Nothing bad comes from listening to the voice of the customer. In fact, it’s all good. Any customer insights are better than none. Make it a routine business practice and you’ll get higher-value products and solutions to market faster, grow revenue and have more loyal customers. In B2B though, the customer’s voice has multiple layers that require unique listening skills.

Voice of the Customer – A Layered Approach

Many organizations have had less than desirable results with voice of the customer efforts.  While the reasons run the gamut, three of the most common mistakes are as follows:

  1. Involving only one or two customers and ending up with a custom solution.
  2. A focus group used only to validate a single phase of the product delivery process (i.e., requirements or design).
  3. Limiting voice of the customer efforts to “users” only.

Try a layered approach and you’ll uncover needs that have more strategic value, deliver more usable solutions and launch new products with customer success stories in your marketing arsenal.

Layer 1 – Executive Steering Committees to Drive Portfolio Strategy

One of the most critical steps in formulating your portfolio strategy is to routinely meet (1-2 times per year) with an executive steering committee made of up C-level or SVP level executives from organizations that represent your target markets.  Internally, recruit key executives representing strategy, sales, marketing, and technology. Product managers and marketers participate as observers to further their knowledge.

Products are not the focus of this meeting; industry issues and customer strategies are. They form the common focal point or market objective for your entire product portfolio and keep every product from operating in a disconnected silo. A third-party facilitator is highly recommended for executive steering committee meetings to ensure they’re facilitated without bias.

Layer 2 – Operational Customer Advisory Boards

An operational customer advisory board is the logical follow-on to an executive  steering committee. Its charter is to execute the strategy at an operational level.  An operational customer advisory board is ideally comprised of senior and middle management (VPs and directors) from the same companies represented in the executive steering committee.  They provide a critical element of continuity:

  • How the top initiatives in each company affect operational goals and KPIs
  • Specific business functions or processes that are most challenging
  • The desired remedy or change to each process
  • Priority on business challenges/problems that have the biggest strategic impact
  • Priority on job tasks and workflows that have to change to remedy the problems

Layer 3 – Design & Usability Focus Groups

In keeping with the theme of continuity, a design & usability focus group is comprised of first level managers and end-users.

Feedback from usability focus groups includes the following:

  • Validation of user job duties and performance measurements
  • Validation of user workflows for key tasks
  • Cosmetic look and feel of products for usability and sales appeal
  • Hands-on usability and productivity in real world use scenarios
  • Common what-if scenarios that eliminate “gotchas” in performing a job task from start to finish.

The Icing on the Cake – Market Validation & Early Adopters

While not a focus group in the purest sense, early adopters validate the market-readiness of the product by using it in real world conditions outside the development lab.  Who better to validate the product than your focus group participants?  They feel a great deal of ownership in the end product as they’ve seen it come to life.  The result is great customer testimonials at the time of launch.  Bottom line – choose your VOC participants strategically!

In B2B, very few if any successful products are born without multiple validation points from existing or would-be customers.  The key is to start high and understand the relationships between market forces, strategic initiatives, operational challenges, and how the jobs of people in the trenches impact all of them.  It’s amazing how simple the product business can be when your entire team sees the market through the eyes of the customer.  It’s the number one challenge of every product company.

If you’d benefit from consistent and repeatable voice of the customer processes, contact us to learn how our product management training programs and consulting services can help you see your target customers the same way they see themselves so you can deliver, market and sell higher value solutions and accelerate growth.