Are you listening to the voice of the customer?

Voice Of The Customer (VoC) is a term that many people use, but few people can define. That’s the type of environment in which I love to do research. So I ended up writing two research documents on the topic: Building Your Voice Of The Customer Program and Voice Of The Customer: Five Levels Of Insight (as always, only Forrester clients can read the full reports). To start with, I developed the following definition for a VoC program:

A systematic approach for incorporating the needs of customers into the design of customer experiences

This definition contains three key elements:

  • A systematic approach. Most companies take an informal approach to gathering customer feedback. A VoC program should augment — not replace — those ad hoc approaches with a more structured way to gather and use customer insights.
  • Customer needs. Companies often have access to a great deal of customer data — but customer insights don’t automatically surface from data. A good VoC program uncovers the current and emerging needs of key customers — and helps identify areas where those needs are not being met.
  • Experience design. Gathering customer insights is only an interim step to improving customer experience. Why? Because VoC programs deliver the most value when companies actually make changes to better serve the customer needs uncovered by the research.

My research also identified five distinct levels of activities in a VoC program:

  1. Relationship tracking. Organizations need to track the health of customer relationships over time. That’s why companies often ask customers to fill out surveys — typically quarterly or annually — about their perception of the firm. Using this feedback, companies can create metrics that are simple to understand and easy to trend. Why is this important? Because an easy-to-grasp report card helps align everyone in the organization around a common purpose.(Note: I won’t get into the debate between “satisfaction” and “NetPromoter” metrics in this post, but I’ll definitely be touching on that in the future)
  2. Interaction monitoring. Every customer interaction — from an online transaction to a call into the call center — is important. Firms need a way to monitor how effectively they handle these customer touches. That’s why many companies do post-interaction surveys — asking customers for feedback on recent interactions.
  3. Continuous listening. Structured feedback through customer surveys provides enormous opportunities for analysis. But one of the strengths of these approaches — providing data — is also a limitation. To avoid this data-only view of customer relationships, companies put in place processes for executives to regularly listen to customers. There are many opportunities to hear what customers are saying, such as listening to calls in the call center, reading blogs, reading inbound emails, and visiting retail outlets.
  4. Project infusion. The following statement is probably not too controversial: Projects that affect customers should incorporate insights about customers. Despite the clear need for this type of effort, many companies lack a formalized approach for infusing customer insights into projects. To make sure that this doesn’t happen, some firms are incorporating customer insight steps in the front-end of their Sigma processes.
  5. Periodic immersion. Every so often, it’s valuable for all employees — especially executives — to spend a significant amount of time interacting directly with customers or working alongside frontline employees. These experiences, which should be at least a half day, provide an excellent opportunity for the company to question the status quo.

Here’s a graphic that shows more details on the five levels… Five Levels Of A Voice Of The Customer Program

Hopefully this helps to create some common language around the Voice Of The Customer.

About Bruce Temkin
I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, marketing, interaction design, customer service, and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

18 Responses to Are you listening to the voice of the customer?

  1. Pete says:

    Great insights Bruce! And great blog!

  2. Narendra Rao says:

    Best product decision (as above) happen when VOC & idea of “what is possible” meet midway. We normally get large amount of “noise” from customers. majority of which is either not feasible, not possible at price point required or does not align with organizational competancies or business model. If Apple had only listened to customers, they would not have made iPhone or iPod. What I tried to argue in my blog (http://productstrategy.wordpress.com) is that there should be strong influence of ‘whats possible’, ‘what is sustainable advantage’ & what is underlying need (real insight) for effectiveness of VOC & product conceptualization.

  3. Bruce Temkin says:

    Narendra:

    Great post. I couldn’t agree with you any more.

    I think there are two problems with just listening “blindly” to customers. The first one you highlight — firms can miss out on meeting latent needs that customers don’t (or can’t) articulate. The other issue has to do with “false positives.”

    Blindly reacting to customer feedback can sometimes be even more disruptive to an organization than not listening to customers at all. I’ve seen many execs fixate on the latest comment that they hear from a customer — and then making a bunch of moves based on that single piece of customer feedback (which sometimes only reflects the opinion of one customer — nothing more).

    That’s why in a subsequent post I talked about the “LIRMing” process (see my post: “LIRM” More About Net Promoter vs. Satisfaction). LIRM stands for (Listen, Interpret, Respond, Monitor). During the “Interpret” step, firms need to formulate and test hypotheses about what they’re seeing. It would be a real mistake for companies to skip that step (as many do) and go from “Listen” to “Respond.”

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  6. Jill says:

    Bruce,

    I just discovered this post and wondered if you were familiar with The Chapman Group. I am not going to plug my company to your audience. Ijust wanted to know if you could contact me or review our web site. We have a tool called LoyaltyPro and our tag line is “The Voice of the Customer”. LoyaltyPro does many of the things you describe in your “Five Levels of Insight”

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  10. This is a great post Bruce, thanks!

    I believe that where VoC programs are extremely beneficial is in removing the often subjective ‘third eye’ of research agencies and giving clients (brand owners) access to raw data, in its multimedia form, should they have an appetite for it and of course the appropriate skills to interpret and act upon it.

    The ability to sustain such an ongoing research resource undoubtedly provides a more cost effective approach to ad-hoc projects as well, though it musn’t always be judged as correct approach or methodology, but merely one of many. One can’t forget that to gain competitive advantage, brands must often look at and engage non-customers or abstainers to understand their attitudes and behaviours, including early adopters, lead-users or even customers of competitive outfits etc.

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  15. Mark Noneman says:

    A great post, Bruce.
    In addition to discovering customer needs, we help our clients also understand the customer’s current “context.” That is, establishing the customer’s current (and past) experiences. That context is crucial for understanding what customers really mean when they say the “need” somthing.
    Establishing a baseline of customer experience with a Voice of the Customer program helps define an on-going program of improving that experience. Periodic measurement of the customer’s perceptions–by structured VoC, surveys, transaction feedback, etc.–helps to determine whether the customer’s perception is moving in the desired direction.
    No matter how well our clients listen to their customers, it’s all for naught if they don’t have an effective change program to do something about the customer’s voice.

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  17. Melissa says:

    How do you engage senior executives in a continuous listening program with the call service centers? How do you engage them and make it easy for them to listen in on customer calls? How do you motivate them to complete an online survey so the customer experience team can use their insights?

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