To Hear the Voice of the Customer, Listen Outside the Box


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A Voice of the Customer (VOC) initiative should give voice to things that the firm would not normally hear. It should allow a firm to hear, straight from its customers, insightful things that do not surface through conventional marketing research.

I would not include customer satisfaction research in my definition of VOC, as it’s something that the firm should be doing in the normal course of business and is usually designed to address how well we are doing the things we are typically expected to do. I’d want my VOC program to reveal the kind of insight that I need to impress customers and to set my firm apart.

Many firms have established VOC programs to deliver input into customer-related decisions. There is, however, a high degree of variability in how such programs are designed, ranging from simple customer satisfaction measurement to sophisticated multi-source initiatives that collect information from customers in a variety of different forms.

In my 30-plus years of advising companies on their customer relationships, I have met many firms who have no idea what their customers are thinking. Others do a credible job of obtaining information on their marketing performance. But few have reached the point where they regularly look for insight into how they might impress customers, contribute to their experiences and steal an advantage over the competition. In fact, most companies are simply looking to improve the things they already do. Addressing the unexpected is missing from their aspirations.

But there are two elements that should be addressed when a firm is designing its VOC program. The first relates to the information to be collected, the reason for collecting it and how it is to be used. The second relates to how the firm intends to collect the information; in other words, how it will listen to the collective voice of its customers.

What we need to hear

My ideal VOC program would supplement conventional marketing research. It would get much closer to customers so that we can hear about things that may be only indirectly related to our business. It would give customers the opportunity to speak with us in conversation rather than through surveys. It would be relaxed and less structured, indirect rather than direct. It would rely more on qualitative techniques and on individual one-on-one interviews, in particular. It may also involve creating initiatives such as customer councils that meet occasionally with senior executives.

I’d use my VOC program to get past what we make and what we do, to get at what customers are facing in their lives. I would use the program to gain as detailed an understanding as possible of the context in which my customers operate. I would try to sort out what they need help with and what else my company could be doing that would impress them by looking after something that they don’t enjoy doing. It will allow us to truly understand customer needs in the broadest sense.

Free-wheeling conversation

This approach to VOC allows a firm to address opportunities that surface during the conversation, not needs or situations that are predetermined by the business. It allows customers to use their own language, rather than respond to discussion-limiting questions posed by you. By taking this approach, you’ll hear volumes about things that are important to customers and that represent opportunities to respond.

In a recent retailing project, we interviewed customers in depth to explore their shopping experiences. Rather than following a scripted format, interviewers asked general questions about an ideal shopping trip: What would cause customers to leave a store without buying or earlier than planned? The interviews elicited that enjoyment in shopping and the likelihood of staying in a store had less to do with product selection and price than it did with how “comfortable” shoppers felt.

We heard a great deal about “little things” that surface as irritants for the customer and are often ignored by retailers. Much was made of the appearance and feel of washrooms and about such details as the use of single-ply toilet tissue—customers think it’s cheap and shows the retailer doesn’t really care. Several women said they would never buy clothing in a store where the mirrors are outside the change rooms. They were quite vocal about how they feel “parading themselves” in public wearing something that may not fit and they may not buy.

Such a detailed understanding of what’s going through the minds of customers is almost never obtained though conventional marketing research, and would never surface from the application of “data mining” techniques. Typically, retailers ask questions that relate to behavior rather than feelings: How often do you visit the store? What departments do you visit? What did you buy on your last trip? Did you get served quickly? Were our sales clerks helpful? Such questions tell us nothing about what would impress the customer or how the customer feels toward the store.

By definition, surveys reveal answers only to the questions we ask. Responses are limited to the options provided. They don’t typically broaden the context to include things that the respondent may offer.

It’s more than research

The concept of Voice of the Customer is important, particularly in companies that are committed to the development of customer relationships. Giving voice to customers suggests that a company is interested in hearing from them, in giving them their say, so that improvements can be made and creative initiatives launched.

By taking a less structured approach, you identify things that are truly important to customers, rather than putting words in their mouths or asking them for feedback on things that you think are important. You garner what I call “gems of wisdom,” true insight into aspects of the lives of customers that typically will not surface during your normal interaction with them and almost certainly will not be gleaned from conventional research.


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