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Customer feedback - How to find out what they really think

Updated on February 19, 2015
Find out what your customers really think of your business and act on it
Find out what your customers really think of your business and act on it | Source

Understanding what makes your customers happy

You know that if you can really understand what your customers think and feel, you'll be able to create fantastic products and services that will delight and engage them. Their feedback can be incredibly valuable in helping you to tweak your business offerings so that both your customers and your business can benefit.

One of the main issues that we have as business owners and managers is getting that valuable feedback from our customers and clients. The reasons that small businesses want feedback are many and varied, but just asking for general feedback from customers seldom works.

Why might your small business want feedback from your customers?

There are many reasons why you might want to get feedback, including:

  • What your customers think of your products and services, either in general or about specific aspects
  • Your customers' experiences of your customer service and support processes
  • To provide inspiration and guidance for future product or service development
  • Identifying areas for growth or gaps in the market
  • Clearly understanding existing and potential customer needs and how your business can address them

Whatever your reasons, having the right information is critical to business development and how you use your resources. Good feedback will help you make an informed decision and improve your chances of business success.

Because your clients are often busy and time-starved, you need to ask the right questions, provide a structure and incentivize them to feedback to you. This isn't as difficult as it sounds, you just need to follow five basic principles:

  1. Be specific in your survey questions
  2. Provide a structured way to give a response
  3. Understand who your audience is and how to reach them
  4. Communicate and incentivize your survey
  5. Analyze and act on your results

This article will tell you how to go about that and provide a basic framework for you to start getting the feedback that matters from your customers.

Customer feedback can be a great way to tweak your business strategy
Customer feedback can be a great way to tweak your business strategy | Source

1. Be specific in your survey questions

If you're requesting general feedback from your customers, it's not likely to work for several reasons:

  • Your customer doesn't know the type of information you are after (it's not very often that you truly need 'general' feedback)
  • They don't have the time or inclination to feedback
  • They don't necessarily trust that you will act on their feedback
  • There's no real advantage to them to provide you with a response

You can start to address some of these problems by asking very specific questions that focus on what you need to know so you can then act on the responses. So, what kind of questions might you ask?

Of course, it all depends on your needs, but examples of good questions might be:

  • Did the email that I sent you explaining our products and services clearly explain what to do in the event of difficulties?
  • If you could change one thing about specific product or service what would it be?
  • Do you have any customer support needs that aren't being met?
  • We're thinking of launching a new product that will do specific function; would you use such a product and what features should it have?
  • Do you have any particular needs that aren't yet being met by specific product?

Not all of your questions need to actually be qualitative, i.e. require the customer to enter their thoughts as text. You might ask questions that can be answered by a simple yes / no, multiple choice, prioritization or ratings (score out of ten etc.)

It's critical that all of your questions are relatively easy to answer and not require too much thought or time on your customer's part.

Spend a few minutes brainstorming and refining the most essential areas that you need to know about from your customers and write down those key questions.

An example scale (Likert scale) typically used in gathering customer feedback in a survey
An example scale (Likert scale) typically used in gathering customer feedback in a survey | Source
You need customer feedback and information that you can act on
You need customer feedback and information that you can act on | Source

2. Provide a structured way to give a response

It's vital to provide an easy, guided, structured way for your customer to provide a response. Just asking in an email or via Twitter or Facebook seldom works as people become easily distracted, and it takes a lot of effort for them to respond.

From your point of view it will also take a while for you to collate replies. Fortunately, there are a number of very good surveying tools out there that make it easy to structure your survey, get feedback from your customers and collate the responses. There are many survey tools to choose from but SurveyMonkey, WuFoo and QuestionPro are all good places to start.

Discussing how to use each tool and their specific merits is outside the scope of this article, so I'd recommend having a play around with them and finding one that works for you.

You'll then need to put your questions into the tool and provide a way for your customers to respond. There are several types of questions that you can ask including:

  • Binary questions - Those that have an 'either / or' response such as yes / no, true / false, agree / disagree etc.
  • Multiple choice - Single answer - These questions require the customer to select one answer to the question from a selection (These are the types of questions most often asked in online polls)
  • Multiple choice - Multiple answers - These questions allow the customer to select more than one answer (e.g. 'tick all that apply')
  • Prioritization - Requires the customer to rank answers in order of importance
  • Rating - Words - Similar to multiple choice, asks the customer to rate something with adjectives (e.g. Very good, good, poor, very poor); scales of this type with five possible answers are often called Likert scales
  • Rating - Numbers - Like rating with words, but instead useful for scores out of five, ten or something else
  • Text reply - This is often where you'll gather the best data from a survey and requires the customer to input free form text in answer to a question (e.g. the questions from step 1)

You'll want to keep the number of questions short, aim at seven or fewer so that people don't lose interest. You'll also want to vary the types of questions you ask as this will help your customers think about the questions in different ways.

