How B2B Voice of the Customer Maturity Drives Growth

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B2B voice of customer maturityB2B voice of customer maturity is not about scores, real-time feedback, response rates, listening posts, benchmarks, or comparisons to B2C trends. So, what does it mean? Let’s look at a sports analogy for enlightenment.

When you’re mature in a sport, it means increased motor skills, strength, power, and in many cases, reduced risk of injury. Top-tier athletes’ actions are second nature to them (embedded in their psyche or a matter of routine/habit) and they can adapt instantaneously to whatever is needed at the moment.

The same is true for mature humans and mature organizations. Maturity means agility, strength in adversity, power in influence and speed, and overall risk reduction. We saw evidence of this at the beginning of the pandemic: some firms were dialed in to customers and hence, they were well-suited to adapt as needed, while other firms struggled.

Accordingly, B2B voice of customer maturity means (1) participation is second nature (enjoyably easy) to customers, (2) absorbing, adopting, and acting on voice of customer (VoC) insights is second nature (enthusiastically easy) to managers, and (3) your enterprise uses VoC insights to adapt instantaneously to shifting market needs.

B2B Voice of Customer Maturity Today

Since the 2009 global economic downturn, companies have invested heavily in enterprise feedback management. Despite this significant investment of energy and resources, B2B VoC today might be rated between 3-6 on a 10-point scale for each of the 3 maturity criteria listed above.

1) Customer Participation Today

Survey fatigue and response rates are ongoing challenges, as B2B customers are almost constantly asked to give feedback for both business and personal purchases and interactions. Accepting all feedback requests would certainly require significant precious time.

Clearly, it’s not yet enjoyably easy for customers to participate in VoC.

2) Manager Participation Today

Managers were very curious about evolving customer needs at the beginning of the global pandemic. However, they were quickly distracted by numerous additional challenges with work from home, managing remotely, and re-organizations. There was a wonderful window of opportunity for VoC managers to inject customer focus into each of these challenges, but unfortunately, few VoC managers were poised to do so with appropriate insights or political positioning.

Even before the pandemic, non-customer-facing managers typically saw VoC as something unrelated to their work or revealing issues too big to tackle. On the positive side, managers are typically engaged in closing the loop with dissatisfied survey participants.

Another hindrance to manager participation is VoC reporting. VoC dashboards and reports commonly emphasize customer-facing issues and apparent safe zones. For instance, if NPS® is above a certain threshold or average ratings are in a certain range, then managers’ interpretation is there’s no effort needed from them.

As a result, customers’ reluctance to participate in VoC is compounded, as they don’t see a meaningful return on their feedback.

3) Enterprise Use Today

VoC insights are generally insufficient for adapting instantaneously to shifting market needs. This is because real-time feedback is transaction-oriented and other types of VoC are typically focused on a product, region, or revenue opportunity. Indeed, among companies participating in XM Institute’s State of Voice of the Customer Programs study, only “one-quarter think they are good at actually making changes to their business based on the program’s insights”.

Evidently, senior leadership teams and boards of directors are unaccustomed to using VoC to navigate shifting market needs.

B2B voice of customer maturity is quite low today in terms of ease, actionability, and strategic use.

B2B VoC Maturity Essentials

Even among a mix of B2C and B2B companies, only 16% have reached the two highest levels of VoC maturity, as shown in the image below. From my own experience as a B2B voice of customer manager, it’s certainly possible to aim for and achieve these two highest levels from the start of your VoC effort. Why not make this your target for 2022?

Voice of Customer Maturity

VoC Collaborators

My VoC team tailored feedback to every line of business, and we engaged each of them in developing their own cross-functional continuous improvement plan. We closed the loop with our entire customer base by sending a letter from the senior leadership team outlining the top 3 issues from our annual customer relationship survey with a promise to send a progress report within a certain number of months.

We created more than 50 separate VoC reports to give each line of business their own cut of the data. While the data was very fresh, we went on a global road trip to conduct cross-functional action planning workshops. The single-page strategies that resulted were published quarterly by my team for the senior leadership team’s quarterly calls with Wall Street analysts. Managers knew about this and our promised progress report, and this motivated them to follow through on their single-page strategies. We updated customers as promised.

VoC Transformers

At the same time, we worked with numerous operational and strategic planning process owners across the company (HR, Finance, IT, Legal, Planning, Marketing, Facilities, etc.) to embed VoC insights and customer experience (CX) criteria into their programs, templates, policies, processes, and other deliverables.

