The Mysterious Case of Hidden Customer Preferences

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
Pay close attention to the voice of the customer to get clued into what otherwise might have been a missed opportunity.

Many companies today use insights gleaned from various "voice of the customer" channels to make decisions on everything from product updates to process improvements. But dig a little deeper and it's possible to discover evidence of other potential improvements-like cost cutting options that won't detract from the customer experience, or hidden service gaps that when filled will deliver a competitive advantage.

Today especially, with companies' intense focus on retention, getting a deeper understanding the needs and wants of active, engaged customers could provide the answers that lead to survival and prosperity.

"Consumer needs shift a lot during a recession, so the companies that can't stay focused on the needs of their customers aren't going to do well," says Bruce Temkin, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Those who are going to do well will cut out everything that isn't important to their customers, and increase investment in areas where there are more opportunities-and to do that well requires a very clear picture of who your customers are."

Ask me anything

Being customer focused does not simplify difficult business decisions. But it does help businesses look through the magnifying glass of customer value to make more profitable decisions. Pragmatically, many companies are listening harder to their customers not just to learn how to delight and enhance their experiences, but to learn how to curtail costs without inciting rebellion. One hotelier, for example, needed to cut costs but didn't want to negatively impact the customer experience of its most valuable customers. By analyzing survey responses gathered through its Clarabridge survey tool, the hotel operator made an interesting discovery. "It had been spending this money on lobby Internet kiosks to attract and retain customers, but it turned out that their premiere customers could care less, because they bring their own laptops," says Clarabridge CEO Sid Banerjee. "So they're not worrying about spending money on Internet kiosks anymore."

Customer input also can be a driver of significant organizational change. A voice of the customer (VOC) program, co-designed with The Phelon Group, played a huge role in overhauling the structure of Pitney Bowes Business Insights, which consolidated product groups and tightened relationships between support, service, and engineering in response to customer input. What began as a survey program to identify and mollify detractors among the most valuable customers blossomed into a wider customer intimacy plan. The company launched several strategic directives-backed by compensation plans-outlining how the three groups should work together to reduce technical support incidents and to take faster action on customer comments and suggestions.

"In many companies support is separate from engineering and product management, but we have found much more benefit by having all three work in conjunction," says Marilyn Otto, vice president of customer experience at Pitney Bowes Business Insights. Ensuring that all of the company's key functional areas play an active role in reading and responding to customer input has helped the company close gaps quickly and more effectively.

When the entire organization listens to customer input, it can find new ways to improve customer experience. InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) uses its online customer communities (see "Listening Through the Keyhole") to solicit customer feedback for business units that might otherwise be abstracted from the customer experience. "Some members were saying they were frustrated at having to carry a lot of cards for each loyalty program, and the idea arose that it would be great to have everything in one place," says Cassandra Jeyaram, IHG global social marketing manager. So the company started offering custom-printed cards that reproduce the membership numbers for the customer's other relationships, such as airline and rental car programs. "That certainly wasn't an opportunity we had identified on our own." So far customers in 85 countries have availed themselves of the custom cards.

True dedication to customer insight means a willingness to dig for clues to unspoken preferences. Hotelier Gaylord Entertainment didn't need a voice of the customer program to know that guests like knowledgeable staff and clean rooms. What it needed was to uncover opportunities to build customer value. The company worked with Clarabridge to design surveys that would help to distinguish between gaps in baseline requirements and improvements with real upside potential.

Detailed survey data revealed that Gaylord's guests have extremely high baseline requirements, leaving little room for error and little room to genuinely exceed expectations. Restaurant quality proved to be an area with available upside but limited reward.

It was in front desk and bellhop experience that the company found both upside potential and significant ability to affect the customer experience by making relatively minor changes, such as slightly speeding the check-in process and encouraging bellmen to offer stories about the building. "We had seen some of these things in survey data before, but we only had loose correlations, and no way to establish baselines for satisfaction or to identify upside," says Tony Bodoh, manager of operations analysis for Gaylord Entertainment. "Now, we can focus on narrow areas that impact our customers' emotional investment, in a very targeted way." The tight statistical links between feedback, customer profiles, and business history, as well as the more timely processing of survey data, make each new piece of insight more relevant, and easier to act on.

