Customer Voice: How to Ask the Right Questions

Editor’s note: You’re about to read an extract from our new book “Product Mindset”. You can get the full book here.

Our job as product innovators is to figure out what customers are going to want before it even exists. Consider this input from Henry Ford: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'”  And Steve Jobs famously stated, “Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do… People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

Both of these legendary innovators seem to dismiss market research, and yet we are all taught that market research and listening to the customer is essential. So how do we reconcile this seeming contradiction? By understanding that there is a difference between Voice of the Customer (VOC) and Customer Insights. 

asian girl talking on the phone

VOC is the items customers demand, but customer insights are the nuggets gleaned by researching and evaluating how customers behave, interact and feel towards a product. Insights come from being empathetic to customers, removing any biases and looking through the lens of the customer.

Shoshana Burgett teaches that the answer is to first understand the difference between:

Customer Voice and Customer Insights

Customer Voice

  • I need the button to be green
  • I need my data to export in Excel
  • It must be brand X
  • It must be within this price frame

Customer Insights

  • Is the customer color blind?
  • Is there a secondary system?
  • Who are the users of brand X?
  • Is the customer interested in saving 50% more time?

VoC is not insight. VoC is the raw output. You need to process this output to come up with insights. What this contrast shows is that merely listening to your customer isn’t enough. You need to dig in and pull back the layers of the onion.

There are four types of customer voice that we will explore in this chapter:

  • Interviews — Active listening, ask probing questions
  • Observational — Passive and empathetic, walk the walk
  • Quantitative — Scale your updated proof points
  • Qualitative  — Social Media, Reviews, Chats, read the long forms
Women having a coffee and laughing

Conducting Customer Interviews

Product Managers  are notorious for asking leading questions. A parent wouldn’t say “Is my baby ugly?” Likewise, PMs are often reluctant to ask questions that would elicit negative feedback. 

Additionally, their desire for a positive outcome can create an inherent unconscious bias to ask leading questions.

Here are a few rules that will help:

  • Never ask “why.” Many lean and Six-Sigma companies teach employees the 5-Whys to problem-solving. However, when doing market research, the word why is perceived as a challenge to the customers’ decision. Your goal is to understand and observe. Instead, say “tell me about your experience.” Or “walk me through your process.”
  • Listen. Don’t speak so much! You should be listening 80% of the time, talking only 20% of the time. You are watching, on the lookout to discover innovative ways to solve a problem. One should act as a therapist, ask questions about their difficulties and what keeps them up at night. When they start talking, stay silent, and listen.
  • It’s a love-hate relationship. Examine extremes. Question what they love and follow up with inquiring about what they hate. Seek out specific examples, anchored in their everyday life. If someone can’t provide a real-life use case, it’s probably not as significant as they say or you think.
  • Ask probing questions. What’s most important to you? How would you fix this? How often does this happen? Dig deeper. Don’t just check the box. Keep the conversation and engage them with “tell me more.”
sticky notes on a wall

Making Observations that Count

Get out of your office and go see customers at their place of business.  It’s critical to see how products are, or would be, used in the ‘real-world’ at a customer site.

  • Walk the walk. Go on-site and understand the context in which your potential or current customers use your product. Regardless of whether it’s software or hardware, nothing can replace the insights you’ll gain from really being present and seeing how long it takes or how they may click or choose.

    A great example is a recent viral video where parents provided their son and his friend a rotary dial phone and asked them to make a call. It highlights that what could be inherently apparent to one person may not to another.
  • Gather evidence. Observe in real-time and get pictures or videos. Count steps / clicks and observe size and shape.  The data accumulated will inform product teams and help other team members learn to develop and displace something later.

Quantitative Feedback: Measure What You Have Learned

Now that you’ve gathered all this knowledge – experiment with it and test it against your original assumptions. Using the new insights, consider creating a prototype of a product, or design a new interface and check it with another set of potential users.

Gathering information can be done online using visual surveys or blind focus groups, where the individual does not know who the company is.  You can also create a simple Meetup, or Eventbrite to gather folks and observe – put each potential idea to the test!

Structured data that validates or debunks insights provide product managers the knowledge and credibility to support their product changes. You will be more confident in your conclusions and will have the evidence and details to back them up.

Qualitative Feedback: Tapping into the Big Picture

Now we’re at stage four, here’s a formula for creating innovations using what you have learned so far:

  • Read reviews, word for word. It’s all about the long form. Focus on ‘best friend and worst enemy’ – people who loved the product, and people who hated it. Spend time on social media reading what people say, read reviews, watch videos people post. Draw it all together and examine it all.
  • Isolate trends. Tools like word clouds can help you isolate keywords and put a quantitative number to the qualitative studies.
  • Define what you believe to be true. For example, is it valid that “more women use the product in the North East”. Pull all of your assumptions/conclusions together. 
  • Map frustration and frequency. Zero in on the problem your customer is having. Given what you know, define how annoying the problem is, and how regularly it happens. What are the most frustrating things for your audience, and frequently do they occur, and don’t forget to add the ‘devil they know’. Something may be a complete time suck, but for the user, it has become muscle memory.
  • Find Innovation in “Not.” Innovation is often the removal of a previously required but generally annoying element. Car = horseless carriage. Bluetooth = cordless phone. Kindle = paperless book. It’s a process of streamlining – making things work faster, nimbler and accessible.

Example: Creating the iPod 

Let’s use a disruptive product as an example. Create a matrix of your customers’ pain points. Here I use the iPod as an example to show how Apple took the various technical challenges and turned them on its head with the iPod.

creating the iPod, process
Photograph by Norman Seeff

Customer Pain Points

 

Customer Paint Points frequencies

In Conclusion: Know Your Customer Better than They Know Themselves 

Customers don’t always know what they need before they see it. Using the tools of interviews, observation, quantitative analysis and qualitative analysis, your job as a Product Manager is to know your customers better than they know themselves.

Meet Shoshana Burgett

Shoshana burgett picture

Shoshana Burgett is a thought leader and industry consultant with over two decades of experience in on-demand printing, manufacturing, and personalization. Shoshana has been at the forefront of personalized production and omnichannel communications and has served as a Senior Executive at  X-Rite, Pantone, and Xerox. 

Responsible for incorporating the Voice of the Customer into the company’s product portfolio, taking customer requirements and technical jargon and turning them into compelling marketing messages and go-to-market strategies. 

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