The voice of customers (VOC) is recognized as vitally important in marketing and corporate communication. VOC is a key source of market insights and intelligence as well as feedback in relation to products and services. Customer insights and feedback are formally collected through market research, customer satisfaction surveys, net promoter score (NPS) surveys, and mechanisms such as customer councils and panels, as well as through phone calls to call centres, complaints, and website and social media comments.
Also, the voice of employees (VOE) is increasingly recognized as important for understanding organizational engagement, satisfaction, loyalty, retention, and productivity. A Harvard Business Review survey found that 71% of participants rated “high level of employee engagement” as a factor most likely to bring business success, exceeded only by high levels of customer service and effective communication. Also, a recent internal communication study reported that “employees’ upward expression of challenging but constructive concerns or ideas on work-related issues can play a critical role in improving organizational effectiveness”.
Channels for VOE vary from official channels such as union representations and institutionally organized employee satisfaction surveys, meetings, staff conferences, intranets, and suggestion boxes, to social media comments.
Increasingly, researchers and managers see VOC and VOE as interconnected rather than discrete areas of engagement. A report in CRM Magazine noted that “employees—especially those in the customer contact centres—are often the first to interact with customers and shape how the customer perceives the company, the brand, and its products and services”. Another recent customer management report stated: “Want to hear the voice of customers? Listen to your employees”. Academic research has concluded that listening to employees and customers provides an “integrated market-orientated system”.
There is recognition in corporate and marketing communication that there are also other stakeholders in addition to customers and employees who exert influence on organizations and with whom organizations need to engage. These include business partners such as retailers, agents, and brokers; investors in the case of public companies; and local communities in some instances, all of which contribute to corporate reputation and operational success. Most organizations today seek to maintain positive relationships with a range of stakeholders. Thus, it can be argued that the voice of stakeholders (VOS) is a further important consideration for management.
The flip-side of voice – listening
However, despite attention to the voice of customers, employees, and other stakeholders, there has been comparatively little attention paid to how organizations listen. This is a major gap in the process of collecting insights and intelligence because organizational listening faces a number of particular challenges.
The challenges of organizational listening
Attention to listening typically focuses on interpersonal communication and small group communication. But organizations are frequently expected to, or need to, listen at scale – sometimes to thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of customers, employees, and other stakeholders such as residents in local communities. This means that organizational listening has to be delegated to functions such as customer relations, call centres, corporate communication, HR, and external research companies. Therefore, the third key characteristic of organizational listening is that it is mostly mediated via survey responses, focus group comments, letters, e-mails, recorded phone calls to call centres, website comments, and social media posts.
Many organizations rely primarily on structured surveys to access VOC, VOE, and VOS. However, the voice of customers, employees, and other stakeholders is expressed in much greater detail in words rather than ratings, scores, or tick-a-box questions. Gartner research has predicted that in 2020, 60% of organizations will use deeper levels engagement data than available from surveys, including methods such as sentiment analysis of textual data.
A second challenge in organizational listening is evaluating the results of investment in systems, tools, and processes such as text analysis and other innovative insights methods such as customer journey mapping. One multinational group that made this commitment provides some salutary learnings.
Making Achmea a ‘listening organization’
Achmea is a multinational corporation operating in the insurance, pension and asset management sector, headquartered in the Netherlands with operating companies in Australia, Canada, Greece, Turkey, and Slovakia. The group has more than 10 million customers and more than 15,000 staff in six countries. It sells life, health, motor vehicle, property, travel, and agricultural insurance online and through agents as well as independent brokers. Thus, it has a substantial number of customers, employees, and other stakeholders. With premiums of more than €20 billion (euro) and assets under management of €116 billion (euro), the group is the largest insurance provider in the Netherlands trading under brands including Zilveren Kruis and Centraal Beheer, as well as owning insurance market leaders including Interamerican in Greece, Eureko Sigorta in Turkey, Union poisťovňa in Slovakia, Onlia in Canada, and Achmea Australia.
After the head of strategic communication and leadership of Achmea International, Madelon Engels, and HR director Johan Blok, learned of the findings of a multi-country study into organizational listening, they invited me as the leader of the research to address the Achmea CEO Summit in 2017 to discuss how organizational listening could be improved and benefit the group. Subsequently, Achmea committed to become a “listening organization” and to evaluate the value of listening to its customers, employees, and other stakeholders.
