Hearing the Voice of Your Customer

Communication bubbles flat icons with long shadow 2What do these very diverse businesses have in common? TWA. PAN AM. Woolworth’s. Sports Authority. Staples. Banana Republic.

They have one thing in common. They were once thriving businesses that are now either going out of business or have gone out of business.

There are many reasons why a once prosperous business wakes up to find out that they no longer exist. But one of the recurring themes that is common to many that go out of business is that – over time – they did not listen to their customer. Had they listened carefully to their customer, they would have been able to respond to changing market conditions and changing market tastes. And once they understood what the customer was saying, they could adjust their sales and marketing strategy.


But as long as they were deaf to the customer, they were merely a failure waiting to happen.


Once upon a time it was very difficult to hear the voice of the customer. There were many technological barriers. The cost of technology was too high. There was too much data. There was no way to gather the data. Because the data was in the form of text, it was too complicated and did not fit well with the technology of the time.

Once upon a time listening to the voice of the customer was an expensive and haphazard thing to do. But technology and the economics of technology have radically changed. Today it is both technologically and economically possible to hear the voice of the customer.

There are some very important reasons why listening to the voice of the customer is important. On an immediate basis, making immediate sales is one good reason for listening to the customer. What is the customer interested in today is a really important question to answer. Answering this question is the key to making sales right now.


But listening to the voice of the customer over a longer period of time is also extremely important. Listening to the customer over a long period of time is the key to understanding long term trends. In a word, when a corporation listens to the customer the corporation is able to position themselves proactively. The best that a corporation can do when they don’t listen to their customer is to be in a reactive position. And positioning the corporation to be proactive rather than being reactive separates the winning corporations from the losing corporations.

For this reason, listening to the voice of the customer is at the TOP OF THE LIST in terms of corporate best practices. Stated differently, if you don’t do anything else as a corporation, you MUST listen to the voice of your customer if you want to stay in business.


So where is the voice of the customer heard in today’s world? There certainly are lots of places where the voice of the customer is heard. On the Internet there is Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Consumer Affairs. Within the walls of the corporation there is email and surveys and other sources. Many corporations elicit feedback from their customers and the feedback takes many forms.

Some of the forms of the voice of the customer are public, and some of the forms are private.  But they are there just waiting to be heard.


What do you find that the customer is talking about when you tap into the voice of their voice? You find the customer wants to talk about every subject imaginable. The customer wants to talk about pricing. The customer wants to talk about available selection. About the condition of a product. The color of a product. The size of a product.

The customer wants to complain. To offer suggestions. To tell what is wrong and needs to be fixed.

The customer has questions. About the installation of a product. About the wear and tear of a product. About the packaging of a product. About the delivery of a product.

Occasionally, the customer offers a compliment. More often than not, the customer tells what is wrong.

Occasionally, the customer wants to buy something.

Occasionally, the customer talks about the premises the corporation has. About messiness. About cleanliness. About parking. About the restrooms.

Occasionally, the customer wants to talk about people. About service. About attitude.

In a word, the voice of the customer can be about anything. And ALL of the things that are on the mind of the customer are important to the corporation (if the corporation wants to stay in business).


So how does a corporation go about hearing the voice of the customer in today’s world? There is a rather prescriptive way in which the corporation goes about hearing the voice of the customer. That path is shown by –


However they arrive at the corporate desk – either public or private – the voice of the customer enters the corporation in the form of text. Text has long defied the computer technician. Text does not fit comfortably or well into the classical corporate data base. In order to make text fit into the corporate database, a fundamental transformation of text needs to be done. Text needs to be transformed from its unstructured format into a structured format.

This fundamental transformation is done through technology called “textual ETL”. Once transformed, text fits comfortably and naturally inside a standard data base.

One of the essential components of the transformation is that of the usage of taxonomies. In its simplest form, a taxonomy is merely a set of classifications of text. Used in conjunction with textual ETL, taxonomies are useful for understanding the text that has been submitted by the customer.


Once the text has been submitted and organized into a database, the text can be analyzed. One such analysis that can be done is sentiment analysis. Sentiment analysis can be done many ways.

One such way that sentiment analysis can be done is by organizing the sentiment around the major subjects of the corporation. There is sentiment about product, about place, about people, about price, and so forth.

Once sentiment has been organized into its major subject areas, the actual sentiment can be organized into a finer granularity. There is positive sentiment and there is negative sentiment. There is strong positive sentiment and there is strong negative sentiment.

