Of all the voices in my head, the ones that makes me lose sleep at night sound something like this:
You’ve sold me a bad product.
This is not worth the money!
I’m never using this company again!
The sum of your customer’s complaints, needs, and wants is called the voice of the customer.
It is whispering to you every day, so ignore it at your own peril. Listen well and you can probably screw everything else up and still come out smelling like roses.
All of us could probably email a close customer/client and get the scoop on what they think about a project, what we (or our team) do well or don’t do well, or some other feedback. But the trick is to gain the sum of customer opinion. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Business decisions should be based on nothing less.
The voice of the customer consists of four parts.
- Customer needs
- Hierarchical structure of customer needs
- Customer perception of performance
The best, or maybe only, way to get customer needs in by interviewing them in the place where they use your product or service.
Unfortunately a direct question is not always the best strategy. If you call up your customer and say “What are your needs?” they might pause as they wonder if you have needs of the psychological kind, unless of course you are a psychologist and this is how you do it. Chances are you won’t get the right answer if you ask the customer directly, and if you do get the right answer it might be clouded in a veil of frivolous information that requires interpretation to get to the root cause.
The trick is to come up with phrases which articulate customer needs:
- My iPhone needs a good maps app.
- My car needs to get me from point A to point B with minimal chance of interruption.
- My engineering report needs to give me a recommendation I trust.
Walk through the product with the customer, if possible. If not, do a verbal walk-through. Try to determine where they are disappointed or expect more. Spend your time mostly listening, but learn to ask about about their expectations at key moments in the experience, for example at functional change points like after getting into a vehicle, after opening a new window in an app, etc.
Imagine you are the customer, and immerse yourself in their experience.
Hierarchical structure of customer needs
The customer’s needs are not completely defined by the primary ones:
- Primary needs are the basic need the product addresses. A car allows people to travel from point A to point B. An engineering design allows a building to be built. A cell phone allows people to talk to one another from almost anywhere.
- Secondary needs are usually present at a ratio of 5:1 to 10:1 for every primary one. A car requires good speakers, air conditioning, good sight lines, etc. An engineering design requires maximum value, cost and efficiency, and a cell phone requires good apps (internet access might fall under primary needs).
The primary needs are generally obvious, but to the untrained, secondary needs are often completely or partially missed. Therefore it’s the secondary needs where you need to spend most of your time.
Identifying primary and secondary needs is core to determining the voice of the customer, but some needs have a greater priority than others. To get the complete voice, you need to prioritize the needs.
When interviewing, make sure you ask how badly they need features. Would they purchase the product without it? Would they recommend or not recommend a product without it?
Try to develop a priority ranking, say from 1 to 10, from customer feedback that gives you a complete picture of the priority of each need. In the end, the cost of fulfilling each need will have to be compared to the customer satisfaction level achieved by it.
Customer perception of performance
The final aspect to the voice of the customer is the customer’s perception of your product or service. I believe that many businesses thrive not because they have the best product, but because they have a certain psychological attraction that keeps people lusting for more. Think about Starbucks or Apple. They don’t just have customers, they have a fan base. It’s an emotional experience more than just solving a need. I believe they could produce low quality products and still be profitable for a long time.
So the key is that the voice of the customer is not solely about your product, but the customer’s perception of your product. And for that matter, your company.
This factor turns good products (and companies) into great ones, and should not be overlooked.