A participatory action research project was undertaken in three stages within the Achmea head office in Zeist and two of the group’s major operating companies: Interamerican headquartered in Athens and Union poisťovňa headquartered in Bratislava. Participatory action research involves collaboration between independent researchers and the managers and staff responsible for processes to identify, implement, and evaluate improvements. The research is ideally supported by agile management methods and techniques such as ‘scrums’ and accelerator teams to address problems and sub-optimum processes and functions.
Stage 1 undertaken from January to March 2018 involved research to identify existing listening activities and gaps or opportunities for improvement. This involved interviews with managers and employees, observation, and analysis of data such as existing NPS survey findings, call centre records, and market research. Stage 2 involved a 12-month period from April 2018 to May 2019 in which Achmea and participating operating companies reviewed recommendations and implemented identified improvements and innovations. In Stage 3 (June–July 2019), a second round of research was conducted to review and evaluate the results of organizational listening initiatives introduced.
Transitioning ‘detractors’ to ‘promoters’
Two key innovations were introduced to increase the listening capability of the Achmea group’s NPS surveys of customers, which are conducted by MetrixLab headquartered in Rotterdam. Using Interamerican as a test site, text analysis was introduced to analyse customers’ comments in response to open-ended NPS questions using SAS Analytics, in addition to the usual calculation of NPS scores. Interamerican recruited two specialist text analysts as additions to its Analytics Centre of Excellence (ACE) to glean insights from unstructured textual data provided by customers. Analysis of customers’ comments identified the main reasons that customers became ‘promoters’ (scores of 9–10 on a 0–10 scale) and the main reasons that customers became ‘detractors’ (scores of 0–6).
In the second innovation, a specially trained team of call centre staff made proactive outbound calls to detractors, referred to as a Closed Loop NPS methodology. These were designed to try to resolve the concerns of customers that had been identified through analysis of their comments in response to open-ended NPS questions.
The expectation was that call-backs to unhappy customers could potentially result in shifting them from detractors, who are highly likely to become lost customers, to at least ‘passive’ (scores of 7–8) with an increased chance of retention.
However, some startling results were achieved. During 2019, follow-up NPS surveys sent to detractors after call-backs found that 21.5% converted to passives and 48.6% converted directly to promoters. The remaining 29.9% remained detractors. Although Achmea has a relatively low percentage of dissatisfied customers (0.17%). this amounts to 17,000 potentially lost customers in total. Given that promoters are highly like to remain customers, the half of detractors converting to promoters after call-backs multiplied by a conservative customer lifetime value (CLV) of €5,000 (US$5,500) in net insurance premiums amounts to revenue of more than €40 million.
Even if half of the almost 50% of detractors being converted to promoters remain customers, this represents revenue of more than €20 million. In comparison, the cost of the participatory action research project and additional analysis was less than €250,000. The cost of call-backs to detractors is negligible, as existing call centre staff make outbound calls when they are not busy with inbound calls.
After call-backs to almost 30% of more than 17,000 detractors, a follow up NPS survey in 2018 (n = 564) resulted in the average NPS score of detractors increasing from -71 to +24 – a substantial improvement. Similar results continued in 2019.
Union poisťovňa took a different approach, commissioning an external agency, Staffino, to conduct ‘deep dive’ text analysis of open-end comments in its NPS surveys, but it too has found valuable insights into customers’ concerns that, when addressed, result in increased customer satisfaction and retention.
As a result of the tangible benefits demonstrated, Achmea operating companies are expanding the use of text analysis to include open-ended comments in other surveys, complaints, and comments posted online. Organizational listening is also being expanded to capture qualitative as well as quantitative data for detailed customer journey mapping. In addition, there are plans to trial the use of voice to text (VTT) software to convert digital recording of more than one million calls a year to call centres to text for detailed analysis. These are further examples of organizational listening tools and technologies.
Both Interamerican and Union poisťovňa also have found increased employee satisfaction and retention as a result of a number of internal organizational listening initiatives, including a staff intranet and an Imagine Innovation Program in which employees are invited to contribute ideas to improve the business and rewarded for those adopted.
Senior Achmea executives are confident that creating a listening organization will continue to yield substantial value and competitive advantage. The Closed Loop NPS methodology alone is indicating a conservative ROI of 80:1 in revenue. Listening openly and responsively to customers, employees, and other stakeholders also is expected to increase reputation, foster innovation, and increase productivity. Evaluation of the results of these initiatives is continuing.
About the Author
Jim Macnamara is a professor of public communication at the University of Technology Sydney specializing in evaluation of communication and effective stakeholder engagement. He is the author of 16 books including Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication and Evaluating Public Communication: Exploring New Models, Standards, and Best Practice.