The A to Z of Customer Input

2009 April 29
by Kate O'Neill

How do you determine the course of action for your business? Not to be trite, but if your goal is to be a customer-centric business, you must get feedback from your customers. Having great instincts will only get you so far in knowing what the market wants and how to be amazing at delivering it.

I once heard Jon Luther, Chairman and CEO of Dunkin’ Brands, speak about transforming that company from an outdated brand to a leader, and he emphasized customer experience. Everything from their recognition of the importance of coffee in the brand to the remodeling of their stores was drawn from an understanding of customer preferences and experience.

No matter what the business, it is entirely possible and highly recommended to get feedback from the customers. At a loss for how to get feedback? Listed here in alphabetical order are several tried and true ways of getting customer feedback.

Advisory Board

On the OPEN Forum, a recent post discussed the nature of advisory boards:

Advisory Boards have many benefits. First, there’s an inverse learning curve for board members. With time, they become more knowledgeable about the company. Second, people will often serve on Advisory Boards for lower fees than they’d want as a consultant. An important point is to not take advantage of Advisory Board members, especially in professions like law and finance, where advice can be binding and carries risk. It’s OK to ask for an opinion, but not a binding judgment. That is what they get paid to do.

I’ve served twice on an Advisory Board. It’s a fantastic experience for the customer, and even as a participant it’s a great reminder to look to your customers for input.


Using business intelligence and web analytics tools can help you uncover patterns of customer behavior you might never have noticed in day-to-day operations. Maybe the majority of customers use only a portion of your product, but which part? And how does their loyalty change when they use more of the product? It’s no exaggeration to say that insights gained from savvy use of analytics tools can make the difference between profitable operations and unprofitable ones.


See Social Media.

Customer Support Records

Of course you probably have a goldmine of customer data already in the form of customer support contacts. Customers that complain are your best asset; they provide in-the-moment feedback about the usefulness of your products and services, and how either can be improved. If your company isn’t set up to store these records in a searchable database, it probably makes sense to make this a priority.

Eye-Tracking Studies

See Usability Studies.


See Social Media.

Focus Group

A focus group can be a great way to get live, interactive feedback from customers on a set of issues. The topics can range from strategic to tactical, with the caveat that the more abstract the questions, the more likely the answers are to be a bit arbitrary. Like most of us, when asked to articulate thoughts on topics we’ve had no reason to think deeply about before, customers will usually struggle, and will sometimes say the first thing that comes to mind, whether or not it would hold up under further scrutiny. Your job, or your moderator’s job, is to suss out the patterns that emerge from all this and determine what’s actionable and what’s just on the periphery of usefulness.

Social Media

Pay attention to what’s being said about you on Twitter, in blogs, and all across the web. You simply can’t afford not to.

An easy first step is to set up a Google Alert with the name of your company and the names of your products, and watch what comes in. You might be startled. As soon as you see negativity, make sure you’re part of the conversation. But the objective is not, of course, to silence the negativity; you want to harness it. Make it known that you want to hear feedback and you appreciate the effort customers are putting in to making their voices known. Promise to do better. And then do better. This will go a long way towards changing the minds of anyone who was negative or skeptical about the quality of your company.


Surveys are one of the most familiar methods for getting customer feedback, but they are also one of the most abused. Too many surveys are constructed without a clear objective and with confused purposes in the questions.

Your best bet is to know what you want to accomplish with the survey, but avoid including questions that are too leading.

As for tools, you can get pretty far with tools like Zoomerang or SurveyMonkey, or if those don’t suit your needs, there are certainly heavier-weight tools on the market including enterprise applications.


See Social Media.

Usability Studies

Usability studies entail placing a customer (or potential customer) in front of a product and asking them, step by step, to perform the actions a customer would normally perform with the product, asking for feedback and watching for trouble signs all along the way.

The difficulty, as with focus groups, is that when asked, most customers won’t be able to elaborate on why they do some of the things they do, so it’s not always meaningful to ask. Sometimes just observing user behavior is enough to realize a product’s flaws without needing elaboration.

Another difficulty in usability studies is that users can end up feeling that they, rather than the product, are being tested. This can be overcome with reassurances and a completely non-defensive attitude about any of the customer’s feedback about the product.

If you want an easy way to start, I recommend the book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. It will help you get oriented to the concepts in usability testing, and how to execute them on the cheap.

User Conference

I was part of organizing a user conference once early on in my career at a start-up software company, and it was a fantastic experience. We invited customers from around the world to come take part in a two-day series of discussions about the product suite, the roadmaps, and where we could improve as a company, as well as opportunities to share tips and tricks with the other attendees. The generosity with which customers responded was amazing, and the humility with which my coworkers accepted critical feedback was equally impressive. If this is an option in your business, it might be worth considering.

* * *

Of course, there are low cost and higher cost options for implementing any of the options listed above, and the difference will mostly come down to experience and quality of execution. If no one in your company has ever conducted, for example, a usability study before, it will probably make sense to hire professional consultants or an agency to perform the first set, at least. Or depending on the size of your organization, you may consider hiring someone, or building a new group, to conduct all of your user research.

Now it’s your turn. What have I missed? What other methods do you use for gathering customer input about your business or your products or services? Let me know in the comments.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 April 29

    The best way to do a usability study is to get someone (like me) who does usability for a living – they know how to reassure the customer that it’s not a test of the person, but the site. But they also know how to pull valuable information from the testers and encourage them to think out loud. Testing provides feedback that is astonishing and clarifying and strange, wll at once. People will completely get lost over something you don’t even see some times and not get flustered over what you thought would be a stumbling block.

  2. 2009 April 29

    Thanks for the feedback, Jim. I agree that getting a pro is the best way. Not only will a pro keep the participant more reassured, but will be able to pull the subtle patterns out of the feedback. I’m a big fan of usability professionals. :)

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