Hearing the Voice of the Customer in NPD

By Dr. Brian Monger

Listen, ask and Learn

Hearing and understanding the customer’s voice will dramatically affect the eventual success of new products. When organisations embrace a more Relational approach – that is a customer-focused product development philosophy they not only create satisfying products, but also understand how to position those products to create differentiation. This translates into success in the marketplace.

How well do organisations really know their customers?

— What is really important to the customer?

— What is the customer’s connection with the product?

— What does the customer really want?

— How are customers motivated to buy?

— How do customers talk about the product?

To achieve successful differentiation in the marketplace, the complete picture must be captured.

The key is to understand the customer (their wants, needs, motivations, emotions and values) and evaluate the marketplace (looking for gaps, opportunities and unmet wants and needs) before embarking on the development of a new product concept or product extension.

Hearing the voice of the customer

Hearing the “voice of the customer” means understanding the product through the consumer’s eyes — this means placing more emphasis on the consumer’s words than the opinions of management, R&D, engineering, marketing and all other “internal” folks.

Hearing the “voice of the customer” is accomplished by:

  • focusing on root wants/needs/benefits of usage; and
  • understanding consumer language.

Root wants/needs/benefits

Understanding root benefits resides in the following questions:

  • What need does the customer wish to fulfill with the product?
  • What problem is the customer attempting to solve through use?
  • What benefits does the customer wish to receive?

Focusing on these questions helps to reframe our perspective away from the features (physical) and characteristics of today’s products and direct our attention to the root wants, needs and benefits derived from purchase and usage.

The Kano Model

To ensure an exhaustive list of consumer wants/needs/benefits is gathered, it is important to have a basic understanding of the Kano Model of Quality and to gather needs at each level.

1) Expected Quality (point of entry, grave disappointment if missing).

2) Performance Quality (the more, the better).

3) Exciter Quality (if missing goes unnoticed, if present, satisfaction goes through the roof!).

Consumers will typically talk about performance quality without prompting (the key here is to obtain “benefits” versus product features and/or solutions). Expected and Exciter Quality, however, require more effort from the researcher.

Consumer language

Understanding consumer language (what the customer calls it, how the customer describes what they do with it), further enforces the focus on the customer and presents potential opportunities to break product development paradigms. This is achieved by throwing assumptions out the window and asking obvious questions. As the researcher, the key is to never assume you know what the customer means and question every nebulous term that drifts from the consumer’s lips.

Probing for examples related to common terms (e.g., convenience, soft, quick, easy, healthy, etc.) provides the researcher with not only a definition but with snapshots of how the consumer interacts with the product/service. Finally, gaining an understanding of consumer language is often as easy as asking for a synonym to replace the currently used word.

Identifying key purchase triggers/need states

To bridge the gap between the customer and the product category it is helpful to understand the motivating factors prompting the ultimate purchase of a product. To accomplish this, it is important to have basic knowledge of how and why a purchase occurs, the customer’s feelings about the purchase and potential implications the purchase makes in the customer’s life.

Understanding key purchase triggers/need states is accomplished through storytelling (third-person) and visualisation (specific instances).

It is important to explore motivations in an indirect manner since the answers may be personally sensitive and require the customer to evaluate their “real” motivations, which they may not want to divulge. Approaching motivations indirectly allows the researcher to uncover the conscious as well as the unconscious rationale for purchase while keeping the customer as comfortable as possible.

Understanding core values

A core value is the relevant link between a product/brand/category and the consumer’s life. If organisations can identify and effectively communicate the core value(s) a product touches, then customers will embrace the product not only because it is a good product (meets wants and needs) but also because it touches them in a personal way. Some examples of core values include peace of mind, longevity, good health and self-esteem.

Investigating core values can be accomplished through:

1. Secondary Research

2. Laddering technique

The laddering technique is used to identify key linkages between product attributes, benefits provided by the attributes, and personal core values. Understanding core values is a key to learning how to talk about a product in a meaningful way — this is essential to breaking through the daily advertising clutter that bombards consumers.

A typical customer ladder includes:

product attributes => benefits => core values.

Starting the ladder with a product attribute may sometimes make things awkward for the consumer. To make the laddering process easier and more personally relevant, customers are asked to complete a homework assignment prior to the session. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, customers select images, pictures or words that symbolise what the product/brand means to their lives. These images represent the framework of the interview, initiate the laddering technique and contribute context to the analysis.

The new ladder looks like this:

imagery => product attributes => benefits => core values.

Determining brand image

Understanding brand image and the brand image of competitors is crucial to differentiation.

However, while it is imperative to understand where the current brand and its competitors live, it is just as important to understand gaps (where no brands live) because this is where potential opportunity dwells. If a link can be made between identified image gaps and a strong core value (explained earlier) a differentiated, ownable positioning may result.

Now that you’ve been given a glimpse of the complete picture, how well do you understand your customers?

Brian Monger


2 thoughts on “Hearing the Voice of the Customer in NPD

  1. You brought up some great questions about customers’ thoughts and behaviors, and explained very well how it is important to capture the voice of the customer when trying to answer them.

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