I first encountered what the lack of Voice of the Customer (VOC) meant at a healthcare software company located just north of San Francisco, California. 150 product development professionals (nearly 100% of programming hours) spent a year developing a new order management system for hospitals.
But when the software product went live, the company’s healthcare clients declared it unpractical and unusable. The company needed better product direction that was truly aligned with market demand. They decided to hire a team of product managers and product marketers. The next try at order management was a greater success, along with additional products and upgrades sold worldwide.
The California company was operating in the bubble – a foreseeable problem when there’s no VOC research. The software development department was more than two thirds of the company headcount and stacked with PhDs who knew architecture, coding, etc. on every level. But no one thought to ask current clients what they wanted. No one bothered to find out features and functions of competitive products. Their chance of hitting the mark was low at best.
Asking the RIGHT questions to the RIGHT types of people
Let’s start with the people…
Some assume that Voice of the Customer means scheduling time at a Client Advisory Board and to use them as a focus group for new product and messaging ideas. While it’s smart to take advantage of time with your Advisory Board, it’s not the only group to ask if you:
- Plan to expand your client base to new clients who may be a different size those on the Advisory Board. Oftentimes the Advisory Board is a group of your largest clients. Are you planning to launch your next product/solution to a wider size range of clients?
- Plan to market your new offering outside of your home market. Does your Advisory Board represent multiple markets or is it based firmly in your first market?
- Plan to target a new industry or market segment. Most businesses want to expand their offering to new applications. If product roadmaps and messaging are based on a limited scope of potential markets, it won’t necessarily hit the mark.
You may want to start with existing clients, but then supplement your VOC work with interviewing non-clients in new target segments. If you have a nice big budget, then you can outsource this work to specialized services like the Buyer Persona Institute.
But if you’re needing to be a little scrappier, then use your staff’s professional network to find that childhood best friend’s ex-fiancé’s former colleague who is in the right role to give great perspective (true story!).
Now for good questions...
The biggest mistake I’ve seen in Voice of the Customer research is to use clients and potential clients to validate what’s already been developed. It introduces all of our biases into the process. It’s not about us… it’s about that client’s jobs to be done and the pain that they’re experiencing.
Going back to the best friend’s ex-fiance’s former colleague… it was a college student services director. I was helping a SaaS scheduling software company develop new markets and we were looking into higher education to see if we could provide scheduling for student services (financial aid, academic advisors, student health, tutoring, etc.) as an enterprise solution rather than individual offices. The most important question was – what problem keeps you up at night?
The answer was student retention. If students struggle because of academics, health or emotional issues, they are more likely to drop out or transfer. This leaves the college without a steady stream of income for four years as planned. Now the question became less about operational efficiencies and instead centered around how can a scheduling system proactively trigger appointment prompts for at-risk students? Now we had a completely different solution solving a much more critical issue for our market.
A few more question-writing tips:
- Ask questions, even when you think they may sound a little stupid. This is particularly key in global markets. We often assume that other markets buy and use our product for the same reasons as the home market. There can be any number of reasons why that would not be the case. Any number of corporate casualties have littered the global business landscape with their failure to adapt.
- Listen proactively. It is not enough to ask a good question, but the answer may lead to the right follow-up questions. This can sometimes lead to uncovering a new market segment or product use, among other valuable insights.
- Stay on top of trends affecting your markets. Is a competitor releasing a major product? Does a new regulation in Germany now reduce access to that market? Is the latest economic downturn going to affect market demand for your product? Knowing greater context helps to frame questions on how those trends affect real clients. Product Marketing by its nature is proactive. Instead of waiting for competitors to leap ahead in product development and messaging, it is time to take control.
Product Marketing by its nature is proactive. Instead of waiting for competitors to leap ahead in product development and messaging, it is time to take control of your company’s destiny and growth path in a more systemic way. Voice of the Customer research will be a key input for that success.
Onward and upward!