Customer Feedback Fundamentals: What Do Your Customers Really Think?

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Customer Journey

What do your customers think of your business? No, really – do you know? Have you asked? Have you even talked to them recently – or ever?

You may be terrified at the notion of soliciting customer feedback. Asking customers what they think of your products and services is basically an act of cold-call torture. You may hear great things like “we love it!” and “keep it up!” But, when giving customers a venue or direct channel to talk, you also may be on the receiving end of a litany of things you’re supposedly doing wrong, and/or an unending barrage of complaints.

But finding out what customers think – straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak – is invaluable knowledge for your business. Listening to their feedback and implementing change based on what they say can also go a long way toward developing loyalty and customer lifetime value.

A few years ago, I worked under a kickass and driven marketer who constantly strove – obsessively, even – to listen to the customer voice. She frequently set up calls and scheduled small group meetings in order to hear from them directly. Without knowing what they need or think, she rationalized, how can we do our job?

So, today I want to give you some suggestions on how best to solicit that needed feedback – how you can talk to customers strategically and glean their wisdom.

Each of the three options below can be helpful for your business. Choose which to use depending on your bandwidth for running the program as well as weeding through the results.

Survey says! Polling your customers for feedback

One of the most common ways to hear what customers think is to conduct a poll or survey. You’ve no doubt seen and participated in these as a consumer yourself. They may be informal and short, inquiring about a recent visit or purchase. Or, they may be more in-depth and time-consuming, conducted in-person or online.

In today’s marketing world, you can set up a survey quickly and start to see results nearly instantly. For example, post an optional survey at the end of a transaction – or post a quick poll on your social media feeds. Many tools out there can help, such as SurveyMonkey or ForeSee Insights. Or, you can create your own.

Don’t forget to take it offline, too. You can reuse those same surveys or create new ones to gather feedback at trade shows and in-person events.

Conducting market research for feedback

Another way to get to the heart of the customer is to conduct market research. This is more in-depth than a short poll or survey. A master market researcher will create a long list of open-ended questions (more on this in a second) and ask these across a carefully selected swath of customers that represent the myriad facets of your customer base. They’ll also create a summary document of findings and analysis – including percentages, trends, and recommendations – in order to help your business move forward.

These market research polls may be conducted via phone or even in person in one of those conference rooms with listening devices and one-way glass.

You could conduct these yourself, but know that you are biased. It’s best to hire an impartial expert to run the show. This person won’t get flustered or defensive if the customers start railing against your product, and they may ask questions that you didn’t think of. It’s their job.

Customer discussions: getting group feedback

One other option is to conduct informal interviews with customers – one on one or in small groups. You may do these via phone or at events like trade shows and conferences.

In my past job, I helped set up roundtable discussions for a few trade shows. The idea was to solicit a group of 10-20 people at a time for an hour-long discussion to really delve into their experience with the brand.

If you want to set up a similar idea, here are some important details and actions to consider:

  • Find a representative group of customers who are willing to participate. This may be one of the trickiest tasks, given privacy and spam laws. To find participants, you could try an open call on social media – ask people to contact an email alias if they want more info and/or want to sign up for the panel. This way they are opting-in, vs. you illegally spamming them. Note that in an ideal world, you want to talk with a diverse group that represents your customer base. But you may not be able to control who signs up. It’s OK – they can still give you good intel. Just keep this in mind as you parse through the results and know the group may not be reflecting your entire customer base.
  • Be cordial, casual, and grateful in all your correspondence – for example, encourage your participants to bring their own questions to the panel, and thank them every time. An ideal discussion group is only a couple dozen people, so the email communications shouldn’t be too much to manage.
  • Set up a smart registration process so you know who is coming. You may wish to use Outlook or Google calendaring, or even a tool such as Evite. This help you keep track of how many people are attending and how much space you’ll need. Which reminds me…
  • Reserve a space for your discussion! Don’t count on securing a last-minute reservation in a restaurant’s banquet room, or stumbling into a spare conference room at the event space. Book it in advance, including any tech/AV equipment you may need. Ideally, fork out some money for beverages and even a small snack, too.
  • Create a roadmap of questions – aka a discussion guide – to facilitate your conversation. I recommend you write 7-10 questions total, and place them in the order that you wish to ask them. Build in ice breakers and pauses to open-up your crowd and get them talking. If at all possible, send out the questions to your participants ahead of time, too. This gives them time to think through thoughtful answers.
  • Be prepared for an onslaught of information. Expect your customers to give you a mouthful. Just listen and learn. You can be defensive later – by taking action and making fixes. Your goal for the here and now is to foster fruitful discussion. Related: Be sure to have someone take notes and/or record the session (with participants’ consent) so you can review the information later.

Ask open-ended questions to foster feedback

No matter which tactic you take, you need to invest time in your questions. Write quality, open questions that will elicit meaty responses and uncover what your customers think. Open-ended questions are those that go beyond a yes/no answer – and instead encourage and enable the participant to tell all. Yes, it will take more time to go through the responses – but what they tell you may be well worth it.

What to do with the findings

Once you’ve conducted your research, it’s time to evaluate it.

First and foremost, read it. Really read it. Read between the lines, too. There may be one note buried somewhere in a customer poll that is extremely helpful to you. There may also be things you can immediately disregard. A tactic I recommend is to see what comments keep coming up. Look for the things that customers are telling you over and over. What is rising to the top. Also, be sure to have an open mind when you read.

Once you read and discern, prepare for action. Make a short list of three or four key things you can do, change, or create to help address your customer’s feedback. Prioritize that list and work it in to your project calendar. Then get to work!

Don’t forget to loop back to customers to let them know you’ve heard their feedback, too. For example, issue a press release when you make a change. Write a blog and say “thanks to recent customer feedback, we’ve done X.” Let them know you are listening. A great example of this is My Starbucks Idea. It’s a website that lets the coffee chain’s customers make suggestions. Starbucks also takes the time to tell customers which ideas they’ve greenlit. As a customer, this makes me feel like there is a venue for my feedback. I feel heard. Not to mention exhilarated if my idea makes it through.

These final few points tie into customer lifetime value. By giving customers a venue – by truly hearing their feedback and engaging with them – you help establish a personal connection and potentially long-term relationship with your customers. And that’s the ultimate payoff: You make a lifelong fan.

What question would you ask your customers?

I’d love to hear from you. If you had 90 seconds with a customer, what burning question would you want them to answer?