At the heart of every truly customer-centric product team is an excellent feedback collection strategy. Unless you’ve resigned yourself to going the way of MySpace, you absolutely cannot make feedback an afterthought.

Fortunately, getting useful customer feedback is not nearly as difficult as it sounds. Here are a few strategies that the genius product teams at companies like Etsy, Facebook, and Pardot have used to capture actionable customer feedback:

1. Talk to your customer support team

Embrace any feedback your customer-facing teams receive from your customers. Develop a process by which you can retrieve feedback from other teams. “It is vital for companies to make sure the lines of communication between executives and their company’s customers are immediate and open,” Says Emily Yellin, author of Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us . “Also, executives must be in touch with all levels of employees. If customers complain, or even if an employee at any level sees something they think could improve, there has to be a way to get that information directly and quickly to the people who have the power and means to change it. Most companies are not set up for that kind of customer-focused internal communication.”

Pardot is one company that has reacted to this dilemma. It solved this issue by creating The Product Management Awesomeness Counsel, a group of representatives across the organization who are liaisons between their teams and the product team. They meet twice a month, and Pardot Solutions Manager, Vincent Migliore says it’s an excellent source of early feedback for product managers.

“We would use this meeting as we would discuss our priorities and rank them,” said Vincent. “We might have been getting a little bit closer to the release of some of these items, so we could see some early ideas of what the functionality would look like. Product managers were getting really quick ideas back from everybody about how it was looking, how it was progressing, and they could make changes if needed.”

2. Conduct in-house usability studies

Want to know what your customers think about your product? Watch them use it. That’s what Facebook did after the team behind its page information crowdsourcing interface discovered that while it was extremely successful according to usage metrics, users weren’t providing accurate information. “They were saying, “Oh yeah, you know Taylor Swift’s new song? It’s amazing, it’s done by R. Kelly,”” said Facebook Product Manager, Dwight Crow during a talk at UserConf.

Metrics were in the right place, but user actions were not, so Facebook brought in a group of power users for a usability study. “This was maybe the most interesting UX research I’ve ever done,” said Dwight. “We had 20 people and they were some of the most eccentric individuals I’ve ever met. One girl came in with a katana sword, and there was this other individual, who we’d flown out from Albuquerque Texas, who actually had a 12-inch doll replica of himself wearing a flower bonnet on his shoulder.”

Eccentricities aside, Facebook determined what made users tick and rebuilt accordingly. “We made an entirely different surface,” said Dwight. “We started over from scratch, and made a surface just for these power editors where they could look at what other people have said about the music, restaurants, books, and places of Facebook.” The new UI got five times more accurate crowdsourced information.

Bear in mind that you should be careful of relying too much on customer input when developing or refining a product or service.  “Henry Ford did not say, but he might as well have, that if he had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “faster horses” (rather than a whole new form of transportation),” says Micah Solomon, customer service consultant, keynote speaker, and author. “But the point is a good one: not everyone can envisage the future.”

“Another issue is whether customers are willing to pay for all the improvements they ask for,” Micah continues. “So it’s a touchy subject. Different companies deal with it different ways. Apple under Steve Jobs essentially relied on a “super-customer”, Jobs himself, in alliance with some visionary designers, to create a future that Jobs knew he himself would be happy with.”

Solomon adds: “A great artist for example, the musical duo Steely Dan, does the same: they picture themselves as their ideal listener and if it amuses or moves them, they figure the same will be true for the customer. But this approach doesn’t work in all settings, because sometimes your customers are very, very different from yourself. At which point relying on the customer feedback rather than your gut may be the way to go.”

3. Let customers test-drive prototypes

When you let customers test-drive something shiny and new they’ll pay you back in feedback. The product team at Etsy learned this while creating an entire prototype community where users can try prototypes and make suggestions.

Etsy Product Manager Nickey Skarstad says this strategy has worked like a charm.  Customers are thrilled to see what the product team is cooking up, meanwhile Etsy is able to collect quantitative data about usage, and facilitate customer conversations. She said: “People can actually come back and they can share their feedback with us in the prototype. We have really real conversations with people, which is awesome,” Nickey says.

4. Collect data and find trends

Every product manager needs to add data literacy to their skillset, because the future of product management is data-driven and it’s really hard to argue against a strong set of data. It’s also, arguably, one of the easiest types of customer feedback to collect if you use the right tools and know (at least kind-of) what to look for.

In November, UserVoice CEO Richard White shared how to make more informed product decisions. He described how UserVoice is turning qualitative feedback from support, sales, and customers into actionable quantitative feedback by merging it with customer satisfaction data, lifetime value data, data from lost sales over time, etc. This type of data makes prioritizing feature requests easier.

Usage metrics serve as numerical customer feedback. Both Nickey Skarstad from Etsy and Dwight Crow from Facebook say their teams use this in combination with other streams of customer feedback. For example, when Etsy launches a new UI, users are able to revert back to the previous one as they wish. Nickey says her team watches this closely: “When they’re turning things off what are the next couple of actions that they’re doing? It’s surprising how quickly you see patterns.” Those trends help pinpoint pain points, and pain points are opportunities.

“You have to make sure you find ways to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and look at your company from their point of view”

It’s important not to rely too solely on quantitative metrics customer data, though. “Customer service is both an art and a science,” concludes Emily Yellin. “Many companies are so obsessed with the science, that the art of it often gets lost. And that is when customers and employees feel their humanity being disregarded. While I understand how important it is to have good quantitative data, you can’t stop there. You have to put equal effort into qualitative observation and analysis. You have to make sure you find ways to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and look at your company from their point of view when you make decisions, big and small.”


This post comes courtesy of Heather J. McCloskey, who writes about Product Management and Customer Support on the UserVoice blog. Heather is a former broadcast news producer and vintage shop owner turned marketing nerd and DIY diva.

UserVoice builds customer engagement tools for product managers and customer support teams.

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