Voice of the Customer: following in the tracks of CRM?

I am noticing that there is a lot of buzz around Voice of the Customer (VoC).  There are lots vendors out there who will supply you with the frameworks and the technology to get access to the VoC.  There are even companies out there that will do it all for you.

To my skeptical mind the promise and the buzz sounds remarkably like that of CRM in its early days: heaven on earth or put differently profitable and enduring relationships out of the box.  So what is my concern, what is my issue, what is keeping me awake?  In a nutshell, the hype, the overblown expectations.

The digital world is overflowing with data.  The first challenge is to gather the data from the various fields in which it grows and bring it together in a useful way.  Having been involved in data mining and predictive analytics I can tell you that it is not as easy as it sounds.  The next challenge is to find patterns in this data.  The bad news is that technology alone will not cut it: notice that Google has just changed its algorithm to deal with the loophole found and exploited by Vitaly Borker.  So human being are required.  Human beings who understand the process; who understand the technology including it’s limitation; who understand the business; and who understand customers.  Then the fun really starts.

Having found the patterns and interpreted the patterns from the VoC these wonderful human beings have to convert these patterns, these insights, into a language that the people in the business can understand.  Believe it or not this is not as simple as it sounds.  The people who are often best at finding the patterns in the data really struggle to convey their insight in a way that the business people get. Incidentally, finding people who are good at turning data into insight is not easy.

Now we get to the really serious problems.

Human beings have a strong tendency to discount anything that does not fit in with their view of the world, their values, their goals, their self-interest.  This is particularly so when these people have been completely divorced from the process of gathering, integrating and making sense of the data. So it is not at all guaranteed that the wisdom that has been gathered from VoC will actually be accepted by those who have the power to act on it.

Next we come to the central problem and it is this: knowing really does not make the difference.  Think of all the obese, unfit, people in rich societies and then think of all the mountains of ink that has been written on eating the right foods, in moderate amounts and the need for exercise.  I have known for many years that I need to exercise more, yet I did nothing until I had a blood test that frightened me a lot.  Now I exercise for at least half an hour a day, every day.

So where am I going with this?

First, all the work and cost associated with VoC is only worthwhile if there is real hunger in the organisation (started with the Tops) to use it to improve the lot of the customer and to improve the effectiveness of business operations.  I have worked in an organisation which spent considerable amount of money and effort on conducting NPS surveys.  Whilst one set of people were passionate about the process, the bulk of the European organisation (at all levels) was not.  As a result, nothing significant changed from one survey to the next.

Second, there is absolutely no substitute for the Tops (the Csuite, the elite) getting away from their offices and walking in the shoes of their customers and of their people who have to interact with and serve these customers. I believe that was the lesson of the Undercover Boss tv series.  So by all means do VoC but not at the expense of having senior and middle managers walk in the shoes of customers and front line staff.  If I absolutely had to choose between the two, I would drop VoC and insist managers work on the front line regularly.

What do you think?

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.