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The Most Important VOC Skill: Listening

By Scott Burleson posted 05-19-2022 15:20

PDMA Body of Knowledge: Market Research in Product Innovation Insights #5

PDMA Body of Knowledge: Chapter 5 Insights: The Most Important VOC Skill: Listening

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The kHUB Curator Team members have each been assigned a BoK section to own.  This includes seeking, editing and sharing content related to that section.  The curators are also sharing their perspective of various sub-sections of their chapter and contributing personal examples, experience, or related articles corresponding to the subject matter.


The Most Important VOC Skill: Listening

How can you tell an experienced Voice of the Customer practitioner? It’s simple. During an interview, they are listening more than speaking. New folks, invariably, spend much too much time talking. If you consider that we don’t learn when talking but only when listening, it seems this would be intuitive, but alas, it is not.

An underappreciated way to prepare to interview customers is to watch on-air television interviewers at work. Is this because they are usually good? No! It’s because they are usually terrible!

Television interviews have a different purpose than Voice of the Customer interviews. Media companies typically have a story, a “narrative,” that they want to tell. They procure guests as part of their data. They want the guests to make a case that goes along with the story they already want to tell. Therefore, television interviewers will ask long-winded questions (while the guest stares back). They will offer their own opinions on the topic. And with their body language, they will signal when the guest answers “correctly” or “incorrectly.” In their defense, typical television interviews only last a few minutes, so the host has to prod the guest to get to the point straightaway. But the bigger point is this: television interviews are done to promote a predetermined story.

What about Voice of the Customer interviews?

It could not be more different. VOC interviews are not designed to tell a story. Their purpose is to learn. As a result, VOC questions should be, as renowned author and trainer Naomi Henderson taught, “SQLA.” This stands for “Short Question – Long Answer.”

The VOC interviewer’s contribution to the conversation is the scope. That is, the boundaries of what’s to be discussed. But within that scope, the interviewer’s job is to allow a safe place for the customer to talk, explore, and reveal their challenges of interest. Early questions should be as un-aided as possible. As the conversation goes along, the interviewer can prod along, providing a bit more here and there to keep the conversation flowing.

New VOC interviewers should monitor how much they speak to how much the customer speaks. A rule of thumb should be that the interviewer should speak no more than 10%-20% as much as the customer. However, the biggest reason this ratio can change has to do with the customer themselves. Some customers are just chattier than others. If a customer is very talkative, they may continue with little prodding at all. Others, naturally quieter, need a skilled facilitator to open up and share.

VOC interviews are perhaps the most important step within the innovation process. After all, the customer needs to be revealed will become the inputs for segmentation, ideation, and ultimately the creation of new products. The great thing about listening skills is that they are valuable in every endeavor. Focus on the other person, become genuinely curious about their challenges, and the road to VOC excellence can be straighter than some might expect.

For further reading: 

Scott Burleson, “The Voice of the Customer: A Primer for Everyone,” The AIM Institute Blog, 2021.

Naomi Henderson, Secrets of a Master Moderator, 2015.

Indi Young, Excerpt from the book Time to Listen, 2022.


Scott Burleson

William “Scott” Burleson is the author of The Statue in the Stone: Decoding Customer Motivation with the 48 Laws of Jobs-to-be-Done Philosophy.

He has a diverse professional background within manufacturing engineering, product management, voice-of-the-customer training and SaaS development. Notable career stops include product manager for John Deere’s compact tractors, innovation leader for Actuant corporation, and Director of the Strategyn Institute. At Strategyn, he worked alongside the world's best jobs-to-be-done practitioners. Strategyn, founded by pioneer Tony Ulwick, is ground zero for Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI).

Today, as Senior Vice President for The AIM Institute, Burleson leads product development for Blueprinter® software, teaches workshops on innovation using the New Product Blueprinting process, and advises corporate leaders and practitioners on growth via JTBD principles.

He has a MS in Management and a BS in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University.

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