How can your organization use customer feedback to align on — and improve — the experiences that matter to your customer?

This question was the focus of the latest event in the CS in Focus 2019 Event Series, both in an intensive three-hour workshop led by Mitch Gillespie and Katie Larson of Wave HQ and Nico DiPlacido of PartnerStack and in lightning talks later in the evening.

While I may not be a customer success nor product manager, I certainly am a customer insight advocate. My consulting company, Instratify, is all about championing customer research across industries, and I was delighted when EnjoyHQ asked me to attend this workshop on their behalf and report back to you.

From ensuring your organization is ready to receive and act on customer feedback to creating an effective flow of feedback, here are some of the key takeaways from the event.

Is Your Organization Feedback Ready?

Before diving into the details of customer feedback — the tools you’re going to use to capture it, how you’re going to aggregate and analyze it, the reporting frequency, and so on — you need to ensure that your organization is ready to receive and strategically act on that feedback.

Building winning products is a team sport and organizational alignment across departments is critical. And that alignment can only come from the recognition that everyone’s role has a common denominator: the customer.

Across departments, two facts remain the same: who you are targeting and where your organization is going. For your organization to be feedback ready, you first need to ensure everyone is aligned on those two facts — and, as pointed out by Mitchel Gillespie, Product Leader at Wave HQ, this is where customer personas are key.

Your personas don’t have to be perfect, but clarity is crucial in knowing which customers to listen to and how to prioritize feedback. He suggested using three main customer profiles:

  1. Your ideal customer profile (i.e. the customers you’re shooting for)
  2. Your acceptable customer profile (i.e. the customers you want)
  3. Your difficult customer profile (i.e. the customers you don’t want)

Of course, achieving organizational alignment isn’t as simple as reaching an agreement on customer profiles. Your customer success and product teams each bring their own success metrics, incentives, and biases to the table, which is where disagreement starts to creep in.

Tension between departments is inevitable when dealing with customer feedback, and it can only be alleviated through an intentional effort to understand the departments’ different viewpoints.

For example, customer success talks to customers daily, taking on the burden of your customers’ pains. They have to deal with frustrated customers, so their priority is to fix those problems.

On the flip side, even the most customer-centric product teams will never have as much customer contact as your customer success team. While they care about the customer experience, their headache comes from trying to keep up with a seemingly never-ending list of feature requests.

Customer success folks are exposed to customer frustrations and annoyances on a daily basis. At the same time, product teams are constantly looking for ways to deliver a superior UX to solve those frustrations. With increased organizational alignment — achieved through clearer customer profiles and increased empathy across departments — teams are better equipped to work in tandem to use customer feedback to their combined advantage.

What does an ideal relationship between product and customer success look like? Well, there is no such thing is ideal. But, if your teams can be in a place where product managers can say, “I need to improve the conversion percentage of customers who continue using Product X after their first month,” and customer success can chime in with “Here are the common pains we’re hearing from customers who churn from Product X before getting to the second month, segmented by our target market vs. non-target market,” then you’d be in the top 1% of all companies when it comes to being actually customer-centric.

So, what are the most important things your organization needs to be feedback ready?

  1. Understand who is responsible for feedback and identify all feedback channels. Ideally, this is going to be a mix of your customer success and your product team (and let’s not forget marketing and sales, although we are focusing on CS and product in this post), collecting feedback from a wide range of respective channels — from customer emails to KPI tracking.
  2. Agree on taxonomy and shared definitions. This starts with alignment on customer profiles, but also comes into play when aggregating and categorizing your feedback. More on that later.
  3. Identify all stakeholders and ensure they have access to the data. Of course, this includes your customer success and product managers; but, it’s important to make sure you’re looping in other decision-makers.
  4. Know your business objectives.

Getting your organization feedback ready isn’t a “one and done” kind of thing. It’s an ongoing process that requires top-down buy-in (your executives should be one of those stakeholders who have access to all data) and constant re-evaluation.

But, as we all know, progress is better than perfection. If you wait until your organization is 100% feedback ready, or even 80%, you’ll never get started.

Once you’ve implemented the above four steps, it’s time to start capturing feedback and strategically aggregating it, analyzing it, and funneling it through your organization.

The Flow of Customer Feedback

Customer feedback can be categorized into four key steps, effectively taking feedback from a tangled web of data into strategic, actionable insights:

  1. Capturing
  2. Aggregating & Categorizing
  3. Analyzing
  4. Closing the Loop

Capture: Collect the right data to help future you

Before you start collecting feedback in your organization, it’s important to know what you’re looking for. So, what exactly is customer feedback?

