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No News Is Not Good News!

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Customers often do not complain about the most damaging problems. So here's how to take your VOC to the next level, along with a case study.

Contact_Handling_and_Customer_Experience_Continue_to_DeclineWhile customer experience has become a priority for consumer affairs and customer service units, the primary focus of consumer affairs is still on handling and preventing contacts. However, Customer Care Measurement and Consulting’s (CCMC) 2017 National Rage Study found that after 40 years of consumer affairs effort, contact handling and customer experience continue to decline, when compared with the White House-sponsored study Consumer Complaint Handling in America in 1979. Consumers have more problems and lower satisfaction with the outcome. Further, the research suggests that both consumers and business to business (B2B) customers have become so cynical about service that a quarter of both types of customers never complain about serious issues.

With all the focus on customer experience, why have customer experiences and service gotten worse? First, products are becoming more complex, which can lead to problems with operation, especially when few consumers read the directions. Second, customers encountering problems often do not complain, resulting in zero chance for the company to rectify the problem. In addition, customers are spreading negative word of mouth (WOM) at an increasing rate. Third, even if customers do complain, company responses often do not meet consumers’ expanded expectations—fixing the issue and providing a refund is no longer adequate. Finally, companies’ voice of the customer (VOC) processes do not effectively report on the complete, end-to-end customer experience.

In July 2017, CCMC, in partnership with Arizona State University’s Center for Service Leadership and the firms Confirmit and Bernett, surveyed 1,000 consumers who were representative of the U.S. adult population. When compared with previous studies, the 2017 study (reported in October) found that:

  • Problems are up again. The percentage of consumer households that experienced a serious consumer problem has risen to 56%, up 2% from 2015 and 60% higher than the 32% levels reported in the original 1979 White House study.
  • Technology now causes more than half of problems. Cable/satellite TV, cell phones, computers and Internet-related items now constitute 57% of all serious problems.
  • 24% of those encountering serious problems did not complain even once. The primary reasons for not complaining were “it would do no good” and “too much hassle."
  • The telephone is still king, even among Millennials. Millennials complain by phone 3.5 times more than through the Internet for serious issues—for those consumers over 55 years old, 10 times as many complain by phone.
  • Resolution is very low because customers expect more. Only 21% of customers were completely satisfied. Customers no longer just want resolution and a refund; they also want assurance the problem will not recur and an explanation of its cause. Most service reps are not equipped to deliver those last two items.
  • WOM is expanding. In the past, twice as many people were told about negative experiences, now it is three times as many—six if satisfied versus 18 if dissatisfied.
  • Word of Mouse (WOM on the web) may have peaked. The percentage posting on review sites decreased significantly (30% to 23%) while the percentage not using review sites at all rose significantly to 24% from 11%.

Get a Complete Picture of the Customer Experience

VOCMany companies define their VOC as contact data supplemented by an annual satisfaction survey. There are two problems with this approach. First, customers often do not complain about the most damaging problems like sales and marketing issues. Second, most surveys ask if customers had a problem and customers are reticent to mention problems that will get staff in trouble.

A better approach is to create a VOC that reflects the end-to-end customer experience using multiple data sources that gather data across the entire customer journey. Recent studies for a cosmetics company found that customers seldom complained to the 800 number about some problems, such as discontinued products, malfunctioning dispensers or the loyalty program. However, these problems did cause serious damage to loyalty. The company was able to create a map of points of pain across the entire customer journey by supplementing the 800 number data with surveys, retail employee input, website search queries and focus groups. (See Fig. 1.) The map enabled the company to set priorities and assign initiatives to the corporate function that could mitigate and/or prevent the issue.

Here are six steps to take your VOC to the next level:

  1. Agree on one executive to coordinate the end-to-end VOC. Coordinate means making sure the data is rigorously collected and fits together. This is a great opportunity for the consumer affairs director and does not require that you actually do all the data collection—it can be delegated to other functions with guidance from consumer affairs.
  2. Identify the whole customer journey and identify known customer problem areas. This requires the consumer affairs director or the continuous improvement function to coordinate input from many different company functions.
  3. Use multiple data sources (including contacts, operational failure data, surveys, employee input and website analytics) to identify the frequency of points of pain across the entire customer journey.
  4. Pick a few issues that seem easily repaired and quantify the number of customers and the impact on revenue, WOM and sensitivity to price.
  5. Pick one or two issues and take action to prevent or mitigate the problem. Consumer affairs should work with the corporate continuous improvement function. In most companies, continuous improvement has experience in executing and measuring the impact of operational pilot tests as well as credibility across the company.
  6. Measure the impact of your actions and celebrate the impact of the enhanced VOC. Give the other functions credit for taking the action. Internal consultants who give others credit gain additional support.


Case Study: Leveraging VOC to Enhance Service

The National Association of Convenience Stores has two sets of customers: several thousand retailer members and a like number of suppliers to the industry. NACS’s marketing and service leadership first created a journey map for each set of customers and then surveyed their points of pain across the entire journey. The survey found that only 24% of retailer members complained about problems they had encountered. Further, while 75% of those retailers complaining to membership services were satisfied, the complainants contacting other departments were much less satisfied. Marketing and membership service then initiated three sets of actions:

1. They enhanced the VOC via gathering and reporting information from several new sources including:

  • Contact capture at multiple phone and website touchpoints including the receptionist
  • Interviews of members at events to understand frustrations not voiced
  • Capturing comments and issues conveyed to telemarketer during renewal calls
  • Website and membership analytics to identify search and transaction failures

2. They prevented key member points of pain via improved communication and operational fixes.

  • NACS clarified several areas of the member brand promise, e.g. the main government relations focus is on the federal rather than the state level.
  • Website fixes were implemented for several frustrating website member services issues.

3. They improved contact solicitation and handling both in membership and for other departments.

  • NACS raised the visibility of service channels and communicated that questions and problems were welcome.
  • Staff were provided with enhanced response guidance to clearly explain why certain membership policies existed.
  • Accountability and standards were created for all functional areas which respond to member contacts. While a number of these initiatives are still in process, the payoff has been significant, with record attendance at key events, higher web-based renewals and increases in net promoter scores.

Putting It Into Action

Consumer affairs directors should focus on four parallel strategies to maximize the customer experience and go beyond contact handling to build an effective VOC.

  1. Use process mapping to assess how well the product and the marketing strategy creates reasonable customer expectations and then how well the company delivers on those expectations across the rest of the customer journey.
  2. Build a VOC process, using multiple data sources, that gathers information from across the entire customer lifecycle and produces a single, unified picture of the customer experience with estimates of the revenue and word of mouth impact of problems and opportunities. Work with your continuous improvement function to assure measurable VOC impact.
  3. Aggressively encourage customers to seek assistance when they have questions or problems—a silent, unhappy customer is a much less profitable customer.
  4. Create an empowered service system that creates accountability across all functions that interact with customers and genuinely empowers the frontline to handle a problem in a flexible manner. Further, assure the customer that their problem is being input into the continuous improvement process.

Learn more about enhancing your VOC at SOCAP’s Professional Development Forum April 22-25 in Baltimore where John Goodman and Keith Harlow, director of membership service of NACS, will be speaking.

John GoodmanJohn Goodman is vice chairman of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting (CCMC). Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @jgoodman888. His latest book is “Customer Experience 3.0.” His new book, “Strategic Customer Service 2020,” will be published in fall 2018. Contact him at

David_BeinhackerDavid Beinhacker is chief research officer of CCMC. Overseeing its measurement practice, he helps clients set priorities and drive actions that improve the bottom line.