Maybe the Voice of the Customer Isn’t

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Criticizing Voice of the Customer (VOC) programs is like speaking out against motherhood and apple pie. The last time I criticized VOC programs, someone left a comment chastising me for presuming that a bank could know what its customers wanted without asking them.

Well, excuse me!

But there are (at least) two problems with the “voice of the customer” that many marketers don’t take into consideration:

1. It’s not really the customer’s voice. Isn’t it amazing that every time an organization that provides credit counseling services surveys consumers, it finds that consumers have gaps in financial literacy, and are in need of credit counseling? Or that when a content management vendor surveys executives, it finds that respondents always say that managing content is a critical element to their firms’ success?

But that’s the voice of the customer!

Surveys create linguistic conventions. Constructing a survey questionnaire–the most common form of soliciting the “voice” of the customer–means making choices about what words to include and exclude in the questions and prompts. The imprecise definition of many words often cause survey respondents to come to their own conclusions about what the questions and answers mean, however.

The prompts included in survey questions may or may not reflect what respondents really think or what they’ve done. They often select a prompt because it most closely matches the answer they want to give. Given the opportunity, they might describe it differently. So it’s not truly the “voice” of the customer.

If that wasn’t bad enough, market researchers take the linguistic limitations they create, then go and misinterpret the responses. Here’s one of my favorite examples of this:

A few years ago, a client of mine–a very large bank–came to me asking for help in interpreting their customer satisfaction survey results. Apparently, customer satisfaction was high, but so was customer attrition.

It took about 30 seconds to figure out the problem. The scale on the survey was an 8-point scale. The two-lowest scores were variations on levels of dissatisfaction. The other 6-points were varying degrees of satisfaction. It’s little wonder, then, that customer satisfaction was supposedly high.

But was that really the “voice” of the customer? That’s not a rhetorical question. If you answered “no,” read on. If you answered “yes,” head on over to and enjoy the rest of your day.

2. Customers don’t always have a voice to contribute. Market researchers routinely ask consumers “what influenced you to buy this product?”  If you have the ability to retain what you read 10 seconds ago, then you know that presenting respondents with a pre-set list of prompts immediately makes it “not really the customer’s voice.”

But, often, consumers don’t really know what influences their decisions. Even when we think we know, we often lie to ourselves–as well as to researchers–about those reasons because we don’t want to appear (even to ourselves) to make decisions for the wrong reasons.

I’ll give you another example of when the “voice” of the customer will be (or should be) silent:

I was talking with some folks from a marketing agency who were exploring different ways they could survey Gen Yers to understand the life stages (i.e., triggers) that signaled financial services needs.

Here’s the dilemma: You can’t ask 24-year-olds what life events will trigger financial services needs, when they’ve never experienced those life events before.

This doesn’t seem to stop a lot of market researchers. Many surveys ask respondents about things they don’t know about or understand. Remember when we asked consumers 10 years ago about their interest in account aggregation? Or, today, when we ask consumers about their likelihood to make mobile payments, like that’s a well-understood concept?


Net Promoter Score is another example of a false claim to being the “voice” of the customer. Just because someone chooses 8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale in response to the question “How likely are you to refer us?” does not make them a promoter. (I love it when marketing morons refer to this group as “net promoters,” misunderstanding the concept of “net”).

You know what makes someone a promoter? Behavior, not intention. Action, not voice.

What customers say has never been as important as what they do. But we’ve never had the opportunity to know (I’m trying hard to not use the word “track”) what people have really done. So we surveyed them.

One of the big Big Data opportunities is identifying what consumers actually do, and who and what they interacted with, on their way to buying something.In the future, the “voice” of the customer won’t be as important. I don’t think it’s as cracked up as it’s made out to be today. What we really need to focus on is understanding the gap between voice and behavior. That is: Why do consumers say one thing, yet do another?

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