The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

Amplifying the Customer’s Voice — so the CEO Can Act on It


CEOs typically devote much of their time to analyzing their company’s financial data and operating metrics.  We suggest, however, that they could profit more by installing feedback review as a part of the formal executive process. Last week I undertook a task I have never before contemplated.  I coded 10,000 open text responses to a website user experience survey.   I did so because this is a new client in a key market for us and I wanted to get a deep, immediate understanding of their business.  If you have ever spent time coding open-text responses, you’ll know that the patterns emerge quickly.  You can code 100, or 500, or a thousand, and the primary attitudes and issues will be there.  To read and categorize 10,000 in the course of a week, however, is a qualitatively different experience. The echoes in the data reverberate up and down the scale of sentiment.

The “voice” of these customers came through insistent and amplified to an extent I had never previously heard.  It’s the equivalent of conducting 10,000 10-second interviews inside an auditorium.  The tone, topics, and emotions of the feedback run up and down like a Texas fiddle player.  Praise, gratitude, satisfaction, and enthusiasm clamor for attention alongside sarcasm, anger, irritation, and paranoia.  Apathy makes only rare appearances.   The syntax communicates volumes, as does the punctuation – the use of CAPS and exclamation points and asterisks and profanity.  These aren’t just words on a screen.  They are the collective sentiment of the customer base and they provide as accurate an indicator of the company’s direction as any set of metrics. After my week-long immersion I suspect I understand those customers’ relationship with the company better than any of their current executives.

That may sound presumptuous, but I REALLY know those customers.  I know what impedes their giving more of their business to the company. I know what drives them into the arms of competitors.  I know what drives conversion.  I know why the company commands loyalty and why it undermines trust.  I know with statistical certainty what needs to change in order for the company to retain its customers, drive its revenues, and sustain its competitive position.  Not because I’m a business guru, but because 10,000 people told me! If a CEO were to organize a workshop (annually) in which his executive team went through the exercise I went through, they would emerge from it with a common understanding of all this essential customer data.

Think of how simply it might work. They split into two teams of four.  Each team is given 1,000 pieces of customer feedback to code (by which I mean categorize or “bucket”).  Each team has four hours to come up with a Pareto chart of the feedback categories.  Each category must have two examples that convey the essence of the sentiment the category represents.  The teams present their respective findings to one another for an hour each.  For the last two hours of the day, they go through a reconciliation exercise.  They produce a single, common view of the categories, the key utterances, the take-aways, and most importantly the actions. The feedback has taken on its own visual and oral power.  Through repetition and iteration, the entire executive team has absorbed the cadence of the customer voice – they know intimately its rhythm, its lilt.  And that music will accompany every future decision.

–Roger Beynon, CSO, Usability Sciences Corporation


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