Can You Really Hear the Voice of the Customer?

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
Companies are moving from simply collecting customer feedback to being true "listening organizations."

Customers are sharing their opinion about your company. They are sharing it not only with you, but also with their friends, with your competitors, and in some cases with the whole world. Are you really listening to what they're saying? If you don't, your competitors will.

As technology enables deeper voice of the customer (VoC) insight, opportunities arise to take advantage of customer insight for product development, service enhancement, and long-term relationship-building with individual customers. Many companies have VoC efforts in place, but too few are taking full advantage of the potential.

The key is to create processes around customer feedback and insight to become a "listening organization," says Rob Key, CEO of social media consultancy Converseon. "In 2008 companies needed to track voice of the customer," he says. "In 2009 new tools emerged to collect new customer information, but the information was still siloed. 2010 will see the maturing of the industry. Voice of the customer programs need to grow up and be infused across the enterprise."

There is plenty of work to be done in the space. In Forrester Research's 2010 Customer Experience Index, only 13 of the 133 firms received excellent ratings, while 45 firms received "poor" or "very poor" ratings. Forrester also reports in its Crafting Your Voice of the Customer Program report that "despite widespread customer feedback programs, fewer than a third of firms closely monitor the quality of their interactions with target customers or systematically incorporate customer needs into decision-making processes."

Bringing customer insight to the boardroom
In today's marketplace, VoC should be a strategic objective and everyone's responsibility. It's not the job of customer service or marketing anymore. In fact, at many companies, voice of the customer is a senior management issue.

Online photo printing company PhotoBox conducts "weekly huddles" with the heads of operations, sales and marketing, and IT to track customer feedback. Monthly steering meetings involve the CEO, CFO, and CTO to set priorities. "We gather in the same room once a week and the only topic is customer feedback," says Renaud Besnard, operations director. "The 'customer-obsessed meeting' is the most important meeting of the week."

Each department has a dashboard that charts the progress of their projects as they relate to customer satisfaction. Besnard says the team distributes actions and priorities to each department based on customer insight.

PhotoBox, one of this year's Gartner & 1to1 Media CRM Excellence Award winners, isn't alone. "We think customer feedback will continue to be infused throughout companies, and customer input as a strategic focus will be at the core of successful companies," says Jeff Resnick, global managing director of innovation and partnerships at Opinion Research Corp. (ORC). "One department may be responsible for the collection of feedback, but managers across departments will use the information as a core part of their operating culture."

Unconventional sources of insight
What information drives these decision-making processes? Traditional customer feedback is still important: customer surveys, focus groups, complaint calls or emails, call monitoring, and the like. But new tools such as online conversation mining, sentiment analysis, ratings and reviews, Web analytics, and social media monitoring allow companies to gain insight both inside and outside their organizations. "You can pretty much find a conversation about anything online in massive forms," says Michelle de Haaf, CMO of Attensity. "What's interesting is the ability to listen to specific types of conversation. New tools give traditional data more context," such as ratings that compare products, or comments about why a product was good or bad.

Listening to the voice of the customer can be as simple as three steps, says Loren Weinberg, senior vice president of web content management firm FatWire:

  • Listen to what customers say across channels - collect feedback in both traditional and online channels on both sides of the company wall.
  • Analyze customer behavior - watch what people do on your site and combine it with web content analytics. This is sometimes aggregate data, but it adds context when mixed with other customer feedback.
  • Use social capabilities to encourage dialogue - ratings and reviews and user-generated content are easy ways to interact with customers while gaining valuable insight. Mix the voice of the customer with the voice of the company and its employees.

A combination of all three will give a company insight on customer satisfaction, behavior, and what improvements to make. "The ability to have a [customer] experience that is interactive and attuned to customer needs is critical," Weinberg says.

Orvis adds brand value by closing the customer loop
Listening to customers is important, but the new VOC landscape is one that involves closing the loop to let them know their input is valued. At outdoor sporting goods retailer Orvis, reconnecting with customers who provide feedback is crucial to maintain the relationship. The company added ratings and reviews to its products, using Bazaarvoice, and emails a thank-you note and posts a thank-you comment to those who rate products. It also launched an "ask and answer" discussion forum for both employees and customers to help each other with questions. The company emails customers whose questions have been answered, as well. "It keeps the dialog constant and brings them back to the site," says John Rogers, vice president of marketing at Orvis.

