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Empowering your consumers is the key to improved customer experience. If you look at the truly successful companies, the ones that emerge are the ones that concentrate on enabling their customers to engage with them – so that they can partner with them to build their brand.

So how do you find out what your customers want? How do you empower them to provide you with this invaluable information?

I’ll always remember a session at an Advertising Research Foundation conference in 2008 delivered to an audience of consumer research professionals in New York City. The presenter was Kim Dedeker from P&G.  She had been charged with conducting a quality audit of the survey and panel industries.  Some shortcomings had been identified. But these shortcomings were largely irrelevant in light of her more dire message.

“Without transforming our capabilities into approaches that are more in touch with the lifestyles of the consumers we seek to understand, the consumer-research industry as we know it today will be on life support by 2012,” Kim Dedeker, VP-external capability leadership, global consumer and market knowledge at P&G (published in Advertising Age in 2008).

As it turns out, this adaptation to the “lifestyles of consumers” actually could be summed up in one word: “empowerment”. Empowered consumers need to believe they have a share, she reasoned. They don’t want to change bank, shampoo or whatever product or service it is you offer, they want improvement in the experience and a role in building your brand. How do they want to do this? By telling you what’s on their mind in their own words, in an easy and convenient manner and then for their feedback to be acted on.  They need to know they’ve been heard. They want evidence that brands are listening. 

Empowered consumers consider a long, structured survey about issues you (and not them) deem as important to be abusive. This is not to mention that the whole concept of a customer needing to be selected to provide insight seems ridiculous. Innovative brands simply need to adopt more effective means of listening.

Today, there is little doubt that the mobile revolution has led to most consumers now considering themselves “empowered”. Is consumer survey research on life support? Other blogs are dedicated to that topic. However, there is no doubt that the survey industry is in transformation. Most marketers are extremely cautious about the over use of abusive surveys. Instead, it is now about more effectively listening to engaged consumers.

Regardless, it became obvious to me that day in 2008 that the marketplace was going to catch up with the OpinionLab way of thinking, which has always been grounded in customer-initiated engagement.

If you go back much further, you start to see that this is actually a fairly logical evolution. Consider the 1950s. When my mother was delighted or upset about a product or service she was using, she would write a letter to the company president. She would then expect a response. A personalized response from the company was an indication to my mother that “the brand” was listening…she expected it and it increased her loyalty. As time went on, she used the call center and physical comment cards in banks, hotels and retail stores. The basic concept remained the same: customers have always wanted to tell you what they think about you on their terms, in their words, and for you to act on what they say. So make it easy for them to do this!

Fast forward a few years and a VoC industry is born. And as the penny has started to drop, we have seen a number of other VoC vendors migrating to this approach.

These developments have been very interesting for us but not in any way surprising. The OpinionLab methodology has always been grounded in the fundamental need to listen to your customers on their terms and find more effective ways to engage with them. OpinionLab is about helping customers engage with the brand, not the other way round. Surveys simply don’t work in the same way. How can you use an abusive survey to start a discussion about CX? You’re using a poor experience to talk about experiences. Conceptually, it doesn’t add up.

But – as we’ve always argued – it’s not enough to merely provide a customer-initiated platform that empowers your customers to tell you what they think about you. With the feedback you collect, context is critical – information such as the time and place your customers feel compelled to comment, the type of browser or operating system they’re using and so on. Capturing this information in the background enables you to identify and understand the why behind the insight. This is ultimately what makes the data you collect actionable, empowering you to act on what your customers tell you to drive improvements across your CX. Crucially, you also need to mobilize your workforce to close the loop with your customers by communicating any actions you take in response to their insight.

We formed OpinionLab back in 1999. It may have taken a little longer than we expected for our approach to become a popular notion, but we have always been resolute in our belief that delivering improvements to the quality and consistency of customer experience starts and ends with the empowered consumer. It’s no surprise that our competitors are now preaching the same messages. The difference is, we’ve been fine-tuning the practice in partnership with leading brands for the last 17 years.

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