Voice Of Customers: A Challenge To Product Managers

gregory yankelovich

VoC challenge to PMFor years I have been puzzled by the fierce resistance of product managers to integrate customer feedback (voice of customers) into their products’ design and marketing process.

Surely many managers use elaborate survey and market focus group studies to validate and refine an original concept. But the use of  feedback to form an original concept is widely sneered at as a fool’s errand.

Many practitioners are convinced that customers do not know what they want until they experience a remarkable product they cannot live without. While there is some truth in the belief that customers cannot articulate their latent needs, it doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute to the process of conceptual design. Too many product managers rely on their own vision, quoting Henry Ford: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse” – without realizing that he never uttered those words. Meanwhile, the dependence on Divine Intervention – i.e., visions of product managers – results in very high product failure rates and is a luxury few companies are willing to gamble on.

There are two basic reasons why customer feedback is commonly rejected as a source of inspiration:

  1. Marketing research has proved to be very ineffective in the past in identifying truly original product opportunities. For many product marketers it offered a convenient excuse to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. However, the few who have learned that “the job, not the customer, is the fundamental unit of analysis for a marketer who hopes to develop products that customers will buy,” (Clayton Christensen) have experienced consistent improvement in bringing successful products to markets. In other words, research into the experiences of customers who use existing products – not research into product features and functions, customer personas, and market sizing – will reveal original product opportunities. The core question is: Why did customers buy it in the first place – i.e., what do they hope to achieve by using it?
  1. The traditional approach to the management of customer feedback is an analysis of what customers say, or how they feel, about your product and/or products offered by your competitors. However, analysis is only the first step to gaining an insight.

The terms “Voice of Customer” or “Customer Feedback” in this context do not include structured data compiled from closed-ended survey questions. The response to such a question cannot discover a latent need; it can only validate one that was previously discovered. This discovery can be done only by a synthesis of previously analyzed open -form feedback, such as unstructured commentary or review. As customers share their experiences with currently available products, they often use different words and expressions to describe common frustrations or delights. It is not a trivial task to understand the specifics of their frustrations and to interpret this understanding into new product requirements, i.e., synthesis.

There are many tools available today to collect, aggregate, and analyze customer feedback. The science of this process is well-defined and commonly utilized. There are some capable technologies available for detailed analysis of unstructured feedback, even though they are not yet as easily productized and applied. However, the art of synthesis and translation is the domain of creative product practitioners that rely on data instead of vision.

For more customer-focused strategies that get results, see 4 Ways to Make Customer Experience the Heart of Your Business.