How to Effectively Conduct ‘Voice of the Customer’ Research

by Chad McAllister

For today’s finicky consumers, seeking feedback with customer satisfaction surveys is no longer enough. Ascertaining your customers’ wants and needs might compare to assembling a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing. It requires a multi-layered process that includes both qualitative and quantitative methods, as well as a structure that prioritizes customer wants and needs. The Voice of the Customer (VOC) is such a process. An effective VOC result produces a detailed list of customer wants and needs, organized by priority and analyzed in the context of competing alternatives.

When it comes to Voice of the Customer (VOC) experts, there are few that match the expertise of Gerry Katz. He is the author of several published papers on the topic, a contributor to professional books, a guest lecturer at MIT, Harvard, and other top schools. Today, he consults with hundreds of companies and trains even more practitioners on the tenants and application of VOC.

Katz says that VOC is often misunderstood and therefore incorrectly practiced. In this interview, Katz sets the record straight. He stipulates what VOC is and is not. He provides the four-step approach for using VOC. Finally, he offers several tips for conducting effective VOC interviews.

Below is the summary of the essential points of our discussion.

What is VOC?

In a nutshell, it is the process of gathering and understanding customer needs. While that sounds ridiculously simplistic, it actually isn’t. There are so many pitfalls, or so many rookie mistakes that people make in trying to understand customer needs, that an entire science has grown up around this area.

What is not VOC but is often mistaken for it?

To start with, it’s not asking what customers want. If you ask Mr. or Mrs. Customer, tell me what you want, tell me what you need, the customer thinks they’re supposed to go into solution mode and start describing the exact features and the exact solutions they want. Now, unfortunately most customers aren’t all that creative, and so all they do is play back features and solutions that already exist in the marketplace. If you take that as your guidance, almost by definition, you will never do better than a me-too product. Instead, a much better approach is to ask about customer’s experiences. Another misunderstanding is thinking of VOC as any kind of market research. VOC is actually a subset of the entire field of market research. VOC also is treated as a means of measuring customer satisfaction, but that is not its purpose. Other tools, such as the Net Promoter Score, measure satisfaction.

What are the roots of VOC?

John Houser published a famous paper called The House of Quality, which was the first important English language description of a Japanese product development technique called QFD, or Quality Function Deployment. In order to do QFD, you have to start off with a detailed list of customer needs. Abby Griffin, a dissertation student of John’s, decided a good doctoral dissertation would be to study how companies understand customer needs in support of new product development and innovation. Her dissertation won the thesis prize at MIT and she and John turned it into the journal paper that essentially coined the term and created the field. The paper was published in 1993 in the journal titled Marketing Science. In the paper, they offered a four-part definition of Voice of the Customer. I won’t go into great detail, because we only have a half hour, but the parts are (1) a detailed list of customer wants and needs, (2) expressed in the customer’s own words, (3) organized into a hierarchy, and (4) prioritized by the customer.

How can a product manager conduct VOC research?

It starts off with a series of one-on-one interviews. We conduct face-to-face interviews, and in some cases they have to be done by telephone. You will create 2-3 times as many needs if you record the interviews, transcribe them, and then analyze from a transcript, as opposed to the more usual process of note-taking, even if a colleague records needs while you interview. After conducting 30-40 interviews and transcribing them, it’s time to pull out the needs – perhaps around 100 unique needs — from the transcriptions and enter them into a database. Then create an affinity diagram of the needs by associating related needs into groupings called buckets.

Abby’s research showed that customers are likely to affinitize differently from the way researchers do, so we try to get customer involvement in the process of creating the affinity diagram. The final part of VOC is the prioritization survey, which is most often done online.  We try very hard to keep the questionnaire short. All of the data I’ve ever seen from quantitative market research says that once a questionnaire goes beyond about 15-20 minutes, data quality declines, people are fatigued, they drop out, they start giving fraudulent responses, etc. So it’s a very simple survey to rate each bucket of needs, and there’s usually around 20-25 of those. They rate them for how important are each of the needs and how satisfied are they with whatever product or service or alternative they’re using now. And that completes the VOC process and we’re ready for analysis.

What are your tips for conducting interviews?

Talk with customers about specific experiences and ask them to share stories about what it is they’re trying to do. Ask what made it easy, what made it hard, and what gets in the way. Conduct one-on-one interviews, not groups. Face-to-face interviews are best but phone interviews also work. Use ethnographic interviews for 5 to 10 interviews and the others in the traditional interview format. Record needs, transcribe customer’s actual words, and later capture the needs from the transcription. Particularly important, Katz, notes, is preserving the customers’ actual words: “Human beings are incredibly clever at kind of twisting what was said to confirm some underlying belief that they hold.” He goes on to say that R&D scientists and engineers should all hear the customers first hand. If they don’t, they could misinterpret the meaning. And then, you lose the Voice of the Customer. Listen to the interview with Gerry Katz on The Everyday Innovator Podcast.
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Chad McAllister, PhD is a product innovation guide, innovation management educator, and recovering engineer. He leads Product Innovation Educators, which trains product managers to create products customers love. He also hosts The Everyday Innovator weekly podcast, sharing knowledge from innovation thought leaders and practitioners. Follow @ChadMcAllister