Bill Inmon on Hearing The Voice Of Your Customer

This post explores the importance of hearing your customer, and how to use sentiment analytics and other technologies to achieve this goal and avoid going out of business.

By Bill Inmon, Forest Rim Technology Inc.


TWA. PAN AM. Woolworth’s. Sports Authority. Staples. Banana Republic.

What do these very diverse businesses have in common?

They have one thing in common. They were once thriving business that are now either going out of business or have gone out of business.


Fig 1 Going
There are many reasons why a once prosperous business wakes up to find out that they no longer exist. But one of the recurring themes that is common to many business that go out of business is that – over time – they did not listen to their customer. Had they listened carefully to their customer they would have been able to respond to changing market conditions and changing market tastes. And once they understood what the customer was saying they could adjust their sales and marketing strategy.

But as long as they were deaf to the customer, they were merely a failure waiting to happen.

Fig 2 Listening

Once upon a time it was very difficult to hear the voice of the customer. There were many technological barriers. The cost of technology was too high. There was too much data. There was no way to gather the data. Because the data was in the form of text, it was too complicated and did not fit well with the technology of the time.

Once upon a time listening to the voice of the customer was an expensive and haphazard thing to do. But technology and the economics of technology have radically changed. Today it is both technologically and economically possible to hear the voice of the customer.

There are some very important reasons why listening to the voice of the customer is important. On an immediate basis making immediate sales is one good reason for listening to the customer. What is the customer interested in today is a really important question to answer. Answering this question is the key to making sales right now.


But listening to the voice of the customer over a longer period of time is also extremely important. Listening to the customer over a long period of time is the key to understanding long term trends. In a word when a corporation listens to the customer the corporation is able to be in a position of being proactive. The best that a corporation can do when they don’t listen to their customer is to be in a reactive position. And positioning the corporation to be proactive rather than being reactive separates the winning corporations from the losing corporations.

For this reason listening to the voice of the customer is at the TOP OF THE LIST in terms of corporate best practices. Stated differently, if you don’t do anything else as a corporation, you MUST listen to the voice of your customer if you want to stay in business.

Fig 3 Words


So where is the voice of the customer heard in today’s world? There certainly are lots of places where the voice of the customer is heard. On the Internet there is Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Consumer Affairs. Within the walls of the corporation there is email and surveys and other sources. Many corporations elicit feedback from their customers and the feedback takes many forms.

Some of the forms of the voice of the customer are public and some of the forms are private. But they are there just waiting to be heard.

Fig 4 Speak

And what do you find that the customer is talking about when you tap into the voice of the customer? You find the customer wants to talk about every subject imaginable. The customer wants to talk about pricing. The customer wants to talk about available selection. About the condition of a product.The color of a product.The size of a product.

The customer wants to complain. To offer suggestions. To tell what is wrong and needs to be fixed.

The customer has questions. About the installation of a product. About the wear and tear of a product. About the packaging of a product. About the delivery of a product.

Occasionally the customer offers a compliment. More often than not the customer tells what is wrong.

Occasionally the customer wants to buy something.

Occasionally the customer talks about the premises the corporation has. About messiness. About cleanliness. About parking. About the restrooms.

Occasionally the customer wants to talk about people. About service. About attitude.

In a word the voice of the customer can be about anything. And ALL of the things that are on the mind of the customer are important to the corporation.(If the corporation wants to stay in business.)

Fig 5 Complaints


So how does a corporation go about hearing the voice of the customer in today’s world? There is a rather prescriptive way in which the corporation goes about hearing the voice of the customer. That path is shown by -
Fig 6 Taxonomy
However they arrive at the corporate desk – either public or private – the voice of the customer enters the corporation in the form of text. Text has long defied the computer technician. Text does not fit comfortably or well into the classical corporate data base. In order to make text fit into the corporate data base a fundamental transformation of text needs to be done. Text needs to be transformed from its unstructured format into a structured format.

This fundamental transformation is done through technology called “textual ETL”. Once transformed, text fits comfortably and naturally inside a standard data base.

One of the essential components of the transformation is that of the usage of taxonomies. In its simplest form,a taxonomy is merely set of classifications of text. Used in conjunction with textual ETL taxonomies are useful for understanding the text that has been submitted by the customer.


Once the text has been submitted and organized into a data base, the text can be analyzed. One such analysis that can be done is sentiment analysis. Sentiment analysis can be done many ways.
One such way that sentiment analysis can be done is by organizing the sentiment around the major subjects of the corporation. There is sentiment about product, about place, about people, about price, and so forth.

Fig 7 Sentiment
Once sentiment has been organized into its major subject areas, the actual sentiment can be organized into a finer granularity. There is positive sentiment and there is negative sentiment. There is strong positive sentiment and there is strong negative sentiment.

And – as important as sentiment is – also important is the object of the sentiment. The object of the sentiment provides the context of the sentiment. Both the sentiment itself and its context are important for hearing and understanding the voice of the customer.