by John Mitchell
If you are not talking to your customers to find insights, you are innovating while blindfolded. But getting the Voice of the Customer (VOC) is more than simply asking a few customers what they need. It is a discipline, with best practices and common pitfalls. Here are five of the most common mistakes that VOC practitioners make, and how to avoid them:
1. REPEATEDLY RELYING ON YOUR “A-LIST”
Every company has an “A-List” of customers—top accounts that generate the most sales, “friendlies” who return phone calls and emails, or key opinion leaders whose needs foreshadow the rest of the market. As valuable as these customers may be to your company’s bottom line, it is folly to rely on them alone as a source of customer insight for innovation. All too often, though, product managers do just that. In his book, Customer Visits: Building a Better Market Focus, Prof. Edward McQuarrie cautions innovators against going to the A-List repeatedly. Customers who are not buying much from you today can be your best source of growth, he says, if only you take the time to visit them and learn about what they need.
- When planning your Voice of the Customer program, make sure to include a cross-section of existing and potential customers. In our experience, the most valuable insights come from the customers you know the least about. There is often a big reason they are not buying from you today.
2. CONCENTRATING ON ONLY ONE KIND OF CUSTOMER
In many categories, the “customer” is rarely a single person but a group of stakeholders, each with different needs and concerns. Yet many innovators act as if the customer were a monolith. In an industrial market, a customer may comprise operators, design engineers, procurement managers, installation and maintenance technicians, and a budget owner. It is a mistake for B2B companies to consider the needs of the line-workers who operate equipment, but not the needs of the shop technicians who fix it when it breaks. Similarly, consumer categories often comprise groups of stakeholders—a primary household shopper, a spouse, and children. Lowe’s famously gained a significant advantage over Home Depot by observing that while men are the primary buyers in Lowe’s stores, 80% of home improvement projects are initiated by women.
- At the start of any insights initiative, ask yourself, “Who must be satisfied for our product to be a success?” Consider all the different stakeholders, and be sure they are represented in your needs-finding work.
3. ASKING FOR THE SOLUTION INSTEAD OF UNCOVERING THE NEED
Ted Leavitt’s dictum, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” has become a business cliché, but it remains true. Customers do not buy products merely to own them, but because they provide a benefit—something of tangible or intangible value. Still, over fifty years since Leavitt’s famous remark, product managers act otherwise, approaching customer insight as the search for a solution instead of the underlying problem. They accept a customer’s request for a quarter-inch drill as the correct answer, without considering how it will be used (e.g., to make quarter-inch holes), or better still, why the customer needs the hole in the first place. Real insight comes from understanding what the customer needs to do, instead of simply the product she wants to buy. Perhaps there is a better way to deliver a quarter-inch hole, or perhaps we can help the customer skip the hole entirely.
- As you plan the questions to ask customers, focus not on the features and specifications they think are required, but on the applications they have in mind, and the benefits that an innovative product could deliver.
4. ACCEPTING VAGUE ANSWERS AS SUFFICIENT
Customer interviews are often chockablock with meaningless generalities, which say everything while saying nothing. When asked what’s important when choosing a certain product, a customer might respond with platitudes like “reliability,” “ease-of-use,” or “accuracy.” Statements like this should frustrate innovators, because they are not actionable. We do not need to interview customers to know that they want a reliable product. Instead, we need to understand what reliable means to them.
- To reach the right level of insight during an interview, use probing questions that move from generalities to specifics. Ask “why” often, and beg for examples of what makes a product reliable and what happens when reliability becomes an issue. Only then will you have the information you need to find the customer pain points your innovations must alleviate.
5. RELYING ON YOUR MEMORY ALONE
A customer interview is only as valuable as what you bring out of it, but too many interviewers rely on their memories, or a few pages of notes, to recollect the details of an hour-long conversation with a customer. Memory works well for remembering summary points, but not for capturing the nuances that describe customer needs at the level of detail necessary for product design decisions. Note-taking is better, but few people have the skills needed to take thorough notes while simultaneously managing a one-on-one discussion with a customer.
- It is far better to audio-record your conversation and create a transcript. In their seminal article on the subject, “The Voice of the Customer,” Drs. Abbie Griffin and John Hauser demonstrate the value of this approach, finding that a verbatim record of a single interview may often yield over 30 or 40 unique, detailed customer needs. Without a transcript, those needs can be lost in incomplete notes or foggy memory. Compared to the value of your time and the insights generated, digital recording technology and transcription are cheap, and most customers do not mind being recorded if they are confident in your good intentions.
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Listening to the Voice of the Customer is not rocket science, and most innovators can learn to be effective practitioners. Without direction, however, you risk spending a lot of time and effort to get poor and incomplete answers. Whether you are just beginning a program of customer interviews or have been incorporating customer insights into your innovation process for years, taking these few precautions can be the difference between your success and failure.