The value of VOC systems

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."

CRM Spotlight

Add customer voices to your CRM system

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

Indeed, businesses are recognizing the value of customer input for a growing number of strategic areas, including marketing, product development and quality assurance. Moreover, VOC systems can also be used to collect comments and criticisms from industry pundits and the general public.

VOC Gets Social

Another driver for 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 used Facebook to report a bad experience, while 13% said that they had used it to report a good experience. Moreover, 11% had reported a bad experience on third-party review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and 7% had used such sites to report good experiences.

Still, many business leaders remain wary of 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.

Price Check

A look at the pricing of some 'voice of the customer' tools:

Lithium (social community, SaaS): The full suite, for midsize to large companies, costs $7,500 to $10,000 per month.

Dow Jones Insight (social intelligence): Priced at $5,000 to $30,000 per month, depending on size of the installation, number of topics analyzed and number of languages supported.

Clarabridge Enterprise (customer insight/action): Pricing starts at six figures per year and depends on volume, services and support.

WiseWindow (social intelligence): Priced at $10,000 to $12,000 per month.

Business executives and business analysts want to ensure that the quality of the feedback data they incorporate into critical decisions is comparable to that of 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 irrelevant 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 to monitor 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 professionals, such as marketing and brand managers, have increasingly turned to social media intelligence services like Radian6, Scout Labs (now Lithium Technologies) and BuzzMetrics, which gather customer feedback from the social Web. The service providers 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, managing director for the service. It can also add targeted sources at a customer's request, such as Twitter feeds focused on specific subjects, he notes.

Case Study

Hotel chain Gaylord Entertainment looks for 'moments of truth'

Gaylord Entertainment, a hotel chain, is using Clarabridge Enterprise to gather and analyze data from internal sources such as customer satisfaction surveys, as well as external sources such as industry-specific forums and social media sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, according to Shawn Madden, Gaylord's executive director of operations analysis.

The system lets Gaylord employees analyze text in customers' comments to determine which sentiment-scored words are most often associated with particular product features. Such analysis allows the company to find "moments of truth" -- areas of customer experience where improvement is likely to have the most positive impact, Madden adds.

For example, analysis revealed that guests who had a good check-in experience were less likely to complain about other things, while those who had a bad check-in experience tended to look for further faults.

Gaylord employees also found that the percentage of customers satisfied with the check-in process plunged from 79% when it took less than five minutes to 50% if it lasted five to 10 minutes, and down from there the longer the check-in experience was.

That insight inspired Gaylord to try to speed up the check-in process in an effort to improve customer experience and loyalty, Madden says. The company created baselines and targets for check-in times and offered staffers incentives for meeting them. It also figured out a reliable way to measure the process through daily reports.

The payback: The percentage of check-in times under five minutes rose from 39% in the fourth quarter of 2009 to 49% in the first quarter of 2011. During the same period, the average customer rating for ease of check-in rose from 2.4 to over 4, on a scale of 1 to 5, Madden reports.

"Our voice-of-the-customer strategy is integral to our achieving our ever-increasing guest satisfaction goals," says David C. Kloeppel, the hotel chain's president.

-- Elisabeth Horwitt

The Silos Problem

The problem is that such deployments tend to create information silos that are isolated from IT staff and systems. As a result, there's little sharing of insights among groups. VOC programs need to integrate all of the various feedback channels into a single infrastructure, Temkin points out. And that's where IT comes in.

At iRobot, for example, customer feedback used to reside in a variety of silos, including outsourced call centers and a growing number of social media sources, says Maryellen Abreu, director of global technical support at the maker of self-guided vacuum cleaners and other robotic equipment. This meant that managers had trouble using the data to make high-level decisions about subjects like changes to product designs, Abreu says. "We're introducing new products all the time, so it's important to have that immediate, almost-real-time feedback," she adds.

Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot decided to use RightNow CX, a SaaS-based customer experience management system from RightNow Technologies that "gives a 360-degree view of the customer: when they called, emailed, chatted or posted on a forum, and what issues they brought up," Abreu says. It aggregates opinions from various sources so that managers can quickly determine customers' key concerns and respond in a timely fashion.

"Timely" is a relative term, however, when it comes to the social Web. "Because our product is very visual, customers would show us problems on YouTube and at the end say, 'iRobot, what are you going to do with this?' and the post would have 60,000 hits," says Abreu. "We needed to respond faster."

The robot maker now uses RightNow's Cloud Monitor, which mines customer posts for words or phrases with negative connotations, such as all-cap words and "bad language," Abreu says. It then alerts customer support personnel and, if a post starts to go viral, automatically escalates alerts to Abreu's attention.

Most companies are still figuring out the critical components of their VOC programs: what data to look for, what metrics to use and, most important, what action to take, according to Temkin. "Feedback is cheap. Actionable insights are priceless," he says.

IT and business leaders shouldn't become discouraged: Even early-stage VOC programs can get good results, according to Temkin. "Once you get into actually quantifying how customers view you, it starts changing how your people think about the business," he explains. "They start to spot customer issues and put in place processes where they can highlight and start to solve the big problems. And the big payback is customer loyalty."

Liss definitely has some ideas. For example, monitoring blogs will give his employees an early heads-up on buying trends. "If all of a sudden plus-size women are talking about how comfortable a certain fabric is, we can study it for use in our products," he says.

Charming Shoppes' VOC team has already developed a dashboard, including a one-page document that each brand group uses in its monthly business review. This enables groups to share their insights, according Liss. "Right now it's just the highlights -- major feedback that's actionable -- but we'll build from there," he says.

Vendor Outlook

A Fractured Market

At this point, "no single vendor provides [the] full functionality to meet the entire social intelligence needs of the enterprise," says Forrester analyst Zach Hofer-Shall. However, many vendors have been working hard over the past year or two to expand their platforms to cover all the VOC bases.

But if you're interested in investing in a VOC system, you should do your homework. First of all, you need to know what market the vendor started out in, because that represents the company's core strength. Recently added or acquired features and functions may not be fully integrated with the vendor's earlier platforms, warns James Kobielus, an analyst at Forrester. Vendors are aggressively integrating VOC functions with business intelligence, CRM and advanced analytics tools -- and "when you have a laundry list of technologies, a lot of assembly is required," Kobielus says. A systems integrator could be helpful in working with such a vendor, he suggests.

Social intelligence service providers mine the social Web for customer feedback and then use sentiment analysis and natural language processing to determine its relevance and sentiment score. Major players include Radian6, NetBase, BuzzMetrics (now part of Nielsen), Crimson Hexagon, Scout Labs (now Lithium Technologies), Cymfony, NM Incite, WiseWindow, MediaMiser, EmPower Research, Synthesio, Converseon and Dow Jones Insight.

Customer insight and action platform vendors have strong backgrounds in mining and analyzing large bodies of unstructured material generated by internal channels such as customer surveys and call center notes. Major players in this field include Clarabridge, Attensity, Kana, Autonomy, SAS Institute and RightNow. Many of these companies have recently moved into the social media market by partnering with or acquiring social intelligence service providers. Their suites often include social community software, as well as BI and CRM tools -- either their own or those of a partner.

Social community platform vendors such as Lithium, Jive Software, Telligent Systems, KickApps and Mzinga help businesses set up online communities where customers can chat, exchange tips and express opinions. They also provide tools for monitoring, mining and analyzing customer interchanges. Some, like Telligent and Lithium, allow businesses to set up their Facebook fan pages so that a customer who posts a question there automatically gains access to the social community, which often has the answer.

Enterprise feedback management vendors like Allegiance, Mindshare, Medallia and ResponseTek specialize in tracking and analyzing customer feedback and behavior and the effectiveness of media campaigns and other marketing strategies.

-- Elisabeth Horwitt

This story, "The value of VOC systems" was originally published by Computerworld.

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