We moved our annual customer relationship survey to the quarter preceding the corporation’s strategic planning process. This allowed CX insights (the workshop findings) to be top-of-mind among managers in every business unit and support function as they embarked on their strategic plans.

At the end of the year, we met with every general manager to review progress in their single-page strategy, and we had the power to reduce their annual bonus for this area by 50% or raise it by 50%, depending on achievements relative to circumstances. We also adjusted our company-wide recognition criteria to encourage teamwork in preventing recurrence or occurrence of prevalent CX issues. These achievements were shared widely for organizational learning and team recognition.

In short, achieving B2B voice of customer maturity is a matter of top management expecting VoC to inspire collaboration and transformation, and then organizing your VoC efforts to deliver these two highest levels of performance.

VoC Collectors and VoC Analysts

In the rush to get NPS® scores or see what the data says, VoC managers collect feedback without a strategic plan for how to engage managers across the company in acting on it. On the advice of the CX technology provider (per their business models), VoC managers expand their listening posts and real-time dashboards. The NPS® System advocates VoC managers’ efforts in engaging Promoters, Passives, and Detractors. However, these groups are a percentage of your customer base by definition, since their identification is based on survey response rates. VoC managers’ bandwidth gets further consumed when special interest VoC multiplies as various teams want customer insights for what they are developing or journey mapping.

Eventually, senior management wants to know how VoC is impacting company growth. So VoC managers conduct numerous analyses to prove the connection between customer feedback and revenue trends. Without significant actioning on VoC across the company, it is very difficult to definitively prove that collecting VoC translates to revenue growth. Furthermore, many external and internal factors affect any specific customer’s buying decisions. Unfortunately, some senior leadership teams decide to disband all the CX staff. This has happened at major brands: Adobe, Cisco, Hewlett Packard, Intuit, and Symantec, among many others.

B2B voice of customer maturity requires you to think through what works well in your company’s culture for energetic, sustained, and collaborative action and follow-through. You won’t fare well if you wait to see what the data says to rally engagement on a cherry-picked basis. That’s not bold enough to engender customer-centric thinking and behaviors throughout your corporation, nor to move the needle in financial growth.

Mature Voice of Customer Strategy

How B2B Voice of the Customer Maturity Drives Growth

In my own experience as a VoC manager, the company-wide engagement my team facilitated was instrumental in keeping our largest (and highly influential) customer from defecting, even though this customer’s CEO stated his intention to switch suppliers.

We influenced dozens of teams each year to follow through on their CX improvement action plans. And we inspired dozens more to strive for issue recurrence prevention and issue occurrence prevention, and to help the rest of the company borrow lessons learned through our highly visible team recognition program.

Our company’s teams saved customers massive time and costs, and in turn, we saved ourselves substantial time and costs. These were contributors to many aspects of financial growth, as shown by these examples:

  • Sales Velocity: 16X reduction in customers’ time for service, $1M savings monthly to the customer, 10X increase in customer productivity, exceeded customer expectations by 75%
  • Earnings Per Share: 23X reduction in cycle time from 5 days to 5 hours
  • Return on Assets: 6X improvement in trouble-shooting cycle time, 80% reduction in engineers’ learning cycle time, 75% reduction in customer-reported bugs/issues

Expectations VoC & Realities VoC

Over time, I gained tremendous appreciation for this model, which separates voice of customer into Expectations VoC and Realities VoC:

voice of customer purpose

This model recognizes that salaries, budgets, and dividends come from customers. It respects the fact that business success depends on meeting or exceeding customer expectations.

Recognizing customers as the source of your company’s ongoing existence, crystalize your understanding of customers’ expectations as performance standards for every group across your company’s ecosystem. When each manager in your company understands how their performance affects customers, they’re empowered to prevent customer issues. This is a much smarter and vastly less expensive way to run your business!

Use your Expectations VoC to educate all facets of your business in their performance standards. This is how customer-centricity is built. And it’s how massive waste is avoided.

Through robust Expectations VoC, your Realities VoC can be reduced greatly, minimizing the burden on customers and CX budget.

Natural byproducts of this diagram’s formula are churn reduction, upselling, cross-selling, referrals, and acquisition cost reduction. Rather than committing sizeable funding in perpetuity to recovering from missteps, your expectations VoC educates managers in preventing missteps in the first place. Accordingly, your brand will have a greater magnetic attraction to both new and renewing customers. They’ll naturally want to refer others to your brand and buy more as your brand stands out in customer experience excellence (i.e. issue prevention).

