The voice of the customer is dead

How can IT effectively determine customer needs?

Enterprise IT departments and third-party service providers have been trained that the customer is king and the voice of the customer is paramount. This has been drummed into IT folks. But there’s a problem: The customers don’t know what they want.

If you survey IT customers (business users or end customers) about what frustrates them or what they want IT to do differently, they absolutely have an opinion. But when you incorporate that into your systems or services, you find they are still not happy. Having done this many times myself as an individual and collectively in the services industry, I think it’s time we recognize that maybe the customers don’t know what they want; if they did, they would be happy when IT gives it to them. Instead, almost consistently they’re not happy.

There are a lot of theories around this predicament. One is that yesterday’s problem is not today’s problem, so the things IT did for customers/users yesterday are not interesting to them today. I think there is an element of truth in this. Having said that, I don’t think this fully accounts for this frustrating situation.

The fact is the customers clearly have unmet needs. So I think we need to come up with a new approach to identify these needs.

So let me suggest an alternative. I suggest for inspiration we look at the work of Anthony Ulwick and specifically his book, “What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services” (2005, The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.). I believe his constructs for product innovation hold promise for how CIOs might improve IT services.

Mr. Ulwick says in his book that we need to think much more precisely about what’s going on with customers/users and suggests we think about them in terms of functional jobs they need to do. These jobs are tasks they must do in their day-to-day business. In some areas they are overserved; they have great technology and perhaps better than they need to do their functional jobs. But in other areas they are frustrated because they are underserved in technology and struggle to do their tasks. CIOs need to think critically about where customers/users are underserved in their functional jobs

This process starts by developing a more precise language and articulation of how to serve them. It will enable engaging in a productive conversation with users/customers around three aspects:

  • What tasks they are trying to do
  • Where they struggle with the tasks
  • Whether they have adequate or insufficient support

Enterprise IT in a healthcare payer company, for example, can ask users how many servers they will need for the upcoming enrollment period. The response typically will be something like “more than what we had last time.” But this estimate is doomed to result in frustrated, underserved users and frustrated healthcare enrollees – or, conversely, increased costs for overcapacity. The language used in the question needs to be business users’ language associated with the functional task they are trying to perform, not IT language. Phrasing the question as, “How many members do you expect to sign up during the enrollment period?” will yield a more precise metric for IT planning.

Using customers’ language when seeking to identify their technology needs is a much more powerful approach. It allows CIOs to take specific actions to address underserved areas and potentially pull back investments in overserved areas. This approach is far more effective as a way forward than the current voice-of-the-customer construct.

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