Leveraging the Voice of the Customer
The Seven Step Process to Customer Oneness

by Tim Gregory

Look outside the cocoon of your business to the world of your customer.

If you're like most executives, you prefer controlling your own destiny to wrestling with the vagaries of an unforgiving and unstable marketplace. As a key step towards controlling your own destiny, however, we find it's best to begin by recognizing that seemingly random marketplace gyrations are, in fact, customer created. The key to managing through instability, then, is to get a handle on exactly what it is that drives, satisfies and angers your customers. From there, you, along with your customer facing team, can make smart decisions that position your company as the best option for your customers, and for other potential customers like them. And in the process, you may even create some reasons why you're the best employer choice for the best employees.

Not to sound New Age, but smart decision-making often requires that you attain credible "Customer Oneness." From there, you can build a value proposition that offers your customers their superior choice in the marketplace. When you are a customer's best option, all things considered, the customer selects you. If your delivery team is profitable, you make money.

Customer Oneness is not merely a state of mind, a perception, or a "gut instinct" about your customers' needs and wants. It is, instead, a measurable and definitive assessment of what is important in the customer's overall experience each and every day. You will achieve Oneness with your customers when you understand what they find valuable, what works and what doesn't work for them within the boundaries of their individual experiences. When shared, those stories and details can also have a powerful impact on your entire workforce - customer service, sales, operations - and the way you conduct business.

There's little to argue about when someone tells you to "understand your customer" or "work to exceed a customer's expectations." But the critical question remains: how and where do you get those quality insights into the customer's behaviors, needs, and wants? That terrain is laden with seemingly insurmountable barriers.

  • Customers may not trust you, and they don't want you to know anything that will make it easier for you to take their money;

  • Customers don't really know what they want from you or anyone else, and if they did know, they probably couldn't articulate it well enough for you to make use of the information;

  • Customers are often clueless as to what it is that you can do for them now or in the future, and they have no idea or concern about what makes you profitable. In fact, they often surmise that your profit is their loss;

  • Customers are prone to answer questions with "an agenda" - either being overly positive in telling you what they think you want to hear, or being overly negative to send "a message."

Understanding the customer comes best and easiest when you take an approach that commits to making a virtual "video" of the day-to-day experience of your customers. It's not just a matter of understanding the customer. You have to become the customer and accept the customer's perspective as your own. Typically, making these virtual videos requires a multi-hour discussion with key players representing a broad cross section of the company's best buyers. Keep in mind that we are talking about a candid and honest exchange with the customer about his or her experience with the market - not just about his or her experience with the company, per se.

The Seven Step Process for Attaining Oneness with Your Customers

  1. Focus on what's most valuable to the customer in the customer experience and surface the imperfections in that experience.
    Understanding your customer begins with understanding the customer's daily experience with regard to the value delivered by the kinds of products and services you provide. Customers buying a drill, for example, aren't buying a drill, they're buying a hole. If you were selling microwave ovens, you wouldn't focus on how customers like your microwave. Rather, you'd focus on the cooking and food preparation process, and the positive and negative outcomes people experience throughout that process. In that vein, competing alternatives include a whole array of appliances for heating, cooking, and defrosting foods. Looking at the experience broadly will help uncover new opportunities for improving, packaging, and delivering your offer. It will help you understand not only what customers do value, but it will help you surmise what they would value if you could provide it profitably. If the customer perceives the overall experience with you as being better, than you become the superior alternative for that customer.

  2. Be choosy about which customers earn your focus.
    Sometimes the hardest part about understanding your customer is sorting out who your customer really is. In many businesses, the company sells to an intermediary, who may in turn sell to another intermediary before the product or service surfaces with the end user/customer who really values what you provide. Each buyer in the chain must experience "superior value" in doing business with you. A safe rule of thumb: the experience of your customer is inevitably proven better if you can help make the experience of their customer better. Stay focused, and vigilant on servicing the end user customer. But to win, provide clear value and purpose for everyone involved.

  3. Watch the quality of your sample.
    In a way, the process of understanding the day in the life of your customer represents a form of market research. Research is judged credible when the sample is sizable, diverse and of high quality. Typically, the "virtual video" approach does not allow for classic sampling discipline and quantities. Nonetheless, the power of the process is rich in the depth and color of the insight it provides, and the ancillary relationship and other benefits that can accrue. Because you'll want to use the insights for business decision making, you need to keep your sampling credible. Pick a fair cross section of customers to interview - some who love you, some who hate you, and some who don't know you. Stretch to expand the number of interviews to include a full range of executives in a variety of roles. Watch geography, product mix, and other obvious variables to create an appropriate mix. The selection of interview candidates is a key decision that will affect how well your findings are embraced.