Expectations and perceptions are moving targets, as new forces arise in any influencer’s chain of command, economics, politics, performance trends, external and internal requirements, and so forth. For this reason, an ongoing systematic approach is needed in both Expectations VoC and Realities VoC.

Expectations VoC

Expectations VOC is different from typical Realities VoC. Expectations are usually captured through comments. Make use of data you already have before asking customers for their precious time. Data you have on-hand is what one of my colleagues calls “cash in the attic”.

Buying Influencers: Many parties within a B2B firm influence buying decisions. Make sure your Expectations VoC collects information about each of these parties. What are their pressures? How is their success measured? What do they care about regarding your solution (product/service)? What are their workarounds when your solution doesn’t satisfy them?

B2B buying influencers

Core-Growth Customers: Some customers are more profitable than others. And some customers are growing faster than others. Your company’s growth is dependent to a large extent on certain customers expanding their purchases. You can’t please everyone equally, so don’t dilute your CX performance by trying too hard too early with non-core-growth customers. A the same time, beware of instigating negative word-of-mouth among any customers.

Get a thorough understanding of your core-growth customers’ needs and do all you can to outperform your customers’ alternatives (your competitors and other substitutes), so you’ll be the clear choice for this customer group. As your bandwidth expands, you can extend your CX efforts to other customer groups.

Almost-Free VoC: There are many ways customers initiate comments to your company. Typical sources are your contact center, customer success teams, your website, industry communities/websites, symposiums, trade shows, and informal conversations with your employees and partners.

The casual comments made by customers during these interactions can be far more valuable than what’s captured in your Realities VoC. EMC and Dell created a mobile app for employees and partners to send customer comments to a central database.

To harvest almost-free VoC, invest in text-mining, voice-mining, and/or video-mining technologies for making use of what customers have already told you.

Outside Sources: Customers’ intended outcomes may be well researched already by your R&D group, your sales team, and/or your customer success department. Mine studies by Marketing, Advertising, and Public Relations for new insights and for adjusting your VoC methodologies and reporting. Go beyond industry studies’ quantitative findings for inspiration from qualitative content from any customers or spectators.

Digital Body Language: Customers’ digital body language can be as revealing as what they vocalize. Analytics applications can find patterns across the Internet of Things. When you combine all sources of customer data, you can paint a richer picture of what customers expect.

As needed, broaden and deepen your understanding through primary qualitative research, such as executive listening sessions, in-depth interviews, focus groups, user groups, and/or customer advisory boards.

B2B Voice of Customer Maturity

Realities VoC

Realities VOC should be limited to moments of truth. These are the junctures along a customers’ end-to-end journey with your brand when they may be inclined to disengage or engage with your brand. You’ll identify these moments of truth through your Expectations VoC.

B2B voice of customer maturity practices are the opposite of today’s prevalent advice to design your questions based on your business goals and ask all customers to participate in Realities VoC. Instead, design your questions based on your customers’ goals and ask a representative sample of customers to participate in Realities VoC.

Spontaneous VoC: Make it possible for customers to give you feedback anytime, anywhere, any way they like. For example, you can add a link or QR code to your products, correspondence, signs, digital touch-points, and so on. Realities VoC reveals customers’ realities (their perceptions) relative to their expectations.

Flexible VoC: Be sure to capture feedback from all parties in ways that are natural to them — don’t try to force them to wade through questions or formats they would deem as irrelevant to their interests. Right-size and right-time the VoC experience for each influencer role. For example, what’s germane to a purchasing manager is typically quite different from the concerns of a safety manager or an end-user. Make sure each role’s data has the right weighting in VoC reports, to reflect their real-world influence.

Partner with your Sales team to maintain an updated database of various influencers of buying decisions. Account teams are typically territorial regarding who gets access to their customers and customer intelligence. This is crippling your company’s ability to help you build trust. Your internal stakeholders company-wide need to know more about what your customers expect and what the gap is between that and what they get. Only then can your internal stakeholders help you close that gap to build trust, which will shorten sales cycles and expand referrals and share-of-budget.

Representation: Use stratified random sampling in your Realities VoC for statistical confidence that each buying influencer group’s data is representative. This minimizes burnout and costs while allowing you to extrapolate findings to your whole customer base.

