Leveraging Customer Feedback for Profit: Advances in Speech Analytics for Voice of the Customer

Colette Yee

Customer feedback is critical to a company's success. Colette Yee, a graduate of Wharton Business School is the Director of Marketing for Utopy, a provider of speech analytics. Yee explains the importance of customer feedback and new trends in leveraging voice of the customer for profit and provides unique insight into the customer’s perception, concerns, needs, future behavior and overall experience at a highly critical moment of truth.

What is the number one tool used by successful organizations to analyze and measure customer feedback?

Customer feedback comes in various forms. It could be implicit or explicit, solicited in a controlled manner or given freely in a peer-to-peer setting. This feedback on products, services, promotions, delivery or billing is most commonly gathered through surveys, product reviews and ratings. However, surveys—be it online, offline or over the phone—tend to be after-the-fact and delayed. And with increasing survey fatigue among consumers, the response rate could often drop to less than 5 percent. That is too little, too late. More often than not, the questions within surveys are not specific enough for pragmatic intervention, and the customer responses are aggregated and averaged out with little direction for corrective action. If one of our customers gives an interaction or a product a score of five, from a range of one to 10 in a survey, what does five mean? And if on average, a product receives a score of seven from a range of one to 10, how does that tell us how and where to improve?

Given the inherent limitations in customer surveys, there is another often overlooked source of customer feedback—the actual interaction or conversation between our customer and our company representative. This conversation provides a unique insight into the customer’s perception, concerns, needs, future behavior and overall experience at a highly critical moment of truth. It is one of the key touch-points in his customer experience journey with our brand and our products. Within the call center for example, the content of the exchange between the customer and the call center representative is the closest one can get to the customer’s thoughts. And the call center customer feedback is available immediately at our disposal for prompt intervention. The tool used to mine, analyze and measure this customer feedback is speech analytics.

Speech analytics measures both implicit and explicit customer feedback voiced in a customer-call center conversation. It uncovers the expectations and perception of the customer, his engagement drivers, buying criteria, decision-making process and customer satisfaction levels. It is able to identify negative feedback that a call center representative might not be inclined or motivated to report. And it circumvents human error to provide a complete and objective picture of the customer experience based on facts, instead of intuition. Speech analytics adds credibility to surveys too. It is an early indicator of the post-interaction survey results, and an early predictor of a customer’s future behavior, be it to stay with our company or to switch to a competitor. In many ways, Speech analytics surfaces issues and opportunities much faster than any other customer feedback mechanism today.

Instead of monitoring five calls a person a day or collecting 10 survey responses a day, we can now mine and analyze 5,000 calls a week. Using speech analytics to understand and measure customer feedback is gaining significant traction and adoption within successful organizations. With that, we can now turn every conversation and customer interaction into immediate, actionable customer feedback.

Why is the voice of the customer (VOC) important in the current economic climate?

I would contend that the voice of the customer is important regardless of the economic climate we are in. We are now in the Age of the Customer and the Customer Experience. Globalization and the World Wide Web have opened the eyes of the consumer and shifted the balance of power to him or her. This has fueled an even stronger emphasis on delivering the right customer experience so as to enable our company and our products and services to stand out from the rest of the pack, and to create the positive buzz in the marketplace. Moreover, customers are more willing to pay a premium for a product or service that is rewarding to the customer, on a functional as well as on an emotional level. So, in the long run, delivering the right customer experience would definitely help companies avoid commoditization.

To design and deliver this positive customer experience, companies are trying a variety of ways to gain insights into their customers in order to better target, serve and retain them, as well as get them to advocate to their peers. What better way to do that than to tap directly into the Voice of the Customer, and do it in a non-intrusive and objective way?

Listening to, understanding and acting on the voice of the customer is essential to designing and delivering the right customer experience. Ignoring the voice of the customer is risky as customers today have more ways than ever to articulate their unhappiness, influence their peers and defect to other competitors. Customers who are listened to feel more engaged. By establishing an emotional connection with our customers, we are tapping into the emotional as well as rational aspects of customer decision making. Customers become advocates of our brand, products and services, and this has a far-reaching ripple effect in this highly-connected world that we are in today.

Now, coming back to the current economic climate and its impact … The market pressures and challenges from the economic climate today have brought more management focus and urgency on the voice of the customer as we try to keep our existing customers and acquire new customers while minimizing the cost-to-serve. This calls for all of us to find creative ways to leverage and maximize the assets we have in-house. One such asset is the mountain of recorded conversations sitting within the call center. The content of these conversations represent the voice of the customer, and listening to the voice of the customer through the use of speech analytics, is fast becoming not only a competitive advantage but a competitive necessity.

Which business-related issues keep your customers up at night?

