Few people call themselves “consumers.” Consumers buy or use a product, service or solution. Period. The word connotes a one-way relationship between seller and buyer that fits poorly in today’s connected marketplace. “Customers,” however, do far more than merely consume. Depending on their needs, experiences and desires, customers are more inclined to get involved in the marketplace. Today’s technology offers ample opportunities to start conversations with and among customers, fans, foes, competitors and the press - any person or group who cares to listen and, perhaps, act on the messages received.


Every hour of every day, directly and indirectly, customers place calls, send emails, complete surveys, and talk among themselves online in blogs, product forums and social networks. They share their thoughts about products and services, their likes and dislikes, and their hopes for future features. Customers tell companies about product failures. They request help. And they offer opinions about their experiences that may contain valuable insights for organizations that listen.


However, customers aren’t computers. They don’t speak in binary, and they don’t form thoughts in relational database form.Sarcasm aside, they rarely write in perfect grammar, but they do communicate. More challenging still is the volume of all that freeform correspondence. PriceWaterhouseCoopers reports there are approximately 75 to 100 million blogs and 10 to 20 million Internet discussion boards and forums in the English language.1 This overwhelming volume of naturally expressed content presents one of the biggest challenges companies face today.


This much is known by most large customer-facing organizations:the market is flooded with software that attempts to tag, sort, search, organize and manage much of this unstructured data. But discovering the facts in this data: who, what, where, when, how and most importantly why is a challenge that leaves most companies scratching their heads.


Companies conduct customer surveys, focus groups and interviews hoping to capture some sense of it all, only to pass along the results to marketing, sales or research to develop a product, service or response on the ideas.


“How sad it is, then, when the product or service is finally introduced - and the only reaction in the marketplace is a resounding ker-flop,” wrote Anthony W. Ulwick in “Turn Customer Input into Innovation” in the January 2002 issue of the Harvard Business Review. Why? Most companies only listen to some of what some customers say. Enough voices go unheard that innovation and the bottom line are adversely affected.


Are Your Approaches Falling Short?


Customer surveys and focus groups are a challenge to arrange and conduct in a method that gathers unbiased data. Though customers might describe some of what they want, the lack of detail in a coded answer or a limited discussion doesn’t tell companies enough.


In traditional surveys and focus groups, customers only give you answers to what they’re asked. The answers can be “programmed,” effectively silencing opinions and insights that don’t fit the scripted mold. Merely knowing that customers like or dislike a product doesn’t explain the reasoning behind their opinions. This lack of detail can mislead decision-makers and in some cases even undermine product development and corporate initiatives.


Focus groups were designed to give companies greater insight into a representative sample of customers or prospects. The groups are designed to gather primary opinions about specific topics. Even the best focus group leaders, however, struggle to control participants’ eagerness to give answers they believe interviewers desire as opposed to their actual opinions. This leads to biased results that often do not correlate well with the customer's actual purchases.


When asked formally, many customers do not know, or cannot communicate effectively, their actual needs and requirements. Moreover, companies often find there isn’t enough detail in the data to understand the root cause of a problem or potential concern - let alone what to do about it.


However, outside the corporate-sponsored surveys and away from the one-way glass in focus group studios is a wild world where customers share exactly what they think in voluminous amounts. They tell their stories during service calls and write about their experiences online. They are usually truthful, if biased toward their own needs, and often detailed about the issue and what they want done about it.


In formal forums, customers are reactive and often leave out their true opinions, and when asked for detail, they can’t always explain their experiences faithfully because they are discussing issues in theory. However, in the midst of experiencing an issue, people are willing to share their thoughts with as few filters as possible. They’ll call a help line, or rant in online forums, or rave on a social media site. It’s as close to mind reading as companies are likely to get - if they can capture and analyze the data efficiently and effectively.


Voices move markets. When asked to indicate their overall level of trust in different forms of advertising, customers admitted what they trust most is not advertising – but rather what others say, according to a recent report from Forrester Research and Intelliseek.2 Based on 470 responses recruited from PlanetFeedback.com members, the top choice was a recommendation from other consumers and the fourth choice was consumer opinions posted online. Following feedback in all forms is critical because recommendations and opinions are some of the most trusted and important information a company receives.


Most large companies have a foundation of facts about their customers in their data warehouses and business intelligence systems in the form of structured data: purchase history, demographics, service ticket types and so on. This foundation, however, lacks critical customer information, which floats above the fact plane. Call center notes, open note sections of surveys, emails, Weblogs, chat rooms, online forums, product reviews - all of this and more must be incorporated into the intelligence gathering and analysis functions of a company to truly understand the voice of the customer.


