Voice of the CustomerYour new product meets specifications. It was released on time, and it came in under budget.

That’s all good news, but will anyone buy it.

A well-run development program isn’t enough to ensure a market winner. You have to commit yourself every step of the way to uncover, in exquisite detail, exactly what the market needs and how it will react to your new product.

The products that customers buy are those that solve their problems the best, whether those are your products or the products of the competition. That means you’ll need to score a bull’s eye on:

  1. Buying behavior
  2. Performance targets
  3. Product design
  4. Design implementation

To hit the center of the dartboard at product launch, you need the voice of the customer on all four elements. Voice-of-the-customer-market validation can be thought of as two distinct processes for capital equipment products. The first is buying-behavior validation, and the second is new-product validation.

Buying-behavior validation is a never-ending, iterative process. Its primary function is to inform your company’s market and product strategy. It produces product roadmaps that in turn trigger product-development programs.  Each product-development program requires a much more detailed market-validation process to ensure that it has set the right targets, addressed them with the right design, and produced the right implementation of that design. The framework for capital equipment voice of the customer market validation is summarized in figure the figure below.

Buying Behavior

Buying behavior validation is where you engage a set of potential customers to determine and validate

  • market opportunity
  • market segments,
  • buying decision drivers,
  • application requirements, and
  • value models.

For you to validate the above, your customers and potential customers must be willing to share sensitive, intimate details about their businesses. These details are often non-public, proprietary, and competition sensitive. Getting them to share these details with you is likely to require a little quid pro quo.  You’ll need to give to get.

If you share your strategy with your customers, they will be more likely to share theirs.  The best way to do this is to capture your strategy in a market-facing presentation. Then share it with participants in your target markets for their feedback.  Your presentation may contain your view of any number of the following:

  • Market size and outlook
  • Industry roadmap
  • Customer’s process flows
  • Competitive landscape
  • Technology trends
  • Industry challenges
  • Unmet needs
  • Application requirements
  • Your solutions roadmap
  • Value drivers
  • Economic value of your solutions and/or alternative solutions
  • Solution buying-decision drivers
  • Anything else that you need to validate to understand your customers’ buying behavior better.

To determine what to include from the list above, you’ll need to assess the:

  • questions you need to answer,
  • decisions you need to make, and
  • risks you need to mitigate.

If you’re worried about burdening your customers with your voice of the customer efforts, stop. Your customers and potential customers want you to share your strategy so that they can

  • be sure that you’ll be able to meet their requirements,
  • understand their options for addressing their issues, and
  • be aware of profit and growth opportunities.

Sharing your strategy also helps you build credibility and improve your customer relationships.  It demonstrates a real desire to understand their business and contribute to their success. It can elevate your relationship from supplier to partner.

Buying-behavior validation is a never-ending, iterative process. It’s never one-and-done. To be successful, it must become a habit just like any other continuous improvement process. It’s the only way you can ensure that your product roadmaps define a path to commercial success.

Right Targets

Your validated product roadmap will spawn the need to develop a Market Requirements Document (MRD) to make a business case and outline targets for a specific new product.

To ensure that you’ve set targets that will meet customer requirements and win their business, you must test them long before you begin cutting metal. In this step, you must get very specific about product requirements, vision for value, and introduction timing. Think of right-targets validation as high-resolution, buying-behavior validation.

To test the vision-for-value part, you’ll need to identify your value proposition and the market positions that you intend to take. Let’s say for example that your vision for value included this value proposition:

“Our equipment saves manufacturers more than 30% of total capital expenditures.”

You better make sure that it will. You must test your assumptions about how value is created and your value relative to the competition.

Similarly, if you plan to take this market position:

“…achieves the highest yields by producing the most uniform films with the lowest contamination levels”

You better make sure that yield is a key value driver, and that uniformity and contamination control are the key contributors.  When you are validating your vision for value, you are essentially asking the customer, “If I built a product that did these things by this time, would you buy it from me at this price?”

To prepare for the right-targets validation step, you’ll need a right-targets-validation toolkit to use in your voice of the customer meetings that contains:

  • Customer-facing version of the MRD
  • Critical-questions questionnaire
  • Conjoint-analysis tool

The customer-facing version of your MRD will take the form of a presentation that you’ll use to facilitate your right-targets, voice of the customer meetings.

