Hearing the voice of the customer: learning how to listen and respond

Before we prepared lunch for the kids yesterday, I was forwarded an article from Advertising Age this week, A Digital Conference With Some Humility: Day 2.  In it, editor Matthew Creamer highlighted some of the action at the recent Ad Age Digital Marketing Conference, including a brief report of Linnea Johnson’s comments in a panel session.  Johnson is an exec focused on consumer services at Unilever, the large manufacturer “of food, home care, and personal products including margarine, tea, and Dove soap,” as noted by Live Search.

“[Johnson] was on an energetic panel moderated by Nielsen’s Pete Blackshaw about the intersection of marketing and customer service, though her experience suggested that intersection maybe hasn’t happened yet. The very candid Ms. Johnson said she wouldn’t feel comfortable putting Unilever brand managers or agencies in a call center and that she even once offered her offices as a place for an executive committee off-site, provided the committee members manned a phone. “Not one of them did it,” she said.

“The flip side of things is Tony Hsieh, the CEO of, a site I haven’t used but am now really curious about. He said Zappos takes the money it would have used on paid media and pours it into the customer experience. That means free overnight shipping, call centers and warehouses open 24/7. It’s a bet that growth will be driven by positive word of mouth and loyal customers. It seems to be working. This year, Zappos will do more than $1 billion in gross sales.”

I’ll also be willing to bet that Hsieh is in touch with what his customers are saying about Zappos.  In fact, I know he does, as noted in this interview…

“Most call centers measure average handle time and essentially what that means is people are trying to get off the phone with the customer as quickly as possible. At Zappos, if someone spends an hour on the phone with a customer and it doesn’t result in a sale, all we care about is that they went above and beyond for the customer.”

And as noted in Businessweek, “every new hire spends four weeks as a customer-service rep and a week in the Kentucky warehouse before starting work.”

Essentially, this is a question of how much of this is engrained into the way employees listen and respond to customers.  Ultimately, this attitude is in the DNA of the staff and the company: if you’re Unilever, or any large company, you need to find ways for the voice of the customer to make it to your ears at every level.  Employees need to feel and be empowered to act on customer feedback.  And such methods need to scale. 

Many companies have customer call centers (or contract the services out), and offer ways for employees to hear the voice of the customer as it comes in, or in an edited form. David Pogue of the New York Times recently noted in a blog post, Tech Support Gets a Reprieve While Users Take a Hit, about how customer service personnel will not only take calls from customers having some difficulties, they share them with others in the company.

“Several years ago, I had the chance to visit a tech-support call center for one of the big computer companies. The technician gave me a second pair of headphones so I could listen in on his conversations with the hapless users.

“I learned so much that day. I learned that all computer companies outsource tech support to dedicated call-center companies. I learned that the Users can be outrageously rude to these hapless tech-support reps, taking out their built-up frustration on somebody who had nothing to do with causing the problem.”

At Microsoft, we take our fair share of customer calls – via phone, web, mail – FedEx or UPS Overnight mail… And we try to do more than just listen to customers, and strive to listen and respond to customer needs.  Sometimes it’s difficult to see examples of this on a Microsoft-sized scale, but it does happen.    

Back in 2006 on, there was an interesting story about how Kathleen Hogan, our corporate vice president of Worldwide Customer Service, Support and Customer and Partner Experience (aka CPE at the company) and the team in the “revamped its infrastructure and processes in the effort to improve the quality and supportability of Microsoft products.”  Kathleen said…

“While we’re very aware that we will always need to provide reactive support to customers, we also know that a customer’s favorite support call is the one they never need to make. From a customer perspective, there’s much to be said about proactively identifying support issues and trends to improve the health of our customers’ environments and the quality of our products.

“For example, we analyzed customer and partner support incidents related to Exchange Server and found that the majority of the support calls were related to configuration issues. These issues were difficult for customers to identify within their environments, and CSS responded quickly, working with the Exchange product team to create the Exchange Best Practices Analyzer (ExBPA) tool. Based on further implementation analysis and in partnership with the Exchange Server product team and Premier Field Engineering, the Exchange Risk Assessment Program (ExRAP) was established, which incorporates the ExBPA tool. This combination of service delivery program and tools provides best practices to our enterprise customers around how they should implement and optimize Exchange Server.”

(And more info on the Exchange Risk Assessment Program on Doug’s blog here.)

We’ve taken customer feedback in many different areas and in different ways. This coming week, I will highlight a few of the ways that we’re listening and responding.

Tags: Microsoft, Exchange, customer support, Kathleen Hogan, feedback, customer service, Advertising Age.

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