Actively pursuing Voice of the Customer feedback generates genuine business intelligence.
This improves an organisation’s products and services and increases customer loyalty and satisfaction.
Popularity of the Internet and the lower costs of online surveys over traditional methods means that consumer panels are more affordable and effective
than ever before.
Almost any organisation should now be able to reap the benefits from tapping into its customers’ insights.
Customer contact centres typically have two main objectives. To respond to customers’ requests, questions and problems and to represent the Voice of the Customer to the rest of the business.
Often the reactive nature of the first objective undermines the effectiveness of the second. An under-resourced team spends all its time reactively responding to customers’ needs leaving insufficient resources to proactively analyse the issues and communicate them to the rest of the business.
Those teams that get the balance right ensure that Voice of the Customer (VoC) data is collected as part of the routine contact management process.
Feedback is then translated into powerful business intelligence that is distributed throughout the business. This information is used to help improve products and services, reduce or eliminate recurring problems and to generally improve operational performance and maximise future customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Reactive feedback has limited impact
Such reactive feedback is still limited as it tends to only highlight the major issues that concern customers at a particular point in time. It does not provide for an ongoing dialogue with customers that allows a business to investigate issues in more detail. One solution to this problem is to establish a consumer panel that provides a regular two-way communication with customers. In doing so, the profile and value of the contact centre is raised throughout the business.
“The contact centre is ideally positioned to lead a proactive feedback strategy”
As the primary interface between customer and organisation, the contact centre is ideally positioned to lead a proactive feedback strategy. This approach is particularly useful when there is no formal relationship with end-user consumers. For example, manufacturers of consumer goods that distribute via third party wholesalers and retail channels or retailers that cannot identify individual customers.
Consumer panels can also help service industries such as utilities, the health service and local government to improve their effectiveness by encouraging regular proactive customer feedback. Panels can also improve communications in Business to Business relationships where there are no or limited contacts with end-users.
The concept of consumer panels is not new. BT has used panels for almost twenty years to test new initiatives with customers. The independent consumer champion ‘Which?’ regularly consults its members about the products and services it evaluates. In industry, food manufacturers use panels to sample and comment on new product ideas. Market research companies have also established their own panels to assist their clients in conducting market research. These types of consumer panels can however be expensive both in terms of cost and time.
“An established online consumer panel can collect the views of thousands of customers for less than it costs one professionally organised focus group to consult a dozen”
An established online consumer panel can collect the views of thousands of customers for less than it costs one professionally organised focus group to consult a dozen. True, a focus group can deliver more qualitative detail but panels can also address this with verbatim questions and provide considerably more statistical significance.
How to establish your own online consumer panel
The Internet offers an alternative way to establish and develop your own online panel at lower cost and with the added benefit of faster turnaround of results. Panel members can be recruited from customers visiting the contact centre or more proactively via product literature and packaging. In-store comment cards, invitations and posters can also be used very effectively.
Most customers who have gone to the effort of making contact in the first place have an interest in your business and are likely to respond positively to an invitation. Despite this, it makes sense to offer some form of incentive to recompense them for their time and commitment and to show you value their feedback. This may also help to cement their long term commitment to the panel. The incentive does not have to be excessive; money off vouchers, free sample products or perhaps a discount on future purchases can be offered.
Many panel members will join because they feel an affinity with the business and want to help you to improve the products and services they consume. Therefore it is important to keep the panel informed. As well as requesting information – also provide the panel with regular feedback. Let them be first to know about new developments or products and keep them informed of actions taken as a result of panel feedback. This can easily be addressed with an email newsletter circulated with questionnaire invitations.
Confidentiality is an important issue. The information collected from panel members must not be used for marketing to them (or for any other purposes) and panel members should be assured that their feedback will be treated confidentially and processed in accordance with Data Protection legislation.
It is sensible to set panel members’ expectations in advance. When they join, explain how the process works, how frequently they are likely to be contacted and how you will reward them for taking part.
Start by collecting demographic information
Once customers have accepted an invitation to join your panel, the next step is to collect demographic information about them that will help you to analyse their responses to your future questions. Apart from the usual name and address information, you may wish to segment your panel by, say, regional location, age, income, their time as a customer and the products or services they consume.
