Why companies are wasting time and money on the Voice of the Customer

I have an issue with the VoC thing

Many large companies are busy tapping into the VoC.  In principle this is a great thing to do because the majority of companies do not have a good enough understanding of their customers.  In practice, I am left feeling that we will see a repeat of the technology centred CRM love fest:  these companies will collectively spend billions, the software companies will get fat and customer satisfaction will stay pretty much the same.   So what is my issue with the VoC thing?

A simplified look at the VoC process and issues

First, let’s take a look at the VoC process:

  • Determine listening posts;
  • Set up listening posts (platforms, tools, people);
  • Collect and consolidate the data;
  • Interpret (make sense of) the data;
  • Sell the interpretation of the data to the various Barons inside the enterprise;
  • Get the Barons to take action in their respective areas; and
  • Monitor/assess the impact on customers (and the business).

If you take a deep look into this you will notice an array of issues:  First, when it comes to surveys how do you know that you are asking the right questions and not ‘leading the witness’?  Second, how do you get access to all the customers that don’t want to complete surveys and make complaints?  Third, how can you be sure that the data you have collected is information and not noise?   Fourth, how do you know that your customer insight team is interpreting the data correctly?  And so on…..

The real issue: VoC can act as a barrier to connecting and empathising with the customers

These issues hide a much more important issue that VoC is a rational solution to an emotional issue.  What do I mean?  The challenge is to get the Baron’s out of their offices and shoes and experience the world  by walking in their customer’s shoes.

Put differently, the challenge is to get the Baron’s to emotionally connect with their customers by experiencing what these customer experience.  And if you accept this  then you will get that VoC programme gives these Baron’s the illusion that they can and do understand customers by reading the reports produced by the customer insight teams.

The problem with this intellectual understanding is that it is purely intellectual.   Intellectual understanding is dangerous because it leaves us thinking we have got it when we have not got it.  What do I mean?

I mean that we have not get it emotionally. That we are not touched, moved, inspired to take action because of having experienced our customer’s lives.  There is a whole body of neuroscience research that shows that the seat of all human action is the emotions and that we can feel/experience what other human beings feel/experience through mirror neurons.  To empathise with our fellow human beings we simply have to connect with them in the context of their day-to-day lives and then let the mirror neurons do the work.

What happens when an industry has no empathy for its customers

Why is that important? Frankly, if the Baron’s cannot or do not empathise with their customers then you end up treating your customers the way that the UK banks treat their customers.  Upon reading this article two paragraphs caught my attention:

“The fine reflects BOS’s serious failure to treat vulnerable customers fairly,” said Tracey McDermott, the acting director of enforcement at the FSA. “The firm’s failure to ensure it had a robust complaint-handling process in place led to a significant number of complaints being rejected when they should have been upheld.”

“We have fallen short of the high standards of service our customers should be able to expect of us and we apologize,” said Ray Milne, the risk director at Bank of Scotland. “We are in the process of contacting affected customers and will pay compensation where it is due.”

It is not hard to treat customers fairly.  The failure to do so by the banks and hide behind platitudes is simply a reflection of the gulf between the Baron’s who make policy and the customers who are impacted by the policy.

How do you cultivate empathy?

Empathy is the route to the human soul and any person who strives to get a meaningful insight into customers lives has to excel at empathy.  So how do you cultivate empathy?  I urge you to watch and listen attentively to the following TED video:   http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sam_richards_a_radical_experiment_in_empathy.html

Just in case you do not have the time here is a key extract from this presentation:

“Step outside of your tiny little world.

Step inside of the tiny little world of somebody else.

And then do it again, and do it again, and do it again.

And suddenly all of these tiny little worlds they come together in this complex web.

And they build a big complex world.

And suddenly without realizing it

you’re seeing the world differently.

Everything has changed.”

To sum it al up

To exaggerate I would say that an ounce of empathy is worth a mountain of VoC data.  Yet, I do not have fame to my name so I will let one of the worlds renowned business strategists (Kenichi Ohmae) say the final words:

“Personally, I would much rather talk with three homemakers for two hours each on their feelings about, say, washing machines than conduct a 1,000 person survey on the same topic.  I get much better insight and perspective on what customers are really looking for.”