Frequency: The most memorable VoC advice I received when setting up my first VoC strategy was in answer to my question: How often should we ask customers for feedback? The answer is two-fold: (1) As often as your VoC-inspired actions make a noticeable performance difference, and (2) As often as forces change in your customer’s industry.

Actionability: Learn the language of your internal audience for VoC reports. What phrases do they use in their work? For example, Finance talks about risk, efficiency (return on . . . assets, investment, inventory, shares, liabilities), opportunity cost, and so on. What do your Expectations VoC and Realities VoC imply about these? Call out these implications in your VoC reports and presentations. Even if you misstate something, it engages your audience in deciding the correct path to take.

Additionally, what does VoC imply about the amount of money, time, and opportunities being wasted? This is universal manager language that strikes both the heart and mind compellingly. Everyone wants more budget, more talent, more time, and so on. Waste is usually as motivating as gains. And you’ll need to reduce wastes (customers’ hassles and issues) before increasing gains (positive word-of-mouth and revenue).

Customize reports as needed for managers to embrace CX insights. Suggest next steps for them to take. This gets the ball rolling for them to tweak your suggestion as needed and/or add their own next steps. Deliver them in a timely manner, such as just before strategic planning or ops reviews, or other milestones. Facilitate actioning and collaborating and progress reporting.

Show managers how their VoC action plan progress metric is a leading indicator of what customers will soon experience. As a result, ongoing VoC is a validation (or course-correction) of their work and achievements.

B2B voice of customer maturity depends on your ability to accurately reflect your B2B market dynamics and help managers manage the business better than your competitors can manage.

Customer Participation with Mature VoC

You’ll make customer participation enjoyably easy by emphasizing almost-free VoC, allowing customers to give you feedback anytime, using stratified random sampling with questions about customers’ goals, and asking for more feedback only as often as change happens.

Manager Participation with Mature VoC

You’ll make managers’ participation enthusiastically easy by framing their roles in terms of (1) why customers are funding them and (2) performance standards core-growth customers need from them. Giving them a customer-based purpose is pivotal to maintaining their attention to news from your Expectations VoC and Realities VoC.

When you view your CX team’s role as facilitators rather than collectors and analysts and doers, you’ll expand CX-inspired results exponentially. You’ll facilitate all managers’ absorption, adoption, and action on VoC by systematically publishing customized reports and facilitating actioning workshops and high visibility to progress reports.

As a result, customers will gladly participate in VoC as they see a meaningful return on their feedback.

Enterprise Use with Mature VoC

You’ll make VoC instrumental to enterprise strategy development as you fine-tune your Expectations VoC findings. When your senior leadership team can be crystal-clear in describing core-growth customers’ intended outcomes, your company is more likely to consistently deliver them.

This description is referred to as Intentional Customer Experience. You’ll want to make it your company’s North Star. A company’s North Star is the basis for every type of decision, to stay on course toward your desired destination.

Through B2B voice of customer maturity, your senior leadership team and board of directors should become adept at using VoC to navigate shifting market needs.

Customer Experience Maturity Model

Your emphasis on making a difference for customers will clarify the impressive value you’re generating in the financial growth of your company.

Just as top-tier athletes have increased motor skills as their actions are embedded in their psyche or a matter of habit, mature B2B voice of customer increases organizational resilience as your core-growth customers’ expectations define every group’s purpose and performance standards.

Like top-tier athletes’ ability to adapt instantaneously to whatever is needed at the moment, mature B2B VoC will keep your firm dialed in to customers to readily navigate market evolutions in this dynamic decade.

NOTE: If you manage B2B customer experience, please participate in this questionnaire with 4 check-lists and 5 write-in options: The Misunderstood B2B Customer Experience. Thanks!

This article is the fourth in a year-long CustomerThink Advisors series on B2B Customer Experience Maturity:

  1. 10 B2B Customer Experience Myths & How to Improve Your CX Maturity
  2. B2B CX Metrics & ROI Maturity: Linking Customer Expectations to Business Performance
  3. Four Steps to Accelerate B2B CXM Maturity and Propel Stronger Growth
  4. How B2B Voice of the Customer Maturity Drives Growth
  5. B2B Customer Experience Leadership Maturity

Additional B2B CXM articles can be found on ClearAction’s Customer-Centric Growth Strategy Blog.

Image licensed to ClearAction Continuum by Shutterstock.

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