Basically, it’s everything under the sun: user-generated content (UGC), reviews, social media, helpdesk scripts, live chat transcripts, in-person chats, etc. Any time a customer tells you something is an opportunity to collect feedback.

The amount of feedback coming into your organization is going to depend on whether you’re an early-stage or mature company, but also whether you’re B2C or B2B. If you’re a niche B2B company, you’re going to have fewer opportunities than your large-scaling B2C counterparts to collect feedback — which means it’s even more important to identify the opportunities you do have, and how to make the best use of them.

Good feedback vs. bad feedback

Is there such a thing as bad feedback? No, I don’t mean feedback you don’t want to hear — I mean feedback that isn’t going to be useful for your organization. And the answer is yes.

Nico Diplacido of PartnerStack gave a great segment on three things that can make feedback not useful:

  1. Vague inputs
  2. Wrong person, wrong time
  3. No metadata

If you’re gathering feedback to figure out what’s going to make a customer stick around and continue using Product X after their first month (as in the example above), you’re not going to get great feedback about the first-month experience by talking to someone who’s been using Product X for two years.  This is a classic example of the wrong person, wrong time.

You most times also don’t want to act on feedback from customers you’re not targeting because you don’t want to build a product to fit your non-target customers. This happens far too often.

And the more context (metadata) that you can collect to go with your customer feedback, the better. Every piece of feedback should have metadata tied to it to see whether it applies to (a) the customers you’re trying to serve, and (b) where your organization is going. (Seeing a common theme here when it comes to alignment?)

It’s important to know your inputs (whether the feedback is being collected in a private or public setting, in a 1-1 or many-to-one context, etc.) and your context (who, when, and where the feedback was collected). Only then can you separate the good feedback from the bad feedback.

Symptoms vs. root cause

If you truly want your customer feedback collection to be effective, you need to separate the symptoms described in the feedback from their root cause — and to do that, you have to keep asking “why.” Over, and over,  and over again.

If a customer is requesting a certain product feature, ask why they want it.

Nico told a great story of a customer who needed to see his daily transactions. Instead of running to the product and engineering team right away, Nico asked the customer why he wanted this feature.

The customer needed to show the daily transactions to his ops team. Why what that important? Because his team’s success is measured on things like daily transactions, so this feature would help him demonstrate his team’s progress.

Why was that important? Because if he could show the ops team that his team’s daily transactions were up, he would get his bonus.

It’s important to realize that, in this story, the daily transaction feature isn’t what’s important — it’s the customer’s bonus. By getting at the root cause, you can also analyze whether the customer is actually asking for the best solution for the pain point. Sometimes it is, oftentimes it isn’t. It’s our job to figure that out.

Your customers are only using your product to achieve a desirable outcome — otherwise, they’d use something else. It’s common sense, but it’s something organizations tend to forget.

Nobody is using your product because they love your brand, or because it’s cool. At the end of the day, it’s doing something for them — and it’s your job to collect feedback to understand what that something is.

(Hint: If you’re B2B, it often has something to do with your buyer getting promoted or increasing their bonus.)

That’s where a tool like EnjoyHQ can be particularly useful: it allows you to collect and analyze the metadata, so you can get a clearer picture of the why and the when— not just the what.

Note your bias

Finally, there was a brief discussion on the importance of acknowledging your biases when collecting feedback. In my opinion, you could deliver a three-hour-long workshop on biases alone, but here are three questions to keep in mind when checking your bias:

  1. What do you want for your client?
  2. What do you want for your team?
  3. What do you want for yourself?

Aggregate & Categorize — Give your feedback some context

You can’t collect your data and immediately move into analyzing it. First, you need to bring all of your data together so that you can make sense of it.

In a panel discussion following the workshop, Raheem Ladha, Senior Product Manager at Shutterstock Custom, gave the example of how his organization was trying to get to the bottom of their high churn. They started asking customers whether they were having a good or poor experience with the product, but kept hearing the same thing over and over again: the product experience was always positive, yet churn continued.

It wasn’t until they aggregated their data that they realized churn had nothing to do with the experience measure. (Or maybe it did, but their customers all wanted to be nice.) A glance at the aggregate data showed them it actually had far more to do with high engagement vs. passive engagement with the product.

Even then, data in aggregate is useless. To be effective, your feedback needs to be segmented.

