The Voice of the Customer Is a Critical Feedback Loop

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If you want to manage your customer relationships, you need to understand their perspective. Voice of the Customer (VOC) research provides a structured means of doing so that can be used wherever you have significant contact with your customers. If you are interested in new product or service development, VOC can help identify and prioritize customer needs. If you are interested in fostering customer loyalty, VOC can help you identify the primary problems with your own products or services—and the advantages that drive customers to use you competition even when you have a competitive offering.

In essence, VOC can provide a critical feedback loop at almost every touch-point that you have with your customers. As such, VOC encompasses a host of different research techniques that center on one primary question:

What do our customers need?



Determining what customers need is no simple task. Over the years, I have developed five critical guidelines for the “big picture” that will help ensure the success of your VOC program, regardless of where you apply it.


  • Guideline 1: Think Strategically


    Unless you are blessed with an unlimited budget, you are not going to be able to listen effectively at each of the many touch-points that you have with your customers. Devote your primary resources to those areas that are most important to your overall CRM strategy, and use less expensive techniques to get feedback from other areas. Within reason, shift resources as your strategy changes or monitoring suggests the emergence of problems in different parts of the organization.

  • Guideline 2: Create a Culture of Listening


    Even if you can’t devote formal resources to VOC studies in certain parts of your organization, you can create a culture where your employees monitor the voice of the customer in their interactions with them. This is predicated on a business model where employee listening is validated and feedback is encouraged—even if it is bad news.

  • Guideline 3: Use the Customer’s Voice


    Too often companies try to use

    their

    voice as opposed to the customer’s voice. Customers have purchased your product because of the job it will do for them, and as such their needs are best expressed in

    their

    terms—not an engineer’s design specifications. Rarely are my customers interested in the fact that I use “maximum likelihood-based structural equation models to determine the causal structure of business processes.” Rather, they want to know what “factors directly and indirectly influence sales.”

    This is a particular thorny issue in that it may first require a good understanding of the job steps that customers use so that you can speak intelligently in their voice and, following collection of information, back-translate into the specifications required by product engineers responsible for redesign efforts. This is not an easy task, but it’s a necessary one.


  • Guideline 4: Listen to the Right People


    The “right” person depends on which of the many touch-points you are examining, but as a general rule of thumb you are best-served by listening to the people who are closest to your products or services. You may be tempted to listen to purchase decision-makers—and under some circumstances, that is entirely appropriate—but don’t be surprised if price, as opposed to value, becomes a key need for them.

  • Guideline 5: Welcome Criticism


    With the exception of a few true curmudgeons, most people prefer to be agreeable and, as such, may not willingly reveal issues that are “nagging” at them. If you know that you are having problems in a certain area, address it “head on.” You are more likely to identify the root cause of the problem.

    I remember one VOC project where the project manager for the primary, company-wide tracking study insisted that every question be phrased in the positive to avoid “creating problems where they really didn’t exist.” Another parallel project—more focused than the first—was managed by a different person who was less afraid of bad news; he knew that there were problems within his functional area, and he wanted to fix them.



    Voice of the Customer Guidelines
    • Think Strategically
    • Create a Culture of Listening
    • Use the Customer’s Voice
    • Listen to the Right People
    • Welcome Criticism

    On the tracking study, 74 percent reported satisfaction with the functional area, while in the focused problem study, 45 percent reported experiencing problems at least once every three months. Eighty-seven customers participated in

    both

    the tracking and the focused problem study. Of these, slightly more than half had experienced problems at least once every three months. Despite the objective problems that these customers reported, most (61 percent) were satisfied.

    We elected to conduct 30 in-depth interviews with customers who had experienced frequent problems: 15 each with satisfied and dissatisfied customers. From these, we were able to identify a time-saving work process change that saved $12.46 per unit in labor and benefits. When coupled with a part substitution that cost $2.83 more per unit, this resolved 95 percent of the problems and decreased customer churn.



These five guidelines give you the fundamental starting points for an effective VOC program. With these in place, the many messy details that will follow (e.g., ideation sessions, qualitative or quantitative methods, sampling of customers, research methodologies, statistical analysis and reporting) will be comparatively simple because you will have made the most important step: You will be receptive to what the customer has to say.



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