The critical-questions questionnaire is a collection of the questions that must be answered to ensure that your MRD will put you on a winning path. Creating this questionnaire should be a formal process that involves the key stakeholders on the product team. Question categories might include:

  • Application
  • Product requirements
  • Competition
  • Value and pricing
  • Timing

The final item in the toolkit, the conjoint-analysis tool, is essential for measuring how your customers rank product attributes and make trade-off decisions. Conjoint analysis helps you get answers to questions like these:

  • Is throughput more important than yield?
  • Is productivity more important than defect control?
  • Is defect control more important than price?
  • How much is additional capability worth?

Conjoint analysis is used to determine which product attributes most influence a customer’s buying decision. It produces the vital data you need to validate your vision for value and guide your design-trade-off-decision making

Right Design

Once the MRD is validated and signed off, engineering will start creating designs that will address the product requirements. As soon as concept drawings, mock-ups, and animations and the like are available, get back on the road and show them to a subset of the same customers who saw your MRD. You need to make sure that engineering’s interpretation of how to meet requirements will be embraced by your customers.  This is also a good time to review the alternatives and performance tradeoffs that your team is considering. Ask your customers what they would choose and why. Their answers will help you make market-informed decisions.

You’re looking for what customers like and don’t like about your design concept and why. After completing this step, decide what design changes make sense to improve market acceptance and implement them.

Right Implementation

Of course, what really matters is product’s ability to deliver on your value proposition in the customers’ environment. In this voice of the customer step, ship a pre-production or beta system to select customers for evaluation and feedback before full-production shipments begin. This is a time and cash consuming step, so keep the number of customer engagements small.

For each beta-site evaluation, establish a formal agreement for:

  • Qualification testing
  • Data sharing
  • Design changes
  • Success criteria
  • Terms for purchase

As with all steps, incorporate beta-site feedback into your design and product marketing as appropriate.

It’s no secret that this important step is often squeezed out of development programs that are running late. The secret to keeping it in place is to start your development program on time.

Whom to Talk to

To get the data that you need, you need to talk to the right people in each market-validation step.  You need to think about both the population of potential customers, and specifically, whom in their organizations to include in your voice of the customer efforts.

In the early stages of buying-behavior validation, you are exploring market segment boundaries, assessing growth opportunities and testing your strategy. Here it makes sense to talk to the broadest range of potential customers. You may also include your customers’ customers and suppliers.

The potential customer population tends to narrow as your near new product introduction. For example, for right-implementation market validation, you might limit your voice of the customer efforts to one or two lead customers.

You also need to make sure that you target the right people in your customers’ organizations. You can think of these people in terms of three different buying personas – economic, technical, and user.  The economic buyer is the person or group of people that make the final decision to buy. The technical buyer determines if your equipment can perform the required task and sets the technical buying specifications. And finally, the user buyers are those in the organization that will use the equipment once it is purchased. This includes operators and maintenance engineers.

The table below summarizes whom you should target for your voice of the customer activity for each market-validation step.

 

Potential Customer Population Buying Persona Focus
Buying behavior
  • Broad range of potential customers
  • Adjacent markets, suppliers, and customers’ customers as appropriate.
  • Economic buyer
  • Technical buyer
Right targets
  • Significant buyers in your target market with experience with your product type
  • Economic buyer
  • Technical buyer
Right design
  • Very small group in target market with well-developed relationship and reputation for respecting confidentiality
  • User buyer
  • Your own users (service engineers, test engineers)
Right implementation
  • One to two lead customers.
  • User buyer
  • Your own users (service engineers, test engineers)

 

How to Talk about Future Products

In all of these voice of the customer market validation steps, you will be talking to your customers and likely your sales force about products that are not yet for sale. This is a tricky situation that, if mishandled, can:

  • Delay sales of your current products
  • Tip your hand to competitors
  • Over commit your company

To manage expectations with sales and customers during voice of the customer market validation:

  • Make sure that everyone involved understands that roadmaps and MRDs represent intentions, not commitments.
  • Know where you are in the buying cycle with each customer that you meet. Adjust your approach as needed to ensure that you don’t discourage a customer from buying a current product.
  • Keep voice of the customer visits separate from sales calls.
  • Never include any product-cost information. What a product cost you to make has nothing to do with whether a customer will buy it or the price that they’ll pay.
  • Play it safe. Add a multi-month buffer on all future product release dates.

Whenever you are talking about future products, you are sharing the essence of your strategy, and there is always the risk that it will be leaked to competitors. It’s always a balancing act to share enough to get meaningful feedback, and at the same time keep the information from the competition. To minimize that risk:

  • Assume that information will be leaked to competitors. Review all materials to make sure that you’re hitting the right balance between sharing and protecting information.
  • Make sure that non-disclosure agreements are in place.
  • Present and share, but never distribute materials containing your strategy details outside of your company.
  • Seek customers with a reputation for respecting confidentiality when disclosing your most sensitive information.