And – as important as sentiment is – also important is the object of the sentiment. The object of the sentiment provides the context of the sentiment. Both the sentiment itself and its context are important for hearing and understanding the voice of the customer


There is a quirk related to sentiment that must be understood. That quirk is that in many circumstances, it is really important to interpret the ratio of positive to negative pieces of feedback appropriately. And to the uninitiated it is really easy to misunderstand the significance of the ratio. Suppose a customer goes into a store and has a positive experience. That is what the customer expects. The expectations are met and no further note is made. However, suppose a customer goes into a store and has a negative experience. The customer now sends a complaint to either a public or a private source.

When you analyze sentiment you have to realize that you should expect a larger number of negative replies than positive replies. The exact ratio depends on the business and the industry. But people do not expect a negative experience. And it is this non-fulfillment of expectations that causes people to write a complaint.


The chart seen here shows a high degree of negative comments. This ratio is COMMON and NORMAL and should not raise alarms.

On the other hand, a very well run business will exhibit a very different pattern ratio of positive to negative comments.



Another challenge in interpreting customer comments for different industries is the fact that what is meant by product will vary dramatically from one industry to the next. The meaning of product for a hotel is entirely different than the meaning of product for a car manufacturer. The meaning of product for an airline will be very different than the meaning of product for an insurance company.

Each industry has its own interpretation of what product means, and each interpretation is different.


While both the positive and negative comment made by the customer are of interest, of special interest are the negative comments. The negative comments are of special interest because the negative comments are what tells management what is needed to improve the customer experience. This emphasis is true for all companies, even well run companies where there are relatively few negative comments.



Once the negative comments are identified and classified, a most interesting exercise is to drill down on the negative comments. One classification to drill down on is product. In order to drill down on product, the analyst selects the product category –


When the product category is selected, the different components of product appear. It is seen that some of the components of product (which is for a hotel) include –

The hotel room

The hotel itself

The employees of the hotel

The reservation process, and so forth.


After the specifics of the product are identified, the analyst selects hotel room and then further selects the negative comments made about hotel room. In doing so the drill down process is continued.


When the analyst drills down on the negatives being said about hotel room, the analyst finds what the issues with the hotel room were. In this particular case the issues with hotel room included the cleaning of the room, the view from the room, the balcony of the room, the shower in the room, and so forth.

Note that the issues are sorted in the order of the number of appearances made by the negative comment.


The value of listening to the voice of the customer is that management now knows EXACTLY what they have to do in order to improve the customer experience. The drill down process produces a very clear, very concise road map as to what must be done to improve the customer experience.


If there is any doubt as to what is being said, management can complete the drill down process and go all the way to the actual comment itself. The manager – if they are really interested – can go from the graphic that states that there are negative comments about the cleaning of the room to the actual comments themselves.


The example that has been shown is for hotels. The product of a hotel is the hotel room. Of course the analysis will be different for other industries, such as airlines, banks, insurance companies, auto manufacturers, and so forth. But the process followed will be the same.


While sentiment is of great value in understanding the customer, it is hardly the only thing of value in the public and private comments made by customers. In order to understand what other valuable information there is in a comment, consider a typical comment –


When you look through the comment you see that there is a combination of sentence types. There are sentences that contain a statement of sentiment. Then there are sentences that contain simple statements, that do not express a statement of sentiment –


Customer’s comments can be broken up into these two basic categories of sentences. In doing so the stage is set for a different kind of analysis. By examining non sentiment sentences, the analyst can tell what is on the mind of the customer. An entirely different kind of analysis can be done on customer mindset.


This then is how you capture customer comments – both private and public – and turn the comments into an understanding of the voice of the customer.


An interesting question arises – is hearing the voice of the customer the same thing as the creation of a call center analysis?

The answer is that although there are many similarities between call center analysis and hearing the voice of the customer, they are not the same thing. There are some very real and some very distinct differences between the two types of analysis.

The differences between the two types of analysis are these – call center analysis depends upon voice transcription technology. Voice transcription technology is not nearly as accurate as the written word. Because of the inaccuracies, doing sentiment analysis on call center data is a very risky proposition at best (and impossible to do at worst). Instead of doing sentiment analysis in call center analysis, you can do “red flag” analysis, which is less dependent on the accuracy required for sentiment analysis.

Another difference is that people talk differently than they write. When talking, people are much more casual in their language. But when people write, they have to write in a much more structured, much more rigorous manner. Because of this difference in language, call center analysis is different from hearing the voice of the customer.



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About Bill Inmon

Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.