Are you listening? Why customer voice is taking on a whole new meaning

Voice of the customer programs are giving companies a new lease on life, offering insights on customer expectations, preferences and aversions

It’s no longer good enough to listen to customers just for the sake of listening. In the age of the experience, brands need to listen to improve the customer experience if they have a hope of staying relevant.  

Enter voice-of-the-customer (VoC), a concept used in business and IT to describe the in-depth process of capturing customer’s expectations, preferences and aversions.  

According to Forrester, companies are using VoC programs to collect and analyse customer feedback, inform customer experience (CX) improvements, and track the results of those improvements. But while VoC has been on the radar for several years, maturity across companies and their VoC programs is at extreme ends of the spectrum and many are just getting started.  

According to Bain & Company partner, Katrina Bradley, there are many ways to capture, understand and act on the voice of customer. She describes VoC as a systematic approach to capturing customer feedback, thoughts, reactions, ideas and feelings, on a company’s products/services and other elements of the customer experience.  

“It is important to understand just ‘listening’ to the voice of the customer is insufficient. It is important to have a systematic approach to understand and learn from the voice of the customer feedback, and then take action to improve,” she tells CMO.  

For Bradley, an effective VOC system can also improve employee engagement and advocacy through engaging employees in listening to customer feedback and taking actions to improve the customer experience.

The Net Promoter System (NPS), created by Bain & Company more than a decade ago, stands out as a holistic management system that encompasses processes and systems to help an entire business focus on earning the loyalty of both customers and employees and drive organic growth, Bradley says.     

“Enabling closed learning loops between a company’s frontline and other employees and customers to drive continuous improvement in the customer experience, and understanding which actions are growing promoters and leading to detractors are the foundations of a Net Promoter System,” she says.  

So why is VoC gaining the headlines now? Bradley points to a number of key trends loyalty leading companies are deploying to improve their VOC game. The first is broadening VOC measurement beyond customer interaction points such as calling a contact centre or visiting a branch.  

“Increasingly, loyalty leaders are embedding VoC measurement at the end of end-to-end customer experiences [or episodes],” she explains.  

Additionally, companies are implementing “predictive NPS” by linking operational data to the drivers of a company’s NPS, and understanding which customers are likely to be promoters or detractors based on the real time customer experience they are receiving. Companies are also implementing proactive service recovery and next best servicing messages, by tailoring customer communications based on the recent experience a customer has received.

Building momentum  

Growth marketing and CX leader, Christian Bowman, who positions VoC as a strategy for planning, capturing and utilising customer feedback, says VoC programs including the use of NPS, customer satisfaction and customer effort are gaining traction mostly due to increasing focus on being data-driven.  

“It can be as simple as a survey after an interaction with a customer to click on smiley faces to show how they feel, to a comprehensive multi-page customer survey sent to a customer yearly,” he says. “While it’s only one element of a CX strategy, it’s probably the most important one.”  

While the concept of surveying and capturing feedback from customers isn’t new, what is new is utilising the voice of the customer to prioritise product and service delivery.  

“It’s very tempting to utilise technology and data to better understand customers and their preferences, but in reality, it’s sometimes smarter just to ask the customer what they want and build a relationship from that,” Bowman continues. “I’ve seen many examples of people spending buckets of cash on propensity and preference modelling. But it rarely includes the voice of the customer, only their behaviour.”  

The main benefits of VOC programs come from being able to measure the experience of a customer at critical touchpoints in real time. The goal is to be able to get feedback on whether or not, as a brand, the company has done a good enough job of creating memorable experiences customers will love.  

Bowman suggests companies doing well with their VoC programs have embedded it as part of each key touchpoint or with appropriate feedback mechanisms.  

“You can measure customer effort or customer experience as part of a signup process on-screen and then measure customer experience via an NPS survey email to the customer after the first 30 days, as part of an onboarding program,” he says. “The better companies are now introducing non-traditional CX metrics such as social sentiment and public reviews, even to the point of being able to direct people to provide a public review if they’re considered a promoter.”

3 VoC styles    

While every industry and sector have differing needs and ‘moments of truth’ in their customer engagement strategy, there are some common critical factors in designing a VoC program.  

The first step is setting a VoC strategy, followed by creating a centralised program. From there, it’s important to tie questions to goals and ensure they are obtainable; adhere to good survey hygiene; combine insights from across the business; and act and review.  

