This is the second in a series of several articles on voice of the customer (VOC); the first is "How Voice of the Customer Got Its Groove Back (and How to Stay in Tune)."

Marketing: on the cusp of a transformation

At least four major reports issued this year have implied that you, as a marketer, are missing the VOC boat. One of those pieces, by Forrester, said almost 80% of marketers don't influence critical customer interactions such as customer service, and 85% don't even own the "four Ps" anymore.1 Despite such criticism, we see marketing on the edge of its (and your) most significant, albeit difficult, transformation—to that of a VOC leader.

The difficulty? Most marketers lack support for VOC or just don't know how to carry out such initiatives effectively. A recent strategy+business article explained the difficulty this way: "If the average marketing team believes itself undervalued in the corporate hierarchy, it is because most marketers haven't taken on, or been given, the role that would make them more valued."2 It is that "more valued" role we're talking about; the relevant role—in which you are helping the company better understand the perceptions and needs of the customer, resulting in a sustained impact and customer retention for more than the next discounted product or batch of free services.

I think you would agree that the role of marketing, in its truest and most global sense, is to define opportunities, distill customer characteristics and needs, and equip the company and its partners to capture and monetize those needs. Marketing helps the company keep customers by gathering, assessing and communicating critical customer input regarding solution innovation and service requirements. It helps sales stay well positioned with in-account intel and continually monitors customer loyalty, profitability, and willingness to refer.

You might also agree with a summation in Forrester's recent "Reinventing the Marketing Organization" report that explains what needs to happen for you to transition and, thus, to successfully fill that role: "To regain effectiveness, marketers must transition to a Customer-Centric Marketing Organization."3 You might further agree that, if you and your team are to transform marketing into a "customer-centric" organization, you need customer insight and intelligence—or voice of the customer—to influence each step of the marketing process.

VOC: paving the path toward relevance

The concept of transitioning your marketing organization into a relevant leader by way of VOC is simple to understand, as is the concept of voice of the customer itself—the act of gathering, analyzing, and acting on customer intelligence and insight. Someone once said "just ask the customer." Well... sort of, but it's not as simple as that. In reality, voice of the customer is challenging to implement across an enterprise, especially if you're in marketing, and even more especially if you're in one of those marketing organizations that lack influence over critical customer interactions or have lost hold of the "four Ps."

Often, however, the more extreme the challenge of implementing voice of the customer, the more intense is the real need to do so. Furthermore, the more intense the need, the more likely the organization is going to be serious about the results. Acquiring and nurturing prospects and attracting new customers have gotten expensive; the impact of a marketing dollar is down and decreasing. If you've read our work and studies of the major analyst firms, you know that companies that listen to customers and act on their input do better.

"We can tie every significant business decision back to customer input," says Kirby Drysen, director of Cisco's Customer Listening organization. "Smart business strategy demands that you stay in touch with the customer—not in fits and starts, but with a cultural commitment to listening."

While not every marketing organization will have that level of support and commitment, every marketing organization—if it wants to be relevant—can and must commit to creating mechanisms for listening to customers. Listening mechanisms not only merely benefit the company but also dramatically affect how marketing is perceived—a requirement if you want to be relevant in a world in which arrows from every corner of the company are flying your way. But relevance, which sparked this article—and this whole six-part series for that matter—isn't always easy to come by. It might not be easy, but it can be done.

Getting to relevance: the do-what-works technique

We have segmented companies into four groups based on how they leverage the voice of their customers; depending on your organization's unique requirements, you may wish to emulate initiatives and techniques that have been tried and proven by companies in the best of the best of the groups.

  1. Customer-led (or customer-centric) companies are few and far between. Most are household names for nothing more than being featured in books; they are also showcased in Harvard Business School cases as venerable best-practice companies. Customer-centric means that the entire organization—including sales, marketing, and operations—is centered on the customer.

  2. Customer-inspired companies tend to seek out new thinking and breakaway ideas for their customers; they are often known as thought leaders and innovators. These companies turn industries on their head with inventive and new ways solving old problems.

  3. Customer-engaging companies often have teams that "consult" the customer and validate decisions with customer insight and intelligence; these companies often use the customer as a point on the checklist. You've heard the lingo of customer-engaging companies: Before we take this to market, talk with a few customers."

  4. Customer-ignorant companies are run by inwardly focused teams that make decisions without a complete knowledge of (or in spite of) the customer; they rely heavily on intermediaries (analysts, the press, market research) and can be recognized by their often-late or slow-moving approach.

Which group best reflects your organization? Let me guess: All of them? You can probably point to a division, senior executive, sales team, or working group that easily fits into one of those archetypes. But more than anything else, what really helps define a customer-led company is the willingness of its management team to own the customer relationship.

