Your customers are the life-blood of your business. Your company exists to provide products and services that fulfill customers’ needs and provide things that they value. That may seem simple and intuitive, but how well do you really understand your customers? Are your products and services meeting their needs or are there areas for improvement? How do you compare to competitors in the marketplace? Are there issues that are frustrating customers and tarnishing their perception of you?
These are all very important insights that you need to have to plan your company strategy and ensure that operations are tuned to meet the expectations of your customers. The first step to developing meaningful and actionable customer insights is collecting feedback to understand what your customers think and how they feel about you. Without customer feedback, you are left to guess and hope that you are making your customers happy.
Specific Experiences vs General Trends
Customer feedback comes in many different forms. It can be collected through many various mechanisms, each providing a unique point-of-view on customers’ perceptions. Sometimes, feedback is very specific – a response to specific events or experiences. For example, customers may have feedback on a recent purchase, the use of one of your products or their experience talking to one of your customer service agents. This feedback is very helpful because it is typically given shortly after the event and easy to trace back to the experience that generated the perception – making the feedback more easily actionable for driving operational improvements.
On the other hand, certain type of feedback is more general – feedback on the overall satisfaction with your company and products or how you are perceived relative to competitors. General feedback is helpful for assessing overall business performance, effectiveness of your strategies and the relationships with your business environment.
Feedback on specific experiences can be more directly actionable as it is often based more on emotional responses from customers instead of objective opinions. General feedback tends to be less emotionally based and therefore can be helpful for identifying changes in longer-term trends and changes in general perception.
10 Ways to Gather Customer Feedback
The feedback approach that you use should be determined by the type of information and insight you are trying to capture. If you just need a high-level indicator, you can use a simple survey measure like “net promoter score” and keep it simple. If you are looking for more details, specifics actionable guidance or to identify underpinning themes and causes, here are 10 techniques you can use to gather customer feedback:
1. Talk to Your customers and Ask Them How They Feel
Every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to learn something. How many interactions do your employees have with customers every day? Each one of those interactions is a chance for you to find out about your customer needs, their expectations, what they value and how they view your company and products.
Most sales and customer service staff are trained to focus on completing the transaction (making the sale or solving the customer’s problem) and while they might hear customer feedback, they aren’t often trained on what to listen for or what to do with the information that they encounter. A probing question or two, inserted into normal business conversation can signal to the customer your employee’s interest in hearing their perspective. In addition to collecting information, this technique also sends the message that you care about what your customers think and how they feel – a key driver of customer satisfaction.
2. Social Media Reviews
Modern consumers, particularly those in the millennial generation like talking about products, services and business interactions with others in their social circles. They also like posting feedback and reviews online. Social feedback about your company is critically important for you to actively monitor for two reasons. First, it is typically raw and unfiltered – customers tend to be very detailed and specific in their reviews and very candid in rating their level of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). The second reason is that it is not just shared with you – it is visible to other customers and potential customers, impacting their perceptions as well.
Social media comments and reviews can be somewhat problematic for some companies. Sites like LinkedIn, Twitter and Yelp are often used by potential customers searching for companies to do business with or comparing product/service options. Thus, how your company is portrayed on these sites can directly impact your business performance. The feedback that customers provide tends to be emotionally charged and skewed towards highly-positive or highly-negative (venting frustration) because intense emotions are the reasons why people post online.
In such situations, capturing and analyzing social feedback, along with providing thoughtful and empathetic responses to critical feedback posted on social media can help your company identify and address high-impact customer satisfaction issues.
3. Satisfaction Surveys
This is one of the most common methods that companies employ to capture customer feedback. At the conclusion of a customer interaction following a sale or after a service has been performed, the customer is presented with a short survey soliciting feedback on their experience with the company and its employees. This technique is popular because the surveys are easy and inexpensive, provide near-immediate feedback and are traceable to a specific event that has just occurred. It is important to keep in mind that this type of survey captures feedback about the most recent customer interaction and isn’t always a good indicator of general satisfaction of the customer relationship.
