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Listening to the voice of the customer: The value of VOC systems

It's time to gather customer feedback in one place so you can take action.

By Elisabeth Horwitt
October 10, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - About 20 months ago, Charming Shoppes launched a customer insights project to "deliver actionable customer and market research and analysis to the business," says Jeffrey Liss, who headed up the initiative. Liss is now senior vice president of corporate strategy at the plus-size women's clothing retailer, which includes Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug and Catherines stores.

Before that time, the company's method of collecting and disseminating customer feedback was less than organized, Liss recalls. Various departments and brand groups gathered input from customer emails and online product reviews, while store personnel received verbal comments from shoppers. Anything deemed relevant was "passed up the command chain" to top executives via email distribution lists, Liss says. As a result, "we had a lot of anecdotal information floating around," and executives had no way to distinguish important data from rumor, he says.

After a considerable amount of research and thought, Liss came up with a "voice of the customer" (VOC) strategy to collect both quantitative and qualitative input from various customer feedback channels; analyze it for sentiment, meaning and importance; and then forward relevant data to the right people for further analysis and action.

This sort of organized approach is becoming even more critical as the company adds new feedback channels, such as an online survey tool that will ultimately deliver approximately 10,000 customer comments per week, according to Liss.

When it comes to interpreting such comments, "sentiment analysis is key," he notes. For example, "if a customer says, 'I really love going to Fashion Bug, but I don't like sorting through all of the jeans to find the ones that fit me well,' you need to parse the statement using sentiment analysis to understand that she is a big fan of Fashion Bug, but we may have a customer service issue to address," he explains.

In December 2010, Charming Shoppes signed up for the software-as-a-service (SaaS) version of a VOC system from Reston, Va.-based vendor Clarabridge. Deployment of the system, Clarabridge Enterprise, is very much in the early stages, says Liss, pointing out that "it takes time to learn how to harness the power of this tool."

While plenty of companies are launching VOC programs, most are just getting started. Last year, a survey by Temkin Group found that of 105 companies with formal VOC programs, 63% were still "figuring out what to collect, and how," says Bruce Temkin, a managing partner at the Waban, Mass.-based research firm.

But a Forrester Research survey conducted late last year shows some momentum behind VOC programs. Of the 118 customer experience professionals Forrester surveyed, 52% had a VOC program in place and 29% were actively considering one. "Big companies have finally embraced the link between customer experience, loyalty and long-term financial success," says Forrester analyst Andrew McInnes. "Investing in voice-of-the-customer programs is the next logical step."

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About 90% of software vendor Clarabridge's customers have chosen its SaaS offering, according to CEO Sid Bannerjee.

This is not surprising, given the costs and headaches of deploying and maintaining a VOC infrastructure in-house. Companies need a data warehouse for customer information, says James Kobielus, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Think of Twitter streaming in all the time," he says. "Even if you filter for a subset relating to the demographic you're tracking or your own customer base, it quickly becomes too much."

Another challenge is integrating VOC tools and platforms with existing CRM and BI systems. "You want to pass feedback data and alerts into your CRM application so when you call up a customer record, you see not only what they just bought, but how they rated their last interaction," says Bruce Temkin, a managing partner at Temkin Group.

Conversely, CRM systems can help VOC systems prioritize surveys and responses from customers based on which respondents are hot prospects or big buyers. Most VOC vendors offer their own proprietary dashboards and querying tools, and they're starting to link up with leading CRM and BI systems. BI and CRM vendors should enter the VOC market this year, according to Forrester.

But even with a hosted VOC platform, designing and deploying the infrastructure is far from simple, early implementers agree.

"The big challenge is integrating unstructured VOC data with structured databases, in particular CRM data," says Jeffrey Liss, senior vice president at Charming Shoppes. "Our CRM group is working toward that goal."

— Elisabeth Horwitt

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