My Boss Told Me to Get the Voice of the Customer, Now What?

By Dr. Jose A. Briones September 25, 2012

There are a lot of mixed signals out there about how to get the voice of the customer. Some people will tell you that you need to ask specific questions, while others will tell you to be broader and more open-ended in what you ask. The end result is that everybody who talks to customers thinks, “Oh well, I got the voice of the customer. I’m done.”

But it’s not just about checking off a box on your list.

After being assigned to enter a new market with little to no information, my team started developing our voice-of-the-customer questions. We got to 200 of them, and realized the task was impossible. We can’t just interrogate our customers for 48-hours straight. You have to make choices, and what you actually ask your customers can predetermine the type of answers and information you get.

I think of the quote from Harvard Business School professor Theodore Leavitt: “People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill; they want a quarter-inch hole.” That compares the product features vs. job-to-be-done attributes. I’m saying there’s even a step further. Sometimes the customer doesn’t even know he needs to make a hole. The hole is a means of helping to solve a problem.

Thus, I believe there are three types of voice-of-the-customer surveys: product features, job-to-be-done and unmet needs. And making the choice of which to use can loosely correlate to different levels of innovation—incremental, radical or disruptive —although it is not an exact science.

Product features. This line of questions revolves around specific product features and attributes.

It is often tied to “incremental innovation,” when you are introducing a new product within your existing market and customer base. Blackberry was known for this, churning out phones with slightly improved features, until they were hit by disruptive innovations like the iPhone.

When you are approaching an incremental innovation, you need to be very focused to get the product into the marketplace quickly. You should already know the people using your products and understand their needs. You should focus on product features and design the survey questions around that. Asking questions about how they currently interact with your product can help you determine what can be improved.

Job to be done. In the quarter-inch drill scenario, the customer knows they need to make a hole and therefore has a fair idea of the job that needs to be done. They just don't have a solution. The idea here is not that you come up with one of your products as a recommendation. First, understand the job, then go back to your company and see if you even have a product that can do the job. Perhaps it's not the right opportunity for you.

Job-to-be-done questions tend to correlate with “radical innovation,” a quantum leap in performance along the same parameter. (One example is plasma vs. cathode ray tube TVs. You’re still watching TV, and there’s no fundamental difference in behavior. But there’s a quantum-leap improvement in technology.)

Questions should focus on details of the job. For the drill, you would ask about the size of the hole, how deep it should be, how fast it needs to be done, etc. (You can make a very long list of questions about something as simple as making a hole.) Those job-to-be-done questions have nothing to do with the actual product; they should focus on the job.

Unmet needs. Sometimes your customer cannot provide you with enough information about what they need. The job of the voice-of-the-customer survey here is to articulate that unmet need, and then come up with a solution. Nobody can describe what they want or need before they really have it.

The questions you ask and even observations on how people interact with their surroundings with their equipment can help you define that need.

Unmet needs surveys tend to correlate with “disruptive innovation,” which offers improvements or benefits along a different dimension. For example, the unmet need for the iPhone was an easy-to-use personal computer in your pocket, but it was not clearly articulated.

Henry Ford and his affordable automobiles also can be thought of as disruptive innovation. He is often quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That quote is often badly misused, implying that since he wanted to bring something very different to the market, his customers were not the right people to talk to.

But it’s not about not talking to customers, it’s about how you talk to them. If he had asked them exactly what they wanted, sure they would have said faster horses. But in reality, a good product manager would interpret that as “I need faster transportation.” That’s what the customers are trying to tell you, but they don’t know how to because all they know is horses.

Ford did not follow a literal response from the customer. He actually listened to what they were saying the unmet need was. But even if he had taken it literally, he would have seen voice of the customer for the valuable tool it is. There really is a need for faster horses too.

Dr. Jose A. Briones

Dr. Jose A. Briones

Dr. Jose A. Briones is currently the Director of Operations for SpyroTek Performance Solutions, a supplier of Innovation Management and Training Services. He has 20 years of commercial and technical experience in the manufacturing and technology industries, holding positions in the areas of marketing, innovation, sales, engineering and R&D with Fortune 300 companies such as Celanese, Air Products and Reichhold. His experience also includes management of custom manufacturing companies and software startups.

He has been the commercial or technical leader in the launch and commercialization of more than 40 new products for a variety of applications and end use segments, and has been named as inventor in 6 different patents. He has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Clemson University and has an Executive MBA from Wharton Business School.  

He will be discussing the science of the Voice of the Customer at The Market Research Event 2012, November 12 in Boca Raton, Fla.

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