The Voice of the Customer is getting louder – are you listening?

Time to reduce painful processes

How many times have you come across a company that doesn’t claim to put customers at the heart of its strategy? But how many of us actually do?

Delivering excellent service to customers extends far beyond a polite smile at the door. So many companies are so frustrating to do business with that it’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out and run around howling at the moon.

Here's why it's time for a renewed focus on what the Voice of the Customer means for your business.

No press is bad press?

The now-famous "United Breaks Guitars" story where Canadian musician Dave Carroll posted humorous music videos on YouTube about his frustrated attempts to get compensation from the airline after - he claimed - baggage handlers damaged his guitar at Chicago’s O-Hare airport.

You can watch one of the videos here:

The videos quickly went "viral" receiving hundreds of thousands of views within just days of posting and several million over the next few months.

While no official figures have been confirmed about the financial ramifications of the damage to United’s reputation, the UK’s Times newspaper reported that the airline had a sharp fall in share price shortly after the videos were posted (although the correlation of the two events is hotly debated) and the incident was widely considered a public relations disaster for United.

The wider implications have been felt in some form by most companies: customers now have an unprecedented ability to either promote or detract from your brand. Whereas one bad experience might have led to a customer telling a handful of people, the rapid proliferation of social media technologies means that one bad experience has the potential to quickly reach hundreds, thousands, or – as in the case of United – even millions of people.

It also means companies have a lot less control over communication when things start to go awry. Last October, for instance, Blackberry users in Europe and the Middle East started experiencing problems with the service leaving millions of customers unable to use data services including - the raison d’etre of Blackberry - e-mail.

The website Mashable reported that when the outage started, BlackBerry’s Twitter account tried to downplay the significance of the outage tweeting: "Some users in EMEA are experiencing issues. We’re investigating, and we apologise for any inconvenience."

An update the following day said: "Message delays were caused by a core switch failure in RIM’s infrastructure. Now being resolved. Sorry for inconvenience."

However, the problems were not resolved and users took to twitter to vent their anger and frustration.

In the bad ol’ days a company responding to a similar situation may have once been able to stay on top of the story – convincing customers that they were part of a small minority of affected users. However, with Twitter and other forums, thousands – if not millions - of people were able to share that they had been affected thus undermining any efforts of the company to downplay the problems.

So how it this a process problem?

What Dave Carroll lamented in his song about United was not just that his guitar had been damaged (although presumably he was rather upset by that). What frustrated him most was the inflexible approach taken by United airlines – "not company policy" - in dealing with the broken guitar.

In the case of Blackberry, meanwhile, the company’s infrastructure had been unable to deal with the sheer volume of traffic now on the network and users were also annoyed at what was seen as lack of information from the company, particularly in the early stages of the outage. As one disgruntled BlackBerry user put it in an article on the Huffington Post , Research In Motionwas effectively "caught with their pants down by the rapid growth that BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) has fostered. The scalability of its server architecture has apparently come a distant second to untethered expansion."

The reality is that customers now have the ability to hold companies to account. That means that you better be not only backing up what you claim to be offering, but delivering it in the most painless way possible.

Forrester Research has termed this the "Age of the Customer", defined by the customer experience becoming not just a "nice to have" but a strategic imperative.

"More organizations are focusing on renovating poorly managed customer-facing processes, which remain, in many ways, the last frontiers of business process automation," writes Forrester’s William Band. "Processes that touch customers and suffer from inefficiency and disconnects include: customer onboarding, order administration, loan processing, incident management, customer service, and investigations."

Companies are slowly starting to understand what that means.

For instance, in 2011, PEX Network’s State of the Industry report Business Process Excellence: Trends and Success Factors 2012", based on a survey of nearly 700 process professionals, found that while the majority of operational excellence programs focused on increasing efficiency and reducing cost, more respondents cited "increasing customer satisfaction" as the primary driver for their operational excellence program than any other driver.

The study also found that there appeared to be a correlation between what a company focuses on and the overall perception of whether their process improvement work was successful. Companies that focused process improvement efforts primarily on increasing customer satisfaction were more likely to rate their initiatives as successful than those that focused predominantly on cost savings.

Debashis Sarkar, author and pioneer of Lean services in Asia, cautioned in that report: "Operational excellence is not the engine for cost cutting. You should use it for cost efficiency, you should use it for revenue generation, you should use it for customer service, but it’s very dangerous to focus myopically on cost cutting."

"Many companies have traditionally separated operational excellence and customer service into different functions," Sarkar said, but "many are, rightly, starting to merge the two departments. The focus shifts to enhancing the customer experience. Operational excellence becomes one of the levers supporting the customer."

But what does it actually mean to be focused on the customer and are companies really "walking the walk" or simply "talking the talk"? PEX Network is conducting a survey to find out how companies are actually using Voice of the Customer within process excellence programs in order to find out.

If you’d like to help us expand the body of knowledge on this, please take the survey here:

PEX Network Voice of the Customer Survey

A research report based on the survey will be published in November and the findings will also be discussed in further detail at PEX Week our flagship event taking place in Orlando, Florida this January.