What can The Rolling Stones teach us about Voice of the Customer?

Image by Anton Johansson via Flickr.

In a probably slightly twisted sort of way I often think of the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” when I think about Voice of the Customer or VOC.  It is almost a universal truth that if you ask customers what they want, they will respond with some form of “a better version of what we are buying from you (or your competitor) today at a lower price.”  If you just ask directly, this is almost certainly what customers will say they want, and many probably believe it.  But the goal of good VOC is to get beyond this superficial response. 

If you just stick to reacting to what customers ask for, you can bet you are chasing the same incremental improvements and cost reduction opportunities as your competitors.  You may win occasionally at this game, but it is essentially a race to the bottom.  To avoid this trap, you should re-think VOC, keeping in mind that the most important insights come from being able to infer an unmet or unarticulated need. This comes from independently and objectively understanding customers’ situation, perspective and context, not merely asking them what they want.

The Way Out

We sometimes call our preferred process ‘Market Insight,’ because it is way more than what many companies mean by VOC.  We are not looking for the voice of a single customer, nor are we looking for responses to a survey.  Rather, we are after insight into the businesses, problems, and minds of segments of customers. 

Through a combination of observation and indirect questioning, we are trying to identify unmet or under-met needs of groups of customers in order to develop our new offerings or business models to serve them in better ways that they can’t articulate – no one was asking for Uber before Uber existed, but we all knew that it was nearly impossible to get a taxi in New York City in the rain and that there were thousands of cars parked idly. Similarly, in the B2B world, we often find that combining your technical knowledge of the possible with the carefully extracted themes across multiple customers can produce insights and opportunities that you would never uncover reacting to one customer request at a time.

Five Mindsets to Gain True Market Insight

  1. Realize that you are not the customer. One of the hardest things to do when conducting VOC is to not let your own biases and thoughts get in the way of learning about the customer.  You spend the majority of every workday thinking about your offering, how it works, and how to make it better.  We know what we want – customer to buy more from us, preferably at higher prices.  But, your goal is to gain deep insight into how the customer thinks and makes decisions, and you can’t do that if you think the goal is to educate them on the benefits of buying from your company.
  2. Recognize that it is not about you nor your offering. We wrote a post a while back titled Warning:  No-one Cares About Your Product!  If you go into a VOC interview thinking about your product, you are likely to talk about it.  You are looking for unmet or under-met needs, which means, by definition, your product isn’t solving them yet.  And, even if the customer starts talking about a problem that your product can solve, you should still stay focused on their problem.  How big is it?  How often does it happen?  What is the impact on their business?  How big of an issue is it relative to all of the other things they have to worry about?  Try to always stay focused on the customer during these interviews and resist the temptation to start solving the problem rather than trying to understand it.
  3. Start with a hypothesis . . . but be ready to change it. Whenever possible, you should leverage your company’s knowledge about your customer to go in with a hypothesis about how you might be able to better serve them.  You then should conduct the interview in a way to test your hypothesis, using the principles of scientific method, by trying to prove yourself wrong.  If the interview doesn’t provide evidence that would cause you to reject your hypothesis, that is great; and if, after talking with three or four more customers, you don’t collect any disconfirming evidence, you should be pretty confident that your hypothesis is correct. If, on the other hand, you hear things that prove your hypothesis wrong, don’t despair, revise your hypothesis and keep listening for a problem that you can solve. 
  4. Avoid the “myth of the customer spec.” Again, we wrote a post a while back titled “You Want Me to Pay for That?” – The Myth of ‘Customer Requirements.’  As Henry Ford once supposedly said, “If I asked customers what they wanted they would have said faster horses.”  I know that there is much debate as to the validity of him actually saying that, but it makes this point really well.  There are at least a couple of problems with assuming customers know what they want.  First, they don’t always know.  Both because they may not understand that they have an issue because “we have always done it this way.”  But second, they likely don’t understand what is possible as well as you do.  Third, and even more importantly, if your primary goal is to get the ‘customer spec’ during the interview, you are going to end up getting exactly what they would tell your competitor.  If you act on this alone, you are back to that race to the bottom – just earning the right to compete on price.  Your goal is not to come back with a ‘spec,’ rather it should be to understand where the customer has unmet or under-met needs.  Only then can you gain a true understanding of what they should want.
  5. Purposefully talk to and observe customers outside of the sales cycle. This one seems obvious and should be part of our ongoing efforts, but many companies don’t spend the time to talk to customers when they aren’t trying to sell them something.  It takes discipline to schedule time with customers when that activity will not help you to make your current targets.  That is why doing it is so important and strategic, because you are spending time now in order to improve your future performance without having a direct impact on your short-term goals.  The simplest way to put it is “just do it!”


Let’s face it, all of us want to help our customers, but sometimes that means avoiding the reflex to overreact to the first thing that sounds like an opportunity.  Good VOC is about becoming a student of your markets – diagnosing customers’ underlying problems and not about trying to fit your current product into every situation.  We have found, just like the song says “if you try sometime, you just might find you” … are able to give them what they need! So, the next time you hear that classic Stones’ song, maybe we can figure out what “Mr. Jimmy” needs and not just what he wants so we can help him out too!

Image by Anton Johansson via Flickr.

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