For co-founder and managing partner of Ellipsis & Company, Tim Tyler, VoC programs are used by companies to focus management and service staff on the customer experience and expectations. They’re gaining popularity because immediacy makes it much more likely the customer is rating, describing or critiquing the particular transaction or interaction the company is asking about.  

What’s new is the use of digital and near-real time communications is fresh to the world of VoC. “The use of loyalty program data so responses can be tied to individuals and tracked longitudinally is new,” Tyler says. “Historically, market research on brand sentiment has been anonymous and at a point-in-time. VoC is increasingly constant.”  

Tyler says the market is dividing into three ‘styles’ of VOC: Transactional – within minutes the customer receives a request for feedback on their transaction experience; episodic – after numerous calls and in-home visits, when the consumer is asked to give feedback on the episode; and market or brand, a longer-term view of how the customer views and feels about the brand. “Social media has made negative experiences much more dangerous for companies as the reach of criticism is magnified. Getting the customer experience right and keeping it right is more important,” he says. “And the arbiter of a good experience is the pesky, fickle customer so you have to keep asking her.”

Up next: how Bupa, Bendigo Bank and Suncorp are deploying voice of the customer programs, and the challenges they face

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How Bupa is striving to be ‘customer-obsessed’  

Health insurance provider, Bupa, has the ambition to be a large customer champion in healthcare. To help, it started designing a VoC program started a few years ago in the form of a NPS maturity model adopted across the company in 2013, chief marketing and customer officer, Jane Power, explains.  

“We felt that, like a lot of things, a strategy [or a plan or an execution] without a way to measure it is always really challenging. So what NPS brings to organisations, and certainly brought for Bupa, is that framework around measurements,” she says.   But it is only step one in a much larger VoC plan, Power acknowledges. “We needed to find a way that we could talk to people about how well we are doing, asking ‘is what we’re doing and the strategy we are deploying, and the experiences we’re creating for our customers, are they working?’” Today, Bupa has embraced a simpler customer excellence framework, ‘listen, learn and act’.

Among Power’s key learnings from the program is ensuring the company has support from the top, and making sure the approach is tailored for each business. It is also important to combine all cross-functional and cross-business insights together, and to include the voice of the employee in insights.  

“First and foremost, you have to have leadership endorsement and buy-in. Without that, it does become a metric,” Power claims. “You need this ‘whole of business’ support to drive a genuine shift towards customer centricity. You can’t do that with just a system or a framework in itself.”  

By understanding and using the insights, Bupa’s ambition is to fully understand its customers in order to “surprise and delight them” and deliver personalised experiences and communicate in a way that’s relevant and timely, Power says.  

“It’s about how we play that ‘real navigation’ and coordination role for customers, which may result in a product, but may also just be in navigating and helping customers muddle their way through this healthcare system, which customers tell us is incredibly fragmented and incredibly confusing,” she says.  

Suncorp’s CX ambitions  

Suncorp Group is another big brand investing in the VoC space. Brand and marketing lead, Kristi Woolrych, says the brand’s VoC approach has changed in the last 12 to 24 months, even in terms of how it’s defined and used.  

“When I think about financial services, customers have such a significant number of options to meet their needs. And having great VoC has to be clearly linked to solving a problem that is relevant to the customer and offered in the right way, at the right time,” Woolrych says. “Once upon a time, we relied on survey data that was often captured too late, if at all. And it was often too slow in being delivered so customers would be asked about their experience after they had been through the trial and tribulation and at that stage they are not particularly interested in giving you a lot of feedback. “Whereas these days what we’re able to do is listen through multiple channels, complaints, social media, real-time digital behaviour - as well as that survey data, which still has its role and place – and deliver at a more relevant time on the customer journey.”  

As a result, Suncorp is getting a better read on what customers ‘think and feel’ including their pain points, delight points, and how the company can respond to those, Woolrych says. “We can pick up on those things much faster and then respond to them through an ecosystem of products and services in a timely manner.”  

While the VoC program at Suncorp is not new, the company’s evolving ‘marketplace strategy’ will give the group a much broader footprint for listening to customers and many more options in the way in which it picks up those signals, Woolrych says.  