This information is collected just once and enables you to avoid such questions in future studies. It also allows you to segment your invitations and responses by that demographic data. For example, a retailer may wish to ask a question about a product or service only available in Scotland and only wants to send invitations to panel members living north of the border.
The first panel questionnaire
With the database established and panel members recruited you can field your first study. Members will receive an email invitation to complete an online questionnaire. The questions asked will depend on your panel’s objectives but may include comments on recent experiences as a customer, current levels of satisfaction, views about your competitors or opinions on proposed or current advertising campaigns.
You can research new product or packaging ideas, your customers’ views on the economic climate and their future spending plans; indeed anything that can help you to better understand and meet their needs.
Do not, however, ask all this at once. Ensure your questionnaire can be completed in less than ten minutes, that questions follow a logical order and are easy to understand. Use Plain English and avoid corporate jargon.
“The objective is to develop a regular rapport with your customers”
The objective is to develop a regular rapport with your customers. After fielding the first questionnaire, the panel will be contacted periodically with invitations to take part in future studies. Do not overwork your panel. Four times a year is a reasonable contact rate although if an urgent issue presents itself, a quick request could be made to the panel. In such circumstances panel members can be contacted and responses received within 24 hours – something that could not be achieved using traditional research methods.
Ensure that your database is regularly reviewed and kept up to date. Encourage members to notify you of any change to their personal information, particularly their e-mail address, and update changes promptly.
Feed the results back into your business
An active and well managed consumer panel will amplify the Voice of the Customer within your organisation. By encouraging a structured dialogue with your customers you are not only increasing the amount of feedback received – you are improving the quality and diversity of the information collected.
Consumer panels increase the value and raise the profile of the customer contact centre. As well as reporting on reactive customer feedback you can now target the issues most important to the business. Instead of the marketing department investing heavily in a market research project, the consumer panel can provide the information at a fraction of the cost and in considerably less time. New product and service initiatives can be tested by the panel before unnecessary expense is incurred and senior management can regularly check the pulse of the business from their customers’ perspective.
Using the economies that Internet communication offers it is possible to establish a consumer panel that regularly consults with thousands of customers at considerably less expense than traditional market research. Costs will depend upon the size of the panel and complexity of questions asked but simple panels can be set up from £4,000 and ongoing studies cost less than £2,000 to field.
Check List for Planning & Implementing a Consumer Panel
1. Developing a strategy
- Who will be responsible for the project?
- Who is needed to authorise the project?
- What resources (people and money) are required?
- What is the implementation timescale?
- What are the key objectives of the panel?
- What size will it be and what demographic information is required?
- How will panel members be recruited?
- What are the Data Protection requirements and how will they be met?
- What incentives will be offered?
- How frequently will panel members be contacted?
- What type of questions will be asked (e.g. customer satisfaction, market
- Research, competitive issues, etc.)?
- How will feedback be reported and to who?
- How will success be measured?
2. Setting up the process
- Communicate and promote the concept to the business
- Develop partnerships with other departments requiring access to the panel and agree appropriate service level agreements and processes
- Design and build a database
- Develop a web interface to field questions and collect data
- Design a questionnaire format
- Design the solicitation process (e.g. at contact centre, printed invitations, product messages, etc.) and other customer focused publicity
- Ensure solicitation material states confidentiality promise and sets clear expectations and guidelines on frequency of contact
- Design the electronic reporting process
- Agree other internal reporting strategies (e.g. meetings, presentations, etc.)
3. Implementation of the Consumer Panel
- Database and technical infrastructure in place
- Resources in place to ensure ongoing management of panel database
- Solicitation process finalised and any materials produced
- Start soliciting panel members
- Collect demographic data from new members and build panel database
- Consider the issues to be covered and design the questions and associated reporting for the first panel study
- When sufficient members recruited – field first questionnaire to panel
- Brief appropriate staff on access to the study’s results including password protected access
- Communicate internal feedback by other means (e.g. meetings, reports, internal newsletters, etc.)
- Provide appropriate feedback to panel members via email newsletter
- Continue to develop the process and subsequent questionnaires
About the Author
John Kemp & Dan Wardle, Surveylab. Surveylab provide low cost online survey solutions for customer and employee retention and loyalty.