I have been with my current company for almost eight and a half years, in roles ranging from support engineer to management, and now, to product management. In that time, we as a company have struggled with how to gather, organize, and prioritize feature requests, even just those from internal stakeholders.
When it comes to external feedback (from customers and partners), we’ve been even less organized, at least according to our sales and support teams. However, when I made the transition into product management, I took it upon myself to tackle this challenge. I wanted to achieve the lofty goal of documenting our process for gathering feedback. As a result of my efforts, all stakeholders would feel heard and be informed on the status of feature requests.
Boy, I had no idea what I was in for …
I started out where most research starts out: Google. As you would guess, there is no shortage of articles, blogs, and advertisements about collecting feedback. One of the first things I learned was that user feedback is not just feature requests. It’s also how they use the product, what support cases they enter, and the unexpected, unforeseen ways in which they interact with your product. This blew my mind. I was just trying to collect feature requests from users and partners — I didn’t realize that I needed to consider so much more.
So, I continued along my feedback journey, learning a new lesson nearly every day. And to help you, my fellow product people, let me distill some of my key takeaways. I mean, you are reading my article, after all. That means I get to subject you to my musings.
The “why” of customer feedback
Why is customer feedback so important? Well, if you’re here, I am guessing you understand the importance of gathering and using feedback. But you might need to convince your manager that the feedback tool you want to buy is worth the money. So, with that in mind, let me summarize why it’s so critical to your product’s (and organization’s) success.
Customer feedback is important because it serves as a guiding light for the growth of your company. Collecting feedback helps to strengthen your relationship with your customers. It shows them that you value their opinion. In the best cases, your customers trust you so much that they even become ambassadors for your brand.
Also, each team should want to know what the product is getting right and (as importantly) wrong in the eyes of its customers. Within both the good and the bad, you can find those nuggets that allow you to adapt and improve the customer experience. In short, feedback is the way to ensure your community is at the core of everything you do.
Now that everyone realizes how important it is to start collecting feedback, the next obvious question is: how I collect it? Remember earlier when I mentioned advertisements? Well, there are no shortages of products in the market to help you gather feedback. These include everything from survey programs and forums to feature request platforms and session recorders. If you can think of a way to collect feedback, someone has a solution that lets you do it. If not, you may have a new product on your hands.
But with so many to choose from, how do you decide?
A wise mentor (don’t tell him I called him wise) once told me, “Tools don’t create process.” That stuck with me. Your process for collecting feedback should be independent of the tool you select. In other words, the tool should enhance your well-crafted process and possibly augment it with new collection methods. There are a variety of ways to gather feedback, but not all of them will work for every team. It might take some experimentation to find out what methods are sustainable for your team, but don’t be afraid to try something. And if it doesn’t work, try something else. Also, remember that your customers are busy people too. You may not get the enthusiastic flood of responses you were hoping for, but don’t let that deter you from your goal.
Acting on feedback
Well, we’ve discussed the why and the how of customer feedback. Now we’ll move on to what I have found to be the most difficult part: how to act on it. Up until now, I have ignored one of the words in the title. Can you guess which one? Yep, it’s “organizing,” the thing that my organization has really struggled with over the years. With all the tools and ad-hoc methods for collecting feedback, where do you put it all, how do you sort it and analyze it, and how do you decide which insights are most important?
Here is where a good tool can really augment a well-designed process. No matter how you collect feedback and who you collect it from, it’s crucial to have a single place to store it. Such a place presents you with some good opportunities. If you can expose that feedback to your community, they will tell you what the most important things are. Just as importantly, they’ll let you know what isn’t valuable. Find a way for them to vote, plus one, prioritize, etc. to surface the things they find most useful. I used the word “community” here because I don’t want you to ignore your internal resources, like support, sales, and engineering/development. They’re also an invaluable source of customer feedback.
I started off this section with “acting on” because if you take nothing else away from this section, this is it. Are you ready? If you collect feedback, you must do something with it. One more time: If you collect feedback, you must do something with it. We can build anything; we just can’t build everything. What we must do is acknowledge the feedback we get and set expectations for how we will engage with it. Nothing is more disheartening to your community than going through the trouble of providing feedback and feeling like it goes nowhere. This will shut down your feedback community before it even gets started.
Your feedback process must include clear rules of engagement, including how often feedback is reviewed and how frequently it will be updated. In the feedback communities I am involved in as a customer (and as a product person as well), there appears to be a fear of saying that we are not going to do something. We should not be afraid of this. If you have a B2B product, your customers are in business, too. That means they understand not every feature request makes sense to build. B2C products, you are on your own … Just kidding, consumers understand this, too. It is ok to be honest and say you’re not going to build something. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever do it — it just means not right now.
Some final thoughts
So, I threw a lot at you. Did you get it all? That’s ok, neither did I. Let me go ahead and give you the TL;DR version.
If you want your product to thrive, you should put your community at the center of your business and treat user feedback as a valuable source of information. They are the ones who constantly and consistently use your products and/or services, so they know best what could be improved. Never ignore their voice. If you fail to meet their expectations, they’ll find someone else who will.
By collecting feedback, you encourage your customers to be loyal to your brand and spread positive word-of-mouth about your product. Remember that customer feedback is everywhere. Learn how to collect it using different tools and resources. Do not underestimate any comment about your products and services and always be responsive. Your customers will appreciate that you value their feedback, which is key to developing strong relationships with your community. Your customer’s voice is priceless, so never stop listening!