Companies work hard to listen to the voice of the customer (VoC) and innovate based on what they hear, but passive listening isn’t enough. I’ve found that you must always be on the lookout for new ways customers can connect with you and seamlessly share information to help you deliver products that better meet their needs.
The B2B technology company for which I work is doing some pretty amazing things in this area with many longstanding, and recently established, customer outreach programs. These programs serve as templates for active listening that are uniquely and directly connecting customers with our CX team, customer service and support — and more specifically with product development and product management.
Feedback channels are ongoing resources for us and help ensure that we approach VoC and product innovation from the customer’s perspective, developing new products and features that align with their current and future needs.
1. Gather year-round insights from customers
Remember “Google Glass” — Google’s effort to squeeze a PC into a pair of smart eyeglasses? It was one of thousands of products introduced each year that fail to meet customer expectations or that were designed without a full understanding of what those expectations might be. Our company has launched a Customer Innovation Program designed to help us avoid this fate.
More than just a gathering of customers in a focus group session at the annual user conference, the program is designed to listen to customers all year long in a variety of ways. Approximately 20 customers representing a balance of customer sizes and industry types provide year-round feedback through surveys, focus groups and regularly scheduled conference calls. During these sessions, we’re not only looking for customer comments about our products, but we also want to hear about their long-term needs and strategies. What new products or existing product enhancements can we develop to help them meet their goals?
We discuss market trends that are vital to the growth of our members’ businesses, their plans for evolution, the technology changes impacting their IT operations and the competitive pressures within their industries. We host “ideation” sessions to capture needs and use cases. We also invite our program members to test-drive new technology and prototypes, and we give members the choice to opt-in as advisors to influence next-level product development.
2. Put the customer perspective and experience into action
A unique component of the Customer Innovation Program is the Innovation Users Council. This is a panel of actual day-to-day users of the software, and it is based on gathering feedback, questions, and comments and incorporating those ideas into the product requirements. Our Customer Innovation Program leader presides over conference calls during which users bring up questions like, “Can the number of mouse clicks needed to perform this task be reduced?” This opens an active and engaging conversation for the leader to dive deeper into this pain point for users, not only working to solve the inquiry at hand, but also discovering other areas of innovation and improvement for products.
We invite members to join quarterly webinars to share their ideas and experiences with different products. At times, the Product Management team may request members to participate in testing, so we can hear their usability comments firsthand, while they have their eyes and hands on the product. It’s a good way to ensure the sometimes lofty and ambitious goals discussed in our Customer Innovation Program are always grounded in the realities of day-to-day user experiences.
3. Maximize the potential of online communities
Discussions about ways to keep our company’s online community fresh and engaging led to the opening of a new avenue of communication between customers and our product development teams. We are soon launching a “Product Ideas Portal” within our online community — and it will interface directly with our internal product management system.
How will it work? Customers can present ideas for new products and features. Other members can vote and comment on those ideas. Product managers can respond: “The feature is already in another version,” or, “That’s really interesting. Let us take it under review. You’ll be hearing from us soon.”
The portal not only will provide a direct flow of customer ideas into the product innovation process, but it also will provide product managers with a consolidated view of product ideas that can go into their development playbook.
It’s a much better approach than a customer support person fielding a call about a product idea and then emailing a product manager with the details. The innovation might get lost on the list of priorities, or the customer might not receive feedback and end up with the feeling that his or her voice doesn’t matter. Even worse, the message might get misinterpreted in translation or fall through the cracks. With the Ideas Portal, customer support is no longer forced to serve as the “middle man,” and customer ideas are far more likely to be heard and responded to — by the appropriate people.
By the same token, if a customer idea gets few votes of support from other customers, it helps the customer understand why the company might have a lukewarm response to it.
4. Create a zone for innovation at user conferences
We’ve also had success with another endeavor, the “Product Innovation Zone,” at our annual Engage™ user conference, where customers can see ideas and prototypes for new products and weigh in on them. We started the Zone three years ago in the Americas as a new way of crowd-sourcing, and it was so successful that it has been incorporated into our European user conference, as well.
With a creative, trendy setup patterned in the style of a technology lounge, our Product Innovation Zones have products displayed on counter-tops, so customers can test drive new software. We also have posters with visual depictions of new ideas for product sets. Customers can place stickers on them to indicate their responses — a thumbs up, a heart or a sad face. They can elaborate on their responses with comments on sticky notes. This provides a fun and informal forum for an exchange of ideas.
After the conference, we have a “Poster-Mortem” where we take photos of all the posters, tally up the responses and use collaboration software to make sure the ideas are shared among the product management team. The Ideas Portal, which I mentioned earlier, will be fully linked to this process once it goes live with customers, serving as a year-round source for possible ideas to present in the Zone and track them afterward.
There are always new ways to listen
While my company proactively leverages many different customer listening channels, there are extraordinary tools out there to help organizations listen to the VoC. Technology solutions like speech and text analytics, utilized in our own contact center, help you tune in more closely to understand the source of customer approvals and disappointments.
Digital feedback solutions provide an easy way for customers to initiate their own comments over digital and mobile channels — more specifically, we use our own digital feedback offering on our website and in our mobile app to gather feedback when and where the customer wants to provide it. Continuing to practice what we preach, my company also heavily leverages our own community solution, not just for customers to interact with each other, but for us to interact with them. All of these tools help companies connect the dots between multi-channel customer interactions, creating an accurate and supremely valuable wide-angle view of the overall customer experience.
Nonetheless, companies that deliver the best customer experience don’t only use the tried and true. Whether you’re gathering feedback through technology or any of the hosted forums discussed here, it’s up to us to keep finding new ways to listen and, most important, to act on what customers tell us.