Best Practices -- Learning To Listen

Dec. 21, 2004
VOC kaizens help Tuthill Coupling Group better understand and respond to its customers.

Lots of manufacturers have programs dedicated to gathering clients' input. Tuthill Coupling Group has such an intensive process that one room at its Berea, Ohio, headquarters is dedicated to customer feedback. The company, which manufactures couplings under the Hansen and Gromelle brands, uses the room when it stages voice of the customer (VOC) kaizens.

Tuthill uses VOC events to pinpoint precisely what customers need, which isn't always crystal clear.

For instance, the company is projecting 25% sales growth in 2004 in one segment of its industrial distribution channel. In fact, says Frank C. Destro, vice president of sales and marketing, growth likely will exceed even that. It's a customer segment the company had increased its focus on in 2003 and one it believed presented good growth opportunities. However, Tuthill also had received some feedback that "some of these customers weren't happy with what we thought was good performance," explains Destro.

The company determined to find out why.

In November it staged a VOC kaizen focused on the promising segment. A VOC event allows the company, explains Destro, "to better understand the needs and the wants of our customers about some aspect of our business."

That understanding leads to the development and implementation of action plans to provide the customers with the services, support or products that they truly value, adds Clark Mundy, vice president, pneumatic value stream.

Tuthill conducted its first VOC in 1999. Like other kaizens, the event is team-based. Objectives are established. Deliverables are developed. The key component of a VOC event, however, is listening. More specifically, listening to the customers.

"A lot of times we're not good listeners, and we don't necessarily know what our customer wants," explains Krystal D. Nieves, vice president, hydraulic value stream. "Listening is a skill, and getting a customer to give you information without you guiding them is really a challenge."

At November's week-long event, Tuthill's team, which consisted of the sales team as well as Tuthill Coupling President Brett Jaffe, selected 10 customers with whom to speak, primarily by telephone. (Other events have included more cross-functional representation in the team composition, but all have included senior-level management participation.)

Then came the task of encouraging those customers to reveal what they thought about the company by asking very general, open-ended questions. No leading questions. No specific questions. At least not at first.

"Open-ended questions give a customer an opportunity to really tell us what they want to say versus us guiding them for answers that may not be their underlying intent," explains Nieves. "These questions are so general and so open that they sound like 'tell me about Tuthill Coupling Group.'

"And as long as they want to talk and whatever is on their mind and as much as you can get from that one open-ended question, we go with," she continues. "When it starts to stall, we try to ask another open-ended question."

The team may ask direct questions at the end if a topic Tuthill expected to hear was not raised, but the emphasis is on listening, not questioning. Without a doubt, there can be some awkwardness to the process, particularly at the beginning. Customers want to be led.

"Some will get frustrated and say, 'what do you want me to talk about?' " Destro says. "And we will say, 'whatever you want to talk about.' "

Despite this, most customers are willing to participate because they can understand the downstream benefits to them, Destro says.

Customers' words are so important to this process that their comments are recorded verbatim. In other words, they are not condensed, summarized or interpreted by the kaizen team. The team scribe's single task is to write down what a customer says, with each new thought recorded on a separate piece of paper. (The November VOC kaizen resulted in some 1,100 individual comments from the 10 customers that participated, Destro says.)

First, Frequent, and With Emotion

Equally important is to avoid interpreting customer comments. Instead, explains Destro, the philosophy behind a properly conducted VOC is that what a customer talks about 1) first, 2) more frequently, and 3) with emotion is what is more important. In fact, individual comments are color-coded (comments elicited by direct or clarifying questions are recorded in a different color, for instance) and sequenced (comment No. 30) and posted on the walls of Tuthill's VOC room.

Ultimately, the individual comments are placed into general themes and plans of action are developed based on what the team has learned.

"It's really a very visual event. You have all these pieces of paper and then you as a group agree to collect thoughts that are similar, and then you try to capture in one thought what a big pile might represent," explains Nieves. "You're transforming all of this disarray and scattered papers into thoughts and feelings of your customers, and then you're going to take those to try to improve your business."

So what did Tuthill learn from its November VOC event? Destro said the event showed that Tuthill was incorrect in its assumption that the distribution channel was very price-sensitive. "They valued the brand more than they did having the lowest price," he says. They also valued next-day delivery, says Mundy. "So we had to make sure our processes -- whether it be order handling or assembly -- could handle that."

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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