6 Secrets to Gaining Crucial Insight from Voice of Customer Research & Surveys

Effective voice of customer research techniques can help you differentiate your brand, build loyalty and get your message heard above the competitive clamor.

By Sandra Gudat, President/CEO

I am going to go out on a limb and make a sweeping proclamation: Customer choice is at its greatest level of all time. This presents retailers with the task of navigating uncharted waters: How do we differentiate ourselves to consumers? How do we build customer loyalty? How can we be heard in all the clamor of other retailers offering the same or similar products?

 To be heard, one must first listen — and that is the intent of a good voice of customer (VOC) program.

In the words of the poet Alice Duer Miller: “Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us.”

Voice of customer research makes this its primary objective in order to gain the crucial insights retailers need to navigate the waters ahead. The payoff can be immense: $284 million in annual revenue for a $10 billion company, according to Forrester.

So, what are the secrets to conducting successful voice of customer market research? Read on.

1: Be comprehensive with your VOC survey planning.

Obviously, planning is always an important component of any strategic initiative, and especially so with VOC research. To help ensure your planning is thorough, include the often-overlooked factors below.

Gather input from representatives from across the organization.

In truly customer-centered retail enterprises, everyone is responsible for the customer experience. Common VOC survey questions seek to identify possible friction points in the customer journey, discover un-tapped points of differentiation for the brand, uncover emerging customer needs, etc.

Creating a cross-functional team can ensure everyone is on the same page as well as help bring to light nuances of issues affecting customers of which the organization as a whole may not be aware.

Be clear on your VOC survey objectives.

Make sure that your VOC initiative, in general, and individual surveys, specifically, are based on clear (and contained) objectives. This may be a bit of a challenge when working in a collaborative, cross-functional environment where it’s tempting to add on nice-to-have questions submitted by the group.

But it’s especially important that individual survey objectives are kept tight. If you are embarking on a true voice of customer program, with multiple data-gathering efforts, you have more opportunities to prioritize and schedule customer insight-gathering activity throughout the year where you can also determine the best touchpoint to collect particular sets of data (i.e., adding an invitation to complete a survey on the customer’s receipt or a having a pop-up at check-out on your website, rather than convening a focus group).

Think about how to ensure optimal VOC survey participation.

“Companies often don’t think about what is going to draw someone to complete their survey,” says Jason Kerns, director of project management at Davis Research in Los Angeles, Calif. In addition to giving basic information as to why the survey is being conducted, how the information will be used and assuring respondents of the confidentiality of the information they share, retailers often offer an incentive.

While incentives can increase response rate (some say as much as 30 percent) you need to consider incentives carefully. Kerns advises retailers to “make sure that the incentive is reasonable — enough that you’re going to get a sufficient number of people to complete it; but not such a great incentive that people will fly through the survey just to earn it.”

Ensure quality response to your VOC questions.

Again, clearly defining your objectives for a particular VOC survey instrument ensures that you do not overreach and make the survey too long. Make the first few questions interesting to participants to draw them in and place more complex questions deeper in the survey. “You don’t want it to be tedious from the start,” advises Kerns.

Consider soft launching the survey and noticing the average time it took respondents to complete it, along with reviewing preliminary response to see if the instrument needs to be tweaked.

2: Make sure your VOC survey instrument is user-friendly.

User experience is frequently glossed over in the effort to get a survey quickly into the field. Here are some tips to make sure your survey is user-friendly.

Watch survey length.

This cannot be overstated. Avoid survey fatigue and “click-through-to-finish-line” mentality by weeding out unnecessary questions.

Pay attention to survey UX.

For instance, ensure buttons are lined up nicely. “You don’t want questions to be a struggle,” says Kerns. In addition, offer “other” or “don’t know” options for multiple choice questions.

Make sure your survey is accessible in multiple channels, especially mobile and tablet.

Make sure that the survey is programmed in a responsive design format that adjusts for device as well as allows the respondent to view the survey in portrait or landscape.

Kerns advises: “Many people no longer have PCs and, in most cases, will be using their phone or a tablet. It comes down to number of items you display on a screen — that’s going to affect your response rate and the age of people responding. For instance, older people may need to squint if you’re putting too much on the screen. You don’t want to have so much information that people have to scroll a lot to get through what might be one screen on a desktop. And you don’t want to have to make the copy really small — or the buttons really small — just to fit it onto a mobile screen.”

Use a simple survey domain.

