Shattering 7 Myths About B2B Voice-of-Customer
Over the past several years, I’ve traveled back and forth across the country helping all kinds of B2B companies improve their voice-of-customer programs. During that time, I’ve had numerous conversations and read countless articles and books on the topic. Slowly, I’ve come to realize there are a few common misconceptions getting in the way of good progress. I’m not blaming anyone for spreading these ideas. After all, it’s hard for leaders inside companies to do their jobs and be VOC experts as well. The sight lines are limited from where they sit. Since I have the benefit and perspective of multiple companies, programs and people, I’m able to pick up patterns where others may not.
To save time, I’ll be direct and won’t hold back. Without further ado, here’s what I’ve heard and why I think these 7 myths are dead wrong:
MYTH 1: OTHER COMPANIES DO VOC BETTER
We assume other companies do a much better job at VOC. Guess what? They don’t. Most companies are downright lousy at it – if they do it at all. Oh sure, your competitors have contact with customers through sales and service, but they probably don’t do any better than you do when it comes to understanding their unmet needs and incorporating those into new, innovative products.
This is a good news, bad news, good news thing. The good news is that we’re not as behind as we think. The bad news is the bar is really low and we need to get our act together. But the other good news is that there’s opportunity and if we improve VOC, we can easily get a leg up on the competition. Did I say easily? That’s a yes, no, yes thing. Please read on.
MYTH 2: ANYONE CAN DO VOC
The VOC program the CEO keeps asking about? Mike can do it, or Megan. Just pick a sales person or someone who’s transitioned to an application engineering role. Or one of the project managers. I’ve heard it all. Sometimes it works out alright, but most times whoever gets tapped is terribly unprepared. What makes it worse is that the person asked to help with VOC says - with confidence - something like “sure I’ve got this. I’ve done a little field work.” The intention is always good, but the truth is, they typically don’t “have this.”
The problem isn’t motivation, it’s method. Most people have no idea how to conduct VOC properly with B2B customers. They’ll say they do, but they don’t. And not everyone has the right personality type to lead effective conversations. It’s best to take a cross functional team out into the field. At least one of them should be extroverted and properly trained to discover outcomes (see MYTH 6). If profitable organic growth is the most important thing your company can deliver…and the best way to do that is to better understand how to fulfill customer needs…then why in the world would you send whoever has a light schedule or just happens to be in between roles? Who are the rising stars in your company? Train and send them.
MYTH 3: ONLY OUR BEST CUSTOMERS WILL TALK TO US
There’s a simple reason why we tend to start with our best customers when reinvigorating a VOC program: they like us and they’ll probably say yes. It makes us nervous to reach out and ask for favors, especially to people or companies who don’t know us well – or not at all. So what do we do? We stay close to home. We do what’s comfortable and justify it by saying it’s the main source of our revenue so we’re covering the most important part of the market. That could be true for now, but it’s essentially a cop out.
Truth is, anyone will talk to us if we frame it right. We should be talking to customers of all sizes, former customers and prospects. We should be doing VOCC and talking to customers’ customers. We should be doing VOD and talking to dealers. We should talk with industry experts. People at all of these companies would love to talk with us…if we would just listen to them…and not talk at them. They fear a sales presentation and what do we give them? Pretty close to that. And then we ask them for their ideas (see MYTH 6 again). There are ways to pitch these meetings successfully and those methods can be learned, though it won’t be easy (See MYTH 4 below). But don’t play it safe. Go far from home. The farther the better.
MYTH 4: IT’S EASY TO SET UP INTERVIEWS
Oddly, once companies get over the hurdle and decide to light the VOC fire, they think it’s going to happen overnight. It won’t. It’s actually really hard to set up these interviews. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get target names from the sales force. Then you need the right contact name. Then contact info. Then you send an email. Nothing. Then you leave a voice mail. Nothing. Another email and voice mail. Nothing. Are these people even there? Yes, but it takes persistence to reach them and you need the right message.
