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The Voice of the Customer
How to get Answers from Your Market

Marketing executives struggle with constantly changing markets where competition, technology, solutions and even assumptions are constantly in flux. Or, as one marketing executive said to us: "I know my market is changing, I just don't know how. I need to get my arms around that."

Getting the insights and information to help answer your marketing questions and solve your marketing problems is perhaps one of the biggest challenges in constantly-changing markets.

There are several approaches to this problem, which when appropriately applied can provide insights to specific marketing questions in a timely fashion. As part of the Voice of the Customer (VOC) process, a qualitative, 18-month look-ahead into your specific market and your customers' intent can yield actionable information before you are caught by the changing markets. Eighteen months is used as the timeframe because most planning is done on a calendar year basis and 18 months will look halfway into the following planning cycle. Also, 18 months should encompass several sales cycles - which requires customers to look further ahead than their next few purchases - to near term market changes and influences. Conversely, prognostications by customers beyond 18 months tend to be in the realm of the fortune teller.

An executive-level The Voice of the Customer survey is designed to help you get the information you need to make critical decisions. These surveys are qualitative interviews with the decision makers that you select. When appropriately conducted, extract the insights you need. In other words, probably the type of one-on-one research you would do - if you had the time and the experience to complete it quickly. Ideally, they should be completed in 30 to 45 days.

Marketers should set their (and management's) expectations that the outcome of a VOC executive survey cannot be forecast. These surveys can confirm (or possibly eradicate) marketing ‘hunches', yet also introduce new marketing insights. The purpose of a Voice of the Customer survey is to help you discover what is out there - not predetermine it.

Remember - a VOC survey also provides the information necessary (e.g. the nature and structure of the questions) to drive a more simplistic survey instrument such as Survey MonkeyTM or a similar online effort. Although the survey insruments cast a wider net and serve to validate VOC findings - they are nowhere near as flexible and extensive as VOC qualitative interviews.

What kind of insights can VOC surveys discover? Here are some examples from the building products industry:

What is the process for a VOC executive survey? The survey should start with diagnostic discussion with your marketing management to determine what decisions you need to make (or answers you seek) to identify what has to be discussed in the dialogue with your market. From that, a framework of interview questions should arise, and the customers or influencers you want to be interviewed. Some additional web research for relevant information should be performed and the survey conducted over a 30 to 45-day period.

These surveys are normally conducted as custom, high-level interviews with executives (at the VP or C-level), company owners or others who have to potential to offer insights to your market.

If this strikes you as the same type of peer-level discussion process you might use to help you solve marketing issues, you're right - it is. However, most executives simply don't have the time. And in all candor - they don't have the correct interviewing skills - VOC executive surveys require keen listening skills and an understandng that the interview subject is not interested in the interviewer's opinions - something that an executive acting as an interviewer would find hard to keep under wraps.

It is this aspect that makes the executive VOC survey difficult to obtain - very few market research firms have staff that can conduct this level of dialogue with the inherent knowledge of the technology, services, business processes, competitive factors, markets and requisite dialogue flexibility. Rigid scripting and contract telemarketers won't even get in the door.

One of the key interviewing skills required is the ability to separate opinion from fact. Many executives have a tendency to speak in such a way that their opinions are presented as fact, or draw a conclusion from a single, unverified anecdotal example. Also, services marketing and product marketing are two different methodologies, and although the lines may be blurred at times - a services marketer doesn't necessarily have opinions that can be translated to product marketing and vice-versa. This is especially true in evaluating sales methodologies. It requires an experienced, diagnostic interviewer to parse out these issues and evaluate the information presented.

In looking for executive VOC capabilities, the process is fairly straightforward. Describe the marketing issues you need to address, and ask the provider to outline the structure of the dialogue with the executves in the market, and a general indication of how to find the decision makers with the necessary insights. You won't get a complete blueprint, but it should be close enough to give you confidence that the process will yield the necessary information that you need.

Most market research activities tend to get ignored because they don't address the specific problems that marketing executives face, they take too long to complete, or they simply present data and not marketing insights - which require some ability by the researcher to offer an opinion as to what the results mean. Far too many research presentations involved reading histogram values off of Power Point slides - with too much concern for statistical validity instead of market insights and trends.

Executive VOC are qualitative surveys can give marketing executives a unique 18-month look-ahead to help them ‘get their hands around' their market. When focused on specific marketing problems and completed in a timely fashion, they serve to reduce uncertainty with marketing decisions and heighten the probability of marketing success.

Note: Some practitioners use Voice of the Customer to refer to very specific market survey techniques for Six-Sigma product development purposes. That is not the meaning of the term Voice of the Customer in this article.

Geibel Marketing provides executive-level Voice of the Customer surveys for business-to-business markets in technology, professional services, building design and construction, building products and similar markets.

© 2006, 2010 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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