Interpreting the Voice of the Customer

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Voice of the Customer (VoC) is how companies hear, listen to, and respond to customer feedback about their brand, products, and services. This data comes from a variety of sources, including:

  • Surveys (internal and external/third-party)
  • Online reviews (TripAdvisor & Yelp together host >750M consumer reviews)
  • Support tickets
  • Facebook comments (5 billion per/mo.)
  • Tweets (350,000 p/min.)
  • Chat conversations
  • Emails
  • Call recordings/transcripts

There’s usually no shortage of data for brands to mine. Sometimes this information points to operational changes that immediately lower costs, reduce effort, increase sales, or spur productivity. These are generally easier suggestions to implement because the payoff is clear and near term. Other times, there is a significant cost to address the VoC data, requiring more work to secure the funds and more time to recoup the investment.

Below are three illustrations of businesses responding to VoC feedback from their customers. The first example challenges our assumptions about how to interpret customer feedback. The second one pits shoppers’ need for personal safety and security against the cost of paid parking. And the third illustration assumes a risk by replacing a complimentary hotel guest amenity with a higher-quality substitute for which they must now pay.

How do I look?

VoC feedback received by the landlord of a San Francisco apartment building indicated that residents were becoming increasingly disappointed by slow elevator speeds that were causing excessive wait times.

To remedy the problem, the building’s owner spent $175,000 to modernize the elevator and replace the decades-old motor with a brand new one. The owner had recorded wait times before and after the overhaul and, sure enough, the upgrade shaved several seconds off the average wait time. Pleased with himself, the owner surveyed residents on the satisfaction with the new elevator system and was shocked to receive comments like: “Slow as ever” and “No faster than before.”

Perplexed, he shared the feedback with his partner who took a different approach to the problem. He hired a company to install mirrors adjacent to each of the elevators on every floor.

When the residents were re-surveyed about elevator speeds in the days following the installation of the mirrors, the comments had changed to “A vast improvement” and “Much faster.”

Although actual wait times had not changed, perceived wait times had. Oh, and the cost of the mirrors was $5,216.

The price of safety

A Midwest shopping center offered complimentary parking to customers for decades. As security became more of a priority for mall guests through VOC data analysis, the management company worked with contractors to obtain bids to install, literally, thousands of additional lights and cameras onsite. Given the economic constraints, the only way that mall management could justify the expense of enhanced security measures was to begin charging for parking that had previously been free.

So, the tension was between offering enhanced guest safety and vehicle security while charging for parking or maintaining the same level of security and safety while continuing to offer complimentary parking. The management company opted for the former. In the short-term the mall had detractors who resented having to pay for parking which had been free for many years. But, over time, guests – especially those who could not recall a time when parking was free – appreciated the reputation the mall had gained for safety and security through its investment (which is steadily being recouped through parking fees).

$4 coffee

In the mid-1990s, as America’s taste for a higher-quality cup of coffee was being driven by Starbuck and other coffee emporiums, hotel companies were often criticized by guests for the lack of premium coffee and espresso drinks and the mediocre quality of the complimentary cup of Joe supplied at dated lobby coffee stations that were often cluttered with spills, depleted sugar packets, and empty creamer carafes.

I know of a hotel during this time that had an 800’ sq. gift shop located right off the main lobby. For 22 years, the gift shop had operated as a guest service (and cost center), selling an occasional newspaper, pair of socks, or can of shaving cream. A newly appointed GM, after reviewing reams of guest satisfaction survey results, envisioned a different use for the space. With the blessing of the hotel owners, he opened a fully licensed, full-service Starbucks location (at a cost of $300K) that served hotel guests as well as local customers from outside the hotel. According to the GM, sales from the space increased from a low of $17 per day or 2 cents per square foot (as a gift shop) to a high of $1,700 per day or $2.13 per square foot (as a Starbucks).

These examples remind us to be careful about jumping to conclusions when attempting to decipher VoC data. Some problems aren’t what they appear to be. And no matter how much money you throw at them, in the end you may find it’s simply a problem of perception. We also know that, while people are particularly motivated by fear of loss and desire for gain, they are especially attuned to the former. Most customers don’t mind the trade-off of gaining enhanced personal safety and security for a nominal fee. And, finally, asking customers to pay for a higher-quality substitute for an amenity that had previously been free of charge is often well worth the risk.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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