Q&A: J.D. Powers' O'Neill On 'Listening' Tools


J.D. Power & Associates' President Finbarr O'Neill was in New York last week to give a talk at a meeting of the Conference Board. His talk was in an area that he -- and J.D. Power -- know all too well: customer service. But the firm is, like everyone else, figuring out how to use social media platforms to gauge customer service, as well as product impact, design and just about everything else consumers talk about when they discuss brands online.

O'Neill's company has been in the thick of it since 2008 when it acquired Boulder, Colo.-based metrics firm Umbria to develop tools for clients to tap into and interpret Web buzz. That's a big shift for the firm, whose bread and butter has been purely survey-based methods that are necessarily retrospective. He talks to Marketing Daily about customer service and social media.



Q: What is the value of social media in customer service research?

A: It's great because you can hear what people are saying -- unbidden -- about your brand, and that gives you a real insight as to how that brand is translating and how they define for themselves the core essence of the brand.

Q: Sometime after J.D. Power acquired Umbria, you said it added "listening" to JDP's box of research tools that had been traditionally focused on "asking" and "watching," (via the Power Information Network) and also added a predictive rather than just retrospective function to your research. What is the status of that?

A: Our social media product [for the automotive sector], the Automotive Industry Monitor, is about going beyond just buzz or volume and really understanding what people are saying around key concepts. But you just can't boil the ocean. The question is, how do you distill this data?

So we have a partner, (social media consumer research firm) NetBase, and we are working closely with them and with Honda to refine the product and make it something relevant not only to our traditional clients around customer satisfaction, but also product designers and marketing departments.

Q: So this is in beta?

A: It's sort of at 1.0 now and we are looking to bring it to 2.0, a more sophisticated product. Ultimately, we would like to apply it to any industry -- telecom, for example -- where customers are having online conversations about products and experience. Since [people engaging in social media] are not constrained by a survey, we can see what they are really saying and try to distill that. The problem is there is so much out there, how do you digest it? That's what these monitors, hopefully, will be doing in a variety of industries.

Q: There must be 10,000 other companies doing this, or purporting to ...

A: There are a lot of products out there that measure customer sentiment and do it very well and are very inexpensive -- so we are not trying to duplicate that, we are trying to go deeper. For instance, we have a hierarchy -- topic, feature and attribute -- and without getting technical -- what that does is give much more dimension and depth to the information than just superficially grading their emotion about your product.

Q: What about the benefit of synergy with J.D. Power's traditional data from sources like the Power Information Network?

A: The monitors have to be supplemented. The challenge is taking social media data, which is qualitative, and tying it to quantitative data you have through more traditional research around the consumer. Our challenge is, we were traditionally quantitative: we ask 220 questions about quality, and slice and dice that data. Here, you don't even have the questions, you're just listening to what they are saying. And yet you have to judge it in some way. Once you discover the [issues] on customer satisfaction or product ideas people are discussing, then it's about tying that back to other information. But it's also a big challenge to OEMs because they get lots of data pouring in from a variety of sources and consolidating that into an action plan is a big challenge.

Q: So if OEMs have this data, why do they need you?

A: I think one of the lessons is that the internal market research departments can't do everything and coming out of the latest recession they have eviscerated a number of functions.

Q: How about the cultural challenge within J.D. Power of getting social media people to talk to the survey people doing things like initial quality, durability, and customer service studies?

A: Yes, J.D. Power has had its silos and one challenge is to break those down and share information not just within people who look at the auto industry, but across industries. That was a theme at the Conference Board [Thursday morning]: one of the themes was the relevance of looking at other industries. There were people from Mercedes and Jaguar -- and they were there to hear about Ritz Carlton, for instance, who has something to say about how you manage and contribute to the customer experience.

Q: Doesn't the automotive sector have a special challenge in this regard, since the OEMs only have so much control over dealerships who are really the ones who define customer service for most people?

A: Yes. We have a particular client struggling with that right now. They have great product, but they can't get the dealers to do what they need to do [to participate in gauging customer service]. Except pay them. And I know another brand that has tried to compensate dealers, as generally speaking, dealers want a system that will maximize reward. They are doing things like coaching their customers to give the right answers. There are always going to be disputes about methodologies in the retail experience if you are tracking your own retail service to improve the customer experience.

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