Voice of the Customer - Getting it Right

April 5, 2022
By Wayne OlsonApril 5, 2022,

Like you, I wear many hats both at work and at home.  Around the household, one of my hats is Chief Superintendent of Contamination Control and Biohazard Remediation.  You might scoff and say, ‘Hey, that’s just a fancy title for “The Guy Who Cleans Up the Kitchen.”  Well, yeah.  Anyway, the general duties of this role include clearing out jars of fuzzy stuff in the fridge that used to be cheesy chip dip (yuk!), scraping off the petrified substances from behind the pull-out trash bin that my family insists is a basketball rim, and hand-washing any dishes that don’t go in the dishwasher.  This last item - hand washing - is the inspiration for this month’s article, because it serves as a daily reminder to me of how difficult it is to get the voice of the customer right when developing new products.

Voice of the customer Plastic Products

Real Life Experience with Product Design

Our kitchen has a drawer for those plastic containers with the snap-on lids used for storing food.  Over the years, that drawer has collected a variety of products from different manufacturers.  The ones that get used the most for leftovers, however, have a rectangular design for optimal storage density, and a confidence-inspiring lid snapping mechanism.  So far, so good.  Unfortunately, however, this particular brand has an unforgivable flaw: the bottom piece has too-tight inside corner radii.  When I hand-wash these containers with a sponge to clean out the tuna pasta salad remnants, the too-tight radii cause jets of water/soap/tuna/pasta to squirt across the countertop.

The final verdict on this product?  Great lid design, kudos for the space-saving shape, but an overall ‘D’ because the company failed to pay attention to cleanability.  Maybe the designers were too focused on manufacturability of the bottom instead of usability.  Maybe they assumed all plasticware like this goes into the dishwasher.  Maybe they didn’t identify cleanability as a key requirement.  I bet you never knew designing plastic containers for leftovers could be so complicated!

Great Ideas Need Practical Testing

Too often, products are launched around a great idea, but followed up with sketchy discipline.  They eventually go off the rails due to development teams missing the basics.  Successful new product development is difficult, but it starts with identifying – and adhering to – the voice of the customer.  Here are some tips for your NPD (New Product Development) teams to make sure they get VOC (voice of the customer) right.

  • Focus on requirements, not just specs.  I’ve been witness to many new product development projects that started out with a nice set of functional requirements, but as the weeks/months/quarters dragged on, tunnel vision set in and the effort became a quest to meet a single requirement, often a product specification.  I was involved in one NPD effort early in my career that involved a product manufactured with a new material.  The NPD team was so smitten with a single specification of this material that it somehow became the sole focus of the development effort.  Along the way we forgot - or overlooked – other requirements, such as the need to actually manufacture it.  Oops!  The result was a very challenging product to market and sell because of the inability to consistently build it.  In the end, the product was never as successful or profitable as we had all hoped for on Day One.  NPD teams need to regularly review all requirements to ensure the task is still on track.
  • Make sure you’re solving a problem. New technology often creeps into product designs just because it’s new technology, not because it necessarily solves a customer problem. I had this point once driven into me very clearly by a customer. Our product had a lot of new whiz-bang technology; it outperformed the competition on every critical-to-quality metric.  But the new technology also drove a higher cost, hence we were the premium-priced offering in the marketplace. This major customer ended up choosing our less expensive competitor.  When asked why at a later time, the customer said simply that our competitor was cheaper, and its performance was “good enough.”  Ouch!  The lesson of “good enough” has rattled around in my head ever since.  All NPD meetings should start with a review of a valid problem statement.
  • Take a systems approach.  Whatever your product interacts with, test it.  And don’t just ask people if they like your product, watch them as they try to use it.  Back on the home front, we recently purchased a new washer/dryer set. The washing machine instructions said detergent pods were acceptable. The detergent pod packaging said our type of washing machine is acceptable.  So, we switched to the seemingly convenient pods.  To my dismay, every time I placed a pod into a load of laundry, it worked its way forward to get stuck in the bladder seal between the door and the washer frame, where it partially dissolved to leave a gooey mess.  User error?  Let it be known that I followed the pod directions to a ‘T’ - I first threw the pod into the back of the drum, then loaded the laundry.  Same result.  Did either of these NPD teams test their product as part of a system?  Count me among the skeptical.

If we apply these lessons to the effort that created my hard-to-clean plastic ware, what could that NPD team have done better?  They could have easily identified cleanability as part of the requirement set; validated that the problems they were trying to solve (secure lid attachment) didn’t create an off-setting new problem (difficult hand-washing); and tested or watched others use the product as part of a container-sponge system.

It all seems easy, but as you can tell from my own ‘got it wrong’ projects, the voice of the customer is often hard to do.  By learning from my mistakes and experiences, hopefully your NPD teams will have a better shot at getting VOC right.

About Wayne Olson

Wayne is a global manufacturing executive with 30+ years of experience in high technology business unit and operational leadership roles. He has extensive background in the semiconductor industry, capital equipment products, and engineered solutions. Along his career journey, he has made – and hopefully learned from – many mistakes. By sharing his lessons in leadership development, continuous improvement, and business competitiveness, Wayne is hopeful that readers will pick up a few nuggets they can add to their own personal development toolkits. Wayne resides in the Twin Cities and holds a BS-Chemical Engineering and an MBA from the University of Minnesota.

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