Voice of the Customer – Who Do You Listen To

The growing importance and awareness of the customer experience had driven a growing number of companies to implement voice of customer programs. These programs can divided into two categories – 1. Market Research and 2. Customer Surveys. Companies typically use market research to identify unmet customer needs but use customer surveys to understand customer’s perception about the quality of individual transactions or the general relationship.

During the course of numerous client engagements, we have come across a number of challenges that executives face in their voice of customer programs, particularly as it relates to customer surveys. The primary challenge is the preconceived notions they have about customers which ultimately taint the quality of the customer feedback. These executives often leave the impression that they are more interested in validating their own preconceived perceptions rather than soliciting “original” customer opinions and perceptions.

When listening to customers, you should be cognizant of the following biases:

• Hearing what you want to hear – executives will often filter customer information and focus exclusively on the results and feedback that supports their pre-conceived opinions. They will tend to magnify customer statements that support their agendas while downplaying statements that conflicts with them.
• Filtering listening sessions – another common mistake is listening to customers through filters. Executives frequently apply common “industry thinking” to their listening sessions that make them susceptible to ignoring that which is “is not common or out of the mainstream in their industry” while only accepting that what is standard industry thinking.
• Believing results reflect fringe behavior – when the voice of the customer contradicts pre-conceived beliefs or agendas, executives have a tendency to claim that results reflect a minority of customers, which do not represent the larger mainstream customer population.
• Ignoring seemingly contradicting data – Since customer feedback is often derived from a variety of data sources that often present seemingly contradictory findings, executives will ignore data that contradicts their agendas or impedes their ability from garnering resources for desired initiatives. Rather than investigating and reconciling these sources of data, executives will ignore them or denigrate them altogether.
The aforementioned forms of bias raise a series of important questions – “Why are we really conducting voice of customer programs? Do we listen to the customer with the intention of learning something new and identifying new business opportunities? Or are we listening to customers to simply confirm our own preconceived notions or validate our pre-existing agendas?“

There is a story about a traveling salesman who at the end of his long work day meets a lady at a bar. He proceeds to tell her how wonderful he is personally and professionally. After thirty minutes, he pauses and says “Enough of me speaking about myself. Why don’t you tell me something about me?” The behavior of the salesman in our story is similar to that of executives conducting voice of customer programs who pretend to be interested in what the customer has to say but in reality wants customers to say only what they are ready to hear. This approach not only insults customers but breaches the trust that customers place in us when they agree to provide feedback and share their opinions.

Just as with our personal lives, it takes time to truly listen to our partners and internalize what they want us to hear. This exercise takes time, respect and above all, patience. If you’re having trouble truly listening to your customers, seek out assistance through independent and unbiased third party vendors with successful track records at facilitating effective voice of customer programs. These vendors should have the ability to craft surveys, listen and think freely without the burden of preconceived notions or pre-existing agendas. Working with these vendors can help identify internal biases in order to avoid them with implementing and managing the voice of customer program. If such programs include face-to-face customer forums, they can also help identify what is implicit in customer responses through an analysis of body language which will help you get a better read on the true voice of the customer.

Even when your intentions are pure, it will be difficult to avoid the temptation of listening to customers for the purpose of validating our beliefs and corporate agendas. It is only when you clean the mind slate and start from scratch that you’ll be able to identify unmet customer needs that can lead to innovative breakthroughs and ultimately, to competitive differentiation.


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