Some of the largest companies in the nation rely on “voice of the customer” (VOC) feedback to help them determine whether to introduce new product lines, improve existing lines, purchase a competitor or enter a new market.
VOC information is not only sought out by companies that deal in the business-to-consumer market, but also many business-to-business companies.
The executives of Five Twelve Group Ltd., a Milwaukee-based firm founded about 12 years ago as a VOC consultant and surveyor, believe there are inherent weaknesses with the traditional feedback-gathering method, which takes too long, lacks flexibility and rarely involves the customer.
“In a lot of what we find, the closer you are to the customer, the greater value you have in the supply chain,” said Marian Singer, partner in the firm. “We’re trying to reclaim that relationship (for customers), to feel the pulse of what is happening in the marketplace.”
To help its clients feel the pulse of the marketplace, Five Twelve Group has designed a proprietary method of gathering market information. The company calls the process RADCL (Research And Design Collaboratively), and two years ago, the firm built a custom web-based software around it. The process has transformed Five Twelve Group from a service provider to a software firm that helps train its clients in using the software.
“With the old model, what was killing us was all the socializing and presenting (at the end of the project),” Singer said. “A decision was never getting made. What we wanted was to have our clients decide at the same time as the surveying was being done, so that the action almost becomes an afterthought at the end.”
The RADCL software was written using Web 2.0 modeling, said Nicholas Hayes, another partner in the firm, and mimics some features of social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. When clients are trained in how to use the software, they are able to create custom surveys and invite as many of their customers, suppliers, vendors or other participants as they want to take them.
The software is hosted in a secure, password-secured network. Customers are given a wide range of tools during the survey process, allowing them to look at responses as they come, to group answers into tables or spreadsheets and even add, remove or change questions during the course of the survey. Multiple managers and administrators can be given access to the data so they can ask questions or make suggestions throughout the process.
“The customer can have an administrator-type role – they can change or adjust questions, analyze data however they want, share it and e-mail charts,” Hayes said.
During the survey period, Hayes or Singer will meet with customers every week or two in order to discuss information gathered and any emerging patterns in the answers. The result, both say, is a much higher chance that the survey will produce meaningful information that the client will be able to take action upon.
“The more transparent and wider the audience across the supply chain, the more likely we are to have a positive outcome,” Hayes said.
South Milwaukee-based Bucyrus International Inc. recently used the RADCL process to help it learn about how customers in the mining industry feel about the industry’s future prospects, including their ordering forecasts.
“The process, what I liked about it was that it engages a broader part of the organization at the beginning so there are no surprises at the end,” said Ron Doll, director of product marketing for Bucyrus. “Everybody has had their voice early on, so that by the time you get to the end, there is a better consensus what to do with what you’ve learned.”
The collaborative nature of the RADCL process helped Bucyrus get the answers it was looking for in a timely fashion and ensured that the company understood the results of the survey, Doll said.
“You waste less time going down the wrong path,” he said. “With the frequency of the dialogue, you’re more in target with what you’re trying to find.”
Most of Five Twelve Group’s customers have historically been manufacturers, Hayes said. The company is still serving several manufacturing clients, but it is also expanding its offerings to boutique business, consumer market research firms and universities.
The company is doing a limited amount of work with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where several professors use the RADCL software to survey populations of students. In return, the company is able to draw on UWM students as interns.
Five Twelve Group has three employees in Milwaukee and retains a team of five in India for software development.
The company derived about 30 percent of its 2008 revenues from software license sales and another 30 percent from software-related services. The firm forecasts about 60 percent of its sales coming from software sales this year.
“We’re busier than ever now with pitching (new business),” Hayes said. “I feel like I’ve got more irons in the fire than I’ve ever had.”