VOICE OF THE CUSTOMER IN A WIDGET-FREE WORLD: Using word formulas to uncover, translate & deliver what customers want
By Robin Lawton
It can be hard to believe that simply misunderstanding what customers want could be cause for so much grief. Consider just the producer side of the equation for a moment. The third largest U.S. phone company lost close to 6 million unhappy customers in one year. One company lost 40% of its stock value and over $12.6 billion in five years. Another lost more than one multi-billion dollar contract to rivals. A city government agency incurred 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.
Misunderstanding customers is not a sign of stupidity. But habitual misunderstanding is a preventable disease, whose symptoms may be hidden. Effective remedies are not so easy to find. As the “silent scream of the customer” (SSOC) becomes more audible, many correction efforts get adopted. 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 elusive.
Reducing dissatisfaction does not cause satisfaction. The absence of death or illness does not mean patients are in good health. The good health of your enterprise 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 foreign 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. Users of Lean, Six Sigma, ISO-9000, Baldrige, satisfaction surveys, HCAHPS criteria and other approaches should find that the methods described here significantly strengthen what they are already doing.
Pain need not be the motivator for improvement. 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 the top five in performance, received a deluge of customer kudos, saved over $20 million in two years and won national acclaim. 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 with knowledge work. The VOC concepts used today can be traced to Yoji Akao’s work with Toyota in the 1960’s. His 1978 book on the 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.
How 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 the Four Key Questions shown in Figure 2. 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.
Customers and management of most enterprises (within industry, government, healthcare, education, etc.) will say that “good service” is a high priority. If this is true for your enterprise, ask those same ten managers and their employees two questions:
- Is “service” something you believe is of strategic importance for you to provide?
- What is a one-word definition for service?
The good news is you will likely find consensus on the importance of service. The bad news is that there may be very different definitions for what service means. Do we accept those different answers as equally correct? Yes, but we shouldn’t. Does it matter? Yes, if we actually want to achieve improvement in satisfaction, let alone loyalty.
 Sprint in 2009.
 Ford Motor Company, 2001-2006. Management reported the loss of $12.6 billion for 2006 alone.
 Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District saved over $117,000 in the first quarter after learning the VOC.
 This article is revised and updated from the original, first published by the author in 2010.
 Despite QFD’s thoroughness, there are two critical omissions: (a) how to determine who the customer is and (b) how to define and separate customer-desired outcomes from product functions and features.
 The importance of language is often dismissed as “just semantics”. Unfortunately, the exchange of one word for another is usually not a minor matter. Poor word choice is a known cause of marital disharmony. One reason attorneys are paid so much is that they must take great care to use precisely the correct language to avoid unintended ambiguity. Semantics involves the meaning of words. Linguistics addresses the structure of language. Attention to both remains a largely untouched challenge but is necessary to understand the voice of the customer.
 Some organizations (and industries) use a single catch-all label in referring to customers. In healthcare it may be patients; in government it may be taxpayers; in education it is students; in insurance it is policyholders; in industry, it may be buyers who are considered the customer. These labels have the appeal of simplicity. They aren’t necessarily wrong at the enterprise level. The problem is that this simplicity breaks down under specific application. The majority of employees in an organization may rarely or never have contact with a customer external to the enterprise. But they still have customers for their work, even if they don’t make widgets. The methodology described here applies equally to everyone and eliminates ambiguity.
 We will avoid the discussion of loyalty in this article except to note that this is a result some commercial enterprises pursue. It is easy to become cynical about the entire rationale for “loyalty programs”, which are decidedly of interest to producers but of limited value to customers. We have never found customers clamoring to become more loyal, though they do seek greater satisfaction. Strategies to improve loyalty may have nothing to do with improving customer satisfaction. They can have much more to do with keeping customers captive, either through enticement, rewards, coercion or constraint of choice. We will argue that understanding and uniquely satisfying customers is a sufficiently challenging pursuit for those wanting their customer to be, and remain, raving fans.