Listen up: How to build a Voice of the Customer strategy

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Whether building a VoC programme from the ground up, or connecting a series of pre-existing disparate programmes into a cohesive framework, these are the building blocks you need to create a Voice of the Customer strategy. 

The chances are that your business has a Voice of the Customer programme in place. In fact, it is likely that you have several. Many organisations these days have multiple teams around the business capturing feedback across different channels to support their separate departmental goals.

But more often than not, this valuable insight never leaves the department, so that while the individual teams benefit, the joined-up view of the customer voice that could be so important to the organisation as a whole goes begging.

This is the difference between having a series of siloed tactical Voice of the Customer programmes, and having an overarching VoC strategy. And those organisations that act fast to tie their disparate programmes together into a broad strategy can enjoy considerable benefit.

“A well-planned, strategic VoC programme drives change across the organisation – a tactical approach will not,” explains Claire Sporton, SVP, CX innovation at Confirmit. “For example, a programme that gathers feedback from customers at a single touchpoint, will enable a business to resolve some customer issues; e.g. resolve customer dissatisfaction at an individual level, or help to generate referrals. But those benefits will be limited to a very narrow part of the business. Ultimately, tactical programmes tend to plateau quite quickly, which means that interest wanes and it becomes another legacy operation that achieves much less than promised.

“Building a strategic VoC programme, with goals and measures, ensures that businesses can define what success looks like. Without this, it’s very hard to build a long-term outlook and the programme is likely to be abandoned after the initial quick wins are over. A strategic programme will allow companies to gain a single view of the customer, use root-cause analysis to re-engineer processes and drive change across the board. All the tactical benefits are there too, but the programme is much more ingrained within the business. Ultimately, helping to create a customer-centric culture that fosters strong customer experiences and drives change.”

Keith Schorah, founder of Syngro, adds: “It is fundamental the VoC programme has a clear, focused strategy which is directly aligned to the organisation’s commercial goals and is designed to permeate all aspects of the business; every business unit, every function, segment and every management level. If it doesn’t, the VoC programme’s success will be limited and most likely temporary.”

Whether building a VoC programme from the ground up, or connecting a series of pre-existing disparate programmes into a cohesive framework, there are a number of initial tasks that organisations need to execute to have the foundations in place for the Voice of the Customer strategy.

Perform a VoC audit

With any number of VoC programmes already in place within the organisation, gathering feedback across multiple channels using any number of different VoC systems, it is important to first get a grasp of exactly what the state of play is across the entire business.

“The very first thing that I recommend to companies is to do an audit of what are all the data sources that they have, what the vendors are they’re using, what kinds of data they are getting from those vendors, and how those vendors communicate,” says Forrester analyst Adele Sage.

The chances are you have got some great tools already in play, so you’re capturing some great feedback but you’re just not aware of it.

Jim Davies, research director at Gartner, adds: “The chances are you have got some great tools already in play, so you’re capturing some great feedback but you’re just not aware of it. But it’s not just a case of auditing what they are, but also whether you can access that data, because you often find in big corporations that there is quite a reluctance in some departments to share their data with other departments. So taking stock of where you are now is definitely the starting point.”

Get buy-in from the executive team

This is crucial to ensure not only budget, but also involvement from stakeholders across the business. “There is no point collating VoC data if no-one knows it or believes in it and there is no cross-silo control and dissemination,” says Steven Walden of Strativity Group. Without at least one executive sponsor, VoC strategies can become special-interest projects that aren’t able to expand and evolve as they need to.

Schorah recommends going straight to the top: “The most successful VoC programmes are owned by the CEO, who plays an instrumental part in communicating the importance of customer feedback to both employees and customers alike.” Fuelled by reporting customer satisfaction to the markets and the increasing maturity of customer experience, the ultimate ownership of the VoC programme has risen sharply amongst CEOs (31%) as they recognise its ability to cement the customer base and identify both risk and increased revenue streams.

Schorah continues: “It is essential that the senior execs are engaged to ensure the VoC strategy is directly aligned to the overall business strategy. Commercially, this will clearly link the financial goals which the VoC programme must contribute to and embed from its inception a clear picture of success in terms of customer retention, satisfaction, new customer acquisition and average account revenues driven by new cross and up-selling.”

But it is not just the boardroom that needs persuading. Schorah adds: “Particularly in large international organisations, the entire business needs to buy into to the VoC programme. Just too many VoC programmes fail to engage with all business units within a group. Their inability to build the business case and win over the business unit budget holders is a guaranteed recipe for failure.

"Engage with the stakeholders from across the business. Spend the time and energy to establish absolute clarity over what the VoC programme needs to produce to support the business goals both for a group level and realistically how it can deliver true value to each of the units. Underestimate the importance of this at your peril.”

Sporton says: “A mature VoC programme should deliver value to every part of the company and each department should be empowered to provide input to keep it relevant and effective.”

