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PHOTO: Modern Affliction

Voice of the Customer (VoC) captures a customer's expectations, preferences and aversions and tunes your customer experience (CX) activity accordingly. While VoC has been an important component of CX programs for years, COVID-19 has dramatically changed both its importance and its challenges.

Janey Whiteside, chief customer officer for Walmart said during her Brandweek keynote that the pandemic caused customer shopping habits to fast forward five years in five weeks. For Walmart, this deepened its quest to forge emotional connections with its customers, to meet customers where they are and to quickly launch new services that fulfill rapidly changing customer needs.  

Forging emotional connections with customers in today’s environment takes more than simply capturing expectations, preferences and aversions. It takes empathy, the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their particular frame of reference. Empathy was little more than an infrequently used catchphrase in the VoC conversation before COVID-19. Now it is inexorably tied to VoC initiatives. The ability to turn that empathetic understanding into business practices, products and services will be critical when we come out the other side.

Adjusting to a New Rate of Change in the CX and VoC World

It won't be easy. Fast forwarding customer habits also means fast forwarding company practices and VoC technologies such as social media monitoring, enterprise feedback management, speech analytics, text mining, web analytics and immersive technologies. It also means moving much faster to integrate these to provide a holistic view of the customer’s voice and to provide the ability to act on the resulting insights by disseminating relevant information to the right person at the right time on the right channel.

In short — I see the lines (timelines at least) between VoC and CX blurring, which might seem to be somewhat opposite of the position I took when I last wrote about VoC about a year ago. In that article I drew a distinct line between VoC programs that gain understanding and the resulting modification of CX processes; highlighting that both were important but distinct components of a great CX initiative. I still believe there are nuances between the two initiatives that make them independent — however, the pace of change around how our customers want (need) to interact with us is clearly driving an urgency for more rapid understanding and a corresponding decreased timeline between VoC understanding and CX implementation. It is becoming harder to succeed at one without the other.

A recent report by McKinsey on how COVID is changing CX backs up this point of view. While it does not address VoC explicitly, it states: “maintaining a strong customer experience in crisis requires rapid research to understand changing dynamics and new pain points as well as agile innovation to address them.”

Related Article: Voice of the Customer Strategies: Effectively Turning Feedback Into Action

Addressing VoC Challenges to Stay in Tune

So how do we address these new challenges? There are several steps that companies should take as they focus in on enhancing VoC programs in today’s chaotic environment.

Up Your Social Media Game

Pre-pandemic, the Experience 2030 report noted customers are becoming increasingly digitized and that social media will play an ever-more important role in shaping the customer experience for both brands and consumers. Only 6% of consumers in the study are not presently using at least one social network site or app; 53% regularly use three or more social network sites or apps; and 32% use four or more on a regular basis.

Equally illuminating is how consumers were using social media at the time of the study (late last year) and how they expected that usage to increase:

  • 21% said they use a social media site to recommend or tell a friend about a product or service today and 32% said this would increase into 2030.
  • 36% report using social media on a daily basis for finding product or service information today and 30% say social media as a source of brand information will be more important to them over the coming decade.
  • 19% said they purchase or donate via social media today with 34% indicating this will become much more prevalent by 2030.

Customers were already embracing social media before the pandemic and there is no doubt that the current move to all things digital will simply make the 2030 predictions happen much faster and with more adoption. We are seeing this already — according to eMarketer, the Harris Poll conducted between late March and early May found between 46% and 51% of US adults are using social media more since the outbreak began. This cuts across all age groups, with 60% of those ages 18 to 34, 64% of those ages 35 to 49, and 34% of those ages 65 and up reporting increased usage on certain social media platforms.

McKinsey emphasizes this conclusion as well with the point that companies must use social media to keep a “real-time pulse” on changing consumer preferences. It notes that many more traditional VoC methods (e.g., surveys or focus groups) can have lag times as long as one month between initiation and results, which is far too long in our current environment.

Paying close attention here and understanding which social channels are most relevant to a particular target audience must be a key component of VoC going forward. The increase in social media usage is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to rapidly understand sentiment and pinpoint changes as they happen.

Related Article: How the COVID-19 Crisis Has Businesses Changing Up Their VoC Playbook

Bridge the CX Divide of Company vs. Customer Preferences

Experience 2030 also found a significant perception gap between companies and customers — one which extends from technology to intent to satisfaction drivers.

A few of these gaps, where company perceptions of customer preferences were significantly different from customers actual preferences, are listed below.

Technology:

  • I’m uneasy dealing with technology in stores — customers 35%, companies 78%.
  • Augmented or virtual reality allows (will allow) me to see how products look or work without having to see the actual product — customers 49%, companies 81%.
  • I’d use an automated robot to deliver my purchases — customers 46%, companies 74%.

Intent:

  • Stores are where I go to look at or try products I’m usually going to buy online — customers 53%, companies 80%.
  • Stores and malls are where I go to hang out with friends, have something to eat or be entertained — customers 53%, companies 84%.

Satisfaction drivers:

  • High quality products or services — customers 35%, companies 58%.
  • Special recommendations or upgrades — customers 24%, companies 44%.
  • Live person on phone for questions — customers 24%, companies 43%.

These gaps are so significant that the study concluded that the future of customer experience is completely dependent on the ability of companies to have a full understanding of, and align with, consumer perspectives.

Even before beginning the process of launching a consumer-facing strategy that allows rapid reaction to changes brought about by COVID-19, companies must ask the fundamental questions in their VoC program that help to understand the overarching customer preferences as they really are, not how we think they should be. Only when the answers are obtained and the perception gap is bridged, can the insights obtained be used to frame and inform the more detailed product, service and support changes (CX) that must rapidly follow.