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Voice of the Customer

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The voice of the customer (VOC) concepts used today can be traced to Yoji Akao’s work with Toyota in the 1960’s. His 1978 book on his Quality Function Deployment (QFD) methodology introduced a valuable, rigorous but highly complex system. The purpose of QFD was to capture and translate customer desires into functional product characteristics and features that engineers could use for product design and improvement. Akao’s system uses a series of matrices which are referred to as “the house of quality”. The QFD system is far beyond what most of us mere mortals (non-engineers) will need, have patience for or will take the time to use. Other than the need for simplicity, these VOC methods have several technical weaknesses or omissions which can waste effort and severely limit effectiveness of results. These include:
  • Poor applicability outside manufacturing. Service and knowledge work does not create long runs of identical products, so product design in that context requires a different way.
  • Assumption that “the customer” is known. That can be a serious error. QFD-based VOC methods, such as those used by Six Sigma and ISO-9000 practitioners do not provide a clear method for determining the small number of finite roles a customer can play with a product or service. The result is that there is a high probability the most important customers do not get their voices properly solicited or heard.
  • There is no explicit provision for uncovering customer desired outcomes, distinct from functions, features and undesired outcomes. These are all different “voices”, with desired outcomes being absolutely the most important.

Many practices have become lumped under the VOC umbrella, ranging from ways to proactively uncover what customers want during new product development (NPD), to reactively uncover what customers have experienced. Satisfaction surveys are one of the most common reactive approaches used. Well-designed surveys can be effective ways to find out whether customers got what they wanted. But there are three (3) critical weaknesses which can make surveys a poor choice for uncovering the voice of the customer:
  1. The wrong questions are asked. There is weak alignment between what customers most value and what the survey asks. Hotel guests overwhelmingly say “good night’s sleep” is their top priority. Thousands of hotels in North America administer guest surveys. Almost none ask about sleep satisfaction. Survey questions generally reflect what the provider, not the customer, thinks is important.
  2. Simplicity trumps validity. The simplicity with which anyone can whip a survey together means that is exactly what happens. Surveys constructed without sound VOC knowledge result in uncovering dissatisfaction, without revealing what would make satisfaction occur. Knowing that timeliness is not satisfactory does not tell us whether we need to be faster (and by how much), have more precise timing, have shorter duration, etc. A key C3 principle to remember is that the absence of dissatisfaction is not evidence of satisfaction. See the top 10 survey problems in Are Your Surveys Only Suitable for Wrapping Fish?, Article #10.
  3. Conflicting purposes. The reasons for conducting a survey may be to (a) find out what customers want, (b) discover what they’ve experienced, (c) compare our performance with competitors, (d) make ourselves look good, (e) identify specific ways to improve product or process design, (f) quantify the impact of corrective actions, (g) establish a basis for employee recognition, (h) stay in compliance with industry, professional or quality management standards or (i) create the perception we care. All of these purposes may be legitimate but not all are aligned with customer values or priorities

The challenge is to find a happy middle ground between the complexity (but power) of QFD-based VOC and the simplicity (but reactive and easily misguided use) of surveys. The C3-based approach outlined below is one such remedy.

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Language is inherently ambiguous. The challenge in capturing the voice of the customer (VOC) is to eliminate confusion about who the customers really are and understand what they want so we can predictably create satisfaction and excitement. Robin Lawton describes a refreshingly simple way to redefine work and use simple “word formulas” to eliminate ambiguity with math-like precision. Relevance is universal. Organizations from healthcare, technology, government, finance and elsewhere have used this approach to win customers, win awards and save millions of dollars.

It can be hard to believe that simply misunderstanding what customers want could cause one company to lose 20% of its market share in three years, another to lose a multi-billion dollar contract to a rival, or cause a small government agency to incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary costs in a single year. The magnitude of the opportunity is eye-popping, cutting across every industry. This is not news to customers.

Habitually misunderstanding customers is a preventable disease. Effective remedies are not so easy to find. As the silent “scream of the customer” (SOC) becomes more audible, many correction efforts are employed. They can include beefed up marketing campaigns, adding more resources to “customer care”, conducting more surveys and training lots of employees in statistical methods with Greek names. Results can be illusive.

Reducing dissatisfaction does not cause satisfaction. The absence of death or illness does not mean we’re in good health. Pain need not be the motivator for improvement. The good health of your enterprise that springs from satisfying customers can be dramatically enhanced by unambiguously understanding what customers want. But methods for capturing the voice of the customer (VOC) can feel like learning a new language. My purpose here is to outline the understandable, practical steps you can take to proactively understand what customers want, even beyond what they may have told you. The objective is to enable you to actually give it to them by design in the shortest time, at least cost and at most benefit for you. Practitioners of Lean, Six Sigma, ISO-9000, Baldrige and other performance improvement approaches should find that the methods described here significantly strengthen what they are already doing.

When an already well-performing medium-sized financial organization suddenly achieves new revenue growth of $8 million within 90 days of asking its customers new questions, it is tempting to dismiss such results as just chance, magic or some kind of Ponzi scheme. But a highly regulated government agency with a captive customer base applied the same VOC methodology and jumped from 25th to #1 in performance, received a deluge of customer kudos and saved over $20 million in two years. A renowned hospital’s cardiothoracic department discovered that addressing the most important three patient priorities lead to a 50% cycle time reduction for post-operative care. Maybe this isn’t just at fluke.

Over 85% of us in North America do not personally manufacture widgets. We are immersed in knowledge and service work. There is broad demand today for a simple way to know (1) who “the customer” really includes, (2) what questions to ask to uncover unstated priority wants, (3) how to prioritize and understand their answers and (4) how to define, deliver and measure success. The VOC concepts used today can be traced to Yoji Akao’s work with Toyota in the 1960’s. His 1978 book on Quality Function Deployment (QFD) methodology introduced a valuable, but highly complex system. It is far beyond what most of us mere mortals outside of manufacturing need. This article describes a simple (but not simplistic) approach for the rest of us, practical for non-technical people at any level of an organization.

THE CHALLENGEHow to uncover, translate, measure and deliver what customers want is a challenge linguistics can solve. Language is inherently ambiguous. Ambiguity is the enemy to defeat when seeking understanding. You’d never tolerate multiple answers to the math problem, 7+5=X. We’ve all had years of math training, so any answer other than 12 would be cause for immediate corrective action. To understand and apply the voice of the customer, we need to have a way to consistently reach the same level of unambiguous answer for each of Four Key Questions. But first, let’s illustrate the nature of the problem.

If you asked any ten managers in your enterprise who the customer refers to, there is a strong probability you’ll get multiple answers. They can’t all be right. We usually do not respond with the same corrective vigor as a mathematical error would elicit. We tacitly accept those different answers as equally correct. If we only knew what the criteria for “correct” was, we could take constructive action to improve customer focus.

For more on this topic, see The Voice of the Customer in a Widget-Free World Article #8

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