There is Nothing Wrong with the Customer’s Voice

Kevin L. Miller
Senior Consulting Facilitator
Innovation Focus

If a tree falls in a remote forest far from human ears, does it make a sound?  If a concerned mom or an angry catalog shopper yells in the wilderness of market research, will anyone hear the voice of the customer?  More to the point, will those who do hear the customer’s voice succeed in convincing their organizations, even with compelling research data, that expansion and success can be achieved by acting upon the clear advice of customers?  How can we help those who offer products and services to hear the voice of the customer and truly listen, so that both customer and business will benefit?

“I can’t wear your clothes.  No real woman with real hips and breasts can wear your clothes!” complained an angry woman in a focus group for a major women’s wear catalog.  “Look at these models in your catalog.  They are all teenagers dressed up to look sophisticated.  But they’re teenagers! There isn’t anyone over 25 in these pages.  I want to buy your clothes, but I can’t until you design them and size them for real women like me.”  The managers of this company were hearing the same message in group after group and interview after interview.  But were they really hearing it?  On one occasion early in the research, a display of respondent’s photos had been mounted with quotes next to their pictures.  The message was painfully hard for them to take in, because it strongly suggested that they might need to consider a complete overhaul of the way they designed and presented and sized and marketed women’s clothing.  On this occasion they rejected the message and shot the messenger, saying, “These conclusions are false because the research is flawed.  These are not our customers.  Our customers look like our models!”  They summarily dismissed the research company.

Several years later when the pain of plummeting profits became bigger than their resistance they tried again.  It had become very clear that Victoria’s Secret and other women’s wear catalogs were eating their lunch.  So they returned to the humiliation of focus groups and interviews once again, to see if they could understand what was happening and how to save themselves.  They found out that mothers and daughters were perusing Victoria’s Secret and placing orders together, because the clothing is comfortable and easy to fit into, but it is also very appealing.  Ease of fit emerged as an overriding issue to be resolved, and women were still demanding to see at least a few models who had survived beyond their teens and twenties.  Finally the pain of plummeting profits had opened their ears, and the company managers began to listen to the voice of their customers and act upon their message.  New fitting charts and methods were printed in the catalog.  The clothing became more realistically comfortable and easy to wear while still attractive.  And finally the catalog pages were graced by a few drop-dead gorgeous older women among the goddesses in their teens and twenties.  Profits rose.

Why is the customer’s voice so hard to hear? — The ABCs of listening

Learning to hear the voice of the customer is like learning how to listen to your spouse.  You have to practice the ABCs of listening:

  1. Want to listen.  Plan to listen.  Build listening into your life process.
  2. Suspend ego while listening. Take in the message. Repeat and confirm it.
  3. Select a task or theme. Invent solutions.  Analyze and plan.  Take action.

Can we benefit by listening to customers? — The ABCs of VOC Research

Similarly, there are three major segments in voice of the customer research which require the application of the ABCs of listening. When they are not applied the research can get derailed, and little or no benefit is salvaged.

  1. During task analysis, charter building, project planning and set-up, it is essential to want to listen; plan to listen; and build listening into the process of the research.  It is useful to review the different kinds of VOC research processes and evaluate proposed approaches of a few providers:
    • In-depth ethnographic research, featuring extensive face-to-face visits with customers in the location where they use the product or service and under real usage conditions.
    • One-on-one interviews in controlled settings with one-way mirrors.
    • Standard focus groups in focus group facilities.
    • Developmental focus groups, featuring ideation and problem solving.
    • Involvement of customers in company ideation retreats.
    • Small group “fireside chats” in a comfortable living room setting.
    • Telephone and on-line interviews, surveys and questionnaires.
    • In-store or mall interviews with shoppers or service users.
    • Hybrids.  Make up a VOC process that fits the needs of the research.
  2. Suspend ego while listening, during the research processes.  Take in the message; repeat and confirm it.  Engage in some team training around VOC research behavior so that the team can get the most out of it:
    • Speak English. Talk like a customer. Avoid all inside company vocabulary and acronyms that will be unfamiliar or intimidating to the respondent.  Don’t ask, “Do you encounter barriers to extending your purchasing behavior at the P.O.P.?”  Ask rather, “Is there anything about the cash register displays that turns you off to buying that stuff?  What could we do to make it more exciting and inviting?”
    • Think like a customer. See and experience through a customer’s eyes.  Empathize.  Get into the customer’s frame of mind and really allow yourself to experience the product or service from their point of view.
    • Suspend ego.  Hear every complaint or attack as a statement of need and an opportunity to make money by responding to that need.
    • Never defend or try to sell your product or service. Do not try to explain to a respondent why their perception of the product or service is mistaken, but adopt the attitude that “perception is everything,” and delve deeply into why your customers perceive things as they do.
    • Build potential solutions and improvements and new products or services on top of every complaint, issue, gap, problem or idea voiced by your customers. Their job is to complain about what’s wrong or missing or what they need or want.  If you are lucky, they will voice some wishes along with the complaints. Your job is to build concrete solutions and products and services that respond to those needs and complaints and wishes. If they can’t get beyond complaining to wishing, then you wish for them. Invent solutions to delight them.
  3. After VOC needs research, when you are looking at the final results, there is still a lot do before you make your first dollar based on what you have learned from customers. Just interpreting what you heard from customers can be tricky. It may be necessary to question and test whether what they said is really what they meant. For instance, in qualitative research, customers will always say that they do not want scent added to a product. However, when you give them an experiential choice between a subtly scented product and an unscented one, they will choose the product with added scent. So, deeply analyze the truth behind what you learn about compelling needs in the market and invent responses to meet those needs. There is still a lot to do to get to action:
    • Test those concepts in qualitative research.
    • Do some quantitative analysis to confirm your qualitative learnings.
    • Formulate a concrete action plan and timeline of achievable goals.
    • Do feasibility testing and cost benefit analysis and business plan.
    • Develop and implement an effective internal marketing plan to sell the idea to your own organization. Then look at external marketing.

But don’t let “due diligence” stop you from taking action.  Get to action.  Sometimes what passes for “due diligence” is actually fear-based procrastination.

Is there anything beyond the voice of the customer?

For many years qualitative researchers were content to screen and invite respondents into focus group facilities to react to products and services. A lot was learned in those efforts.  Then we ventured out from behind the one-way mirror and discovered a whole world of experience beyond just the “voice” of the customer. We found that what customers say about a product or service may not be the whole story. There is a lot to be learned from actually watching how they use it. Suddenly an issue becomes graphically clear when we experience the surroundings in which the product or service is received or used. We begin to notice that the customer is saying one thing but doing another. There is a lot to learn beyond the voice of the customer. The bold researcher will get out of the office and research facility into the real world to find out what is really happening around the product or service in the customer’s everyday experience of real needs and problems.

Finally, a word about attitude. Adopt an attitude of Unconditional Positive Regard for your customers. Then you can benefit by experiencing the product or service through their eyes. Remember, no matter how unpleasant or odd that respondent may be, s/he is a real or potential user of your product or service. Like it or not, s/he is your customer, and successful business is still built by identifying compelling customer needs and fulfilling them.

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