Once you've created the survey, send it to some colleagues or friends that you trust and get their thoughts on it. That way you can also check if it's providing the kind of data you want.

Once you've tested the survey, refine and tweak it and test it again, when you're satisfied, it's time to move onto the next step.

Question and answer types and what they are good for

Answer Type
Good For
Binary (Yes / No, Tick Box, Either / Or etc.)
Simple answers where you just want to know if a customer agrees with something or not. Useful in limited circumstances
Multiple Choice, Single Answer (Radio button or dropdown list)
When you want an answer from your preselected choices; useful to get the customer to make a specific decision in their feedback
Multiple Choice, Multiple Answers
When you want one or more answers to a single question; allows your customer to select all of the choices that relate to them or their situation
Prioritization (What's most / least important)
Lets your customers inform you of what's more and less important or urgent to them. Useful for helping you focus effort on what matters
Rating, Words (Very good, good, poor etc.)
Adjectives often give a better response than simple number ratings; people find it easier to relate to 'very good' than to '8 out of 10'
Rating, Numbers (Score out of 5, 10 etc.)
Allows you to collect quantitative feedback on aspects of your products / services; useful for generating and tracking averages and medians
Text only (Freeform)
Often allows for unexpected responses and is one of the most valuable parts of a survey. Allows customer to enter freeform answers based on your questions

An overview of how to gather feedback from customers

How Small Businesses Can Get Feedback From Their Customers
How Small Businesses Can Get Feedback From Their Customers | Source

My experiences

I spent several years in a large organization as a Communications and Customer Satisfaction Manager.

Customer surveys were one of the most powerful tools that we had to develop our business and we made good use of the feedback that was provided to tweak and improve our services.

Although the techniques I discuss here are just starting points, the framework is a solid one that really works.

3. Understand who your audience is and how to reach them

Once you've decided on your questions, created your survey and tested it, you'll need to communicate to the survey to your customers and get them to complete it.

Firstly, you'll want to identify the specific customer group that you want to reach, do you ant to speak to:

  • All of your customers
  • Potential / new customers
  • Customers that have had an issue
  • Paying customers
  • Other specific groups

Once you've done this, you'll want to establish the best way to reach them (email, Facebook, Twitter or something else?) Hopefully you already know the best marketing channels to use, or you might have email addresses on file.

Your communications channel will be very important, as you'll be relying on this to get your message out to your customers that there's something you need feedback on.

Ten ways to get customer feedback

Don't just let your valuable customer feedback sit in a file doing nothing - Create an action plan around it.
Don't just let your valuable customer feedback sit in a file doing nothing - Create an action plan around it. | Source


Asking your customers for feedback is also a great way to collect testimonials and reviews about your business - Hearing the experiences of others is one of the best ways that customers can make an informed choice about your business.

But, a word of warning: Always let your survey respondents know if you are going to be using any part of their feedback as a testimonial. In fact, the best way to do this would be to have a separate question titled something like: 'We may want to include a testimonial from you about our business, if you're happy for us to do this, please provide a testimonial below'.

That way, you're clear that you'll be using their feedback and by filling it in, they have given you permission to do so.

How will a customer survey help your business most, in the areas of:

See results

4. Incentivize and communicate your customer satisfaction survey

Once you know how to reach your audience, you'll need to create an incentive for people to fill in the survey (there needs to be something in it for them). This could be something like:

  • Giving them early access to a new product or service
  • Inviting them to a specialist customer or user group
  • Donating a dollar to charity for each completed survey
  • Providing a small discount on their next purchase
  • Offering them discount codes or vouchers to other sites

When you know what your incentive is, you'll want to create and send out three communications via the channels that you identified in the last step; these communications will be the messages that let your customers know about the survey and the incentive that you'll provide for filling it out.

You should space your communications out, as follows:

  • Week 1: An initial message to your customer letting them know that the survey is coming and what the incentive will be
  • Week 2: The invitation to complete the survey, together with a link to it and a reminder of the incentive
  • Week 3: A reminder message to people to fill in the survey and a thank you to those that have already done so

You can then track how many people are responding to your survey. As a general rule, if you get 10% of the customers that you approach to fill the survey in, you'll be doing well.

5. Analyze and act on your results

You've gone to a lot of trouble to get feedback from your customers, so objectively understanding, analyzing and acting on it is vital; when you're collating and reading through the feedback, remember:

  • Don't take the feedback personally
  • People tend to feedback either very good, or very bad experiences, you may not see a lot of 'middle ground' comments
  • Pay particular attention to free form text answers; they are often your best indication of what you need to do
  • Put a plan together to take the feedback and use it to drive your business approach

Feedback is one of the most powerful tools that we have to build and adapt our businesses to meet the needs of our customers and drive our short and long term success.

Good luck!

What are your experiences of getting customer feedback? Do you have any hints or tips? If so, please share your expertise in the comments.

If you found this article useful, interesting or informative, please do check out my other guides for small business owners here.

Other useful business articles that I've written


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