Turning your business into an industry leader means constantly optimising and improving your business to better serve your market. Trying to do that without collecting feedback is like trying to drive a car at night without headlights. The key to understanding your customers and providing them with the best service possible is getting and properly managing that feedback. But this begs the question: What is good feedback, and how can we use it to help a business succeed?

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Getting good, actionable feedback is tricky. Customers often don’t want to take the time to analyse their feelings about their experience with a business, much less to fill out long surveys or answer phone calls. This resistance can be extremely frustrating to small business owners, who can’t afford to invest heavily in market research. Because of this, many small businesses try to rely on passive methods to get the input they need.

1. The problem with passive feedback systems

Many small businesses rely on feedback that customers provide on their own initiative. That might mean aggregating Yelp reviews, tracking the issues that your customer service center is contacted about, or simply having a “feedback” submission form on your website. These methods are popular because they don’t require a lot of investment in terms of time or resources. Unfortunately, the information is only of very limited value.

Customers almost exclusively only go out of their way to provide feedback when they have a significant problem, or if they’ve had a bad experience. Collecting and analysing this data can help you to identify and manage serious issues with your business, but it doesn’t provide much information about what customers specifically like and what you could do to outcompete the rest of your industry moving forward.

2. Apply a personal touch

The obvious solution is to reach out and gather feedback actively. While they’re easy to administer, automated email or website-based surveys can be very easily ignored and don’t necessarily make recipients feel like they’re seriously being addressed. To get a real, usable response rate, you’ll want to lead customers into the feedback process as a part of doing business with you. Whether that’s at the point of sale, the point of delivery, or during a client meeting, the point is that you reach out to your customers and explicitly request their feedback.

3. Keep it transparent

When a customer is asked to provide feedback, they don’t really know what they’re agreeing to in terms of an investment of time and effort. This can make customers feel uncomfortable and resistant. Vague requests to “answer a couple of questions” or “give us a moment of your time” can make this even worse.

Instead, be very clear about what you’re asking, so that people understand what you’re doing and feel in control of the situation. For example, “Would you be willing to take a 3 minute survey on your experience with us to help us improve?” is going to get more respondents than “Could I just please have another moment of your time?”

4. Ask specific questions

Open ended “tell us what you think” types of questions have their place, but they require the customer to do a lot of work. Ideally you’ll want to elicit highly targeted information that can help you analyse and make judgments about specific aspects of your operation. For example, you might ask customers how they feel about their experience with your sales staff, or how satisfied a client is with the ongoing communication between your business and them.

These questions don’t require elaborate answers to provide useful information, but they still give customers the opportunity to provide highly detailed feedback if they want to. Best of all, they place equal emphasis on discussing positive and negative aspects of their experience.

5. Analyse

Exactly what to do with the feedback you receive depends heavily on your industry, markets, budget, timing, and a hundred other factors. A good way to start, however, is to divide the feedback you get into feedback for development, and feedback for troubleshooting.

Feedback for troubleshooting

This type of feedback helps you to identify and address problems in your existing operation. It’s often negative, and points out where your business is currently underperforming. Dealing with these kinds of issues is critical to ensuring that your business functions reliably and offers great service as it’s understood in your industry today.

Feedback for development

This helps you to identify the hopes and dreams of your customers, and is useful for guiding your business into the future. By finding out what customers like to see, what they want more of, or what they would do entirely differently, you get a glimpse into possible opportunities for disruption and real industry leadership.

Understanding what general purpose different types of feedback can serve allows you to look forward and determine how to drive progress in your industry without neglecting the issues that need to be addressed in your current operation. By gathering the right kind of feedback in the right way, you and your business can illuminate a better, disruptive path for the future.