When it comes to the innovation process, executives and product developers often come to the conclusion that the customer’s voice is actually the least influential aspect of the idea generation process. In many situations managers with the responsibility of coming up with new product ideas have conducted focus groups with customers in which customers are asked to identify what new products they would like to see or what kind of new products they need. These focus groups generally produce disappointing results by severely limiting the creative scope of the idea being developed. As managers experience this, they conclude that the voice of the customer (as expressed through focus groups or surveys) doesn’t add value to the idea generation process.
The most striking example of this is Steve Jobs who has consistently indicated that focus groups with customers do not produce creative, groundbreaking product solutions.
And he is absolutely correct. On the other hand, Steve Jobs has also been very clear that all of his breakthrough innovations have come from listening to the customer. This apparent paradox reflects the confusion over what is meant by “Voice of the Customer,” the role it can play in the new product idea generation process and the methods or tools that can correctly capture Voice of the Customer for this process.
Smart Business learned more from James Martin, Ph.D., Associate Dean and Professor of Marketing at John Carroll University.
What is meant by ‘Voice of the Customer’?
VOC simply means that you are including the customer in the creation of value for the customer. The process of co-creation of value requires in-depth knowledge of the customer that drives management decision making. In many applications VOC is used to make adjustments in product or service offerings. With surveys or focus groups with customers of current products, a focus on satisfaction with specific features of the product or service leads to insightful value-added ‘tweaks’ to the product. Focus groups and surveys work well in these situations because customers are familiar with the decision problem and these tools are designed so that customers can provide their direct input.
However, these tools don’t work well when the customer is not familiar with the decision problem with which the manager is working, as is the case with the idea generation process for developing an innovation. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to use VOC. Quite the opposite. You still need the perspective of the customer if you are going to create something that has true value for that customer.
So you have to ask the questions: What do you really need to know from the customer? What is in their perspective that can inform your innovation creation process? When you answer these questions, you are using VOC.
What are the tools that you can use to capture this kind of VOC?
Let’s back up a bit and talk about why you should want VOC for the idea generation process. Developing innovation is about creating real value in people’s lives. In other words, your innovation will be constructing real meaning that makes customers’ lives better. This is what creates a breakthrough innovation that has built-in sustainable and profitable growth, and it requires VOC.
To use VOC in this situation, you need to be ‘in’ the experience of your customers. Whether you are in a B2C or B2B situation, it’s not about asking them what they think would be a good new product. It’s about understanding their lives, their values and how they see the world. And this understanding needs to be in a format that informs your process.
How can businesses best understand their customers’ experience?
There are a number of tools that can put you ‘in’ the experience of your customers. There are two main tools that I think can help managers understand the process of being a customer and identify ways to add value to that process.
The first tool can be referred to as mapping the cognitive script of the customer. This captures, in detail, all of the behavioral steps the customer goes through to purchase and consume a product or service, including a) pre-purchase thinking, b) the actual in-store (or online) experience and c) actual consumption of the product. To capture this form of VOC, you can observe the customer, talk to the customer, or, better yet, live (or work) in their experience. Once you are ‘in’ this experience, you can then begin to creatively generate ideas for how to make the script more valued. A classic, and simple, example is pay-at-the-pump technology for gas stations. Prior to pay-at-the-pump, the process of paying for gas detracted from the experience of buying gas. Introduction of pay-at-the-pump adds significant value to the purchase and consumption process at gas stations and changed the script for the better.
The second tool can be thought of as ‘value-mapping.’ Here you identify one or more core values that actually define meaning in people’s lives and drive their behavior. You then map those values to the skill sets of your organization. A method for capturing these core values is called laddering, which is a process of exploring what objects are important in a person’s life and what values those objects represent that make them important.
Going back to Steve Jobs and Apple, the first step of value-mapping might have identified two core values: a) the hedonic pleasure of aesthetic experiences and b) freedom. Mapping these values back to the skill sets of Apple would (and probably did) lead them to the breakthrough innovations of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
Using VOC in the idea generation process is critical for developing breakthrough innovations that create true and lasting value for customers. However, you have to be clear about what you mean by VOC and how you can best capture it.
James Martin, Ph.D., is Associate Dean and Professor of Marketing, Boler School of Business, John Carroll University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.