“Voice” of the Customer; the Art of the Conversation

Posted Friday, January 9, 2015 in Customer Culture by Ronni Marshak

A few days ago, a friend posted a graphic on Facebook, which said: 

"My Internet was down for 5 minutes, so I went downstairs and spoke to my family. They seem like nice people."

It made me laugh. But it also made me sad. Because it is too on-the-nose. It reminded me of an Xfinity commercial that ran throughout the holiday season that also made me sad. In it, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Ebenezer Scrooge to a home, announcing, “Now remember, Mr. Scrooge, we can see them, but they can’t see us.” In the living room of a lovely suburban home, decorated lushly for Christmas, a family of five is smiling broadly as the Ghost comments, “See how happy they are.”

 Xfinity commercial of Wifi Xmas Family

Yes, they are smiling, but they aren’t communicating with each other. They aren’t talking. They are looking at screens on different handheld devices. And they’re not even sharing screens. No, each family member has his or her own device. (See the ad.)

When did we stop talking? And when did that become a good thing?

Is the Art of Conversation Dead?

Children today would rather interact via video games than through conversations. I spent quite a bit of my holiday vacation with my 10-year-old twin Godsons and some of their friends. Even though the parents said “no screen time” over and over, the kids were sneaking time on their devices, and there were several tantrums when the devices were taken away.

When I was a teenager, family dinner each night was the time for conversation, and, as teens are wont to do, I was itching to stop talking to my adult parents to get to the telephone to talk to my friends. No more. Most teens don’t talk on the phone nowadays—they message or tweet or instagram.

And adults aren’t that much better. Ronni's niece and boyfriendSitting at the dinner table with friends, quite a few of them would check their phones for messages or snap pictures of their food and send it out on social media. Two years ago, at the birthday brunch for my (then) 29 year old niece, I was also guilty of using my smart phone, but to snap pictures of the people to keep as memories. I have to admit, however, that my favorite picture is the one below of my niece and her boyfriend, which I’ve entitled “Young Love.” It says it all!

A Business Issue Too

Businesses are facing the same lack of conversation as families. I would guess that email and messaging has replaced voice communications in the majority of interactions in most organizations. Now don’t get me wrong; text-based communications is wonderful! It saves a lot of time (no more telephone tag, no time-wasting small talk just to get a quick answer to a question). And it provides a record of what information has been communicated (where is that phone number? Oh, yeah, in the email that Patty sent).

And online conversations can work. Good evidence of that is Patty’s Pioneers, a two decades-old group made up of individuals, hand-picked by Patty to share ideas on technology, business, and how to solve the problems facing us all. The Pioneers communicate primarily via a private yahoo group. Although there are semi-annual face-to-face meetings, most of the idea sharing is electronic. The group dynamics work because of the dedication of the participants, a comfort expressing themselves in written form, and an enthusiasm for keeping the group alive and thriving. Still, the electricity in the air when this group of smart, visionary, and eloquent individuals actually meet in person is phenomenal and helps keep the electronic communication going until the next meeting.

I have said in the past that electronic conversations are perfect for sharing facts…for answering easy-to-answer questions…to communicate quick pieces of information about what, where, and when things need to happen. But when you are truly trying to explore an idea, nothing beats a conversation. The give and take of thoughts and insights doesn’t work the same electronically. The immediacy of being able to probe an idea, build on a thought, suggest a slight variation—this is where innovation and understanding happens.

As a virtual company (located in multiple states in the U.S.), we don’t actually speak to each other on a daily basis. We are an organization of independent self-starters who are good at follow through and who trust each other. Although we have weekly phone meetings to catch up on business issues, we still often find ourselves just calling each other on the phone just to hear each others’ voices and to reconnect as people. We do our best work by keeping that personal connection alive. And, when we find ourselves stuck when writing or working on a consulting deliverable, we invariably pick up the phone (or, actually, email asking the other person to call us when they can).

Conversation Is Part of Our Consulting Practices

The value of vocal conversation is front and center in our methodologies and consulting practices, whether it be organizing and running Customer Advisory Groups, leading Customer Co-Design Sessions, or conducting our Customer Scenario® Mapping methodology sessions.