“That’s what’s really exciting. From a marketing perspective, it takes me from being able to think about the customer journey as being in five key steps to really understanding that every journey is different for every customer - and being able to personalise the experience based on what a customer needs at a particular point in time,” she says. The “step change” for marketing is being able to think about what the customer is doing in a sequential way instead of relying on batched style communications, where consumers get hit with the same ad multiple times and marketers hope that something sticks.  

“The difference for us in the way we’re deploying voice of customer is we’re able to understand how the customer is moving through a journey and adapt our messaging as they go through that journey. So it feels like a ‘connected’ conversation as opposed to push-based marketing,” Woolrych adds.  

Bendigo Bank’s VoC journey  

Bendigo Bank is also on the VoC journey and has been for some time, according to head of customer voice, Ian Jackman.  

“The way we think about VoC may well be a little bit different to some of the terminology used in market,” he says, explaining the company not only collates customer feedback, but also drives actions and responds to the insights internally. In this way, VoC encompasses everything from research to analytics and insights, to customer feedback, surveying, to customer experience.  

“It’s all of the aspects of what customers are telling us and it’s more than just a single channel - there’s a voice of customer that is coming through from multiple areas. The question is, how do we listen to that, share it, and respond to it, and drive action in response to the voice of customer.” Jackman says changes in the customer landscape, including the ever-evolving needs and demands of the consumer, are driving more uptake of VoC.  

“The expectations customers have around the way they deal with organisations, and the way they interact, is about ‘right time, right place, right context’,” he says. “I think on the back of customer expectations, organisations need to respond on how they listen to that, and how they respect those customer expectations and meet them.”    

Asked about specific VoC programs, Jackman says the company focuses on several areas in a bid to deliver seamless and relevant customer experiences. These include: Customer-led connections programs, designed to evolve capabilities to automate customer interactions using behavioural events and data models; the omni-context customer experience; miVoice, a collaborative online customer community to test ideas and seek input; and customer metrics, a revised customer-centred set of metrics and embedding this across the organisation.  

Other parts of the VoC program include a focus on the customer journey mapping and experience design through a framework and evolving capability around understanding and mapping the customer experience end-to-end as they seek to fulfil a need; and customer voice collection, or an evolving survey framework to collect customer feedback and metrics, both strategically and following an interaction.  

“A lot of what we’re using VOC for is as much around recognising and understanding the strength of our brand, customer experience and service delivery,” Jackman adds. “We’re making a lot of change internally in terms of VoC about how we service customers, how we respond to them, and how we deliver digital solutions.”

Seeking clarity:VoC challenges

While there are obvious benefits to adopting a VoC program, there are challenges, too. In the last seven years, Bowman has utilised VoC programs as part of a CX strategy and says the biggest problems typically relate to business clarity.  

“Organisations need to be very clear on why they want to be ‘customer-centric’ and it has to come from a place of higher purpose,” he says. “This will provide clarity to the business as to why you do things and having meaning, which empowers employees to want to achieve more as it fulfils a purpose and not just a score.” In that vein, any VoC program needs to be driven by the CEO and with the support of the board.  

“When organisations realise the benefits of talking to customers, only then do they realise just how much work is associated with doing simple things like closing feedback loops,” Bowman says. “You can get all the feedback you want, but doing something with it is the hard bit.  

“This means doing the basics really well, such as being transparent with customers. Letting customers know what you’ll do with their feedback and fulfilling that expectation. No customer likes providing feedback into a black box that never gets opened.” Utilising modern project approaches such as Agile and directly inputting customer feedback into user stories, also translate well into human-centric design, which feeds well into any innovation function, Bowman says.  

Woolrych’s top VoC challenge is that every customer is different. “Being able to create the platform, the tech stuff, the data capabilities that enable you to deliver an individualised experience at scale is a challenge, and that requires us to work differently together,” she says.  

“So more and more, you see inside this business is marketing people working alongside tech engineers, working alongside data analysts, and product managers, to make decisions about how they can deploy that customer experience for a particular brand.”    

Jackman says translating voice into action is the critical part - and that’s not always easy.  

“Like data and analytics, voice of customer is similar. You are only really utilising it to great effect if you’re actually doing something with it, and you’re driving some change or some action on the back of it,” he says. “On that basis, understanding and drawing out the insights of that voice of customer, and then determining how we can do things differently to respond to that is a constant challenge in terms of how you turn it into some degree of action.”