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Voice of the customer departments making a comeback

A hot trend four years ago, voice of the customer departments are appearing once again, as firms look for someone to represent the customer within the enterprise.

First spotted in late 1998, voice of the customer departments are beginning to make a comeback in boardrooms and corporate organizations around the world, according to Gartner Inc.

But don't expect widespread proliferation of these departments, which were created to advocate for customers, said Ed Thompson, a vice president and research director with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner.

"We've spotted it coming back in vogue," Thompson said. "It's going to grow, but not very rapidly."

A voice of the customer department generally represents customers within an enterprise and reports their experiences to the board or high-level executives. For example, some departments get 20 minutes with the board once a quarter when they discuss where customer complaints are arising from and other satisfaction metrics.

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Others are getting more creative, Thompson noted. Some firms are using multimedia presentations with video footage of a customer's shopping experience, or call center recordings. Others are taking the board out and giving it a hands-on customer experience. Many are moving away from analytical feedback to more experiential.

Typically, these departments are a division within marketing, while others report to the customer service side of the organization.

Companies may be slow to catch on to this move because of the relatively slow returns. There is emerging evidence that customer loyalty and customer satisfaction bolster the bottom line, but it generally takes 18 months to two years for it to show up, and Wall Street is generally interested in immediate results, Thompson noted. All of which makes it difficult to build a business case for a voice of the customer department.

Additionally, it is only companies that have committed to metrics like customer satisfaction that are finding a place for customer-centric departments. For example, an executive who has a bonus tied to customer satisfaction scores is far more likely to not only welcome, but seek out a voice of the customer department.

Banks, high-tech firms, the telecommunications industry and typically large organizations are driving the move toward this concept. Another driving force in the re-emergence of these departments is their popularity among systems integrators and consultants. Firms like Accenture and IBM Global Services are pushing customer experience management and can be very influential within large organizations, Thompson said.

However, there is another pitfall above the difficulty of justifying a business case, Thompson warns. While some of these organizations with a voice of the customer department are compiling information from the front line departments to collate it and report to the board, that information is not getting back to front line employees, like call center agents, in a timely manner. Feedback delayed several days is often little use.

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