The challenge with this type of feedback is that it gets monotonous. Customers receive so many of these surveys that they often ignore them unless they have extremely strong (positive or negative) emotions about their experience. Employees have also become accustomed to these surveys and often prompt customers to provide high scores to improve employee performance evaluations. This causes the data that is collected by the surveys to be skewed. Many managers have also developed survey fatigue and either fail to review survey responses or only review negative responses that are likely to cause escalation.
Post-sale / post-support satisfaction surveys do provide some important benefits that companies should take advantage of. They provide a mechanism for customers to vent their frustrations, in turn, enabling your employees to respond and address the issue before it is broadcast via social media. The consistent data provided through transaction-based surveys is also helpful for evaluating the performance of teams and business processes, both over time and in comparison to others. Aggregate trend data built on these surveys can be made actionable through traceability to specific responses and associated events.
4. Voice of the Customer Surveys
Voice of the Customer (VOC) surveys are periodic questionnaires (typically conducted quarterly or annually) to collect feedback on your company’s products and services. They are typically longer than transaction-based surveys, taking up to 30 minutes to complete and explore various facets of customer sentiment in more detail.
The purpose of a voice of the customer survey is to understand the overall picture of how well the company is meeting the customer’s needs. This includes the products and services being offered along with company image and perception, price/value, and satisfaction interacting with your employees and business processes. These surveys may be conducted with all customers, those you’ve done business with recently or a representative sample – each audience providing slightly different feedback. Survey questions often include a combination of ranking/rating questions as well as open-ended questions inviting customers to provide comments, details, and elaborations on their thoughts and feelings.
This feedback mechanism provides companies with insights that go beyond immediate satisfaction including changes in customer needs/expectations, changes in market conditions, relative perception of the company vs competitors. Because of the length of these surveys, your loyal customers are most likely to respond (they have a vested interest in your company’s success). Their feedback will often be very thoughtful and if you ask them directly how you could improve, they are likely to give you direct answers.
5. Industry Analysts
Customer feedback doesn’t always have to come directly from customers. The use of third-party industry analysis can provide an objective assessment of your company’s market positioning, opportunities, and threats. You may not be able to get these insights from any other source. The feedback provided by industry analysts can be helpful in refining your business strategy but may not add much value to optimizing day-to-day operations and processes.
Like any feedback mechanism, leveraging the work of industry analysts has some challenges and limitations. The feedback will tend to be high-level and coarse-grained – lacking the detail and specifics available through direct customer interaction. Yet, you can receive a consensus opinion about what factors customers exactly care about and how you are doing relative to those things. While industry analysts can assess external opportunities and threats, they don’t typically have visibility to the internal workings of your company to assess your strategy, strengths, and weaknesses. As a result, industry analyst reports will need to be interpreted and re-framed within your company’s unique context to be actionable.
6. Focus Groups & Discussion Forums
If your goal is to generate new ideas or explore the underlying issues driving customer sentiment, the use of focus groups and discussion forums can be a way to leverage the synergy value of customers interacting with each other. These may be done in-person as a facilitated and controlled activity, or through the monitoring of online discussion forums. Regardless of which approach you choose, the key to obtaining meaningful feedback is to guide the discussion sufficiently to keep the conversation on topic and avoid it devolving into a venting/complaining session.
Focus groups can be an effective brainstorming technique, moving beyond collecting feedback on past events to capturing input and feedback on potential changes you are considering for the future. Gaining customer feedback through focus groups can enable you to predict how well something new would be received and identify potential issues so they can be mitigated.
The biggest concern of this technique is maintaining confidentiality of the ideas being shared. The information and perspectives gleaned from these activities have a tremendous potential for creating competitive advantage, both for you and for your competitors.
