Volume 14, 
April, 2016


Get Ready, Get Set... Get Ready
Three essential questions to answer before you dive into VOC


Sheila Mello

I have to put on my face before we start the scene.
–Actress before filming.

I can’t show your home until you stage it properly.
–Real estate agent to home sellers.

Ready, set—I’m going to take a slow jog around the block.
–Runner before a race.

People get excited when they learn about using voice of the customer to drive product definition. I don’t blame them. What business wouldn’t want access to rigorously collected, objective customer data on which to base plans for future products?

Sometimes, though, people get so excited they want to fly off immediately to customer sites to start conducting interviews and digging into the meaty information that results from these customer encounters.

Often, my job is to reign in this initial enthusiasm a tiny bit.  Just as your house sale may fall flat if you don’t replace the ratty carpet before showing it to prospective buyers, or you risk pulling a hamstring if you take off at a sprint before warming up, you can sabotage your VOC success if you don’t do at least a little preparation.

Once you can answer three fairly straightforward questions about your market, the customer data you collect will become much more useful for product definition. Read on to find out what these questions are and the steps you can take to take to answer them. 

The three key questions

  • What’s the market and who are your next customers*
  • What’s the current market situation?
  • Where does your strategy intersect the market?

* Note that you don’t want to focus only on existing customers; you want to consider future customers, too. In this article, the term “customers” refers to both.

The reason these questions are so important is that you need some understanding of the market you’re in and the general problem you’re trying to solve. You might think this is pretty obvious. But I’ve seen even established companies with little idea about where an exciting new-to-the-world technology would fit into the market, or who don’t have a good sense of what markets might be suitable for expansion of an existing product line.

This is not a place to get bogged down in endless secondary research. You need enough market analysis, reports, and statistics to help you narrow down the possibilities—you need to know, for example, whether to go after mobile communications or autonomous vehicles—but you don’t need to spend endless resources crafting a perfect  SWOT analysis. You’re looking for a basic market understanding so you can make informed decisions about what sites to visit, when to survey vs. conduct interviews, and which sources to give more weight in your decision making.

The three first steps

The following three steps—the equivalent of getting into theatrical makeup, staging your house, or warming up before the race—will help you get you ready to start a process like PDC’s Market-Driven Product Definition (MDPD).

1. Gather information supporting the current and future state of:

  • The market
  • The customer
  • Distribution channels
  • Competitors
  • Technologies

This data helps you understand the market environment and trends that will drive the development of your company’s capabilities. It also helps you assess your current capabilities and shortcomings.

Look at what markets have a problem similar to the one you are thinking of solving. Then do secondary research on those markets, which will tell you market size and whether the market is worth approaching. While you don’t want to focus too much on secondary research, you want to do enough so you can be efficient and focused when gathering customer data.

2. Create a customer profile.

Examine characteristics that differentiate customers and look at

  • Percentage of customers that fall into each market segment
  • Whether the market segment is growing, declining or stable

This prepares you to be able create a customer matrix telling you which customers or prospective customers to visit.

3. Analyze your competitors.

You need to be able to compare performance on specific requirements to that of competitors. Find competitive data in brochures, comparative articles in magazines, operators’ manuals, and websites. You won’t use this data until later in the process, but it helps to know what you have and what you will need to gather.

Now you’re ready to take the first steps toward gathering voice-of-the-customer data: Planning your visits and creating an interview guide. (PDC’s MDPD process, for example, includes these next steps.) 

A real-estate agent probably won’t decline your listing if your home isn’t picture-perfect; instead, they’ll help you spruce it up. Similarly, an organization that assists with voice of the customer shouldn’t turn you away if you haven’t undertaken these preliminary steps. But when you start the process with a general idea of your market and where the opportunities might lie, your VOC project will go more smoothly and quickly—and you’ll be that much closer to taking the next step in defining your products.

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