How much can you rely on the Voice of the Customer?

VoC Customer Experience Vendors Are Doing Well

A significant component of Customer Experience improvement is getting access to the voice of the customer.  A whole software based industry has sprung up to provide access to that voice; according to The Temkin Group customer experience vendors are doing rather well:  A Good Year for Customer Experience Vendors.

How much can you rely on the Voice of the Customer?

Which brings me to a key question: how much can you rely on what the customer tells you?  My experience suggests that you have to be careful with how you interpret and use the voice of the customer. Allow me to illustrate using personal examples.

During the course of writing this blog I have expressed feelings and then made claims as to what I was going to do in the future.  Did I do what I said I would do?  Lets take a look:

So on this sample of one, you can count on the voice of the customer being an accurate guide to customer behaviour (what the customer will do) only one third of the time.

Why have I continued with Sky?

When I wrote what I wrote, I meant it.  Yet when it came around to terminating the two contracts I had with Sky I found myself doing something bizarre: I terminated the SkyTV contract yet continued with the Sky Broadband.  Why is this bizarre?  Because I had a perfect experience with SkyTV.  My issue, my upset had been with Sky Broadband.  Later I signed up for SkyTV again.

So why have I continued with Sky?  Because I made a poor prediction of the future.  Specifically:

  • I had not taken into account the fact that pleasing my family and keeping them happy is more important than getting back at Sky and so I ended up subscribing to SkyTV;
  • I had not realised that a part of me would not welcome the task and emotional issues (risk of it going wrong) associated with switching my broadband to a new supplier;
  • That Sky would make me an offer that was so financially attractive that it just made good sense to take it up.

Why have I continued with Ascot Chiropractic Clinic?

First, convenience.  I did not switch because it was too inconvenient to visit the Harrsion Clinic: it is out of the way whereas the Ascot Clinic is practically next door.

Second, the hassle involved in switching.  The fact is that my chiropractor had been working with me for over six months and had got to know my body, my condition, really well.  As such I did not want to have to start all over with a new chiropractor.

Why did I terminate the British Gas Homecare Agreement?

Compare to the Clinic and Sky I found it easy to terminate the British Gas Homecare Agreement.  Why?  First, the decision was entirely up to me and so I did not have to convince anyone else.  Second, it was easy to find a new supplier.

What are the lessons to be learned

The voice of the customer will give you access to what specific customer like about you or do not like about you. It will give you insight into which of your touchpoints, processes, products and services are not working for your customers and how they are falling short.  And which are working well and leaving customers delighted.

The voice of the customer is not necessarily a good guide to what specific customers will do in the future.  The fact is that we are really poor at predicting what we will do in the future.  This has been shown time and again through studies.  This is a subject I intend to explore in the future.

The Coppid Beech Hotel: are you asking the wrong questions?

I wanted and needed a good nights sleep

On Saturday night at around 1:30am my wife and I ended up checking into The Coppid Beech Hotel  – a local hotel a few minutes drive from our home.  By this time we had been to a party, come home and spent some 45 minutes trying to get into our home and failing to do so because our children had accidentally locked us out.  We were both tired, had a big day the next day as friends were coming over for the day, and just wanted to get to our room and sleep soundly.

The hotel failed to deliver the core service: I did not sleep well

As soon as we got into our room I knew that I would not sleep well.  I looked at the bed and could clearly see that the mattress was sagging in the middle and so both my wife and I would end up being crunched together in the middle.  Now that is just fine for my wife as she is a heavy sleeper.  It is not fine by me; I am a light and some would say a fussy sleeper.

Being so tired I did eventually get to sleep only to find myself being woken up at least three times between the hours of 2am and 8am.  I could clearly hear the loud voices in the hallway and once I heard talking in the room next door.  The net result was that the hotel had failed to deliver the core service: a good nights sleep.  So it was with interest that I looked at the “Guest Comment Form” that was prominently displayed on the table in the room.

The hotel is asking for feedback and going about it the wrong way

The form asks about the all kinds of things: “Prior to arrival”; “Front of house”; “Bedroom”; “Breakfast in Rowans”; “Dining within the hotel”; “Lounge bar”; “Room service”; “Waves health & fitness”; and “Brasserie at the Keller”.  In total there are 9 sections and 55 questions: for most of the questions the guest is asked to rate the hotel as either “Excellent”, “Good”, “Average” or “Poor”; and for each of the 9 sections there are only two lines for comments and suggestions.

