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Leveraging the Voice of the Customer 

by John Guaspari

Hear the words of the vice president of marketing research for a company in the hospitality industry: "We have the data. We know what customers want. We know what to do. But we can't get anyone to do it."

Or the words of the senior vice president in the financial services industry who has responsibility for his company's process reengineering activities: "Last week I sat in on a presentation of the results of a customer study. It was all very thorough, very logical. But I found myself thinking, 'Just what are we going to do with all of this?' "

Their frustration is palpable, and it's not uncommon. To better understand how to relieve it, let's listen to one more voice, this time the general manager of an industrial products company:

"We've been working on various change efforts for a while--total quality, process improvement, cycle-time reduction. I think we've gotten pretty good at them, but there were three things I was trying to get even better at.

"One, I wanted more sales. It's great to have process improvement. It's even better when it gets you business results.

"Two, I wanted to keep my people energized. We're asking a lot of them, and I want to keep them enthused.

"Three, we must get faster at change. There isn't time to be pulling in opposite directions.

"I knew that the voice of the customer could help us with the first one. What I didn't realize was that it could get us all three."

The fact is: The voice of the customer can help you in three important ways.

*It can inform. The voice of the customer can help you make more informed choices about process change options. For example, should the industrial products supplier have offered customers faster standard delivery times, new financing options or more product configurations? "We thought speedy delivery would have been the best way to go," says the general manager. "Our customers said that would be nice, but the financing options would be great. So going after process changes to make that possible would be more valuable for them and more profitable for us."

*It can energize. The issue isn't just the need to be informed; it's the need to make something happen with the information you have. The voice of the customer can provide that needed energy boost.

Take the case of the leading manufacturer of acoustic instruments. For years, customers had been asking for a "small" model. For just as long, the company's response had been, "We already offer a 'small' model." Then one day a customer said, "No, I mean small. Like this," whereupon he pointed to the nail on his little finger--a fingernail about 1/3 the size of the company's "small" model--to illustrate his point.

The key lies in who heard the customer's voice. It wasn't just people from sales, marketing and customer service. It was also people from manufacturing, human resources and corporate staff. The company had established mechanisms so that a broader range of people heard what the customer had to say--directly and unambiguously--and they were moved to overcome the institutional inertia and take action.

*It can align. Not only must organizations be able to change. They must be able to change fast. The voice of the customer can accelerate that process.

"One of our accountants had an idea about improving our forecasting abilities, which would improve customer service and lower our costs," says the general manager. "She didn't wait around looking for approval or permission. She just went and tested out her idea. It worked, so we implemented it. She had the confidence to do it because she knew that we're all moving in the same direction, that we're all aligned around what we've been hearing from our customers. The voice of the customer has automatically flattened our organization."

There are ways to address the frustrations voiced in the introduction to this column. Three general principles should be followed:

*Engage customers in conversation differently. Don't assume that traditional lines of inquiry will reveal all that the voice of the customer has to tell you.

*Involve nontraditional people in these conversations. Sales, marketing and service people aren't the only ones who can benefit from hearing the voice of the customer.

*Frame the issue differently. Don't say, "Hearing the voice of the customer can help us do a better job of process change." Say instead, "Hearing and acting on the voice of the customer is the process. It is the business."

The result? Not only will you be better informed, you will be better energized and aligned as well.


About the author

John Guaspari is a senior associate of the Lexington, Massachusetts-based management consulting firm Rath & Strong. The books he has written include I Know It When I See It and The Customer Connection.

E-mail him at jguaspari@qualitydigest.com
Visit Rath & Strong's Web site at www.rathstrong.com

Copyright 1998 by John Guaspari.


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