When it comes to understanding what customers want – and how to factor their feedback into what to build next – any business would be wise not to act on all the input they receive.
That should prompt an important and obvious question: what should the business act on? After all, it has deployed a Voice of the Customer (VoC) initiative, and those involved will want to show that they’ve listened by acting according to the feedback, right?
VoC is a tool businesses leverage to obtain feedback from customers about experiences with specific products or services. But herein also lies the snare: just because you asked doesn’t mean that customer is right – or their feedback is actionable.
For some this cuts against the grain of another long-held mantra that “the customer is always right” – but that is a customer retention consideration, not a business innovation or acceleration strategy.
Henry Ford is often attributed to saying: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Regardless if you believe Ford did or didn’t speak this famous line, the point is that customers aren’t expected to have a clear lens on viable, forward-thinking business solutions.
Put another way, many customers likely don’t know what they want or need, or don’t know what’s possible. It is also why many businesses end up commoditizing their offering than separating from the pack and innovating. This is because their solution, based on customer feedback, too often looks and performs exactly like something else that is already on the market. But that isn’t a result of businesses not asking. Instead it’s rooted in acting on a flawed approach to what they ask and how they interpret the feedback.
The tactical application of a strategic opportunity
Asking for customer feedback is often flawed in the way it gets presented to customers, especially with regard to innovative problem solving. When questions focus on wants and needs that offer up “this or that” options, the assumption is either this – or that – is the preferred or actionable answer. As a result, it falsely justifies a direction that might be unintentionally baked into the questioning and confirmed by customers.
It also assumes one group presumably wins or has the answer, meaning that others who voiced a different perspective don’t truly have their voice heard or acted upon. This gets back to that earlier question: what should the business act on? A different and more effective approach can be found in HCD – human-centered design.
Seeking empathy before answers
We’ve been told we do things differently by clients who have used VoC in the past. The reason for that is in approaching the customer differently to gain insights through guided conversation rather than offering yes or no, or “this or that” line of questioning.
Many use VoC in a way that looks like this:
Ask – Answer – Action
What this struggles to account for is empathy and understanding for root cause of their problems or feedback. It focuses too much on the answer, and doesn’t give the appropriate time or attention to ensuring true understanding of why they answered the way they did. This can create a false sense of which direction to go.
The HCD methodology is decidedly different.
Discover – Analyze – Create – Decide
The Discover stage is first phase in HCD’s four-phase methodology where customers are initially engaged. Critical to our HCD approach is applying a Visual Research Tool (VRT), which grounds all customers we speak with a set of visual cues to ensure alignment. We also conduct these discovery sessions on behalf of our clients. That’s important because it gives customers the opportunity to speak candidly and not feel compelled to say what they think the client wants to hear.
The focus of discovery isn’t on solutions – but rather understanding the pain points customers are experiencing, having empathy for their challenges, and asking what would make their experience easier, better or faster. The open-ended responses received become insights, rather than directives or answers.
The most important question to ask
Customers aren’t thinking about your business the way you do. So when presented with a barrage of questions, their responses might be unexpected or unclear. They may not have an answer or opinion, but feel compelled to offer one up anyway. It’s not always the topline answers that matter, but the motivation behind the answers.
This leads to the critical follow-up question: asking “why” they responded that way, or why they feel the way they do.
Asking why gets to the reasons behind the response. This is empathy in action and mining for the real pain points that exist and prompted the response. Unless asked, customers might not be fully aware or know to voice the motivations or rationale behind their initial response.
The more whys you ask, the more layers you peel back to reveal core pain points. Allowing customers to speak freely about problems they encounter, which they experience and know best, is the first step in a journey to develop a solution that deserves to exist.
Asking why can feel awkward and even bothersome, especially within the business and among work teams, but this question is what drives valuable results. Uncomfortable but genuine why questioning puts all motives and intentions on notice. It affords important opportunities for potential course correction. This is important because confirming the right direction is a lot less painful than developing a solution that nobody is asking for.
How insights lead to solutions
Insights rarely present clear-cut solutions, which is why the Ask-Answer-Action approach of VoC doesn’t bear fruit for many businesses that follow it.
While VoC rushes toward an end solution, HCD is just getting started, moving from the initial Discover to the Analyze phase. This is where feedback is synthesized and interpreted, and clusters of teams begin to analyze for themes and patterns, identifying areas of real opportunity.
Work within the Analyze phase gives guidance as well as needed constraints from which creative ideas can be explored, and prototypes can be tested and refined in the Create stage. From here the most desired, feasible, and viable idea moves toward concept and eventually the decide stage, but continues to go through an iterative cycle until it fulfills the needs of end users.
And that’s the purpose of engaging and hearing from customers in the first place: to empathize with their pain points and understand their desires. When businesses apply the HCD methodology and deliver solutions that address these realities, they not only accelerate their growth potential, they also create new and deeper pathways for customer loyalty and retention.
Want to learn more about how to apply HCD to your work? Read how we teach the four phases of HCD to our clients that helps them better extract and apply feedback from customers to innovative solutions – or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.