Set goals and metrics

“You have to answer the question ‘what is the point – why are we looking at VoC information, what will it be used for?” says Walden. “If it’s just measuring for measuring’s sake and not taken into action then seriously don’t do it.”

A strategy is just words if there are no metrics. And Schorah says that at its heart, the VoC strategy must be measured against clear and relevant metrics.

Reporting progress against the strategy must be built into the management rhythm of every part of the business.

“It is imperative that these metrics go beyond the standard customer satisfaction measures (NPS, CES, RPi etc), the VoC strategy must include commercial measures such as average customer spend, share of wallet, account profitability etc. Without inclusion of these financial elements the VoC programme will struggle to create resonance and drive true cultural change in the business.”

He continues: “Reporting progress against the strategy must be built into the management rhythm of every part of the business. Over time it will permeate into the DNA of the business and smooth the way for the senior management to migrate the bonus payments from a profitability focus to aligning with customer satisfaction. This has to be planned and part of an agreed and understood evolution to becoming customer-centric.”

Not only is setting goals the only way to measure the success of a VoC programme, but can also help to achieve that all-important senior support. Businesses need to look for tangible goals, rather than ‘fluffy’ aims - “Better customer experiences” is not enough,” emphasises Sporton. “It’s important to try to quantify wherever possible, using metrics such as NPS and customer satisfaction scores. In addition, businesses should seek financial targets. VoC programmes can generate new revenue, reduce cost of sale, decrease costs of poor processes and increase customer retention, so it’s important to find a way to set goals around these areas.”

Customer journey mapping

“Most businesses now interact with their customers through multiple channels (online, in store, through contact centres, social media and mobile, for example), so developing a clear view of the customer journey is not necessarily a simple task,” says Sporton. “VoC specialists must take some time to really understand how customers experience their company, and put the processes and channels in place to monitor, measure and report on those experiences at all the key touchpoints.”

Walden adds: “Encourage customer immersion techniques as well, get people from around the organisation to themselves experience being a customer or going out and about visiting customers. Think also about the internal problems in the company that prevent customer-centricity - we often find that these activities should be controlled by a central cross-silo customer experience department critically visible at board level and set to a target.

"Finally, we encourage companies to go beyond defining the ‘as is’ stage and engage in planning for what ‘to be’ as a redesign would look like and create pilot activities for VoC feedback.”

So what should a VoC strategy contain?

While an actionable strategy depends on your specific business, broadly speaking there are a number of components that should be considered:

  • 1. Ensure an effective strategic objective: “There is no point collating VoC data if the objective is not substantive - i.e. to action change,” Walden notes. Schorah adds: “The VoC strategy must be aligned to supporting the organisation’s business goals. It must reflect the requirements of the respective stakeholders so that they can clearly see how the programme will directly contribute to their unit and conversely how they will play their own part in the programme.”
  • 2. Ensure that there is an ‘action loop’: There is no point collating VoC if there is no pilot activity planned - i.e.  some actions will output.
  • 3. Ensure you’re not ripped off: Walden says: “With so many software vendors out there, it is a warning. If you can get what you need simply and effectively do so. Social media data may sound attractive but as a ‘vendor of bog-standard product X’ if your customers hardly ever say anything about you, beware of wasting your money. Likewise, beware fancy measurement systems, simple satisfaction often suffices. Having a sceptic on board actually helps cut through the sales BS.”
  • 4. Ensure you embed creative strategies: Presumably you want to do something with the data, so ideation is an important addition. “Don’t just assume the answer to the next steps in your company will come from quants or qual. Use research to also research new ideas and possibilities in a continuous improvement loop, encourage ideas and piloting change,” Walden notes. “Demonstrate the ‘to be state’ you are aiming for. Note the focus on ‘implemented activity’.”
  • 5. Collate VoC: Now collect data. “Our advice would be of a mixed quantitative, qualitative nature with effective and simple reporting to all in the company – make it exciting!” says Walden.

“The VoC strategy encompass not only the technical aspects of implementing a programme across differing channels and touch points but it must embrace a coherent change plan for front-line staff which enables and empowers them to respond directly to customer feedback,” says Schorah. “All too often VoC strategies are hampered by focusing on the metrics and the technology to establish real-time measures without tackling a cohesive approach to engage with the staff at the touch-points and support with cohesive training and coaching for them to take ownership of the customer’s enquiry.

“A VoC programme is not a once a year market insight survey. It needs to capture customer feedback in real-time. Its insights should be challenging and viscous. It must demand that the company changes to incorporate its findings into the management rhythm of the business.”

While customer feedback can appear to be a scary, unsettling and disruptive influence in your business, it is essential you have a robust strategy to guide your VoC journey. Without one, your programme will stall.

Schorah concludes:  “Creating true change takes time. Your VoC strategy must adapt its cadence to evolve the company’s ability from being able to effectively engage with their customers, manage their response to ensuring the business learns from the feedback and responds with the right changes to improve commercial KPIs and their customers’ experience. “

About Neil Davey

neil

Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.

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