Joe Johnson, Ph.D.
Entrepreneur. Investor. Startup Expert.

Feedback is an important tool for entrepreneurs, most especially for those operating under the lean method. Quality feedback can help you to apply the necessary changes to spur your company, product, or service forward. Here’s some vital information on both obtaining quality feedback and putting it to good use:

Why Feedback is Important

Working in a vacuum is not only boring, it prevents you from improving. Feedback can help to remove you from the vacuum of your startup; it’ll help you to better understand your target audience and their perceptions of your product, service, or company.

Feedback enables you to change your products or services so as to better fit your customers’ needs. It also provides you with an ever-expanding list of possible new features for the future.

While you’re collecting this data from real users, you’re also able to build a relationship with your customers and learn more about their real-world needs. This can directly help to improve your customer retention numbers.

There’s no substitute for quality feedback. You can brainstorm and plan and research, but you’ll never achieve a clear picture of your target audience unless you’re collecting feedback from them.

How to Obtain Quality Feedback

There are multiple ways you can connect with your target audience to collect valuable feedback. The method you select should be both consistent with your company’s mission and goals and painless for the customer.

I’m going to cover some popular methods for feedback collection and then address concerns regarding the quality and amount of feedback:

Surveys

If you’ve gone shopping lately, you’ve probably received a survey on your printed receipt. This sort of data collection attempt is happening at department stores, pharmacies, grocery stores, and smaller retail shops. They all want to know what you think, so they can do a more effective job of selling to you.

You’ve probably also noticed website popups with text to the effect of “We’d love to know what you think!” followed by a survey link. Surveys are also frequently emailed following a purchase.

Surveys are a popular means of gathering information. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for a survey to go wrong. A survey’s value depends both on the type of questions asked and how they’re asked. Surveys that are too long will inevitably be abandoned by many respondents. Surveys that don’t allow for open-ended feedback can miss out on collecting essential information.

A survey can be fairly unobtrusive if it’s kept short. Allowing for open-ended questions that permit respondents to write out their replies in long form will help you to identify concerns and shape future surveys. While you may, when first writing a survey, be tempted to restrict responses to a scale or multiple-choice answers, doing this will limit a respondent’s options. If it’s your first survey, then it’s possible that your multiple-choice answers – or even your questions – will miss the mark. Including more open-ended questions will facilitate customers sharing the information that they believe you need to hear. You can then use those answers to craft future surveys.

How many times do you fill out surveys? I know some people who always fill them out, some who only do so when they’ve had a negative experience, and others who only make the effort after they’ve had an exceptional experience. One way to let your customers know that their feedback matters to you is to offer them some compensation for their time. Incentivizing your survey can increase the answer rates and so help to provide you with a more accurate representation of your customer base. Incentives can be as simple as a free accessory or 10% off a future order.

Live Chat Support

There are several companies offering web-enabled chat directly on your website. You can have your own staff manning the chat box in case anyone needs to ask a question or leave feedback. It can also be a simple way for potential customers to ask questions vs. checking your FAQ or fully reading the information you’ve provided. While potentially worthwhile, this can constitute a significantly time-consuming endeavor, especially for a company receiving high levels of web traffic (pageviews).

Customer Service Line

Every company should have a prominent phone number on their website or business cards. Encourage customers (directly on your marketing literature) to call you with concerns. It’s absolutely invaluable to be able to speak with customers in real-time. Not only will you be able to address their concerns, but you can also ask followup questions to help you to truly understand their needs.

Monitor Your Social Media Feeds

If your company is using Twitter, FaceBook, or another social media platform, it’s important to recognize their two-way nature. It’s never acceptable to simply market, market, market. Social media platforms are viewed as an alternate means of communicating. In other words, they’re opportunities to have a conversation. Like any dialogue, they’re not – by definition – a one-way street. If you have customers following you on social media, while they’re likely interested in what your company is offering, they also want to share their own opinions with you. Some large companies excel at making social media fun and acquiring feedback through their chosen channels. To succeed at this, you must actively monitor all of your social media accounts and respond in an extremely timely manner to every individual who messages you either publicly or privately.

Social media accounts are also a great place to introduce surveys or to solicit feedback. Before doing so, you should fully understand your goal. Do you want to investigate whether particular product features are being used or do you want to learn how people have integrated your product or service into their routines?

Knowing what you want from your social accounts can help you to shape how you use them and enable you to maximize your connection with your followers.

Focus Group

If you need feedback before going to market, a focus group may help you to understand just how your product or service will be perceived. This can enable you to capture data that are harder to quantify, such as emotions. If you choose to conduct a focus group, take care to run several in order to ensure that other factors aren’t impacting your results, such as environment-related issues or current events.

Customer Interviews

Depending on your industry, it may be wise to speak directly with some customers. For example, if you’re building a web platform for small business invoicing, it’s a smart move to speak with at least a few small business owners in order to discover the sorts of features they want and which ones they find unhelpful. Prior to doing this, however, you’ll need to have some idea of the feedback you want to solicit. The Nielsen Norman Group shares some pointers.

Customer Council

Christopher Mirabile, chair of the Angel Capital Association, advocates for the use of customer council. Envisioned as a group of real-life users akin to beta-testers, a customer council is tasked with providing feedback on a regular basis. It can also be viewed as a recurrent focus group comprised of actual customers. These customers serve as pseudo-advisors and help to provide companies with product/marketing feedback and other notes to help improve products, services, marketing campaigns, and business operations.

Tips For Soliciting Feedback

In order to maximize the quality of your received feedback, it’s important to structure questions in a way that enables respondents to answer according to their experience. Oftentimes, close-ended questions can leave respondents flummoxed, as the answer they want to give is not represented, with the result that you’re missing out on valuable information. Make sure that you always leave room for customers to voice their concerns – especially the ones that you’ve never considered.

Remind customers that their feedback is valuable to you. Let them know that you care about their time and needs and that you want to make sure that your product is truly working for them.

What to Do With Your Feedback

Once you have your feedback, you can determine the types of changes necessary to increase the popularity of your product or service, alter or fix features, or create new iterations. You can also determine whether you’re doing a good job of explaining the features/benefits and whether your sales and marketing information has been effective. Additionally, you can make any necessary changes to your customer service or feedback loop in order to ensure that the lines of communication are kept open and that you continue to receive useful information.

Some feedback may help you to determine direct changes that you can make to have an instant effect. Other received feedback may indicate that you aren’t asking the right questions, there are other issues to uncover, or that you may need to collect more feedback.

Rarely does feedback represent a net negative. However, failing to do anything with the feedback you receive can certainly have negative consequences. That said, you should certainly expect there to be times when you’ll receive unhelpful feedback and other times when you’ll receive the same feedback over and over. These are both clear indications that there’s at least one issue that must be addressed.

Given that our startups are so close to our hearts, it can be difficult to fully internalize feedback. However, setting aside our egos and learning from our customers will always be beneficial in the long run.

About the Author

Dr. Joe Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor, and startup expert. He is the founder and principal of GoodField Investments and the GoodField Foundation (www.GoodField.com).

Joe has a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurial Leadership and an MBA. He is the author of the upcoming book on The Science of Why Most Entrepreneurs Fail and Some Succeed.

Most importantly, he is the incredibly blessed husband of one amazing wife and father of six wonderful children. He resides in Bradenton, Florida. For more information on Dr. Johnson and his work, go to www.JoeJohnson.com.