Feature Story

Customer Feedback Made Easy

by Anne Field

For small businesses tapping cloud technology, feeling your customers' pulse--scientifically--is not an impossible dream.

Justine Tatt was a bit nervous. In November, Tatt, who heads Your Virtual Assistant, a tiny Auckland, New Zealand-based company providing online help to customers, put in place a 10 percent price increase. And she feared that her mostly small business clients weren't pleased about it.

But Tatt didn't just sit and worry in the dark, or merely approach select customers for their reactions. Instead, she turned to a cloud-based customer feedback service called Survey Monkey she'd been using for about a year to survey all her clients and systematically assess their opinions. Her discovery: The vast majority were just fine with the change. In fact, "a few of them said they'd been expecting a price increase for a while," she says. "It gave me enormous peace of mind."

For Tatt, and a lot of other small business owners, feeling their customers' pulse – – and doing so scientifically – – is not an impossible dream anymore. They're turning to a growing number of online services allowing just about anyone to turn the cloud into an easy-to-tap place for customer feedback. Often costing a mere $25 or so a month, these services tend to fall into one of two main categories, according to Jonathan Levitt, CMO of Opinion Lab, a customer feedback site aimed primarily at large companies. One type of customer feedback service, like Survey Monkey, lets you question prospects and clients via the Web. The other type functions more as an online suggestion box that also creates a forum for customers to interact while providing feedback.

Disqus: Web-based tools for gathering customer feedback helped your business?

Joseph Alminawi, general manager of OMGPop, a New York City-based gaming platform, for example, uses a site called Get Satisfaction. By clicking on a tab on the website, gamers can post comments, make suggestions and respond to each other's opinions. But, as important, Alminawi can get an immediate feel for users' likes and dislikes. Example: Recently, the company added a new feature allowing gamers to see other participants' scores, expecting the capability to be a big hit. In short order, however, a deluge of comments and discussions on Get Satisfaction revealed that users hated the addition. "The response was overwhelming, so we changed the game. And the game is better for it," says Alminawi.

Just because you can get customer feedback, however, doesn't mean you necessarily will derive anything useful from the information. Like any technology that generates data, you need to know what to do with the material once you gather it. To that end:

Create a system. That means assigning someone to evaluate the data and decide what to do with it. Take Scott Barr, CEO of Southwest Exteriors, a San Antonio building contractor. He uses a service called GuildQuality to survey prospects that don't turn into clients, as well as customers of recently-completed projects. Barr regularly looks over results, and then asks his marketing administrator to run reports delving into specific issues – – for example, looking to see whether there's a correlation between negative assessments and size of projects or geographic area.

Don't take comments at face value. All feedback is not created equal. For instance, one stray comment doesn't necessarily indicate there's a significant problem. "There's always two sides to a story," says Barr, who usually first asks his team for their perspective before approaching a client. Obviously, the greater the frequency of a particular comment, the higher the likelihood there's a major problem.

Fine-tune your questions. If you're using a survey, you'll probably be able to customize your questions. For best results, don't use too many – – no more than 10 to 20. For Cynthia Nevels, CEO of CynthiaNevels.com, a Dallas management consulting firm, the test is whether it takes more than two-and-a-half minutes to complete a survey. For her part, Tatt tries to mix it up with different types of questions – – for every three that simply require checking a box, for example, she adds one calling for a longer comment. "You have to go through some trial and error," she says.

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