Voice of the Customer Program, An Alternative to Focus Groups
Businesses invest money and time on outside market research firms that bring together focus groups for product testing. The resulting feedback from a very small sample of prospective customers is frequently incorporated across business operations from product development to messaging and go-to-market strategy, indiscriminately. On top of all that, vocal executive teams will also want to weigh in on the process. In the end, the marketing team has blown a hole in their budget and makes major bets based on third-party recommendations.
At the end of the day, the only people able to give you the most appropriate and accurate insight are paying customers. Your customers have been through the sales funnel, product features and online resources and are more than willing to share the most precise feedback either explicitly (through surveys and customer listening) or implicitly (through their decision not to buy/continue). This information is available on a much larger scale and at a much lower cost than typical focus groups and can answer key market questions such as: how they heard about your product or services, what worked regarding online resources and touchpoints as well as when they made the purchase decision to convert into a paying customer – or didn’t.
But whenever you are communicating with a paying customer or a prospect that chose not to convert, you must treat the relationship delicately. To achieve this, it is especially useful to have an established Voice of the Customer program in place to encourage customer engagement and implement feedback.
As defined by Forrester Research, a successful Voice of the Customer program will “support a cycle of four activities that make up a closed-loop process: listening to customer feedback, interpreting the resulting data, reacting to improve the experience, and monitoring results.”
This ensures that a company is constantly improving to meet the expectations of consumers and helps avoid losing future prospects who may have held similar concerns as those who did not convert.
I recommend the following three steps to implement a Voice of the Customer program for your organization:
Step 1: Feedback Preparation
At the very root of the Voice of the Customer program are the questions you ask. These questions will be the foundation upon which you collect feedback and implement change in your business. The questions, therefore, need to be measurable and actionable – if you cannot act on the answer then you should not ask the question. The goal is to gather specific information that will guide which practices to keep and which need to be altered and improved upon.
Questions that you already know the answer to should also be avoided unless you are using them to set a baseline and ensure survey accuracy. Asking things you already know is a drain on your prospect’s time and willingness to provide their insights, does not help discover new strategies, and ultimately hinders progress.
Step 2: A Multi-Channel Approach
A successful Voice of the Customer program goes beyond consumer surveys and takes a multi-channel approach, including customer listening, complaint management, focus groups with front line-agents and appropriate (and simple) contact dispositioning.
It is important to distinguish between focus groups and agent focus groups. Focus groups are generally ineffective as they represent too small a sample size to provide accurate, representative feedback. Focus groups with front-line agents, however, can represent hundreds of customer interactions and are therefore more reflective of a typical prospect’s interactions with your website, resources, product and sales process and can deliver actionable observations. Agent focus groups have the added benefit of coming from people who know your systems, tools and processes and will be energized by the opportunity to advocate change around what are frequently their biggest pain points, as well.
Far too often, companies rely on information from outside agencies whose job it is to collect data on consumer preferences; but, it is imperative that the direct voice of the customer be the primary guiding force in the decision-making process. Taking a multi-channel approach creates a well-rounded, complete understanding of how consumers are interacting with your company and what their experience is like. The channels should be varied and the frequency consistent and regular so trends reveal themselves over time and can be actioned accordingly.
Step 3: Feedback Implementation
Before sharing the comments from customers, the executive team needs to be prepared to hear bad news. As a group highly invested in how the company operates, it can be difficult to hear that expectations are not being met, but criticism is far more helpful in terms of improvement than praise. Prepping the executive team to hear negative feedback helps open them up to the criticism and allows them to better absorb and process the material. From here, they are more equipped to adequately and effectively address the customers’ concerns.
When dealing with negative interactions it is also important to demonstrate that you are listening and responding to all complaints. This means doing more than acknowledging there is an issue and promising to fix it. Successful Voice of the Customer programs will dig deeper – eliciting clarifications, requesting more details and earning another chance. The customer needs to see that their voice is being heard and that it matters.
To enact these changes requires the entire organization, not just the department for which this feedback was directed. A company’s values need to be represented throughout the entirety of the organization, which means the Voice of the Customer program and its resulting policies and actions need to be cross-corporate. To truly make a difference, the whole company must care what each customer has to say.
A Voice of the Customer program is the most important thing a business can do for growth, efficiency and “brand reputation”. It allows a company to receive large-scale, direct feedback from customers who have first-hand experience with their products and services and to communicate with the customer while an opportunity for a positive impression remains. It also shines a light on areas where the company is struggling that may have been overlooked by those who are too deeply invested in the company’s success or “siloed” within their own area of responsibility.
Following these steps to create an impactful Voice of the Customer program that listens to customer feedback, interprets the resulting data, reacts to improve the experience and monitors results, your company will be equipped to adapt, improve and grow.