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The Biggest Lie Told about Voice of the Customer Research

By John Burns

I recently presented Voice of the Customer research findings to an industrial client. The room was filled with product development professionals and senior executives. At some point in the presentation, a senior executive raised his hand to speak. “We already knew all this,” he said, “Customer research never tells us anything new.” It was an awkward moment. It’s not the first time this has happened to me. But I wasn’t too worried. You see, I know he’s lying, and I can prove it.

After politely acknowledging that any research will reveal some findings a company already knows, I asked, “If you already knew this about your customers, what have you done about it?” In other words, what have you been waiting for? On this occasion, as in similar situations before this, the executive said nothing of substance. He dissembled for thirty seconds or so before his colleagues pressured him into admitting that they had done nothing. They could not point to a single action directly related to addressing the customer research findings that they supposedly already knew about.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

If this executive knew what customers wanted and valued, he would’ve done something about it. He would’ve used this knowledge to develop a new product, add enhanced features to an existing product, or improve the customer experience. Why didn’t he do anything, and why do countless other executives in this same situation also do nothing? Sometimes it’s because the necessary technology isn’t available; on other occasions, the costs are too high. But most often these are solvable problems. The more common reason is a lack of confidence.

Companies lack the confidence to pick one or a few customer problems to focus their innovation efforts on. They might know the range of issues customers want fixed, but they don’t know how customers prioritize the importance of these items. Therefore, they lack confidence in their convictions about what customers want and value. Voice of the Customer research provides this confidence. It tells you what is important to customers, and it does so with evidence resting on sound science that everyone can agree upon.

A Voice of the Customer Confidence Boost

For example, one of our clients sells a commodity product used in manufacturing. They had developed several new product ideas related to the industrial internet of things and smart-sensor technology. They believed these products would differentiate their company, increase sales, and enable the them to charge a premium over the competition. Although customers thought the product ideas were interesting, they didn’t address their highest-priority concern: reducing the delivery time of our client’s product. It was as simple as that. If our client kept the product the same, but reduced delivery time from months to weeks, they would gain an advantage over the competition and win more business.

Everyone working in the industry knew delivery times were an issue. This was not new, and it was not particularly exciting compared to the new smart-sensor technology. But Voice of the Customer research revealed that solving this problem was the top priority for customers. Without the research, the company would’ve continued to focus almost exclusively on new product enhancements. This is a useful activity, but hardly a sure thing in terms of generating increased market share, particularly in the short-and-medium term. Therefore, the company put a task force in place to solve the problem of reducing delivery time. It was not an easy problem to solve. They did it anyway, and sales increased 20%. Voice of the Customer research provided them with the information required to agree about what to focus on and the confidence to act.

The Truth Behind the Lie

The lie is that Voice of the Customer research doesn’t tell you anything new. The truth is that, at a minimum, Voice of the Customer research provides you with the confidence required to act. This is new; otherwise, you would’ve already addressed the issues that are important to customers. Voice of the Customer shows you the problems customers want you to solve, and it prioritizes the ones customers view as most important. It provides, therefore, objective evidence everyone can agree upon. This enables you to choose to where to invest time and money, focusing on high-priority customer problems in the short term and continuing to address long-term initiatives. That’s what it means to know your customers. That’s the truth behind the biggest lie told about Voice of the Customer research.

Request a copy of the groundbreaking academic article that coined the term “Voice of the Customer” by Abbie Griffin and AMS co-founder John R. Hauser.

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