For customers who call or email with product complaints, Orvis goes the extra mile to call the customer back when the problem is resolved. "Customers are giving us feedback and going out of their way to do it," Rogers says. "They're our best customers. You absolutely want to keep them happy."

A byproduct of this closed-loop process is that the transparency builds trust. "On the site it shows that we closed loops," Rogers says of the posted comments. "A company that listens to customers is one that you want to do business with. It becomes a marketing tool."

Right now many customers think their feedback "goes into the ether," adds Barry Libert, chairman and CEO of social software firm Mzinga. "The new feedback loop builds trust and changes motivation [to provide insight]." And new tools allow for automated responses and workflow to ease the challenge of closing the loop at an enterprise level.

Reade more about real-time insight, ROI, and real-world challenges...

Push for real-time insight and action
Another challenge being overcome is listening in real time. Customers don't want their feedback acted on months from now. They want to see changes made fast.

"If I only talk to my wife once a year, I'd probably get divorced," says Libert, adding that companies that only survey customers once a year, don't relate it to other customer data, and don't act on it are hurting their relationships. "Customers are groups of individuals that need to be cared for [in a timely way]."

Tools such as conversation mining and social media monitoring allow for real-time customer insight. For example, Libert points to Starbucks' decision to stop automatically printing receipts for orders under $25, which was made after monitoring real-time feedback from its online community.

"Companies now have the ability to interpret data in real time to observe customers at an individual level and create dashboards to prioritize actions that need to be taken," says Libert. "This used to be too expensive. Now it's possible with Web 2.0 tools."

Texans Credit Union tackles VOC challenges
Texans Credit Union, a Dallas-based financial services company serving 135,000 customers, was on the verge of divorce with its customers. The company only surveyed its customers once a year, and no real processes were in place to take action on the insight collected, says Melissa Wozniak, market research and product development manager. "As competition gets stiffer, the only place we can compete is with service, and how we treat people," she says. The company worked with Allegiance on its first steps to move to monthly online surveys that focus on deeper aspects of the customer's relationship with the company. Customers are asked to rate Texans' service, quality of financial advice, the value of the relationship, ease of doing business, and if they would recommend the company to others. "Now we are more understanding of what the pain points are and of opportunities to improve," she says.

Wozniak admits the process to streamline VOC efforts have been a challenge. The company had customer data in five places. Now it's down to two, but the company is working to integrate it into one holistic system.

She says that finding the true meaning behind the data can be a difficult task. "As you get data, combing through qualitative [information] to get to the root of the issues and what is 'felt' is a challenge," she says. It's a manual process and can sometimes be hard to prioritize. "You want to make sure the decisions you make to fix one customer issue won't irritate three times as many customers."

Her recommendation is to make sure there is buy-in from all areas of the company to focus on the customer. "This isn't something that can be done in one channel," she says. "Employee attitudes, prices, products and services, all combine into a single satisfactory experience."

She is also focusing attention on expanding what's working, instead of just fixing what's broken. "We want to duplicate the positive." For example, branch managers exceeding corporate goals share best practices from their branches with the entire branch network at monthly meetings. As a result, engagement scores of branch customers are higher than non-branch customers, Wozniak says.

Setting strategic priorities
Experts agree that setting business goals should come before any voice of the customer program. "Find out what the business is trying to achieve and work backwards from there to support each area," says Key of Converseon. FatWire's Weinberg adds that a common mistake is to put the tools ahead of the strategy. "Companies need to think first of their business goals, then the strategy, then the tools needed to implement it" in order to drive value for the business.

Another best practice is to align departments around the same metrics, to keep everyone focused on the same goal, says Walter Carl, Ph.D., chief research officer of survey company ChatThreads. "It's hard to determine the ROI of your VOC initiative without looking at the business impact tied to concrete business metrics in each department."

Ultimately, the goal is to evolve into a listening organization, in which companies have a deep level of customer intelligence that is ongoing, and where integrated actions are built into the workflow and internal infrastructure.

"You've got to stay close to the changing consumer mind-set," says Gary Edwards, executive vice president of Empathica. "It's business critical and operationally essential."

Read more about voice of the customer in the 1to1 InAction white paper "Capitalize on Cross-Channel Customer Feedback Management."