7. Sentiment Analysis of Emails and Phone Calls
There is a lot of information hidden in your case notes, sales records and support tickets. In most modern companies, every customer conversation, email interaction, and sales transaction are recorded in a helpdesk, CRM or sales system. That’s good news because this treasure trove of feedback data is just sitting there waiting to be harvested. Analysis tools are available to sort through and process both text interaction notes as well as voice recordings to pick out keywords, assess trends based on business process, agent or customer, and even rate levels of satisfaction/frustration based on vocal tone and the language being used.
Sentiment analysis of transaction and interaction data can be a helpful tool to identify staff training opportunities, product deficiencies and customers at risk of being lost to competitors. The type of feedback that is collected using this technique can be used for both real-time interventions (such as getting a supervisor involved in a support call) and for assessing longer-term strategic opportunities. Because the data that is being analyzed is coming from day-to-day interactions, it is less likely to include the bias or extreme positive/negative skewing that is common with surveys.
8. Analyze Sales Trends for Repeat Business and Lost Customers
The most crucial feedback that a customer can give you is through their actions. Are they giving you repeat business or are you losing them to competitors? Sales data can provide a tremendous amount of insight into the overall effectiveness of your company in meeting customers needs and expectations. Monitoring repeat sales trends, lifetime customer value, longevity of the relationship and referrals can provide a clear indicator of how happy your customers are. While this technique provides an excellent high-level indicator (KPI) of customer satisfaction, it does not tell you why customers are behaving as they are.
9. Review Sites
You aren’t the only one looking for feedback on your company – potential customers are looking for feedback too. Online review sites such as Yelp, Angie’s List (referral for household services) and G2Crowd, Capterra, GetApp (for software) provide a forum for customers to provide unsolicited reviews of the companies they interact with. Online review sites have an interesting dynamic that makes them unique from other social tools – the ability of companies to respond to customer feedback. Most companies will encounter a negative online review at some point – you can’t make everyone happy all the time. Customers understand this and place more weight into how your company responds to the negative review than the original issue. Your response is seen as an indicator of how future customers will be treated if they encounter an issue with your company.
Actively monitoring online review sites and providing empathetic responses to customer feedback can be an effective means of not only capturing customer sentiment but also influencing it by responding appropriately (publicly) and privately looking into the underlying cause of the feedback to identify improvement opportunities. Review site feedback is particularly valuable when combined with other interaction data available in your internal helpdesk and sales systems.
10. Ask Your Employees
It may seem counter-intuitive to ask your employees for customer feedback, but they interact with customers every day and often have a good perspective on common issues and themes. They can tell you where customers are confused, what is frustrating them, when they are looking for something that the company can’t offer and when customers seem especially happy.
Ideally, information that your employees capture would be recorded in a CRM, helpdesk or other system but there are a lot of small observations that often go unnoticed that emerge as trends over time. When soliciting customer feedback from employees, it is helpful to ask qualifying questions such as “Has this feedback been consistent or did it start following some event?” or, “Have you noticed any trends in the feedback from certain customers or in certain situations?” These qualifiers can help direct you to addressable underlying causes that are actionable.
Mixing It Up to Get a Broad Perspective
Each of these techniques for gathering customer feedback has its own strengths and limitations. A highly effective customer listening strategy should include a mix of different techniques to develop a broad perspective on customer sentiment. Combining short-term methods like post-support surveys and social reviews with longer-term methods like voice of the customer surveys, analyzing sales data and leveraging industry analysts can provide your company with a holistic perspective of what customers are thinking and how they are feeling.
Collecting feedback is valuable to your company only if you use the information and insights that you harvest to drive continuous improvement of your products, services, and business processes. General customer feedback can be used by management to guide your company’s strategy whereas specific feedback can be used to address specific customer pain-points in your products and services. On the whole, collecting customer feedback helps you assess how well your company is doing and helps you take the tactical steps to meet your customer needs all the time.