Gathering Community Feedback Isn’t Optional

November 25, 2019

You need people in your life who aren’t afraid to give it to you straight—the friend who tells you when you have spinach in your teeth, the colleague who provides advice when you make a mistake and the customer that gives you a heads up when management is evaluating a different option because your product is missing a feature. These people offer feedback that ranges from helpful to brutal because they want you to succeed and because they want you to be the best you can be.

In a similar way, your product needs customers who are willing and able to provide honest, insightful feedback. Your customers are in a unique position to deliver exactly the information you need about how to improve and evolve your product. They are on the front lines—actually using your product to get their work done. They know better than anyone what works and what doesn’t.

Tragically, a lot of companies miss the boat when it comes to collecting and acting on customer feedback. I’m asked all the time about who in an organization should be customer-facing and how often the leadership team should be interacting with users.

The short answer: you should be talking to your customers all the time.

Why? Because having a productive, ongoing dialog with your customers is hands down the most efficient and effective way to improve your product. Sure, it can be a little scary to ask people to share what they really think, but—trust me—you’ll save a lot of time. Rather than making educated guesses about what needs to change, you can simply reach out to your customers and ask them to tell you what’s not working and what could be better.

Initiating this exchange isn’t as hard as you might imagine. In fact, there are many different ways to engage your customers in valuable feedback conversations. As a bonus, you will not only gain critical insight to empower your product, sales and marketing teams, you will also strengthen your customer relationships.

Foundations: The Right Space, Team, Approach and Process for Collecting Customer Feedback

Before we get to the tactical side of how to start and sustain productive customer feedback conversations, there are a few big-picture concepts and strategies to consider. Collecting feedback doesn’t have to be a wildly complex process, but if you’re going to get the most out of the effort, you do need to have some foundational elements and processes in place.

Creating a space for open communication

First and foremost, however you decide to engage your customers, make sure that you create a safe space in which to have the conversation. Customers need to know that it’s truly okay for them to share their honest feedback, no holds barred. You want them to have the sense that you are all on the same team—all in this together, working collaboratively toward a common goal, specifically a better product that makes it easier and more pleasant to get their job done.

Depending on the kinds of questions you’re asking, a safe space might be a private 1:1 conversation, or it might be a round table discussion amongst peers. It could be a one-way input form or an online forum that’s accessible to anyone and public for everyone to see. In group situations, you want to pay attention to who is in the room—virtual or otherwise. Are there managers in the room whose presence might curtail certain comments from hands-on users? Does your group contain people from competing companies?

Often, a customer’s comfort level is directly influenced by the identity of the person on the other side of the table. Are you engaging your customers as product people, salespeople, marketing people or leadership? It can be a little like playing matchmaker to pair up the right customer segment with the right internal representatives.

Anonymity is another factor to consider. In some cases, anonymity is the only way to ensure complete transparency. However, there is a trade-off in that you can’t follow up with an anonymous customer to ask for additional information or provide progress updates.

I really like getting a good group of people with similar product needs in a room with a product manager or leader and having a healthy, facilitated feedback conversation. Layer a healthy online community forum on top of that for feature requests, bug reporting and open feedback, and you’re opening up your team and product to endless valuable feedback that can be taken into consideration when thinking about the product roadmap for years to come.

Collecting Feedback is Everyone’s Job

Everyone in your organization that interacts with customers and community should have a simple way to collect feedback.

On the internal side of things, it’s critical that your efforts to collect and act on customer feedback are not isolated to one department or team. For a feedback effort to be truly effective, it must be taken up across the entire company. From the top-down and the bottom-up, getting quality feedback must become everyone’s job.

To ensure that your entire organization is both on board and aligned in the cause, it’s important to be really clear about the “why” behind your feedback mission. From customer support to your leadership team, everyone needs to understand why you are seeking feedback in the first place as well as how you plan to put it into action once you have it.

A Hands-on Approach

On a related note, one way to help inspire and sustain internal engagement is to implement a hands-on approach to community relations and support. While your company is still small enough to accommodate it, have every new hire—no matter their place in the company hierarchy—work support for their first two weeks on the job.

There is no better role for developing a broad and deep understanding of the product including features, use cases, customer pain points and so on. Most importantly, there’s no better way to develop empathy for the customer. In some cases, I’ve seen entire companies remain on the support cycle until their company grows to more than a few hundred people or they hit their Series B. The exact approach varies by company, but giving each employee the opportunity to interact directly with customers makes your whole company stronger.

