BI: 'Voice of the customer' programs combine feedback in one place

Early adopters are working out the kinks, but say customer responses sent to the right people, quickly, can have major business impact.

About 18 months ago, Charming Shoppes launched a customer insights project to "deliver actionable customer and market research and analysis to the business," according to Jeffrey H. Liss, who headed up the initiative. Liss is now senior vice president of corporate strategy at the plus-size women's clothing retailer.

Before that time, the company collected and disseminated customer feedback in a less than organized way, Liss recalls. Various departments and brand groups received input from customer emails and online product reviews, and 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 reports.

After a considerable amount of research and thought, Liss came back with the concept of a "voice of the customer" (VOC) infrastructure that would collect both quantitative and qualitative input from various customer feedback channels, analyze it for sentiment, meaning and importance, and send relevant data to the right people for further analysis and action.

This infrastructure 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 a week, according to Liss.

"Sentiment analysis is key," when it comes to interpreting such comments, he adds. 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

Jeffrey Liss
"It takes time to learn how to harness the power" of a VOC tool, says Jeffrey Liss, of Charming Shoppes.

In December 2010, Charming Shoppes signed up for the software-as-a-service version of a VOC system from Reston, Va.-based 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."

Charming Shoppes is hardly alone. While plenty of companies are deploying VOC programs, the majority of existing VOC initiatives are still in the beginning stages. A third-quarter 2010 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 that's not to diminish the importance of VOC programs in general. A fourth-quarter 2010 Forrester survey of 118 customer experience professionals found that 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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