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.

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Indeed, businesses are recognizing the value of customer input for a growing number of strategic areas, including marketing and core business processes like product engineering and quality assurance. (See sidebar.) And it isn't based on customer feedback alone; companies also collect comments and criticisms from industry pundits and the general public.

VOC gets social

Also driving VOC programs is the social Web's growing clout as a consumer sounding board. In a first-quarter 2011 consumer survey by Temkin Group, about 20% of the respondents said that they had reported a bad experience on Facebook, and 13% said that they had reported a good experience on the social networking site. Moreover, 11% had reported a bad experience on a third-party review site like Yelp or TripAdvisor, and 7% had used such sites to report good experiences.

If these numbers seem small, consider this: Only 21% of the respondents said they sent feedback directly to a company via a phone call, a letter, an email message, or its website. (Moreover, the use of social networking sites to voice opinions about companies is likely to grow, since the social Web is a relatively new phenomenon.) In contrast, 63% said they complained about a bad experience to friends via email, over the phone or in person -- out of a company's hearing, so to speak.

Still, many business leaders remain wary of using data garnered from social media, which can be less than accurate or reliable, to say the least. Temkin Group's third-quarter 2010 survey found that only 22% of VOC programs were currently using social media sources, although 35% were considering doing so.

Business executives and business analysts want to ensure that the feedback data they incorporate into critical decisions is of comparable quality to the internal data they've been using. And IT executives need to ensure that their staffs and systems aren't overwhelmed by a flood of largely irrelevant and/or low-quality data.

That isn't stopping some companies from incorporating valuable social media data into their VOC programs. But rather than try to "boil the ocean," as one analyst put it, they are limiting their range to sources that are specific to their products and customers. Charming Shoppes, for example, is looking at monitoring its Lane Bryant customer community site, known as Inside Curve, and its Facebook fan pages, Liss says. "Our customers tend to be vocal and active on plus-size women's blogs," he adds.

During the past few years, customer intelligence (CI) professionals such as marketing and brand managers have increasingly turned to social media intelligence services like Radian6, Scoutlabs and Buzzmetrics, which gather customer feedback from the social Web. The services then analyze the data for relevance and sentiment and present the resulting intelligence in prepackaged reports, charts and "social dashboards."

Such services can cast as wide or as fine a net as customers want; they also offer some degree of quality control. Dow Jones Insight, for example, "selects social media based on how influential it is, how frequently it was updated in the last 90 days, and whether it is free from spam and porn," says Martin Murtland, the service's managing director. It can also add targeted sources at a customer's request, such as "Twitter feeds based on client-requested content," he notes.

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