Voice of the Customer

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Nearly every business process improvement methodology, including Lean Six Sigma, places huge emphasis on a concept known as voice of the customer (VOC). Many years of working within the business process improvement arena, however, have taught me that very few people have a clear understanding of exactly what this term means, how to obtain it, and how to use it to effectively improve business processes. Much of this ambiguity can most likely be attributed to business process customer mis-identification. Since I thoroughly examined that topic in a 3-part blog (see my July 7, 2012 blog post, entitled “Who’s Your Customer?”, my July 15, 2012 blog post, entitled “Who’s Your Customer? (Part II), and my July 31, 2012 blog post, entitled “Who’s Your Customer? (Part III–the Saga Continues)”), I won’t belabor it here. Instead, I will use this blog post to address the VOC concept under the premise that the audience for this post identifies with the fact that the customer for any process or sub-process at any level is the immediate recipient of that process or sub-process output.

Given, that we have a complete understanding of exactly who our customer is, we are not out of the woods yet since we are still left with the fairly complex tasks of determining 1) how our customer speaks to us and 2) what exactly they are saying to us. In our world where schema, semantics, and the implicit rule out over the literal and explicit, we should all appreciate how sometimes daunting the two tasks can be. I recall years ago when I was brokering residential real estate that I met a family that consisted of a father, mother, and a small child that asked me to help them find and purchase a new home. Upon our first meeting, the father established that he was the individual who controlled the family’s finances and that in order to make a sale, he was the one that would need to be “moved” by any home that I showed them. In this case, my customer was clearly the family and feedback from the father would clearly be that family’s “voice”…or would it? I showed this family many homes—many of which impressed the father—but when it came down to the actual purchase, the father declined to buy any of these homes because either the wife was not satisfied with the layout of the kitchen or the child was not satisfied with the play area in the back yard. It wasn’t until I located a home for them that met both the wife’s kitchen layout requirements and the child’s back yard play area requirements that we were able to sit down, write out an offer, and close the sale. Had I not been able to eventually hone in on the “real” voice of my customer and what it was telling me, I would have most certainly failed in my attempt to deliver.

The issues above are even further complicated in business-to-business (B2B) and internal sub-process relationships in which the customers consist of organizations and/or departments and different associates within those organizations and departments. The only way to get a true handle on how your customer speaks to you and exactly what they are saying is to map your process, determine who is the intended recipient of your process output (down to the individual level and can be multiple individuals), and ask them very specifically what your output needs to look like, sound like, feel like, taste like, and smell like in order to be useful to them. Then, and only then, will you be able to effectively use VOC to improve your business process.


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