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How to Use Customer Feedback to Improve your Company

Editor note: This post was written by Collis who founded Envato, the parent company for brands like ThemeForest, Code Canyon, and the Envato Studio, which is actually where we connected for this article. He also made a $500 contribution to our Autism Speaks fundraiser which was a huge help in our efforts, and I’d like to thank him publicly for his generosity. The floor is now yours, Collis!

So I’m reading the forums of a popular product.

Someone’s posted a well worded suggestion. The founder replies in this same public forum: “You don’t know what you’re talking about! Come back when you’ve made a product that’s used by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Then we’ll talk.”

It’s a painfully cringe-worthy response, especially for a public forum. And while it’s over the top, every business gives off a little of this attitude – either intentionally or  otherwise.  Of course, when you’re running a business you can sometimes get so much feedback that ignoring some, or even most, is just self-preservation. But what about when you simply don’t agree, or don’t want to hear the feedback?

While tempting to dismiss, critical feedback – in every form – is fuel for improvement. Ignore it at your peril! Whether you’re road-testing an idea, developing a product, or building a business, input from users is crucial to making something successful.

Why You Need Feedback

One of the most popular ways to start a company these days is by adopting the Lean Startup methodology. The author of this approach, Eric Ries, advocates that validated learning reduces risk, and increases the likelihood of a new business finding market fit.

So what is validated learning? It’s taking an idea and measuring it with real user feedback, and then iterating the idea.

The popularity of Lean is not simply founded on a well-written book. The reason it’s achieved so much traction is because it’s a system that works. Gathering feedback as you work through every piece of your business, rather than waiting until you have a finished product that you think your customers will love, ensures that you’re optimising to the reality out there, not to your own personal opinion and bias.

This approach directly contradicts the startup myth that a successful entrepreneur needs to intuitively understand customers. Sure, some people have a great internal sensibility for what customers will want. But observing, asking, and listening to customers is, for the rest of us, a more certain and reliable way to build and improve a business.

Customer feedback can guide your business, show you new business and development opportunities that you hadn’t considered, and foreshadow market behavior. It is, after all, your customers who will decide whether your product or business is a success.

How Feedback Changed the Course of Envato

At my company, Envato, feedback from customers has changed and improved our course countless times.

In our early years we had just one product at Envato. It was a Flash marketplace. When we launched, I thought animations and preloaders would be the mainstay of our sales. But some months in, we had an author ask if they could sell a certain kind of Flash website template. We obliged, added it to the marketplace and ensured there was an appropriate category. Buyers responded in droves. We saw this behavior and quickly pushed hard to encourage other users to make the same content, and then marketed it more heavily to buyers.

Sometimes feedback is critical or negative, and that’s OK too. We used to run a site called FreelanceSwitch. It was a big blog for freelancers. Long before we started selling non-Flash site templates, we were approached by TemplateMonster to be an affiliate. By this time, we’d seen the success of Flash site templates, and the offer seemed like easy money. So we coded it up, and added a section to FreelanceSwitch.

Two things happened. First, we made some sales – yay! But second, we got totally slammed by our users in email, social, and comments on the launch post. While TemplateMonster is a great business, for a variety of reasons it wasn’t a good fit with our customers. Hearing their feedback loud and clear, within 24 hours, we pulled the new section back down.

So here’s two pieces of feedback, one positive and one negative. Both contributed to us pushing into a new space for Envato – a market for non-Flash website templates that we called ThemeForest. That site blossomed and has been our most successful to date.

When and Where To Get Feedback

Feedback comes in many forms and through many channels.

On the one hand you have the data-driven world of tracking user behavior. Cold, hard analytics can give you a big picture view of how people are responding to your business and products. But be warned: while data doesn’t lie per se, it sure can be misinterpreted. Here at Envato we have a business intelligence and analytics team full of brilliant data scientists. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from them it’s that things like ‘standard deviation’, ‘margin of error’, and ‘significant sample size’ matter, and matter a lot!

