Is It time to Apply VOC to your Sales and Marketing Processes?

Peter Drucker said, “The purpose of a company is to create a customer.” Consistency with this purpose requires knowing the answers to three crucial questions:

  • Who is your customer?
  • What do they want?
  • Most important, what can you offer that they might be willing to pay for?

Answering these questions is (or should be) the province of marketing. Voice of the Customer (VOC) research is one of the principal tools marketers can use to answer these questions.

Unfortunately, some senior executives think of marketing in terms of the old-fashioned “Product, Price, Place, and Promotion” paradigm, and so they do not see it as having much to do with direct revenue generation (meaning: sales effectiveness).

That is too bad for them, but it is actually great for you. That’s because it means there are huge opportunities for your company to beat out those other companies that are so preoccupied with their existing products that they haven’t researched who their customers are, what they want, or what they will actually pay for today.

What Is VOC, Really?

Gerald Katz, Executive VP of Applied Marketing Science, a leading VOC consulting and training firm, recently said:

“VOC is a structured approach for learning the needs and wants of the customer in support of some specific purpose (such as a new product or service development or process improvement).”

When done properly, VOC provides hard data evidence of the prioritized needs and wants of customers. You need this information to make the right decisions regarding new products and services. VOC has developed a powerful reputation for improving the success of product developments in companies across a broad variety of industries.

VOC and the Sales Process

Since marketing and selling are really a service extended to your customers to help them realize and solve their problems, it follows that VOC can and should be applied to help companies improve the means by which they find, win, and keep customers.

In fact, in markets where the customer’s problems are complex, such as in enterprise level software or high-end consulting services, the sales process itself is a kind of VOC. Salespeople must learn how leaders in the prospect’s company think about and prioritize their problems to use that information to engage in any relationship with them.

In the years I spent training salespeople to call on senior level managers, one of the primary skills we had to teach them was how to research the customer’s business intelligently, so they could ask productive questions, and then how to listen effectively to the answers. These skills are virtually identical to those required by researchers conducting a VOC campaign.

Of course, VOC researchers are not charged with the responsibility of turning that information around on a dime and presenting a compelling value proposition to senior executives. Instead, they are part of a more elaborate project whose goal is to make the correct decisions for investing their company’s time and money.

Nonetheless, an effective sales process has a lot of similarities to an effective VOC initiative. (See my
article, “Customer Value Mapping, A Key to Making Sales Easier ( (Note you may have to join or log into SPiF!)

Problems with Implementation of VOC

I recently attended a conference of product development managers in Orlando, in which there was controversy about VOC. I heard statements like:

  • VOC will never let you be more creative than your most creative customer.”
  • “Ask your customer for what they want, and you are bound to get yesterday’s product…”
  • VOC is only good for producing incremental gains … not product breakthroughs.”

As with most useful things, there are a lot of ways to do VOC wrong; VOC is not the same as customer satisfaction, nor is it the same as defining product specifications.

I myself have seen some of these “problems with VOC.”

For example, one client had already trained their product managers on using VOC. But to these “trained” product managers, VOC was just another hoop to jump through as they went about their business. It was just another item for which they had not enough time or money. Further, they didn’t believe it would make much difference anyway. “It is frustrating,” a few of them told me, “but around here, VOC is generally only used to justify decisions someone has already made.”

In another case, a product manager confided that many of the VOC exercises he had done were confined to asking microscopic questions like whether the on-off switch should be on the left- or right-hand side of the box.

If VOC is truly limited to microscopic questions, or if product developers and marketers only use it to bless the cows that are already out of the barn, then there are truly some serious problems with VOC.

Doing VOC Correctly

The fact is that these problems are not with VOC itself, but with its implementation. This type of thing can happen when

1)  The company’s leaders have failed to recognize the truth of Drucker’s statement (that the purpose of a company is to create a customer) and instead think that the purpose of their company is too create the “best” widgets available
2)  When the company’s leaders assume they can make crucial investment decisions based on guesses and assumptions rather than on facts and data.

In either of these situations, VOC is not SOP (standard operating procedure). Lip-service given to VOC leads to hasty implementations and budget problems, and VOC is seen as “just something else we have to do.” In other words, the management system is flawed.

Such flawed systems are always pitted against well-intentioned people who must work within them.

When someone challenges whether spending the time and money to gather VOC is worth it, the only proper answer is, “How much will it cost for your product (or service) development initiative to fail? Would that a cheaper alternative?”

Learning more precisely what your customer wants and needs is crucial to every business. Over time, markets, competitors, technology, and people’s attitudes are all constantly changing. Having a well-run VOC program, one that is integrated with all the points where you touch the customer, is a fundamental requirement of businesses that are built to last.

Clearly, there is a structured and methodical approach that must be taken to gather VOC data, if the results are to be useful. You have to think through who you need to talk with, what you need to learn from them, and how to go about gathering that information. You must pay attention to sample sizes and to crafting questions that don’t telegraph the responses you are looking for consciously or unconsciously. There are many resources available for how to do VOC properly (“Voices into Choices: Acting on the Voice of the Customer,” by Burchill and Brodie is but one great book on the subject) (, so I won’t go into the details any further here.

The best VOC initiatives consist of not only asking the customer a series of carefully crafted questions, but also of observing the customer in his/her own element.

VOC and Direct Response Marketing: Observing Customer Behavior

Ethnography–also sometimes referred to as or “contextual inquiry” or “customer visits”–is useful in gaining rich, new consumer insights. The idea behind ethnography is that observers can learn a great deal simply by watching customers in their natural habitat, as they use a particular product or service, or try to complete certain tasks or achieve certain outcomes. This type of observational research helps developers and designers better understand customer needs because it allows them to see the actions customers take (or try to take), and actions are always connected to values. When this is accompanied with some form of active, verbal questioning, powerful insights are bound to happen.

Although some practitioners might disagree, I believe that direct marketers have been practicing a simple form of ethnography for years. By offering customers a choice of headlines, offers, and packaging, they have been able to observe the actions customers take, and by that means deduce what customers value, what they will pay for with their attention, their time, and ultimately with their money.

Today, via Internet search engines, you can watch customers take actions: Internet marketers are aggressively experimenting to uncover what words people use to search for solutions to their problems, what offers attract the most responses via Pay per Click and other advertisements, and what product positioning achieves the highest volumes vs. profits.

Don’t be lulled into thinking that Internet marketing applies only to markets such as diet pills or dating
services. You need to recognize that that information is one of the primary needs of businesses in the early stages of their problem-solving journey. In fact, the finding phase (marketing promotion) of most sales processes focuses on offering specific kinds of information, which is crafted to attract just the right types of prospects.

Applying VOC to Sales and Marketing

The time has come for companies to begin applying VOC to their customers’ buying process. What problems are they trying to solve? How difficult is it for them to find solutions to these problems? What kind of workaround are they employing in their attempts to solve these problems? How much do these workarounds cost?

VOC is a means of gathering objective evidence regarding how the customer buys (or tries to solve his or her problems). This is the foundation for matching your marketing and selling process to the way customers buy.

In this manner, you can treat sales and marketing as the big-league business process it actually is and ensure that your company can actually achieve Peter Drucker’s principle.

Michael J. Webb

October 16, 2007

Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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