Voice of the Customer Is Far More Than Surveys

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Linking what's learned from direct and indirect customer input creates a more holistic view of customers' expectations, needs, and perceptions.

Gartner Research Director Jim Davies
Gartner Research Director Jim Davies

Any company that wants to deliver an excellent customer experience has to start with voice of the customer (VOC). But most organizations don't really understand their customers, nor are they able to keep pace with changing customer needs, preferences, and expectations. So said Research Director Jim Davies during a session at the Gartner Customer 360 Summit 2014.

Davies explained that VOC comprises three types of feedback: direct, where you ask for feedback such as through a survey and customers give it; indirect, where customers are talking about you instead of to you, as with a tweet; and inferred, where the actual feedback is in customers' heads but can be surmised based on information such as behavioral and operations data. VOC is about bringing all three together to get a holistic view. It includes collecting, storing, analyzing, and then acting on that feedback.

Putting a comprehensive VOC strategy into place isn't an overnight process, Davies said. He noted that the best approach is multiphased. For example, start with auditing current VOC activities and building a business case; then define the full scope of VOC and assign supporting metrics; and then pilot technologies and roll out specific initiatives. While this takes time, it's also important to be nimble, he said. “Are you a meerkat or tortoise in terms of VOC?” he asked. Meerkats are fast, alert, and community focused; tortoises are slow and plodding.

Davies' recommendations included:

For direct feedback—

When surveying customers, be engaging, personal, relevant, brief, and timely. Also be multichannel; that is, consider which channel is right for that customer and that interaction. Most important, take action. “There should be processes in place to act on what you've learned,” Davies said.

In terms of event-based surveys that are linked to a specific interaction or event, use no more than three or four questions. For relationship surveys—where customers are asked how the relationship's been over X period of time—use 10 to 12 questions. “Be prepared to be open and follow up,” Davies advised. “‘We sucked at A and B, and we've completed improvements on A, and are still working on B.' Customers who feel listened to are more likely to give additional feedback.”

Davies also recommended using strategic surveys with subset of key customers. These surveys are usually phone-based and dive into detail about a specific topic.

Indirect feedback—

When determining where to look for indirect customer feedback, consider which channels provide the best blend of volume, richness, and usefulness. For example, there may be reams of tweets on a brand or topic, but it may be random chatter (“Heading to Starbucks for my morning jolt”) instead of opinion or sentiment. Davies also suggested that marketers consider scalability, cost, and timeliness.

Inferred feedback—

All interaction channels are relevant—from email responses to contact center conversations to website behavior. Look for reporting that shows how a channel is performing in terms of customer experience; for instance, heat mapping a mobile app.

The key to creating a holistic—and more actionable—view of customer sentiment is to put all three together, Davies said. His recommendations for doing so were:

Collect: Prioritize projects to collect all three types of feedback based on the richness of each as determined by pilot programs.

Analyze: Determine the right data model and supporting analytics tools and then use them to transform customer input into actionable insight.

Act: Creative action plans to address opportunities and problems revealed through customer feedback. These may involve changes to people, process, and technology. Distribute relevant insight and the corresponding actions across the organization in a timely manner.

Own: Get commitment from the CEO for a major VOC strategy. Find an owner who has cross-department responsibility to join pieces together.

Collaborate: Create a VOC team with a mix of full- and part-time involvement. Find people who are passionate about listening to the customer and want to use that insight to drive the business forward.

“VOC works and there's business value in doing it,” Davies said.

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