At the 2015 Fall conference John Mitchell, president of AMS (Applied Marketing Science), reviewed the results of a survey of 315 product and marketing managers. The goal: correlate research methodologies with success in innovation to identify the most critical factors for generating insights.
AMS – in partnership with Abbie Griffin, Ph.D. of the University of Utah, who coined the term VOC (Voice of Customer) – conducted research on research to assess VOC competency and identify practical findings. Abbie researches serial innovation “in boring industries”: people who have made careers in industries like diesel engines and toilet paper.
Over the years, VOC has broadened its meaning: in 1989, it was about new product innovation and development, translating wants and needs into solutions; today, it’s about social media mining, online communities, customer co-creation, NPS, sentiment analysis, and support/feedback. For this research, VOC was limited to “the set of processes, methodologies, and tools for capturing customer needs and problems as an inspiration for innovation.”
The Product Development and Management Association conducted research that demonstrated that organizations that are more effective at NPD (New Product Development) consistently apply VOC to more innovation projects. Listening to customers earlier in the process leads to better innovation! “Duh, right? Believe it or not, many tell me that the first time they ever talk to the customer about the product is when it is ready to be sold.”
Public case studies corroborate this:
- The Black and Decker Snakelight emerged from customer observation and was so successful that Black and Decker couldn’t meet demand.
- Courtyard by Marriot, “the hotel designed by business travelers”, emerged to meet the unmet needs of business travelers, as optimized through a conjoint study.
- Intel vPro is designed for enterprise IT architecture, with the then-revolutionary feature of being rebooted remotely and administered remotely.
- The Ekay Bottle Filler is a traditional water fountain with a bottle filler in the back, so that air travelers can fill their empty bottles after passing through airport security. It was an engineering challenge inspired by VOC research. To make the social case, it tells users how many plastic bottles have been saved by using the filler instead of buying a new bottle of water.
“If VOC is so important, what does it mean to be good at it?” Is it company culture, specific approaches, a philosophy, different technologies, or a strategic priority? The survey benchmarked different practices to build a diagnostic tool to specify actions.
The survey used a convenience sample of 315 respondents working in NPD and service innovation. The sample was predominantly North American B2B firms. Respondents were classified as either “The Best” or “The Rest” using PDMA benchmarks for financial, competitive and innovative success; 29% of the sample qualified as “The Best”.
Three hypotheses were proven to be true:
Firms most effective at NPD have the most mature VOC processes. The survey reviewed 7 dimensions of VOC maturity, covering 35 attributes from the strategic to the tactical. The Best scored at 66 on a VOC maturity index from 0 to 100, while the Rest scored at 58. Both have plenty of room for improvement.
Some attributes of VOC maturity are more influential than others. A strategic commitment to listening to and understanding the VOC outweighs all other factors. Strategic prioritization of VOC is essential; without it, almost nothing else mattered. “In other words, your company must believe in the value of VOC to benefit from VOC.” Too often, “the voice of the loudest vice president shouts down the voice of the customer.” Strategic commitment combines formal goals with VOC support throughout the organization. The Rest have a 30-point gap on having established goals, when compared to The Best. The Best are almost twice as likely to interview customers regularly, for the purposes of research, not just for sales and service.
The best innovators will have specific focus areas. The Best use structured qualitative research followed by quantitative research to test hypotheses that emerged from the qualitative research. The qual to understand what they need; the quant to understand how much it is needed.
Other distinguishing practices:
The best innovators are more effective at disseminating the results of VOC studies throughout their firms.
The Best purposefully cultivate their abilities to do research proactively.
The Best also have centers of expertise outside the research department to preserve institutional memory and provide internal consulting support. Successful innovators aren’t researchers by training, but they understand enough to make good use of research and research teams.
Critical self-examination, including post-mortem reviews of studies, results in stronger performance on subsequent studies.
There wasn’t much difference between the Best and the Rest in terms of which research techniques were used.
To build strategic commitment, everyone must work to embrace VOC and fully deploy it: executives, department heads and managers, and line staff. “Celebrate the success of projects with measurable impact.” If you’re a corporate researcher, you can profile your own organization using the same survey, at http://www.ams-inc.com/vocassessment.