Being in the midst of a recession definitely does not make it easy for any of us to sleep at night. We are all seeing longer sales cycles, slower consumer demand, and deep and broad consumer spending cuts. To stay competitive, many have to trim the costs of call canter operations, increase revenue streams and maintain a steady stream of operating cash flows. We all have to work harder for every dollar, and compete over a much smaller pie than before.

On one hand, we are seeking to drive up the productivity of our call center representatives and the effectiveness of call center processes. On the other hand, we would like to have a strong relationship and emotional connection with our customers in order to foster customer loyalty and advocacy. Listening and acting on the voice of the customer advance both of these objectives. What’s more—listening and analyzing the customer-agent conversations and interactions allows us to measure both the customer experience as well as the agent’s handling of that experience in a timely manner based on facts.

The economic climate today requires us to place a huge emphasis on customer retention, and analytical tools such as speech analytics provides us with clear insight into the customer’s preferences, expectations and future behavior, allowing us to act upon these insights promptly and proactively to extend the customer lifetime value with us.

How do you incorporate the voice of the customer into your product and service design initiatives for your customers?

First, let me explain what we do. Every one of us has called the call center to inquire about a product, a payment or a bill. When we are transferred by the IVR to the first human agent, the first message we hear is "Your call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes." Well, have we ever wondered what happened to these recorded calls? Are they sitting in cold storage in the call center, or is a call center manager actively listening to these calls and acting upon it? There is so much rich information within these calls that is not extracted and discovered. They are the voice of the customer, telling us what our competitors are offering, what problems the customer is having with our products, how the customer is having issues navigating our website, why the customer is willing or not willing to upgrade to the new service plan offered, etc.

Speech analytics, which is what we do at Utopy, makes sense of these calls. It looks inside the content of each and every call, to identify the emotional and rational aspects of the experience the customer is having with us over the phone. It uncovers the contributing factors to customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction. It is an early predictor of potential customer churn. It determines the root cause of a problem that the customer is having and distributes this to the appropriate folks for immediate action.

Within the call center environment, which is where most of my customers come from, speech is the closest link they have to their customer’s thoughts. It is one of the five human senses that we have, and since we cannot touch, smell, taste or see the customer over the phone, we can only listen to them attentively and derive the voice of the customer from speech analytics.

Using these insights from speech analytics, our solutions trigger alerts and drive the call center performance management processes like call center quality monitoring, call center representative coaching, self-learning and call center workforce management, and measure the impact of these actions on the next stream of customer calls coming in—all the while, keeping an eye on the call center KPI trackers. The customer service representative or call center representative that is handling the call is a critical human bridge between the call center and the customer, and the call center representative’s handling of the call and the customer will have a significant impact on the customer’s satisfaction and loyalty. It is therefore crucial to empower and train him on how to deliver the intended customer experience in the right way, so that it reflects the brand promise that we have worked so hard to build.

One good example to illustrate this is to look at how one of our customers, an Internet financial services company, weaves the goldmine of information from the implicit and explicit customer feedback gathered from analyzing the voice of the customer within its call centers, into the decision-making for its products and policies. By leveraging speech analytics to analyze the content of each customer call, this company is able now to provide a detailed breakdown of what the customers are saying and what issues they are having with the product to the product groups, and enable these groups to make informed decisions based on the customer feedback. Competitive information provided by the customer in the call is also presented to the product and marketing teams to feed into product planning and drive targeted campaigns. These groups are often isolated from the average customer, and providing them with the customer feedback via speech analytics enable them to look beyond functionality and focus on the overall customer experience. And as a result of this, they saw an increase in their Net Promoter Score of 25 points within three months.

Why aren’t more companies interested in turning customer data into profit?

Of course, everyone is interested in turning customer feedback and information into profit. However, some are unaware of how to leverage the voice of the customer hidden within their interactions, and apply these insights to policies and processes across the enterprise. This requires more than a technology implementation alone. It involves people and process change management as well.

Gathering and analyzing customer feedback and the voice of the customer without taking the appropriate action will see neither business impact nor a strengthening of customer intimacy. It is also important to let the customer know that his feedback is taken seriously by the organization, and the actions that have resulted from it. Customers often respond positively to a company’s good faith efforts to rectify a negative experience and will often become advocates of the company even more so than someone with an average experience. By listening to the voice of the customer we can win over detractors and turn them into promoters. From their direct interaction with the customer over the phone, call centers are some of the best sources of customer suggestions and customer complaints. They know the emotional trigger points. They know what needs to be simplified. They know what causes customers to leave. They know what needs remain unfulfilled. However, many do not attempt or are not afforded the opportunity to share this information proactively or regularly with the rest of the enterprise.

The customer is our asset. By listening to his feedback, we can maximize the return on this asset. And the one who does this successfully will be the survivor and winner when the economy picks up again.

Interview by Blake Landau