To segment your customer feedback effectively, Mitch of Wave HQ explained the importance of having a carefully-thought-out taxonomy right from the beginning — in other words, deciding on how you’re going to categorize or tag your feedback even before you start collecting it.

This taxonomy is key to classifying and organizing those insights so they make sense, and so that your organization can tap into the “when” and “why” of your customer feedback.

  1. Current solution — E.g. What product are they using, and on what pricing plan? Are they using it on desktop or mobile? What features do they use?
  2. Customer situation — E.g. Do they use the product on their daily commute, at the office, or when they work from home?
  3. Symptom analysis — E.g. What are they doing to solve the problems they’re facing with the product? What’s the severity of their frustration?
  4. Diagnosis — E.g. What’s the cause of their frustration? What’s the possible solution?
  5. Customer engagement — E.g. How did they reach out to you?

Your organization’s taxonomy will depend on your organization’s goals and unique situation, and it’s important to leverage existing definitions you currently use to talk about customers (personas, segments, lifecycle segments, etc.) And once your teams are aligned on taxonomy, it’s also important to ensure that taxonomy is accessible to key stakeholders.

Most teams are overwhelmed with data, but using tools like EnjoyHQ (as WaveHQ does) to aggregate, analyze, and store your data will make your feedback flow much easier.

However, Mitch recommends not using software until you have a basic, agreed-upon taxonomy first. (It’s a mistake that WaveHQ made themselves at the beginning, causing a bit of a mess in their feedback flow that they had to correct later).

That’s why the second tenet of getting your organization feedback ready is “agree on a taxonomy and shared definitions first.” You can create a more in-depth taxonomy later, but you need a few basic agreed-upon well-defined tags to onboard a new tool like EnjoyHQ properly.

Analyze — You can’t boil the ocean

Nico from PartnerStack delivered what was probably my favorite quote of the workshop: you can’t boil the ocean.

When analyzing your customer feedback, get clear on where to focus your attention: what is the number one thing to focus on right now to get your organization where it’s going?

No surprise, this all goes back to the organizational alignment that was discussed in the beginning.

Nico gave three examples of things to consider when analyzing your customer feedback:

  1. Problem areas impacting your organizational goals
  2. Key customer segment(s)
  3. Customer lifecycle

Don’t try to look at everything at once. Instead, focus your analysis: either go narrow and deep, or wide and shallow. Consider which is more appropriate for your product and organizational goals.

EnjoyHQ is a great tool you can use to segment and slice your data in a single place, but you can also use a simple Excel or Google Sheet to aggregate your data and rely on functions like VLOOKUP (in Excel) or a Pivot Table to analyze.

Taking a smart approach to your data analysis will help your teams identify a clear problem to solve. Be sure to also pay attention to consistencies and outliers, possible bugs, jobs to be done, and business problems.

And be sure to make it a team effort. Remember: building a winning product is a team sport, and that goes for feedback analysis, too. To ensure you’re not continually collecting feedback but never doing anything with it, get your team to agree on a cadence to batch analyze and distribute insights — it could be weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly.

Closing the Loop

This is part of the flow of feedback that gets overlooked far too often, in my opinion. All of your data capturing, aggregation, categorization, and analysis is completely useless if you don’t get key stakeholder alignment and distribution on your insights.

Make sure you’re closing the loop by communicating insights internally. Though it didn’t come up much in the workshop, I always say that being a truly customer feedback-driven organization that works cross-functionally is impossible without top-down buy-in. Involve the C-suite and other executives in the conversation to ensure that customer feedback remains a priority across the organization, and that different departments share common incentives to act on quality feedback

Of course, closing the loop also means coming back to the customer. At the end of the day, all of this heavy lifting needs to benefit them. When closing the loop, it’s important to:

  • Frame the conversation back to the product and the business at large
  • Take the autonomy when you can
  • Get aligned on when to do nothing
  • Find other ways to help the customer

Customer feedback is a team sport.

I live and breathe customer insights, so I’m biased, but what really came across in this workshop (and in the conversations I heard from attendees) is that organizational alignment is key — and, not surprisingly, the hardest to implement. And I couldn’t agree more.

Without organizational alignment, you may still be collecting, aggregating, and analyzing feedback — but if your teams are all working on separate things, you’ll never close the loop, never be truly customer-centric, and never reduce organizational inefficiencies.

Even if your customer success and product teams are being incentivized differently, alignment on the same common denominator — the type of customer you serve and where the organization is going — will do wonders for operationalizing customer feedback to deliver real results for your customer… and your organization. So, focus on that first. :)