May I Make a Suggestion? Collecting and Responding to Customer Feedback |®

May I Make a Suggestion? Collecting and Responding to Customer Feedback

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

Email surveys, mobile apps and suggestion boxes make it easy to gather useful information from your best customers, improve customer loyalty and gain a competitive advantage. But how do you choose the best feedback tool for your business, and how do you know which insights to act on and which to ignore?

How to Gather Customer Feedback

“I always tell my clients they do not have to be the smartest people in the world — they simply need to communicate regularly with their customers,” says Canton, MI–based business expert Tom Borg. “By doing so they can learn their likes and dislikes and what they see other companies doing better.”

Here are five popular ways to gather customer insights:

  1. Conversations. “The best way is to have genuine conversations,” says T.J. Callaway, founder and CEO of Onward Reserve, a boutique retailer based in Atlanta. Whether in person or on the phone, take a moment or two to ask what you’re doing right and what can be improved. This effective technique creates stronger relationships with your clientele.
  2. Suggestion Boxes. This old-school approach enables customers to provide anonymous suggestions and complaints right on site. But include a place for name and contact information on your feedback forms anyway, so you can reach out to those people who do want to communicate with you about an issue they have.
  3. Surveys. Short questionnaires can provide a wealth of valuable customer insights. Offer them in person (perhaps while customers are waiting), via a mobile device in store or through push notifications, in email newsletters or online. Send thank-you notes or coupons to those who respond.
  4. Review Sites. Be sure to “own” your profiles on popular review sites and monitor them closely to see what patrons say about you. “Typically, we get ‘spectrum reviewers,’ people who are really angry or very happy,” explains Leslie Hobbs, public relations director for But even in these emotional responses, you can find valuable insights on what you do well (or not), and identify good and bad trends.
  5. Social Media. Pay attention to what people are saying about you and your competitors on social sites to get a handle on what customers are talking about, including questions they have or items they’re seeking. Identify trends and provide your own insights to solve problems and build loyalty.

Regardless of the channel you choose, request relevant and actionable insights. “Ask your customers for feedback about things you can actually control and change, such as customer service practices and product availability, and be ready to make changes based on the feedback you get,” counsels Guy Winch, psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel.

How to Use Customer Feedback

If you go to the trouble of asking for customer suggestions and charting customer complaints, you need to be willing to act. “Decades of research indicates that customer feedback contains vital information for businesses that, when analyzed correctly, can make a huge difference for their bottom lines, their brands and their customer loyalty,” Winch notes. “Further, by ignoring customer feedback, especially customer complaints, they risk creating extremely negative word of mouth — and word of 'mouse' via social media — and hurting their bottom lines.”

Here are four tips for using customer suggestions and insights:

  1. Filter all feedback. Analyze the really positive and the really negative comments for trends and take note of patterns, like days of the week or particular shifts. “If you keep hearing the same things over and over, it tells you it is something you need to pay attention to,” Borg says. Do the same for comments that fall in the middle. Make a list of suggestions or observations that are specific and detailed — and that you can act on.
  2. Respond thoughtfully. Always thank people for useful feedback. “Show the person who posted the complaint, as well as other customers, that you don’t shy away from engaging with negative feedback,” Hobbs says. “That said, from time to time, on rare occasions, you may get an irrational customer who is so angry, there's no reasoning with that person. In that instance, do let it go. And remember: When you wrestle with a pig, you both get covered in mud. That means, above all else, refrain from engaging in an online fight with the source of the feedback.”
  3. Take action. Use legitimate feedback to improve operations. For persistent issues, retool staff training to specifically address recurring complaints. Develop new practices and policies to streamline workflows and improve customer experience. Reinforce good behavior by posting positive feedback where employees can see it, like in the breakroom or kitchen.
  4. Report improvements and resolutions. Whenever you address a complaint or operationalize a suggestion, share that via your social media channels, newsletter or even by using a small display sign in the store. This builds buy-in with the commenters and shows others that you’re someone who truly cares about clients. “Doing this will spread positive word of mouth, and that will bring you more customers than you would get via traditional customer acquisition and marketing practices,” Winch says.

Collecting and processing customer suggestions and complaints effectively provides valuable customer insights that can help you sustain and grow your business. A 2011 Harris survey found that 18 percent of people who received responses to negative reviews became loyal customers and made additional buys from the business; 34 percent deleted their comments and 33 percent posted a positive review. It’s reasonable to expect this same kind of pay-off when you respond to feedback from any channel, not just review sites.

“Customers drive your business,” Callaway says. “Listen to people with an open mind and customize your retail experience to exceed customer expectations.”

Margot Carmichael Lester is a freelance journalist and owner of The Word Factory, a creative agency in Carrboro, NC. Raised in her parents’ gourmet grocery, she went on to become a journalist covering small business, retail and restaurants for several in-flight magazines, the L.A. Business Journal, Playboy and Follow Margot on Google+.

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