Many companies are learning the only way to be customer-centric and to have a customer-driven business strategy is to leverage this feedback across the organization methodically, comprehensively, efficiently and effectively.


To do this, companies are staffing senior roles in the organization that focus on customers and report to the CEO, the VP of marketing or other top executives.

With leadership, customer analysis becomes a strategic part of the business. The goal is to get beyond the information historically available in structured surveys or coded fields and instead yield statistically supportable findings from unstructured data for a new generation of quantitatively trained executives and managers.


As they begin to grasp the size and importance of analyzing their customer feedback, companies realize they need to do two things:


  1. Expand their analysis to the unstructured components of feedback that can answer such questions as why customers gave certain survey scores, why they report specific service or product issues, and what - at least in their opinion - might be done to improve or correct the situation.
  2. Build processes that automatically understand and analyze the detail of the information found in unstructured data, which they then can leverage throughout the organization to help make key business decisions by merging the results with those found in structured data.

Finding first-person narratives. The quantity of this unstructured data is sometimes challenging to imagine, but its importance is abundantly clear.


One small airline receives 500 emails per day, which totals approximately 65 percent of the company’s direct, unsolicited customer feedback. Nearly every email tells a personal story about someone’s flying experience:stories that can help the airline decide on everything from pricing to in-flight services to marketing programs.


This input is almost all first-person narrative. The first-person narrative is a literary technique in which a story is narrated by one character who explicitly refers to himself or herself using words such as "I," "me" or "we." The intensity of tales told in the first person can be striking, especially when the person narrating has something to say about your product or service.


First-person feedback is:


  • Focused on the personal;
  • Comprises the majority of input;
  • Contains rich descriptions;
  • Explores unexpected topics;
  • Details the “why” of an event or opinion;
  • Reveals opportunities;
  • Expects responses;
  • Provides early warnings;
  • Affects, most likely, other people; and
  • Impacts revenue.

Anyone scanning social networking sites or popular blogs for an hour will likely find a slew of first-person narratives that meet all the criteria listed above.


Dave Winer - a pioneer in the development of Weblogs, syndication (RSS) and Web content management software - recounted in his blog, Scripting News, the shock of learning that an out-of-warranty hard drive would not be returned by an Apple-owned retail store after he paid for a replacement.3 Comments on the entry, totaling almost 100 after only two days, discuss the minutia of terms and conditions listed on the back of the repair order, positioning by store employees of the policy, countermeasures customers could employ and a host of other details worth analyzing by any company eager to understand and more cost-effectively meet the demands of loyal customers.


Amazon.com has almost 1,500 customer reviews of the Linksys WRT54G Wireless-G Router, many of which detail users’ technical challenges regarding the setup and successful operation of the wireless Wi-Fi router. Linksys, a division of Cisco, has its own support forum on its Web site for users, but the most popular posting on that site about the WRT54G generated only 133 comments. Amazon.com’s reviews contain a magnitude of more data - all of which is being missed the company’s engineering, marketing and customer service departments if only their own sources are considered.


From feedback to intelligence. First-person feedback is not just personal. It is rich, honest, unprompted, unscripted and often revealing. It contains the details behind successes and failures. It harbors the truth about good intentions gone awry or lucky breaks. It holds the key to future fortune or crippling litigation, and it can help employees, managers and executives answer key questions such as:


  • Is our product launch going well?
  • What marketing messages resonate most with customers?
  • Is there an emerging product issue?
  • Where should the product team focus its development dollars?
  • Are there more effective methods for positioning current products?
  • Which services have the best chance of surviving a turbulent market?
  • Is someone committing fraud?
  • Is there a product defect in the market?
  • Are our customers being hurt by our products?

First-person feedback provides rich, detailed narrative. The passionate give and take of online discussions or the constant stream of customer emails is simply impossible for databases and business intelligence software to parse, process or package into any useful, actionable data without the capabilities offered by text analytics solutions.


Proper analysis of first-person feedback through text analytics enables enterprises to improve their products, services, reputations and balance sheets. Only once the facts are extracted, the tone categorized, the results structured, the data integrated, and the reports delivered can companies claim to have “first-person intelligence” worthy of action.



  1. PriceWaterhouseCoopers. "How Consumer Conversation Will Transform Business: Achieving Operational Excellence Series." PriceWaterhouseCoopers, January 2008.
  2. Intelliseek. "Consumer Generated Media (CGM) and Engagement Study; Trust in Advertising Study." Intelliseek and Forrester Research, 2004/2005.
  3. Dave Winer. “Macs are Even More Expensive than I Thought.” Scripting News, December 22, 2007.

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