How to Get the Data

Finally, in each voice-of-the-customer meeting, you are trying to obtain detailed, accurate information that will help you produce a product that customers will buy, at your price, over those of your competition. That will require your customers and potential customers to share sensitive, intimate details about their businesses. You need to create an environment where they are comfortable doing so. Here are several tips to help you get that done.

  • Small groups work best. The bigger the meeting, the more formal it gets. The more formal it gets; the less information gets shared. The best size for the validation team is often two, plus a host from the account team. The two are often a combination of a product manager and a technical expert.
  • Don’t bring senior management to working-level meetings and vice versa. Information flow is stifled when multi-levels of management are in the room. Management will want to set a good example for subordinates. Subordinates will worry about divulging something inappropriate in front of management.  Everyone will take an overly cautious stance on what is said and shared.
  • Make sure that you have information to give as well as get.
  • Split up the presenting and question-asking tasks. A presenter that constantly stops to ask questions and record answers is distracting. Better to keep the presenter in the “giver” mode and let someone else do the “getting.”
  • Let customers know well in advance your visit that you will be sharing your plans. Alert them to any specific areas that you’ll be probing. This gives them time to prepare and makes the best use of your time.
  • Resist the urge to “sell” or get defensive about your strategy. If the customer objects to something you’ve said or presented, seek to understand the concern rather than defend your position. Remember that you’re not selling anything other than the fact that you are a first-rate supplier that seeks to understand its customers’ needs.
  • Talk 20 percent and listen 80 percent of the time. One-half of your talking time should be devoted to asking questions.

Your customers are not of one mind, nor do they all use and evaluate products the same way.  So, you are guaranteed to encounter conflicting data. You’ll need to decipher the source of any inconsistencies and how they affect your vision for your new product. To improve your ability to do that keep the number of variables low. Do your best to use the same materials, questions, and validation team for every voice-of-the-customer meeting. Also, get multiple perspectives within any given customer; for example, R&D, production, and management.

How to Get a Voice of the Customer Meeting

What’s your most frequent response to an Amazon product feedback request in your inbox?

You delete it.

What about when your phone’s flashing the caller ID of the dealership where you just purchased your car?

You let it go to voicemail.

What about the customer survey link the check-out clerk circled on the bottom of your Home Depot or Staples receipt?

It never even registers on your radar.

As an equipment supplier, do your customers respond in a similar fashion to your voice-of-the-customer meeting requests? If so here’s what to do.

You discard requests for product feedback because you just don’t believe that providing it will result in something that will improve your life or will have an impact on the supplier’s product. All we hear is the supplier asking us for something that it needs. We don’t hear anything in their request that suggests that we’ll get something that we need. So, we choose not to engage.

If you’re a capital equipment supplier, and you use the same “Give me your feedback!” approach to secure voice of the customer meetings, you’ll be met with the same response. Instead of asking customers to meet with you for a voice-of-the-customer meeting, offer to share your strategy and plans with them. Suddenly instead of asking the customer for something, you’re offering them something. So, don’t do this:

Dear Customer:

I am the product manager for the Turbo XT system at EquipCo. I am conducting voice of the customer meetings to gather input for our next generation system. I’d appreciate a couple of hours of your time so that I can ask you some questions.

A request like this only communicates your needs. It’s all about you. It’s not much different from a complete-this-survey request from an internet retailer. Your customer will view it as more bother than it’s worth.

Instead, do this:

Dear Customer:

We are establishing plans for the next generation of the Turbo XT system. To ensure that our products will meet your requirements when they come to market, we would like to meet with you to review our plans.  When we meet with your team we will:

  • Share our new product performance targets and design concepts
  • Ask questions about your requirements
  • Seek to understand your priorities

Your input will be fed back into our product development programs to make sure we produce products that will meet your needs, help your company be more profitable, and help you address your most important issues.

My team and I will be in your area from August 15-20th. Is it possible to set up a two-hour meeting in that time frame with the appropriate people from your company?

Now we’re getting somewhere. This second version of the voice of the customer meeting request makes it clear that you plan to provide something very valuable.  You’re offering them an opportunity to push your strategy in a direction that meets their needs. This is very important to the capital equipment buyer and well worth two hours of their time to get.

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