So many times over I’ve heard stories of an engineer or product person on a support rotation answering a ticket, realizing it’s a bug in the code, fixing the issue and letting the customer know all within a few hours. I like to send those types of customers a t-shirt or sticker but a friendly “thank you for reporting this bug” email is great, too.

A Way to Consolidate Feedback to Create a Single Source of Truth

Finally, on a more tactical note, customer feedback is only useful if it’s consolidated into a single source of truth that is accessible to everyone who needs it. You may be collecting feedback via multiple channels—customer success, support tickets, social media rants, customer emails, conversations with sales, surveys, customer advisory boards and so on—but you need to funnel all those sources into a single repository.

Feedback can from many directions and types of users. Making it easy for this feedback to be collected and acted upon is super important for your product and team. From the support team closing out tickets all day to the marketing team on the ground at events, give everyone in your organization simple inputs to collect feedback when they are speaking with customers online and in person.

That final destination may be a spreadsheet or a Trello board or some kind of feedback software. The actual mechanism and format don’t matter. What matters is that you are consistently, without exception, putting everything in that one place so that everyone knows where to go for the goods.

Tactics: Where, When and How to Collect Customer Feedback

With some key foundational elements in place, you’re ready to talk tactics. The right approach for collecting customer feedback will differ from company to company depending on your culture, your customers and your product. There are, however, a few core things that work well for almost every organization.

Talk to your Prospects and Customers

It may seem obvious, but talking to your prospects and customers should be a cornerstone of any effort to collect customer feedback. Conversations with prospects and customers serve different purposes and will provide different kinds of insights, but both are equally important. Your goal is to gather information about perceptions, friction points and untapped opportunities.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m asked all the time for advice about exactly who should be running these conversations. It can be a little bit tricky, but it’s important to involve leadership as much as is realistically possible. This is easier early in a company’s lifecycle when it’s expected that CEOs and founders will be the ones taking point on talking with customers and closing deals. But, as a company expands, having your leadership team in such a hands-on role can make your startup look inefficient. The exceptions to this rule are interactions with high-profile customers and customer/community advisory boards, which should always involve leadership.

One word of caution—when you do have executives and leadership involved in prospect/customer calls, it’s important to have a strong process in place to capture and assess the content of those conversations. You want to avoid situations in which a single customer conversation with the CEO leads to an unvetted shift in the product development strategy. Even the CEO’s insights need to be analyzed and run through the normal channels before anyone acts on them.

Talk to Your Competitors’ Logo Customers

You know which companies have signed on with your competitors. So, why not reach out to them? I’m not advocating for poaching customers. I’m just saying that you can learn a lot by talking to the people who chose someone else’s product over yours.

Approach the conversation with complete transparency. Let them know that you’re not trying to steal their business, you just genuinely want to know why they went with your competitor. What did they offer that you didn’t? Was it something about the sales process? Did they need some special integration or feature? Was it the price point?

Your goal in these conversations is not to build a copycat product or even to emulate your competition’s approach to sales. This is more about identifying blind spots so that your whole team—product, marketing, sales, etc.—knows where they might encounter trouble spots and how to address them effectively.

Talk to the People Who Should be Using Your Product but Aren’t

This is another set of conversations that aren’t about pitching your product. In fact, when you reach out to companies that you think could benefit from your solution, you don’t want to talk much about your product at all. Instead, focus on their challenges and the product space in general. Think about these conversations as a fact-finding mission—an opportunity to explore customer needs without the pressure of having to make a sale. This makes it much easier to listen without having to think one step ahead about what you’re going to say next. You can really tune in and get curious.

Do Win/Loss Reviews

Conducting win/loss analysis is one of the most cost-effective ways to generate the insights you need to increase revenue and grow your business. It helps you uncover the underlying causes behind specific sales outcomes by zeroing in on exactly what worked and what didn’t, where your competitors have an advantage, how your product is perceived in the marketplace, how your value proposition aligns with customer needs, and how you can best differentiate your product from the competition.

By looking at wins and losses from a variety of angles and compiling all the relevant data, your efforts to increase conversion will become a lot more efficient.

The process can feel a little overwhelming, and it’s always challenging to get buy in from decision-makers, but if you break the steps down it’s much easier to tackle. A great place to start is our list of 24 tips for a winning win/loss analysis. This overview covers planning, recruiting interviewees, conducting interviews, analyzing the data and presenting your findings.

