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D – Voice of the Customer in a Widget Free World


Language is inherently ambiguous. The challenge in capturing the voice of the customer (VOC) is to eliminate confusion about who the customers really are and understand what they want so we can predictably create satisfaction and excitement.

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VOICE OF THE CUSTOMER IN A WIDGET-FREE WORLD: Using word formulas to uncover, translate & deliver what customers want

By Robin Lawton

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 marketing hyperbole.  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 these results aren’t just at fluke.

On the other hand, 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[1]. One company lost 40% of its stock value and over $12.6 billion in five years[2].  Another lost more than one multi-billion dollar contract to insightful rivals.  A city government agency[3] 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.  The need for change 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[4].  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-9001, Baldrige Criteria, satisfaction surveys, HCAHPS criteria and other approaches should find that the methods described here significantly strengthen what they are already doing.

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[1] Sprint in 2009.

[2] Ford Motor Company, 2001-2006. Management reported the loss of $12.6 billion for 2006 alone.

[3] Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District saved over $117,000 in the first quarter after learning the VOC.

[4] This article is revised and updated from the original, first published by the author in 2010.