  4. Don't just listen to the customer; become the customer.
    When car manufacturers want to understand how to make a better trunk, some distribute questionnaires asking customers what improvements they'd like to see in a trunk. But the best companies watch or video tape customers actually attempting to use their trunk in a real setting. They try to understand the customer's experience - lifting groceries over the trunk lip, getting the trunk open with an armload of packages, storing large packages in a confined space. Customers often don't know what they want, but you can observe what would make their experience better by just watching. Where that's not feasible, engage customers in detailed dialog causing them to relive their experience with regard to your product category and the value it promises. That approach can help you glean observations - like the engineers working on the trunk design - that enable your product development team to produce the better customer experience in the marketplace. As a side benefit, your customer facing employees will appreciate your newfound and deep understanding of the customers and the issues that they have been handling each day.

  5. Remember it's not about you, it's about them.
    The most common mistake and the easiest mistake to make in undertaking this study, is to get too quickly and too heavily focused on your company and its products. You're curious. There is a lot of pressure to understand what the market thinks about your offering. You live with your offerings everyday, and you want to know how people like them. Resist the temptation to start there. Stay focused on the broader customer experience. Keep the conversation impassive and unconnected to suppliers - at least initially. Try to understand how the customer thinks, what they're feeling, how they think about finding suppliers or partners, where they look, what they expect, what they fear. Remember, your goal is to make their overall experience better. You can't do that if you don't understand it yourself. When you've explored the whole, then ask the critical questions about your company. In the context of the fuller discussion, the answers you get will be more expansive and more telling. Another side benefit: when you communicate the findings to your own workforce, your team will begin to recognize how fully that you - and they - should be focused on the customer experience first.

  6. Ask what you need to know to understand - don't let fear weaken your questions.
    Another common mistake is to treat the dialog as an extension of you and your company. Again, it's not about you, and it's not about your company. So ask what you need to ask in order to understand - to help make the experience better. Customers will appreciate your candor, and they'll gauge your seriousness of intent by how well you ask the difficult real and pertinent questions. If you need to understand how people are measured and compensated - and you probably do - then you need to ask. You're probably much more uncomfortable asking than they are answering. Ask graciously, ask disarmingly, but ask. If you're uncomfortable asking, this is a good place to bring in an experienced outsider who can ask on your behalf - someone who you can disavow if need be. An outsider is often a good idea anyway, because that person can ask the "dumb" questions that inevitably expose the gold. Much of the best opportunity lies in the cracks of miscommunications and long-held assumptions. Ask the pertinent questions and avoid assumptions about how they are going to be answered. And don't forget to share your new understanding with your workforce. They have long held - and wrong - assumptions about their customers, too.

  7. What you learn is evidence for action - treat it as such.
    The only reason to undertake this kind of study at all is because you want to take new action based on what you learn. In fact, one of the most powerful outcomes that result from studying your customer's experience is the common base of understanding that can result for everyone involved - executives, employees, suppliers, etc. That common understanding helps tear away misperceptions, conflicting visions and views and inconsistent investment priorities. It helps get everyone on the "same page" relative to what the business should be doing, what value it should be providing, what customers it should be targeting. The effect, though, varies depending on the credibility of the findings. So, again, watch your sample. Have two credible individuals without agenda - or at least without similar agenda - participate in the interviews. Work to catch verbatims that can be shared and leveraged in providing customer direction. Share the verbatims and findings without prejudice. Discuss them openly, early, and often. Use subsequent interviews to explore questioned findings. By the time you declare yourself "done" - you should have a base of findings that is unquestionably accurate, thorough, and guiding.

Conclusion

Business executives have long sung the "voice of the customer" song. But writing the song -- well that's often easier said than done. "Day in the life" experience-based interviews are the basic key to achieving Customer Oneness. Weak "how do you like my company" interviews, interpreted by managers with a stake in the outcome, steer you away from the customer. Making a virtual video of your customer's day-to-day experience is a critical process in gaining a sense of oneness with a customer. That customer record details the sinew that is the customer's day-to-day reality. The customer experience can now become an intricate part of your reality - assuring that your strategy for growth and your day-to-day operations evolve from the very real needs, wants, and budget priorities of the customer.


Tim Gregory is Executive Vice President of BakerER, a strategic growth and workplace management consulting firm. Whether in the marketplace or workplace, our promise is simple: we help organizations that compete on the basis or their relationships to be the “best choice” for their customers and employees. The end result: sustainable, profitable growth for the organization.

Contact Tim Gregory by e-mail: tgregory@bakerer.com .
Visit www.bakerer.com for additional information and visit their resource center http://www.bakerer.com/resources/index.html for additional articles by the BakerER team.

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