How to Build Customer Feedback Into Your Product Development Process

Corporations, Retention // Consumers are expecting more out of companies. Learn how to build customer feedback and set realistic expectations.

Crystal Coleman
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Consumers are expecting more out of the companies they purchase from and for the most loyal customers, being a part of the product development process is a key want.

While emails and phone calls to customer service teams are still popular, more and more customers are turning to owned or social communities for solutions to their problems and providing feedback on products. A 2013 JD Power survey found that 67% of consumers have used a company’s social media site for servicing.

By now, most companies know that engaging and responding to these audiences is necessary in today’s marketplace, but what are you doing with all that feedback after you solve a customer’s problem? Truly smart companies take the feedback they get from customers and use it to influence their product development process and make the best products for their customers.

Providing an Avenue for Feedback and Setting Realistic Expectations

First, let’s look at what feedback actually is. While you may have a handful of superstar customers who write to you with information that’s clearly labeled as feedback, most of the unsolicited feedback you’ll be able to get from customers comes in the form of complaints, questions, or confusion. We’ll get to solicited feedback in a second.

Unsolicited Product Feedback from Customers

Unsolicited feedback from your customers comes in a variety of forms:

  • Emails – Emails customers send with suggestions, complaints, or confusion about some aspect of your product.
  • Live – When sales or support associates have the opportunity to interact with customers, they can get valuable direct and indirect feedback about your products.
  • Social Media – Customers ask questions and provide input both directly to your social media channels and also in conversations about your product (where they might not be tagging you)
  • Customer Communities – Discussions, questions, and comments in your own customer community is really where you can find and proactively solicit the best feedback.

Solicited Product Feedback from Customers

Now, let’s look at soliciting feedback. When you’ve gathered a group of your customers together through an ambassador program, customer advisory council, or owned online community, you can work with this group to:

  • Get feedback on pre-launch programs and products
  • Help beta test things before they go live
  • Serve as advocates for changes before they’re announced to the larger community

See these resources for more on building out these types of programs in your community:

Volunteer Management: 12 Volunteer Opportunities for Members in Your Community (Higher Logic)

How to Create a Beta Community for Product Testing (eModeration)

How to Start a Customer Advisory Board (UserVoice)

The Importance of Setting Customers’ Expectations

One of the most important things you want to do when responding to both types of feedback is set realistic expectations about it.

Gently let people know when a change can’t happen. If you’re Coke and you’re getting feedback that people want you to taste more like Pepsi, well, that’s just not going to happen. It’s not a smart business decision. Letting people know that’s not in the cards is better than leading them on, even if it results in losing some customers.

When something fits with your business values, but you know it’ll be pretty far out on the roadmap, be transparent about that. While you might want to just make someone happy and say “We’ll get right on it,†if you know it’s not happening in the next couple of years, it’s better to be upfront about your timeline and priorities.

When something’s coming down the pipeline soon, take advantage of the opportunity and find out if the person providing the feedback wants a sneak peek at it or to be a part of the beta. It’s the perfect time to convert someone into a new advocate for your brand.

Distilling Feedback into Actionable Suggestions

Part of the skillset of really excellent community managers is the ability to take something like this:

I know I said I didn’t want this bold, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it emboldened, you know? (quote from Clients From Hell)

And turn it into actionable feedback like this:

Customer A wrote in to say that they were having troubles identifying the action they should take at step 6. Looking at page drop off, it seems 30% of other potential customers might be experiencing this same issue. While bolding the element isn’t in line with the stylesheet for the screen, design team can possibly look at differentiating the action button in a different way to help guide more users to it.

When customer complaints, questions, or confusion come in, don’t just see them as one-off ‘user errors.’ Figure out what the root of the confusion or complaint is and if there’s any possible improvement your team could develop to make a better experience. If you have access to the appropriate data, see if any other customers could be affected by the same issue (and just not reaching out to you). Build that internal data into the report you create from that feedback.

To keep feedback organized, the first thing you want to have in place is an internal system for collecting and tallying up feedback. If your customer community software platform does have built-in feature tracking tools, project management software like Jira, Asana, Trello, and others serve as excellent repositories for this kind of information.

What I’ve seen work really well is a system that incorporates into the systems that a product or development team uses and allows all team members to contribute. When a suggestion or potential solution to a common customer issue comes in for the first time, it should be recorded into the system. As similar suggestions or the same issue is reported again, those reports should be added to the file.

As the product or development teams start to look at what updates or changes to make, this is a great time to review what’s been noted in the feedback systems.

  • What’s coming up time and time again?
  • What’s a quick fix that would be an immediate win with people?
  • Even better, what are suggestions that would encourage people to buy the next product up in the family or upgrade their service?

Being able to equate this kind of feedback with improvements that help the company’s bottom line is one of the key ways to prove the value of community at any company.

Let Community Lead the Post-Mortem Process

In a recent interview with Elizabeth Tobey, Director of Community Management at Tumblr, I was surprised (in a good way) to find out that the community team leads the retrospective process at the company. This makes perfect sense for Tumblr, and for so many other companies, yet so few work this way.

Typically, retrospectives or post-mortems are run by a product or dev team and really only focus on whether the product or project was delivered on time and, if not, why. A community led retrospective process adds valuable information about impact to the report, including:

  • How many customers benefited from the new product or release?
  • What was the customer reaction to the release?
  • Did any follow on problems occur and how were they addressed?
  • What happened in activities related to your key metrics following the release?

These are all areas that community teams are best equipped to bring input to the table on. And after all, if you don’t have your customers, you don’t have a product to sell.

During an excellent presentation on how community and product can work together, Jason Evanish of Greenhorn Connect and formerly KISSmetrics encouraged these Dos and Don’ts in the iteration stage of product development (which retrospectives most profoundly impact):

DON’T separate yourself from the product team.

DO help product understand community feedback.

DO relay feedback.

DO introduce the users who requested the feature to the product team.

DO connect product to a wide spectrum of average users – not just power users. Get the full spectrum of people who would be using the tool or product.

DO share how you make passionate power users. Invite people over to power lunches, drink ups, and dinners.

Community/Product Management Takeaway

More than even, your customers want to be deeply involved in your company’s decisions, direction, and successes.

Involving and listening to your customers early and often is a great way to help them feel heard and increasingly, companies are leveraging their branded online community to effectively gather and process that ongoing feedback.


Crystal Coleman

Community Manager, Google

Crystal is a community manager at Google. She is a passionate community builder and social media manager who believes customer service and helping others is at the root of every role.

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