Voice of Customer

in Marketing

Voice of Customer Plan

As we kick start 2013, our product management team is working out our voice of customer plan for the year.  We recognize that last year, while we made sporadic customer contact, it was primarily sales driven and we were too engineering focused.  Does that sound like you?  If so, read on…

Why are Customer Visits Important?

Customer visits help ensure that we build products that customers value.  They help ensure that we understand pain points, that we can properly prioritize which problems to address, and that we know exactly how our products fit into the daily lives of our customers.  They are one of the ways that we can find opportunities for new products and features!  Unfortunately, they’re easy to avoid.  Don’t you want to be using products whose designers really understand you?

What are the key components of a Voice of Customer Plan?

As we set out to plan for 2013, I wanted to think through all the elements of an engagement plan.  I found a great resource in an On Product Management guest post by Christine Crandell.  Crandell suggests that there are three primary types of input to consider.

  • Customer-initiated activities
    This is feedback that is often captured in CRM and customer support systems (e.g. customer complaints, feature requests etc.) and should be integrated with product innovation ideation and idea management capabilities.
  • Company-initiated activities
    These are typically sales and marketing related activities ranging from individual sales calls, to focus groups, user groups and customer advisory boards.
  • Engagement activities
    These are company initiatives explicitly designed to get targeted feedback on products and product direction. These include product management led focus groups, beta programs and customer feedback portals.

We already have a process for gathering input from sales engineering and implementations teams, which touches on both the “Customer-initiated activities” and “Company-initiated activities” categories.  Admittedly, those processes can be improved, however we are able to check that box for the time being.

Because we were completing buildout of several products in 2012, It’s our engagement process that has been a bit lacking.  Thankfully, we have buy-in on change at the executive level.

Our Plan for Engagement

At this time, we are primarily focusing on improving what Crandell calls “Engagement activities.”  We’ve setup a Feedback portal on UserVoice, and we’ve decided to take a three-prong approach to Voice of Customer as follows, ordered from highest volume to lowest:

  1. Client Calls – We’re thinking about making one call per sprint, composed of either follow-up calls to existing clients with whom we have relationships, sitting in on a sales demo/call, and including win/loss if available.  Finding out what prospects thought of our offerings and of the market, all in a bite-size chunk. Ideally, each product manager would do one of these in each two-week sprint, giving each of us 24 per year.  New contacts can be turned into warm contacts for future input on features and for many other purposes.
  2. On-Site Visits – Being aggressive, we’re asking for one travel opportunity per quarter, in which we’ll visit several clients in the same area.  This will be a mix of shadowing and interviews, in order to give us high volume qualitative input.  We intend to feed this high-volume anecdotal information into our persona program.
  3. Conferences – We hope to attend at least one industry conference.  This will provide an opportunity to hear from clients of our competitors, to hear the questions the community asks experts in breakout sessions, and of course to hear the content of the sessions themselves.

Voice of Customer

As we mature our product management organization, we feel like this is a good start to VoC.  What might we need to think about that’s not listed here?  Is this too aggressive?

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  1. Good stuff here. For the client calls and on-site visits, I suggest not only finding out reactive feedback (a la your comment “finding out what prospects thought of our offerings and of the market”), but also use them proactively as opportunities to systematically test new feature and product ideas. To do that, arm the team with testable and falsifiable hypotheses, identify criteria to (in)validate those hypotheses, and create a script to guide the interview process. If your hypotheses are validated, that will give you permission to take the next step, which would be to propose a demo or similar form of your envisioned solution for further validation. This could be the seed for a future sprint that delivers some valuable piece of functionality for the customer. If your hypotheses are invalidated, great! You’ve saved yourself a boatload of time building features and products nobody wanted in the first place!

  2. A good read. I would also recommend picking up a copy of the excellent Edward McQuarrie’s “Customer Visits”. It is a virtual blueprint on how to plan and execute customer visits to maximize the benefit to you.

    One thing to keep in mind and to ensure that your senior team understands, is that proper customer engagement isn’t free, that it should be explicitly budgeted for, and you should battle to protect that bin of money. It is all to easy to just try to do this on the cheap, but what happens is that you end up reducing the effectiveness of the effort, and thus will have trouble getting senior buy in later.

    • Also wanted to comment on Geoff’s comment. Excellent point. One way to do this is to show demonstrable ROI for that spend. So for argument’s sake, let’s say there’s no budget for onsite visits. So start by targeting phone calls. It costs little to nothing to call a client or get time on a call with the sales or account team. Be clear on what you’re trying to learn from the customer ahead of time. Are you trying to get feedback on a specific feature? Are you trying to validate your understanding of a problem they may be having? Use these to build momentum along the lines of my other comment. If you build traction, you can show the value of these client interactions. If you can then support them with soundbites from the client where they are actually asking you to come onsite, even better, and there’s your business case.