How to get to "customer-led" yourself? The following three recommendations will help your marketing team move toward relevance by impacting how your organization as a whole becomes customer-led and supports VOC:

  1. Want faith? Find a leader. What puts organizations on the customer-led continuum is their degree of commitment to and investment in building the systems, internal accountability, and controls for getting and using customer intelligence and insight. And to do that, you need to find a leader—otherwise, your VOC initiative risks becoming another service no one uses.

    "We've seen soft and measurable results of VOC in several places—namely with our strategic accounts," says Julie Barrier, director, Voice of the Customer Program, BEA Systems. "We've built sessions and opportunities for customer listening that involve BEA management and customer executives. We don't try to solve problems; we're there as a strategic partner. It's an important point of inflection. Our account teams get tremendous insight that informs their approach to the account; our cross-functional leadership gets a closed loop; and our customers get the opportunity to express needs that enable us to serve them better."

    Barrier also explains that, in her experience, VOC is not a corporate action that leads to immediate results. "The results take time to realize and, in the interim, can be more qualitative and difficult to measure," she explains. "VOC efforts that are an extension of an executive mandate can be successful versus those passive interests that require continued selling." If you're facing a passive environment, you'll be best able to see voice of the customer spawn in a division or sales organization that has struggled or is under new leadership, or with a product team that has had less-than-optimal performance. Just bring them proof to show them how—and that—it works.

  2. Don't risk irrelevance! It's easy enough to be irrelevant—all you have to do is deliver reams of data and neglect to show your constituents how to interpret and act upon it. "Through the years, we've worked to create 'value-centered customer intelligence,'" notes Kirby Drysen, Director of Customer Listening at Cisco. "Senior leadership at Cisco provides the mandate for customer listening and awareness, but it's our job to ensure the relevance of the customer information. Even with the upper level mandate, my team focuses on getting the business to act on the voice of the customer—something that's straightforward when you focus on the 'value' or the impact intelligence can have on the ability to make successful business decisions."

    Kirby also tells us that, like most successful teams, hers spends most of its time thinking about what the outcomes or results will be rather than finding creative ways to ask the same question. "The most powerful motivator," she explains, "is relevant, compelling information that solves real issues."

    The authors of the earlier-noted strategy+business article concur; their study has found that "growth champions," or "the new marketers," are ardent about the customer. Based on almost three years of continual research, their report says that "super-marketers" keep tabs on customer satisfaction while also providing "a crucial feedback loop to sales teams and product development teams about what problems customers are trying to solve and how well a product/service bundle solves them."4

  3. To thine own self be true. Sure—by definition, customer-centric marketing organizations talk about customer loyalty and preference rather than obsessing about volume metrics and Web hits. But to become relevant and customer-centric—and to do it well—you also need to start at home and ensure that the most important base is covered: using customer intelligence to identify not so much the largest addressable market, but the one or ones that will result in the greatest possible share of wallet and largest pool of promoters. Again, with your ear to the ground, the measure of success is not so much in impressions but in the degree your company has healthy margins and retained customer relationships.

Marketing: finding relevance by cultivating support

We believe that you, as a marketer, are the organizational gardener. You're constantly on the lookout for which prized seeds and bulbs will lead to an award-winning, awe-inspiring "garden." You plant, water, prune, and watch your seeds grow while pulling life-choking weeds and blocking the entry of miniscule pests that have voracious appetites.

We also believe that, as gardener, you shouldn't also be expected to execute the VOC program and to carry its message and outcomes—that's the job of the landowner, preferably at the executive level. High-level executive support is essential to your VOC efforts. Without it, voice of the customer becomes nothing more than a "service" your team offers to those who like to examine the garden with a magnifying glass. And this is why we recommend that, in addition to your regular gardening duties, you take time to cultivate high-level voice-of-the-customer support by displaying its beauty to those who most need to see it and to those who will most benefit from it.

What's Next?

In our first article in this series, I spoke to the "what" of voice of the customer, and in this article to the "why" and "how." In the next two articles, you'll get data from our recent VOC Benchmarking Study on the voice-of-the-customer challenges that your marketing peers face and how to preempt, address, and avoid them.


1. Kim, Peter. Reinventing the Marketing Organization, Forrester Research, July 13, 2006.

2. Landry, E., Tipping A., Kumar, J. "Growth Champions," strategy+business. Issue 43, Summer 2006: pp. 60-69.

3. Kim, Peter. Reinventing the Marketing Organization, Forrester Research, July 13, 2006.

4. Landry, E., Tipping A., Kumar, J. "Growth Champions," strategy+business. Issue 43, Summer 2006: pp. 60-69.

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Promise Phelon is president and CEO of UpMo and founder of the Phelon Group.

Twitter: @PromisePhelon

LinkedIn: Promise Phelon