The topic for the April 2016 ASQ blog is Voice of the Customer (VOC). Specifically, What exactly should voice of the customer mean to the quality professional? How important is it? What are the best ways to gather it?
Voice of Customer is a critical input to the development, commercialization and delivery of cost-effective, reliable and exciting products & services that help assure the growth and sustainability of an organization. The producing organization must first fully understand its supplier-processing-customer supply chain as well as the competitive landscape, while demonstrating the capability and capacity to successfully articulate, measure and improve its own key business processes (see COPs, MOPs, SOPs). For example, what is the organization's mission, vision? Values and principles? Goals and strategic plans? How does the organization go to market? How does the organization make money? What are the organization's core competencies and strategic advantages?
When attempting to define the "customer" it is important that everyone involved in the commercialization process agree on the target customer. One might assume that the customer is the end-user, consumer. But it is often not enough to just consider the end-user needs; the end-user might not be the purchasing decision-maker. For example, who decides what products get placed on store shelves, placed in catalogs, placed in the office supply room, stocked in the parts crib, or made available for on-line purchase; i.e. who is the "Gatekeeper"? In a B2B model, what are the Buyer's needs? What influences the Gatekeeper and/or Buyer purchasing decisions? What are the "Switching costs" associated with any change in supplier? How can your product, brand, or organization help that trade/channel customer achieve its strategic goals better than your competition can? In today's global market where product can be purchased from virtually anywhere on the planet via the World Wide Web, what regulatory, statutory and/or Governmental needs must be satisfied? Of course, let us not forget the Internal customer. How effectively are internal customer & downstream process requirements understood and met by the previous process (internal supplier)? Where can waste and inventory be eliminated in the Value Stream?
There are many ways to collect the Voice of Customer. Surveys are often cited as a common example. However, surveys are very limiting. Problems arise with low response rates and questions concerning the validity of the survey instrument itself. Did the survey reach the intended audience? Furthermore, it is my experience that many survey questions are often poorly written. Bias can easily enter into how the question is asked and/or in the development of a list of possible responses (i.e. multiple choice). The selected Likert scale, if used, may be too narrow to provide any meaningful, useful spread in the data with which act. Before any survey is published the organization should evaluate how well the survey meets the overall objective. How will the organization use the responses to the questions asked? Will the anticipated range of responses help the organization create a better product or service? A word of advice - "pilot" the survey with a sampling of the intended audience prior to launch.
Another weakness of surveys is that they can only identify drivers of "Basic" and "Expected" customer needs. Even if an organization meets 100% of the Basic and Expected needs it will not deliver "Exciting" quality. Customers cannot articulate needs that they are not aware of; but once and organization delivers Exciting quality it is on the cusp of earning customer loyalty. For more information about different levels of needs and satisfaction please review the Kano Model.
Focus Panels are a better VOC tool than surveys because its attempts to identify unarticulated needs, but focus panels assume that one has direct access to the intended customer. Though here again, questions can arise as to how the audience was selected (i.e. segmentation and sampling errors). Focus panels do offer the advantage to surveys in that questions are more free-flowing and can be tailored to the direction of the conversation, often resulting in more insight. Focus panels also afford the producer the opportunity to observe the customer perform a task, often discovering hidden pain points previously unbeknownst even to the customer. I have found C2C's VOC CAGE Model, developed by David Verduyn, to be a great product design process that helps discover unarticulated customer needs.
Surveys and Focus Panels are just two ways that VOC can be captured. There are many more methods available that I will not delve into here. Each of these VOC methods has its strengths and weaknesses in capturing customer wants and needs for a product or service; however, none of them do a particularly good job of capturing insights into how to improve the overall Customer Experience (CX). Developing and commercializing a great product or service is not wholly sufficient if the transactional process outcomes are disappointing. Customer Experience is the total of product reliability and relationship quality that a customer has with an organization, its employees and its partners - every single transaction that a customer has throughout the value chain. From pre-sale to purchase to post-sale and customer service, each step in the value chain is a "moment of truth" that can impact Customer Experience. A relatively new tool called the Customer Journey Map is an awesome tool to help identify drivers and dissatisfiers to delivering superior customer experience. When collecting customer wants & needs, likes and dislikes, do not miss the opportunity to learn more about your competition: why does the customer currently buy the competitor's product? What do they do well? What do they not do so well? Finally, product development offers the opportunity to bring disruptive innovation to the market. How, where can you leapfrog the competition to change the very basis of competition?
A good way to track and improve one's customer experience quality is to track Word-of-Mouth feedback. The internet today enables and empowers the consumer to easily compare product features, reliability, cost, and review user comments. User reviews and ratings are available on nearly every B2C and other customer-facing website and via services such as Yelp!, TripAdvisor, etc. By following - and positively responding to - user reviews the organization can actually build customer satisfaction, loyalty and advocacy. BazaarVoice and PowerReviews Inc. are two service providers that can help your organization track and report customer reviews of your brand and product, to create actionable insights.
Of course, just collecting the Voice of the Customer will not guarantee product or business success. One must be able to effectively translate the "fuzzy" voice of the customer into unique, value-added products and services that will delight the customer while meeting or exceeding all safety and regulatory requirements. Quality Function Deployment (QFD), and Pugh Concept Selection are two matrix-based tools that help organizations develop and select the solutions that best solve customer pain points. A formal phase-gate commercialization process will help keep the product team on task towards achieving the commercialization targets and organizational goals. Prototypes and pilot testing are typical outcomes along the commercialization journey, which provide the product development team the opportunity to examine supply chain and manufacturing feasibility and cost while validating and refining the translated VOC directly with the intended customer.
The quality professional that understands the commercialization process, how to administrate and use the various VOC tools, and where/how to benchmark best practices in COPS, SOPS and MOPS is an invaluable asset to the organization.