True, many of the consumers are cranky and calling only because they're already disenchanted with a product or service. But call centers can still deliver boatloads of data, often in a much faster time frame than other forms of research.
"Marketing is now the fastest-growing segment for us," says Oscar Alban, principal and global market consultant for Verint, a Melville, N.Y., company that sells speech-analytics technology that allows companies to sort through tens of millions of calls, sorting them by keywords. "And marketing execs are more involved," he says. "They're now viewing this as the world's biggest focus group."
Many experts say it's a welcome-and overdue-change. "The majority of the marketing department's connection with customers tends to be market research, usually using analysis that involves aggregations of markets, not necessarily customers, and probably not your customers," says Christopher Meyer, chairman of Strategic Alignment Group, a consultancy in Portola Valley, Calif., who co-authored a paper on customer experience for the Harvard Business Review last year. "That's not the same as listening to voices."
Evaluating customer experience from a marketing perspective is completely different. "Customer experience is empathetic," he says, "and you can't argue with it. If someone's had a lousy experience, the company can't explain that away."
There are several factors pushing marketers toward call-center insights, says Alban, "including the appeal of 'pure' feedback. These people aren't being paid."
And consumers' burgeoning use of a variety of feedback technologies also gets some credit, says Diego Lomanto, Verint's product marketing manager. "From YouTube to message boards, consumers are much more interested in providing fast feedback. And CMOs have started to see this more strategically."
And they also realize the risk: In a world of YouTube, blogs and numerous shopping sites that allow consumers to rate experiences, aggravated customers have an unprecedented level of power. One customer trying to cancel his AOL account, for example, got such a hard time from the customer service rep that he recorded the wretched experience; the service was so comically bad that it landed AOL on national network news and has been listened to hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.
"CMOs realize that it's important for marketers to find the trends as early as possible, because a problem could be very damaging to the brand," Alban says. "Customers have too much influence and too much power for marketers not to pay attention."
And consumers, in general, are feeling abused. A Yankelovich study released several months ago found that 62% of Americans say companies "don't care much" about their needs, up from 52% in 2004; 67% say marketers care more about selling existing products than really helping the customer, an increase from 58% in 2004.
Alban says the way companies use the feedback varies. Executives at the Orange Country Register, he says, listen to call-center calls weekly; a financial services firm Verint works with requires that execs listen in to three to five calls a week, then write up insights for the CEO. Other companies are increasingly turning calls that highlight key issues into MP3 format, so execs can easily download them and listen in. The intelligence from what actual customers are saying "really is a bridge between the organization and the market place," says Diego.
Still, adds Meyer, it's often not easy to persuade marketers to listen, no matter how many times that "customer driven" cliché is in the company's mission statement. Traditionally, marketers believe that customer-call intelligence will be biased by already-angry consumers.
While that's not usually the case, he says, even if it were, "wouldn't that be useful? We find that there's a lot of confusion between running your business and simply hearing the responses you'd like to hear."
Among the companies Meyer says excel at translating the customer experience into meaningful marketing management are Intuit, Enterprise Rent A Car, Hewlett Packard, and Cisco.
"If you really do understand your customer's aspirations, the problems they're facing and are looking at the world through their eyes," Meyer says, "then there are many opportunities for you to generate products and services -- much more than if you just ask how happy they are with your product."