VoC: Voice of the Customer? Very often Confused!

8th Apr 2013

Take a moment to breathe a big sigh, because we’ve arguably reached a pivotal moment in customer experience management – interest in listening to the customer is peaking at precisely the time that we are witnessing an unprecedented explosion in the volume of feedback data available to us. OK, breathe again - because while the battle has been won, the war is far from over.

The likes of Gartner are forecasting that Voice of the Customer (VoC) programs will be one of the most significant strategic investments over the next five years, and the VoC market is set for annual growth rate of over 30%. But while this may indeed come to pass, it is also accepted that VoC remains an immature market. In short – a lot of money could be wasted in the coming years.

“VoC is now being viewed as a must-have strategy,” says Jim Davies, research director at Gartner. “From a corporate perspective, the focus on understanding customers by listening to them and using that understanding to market differently, sell differently, support differently, redesign processes and change the product, is becoming more and more important. It is a key part of customer experience management and a lot of companies are now realising they can’t really differentiate by traditional means, but really understanding the customer can help them to do that.”

But he agrees there is a problem. “What businesses would really like is a nice out-of-the-box mature market that they can go and pick the technology from. But it is not there. So this puts organisations in a difficult situation because they see the value of VoC, but it is not an easy market to go out and buy the software from. And they are still going out and investing regardless, which is why most vendors in this space are growing quite rapidly.”

Into the wilderness

So what do businesses need to know about the VoC marketplace, before they venture out into the wilderness?

Well, from a vendor landscape point of view, it is very “disjointed and fragmented” says Davies. When you look at VoC, you are not just looking at the classic survey vendors, you are looking at social media monitoring, speech analytics, web analytics, and all sorts of different vendors that fall under the umbrella of Voice of the Customer. And while there is growing understanding about VoC from the buy side, the vendors themselves are not always making things easier for businesses.

Davies continues: “There is standardisation in terms of what the acronym means whereas in the past people used it many different ways. If you say to someone ‘have you got a VoC programme’, they know you are asking ‘are you doing cross-channel feedback consolidation’ rather than just surveys. So this awareness around what VoC is all about it is good. But the vendors are still labelling themselves VoC, even if they can’t necessarily deliver against it.”

He adds: “It’s one of those acronyms that people try to latch onto – it is a cool acronym like CEM [customer experience management] and because of that, a lot of vendors are jumping on the bandwagon.”

And there’s a further reason to be wary. A cursory glance at last year’s Gartner Hype Cycle reveals the immaturity of some of the solutions. As noted by Mike McMaster in a post on at the time of the Hype Cycle launch last year, a lot of the exciting technologies that are part of VoC programmes are “firmly on the early stages of their Hype Cycle – moving briskly towards their Trough of Disillusionment.”

Indeed, while speech recognition is on the edge of the Plateau of Profitability and most mobile communications (text, voice, etc) are so well established that they’re not even part of the Hype any more, audio mining, speech analytics and social analytics are all on their way down into the Trough, and crowdsourcing and automatic content recognition haven’t even hit the first peak yet.

“There’s a lot of concern that the buzz associated with these technologies is just hype,” agrees Davies. “In particular speech analytics, where there’s a lot of buzz about how it can uncover all sorts of great insights and provide value, but the reality is that yes it does, but it isn’t necessarily going to be as massive as we’re led to believe. And it’s also one of those technologies that isn’t plug-and-play – it needs a lot of care and ongoing effort to get the most out of it.”

However, he adds: “But the thing about VoC is that if you’re taking all of them together, you pick the best bits from each. Speech is maybe only 50% accurate in terms of what it uncovers, but if you combine that with a survey and a tweet then you start to uncover those insights.”

Getting a joined-up view

This is a crucial point. For businesses to get a joined-up view of the customer voice, they need to incorporate feedback not just from a single source, but from a range of channels. But with no single out-of-the-box product that supports all channels, businesses are forced to deploy several solutions and attempt to integrate the different feeds and formats of data.

