Getting Beneath the Voice of the Customer

Aug 11, 2009 11:04am
Posted by: Frank Capek

Doesn't it make sense that:

  • If you want to know what customers want, just ask them.
  • If you want to see if they're satisfied with the experience, just ask them.
  • If you want to know if they're come back or will refer you, just ask them.
  • If you want to understand what you can do to improve, just ask them.

Listening to customers is critical for gaining insight into their lives, their goals, their needs, as well as, their frustrations, feelings, and behaviors. Unfortunately, we've found that most structured "voice of the customer" research is not only ineffective for designing influential customer experiences, but it can seriously undermine innovation by directing investment at the wrong things.

It's common for companies to conduct customer interviews, surveys, and focus groups trying to understand what customers want. The reality is that what customers say they want is not often well-correlated with the subconscious factors that influence their behavior. In many cases, what customers say they want is actually quite inconsistent with what ultimately drives their behavior. The key is to able to engage customers in fundamentally different kinds of conversations and get beneath the surface of what they say to understand the deeper experiences they're having.

I first encountered this disconnect about 25 years ago. At the time, I was working with
Dick Larson
. Dr. Larson is an expert in the psychology of waiting. The situation involved commercial real estate managers responsible for several high-rise office buildings in New York. These managers were trying to figure out how to address customers' dissatisfaction with the amount of time spent waiting for elevators during peak periods. Not surprisingly, if you ask customers what they want, they'll tell you that they want an increase in service levels: faster elevators and less waiting. Obviously, the complexity and cost of actually improving service levels are quite high; it would involve installing faster elevators, dedicating more interior space to elevator banks, improving the optimization of elevator queuing, etc… It turned out that the most effective improvement was to install mirrors in the elevator lobbies. This allowed people to entertain themselves by fixing their hair, straightening their tie, and checking each other out in a much more socially acceptable way. The perceived experience improvement was greater with the relatively low cost mirrors than with the relatively high cost technology required to improve actual service levels. Note: Waiting is an important aspect of many experiences, for more information about designing better waiting experiences see:
Helping Customers Lose Wait
In general, the design of influential experiences involves a trade-off between two strategies: 1) improve the reality of the events, service levels, etc… and/or 2) influence the way customers experience and act on those realities. When you ask customers what they want or what they liked or didn't like about their experience, what do they tell you? In most cases, they only talk about the relatively obvious service levels associated with the first strategy.

Another example of this disconnect involves customers' surface-level desires for more choice… compared with their subconscious distaste for actually having to make choices. When conducting traditional voice of the customer research, customers often ask for a set of choices that allow them to find the alternative they prefer. However, when presented with the range of choices uncovered in the research, the same customers find that actually making the choice exceeds both their level of motivation and capacity for processing information at the point of purchase. In essence, giving customers the choices they request often leads to a "choice overload" that gets in the way of profitable customer behavior… in many cases, influencing them to postpone making a decision.
In one illustrative experiment, conducted by
Iyengar and Lepper
, consumers shopping at an upscale grocery store were presented with a tasting booth that displayed either a limited selection (6) or an extensive (24) selection of different flavors of jam. The experimenters measured both customers' initial attraction to the tasting booth and their subsequent purchase behavior. While the extensive choice booth attracted more customer attention,
customers presented with the limited set of choices were 10 times more likely to make a purchase

. Customers that sampled from the limited choice booth made a purchase 30% of the time versus only 3% of the time from the extensive choice booth. Leading companies are really starting to internalize this finding. P&G, for example, reduced the number of versions of Head and Shoulders shampoo from 26 to 15, and, in turn, experienced a 10% increase in sales.

Voice of the customer research makes the underlying assumption that people have a relatively stable, conscious, explainable, and at least somewhat consistent set of preferences. It also makes the assumption that when ask customers about their preferences they can tell you or, in some cases, when you present them with a set of forced choice trade-offs (e.g., would you prefer to buy A or B), how they choose will reflect what they do in real life. Unfortunately, this is far from true. People typically don't know what they want until they see it; they construct their preferences and work through decisions as they perceive their alternatives in the actual purchase environment. Subtle differences in the design of that purchase environment can have a significant impact on the decisions customers make. In fact, research in the areas of cognitive psychology and behavioral economics has shown that…

…small and seemingly insignificant contextual details have a major impact on people's behavior.

One of my favorite recent examples comes from MIT Professor
Dan Ariely
. (See Dan's great book:
Predictably Irrational
) Dan came across the following advertisement for

The Economist


The Economist Subscription Options

The ad offered three subscription options:

  • Electronic Only: $59
  • Print Only: $125
  • Electronic and Print: $125

Which of these options do you think people would choose? Why would anyone choose the "Print Only" option rather than opting for the additional "FREE!" electronic subscription? It seems very unlikely! In fact, Ariely conducted a test with 100 Sloan School students and only 16 chose "Electronic Only" while 84 chose the "Electronic and Print" option.

No one chose the "Print Only" option!

On the surface, this option seems totally irrelevant. Why would you even offer it? It turns out that something very interesting happens when this seemingly irrelevant option is eliminated. When another 100 students were offered only two choices: "Electronic Only" and "Electronic and Print", 68 chose "Electronic Only" while only 32 chose "Electronic and Print."

