers. Remember:  Conversations are a two-way phenomenon, so you'll be looking for your customers to put on their walking shoes with you.

Whether you’ve slipped on your explorer’s shoes, muddy walking shoes, or mountain shoes, putting them on will help you identify who you should target and how to build an emotional connection with them. This should be the first focus of your marketing strategy when starting out.  

Cherish Feedback and Use It Proactively 

As you start to scale your business, the initial customer personas you were targeting will change. They evolve naturally because your products and customers have developed, or because you have expanded beyond early adopters. And, so too should your marketing strategy change to target those customers who have already evolved, and to find the new market that will likely result from a refined company directive.

Four Ways To Practically Act On Feedback 

No matter what stage of success your company has achieved, customer feedback should always be welcomed. Cherish customer thoughts and take the time to act on what you find.

Take a methodical approach to this using the following simple step-by-step process:

  1. Collect feedback by integrating surveys into the purchase process and by gathering data from customer service teams.
  2. Use this customer insight to identify where improvements can be made to your services or products.
  3. Draw out a short- and long-term roadmap to include the strategic implications of this feedback.
  4. Implement your changes, let customers know that they have been heard, and target any new markets that may materialise as a result.

The aim is to nurture brand advocates who keep coming back, which is done best by being transparent at all times. And, when you receive feedback, be proactive and implement those changes. Follow up with your customers by explaining what you’ve done. It seems simple, but you’d be surprised as to how many companies don’t do these very critical steps.

Putting on your walking shoes does open you up to raw, unfiltered feedback. Rather than avoiding uncomfortable feedback because you’re scared of what you’ll find out, go and get muddy, seeking all the feedback you canboth the good and the badand use this to build something better.

Cat Williams-Treloar founded Humanisation, a Human-Centered Marketing Consultancy. Humanisation was born to help startups make a human impact in a digital world as they Go-To-Market across APAC.


Read more about Humanisation & our why here, or get in contact with


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