Taco Bell’s survey domain is tellthebell.com, which is preferable to a more convoluted, non-intuitive survey domain containing back-slashes, etc.

3: Make your VOC survey engaging.

Quality response increases when respondents find your voice of customer survey engaging. Says Kerns, “The more generic it is, the less interesting it is.”

Personalize it.

If you have basic information about the respondent that you would otherwise be requesting (e.g., address, state of residence, etc.), do the respondent a favor and pre-populate the survey with that information. For VOC surveys where you may be asking respondents to supply recent purchase information, allow them to scan their receipt and have the survey personalized based on that prior behavior.

Make it dynamic.

Program your VOC survey to serve the respondent with variations of questions based on response. In other words, you may have a core line of questioning that all respondents will see, along with a specific list of questions based on response.

Make it interactive.

Engagement and therefore response can be increased using interactive survey tools, such as drag and drop, slider scales, heat maps, embedded pictures or movies.

VOC Question Example: Heat Map

VOC Question Example: Heat Map

VOC Question Example: Slider Scale

4: Create clear VOC questions to get clear answers.

There is an art and science to survey instrument construction. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Avoid asking two questions in one.

Make sure you are asking a single question and not combining two questions in one, such as, “Do you like our products and services?”

Keep questions neutral.

Avoid asking leading, biased or emotionally charged questions, such as:

Why do you shop our stores? (Check all that apply) 

  • Because you have great products
  • Because of your unsurpassed customer service
  • Because of your great promotions

Follow-up key questions with Why?

Strategically selecting questions to probe deeper about a respondent’s answers can be extremely fruitful. This can be done by following up with open-ended questions, such as, Why did you answer this way? Or you can utilize a moderated chat function in your surveys, where a live moderator is triggered to join in on the survey when respondents answer particular questions in a certain way.

For example:

Moderator: Earlier in the survey, you chose “XXX” as the most appealing possible benefit of a loyalty program. Help me understand what it is about that benefit that you like so much.

Federal Express is particularly adept in their approach, gleaning deeper insights from their voice of customer initiatives. For instance, when a respondent types an answer into an open-ended question field in an online survey, there is an intuitive engine that works behind the scenes to prompt follow-up questions.

5: Focus on quality control.

Keep bad data from seeping into your voice of customer insights by incorporating mechanisms to help assure respondents are reading and engaged with your survey.

Watch out for “clicksters.”

There are some respondents that are only in it for the incentive and have little interest in providing quality responses, often clicking answers without reading them. A red flag are respondents who finish the survey too quickly — you’ll want to weed them out.

Another way to identify “clicksters” is to include a few red herrings in the survey, such as including a random question, like: “How many times have you visited Buford, Wyoming, in the past six months?” Or incorporate “Do not select this factor” in multiple choice questions. If a survey taker clicks on a red herring, they are likely a “clickster,” and you should terminate the survey.

6: Follow up.

Provide a mechanism for follow-up.

If a respondent reports a particularly bad shopping experience, provide a mechanism for follow-up, such as asking, “Would you like to be contacted by management?”

Share insights with the enterprise.

As retail organizations endeavor to be customer-centric, it is imperative that insights are shared throughout the organization rather than maintained in a departmental silo.

Act on VOC survey feedback.

Sure, acting on feedback is a no-brainer. But despite the best of intentions, it’s often easier said than done in the typical chaotic retail environment. Retailers need to take the time to create processes and have teams in place to respond to issues and opportunities raised by their VOC program. Building a library of standardized action plans to respond to particular customer feedback should be one of the primary objectives of the cross-functional voice of customer team.

The Bottom Line

A strong voice of customer program is essential to remaining customer-centered and competitive in today’s retail reality. Although earlier I cited Forrester’s research on the upside of improving the customer experience, I especially fear the downside for those retailers who fail to take “a vigorous, human interest in what is being told” to them by their customers. Sometimes customer feedback is “hard to hear” as Dick Cavett once said: “It’s a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn’t want to hear.”

VOC surveys are just one piece of the puzzle when you’re working to gain a comprehensive view of your customers. CCG can help you complete the picture and turn data into action to help you build customer loyalty — and company revenue.

Sandra Gudat is president & CEO of Customer Communications Group (CCG), a full-service customer relationship marketing (CRM) agency that helps Fortune 2000 retailers and financial institutions improve their bottom line by improving their customer relationships, loyalty and retention.