As I look at this guest feedback form I notice several things.  First and foremost, not one of the questions asks about the core service from the customer perspective.  What is the core service?  I’d argue for a hotel it is providing a good nights sleep.  There is no question about the quality of the bed or the pillows.  And there is no question about noise or the lack of it.

Second, given that there are 55 questions, how many guests are actually going to fill in the form?  I suspect only a small minority.  And if that is indeed the case then how representative is the feedback?

Third, how will this type of questionnaire (ticking the boxes) actually help the hotel to figure out what matters to customers?  And where things rank in terms of importance?  And what areas of the hotel to focus upon?  It is possible that an area is rated as “Average” and that is all that a customer expects in that area because that is an area that simply is not important to the customer.  It is also possible that another area is scored “Good” and yet that is insufficient because it is so essential to the customer that it needs to be “Excellent”.

Lessons for Customer Insight teams

I am sure that those that want to find lessons will be able to find several.  For my part I want to draw attention to how the hotel can get more useful feedback if they simply ask the following questions:

  1. Why did you choose to stay at our hotel?
  2. What were you looking for /expecting to get out of your stay in our hotel?
  3. How well did we deliver on that?
  4. In what areas can we improve?
  5. What do you suggest that we do differently?
  6. Are you willing to write a positive review and recommend us on TripAdvisor and/or our hotel website?

Finally, there is really big difference between designing Voice of the Customer feedback programs to look good (or simply go through the motions) and designing them to get a real insight into what matters to customers and how your organisation is doing in terms of delivering what matters.  I suspect the Coppid Beech Hotel is simply going through the motions of soliciting customer feedback like so many other organisations.  What do you think?

Why listening to the customer involves more than simply listening

I am a fan of Teamsnap and I wrote about them a little while ago because they are a great example of a customer-centred organisation.

The subject of customer experience improvement and the need for a rounded Voice of the Customer program to feed into have been on my mind recently.  Many VoC programs rely simply on customer surveys, some include social media, few gather both structured (NPS type surveys) and unstructured (what people actually say e.g. transcription of voice recordings at the call centre).   In the process I came across some interesting research that casts doubts on the accuracy of survey based research when there is a long delay (six months) between an event occuring and the survey being carried out: How reliable is our memory for our own previous intentions.

Reading the TeamSnap blog today I came across a model example of what it takes to really listen to customers and then act on that listening: The Curious Case of the New Tracking Tab. I throughly recommend that you read and absorb it.   Here is what I take away from it:

It takes a team of people who are truly customer-centric to approach the situation in the way that TeamSnap approached the unexpected issue

Most organisations (including many who say they are customer centric) would simply have rushed ahead and imposed a fix to make the new Payments tab work.  They would just have accepted that it is logically and necessary to have customers enter an amount for every payment.  They would not have done more investigation (like TeamSnap did) to understand why customers were doing what they were doing.  Nor would they have thought about the impact the change would have on their customers.

Truly listening to your customers involves going beyond surveys and reports, it involves getting into the lives of your customers – looking at both what they say and what they do

When TeamSnap looked into how their customers were using the existing Payments tab they figured out that lots of their customers were using it to track stuff.  Clearly the customers had a need to track stuff and the existing Payments tab had made that possible – unintentionally!

The point is that this understanding, this insight, came from actually looking into what customers were doing.  It involved having users test the new Payments tab.  It involved getting that it might be an issue for customers.  It involved looking into and at how the customers were actually using the system.  I call this ‘active listening’ which is very different to what I call ‘passive listening’ – usually a survey.   It is highly unlikely that a standard survey would have unearthed this insight.  Why? Because most surveys tend to focus in on what you already know: what ‘you know you know’ and what ‘you know you do not know’.

Yet it is what ‘you do not know that you do not know’  that is often a source of breakthroughs. This realm of ‘unknown unknowns’ only becomes visible when you actually immerse yourself into the lives of  your customer and leave yourself open to being surprised.

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?