Just over a year into its voice of the customer revamp, Gaylord's Bodoh says many of the company's locations are logging record customer satisfaction scores, despite flat spending. "Our results have challenged the belief that increased customer satisfaction has diminishing returns compared to the cost of implementing changes."

Balancing people and technology

Hearing customers isn't just about what they're saying; it's also about how well you're listening. VOC programs that only focus on automation and the discovery of common keywords can easily miss out on important contributions. "Voice of the customer [technology] does not eliminate the need for smart people in your company who can apply context and insight," Forrester's Temkin says.

Dell knows that well. The PC maker's IdeaStorm site is widely regarded as an important pioneer of direct customer engagement, and has been responsible for numerous improvements in Dell's product line. But many of the strengths of the consumer-driven site have also revealed its boundaries. Extremely popular ideas are disproportionately concerned with Linux, which represents a minute percentage of the personal computing market. To ensure that quality ideas with wider impact are not lost, the IdeaStorm manager and several department heads review each and every concept submitted.

"We have had several business units get involved in reading detailed reports [that list] more than just the most popular ideas, and are looking into launching more sites aimed at specific customer segments," says Caroline Dietz, Dell spokesperson and former IdeaStorm manager. "We don't expect a Fortune 50 CIO is going to be posting on IdeaStorm."

Sometimes a single pair of eyes can spot what the crowd misses. Xactware, a software developer for the construction industry, gets most of its insights from one-off commentary. The company had tried for years to organize and categorize email feedback and suggestions with spreadsheets, but without a strictly defined process, the voice of the customer was too often lost. "We lost control of where the feedback was going, whether it was being responded to, or even if it was going to the right people," says David Nelson, Xactware marketing project manager. "Our experience hasn't been that 500 customers all say the same thing. Lots of our changes have been implemented based on one person saying something."

Working with enterprise feedback management company Allegiance, Xactware has made it a priority to close the loop on every relevant piece of customer feedback, and has implemented countless minor but valuable adjustments to its products and business processes as a result. Basic changes like answering technical support inquiries in a more effective manner or opening end-user documentation for faster corrections may not sound like much, but are delivering a boost in client satisfaction. Says Nelson: "It blows our customers' minds when we tell them we're acting on their feedback."

Listening Through the Keyhole

If you have something to say about InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), chances are that someone there will hear about it. The company has invested heavily in a multipronged voice of the customer initiative, including operating both public and private online customer communities, as well as a comprehensive third-party monitoring strategy.

IHG began with private, invitation-only communities for select members-generally, those with highly valuable relationships or key demographics. These communities incubate new ideas for the company through solicited research and surveys, as well as unmoderated discussion and member blog posting. "It is absolutely critical to be transparent, and to allow dissenting voices to be heard," says Jenni Kolshak, Priority Club Connect community manager at IHG. "We don't delete posts, even if they are negative about our hotels and brands. You have to have the good and the bad if you want to be believed by your customers."

Part of IHG's community team actively combs and analyzes online discussions on travel sites and blogs, as well as Twitter feeds. Insights and directives from these findings are reported weekly to executives, and IHG has expanded cross-functional meetings to broaden the voice of the customer's reach.

After two years of experience with private communities, IHG recently "soft launched" a public community powered by Jive Software, drawing on some of its more outspoken advocates from the private sites to seed content and discussion. IHG plans to make its executives available to offer video responses to customer questions and input, and liberally used customer-submitted designs and media in the design of the new site. "We've had a positive lift from using photos shared by our customers in our campaigns and Web designs," says Cassandra Jeyaram, IHG, global social marketing manager.

Listening to customers is not a feel-good enterprise for IHG. "The goal is to make money for the company, and if people want to participate and comment, they have to join [the loyalty program] and be logged in, which we hope will promote both participation and more room nights," Kolshak says. "This will help us create more brand affinity and identify people who are brand advocates but we haven't identified yet."

Online Extra

1to1 reveals the findings of its 2009 VOC Survey in "Can You Hear Me Now?" online at