The presence of an irrelevant option influenced a more than 250% increase in customers choosing the more expensive alternative!!!

Ariely observed the following, "Thinking is difficult and sometimes unpleasant." Cues that allow us to establish the relative value of various offerings, then, reduce the cognitive load or effort required to think about your options. What the

offered was a no-brainer; while we can't be certain that the print subscription is worth more than twice the electronic version, the combination of the two was clearly worth more that the print version alone.

In another illustrative example of how subtle environmental details influence customer behavior,
Cornell University
Sybil S. Yang, Sheryl E. Kimes, and Mauro M. Sessarego
found that by dropping the "$"symbol on a restaurant menu can have a significantly positive impact on the total ticket value. The researchers did a side by side comparison of three ways of presenting menu prices: with a preceding dollar sign (e.g., $14.95), without a dollar sign (e.g., 14.95), and as written out prices (fourteen dollars and 95 cents). Aside from the subtle differences in price presentation, all other aspects of the actual pricing and customer experience were held constant. They found that the average total ticket increased by $3.70 when prices were presented without the dollar sign. They also found that the average ticket decreased by $1.85 when prices were written out.

All of these examples illustrate a level of insight into the way people have experiences and act on their experiences that cannot be accessed by most traditional, structured voice of the customer research.

The Vast Majority of Human Experience is Subconscious

Every waking second of the day, each of us processes just over 4,000,000 bits of sensory information. At the same time, we get to pay conscious attention to only 7+/- higher level and relatively abstract notions about what's happening to us, what we're doing or planning to do, and how we're feeling about all of this. Luckily our brain does an outstanding job of filtering, predicting, and prioritizing all if this information in a way that makes it possible for us to be reasonably effective in the world. The challenge is every normally functioning human being on the planet lives in a state of "

naïve realism
." This naïve realism, gives us the sense that we're experiencing our surroundings as they actually are, rather than just as a high level abstraction of what we believe them to be.

If we are asked by a researcher to describe an experience, particularly an experience we had at some point of time in the past, the best we can do is relate what we think we remember, about how we believe we felt, along with the alibis we construct for the choices we made, in an experience that was almost entirely subconscious. However, due to the state of naïve realism we live in, we're convinced that our explanations have merit... despite the fact that we are just reconstructing a plausible sounding story for what we think happened. This is the way it works for all of us. It's also the fatal flaw for most structured, traditional voice of the customer research.

Understanding how to design highly meaningful, differentiated, influential, and profitable experiences involves engaging people in fundamentally different sorts of conversations and listening in ways that get beneath the surface of what they say to understand the deeper, subconscious aspects of how people actually have experiences.

VOC Iceburg

While there's value to listening to customers' recollections of the experiences they've had and their suggestions for improving that experience, what you really need to look for and understand are:

  1. Goals and Desired States
    • What set of desired states and goals are people really trying to accomplish?
    • What kinds of experiences are people attracted to and comfortable engaging with?
  2. Beliefs and Expectations
    • How do people make sense of and remember the experiences they have?
    • How do people construct situation-specific expectations and preferences?
  3. Emotional States and Triggers
    • What conscious and subconscious emotional states influence peoples' actions?
    • How do specific events trigger emotional reactions that influence behavior?
  4. Natural Behavioral and Decision Pathways
    • What behavioral pathways do they naturally follow to accomplish their goals?
    • How do people make choices in light of these expectations and preferences?

We've developed an innovative toolset for answering these questions.

Experience Miner TM

provides a rigorous way of capturing and analyzing the most critical aspects of the way people think, feel, and act on their experiences. It involves a fundamentally different way of listening to what people say and watching what they do in order to identify what's going on beneath the surface. Built on 25 years of research into the cognitive, affective, and behavioral basis of experience, it provides the specific insight required to focus design and delivery efforts on the areas of greatest influence and financial return.

Experience Miner TM

is used to identify the most influential experience elements for each target customer personae. This insight is used to

…design evocative experiences from the mental model of the experiencer.


Experience Miner

toolset consists of the following seven elements, each designed to fill in a critical piece of insight required to design experiences that influence behavior.

Experience Miner Toolset

  • Goal Space Mapping

    Describes the desired states and situation-specific goals that motivate and direct the experience for each key persona

  • Experiential Temperament

    - Profiles how temperamental differences influence the way people are drawn to and engage with novelty seeking, harm avoidance, social orientation, and persistence
  • Framing Metaphors
    - Surfaces the underlying physical metaphors people use to interpret, evaluate and act on their experiences in the relevant domain(s).

  • Experiential Constructs

    - Identifies the most common, learned distinctions that enable people to recognize, categorize, differentiate, and form expectations.

  • Emotional States and Triggers

    - Surfaces the emotional states and specific triggers across the lifecycle of the experience highlighting areas of uncertainty, stress, frustration, etc…

  • Experiential Pathways

    - Maps the end-to-end set of activities and choice points that people follow in pursuit of their goals… including the unwritten rules and automatic behavioral scripts people apply along this pathway.

  • Experiential Choice Dynamics

    - Describes the situation-specific choice processes that people follow, as well as, how they construct preferences and make decisions that influence their behavior.

If you're interested, I've covered various topics related to the elements of Experience Miner in a wide range of other posts, including:

6 thoughts on“Getting Beneath the Voice of the Customer”

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