If you’re not super strong on stats, and don’t have a team for it yet, fear not. You can still drive a lot of good decisions out of data by being conservative with your assumptions, and balancing it with non-data sources. Try things like running experiments for longer, don’t read too much into small changes in data unless you have a substantial data set, and try to argue your data in the opposite direction to sense check it.

But most of all: balance your data feedback with real human feedback and make sure it makes sense. What are people saying to you? In person, in your support channels, in dedicated surveys, or on social media.

At Envato, our product teams conduct user interviews both via video chat, and, where possible, in person in the office. Watching a person use your product, and asking them questions about their experiences, will give you a sense check on your assumptions and data. Sure, it takes longer, but this kind of dedicated human feedback can be a gold mine for improving your product.

The great thing about human feedback is that it’s also not constrained. Aggregated data will only ever give you information about what you already have. If you’re A/B testing two scenarios, you won’t get any information about scenarios C, D, E or the infinite other things you could be doing. Humans, on the other hand, say all kinds of things to you. They go on tangents, they marry other experiences, they tell you about competitors, and about things they wish they had. It’s harder to process and more prone to randomness, but also stops you from optimising into a local maxima.

While data analysis and dedicated product interviews will give you deep insights, they only happen when you drive them. Your customer touch points, on the other hand, will send you feedback whether you want it or not.

Whether it’s through your help desk, social, press, or online forums, these are the places customers go to actively give you feedback. And you need a great process for harnessing this input.

At Envato, we’ve put a lot of effort into our community forums as a touch point. We have a team who actively manage them, source ideas, and run a Trello board called the Community Wish list. That community team then work with our product teams to ensure these voices and opinions are factored into our decisions.

Interpreting Feedback

Just as important as being open to feedback and knowing how to respond to it, is knowing what to do with it.

Henry Ford once famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” And it’s true, they might have, but to me that’s still good feedback. The trick is to separate the problem (“I want to go faster”) from the solution (“I’m thinking, a new horse”).

Interpreting feedback always requires some unpacking. Remember, no customer truly cares about your product, or even your business. They care about what they’re trying to do. Your job is to provide them with what they need to be successful.

When you get customer feedback, you should always unpack the problem from the solution. What is the person actually trying to accomplish? What problem are they solving? Once you’ve distinguished that, you can measure up the offered solution (if they’ve given one) almost as a separate exercise.

Even when you’re dealing with aggregated feedback, such as survey data or web analytics, you can still pull out the roadblocks and problems your customers are seeing, and focus your efforts on solving those pain points.

General Tips

Dealing with feedback depends on the channel and the feedback in question. For example, public criticism generally merits a different response than you would give to a product suggestion via your help desk. But in general:

  • Always treat feedback as valid and avoid any kind of dismissiveness. Even if you really don’t agree, the feedback and experience is completely real for that person. Be respectful of other people’s opinions.
  • Be cautious with unsolicited “business” ideas, especially if you have someone who seems to want to partner in some way. It’s best to leave these at a fairly vague level, to avoid any misunderstandings.
  • Feedback should be everyone’s job, but especially decision makers. Make sure information is flowing to the right people in your business, and that there’s a feedback loop to the customer.
  • If you have a large volume of feedback, build a process for responding to it. I’ve read that Yahoo’s internal feedback system has mechanisms for suggestions, voting, and a weekly meeting where the CEO calls out and responds to feedback with the whole team. The same sorts of mechanisms can work with customers and community.

A Final Word

Customer feedback eliminates guesswork. Listening to it, unpacking it, and understanding it will give you insights into your most valuable asset – the people who pay you and use your products.

Those insights will translate to a better business by allowing you to test your assumptions, to identify pain points that need solving, and to experiment with improvements. And if you’re quick, polite and respectful in your response, you’ll also win loyalty and respect.

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