VOC Deconstructed: The Audience


I’m starting at the end of the VOC Process, Communication.   We’ll look at a few aspects of VOC Communication over the next few posts:

  1. Why Communicate customer information?
  2. Who are the audiences?
  3. What is the content?

Part 1 of this series explored the importance of communicating customer information in the first place.  Part 2 will explore contemporary practices in Corporate Communication and the importance of thinking through how best to communicate VOC data to your employees.

 Let’s start first by looking at the different audiences for VOC Communication.  One of the most important groups that often is left out are customers themselves.  When a company conducts customer research, customer perceptions are altered in the process.  Customers take the time to provide their views on your company’s performance, on competitors, on their needs and expectations.  By giving this information, customers expect something to change at your company.  Customers actually think that your performance will improve because they took the time to give you feedback. 

Yet most companies have no communication to customers after they conduct research. 

In rare instances, I’ve seen customers punished for their feedback.  Account Managers or Sales Directors get called on the carpet for poor survey results, and a witch hunt ensues where even customers are attacked for being candid.  It is one of the main reasons that we sanitize customer data, removing employee and company names from reports.  The easiest thing when reviewing customer feedback is to quickly draw conclusions and put poor results on a few anecdotes, a couple of rogue angry customers or a bad egg or two in the sales force. 

When communicating with customers, be sure to arm your key customer-facing salespeople and executives with a simple message:

  • We heard you, and thank you for providing your feedback
  • Here are a few things that we heard that we do well
  • Here are the key priorities that we took away from the research
  • Here are our company’s initial plans to address these findings, can you tell us more about these areas?

This takes upfront planning to develop communication tools to help the frontend of your business so that they aren’t winging it, so be sure that your Sales Support and Communication professionals are ahead of the game.  Too often, Account Managers sit surprised in front of customers, hearing for the first time they research happened in the first place.

Next are the different internal audiences for VOC Communication, your employees.  I asked Kaye Veazey, Vice President of Corporate and Marketing Communications at Hexcel Corporation for some input on the topic.  “We often break down employee audiences by segments, but that does not necessarily mean that the messaging is different,” said Veazey.   “For the most part, internal audience segmentation helps with determining message timing and message channels (for example, you can reach leadership via email and plant employees via meetings).   Audiences might include employees by function (such as HR), by location (such as U.S. or Europe) or by rank (direct reports to the CEO or plant managers).”

When it comes to VOC Communication, I’d probably expand a bit on Kaye’s view regarding messaging.  Let’s break down internal VOC Communication into five different audiences (why be simple when I can be verbose!).

  1. VOC Stakeholders, typically the CMO, VP of Marketing, or a staff designee
  2. Executives, the Leadership Team and other key executives
  3. Sales, Marketing, and Service
  4. Middle Management, typically approached regionally or by business unit
  5. All Employees

VOC Stakeholders 

Those responsible for Customer and Market Research within a company should be prepared to wade heavily into the details of customer data.  I typically take a very transparent and candid approach in presenting to clients.  The best clients set aside significant time to understand the reality and complexity of customer information. 

Experienced Marketing executives are also ready for a cold reality of customer research:  as much as we’d like a silver bullet, the customer is a murky beast.  The customer is not the Borg, a Star Trek collective drawing from all assimilated markets near and far.  Often, customer data isn’t straightforward, it isn’t simple, it doesn’t boil down to a few key bullet points.  That’s why executives, CEO’s, and Boards want metrics like the Net Promoter Score.  “Did we go up or did we go down?”  If that’s what you want from listening to customers, if you feel comfortable that this view gives you a competitive advantage, then have at it.  Look for my thoughts on this metric in future posts.

The Leadership Team

When I conduct VOC Workshops with Leadership Teams, one of my favorite slides is a disclaimer to executives.  Be careful as you listen.  Executives in manufacturing firms don’t regularly receive customer research, so they typically aren’t familiar with it.  At many of our clients, I’ll see executives fall into the following traps:

  • You talked to the wrong people
  • You didn’t survey enough customers
  • You asked the wrong questions
  • Customers, X, Y, and Z all had the following similar experience  __________ (fill in the blank, could be all served by the same Sales Manager, all had problems with the same product issue, etc)
  • I definitely agree with ____________ (fill in the blank), and that’s what I’ll run with
  • The poor results definitely point to this department or that Executive

The best CEO’s and C-level officers understand what VOC data is, hopefully a candid, transparent view into customers’ perceptions of your company, of your products and services, of your performance v competitors.  Of their own performance.  And most of all, of the ability of the Leadership Team to combine strategy and tactics, to combine investment, resource allocation, and people decisions into a winning algorithm that leads to earnings and revenue growth.

Having said that, all too often Leadership teams don’t devote significant time and attention to the customer.  Look at the agendas of your Leadership meetings in 2015.  How many hours were spent on the customer?  Do the hours add up to double digits?  For many manufacturing firms, the answer is less than ten hours a year spent looking at customer data and feedback. 

With that gap in focus and time, executives default into three main sources of customer information to guide their decisions.

  • Their own personal interaction with customers; this is valuable for executives but can lead to undermining the frontend of the business and a herky-jerk approach to driving improvement and change.  Typically, Executives speak with other Executives, and the reality of customer perception is often missed.
  • What they hear and read from their Salesforce; this also can be a great free source of customer feedback.  Most companies just don’t do a good job of providing consistent training, methodology, and analytics to the information sales people collect from customers.
  • Complaints and Customer Issues that reach their desk; also a great source of feedback, but beware of rewarding customers for escalating issues.  Be responsive, yes, but work as hard as possible at providing support for those employees regularly serving accounts. 

My ideal is to spend four-sixteen hours a year with the Leadership Team of my clients wading into the minutiae of their customer and competitor intelligence, warts and all. 

In Part 3, I’ll look at the remaining audiences for VOC Communication and some helpful tools to maximize the impact of customer research.

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