Many of the conversations I have with clients about voice of the customer (VoC) programs center on ways the programs can improve and best practices they can adopt. What I think is really underlying these discussions, though, is the question, "How does my program compare with all the others that are out there?" Or, more succinctly, "How am I doing?"

My anecdotal conversations, though frequent, do not make for a quantitative study. So I did just that: I surveyed our Global Customer Experience Peer Research Panel about their VoC programs. The results will be published shortly in a Forrester report called, "The State Of VoC Programs, 2012," but in the meantime, I'd like to give you a sneak peak.

Our most important finding was that customer experience professionals aren't getting the value they could be from their programs. Specifically, we asked how valuable their programs were in improving customers' experiences and how valuable they were in delivering financial results. It turns out that VoC programs help companies improve the customer experience; we saw more respondents getting that kind of value. But firms struggle to connect the dots to financial value.

So why the gap? It turns out that customer experience value is pretty easy to recognize. Respondents told us that the feedback data they collect helps them identify problems with the experience that need to be fixed. It also helps them prioritize what to fix because they can take the input from their customers into account when looking at all the various improvement project opportunities. The resulting projects make the experience better.

Financial value isn't nearly as easy to identify. Most of the respondents told us that they haven't done the calculations to figure out the business results associated with VoC-initiated projects — or they don't know how to. A handful of others said it was just too early to tell.

Here's a quick primer on how you can start to connect those dots.

First, you want to measure the value of an improved customer experience. How? You can prove the business impact of customer experience by linking customer feedback to loyalty and revenue. For example, when analysts at Adobe combined historical purchase and upgrade data with survey data, they found that customers with the highest feedback scores also had the greatest lifetime values.

Then you want to track the results of any service recovery you're doing to save unhappy customers. If customers tell you they're unhappy with something and likely to move their business elsewhere, you can swoop in and make things right. The value of the saved relationships is a tangible result you can then add up.

And finally, you want to aggregate the results of improvement projects that were initiated by VoC-collected data. Say your feedback data tells you that there's a problem on the website that's preventing customers from placing orders. You, of course, alert the web team to what's going on, they figure out what's causing it and fix the problem, and then you track what happens (customers place orders again!). Add all those improvement projects together, and you have a handsome number you can attribute to your VoC analysis. You may not have made the fix, but you helped the team find the problem in the first place — or at least find it sooner than they would have otherwise.

Come hear more about cutting-edge VoC programs at Forrester's Customer Experience Forum 2012 West in Los Angeles on November 14th and 15th. I'm leading a panel with this year's Voice Of The Customer Award winners: Barclaycard US, Cisco, and Vanguard!