Clients often ask me why they should take time to collect and analyze Voice of the Customer (VOC) information.  If there’s a known need, why not go ahead and fix the problem? It may seem that analyzing the bigger picture is a waste of time when they could get right to work taking care of a squeaky wheel.

Learning more about the needs of customers and how well these are met is especially important before launching a new process improvement initiative.  Without taking time to better understand customer needs in a more holistic manner, you run the risk of working on the wrong things or even creating more problems.

Sound VOC analysis involves multiple sources of determining and exploring customer needs and expectations.  Potential sources of VOC information include customer interviews, surveys, focus groups, customer complaint data, customer buying/usage patterns, and observation of customer interaction with products/services.

I advise clients to take a broader look at customer needs before trying to fix the specific issue at hand.

Here are at least six reasons why this is a good idea:

  1. To validate the initiative is tied to high-priority customer needs

Before putting in a lot of effort, it may be important to make sure this really is something that is important to customers. Otherwise, there is risk of undertaking a major initiative based upon information that is opinion or anecdotal. Sometimes people will jump to a conclusion based upon limited input.  And while a specific factor or issue may be important to a few vocal customers, it may be important to learn the level of importance to a broader base of customers.

In Lean Kaizen or Value Stream improvement initiatives, this is done up front to understand and define customer value. In Six Sigma DMAIC projects, this is done in the Define phase to confirm that Project Y is a high priority customer need.

  1. To discover other important customer needs

Customer satisfaction and loyalty are typically based upon multiple factors.  Focus on improving a single factor or measure of importance to customers may provide a narrow few of customer needs. Ideally, you want to know the balanced set of Critical to Quality (CTQ) metrics that drive customer perceptions and buying/usage decisions.  There is an old saying that “What gets measured gets done.” CTQ metrics often become the focus of improvement initiatives.  CTQ metrics can be tracked short- and longer-term to evaluate process performance compared to historical performance and customer expectations. This information can be key for guiding decision making in the current improvement initiative and for assessing overall process performance moving forward.

  1. To learn the relative importance of the initiative to other customer needs

Not all customer needs are equal.  It may be important to know where the current initiative focus ranks relative to other customer needs. Perhaps the current initiative needs to be reprioritized or rescoped based upon what is learned in VOC/CTQ analysis.

The Kano model offers a useful way to better understand customer needs relative to each other.  This model considers two dimensions of rating (achievement and satisfaction) and three levels of customer expectation (expected, normal, and exciting needs). (Ref:

  1. To discover customer needs that must not be adversely affected by the initiative

While an initiative may be focused on one factor of importance to customers, adverse impact on factors important to customers may result in overall diminished performance. By example from a healthcare process, you would not want to lessen patient safety to speed up patient interventions and procedures.  Improvement initiatives need to have good visibility of all important factors to guide decision making.

  1. To discover internal customer needs that should be considered as part of the initiative

In multi-step and cross functional processes, it is important to understand the key needs of internal customers (those who perform the work).  Without paying attention to these needs, the desired final output may not be attainable.

  1. To validate and/or establish specification limits for the improvement initiative

It is not enough to know what is important.  You also need to understand how good the performance needs to be.  It may be appropriate to understand both the target level of performance (how the process should perform on average) and the satisfaction threshold level (this is the level at which customers become dissatisfied for each discrete occurrence.) For example, a customer may want the wait time for customer service to be less than two minutes on average, and never more than five minutes for a single inquiry.  These threshold levels become the specification limits for measuring overall process capability.

If you want to make process improvements that build customer value and drive customer loyalty, then you need to understand customer needs. VOC/CTQ analysis provides an objective approach to evaluate and measure performance relative to customer needs. Of course the depth of analysis depends upon the matter at hand and already existing knowledge and information. The six reasons listed in this article will provide guidance for deciding how much analysis should be conducted.

About Er Ralston

Er Ralston is an accomplished coach, trainer, and advisor, specializing in business process excellence, strategic and tactical business planning, Lean management systems, Six Sigma improvement methodology, and the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria for performance excellence. Er brings more than 30 years of experience in numerous operations and quality leadership interventions. He is a Lean expert and certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt.