Home Featured Caveat Emptor; Why Your ‘Voice of the Customer’ May Not Always Be What it Seems

Caveat Emptor; Why Your ‘Voice of the Customer’ May Not Always Be What it Seems


In his first post for 2020, David Courtier-Dutton, CEO of SoundOut, explores the issues often found with online consumer panels in relation to the VoC.

In the olden days (think pre-2000) retailers enjoyed a reasonably stable existence, with retailing as much a real estate play as a trading model. The battle lines were around footfall and enticing as many consumers into their stores as possible and, once there, applying tried and tested visual merchandising and promotional techniques to prompt them to buy. Retailers understood their customers, and many created customer ‘personas’ – target profiles of the types of people they would design and market to. Market research was conducted ‘in the field’ with people who represented these personas, drinking coffee and eating donuts.

Roll forward to the 2020s and a key focus for many retailers is how to evolve the supply chain into the demand chain, picking up consumer demand indicators in real time to trigger instantaneous adjustments to a flexible supply model. This can be used to optimize local availability and/or to enable the manufacture of repeat stock in time to meet real time demand. This demand chain approach is all about maximising the potential sales of the designs the design team have created; but what this does not address is the optimization of the appeal of initial garment designs in order to increase overall demand across the range.

As a result, demand chain planning is now extending deeper into the pre-launch and design processes to ensure the designs with the maximum appeal (and highest margins) are those that go into manufacture.

The obvious way to optimise designs is to first test them with consumers. Online vertically integrated fast fashion businesses, like BooHoo, do this by producing a very short production run of new designs, putting them up for sale online and measuring demand – then manufacturing based on this actual consumer demand (in as little as a week). Others (often manufacturers from the far east) upload images onto Amazon and see how fast the orders come in, only then committing to manufacture. But this is not an option for the bulk of retailers – whether this is due to lengthy supply chains or other logistical challenges. An alternative is to test with consumers via online surveys and product development platforms. Companies who have adopted these methodologies have often seen success in eliminating poor sellers before they even get produced and/or identifying potential best sellers giving them the confidence to order deep in the knowledge they have a winning design. However, these predictions are only as good as the quality and veracity of the consumer feedback the retailer is accessing.

Welcome to the world of online consumer panels – a huge and unregulated market where responsible providers run daily battles with bots, clickbait, VPNs and fake accounts to try to source genuine and honest consumer opinions.

There are few places where consumers can earn money conducting tasks online but completing surveys is one of the most popular. Sadly it is human nature to seek maximum gain for minimum effort and the web gives everyone a cloak of anonymity that enables many to fraudulently seek to game the survey system – whether that is misrepresenting their persona/preferences to qualify for tasks or using automated survey bots to harvest cash and rewards by completing and submitting surveys with no human involvement.

Many people are unaware that the vast majority of research businesses do not own and control their own panel, and those that do often have such basic quality control checks that the veracity of results is often significantly compromised. When a provider boasts of 50 million consumers ready to take your survey it will rarely be their own carefully quality controlled and moderated panel, it will almost always be sourced via a ‘panel broker’ – an independent provider that mines hundreds or even thousands of small consumer panels from all over the world. Each of these supplier panels are of different quality and the broker has no way of knowing whether they consist of committed and thoughtful individuals, server farms of bots, or fake accounts set up to maximise their potential returns.

This is a real problem. First because it masks the true value of quality consumer insight for an industry desperately in need of reliable foresight, and second because it fraudulently extracts investment from hundreds of retailers on false pretences.

So when you decide to dip your toe in to the world of the ‘voice of the customer’ make sure you follow best practice to extract the maximum value from your investment. Asking the following questions should reveal whether the consumers you are talking to are both real and relevant to your business:

  1. Does your supplier own the panel (or do you)?
  2. What quality control checks are in place to guarantee the panellists are who they say they are?
  3. What quality controls are in place to check the integrity and veracity of their responses?

When everyone is taking a cut of your VoC budget (the supplier, the panel broker and the panellist) there is little incentive for anyone in the chain to be entirely honest. You, the customer, must be vigilant and ensure you are always acting on data sourced from genuine consumers. If your supplier cannot prove this and you are not seeing the improvements you expect then the issue is most likely down to the quality of the panel being used rather than an issue with your VoC approach.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.