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Five Voice-of-the-Customer Best Team Practices

  • Listening–to-the-Voice-of-the-Customer Process Best Team Practice 1: Ask the customer for acceptance criteria.

A team needs to know how the customer will determine whether the results of the team effort are usable. “Acceptance criteria” define the tangibles and intangibles that will meet the needs of the customer. In meeting these criteria, the team will have met the needs of the customer and thus have listened to—and satisfied—the voice of the customer.

Many customers state that although they may not be able to define exactly what they want, they will know it when they see it. A team’s job is to translate details about “know it when they see it” into acceptance criteria. For example, if I were to begin today to build a home from the foundation up, I probably wouldn’t know much about electrical work, but I would know that when I move in, I would want to be able to turn lights on and off. I know that I would want to be able to come into the kitchen through the garage and be able to turn on the kitchen overhead at the garage door. I know that I would want to be able to turn on high-hat lights as I enter the bedroom. My acceptance criteria—light fixtures and on-off switches where I want them—provide an electrician with crucial information to design a system to satisfy my wishes.

Some organizations develop predefined acceptance criteria to jump-start this process. These include such factors as cost, availability, usability, changeability, training materials, and ongoing support. While generalized lists do not cover all possible acceptance criteria, they help customers think in terms of what the product or service must be in order to be acceptable to them.

  • Listening–to-the-Voice-of-the-Customer Process Best Team Practice 2: Conduct customer surveys throughout all phases of the project.

A survey is a process in which a customer is asked to answer specific questions about a product or service he or she will use. Surveys can be submitted to customers in writing or orally in person or over the telephone. Many organizations use easy-to-complete e-mail surveys.

A survey is an information-gathering instrument. Even when completed with seemingly precise requirements, the survey will not represent the full voice of the customer if it was prepared by the group developing the product for the customer because that group’s concept of what the customer wants will bias the questions the group asks. To encourage customers to include information not specifically requested, the survey should provide blank sections and sufficient time for the customer to answer in detail.

Survey questions should be phrased so as to elicit precisely worded responses. A survey that asks the customer whether he or she wants a bell or a whistle on the widget gathers more-useful information than one that asks whether features are desired. Survey questions should be worded in such a way that customers can answer them without a lot of effort, and so that people analyzing the responses do not need to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decipher what the customer intended.

Teams can modify a boilerplate survey to gather different kinds of information at various times during a project. During the requirements-gathering period, a survey can serve as a data-collection document to help the team define acceptance criteria. Modified midway through the project, it can be used to help team members determine whether work is on track to meet objectives, or whether they need to adjust the process. Administered after delivery of the product or service, a survey can help team members evaluate whether the product or service meets customer needs. If it does not, the survey can help team members focus additional work.

  • Listening–to-the-Voice-of-the-Customer Process Best Team Practice 3: Ensure that teams visit customer worksites to observe work firsthand.

To appreciate the challenges customers face, team members need to walk in their shoes. A visit to a customer site allows team members to observe firsthand the work practices and preferences of that customer. In some instances, it may be enough to just sit, watch, and listen to what goes on. In other instances, a team member might follow the flow of work as it enters a customer site, then is processed, and finally is delivered as a product or service to an external customer.

Many team members rate visits to customer sites among their most valuable professional experiences. It is difficult to know, for example, exactly how your customer’s warehouse works if you have never been inside it. In most cases, team leaders and members need to do more than simply observe the scene; they must read every manual, discuss the mission with every accommodating manager and staff member, and gather every bit of information from every conceivable source.

  • Listening–to-the-Voice-of-the-Customer Process Best Team Practice 4: Conduct focus groups with customer participation.

Customers can pair with a facilitator to form a focus group. In some commercial focus groups, participants sit behind a one-way glass and observe customers as they describe what they want in the delivered product.

Team members generally should neither plan nor sit in on a customer focus group, which should be conducted by a trained facilitator with no vested interest in the customer or the team. Properly trained facilitators enable and empower focus group participants to express their true feelings. Removing fear and expectation from the equation frees people to share their opinions and needs.

The team should receive and analyze results after the conclusion of focus group activities. Results may be provided to the team in the form of an informal set of notes, an audiotape of the focus group’s discussion, or a written, formal report from the facilitator. It is important that the team not criticize customers for what they communicate in a focus group. Team members may discuss problems with the focus group or request information surfaced by it, but they must avoid attacking a customer as such behavior only discourages trust and renders individuals less willing to constructively identify problems and concerns in the future.

  • Listening–to-the-Voice-of-the-Customer Process Best Team Practice 5: Invite customers to participate in team activities.

Team members who want to hear the voice of the customer on a regular basis may choose to invite one or more customer representatives to participate on the team. However, they should not invite any customer to participate as a full-time member because full-time participation may cause the person to identify more with the team than with the business area he or she represents. In addition, team members should not invite customers to team meetings held at the onset of a project because customers should not have a say in how the team meets their needs, only in whether it meets them.

Customers participating on a team, like all other team members, need a precisely defined role. For instance, a team may want to limit the customers’ role to identifying product requirements. The independent insurance agents described above perhaps should have been limited to expressing requirements directly to the team. They should not have relied on representation by one agency’s internal department.

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