Almost all our engagements begin with phone interviews1. We actually talk to the stakeholders within our clients’ organizations. We spend about an hour on the phone with each of our clients’ customers that are part of a co-design session or CAB. Talking to our customers and our customers’ customers helps us understand the issues and desires each has and allows us to help craft interactive sessions where underlying concerns, goals, and creative ideas can be discussed, clarified, and refined.

Sometimes our clients ask if we can send out a questionnaire to customers rather than spending the time on the phone. Sure, we could do that—we always have a carefully constructed questionnaire to use as the guideline for our interviews. And sometimes we do send out the questions we plan to discuss on the phone ahead of time to help them prepare. But written responses don’t give you the flexibility to immediately probe deeper or to go off in a new—and often extremely valuable—direction that hadn’t been thought of when creating the questionnaire. These “tangents” are often where you find gold!

Our Co-Design2 and CAB3 sessions always include an “Issues and Vision Discussion4” where, based on the insights we gleaned during the telephone interviews, we lead an in-person group conversation to expand on the issues and concerns that customers have expressed and suss out the innovative ideas of what an ideal solution would be to the concerns—a vision of how things would work in a perfect world and what the ideal company/customer relationship would look.

As these session proceed, discussion is the primary tool. Even as teams of customers and business stakeholders are mapping out their key scenarios using our methodology, writing ideas about what a customer would want in a specific situation on colorful sticky notes to place on the map on the wall, we encourage participants to say what they are writing out loud in order to stimulate new ideas and invite suggestions for clarification and embellishment.

After each customer session, we debrief with our company sponsors and participants to create a customer-prioritized implementation plan, or what we call a “Quality of Customer Experience Scorecard5.” Again, discussion and conversation is vital to creating a plan that is achievable and can get buy-in from colleagues. Rather than simply having an executive create an action plan and assign responsibilities to staff members, the group discusses how best to think about any action, what customer goal and priority it is addressing, and who might be the best person to head the initiative. The results are always impressive, with clear priorities—based on customer input—and responsibilities.

Let’s Put the Voice Back in Voice of the Customer!

So let’s make 2015 the year we talk to our customers and to each other. Use electronic communication when it makes sense. Last May, I posted a piece in our Forum entitled, “When Online Chat Is an Effective Support Channel.” In it, I discussed when it made sense to text with a customer versus when a phone call works better. Here is an extrapolation that applies to any electronic communication versus actual speaking to a person:

Electronic communication is very useful when:

  • The issue you’re dealing with is easy to explain in writing.
  • The situation isn’t emotional. Straightforward issues, such as looking for a factual bit of information or instruction, work electronically.
  • The situation isn’t particularly unusual so doesn’t require innovation or thinking outside the box.

Conversation is the preferred path when:

  • The participants aren’t skilled at writing. Trying to explain an idea is difficult for many people to explain in writing, especially if English (or the local language) isn’t their native tongue.
  • The situation isn’t clear. Something is wrong or unanticipated and you need to work together to find a solution. It’s always preferable to bounce ideas off another person to get to the meat of the issue.
  • Emotions are running high. Talking works best when issues need to be resolved and relationships need to be mended.
  • The subject is complex or requires innovation or problem solving. This is best handled with a more natural back-and-forth conversation between colleagues and among customers and your representatives.

I am always thrilled to talk to readers, customers, and colleagues. Just give me a call! You might want to email first to make sure I’m there, but let me hear from you. I love to talk!



1) See Interviewing End-Customers: Tips and Sample Questionnaires, by Ronni T. Marshak, February 6, 2014.

2) See Customer Co-Design and Customer Scenario Mapping: A Philosophy for Customer-Centric Organizations and a Method for Instilling It, by Ronni T. Marshak, September 12, 2013.

3) See Creating Customer Advisory Boards that Your Customers Will Love! How to Design a Successful “Outside In” CAB Program for Your Customers and Top Executives, by Patricia B. Seybold, October 25, 2012.

4) See Leading an “Issues and Vision” Discussion with CAB Participants: Tips for Gaining a Lot of Customer Context in a Short Time, by Patricia B. Seybold and Ronni T. Marshak, April 2, 2014.

5) See How to Monitor Your Return on Customer Experience: Develop and Use a Quality of Customer Experience (QCESM) Operational Scorecard, by Patricia B. Seybold, September 29, 2011.



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