customer voice bizmarketer candler chase

Planning season is well upon us and I’ll bet there are more than a few leadership teams hoping find a Voice of the Customer (VoC) program under the budget tree for next year. What’s not to like? VoC programs drive more sales, reduce service escalations, improve user experiences and have us sprinkling delight and enchantment across the land!

Okay, so VoC is a big advantage, but the last time I looked around most non-retail workplaces, the hardest thing to find was an actual customer. Probably this is because it’s illegal and ethically questionable to keep customers locked up for any length of time, and so their voice needs to come through other conduits.

Sales will almost always step up as the voice of all things customer, but the voices they’re hearing are often the ones in their heads related to what it will take to make quota that month.

Who Owns the Customer Voice?

Your Sales Squirrels will go on and on about how customers want this one thing that the product team hasn’t yet added; carefully omitting the many things in the product that customers also want. Once added, oddly, customers will not care anymore and your sales team will say the VoC is about price or some other thing.

Let’s move down the hall and see what the customer service people are hearing. After all, who spends more time listening to customers than the service and support people? They will tell you all about the VoC. Apparently, none of your products work, your billing is inaccurate, your instructions are unintelligible, your shipping is slow and your website sucks.

All of which may be entirely true, but customers are somehow still giving you money and phoning you up to talk about the experience. The insights from your customer service teams are incredibly valuable and speak volumes about what is going wrong. It’s a little less helpful in terms of understanding what is going right. Or what is going okay enough that it’s not worth a phone call. Or what is so tragically wrong your customer has stopped speaking to you and is working on finding a replacement.

Of course, the product management group has Six Sigma’d the heck out of the VoC which means all they’ve really done is ask about a tiny set of possible product features as part of their agile sensing so they can get to the next build sprint. Moving on…

The marketing department, which usually seems to get stuck with owning the VoC, is even more removed from actual customers. Marketers are secretly a bit terrified of them, truth be told. Customers have this habit of expressing themselves in ways that don’t turn into the hoped-for testimonials, big Net Promoter Scores and case studies, but instead require a lot of apologizing and escalating.

Customer Voice Quality vs. Quantity

Marketers charged with owning the VoC will generally start by pushing the shiny red research button. They will correctly note that sales and service feedback is selective, based on a single-digit sample size and focused on a particular transaction, versus the whole experience enchilada. Nothing corrects for small samples better than a big old research project. Marketing will bring that aggregated quantitative bundle of joy known as the customer feedback survey to the table. It will have all kinds of data points and, done well, can spin off dozens of doomed initiatives to address the things that are probably unaddressable since you didn’t bother addressing them already.

But the sales and service teams will counter with the fair observation that the numbers don’t really speak to the actual experience your customers are having and may miss the nuanced bits where competitors are ready to pounce. Is that a focus group I smell?

Customer focus groups are a fantastic way to tease out all that qualitative goodness the big old quant study just can’t deliver. And here we have it. At last. Real customers with real voices in an overlit room being observed by the sales, service and marketing people who are eating bad Thai food behind the glass waiting for the VoC to come loud and clear through the speakers.

We all know that focus groups, even the most exquisitely moderated ones, are drilling down on a very small number of elements and will, at best, be directional for specific things like product design, branding, customer service expectations and so on. So it’s a voice, but not really the full VoC, unless you’re able to do lots and lots of them. But how to scale a conversation with many people at very little cost?

Hmmmm.

Let’s give that Twitter thing a try, shall we? While we’re at it, what are they saying on Google, Amazon, Instagram, Facebook and all of our other feeds? What’s the buzz on those industry forums? Surely we have found, at last, the VoC.

Well if your customer base is composed entirely of angry people who are thinking of suing you, disgruntled current employees, disgruntled ex-employees, past customers who did not sue you, but are still mad, the guy who was cut off by your truck the other day, your competitors’ summer students, your summer students and some well-meaning parents trying to helicopter at a discrete distance, then sure.

Otherwise, all those social feeds are pretty much the folks at the edges of your VoC, plus a few who got lost on the way to complaining about someone else’s products and services. Also some crazy people.

Screaming Truth at Power

How about some face time with our Overlords? Nothing like a speak-truth-to-power sort of thing to draw out the customer voice. Let’s get our CEO on the road, fill some rooms with some average customers and let ‘er rip. What could possibly go wrong?

Let me help you out there. First, the people in the room will not be “average” customers. They will be hand-picked by sales or customer service for their past behavior as docile payers of bills and signers of contracts. Or maybe they won’t be customers at all, but shiny prospects who need to clap eyes on the CEO to get the deal done.

The very best we could hope for is one of these people having an unplanned outburst during the Q&A period following the CEOs presentation. Which is, of course, the very worst thing your CEO can hope for. Trust me on this; I have been the flack-catcher for many ambushed CEOs and I can assure you they aren’t amused when that happens. They prefer the gentler customer voices.

If the in-person thing feels a bit too touchy-feely for your Overlords, how about getting them to personally read and reply to customer emails? CEOs at Apple, Zappos and Amazon look at customer emails and helpfully send them along to their senior leadership teams to solve.

Which sounds very nice and all action-y and hands-on-y, but is that really what you want your most senior people doing? Really? No, really? If you are paying someone seven figures and filling up their day with tracking down someone’s orthotics then you have got way bigger issues than needing a VoC program.

That said, your six- and seven-figure folks should be living and dying by the collective feedback of your customers. It should be the alpha and omega of all that strategic planning and active listening stuff they’re doing. But if their view of customer feedback is the five email complaints they were asked to solve (by which I mean delegate) that week, then it’s safe to consider their understanding of such things to be a little wobbly.

I could go on. We could go out and hug our haters (which we should) or hand out cookies to our biggest fans (also a good idea), or ask customers to punch a happy or sad face button on the way out the door, but not one of these, or countless other random acts, is going to deliver the voice of the customer we so desperately need to hear.

The Customer Voice Chamber Choir

I’m sorry to say, it’s just not that simple. Just as you have multiple personas for your buyers, another set for your product users and maybe even a bunch more for your influencers, so too do you have multiple realities when it comes to customers. There is no “average”, no “typical”, no amalgam, no archetype.

The song of the customer is sung by a choir, not a solo act, which is why it’s so complicated to listen to. It requires us to focus, to work to pick out the different parts, parse out the lyrics, hear the harmony, the melody, the beat. We need to listen for patterns and run toward the complexity of it all with a goal of making sense.

The idea that one group in an organization can “own” the VoC is as unworkable as having one audience member listen to an opera and tell the rest of us what was in the libretto. Everyone in all parts of the organization is responsible for listening to all the customers in the ways that make sense, and to record what they hear.

As with the choir, things will tend to go a bit off the rails if nobody is waving their hands and pointing at the sheet music. In organizations we call this alignment. The voice of the customer comes at us through multiple speakers, multiple media and not always with all the notes, words and intonation as obvious as we might hope.

Sometimes we’re hearing the choir in a concert hall, but sometimes it’s a car with catalytic converter issues and a giant sub-woofer lurching by at three in the morning. Attention must, nevertheless, be paid.

So if you’re the poor sucker who was still standing when the VoC program music stopped, your first task is not to hire one of those vendors or go find a new ERP solution (though both are excellent strategies if you really just want to look busy for a few years). Your first order of business is to figure out where the voices are coming from, who’s singing, who’s not signing and how your organization will agree to listen politely.