Request Feedback When People Churn

Everyone knows that it’s much less expensive to retain an existing customer than to go out and get a new one. So, it makes sense that when someone churns, you’d want to know why so that—hopefully—you can prevent other customers from following suit. It can be hard to ask for feedback from a customer who has broken up with you, but their feedback is some of the most valuable you can collect. After all, no one will be more equipped to tell you what you’re doing wrong.

One fairly universal tactic is to include a question on your unsubscribe page about why a customer is leaving. Depending on the nature of your product and your customer relationships, you may want to offer a multiple-choice churn survey, or you may want to try to schedule 1:1 conversations with key decision-makers to go more in-depth on what happened. It might be a hard conversation to have and hear but the feedback you’ll get is priceless.

Create a Customer Advisory Board

In addition to conversations that you can have in the course of doing business, you can also build a formal channel in which to have a more structured, ongoing dialog. A customer advisory council or board (CAC or CAB, respectively) provides a valuable forum in which you engage a dozen or so customers who represent your overall audience. The goal is to validate product road maps, growth strategies and other key elements of your business.

Optimally, you will be able to coordinate in-person meetings with members of your customer advisory council. Pulling this off with any regularity requires a fair amount of planning and preparation, so it’s a good idea to get started months ahead of when you’d like to hold your first event.

When planning a CAB meeting, you never want your product to be the center of attention. Instead, build your agenda around what matters most to your customers. Brainstorm a list of topics and then vet those topics with members of your council to come up with a final plan.

The meeting itself should be expertly facilitated, best case by a professional from outside of your organization. Having an experienced individual lead the meeting helps to encourage a more forthright conversation and also helps ensure that everyone stays on task.

After the meeting, it’s the company’s responsibility to take what they’ve learned and put it into action. Just as important, you need to keep the lines of communication open with members of your CAB. Fill them in on how their input is driving specific action items, and then keep them in the loop on your progress.

Build a Community

Like a customer advisory board, a user community provides an opportunity for direct dialog, but with a broader audience. For many SaaS companies, user communities revolve around developers, a notoriously tough audience. You need to be careful how you put your community together because you may only get one chance to get it right. You need to steer clear of anything that might be misconstrued as marketing, and put all your focus on learning, supporting and collaborating.

The best communities take on a life of their own by delivering excellent content, providing a platform for important conversations, and generally giving your customers a way to be part of something. If you’re thinking about starting a community (specifically a developer community), you may want to check out my post, 5 Steps to Building a Strong Developer Community, for some starter tips.

The Bottom Line: Start Now

However you decide to collect customer feedback, you have to remember that it’s not enough to simply gather and catalog the insights. You need to actually act on them. No one likes having their advice ignored. This goes double for customers who have gone out of their way and made time to provide you with valuable information about their experience with your product.

Whenever possible, continue the conversation with customers by letting them know how you’re putting their feedback to work to make your product better and their lives easier. Update them on developments as you go, perhaps asking for additional input at critical milestones.

Remember, however, that you don’t have to act on every piece of feedback. You can’t (and shouldn’t) grant everyone’s wishes. While you want to put the customers front and center when it comes to the feedback conversation, you still need to carefully assess their requests and suggestions in the context of the bigger picture—your product roadmap, corporate objectives and growth plans.

The main thing to know about all of this is that it’s never too early or too late to get started. Best-case scenario, you’re able to begin collecting customer feedback early on. And I’m going to say it again, if you are joining a company in a leadership or customer-facing role, your initial 90-day plan should include meetings with a large number of different kinds of customers. Sure, you can’t do an in-depth win/loss analysis right out of the gate, but that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing other tactics as part of building a strong feedback process and habit. I’m talking 20-30 customer conversations in the first month. You can do it. Easier yet, go stand in a booth at an event full of customers and potential customers and openly say, “Hey I’m new, what do you think of our product and what would you change about it?” You’ll probably be exhausted and hoarse by the end of the day but takes notes, you’re getting some really great feedback.

So, get started, and then let the strategy evolve to fit your business. You don’t have to stick with any one way of collecting feedback, the entire process may need to be adapted as your company grows and your customer base matures. The key—no matter where you are in the journey—is to recognize that you’re building and nurturing a two-way relationship. You need to treat it with respect. Listen well. Listen deeply. Ask the hard questions. And then put what you’ve learned to good use. Your customers and your company will be better off for it.