Traditionally, this has not been straightforward. But the good news is that the vendors are acknowledging the needs to integrate with data sets from other solutions, and are working to support these efforts.

“Lots of different vendors capture a perspective of the customer voice, whether that’s speech analytics or social media monitoring or a traditional survey. But there is great awareness that this isn’t a holistic view,” says Davies. “Businesses have been asking the vendors if they can combine data with other data sets, feeding it into their system to put the two together. So vendors have been working for the last couple of years at trying to change their data architectures so that it is more suitable for having other data. And it has also made the vendors think a bit about whether they can be more strategically positioned, maybe capturing other types of data.

“Ultimately, if they started life as a survey vendor, they’re still a survey vendor; if they started life as a speech analytics vendor, they’re still that. But the way that they’re architected now, they are much more suitable for importing other sets of data. They have still got a long way to go, but they are starting to view themselves as master data management (MDM) vendors, but obviously more associated with pure feedback data than the broader CRM type data.”

Forrester analyst Adele Sage also emphasises the role of enterprise feedback management (EFM) platforms – also known as customer feedback management (CFM) – which aim to provide a central way to organise all the feedback that comes in, and integrate it with other internal data.

“Often the customer feedback management platforms are the central enabler, as well as providing reporting and action management around service recovery, complaint management and things like that,” she explains. “The platform enables you to bring together all these different kinds of data, organising the stuff that’s coming from other vendors – although sometimes they do have their own text analytics or speech analytics or social media monitoring, and other times they will partner with vendors that offer those things.”

But even then, Sage warns that the “ideal of the CFM vendor playing nicely with everything that you already have” is the stuff of fantasy.

“The reality is that the programme technologies are very messy, especially when you are coming from siloed VoC teams into a centralised team. The digital team may be using one set of vendors and the call centre is using another set of vendors and to get it all to actually fall into a single vendor space perfectly is not so easy. And so the reality in most companies is much messier than the idea of putting in a CFM platform and everything being perfect.”

Getting your house in order

Indeed, tackling the challenges of creating a joined-up from the vendor side are ultimately irrelevant if feedback silos exist within your business. And this remains a very common problem. There are usually any number of VoC technologies already within an organisation, in different departments, deploying a solution and collecting data that is relevant to them from a particular channel for analysis. And in most cases these technologies – and departments – are siloed, so that while individual value is being accrued from these projects, the joined-up view is going begging. It represents yet another layer of fragmentation for the already confusing VoC market.

“A lot of times the messiness comes from the combination of the ways in which the data is organised internally versus the capability of the vendor,” continues Sage. “The CFM vendors are very capable of bringing together the data sources and providing a centralised hub, it is just messy to actually get the data from the different parts and keep track of it and work out who owns what and actually tying it in.”

Both Sage and Davies say the first thing they recommend is for companies to do an audit of all the different data sources that they have – “What are the vendors that we’re using; what kind of data are we getting from those vendors; how do those vendors communicate; have they got the potential to communicate with our centralised data hub,” says Sage.

Davies adds: “It is not just a case of auditing what they are but also can you access the data – because in some big corporations there is quite a reluctance in some departments to share their data with other departments, which you have to overcome. But taking stock of where you are now is the starting point.”

Given the fact that VoC is becoming such a priority, it is unsurprising that Davies expects the issue of tackling the tricky VoC marketplace to become more pressing as the year progresses. He has the following advice for organisations, once they have got their own house in order.

“Once you’ve done the foundation work, you need to choose between the dozens of vendors out there who say they can do it. The problem is there isn’t really anybody who is 100% perfect in every aspect, so it is really going to be a case of most companies needing to have a hybrid approach where they need more than one VoC vendor. Therefore, it is a case of working out integration and data architecture and really understanding the roadmaps as well, because they are all changing rapidly with acquisitions and so on. So it’s important to have a sense of where a vendor is going – just as important as knowing where it is at now – because it is like betting on a horse at the moment.”

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