Understanding the Voice of the Customer (VOC) is a critical first step in developing a successful product.

VOICE OF THE CUSTOMER

by Kenneth Crow
DRM Associates

© 2002 DRM Associates  All rights reserved. May be used with attribution. Other use prohibited.

Product Development Forum
NPD Body of Knowledge
Focus Groups
Customer Interviews
Quality Function Deployment Paper
Steps for Performing QFD
QFD Case Study
Product Definition
Reqmts Def. & Product Plng Consulting
QFD & VOC Training
QFD Experience
DRM Associates

INTRODUCTION

Quality can be defined as meeting customer needs and providing superior value. Meeting customer needs requires that those needs be understood. The "voice of the customer" is the term to describe the stated and unstated customer needs or requirements. The voice of the customer can captured in a variety of ways: direct discussion or interviews, surveys, focus groups, customer specifications, observation, warranty data, field reports, etc.

CAPTURING THE VOICE OF THE CUSTOMER

Once a product plan is established which defines the target market and customers, the next step is to plan how to capture these customer's needs for each development project. This includes determining how to identify target customers, which customers to contact in order to capture there needs, what mechanisms to use to collect their needs, and a schedule and estimate of resources to capture the voice of the customer (project plan for product definition phase).

As opportunities are identified, appropriate techniques are used to capture the voice of the customer. The techniques used will depend on the nature of the customer relationship as illustrated below.

There is no one monolithic voice of the customer. Customer voices are diverse. In consumer markets, there are a variety of different needs. Even within one buying unit, there are multiple customer voices (e.g., children versus parents). This applies to industrial and government markets as well. There are even multiple customer voices within a single organization: the voice of the procuring organization, the voice of the user, and the voice of the supporting or maintenance organization. These diverse voices must be considered, reconciled and balanced to develop a truly successful product.

Traditionally, Marketing has had responsibility for defining customer needs and product requirements. This has tended to isolate Engineering and other development personnel from the customer and from gaining a first hand understanding of customer needs. As a result, customer's real needs can become somewhat abstract to other development personnel.

Product development personnel need to be directly involved in understanding customer needs. This may involve visiting or meeting with customers, observing customers using or maintaining products, participating in focus groups or rotating development personnel through marketing, sales, or customer support functions. This direct involvement provides a better understanding of customer needs, the customer environment, and product use; develops greater empathy on the part of product development personnel, minimizes hidden knowledge, overcomes technical arrogance, and provides a better perspective for development decisions. These practices have resulted in fundamental insights such as engineers of highly technical products recognizing the importance to customers of ease of use and durability rather than the latest technology.

Where a company has a direct relationship with a very small number of customers, it is desirable to have a customer representative(s) on the product development team. Alternately, mechanisms such as focus groups should be used where there are a larger number of customers to insure on-going feedback over the development cycle. Current customers as well as potential customers should be considered and included. This customer involvement is useful for initially defining requirements, answering questions and providing input during development, and critiquing a design or prototype.

How many customers should be talked to? The number depends on complexity of the product, diversity of market, product use, and the sophistication of customers. The goal is to get to the 90-95% level in capturing customer needs. Research for a range of products indicates that, on average, this is 20 customers.

Who do we talk to? Current customers are the first source of information if the product is aimed at current market. In addition, its important to talk with potential customers. Potential customers are the primary source of information if the product is aimed at new market. In addition, talk with competitorís customers. They provide a good source of information on strengths on competitor's products and why they don't buy from us. Lead customers are a special class of coustomers that can provide important insights, particularly with new products. Lead customers are those customers who are the most advanced users of the product, customers who are pushing the product to its limits, or customers who are adapting an existing product(s) to new uses.

During customer discussions, it is essential to identify the basic customer needs. Frequently, customers will try to express their needs in terms of HOW the need can be satisfied and not in terms of WHAT the need is. This limits consideration of development alternatives. Development and marketing personnel should ask WHY until they truly understand what the root need is. Breakdown general requirements into more specific requirements by probing what is needed. Challenge, question and clarify requirements until they make sense. Document situations and circumstances to illustrate a customer need. Address priorities related to each need. Not all customer needs are equally important. Use ranking and paired comparisons to aid to prioritizing customer needs. Fundamentally, the objective is to understand how satisfying a particular need influences the purchase decision.

In addition to obtaining an understanding of customer needs, it is also important to obtain the customer's perspective on the competition relative to the proposed product. This may require follow-up contact once the concept for the product is determined or even a prototype is developed. The question to resolve is: How do competitive products rank against our current or proposed product or prototype?

ORGANIZING CUSTOMER NEEDS

Once customer needs are gathered, they then have to be organized. The mass of interview notes, requirements documents, market research, and customer data needs to be distilled into a handful of statements that express key customer needs. Affinity diagramming is a useful tool to assist with this effort. Brief statements which capture key customer needs are transcribed onto cards. A data dictionary which describes these statements of need are prepared to avoid any mis-interpretation. These cards are organized into logical groupings or related needs. This will make it easier to identify any redundancy and serves as a basis for organizing the customer needs.

In addition to "stated" or "spoken" customer needs, "unstated" or "unspoken" needs or opportunities should be identified. Needs that are assumed by customers and, therefore not verbalized, can be identified through preparation of a function tree. Excitement opportunities (new capabilities or unspoken needs that will cause customer excitement) are identified through the voice of the engineer, marketing, or customer support representative. These can also be identified by observing customers use or maintain products and recognizing opportunities for improvement.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

KENNETH A. CROW is President of DRM Associates. His firm focuses on improving product development and the implementation of strategies and practices such as integrated product development, time-to-market, and business process re-engineering for the high technology, capital equipment, consumer products, medical equipment, automotive, aerospace and defense industries. He is a recognized expert in the field of integrated product development and quality function deployment with over twenty-five years of experience organizing and guiding product development improvement programs and assisting product development teams. He led a consortium to identify 250 best practices or product development and developed a benchmarking and assessment methodology based on these best practices.

He has worked internationally with many Fortune 500 companies. He has written articles and papers, contributed to books, presented at conferences, and conducted workshops in Australia, North America, Europe and Asia on product development, manufacturing, and quality function deployment. He is a certified New Product Development Professional. He is a founding member and past President of the Society of Concurrent Engineering and is a member of the Product Development Management Association and the Engineering Management Society. For further information, contact Ken at DRM Associates, 2613 Via Olivera, Palos Verdes, CA 90274; by phone at (310) 377-5569; by fax at (310) 377-1315 or by email at kcrow@aol.com.