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World-Class Approach to Listening to the Voice of the Customer

Many organizations post signs they presume employees will internalize, emphasizing the following:

  • The customer is always right.
  • Our goal is to exceed customer expectations.
  • Without the customer, you would not have a job.

These banalities ignore myriad conflicts between customers of a product. A less terse, but incredibly more valuable, posting might read something like the following:

  • Customers are always right about their desires, but not necessarily about their needs or their capacity to have those needs met in a particular form.

World-class teams incorporate the idea of listening to the customer in their development process. If we expand our definition of “customer” and phrase it in terms of the example of the independent insurance agents, we might find that customers also include people in the following categories:

  • members of management that authorized the team
  • team members’ supervisors
  • the legal department
  • the accounting department
  • internal auditors
  • quality-control personnel

To pay heed to the voice of the customer, one assumes that the customer has precisely articulated what he or she wants. Most customers know what they want but many have difficulty describing it, in part because they don’t know the process by which their needs will be met. Understanding the voice of the customer requires good listening skills, which include assuring that the team hears what the customer says.

Consider, for example, an experience I had not long ago when I needed to buy a new lawn mower. The first salesperson I intercepted mid-stride at my local home-and-garden supply store hurriedly told me that the store carried many different styles for each of three brands of lawn mower, all on display at the back of the store, and then asked, “Which one do you want?” Since I wasn’t sure, I said I’d just walk around and look at the choices.

Before I’d even reached the mowers, a second salesperson asked whether I needed help. She looked ready to listen, so I told her I needed a new lawn mower. As she walked with me toward the back of the store, she asked questions about the size of my yard, the terrain, whether there were rocks and trees, and so on. When we got to the mowers, she took me straight to one, saying, “This could do the trick. It has a rear grass-bag so you won’t be bumping the bag into trees, and it has enough power and size to cut your lawn in a reasonable amount of time.”

Which salesperson do you think was experienced at listening to the voice of the customer? By asking relevant questions, the saleswoman was able to close the sale in just a few minutes, demonstrating what listening to the voice of the customer actually means.

The following five practices can help teams better understand how to identify and listen to the voice of the customer and ensure that team results meet the true needs of users.

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