Harnessing the power of customer feedback

If you do not make any effort to generate and act on customer feedback the first you are likely to know of any negativity amongst your customers is when they disappear! Finding out how they feel about your business is vital, even if you’re in a line of work where each customer will probably only use you once. All customers have friends and if the ones you have not made or kept happy tell their friends you will have no chance of doing business with them. But being aware of any negative feeling amongst your customers is only the beginning of how important feedback is: it can also be used to make a huge positive difference to your business.

If word of mouth criticism is particularly damaging, word of mouth recommendations are equivalently powerful. If you serve your customers well you would hope they would spread the word, but you don’t have to leave it all to chance. Actively ask the customers you have served if they would be willing to say anything about your business that other people could read or hear. If they are happy to give you one or two sentences and permission to quote them in your literature, your website or in advertisements, having a third party saying good things about you carries far more credibility than you saying positive things about yourself. Websites designed to match up tradesmen and customers, for example, are built around the idea that positive feedback on the site is the key driver of new business.

If you have your own website, does it invite people to leave feedback and comments? Having a Facebook page is tantamount to making the same invitation. Be aware that customers can and will use Facebook, Twitter and other social media as places to sound off about bad experiences, so if you cannot monitor them actively – several times each and every day, including weekends and holidays – you may be best offwithout them.If there is always someone in your company who can keep an eye on what’s happening on them, though, they can pay off hugely if people genuinely like what your business is doing as word travels fast, particularly if you are in a market that serves a young, techno-savvy demographic. If this is or becomes an important channel for you, be aware of any developments in the social media world – anything that fashionable can fall out as quickly as it came in. Anyone remember Myspace?

Another option offered by the internet is the online survey. Several packages exist (my company uses one called Smart Survey – see www.smartsurvey.co.uk) that are very cheap and easy to operate. You can ask whatever questions you want, ask people to give you a rating out of 10 (or 100, or whatever), rank aspects of the service you offer according to how important they rate them – the options are many and very flexible. The survey software will let you try out any survey you create before you send it to make sure it hangs together well but, when using it for the first time, email the survey to a few friends first so that they can try it out, too.Sometimes, what makes sense to you doesn’t toother people!

Any company that holds customer email addresses, no matter how small, can benefit from running online surveys. It’s yet another way in which the internet allows SMEs to compete on a level playing field with the big boys.

A couple of tips about online surveys:

1) To avoid falling foul of data protection rules, make sure your business’s terms and conditions ensure ask customers to agree that you can use their email addresses to contact them to research your products and/or services.

2) Incentivise the people you ask to take part. Offering a reward to each and every one of them may be out of the question, but entry into a draw for a worthwhile prize is an economical alternative.

So let’s say you’re getting feedback – what do you do with it?

It’s pretty obvious, really: respond to it.

If customers have gone to the trouble of giving you feedback, the least you could do is thank them. Better still is to engage in a conversation with them.If they have asked any questions, answer them. If they have suggested ways to improve your service (which you could ask them in your online survey or alongside your invoices) tell them what you intend doing. Even if there is a reason why you don’t adopt a suggestion, whoever made it would appreciate an explanation why. And if you DO adopt it, you can demonstrate to all the other people you subsequently ask for feedback that they really can have an impact on your business, so it’s well worth their while to respond.

Equally obviously: don’t ignore it. Publish the results, good and bad. If any of the feedback is bad, say what you’re going to do to make things better. People will respect your honesty and give more credibility to the positive feedback you tell them you’ve had. For example, you can see how we at Ellipse publish our responses to the feedback we get in surveys at www.ellipse.co.uk/feedback.

Finally, if you think that getting feedback isn’t going to help your business, be aware that whether you are getting it or not, your customers are almost certainly providing it! There are so many opportunities for people to voice their experiences and opinions, especially online, that it’s far safer to keep track of what people are saying about you (you can set up Google alerts to tell you when your company’s name is mentioned). If customers are going to talk about your company, you might as well hear it, learn from it and profit by it.

John Ritchie, Chief Executive Officer of Ellipse has worked in the group risk sector for over 20 years. Ellipse is a group risk insurer that makes use of available technology to deliver a high quality service at a competitive price. You can find out more at www.ellipse.co.uk.