Emails and voice mails can’t seem canned. You need a personal touch. Get an introduction from someone, if possible, even it’s a weak tie. Any recognizable name they know will help. Instead of asking them for a standard meeting, tell them you have a very special format meeting you’d like them to be a part of…a meeting that involves lots of open-ended questions to better understand the challenges they’re facing. Say you’re bringing a couple of your company’s best and brightest. Say they’ll be assisting with innovation within the industry, that you’d truly value their unique insight. And when you get there, do exactly what you said.
MYTH 5: TRADE SHOWS AREN’T WORTH IT ANYMORE
A great place to conduct more casual VOC is at a trade shows, but many companies are cutting back – or even eliminating – participation due to time, travel and cost. Big mistake. No website research or web conference will ever substitute for meeting people in person. Trade shows are highly efficient because so many people in a certain space are co-located for a short period of time. Especially when an industry involves physical items (the bigger the better) then seeing them in real life is critical.
What can you expect? Expect to see people you know, but also new people who provide a different view you didn’t have before. You can have informal meetings that involve VOC-style questions, but also conduct formal one-on-one interviews or even focus groups. Providing an incentive, meal or party in exchange doesn’t hurt. You can cut back your booth size or just attend. But before you decide not to go at all, think about how much it might cost to visit all those people during the year – and understand you’d be giving up the “x factor.” That is, you might miss meeting that one individual who could change the course of your company or career.
MYTH 6: CUSTOMERS WILL GIVE US IDEAS
This one is tricky because it’s not a myth on the surface, it’s actually true: customer will give us ideas. The myth is that these ideas are the right ones. You see, we encourage our customers to tell how they would improve our products and services. We ask them outright and call that VOC. But we don’t really want their ideas. What we want are their desired outcomes. We want to know their business priorities, their challenges and their jobs-to-be-done. They use our (and our competitors’) products as tools to help accomplish those jobs. We love to think of ourselves as the end, but we’re just a means to an end.
When a customer or prospect gives you a specific product solution, get in the habit of asking them a very particular question in return: “what would that do for you?” Or maybe “how would that help you?” You see, their idea might not be the best way to accomplish what they need. It might be, but chances are we have an even better solution. They know their business and we know ours. Unless we know what outcomes customers seek, we don’t know where their ideas are coming from. Please don’t encourage your field folks to “bring back customer ideas.” Instead, insist they report back with top priority challenges and desired results. We’ll take it from there.
MYTH 7: VOC IS EXPENSIVE
VOC is not free, but what worth anything is? It does, however, have an ROI, so don’t think of VOC as pure expense. Conducting good VOC is an investment in your company’s current and future success. That still doesn’t mean it has to cost a fortune, though. You can train your own people to do the interviews, crunch the data and analyze the results. That training cost can be a fraction of what it might take to hire an outside firm to conduct the research for you, and with outsourcing your people don’t internalize or retain what’s learned. A hybrid approach involves hiring a firm to conduct an initial survey and while they’re doing it, have them teach your team how to do it themselves next time.
When you budget for VOC, remember to include travel cost. Go out to customers and prospects in person. Seeing their operations is just as important as talking with them. On the other hand, once you understand what’s involved, it’s okay to conduct additional interviews over the phone or a web conference. That saves time and money, but should only be the Phase 2 method. Phase 1 needs to be all about hearing and seeing things first hand. It will have a cost. But what’s the cost of not doing it?
In summary, not many B2B companies are doing VOC well, which is an opportunity for you. Assign your best people to do the work and target a wide range of accounts, from your best customers to non-customers. Be persistent in setting up interviews and augment individual meetings with conversations at trade shows, where lots of people and products converge. Drive for desired outcomes, not solutions. And finally, invest a reasonable amount of time and money in your VOC program, but don’t overspend. Do it right and you won’t be breaking the bank, you’ll be building it.