Confirmit: The customer is always right – Karine Del Moro

While almost every business has a feedback programme, relatively few have a real voice of the customer (VoC) strategy - 'real strategy' meaning something more than gathering customer feedback on an ad-hoc or annual basis, and occasionally creating a slide deck of the results. Although there is an understanding that listening to customers is a good idea, few organisations have programmes in place to collect, analyse, disseminate and operationalise the VoC.

This is beginning to change. Across most industries, the commercial landscape is becoming more competitive and customers are increasingly demanding. There is an expectation from customers that services will be accessible 24 hours a day, through multiple channels - and that companies will listen to them when they provide feedback. And if that's not the case, they've got more opportunities than ever to share their disappointment.

Negative word-of-mouth can be made public immediately and disseminated rapidly, making it difficult for an organisation to defend its reputation. Listening to customers at the right time - and taking action when necessary - is a key differentiator, particularly in markets where costs and products are increasingly homogenous.

"Customer feedback is too often collected by organisations without a clear strategy, almost for the sake of it," explains Karine Del Moro, senior director of Confirmit. "They know they should do it, but very few build systems and processes that enable them to drive change on the basis of what customers say. In many cases, feedback is kept in silos, often within the marketing or client services department."

Confirmit's area of expertise is providing VoC solutions for companies looking to develop a more complete picture of their customer and employee experience. A good customer experience management programme allows a company to respond quickly to feedback, limiting the effect of negative word-of-mouth. It also offers valuable insight into where investment will have the most financial impact, whether it's by reducing costs or increasing revenue.

In Del Moro's view, before an organisation starts to build such a system, programme managers should take a step back and examine the wider business objectives. Aligning customer experience management with these goals encourages executive-level buy-in, which helps to drive change across the entire organisation. Del Moro points out the importance of setting goals for such a programme.

"Like any business programme, it's crucial to know what you're setting out to achieve in order to measure success and gain enthusiasm, commitment and investment. Feasible goals include reducing costs through streamlined processes, increasing revenue by effective cross and up-sell, reducing customer churn and promoting culture change."

Action plan

With these business goals clearly outlined, organisations can begin to design a programme to meet them by using the right channels and by ensuring that processes are in place to share insight. This sharing is crucial because one of the common failings of a VoC programme is allowing information to sit in silos. As soon as VoC data is gathered, it should be shared with people who can take action where it's required; for example, if a customer says they're unhappy, an alert should be sent to the appropriate account manager or customer services representative so they can get in touch with that customer and resolve the issue.

Companies should really consider integrating their VoC programme with financial data to enable them to segment customers according to the value they bring to the business, so they can design the right closed-loop strategy. But integration does not only relate to financial data, as Del Moro explains.

"At Confirmit, we talk about four voices when it comes to collecting data," she says. "Those are the VoC, the employee, the market (benchmark surveys, brand trackers) and the business (ERP, CRM). It's important to bring as much of this information together as possible in order to provide context to VoC data. Again, it's about ensuring that data doesn't exist in a silo where its use and value are hugely restricted."

When planning action, it's important to consider two aspects of a VoC programme - tactics and strategy. Tactically, teams need to receive notification as soon as a customer flags up an issue. It also encompasses being able to identify and react to short-term customer trends. This helps prevent customers from switching to competitors and demonstrates that the company is listening.

"The strategic factors are longer term," Del Moro explains. "They are about identifying key drivers of loyalty or dissatisfaction so that you can resolve them and improve the customer experience. Again, this often requires some integration and is best achieved by enabling employees to validate what customers have told you. Not only does this establish employee buy-in to the VoC programme, but also your front-line staff have a wealth of knowledge about the processes that cause customer dissatisfaction.

"Preventing negative word of mouth is often a key goal of a customer experience programme, but it is rare to see a programme that leverages positive word of mouth. If businesses are able to identify promoters - and understand what they are delighted about - they can put that knowledge to good use. As an example, if a customer demonstrates willingness to recommend, he should be included in a reference programme. This helps drive marketing activities that highlight strengths based on the customer's point of view, not the company's."

A key, but often overlooked, aspect of a VoC programme is its effect on company culture. Everyone has to play a role in improving the customer experience; by giving employees access to feedback - helping them understand what it says and how their actions affect customers - a company can engage them over the long term and change behaviour.

Social media and measurement

Looking ahead, Del Moro sees the emergence of a few trends worth looking out for. The number of communication channels is sure to increase, and companies have to make sure they analyse the feedback from all of them, without placing undue weight on any single one. Social media could have a considerable impact, although Del Moro is cautious.

"Social media is often overestimated as a source of customer information," she explains. "It is a fantastic way to measure key trends, so it shouldn't be forgotten about. The most sensible approach to social media is to use it as a guide to help you to identity areas that really matter to customers and ensure they're included in the wider VoC programme, so they can be validated and measured alongside all your other channels".

Mobile should also be mentioned as a booming new trend. Not only does it give organisations access to more demographic profiles than before, but it also offers specific benefits that still present a challenge for other channels: the ability to collect feedback 'in the moment' at the point of experience, as well as amazing opportunities when it comes to engaging customers and increasing response rates.

Another key area that organisations focus on is the ability to measure the effect of customer experience on the bottom line. There are, of course, tangible ways to do this, such as evaluating the effect of positive word of mouth on new revenues, but some benefits, like culture change, can be harder to judge.

"The holy grail of customer experience is financial linkage," says Del Moro. "Increasingly, organisations are being asked to create a business case for customer experience management. We now have more ways to connect the customer experience with business results."

Collecting and analysing customer feedback has always felt like the right thing for businesses to do - but it isn't enough. By demonstrating both tactical and strategic wins, and by achieving clear, measureable goals, successful customer experience programmes have proven to be powerful in helping organisations differentiate themselves and drive change in the short and long term.

An effective voice-of-the-customer strategy can have a positive effect on the bottom line.
Karine Del Moro is senior director of Confirmit.