Turning Up the Voice of the Customer

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New unstructured sources of customer feedback can provide a deeper level of customer insight when integrated with more traditional, structured VoC data.

The advent of new customer touchpoints like social media, live chat, and online communities has amplified the voice of the customer. Instead of only providing structured feedback that fits neatly into surveys and spreadsheets, customers now share their thoughts and feelings about their customer experiences in a variety of open forums. The ability to marry this new unstructured data with traditional structured data allows companies to listen and act on the voice of the customer in a more meaningful way.

"Customers are different and have different ways of expressing satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a company," says Anna Convery, chief marketing officer of analytics firm ClickFox. New interaction channels help companies understand customer activity and reach people who don't give feedback through traditional channels.

"There's no question that free-form feedback from customers represents an incredibly rich vein of insight," adds Bruce Temkin, managing partner of the Temkin Group. "Over the years, however, researchers have become reliant on structured, multiple-choice surveys because they had no way to efficiently analyze the unstructured data. As the technology for text analytics becomes more powerful and easier to use -- which it is -- then I expect these tools to unlock the power of unstructured data. And if that was not enough, the rise of social media and mobile communications are generating an even richer vein of unstructured communications."

Unstructured voice of the customer data lives in places like online ratings and review sites, live chat transcripts, article comments, emails, SMS messages, and contact center call recordings. Companies are increasingly using tools such as social media monitoring and text and speech analytics to listen and act on this insight.

"Structured data in the form of surveys, reports, and other tools can be easily fed into a data warehouse," says Daniel Ziv, vice president of customer interaction analytics at Verint. "It's mostly quantifications, but it doesn't tell you why something happened or what to do. Unstructured data tells you more of the story. It gives hints of understanding and root causes. Before companies would collect information but not do anything with it. Now they have to do something about it. It's public," he says, adding that consumer expectations of quick action have increased.

While companies may distinguish between structured and unstructured data, consumers don't. "When consumers provide feedback, they don't care which part of the organization is fixing the problem. They just want to be heard," says Blake Cahill, CEO of social media company Visible Technologies. "It's forcing organizations to be flat." This means that companies must integrate all voice of the customer data sources to gain a holistic view. But the reality of these new data sources and the traditional company hierarchies may hinder an easy integration. Most companies aren't there yet. Social media efforts tend to live within the marketing organization, while traditional voice of the customer initiatives are often owned by the customer service organization.

"Social media efforts still tend to be segregated from other voice of the customer efforts (VoC), but I see that trend reversing," says Temkin. "As companies decide to take action directly in social media conversations, that becomes a natural function to turn over to customer relations, customer care, or other contact-center like organizations that already contact people. Also, as companies push for a more holistic view of what customers are saying about them, they need to integrate social media into their other activities. I expect these efforts to be integrated at most companies over the next five years."

Currently, many of the new VoC collection tools are standalone, requiring manual processes to integrate the data. It's a challenge, but it can be done. Aside from the technical difficulties, customer feedback is collected in many channels, and the sheer volume of data being collected can be overwhelming. Experts agree that a strategic focus on the workflow and business objectives is required to transform the data into action.

"Social data by itself is telling, but it's a silo," Cahill says. "It's much more effective when integrated into a larger dashboard and linked to structured data. It gives a global context to all customer interactions."

Ron Hildebrandt, cofounder and senior vice president of marketing at Enkata, agrees. "Unstructured data allows us to learn more, but it has to be consolidated. Otherwise you'll blow businesspeople out of the water with data." He advises companies to create a workflow that maps customer feedback data to relevant business units. "Analytics is about making decisions," he says. "Make sure that every piece of feedback is relatable to the business."

Cahill says that the voice of the customer is of value to many departments -- marketing, sales, customer service, PR, product development, research, etc. He agrees that companies need to structure the collection of data around those groups to route pieces of insight to the people who can do something with it.

Both Hildebrandt and ClickFox's Convery say they are encouraged by the growth of C-level customer experience officers who are tasked with overseeing voice of the customer efforts across departments. Having someone in a senior management role connect cross-functional departments will keep the voice of the customer a business priority.

Integrated VOC in action

Fidelity Investments has begun adding new customer listening posts to its VoC efforts. "The biggest evolution has definitely been the emergence of social media asboth a listening post and forum to respond to customer issues or requests," says Parrish Arturi, senior vice president of customer experience. "Now, with our expanding social presence, we've been able to tap into social networks to respond to customers in real time, and also better inform our customer experience plans -- and customers appreciate our efforts."

Social media gives Arturi a deeper level of customer insight. "In addition to validating the voice of customer insight we get through other channels, we are also able to gauge the volume or 'buzz' of a particular item from a community -- whether it be desire for a product enhancement like adding Android to our mobile platform, or a key issue that is important to a particular customer segment."

He says that currently, "the firm manually aggregates our VoC information to create an integrated summary of our VoC themes, etc., although we are talking to partners that might be able to help us automate this process. The biggest benefit is that we have access to insight in an unprecedented fashion -- not just volume, but from across many different listening posts, [like] surveys, social, rep communities, and discussions." In addition, he says the holistic approach and sharing of customer feedback information transparently has increased levels of employee engagement, from the frontline to executives.

With help from its new VoC touchpoints, Fidelity's Customer Experience Index and Net Promoter Scores have increased. Fidelity's online satisfaction increased 16 percent from 2005 to 2009, and one target segment saw a 43 percent Net Promoter Score increase from Q1 2009 to Q1 2010. Arturi also cites positive comments from customers regarding Fidelity's presence and engagement in social communities.

Arturi echoes the importance of linking the data back to business objectives. "Be clear thatVoC isa critical input to improving the customer experience," he says. "Take the extra time to create linkage of VoC information/programs to actions and business results."

EXPERT OPINION
EXPERT OPINION