The secret to a successful business is knowing what keeps people up at night.

By now you've hopefully realized that this is the reason why you should be "sleeping" with customers — when you understand pain points in a customers life so well that they feel like you're reading their mind, then you're on your way to building something people truly love.

The problem is this: Although you'd like to portray yourself as such, you are no mind reader, so how can you truly understand what customers want?

For starters, relying on intuition, your own problems that you've encountered, and conversation about what people are looking for can lead you in the right direction. Even Help Scout itself was formed when we noticed a huge "gap" missing in the email support space.

But you can't rely solely on intuition, and it's been proven that customers do often know what they want.

The solution comes in the form of effective customer feedback systems, but unfortunately, few companies give enough thought to the process and often rely on clumsy methods that customers hate to use.

Today, we'll take a look at 3 ways to easily implement feedback systems that actually work, and you'll get a behind-the-scenes peak at how we handle feature requests here at Help Scout.

Let's dig in!

1. An Easy Way to Manage Email Feedback

A 2012 study by Iposos revealed that when it comes to communicating online, more people prefer email than all of the other social networking sites combined.

Email is still the most popular system of communication for giving feedback to companies, so if your business doesn't have a smart system set-up for email feedback, you're falling behind.

Below I'm going to show you a dead simple strategy that allows us to keep track of feature requests quickly and accurately, and that has even helped us improve our overall email response rates by 340%.

First things first, we are highly dependent on our own product for email management with all incoming support queries and feature requests. Since we also integrate with SnapEngage for live-chat, we can access all incoming chats once they are complete to incorporate any relevant feedback into our system.

Below, I'll show you how we use Help Scout in conjunction with a few other tools + strategies that allow us to handle email support in an efficient manner.

Step #1: Keep the team informed in real-time

One app that our team simply can't live without is Campfire.

Though we rely on it heavily for team-wide communication, we also recently decided to set up a separate "room" for all incoming support queries. Since Help Scout integrates nicely with Campfire, any and all feature requests or other dilemmas were view-able as soon as possible to anyone in the support room.

This allowed us to improve our response time by over 340%.

September 1 - October 13:

October 13 - October 27:

That's not the end of this story, however.

Step #2: Allow all team members to organize feedback

To manage feature requests and other feedback suggestions, we use a simple board system with Trello to keep things in order.

Trello allows you to create both "boards" and "cards" to keep tabs on any project you're working on. For us, it serves as a collaborative way to keep product ideas, features, and other feedback organized and easily referenced.

Here's just a peak at a simple board setup you can use:

Dividing feature requests into boards like Next Up (those that have been approved + are on deck to do), Roadmap (those that have been approved but can be done later), and Ideas (customer requests that haven't been approved) keeps things organized for your team.

I no longer have to wonder, "Will we be implementing this feature?" I can just check the board to see if the customer's request has already been asked before.

Step #3: Divide boards up for easy navigation

While boards allow you to divvy up sections nicely, they essentially serve as "File Folders" like you have on you're computer, and will be useless unless you fill them up with stuff!

On Trello, you can create "cards" within particular boards, so you can divide a board like "Product: Next Up" into other easily browsed topics like Queue/In Progress, and create cards for each instance:

With this system, you can easily organize a card around a feature that multiple customers have asked for.

In fact, when a feature request and corresponding card is in place, we add emails of those customers who asked for the feature, so that they can be the first to know when it's live:

You'll also notice that each card comes with a "Specs" section that elaborates what exactly the feature request is, and how it will be implemented (if you have any team members not experienced with product development, this is a must).

With this system in place, your team will know exactly what features have already been requested, which are being worked on, and who wants to hear about them first.

2. Use Surveys the Right Way

Surveys are the go-to response when most people think about customer feedback, and it's easy to see why — you can gather a ton of data from all sorts of customers, and they scale nicely.

The dilemma is that surveys can backfire if you don't make them streamlined and efficient  because you spend a lot of time creating a comprehensive survey only to have customers ignore it.

According to a very interesting joint study between The Gallup Group Survey Monkey, there are a number of proven ways you an successfully improve your surveys...

Survey Style and Function

Keep it short & sweet: Remember that last time you enthusiastically filled out that 20-minute survey? Oh yeah, of course you don't, because nobody loves long, boring surveys. Get to the point, and fast.

Ask only the questions that you’ll use: Every single question that you include should have a very specific purpose. That extra question that you thought "couldn't hurt" to throw in actually does, because you're lengthening survey time for no reason. If you can't find a good reason to include a question, cut it.

Remember the open-ended questions: It's tempting to build surveys with scales and multiple choice questions (because they are easy), but the most genuine feedback comes when customers are asked topical, open-ended questions. Without restrictions, you'll get a chance to view what your customers are really thinking.

One question at a time: You're doing yourself no favors by bombarding people with multiple questions on the same page. For longer questions especially, approach things one at a time for simplicity and so survey takers don't lose their focus.

Communicating via Surveys

Stay neutral: Pay close attention to the 'neutrality' of the words you use, because you don't want to jeopardize your survey's objectivity with the wrong wording that may sway customers one way or the other.

Be precise and stay topical: The data shows that if your survey takes longer than 5 minutes, you're going to have more people abandon it. To alleviate this and still get solid feedback, be very precise with your questions, avoid phrases like "generally" and point out exactly what you want to hear about.

Make rating scales consistent: I don't want to rate one answer as a "5" for best and then answer another answer as "1" for best, so don't make me do it! Similarly, don't change the wording of questions in the "Strongly Agree - Strongly Disagree" format.

Avoid leading and loaded questions: Don't nudge respondents towards any response, and most importantly, don't ask questions where ego plays a strong role. When you start tugging at a respondent's pride, sometimes genuine answers will get fudged as a result.

Sometimes you need a yes/no: While open-ended questions (described above) can leave you with more genuine feedback, sometimes you just need a definite yes or no answer. They are simple for people to complete and can give you a good % look at a situation (plus, they make for great intro questions because they are easy).

Increasing Response Rates

Give an incentive: The research indicates that incentives can typically boost response rates by up to 50%, so reward your customers with a nice freebie for taking the time out to answer your questions (or, enter them into a future giveaway).

Timing: Interestingly, the study found the highest open and click rates occurred on Monday, Friday and Sunday respectively. There was no discernible difference between response quality gathered on weekdays versus weekends.

3. Start a Customer Conversation

One of the most effective ways to get people to spill their genuine thoughts on something is to hold a conversation with them.

As it turns out, although surveys are an essential way to get large scale feedback from customers, many studies show that no matter what you do, some people are always going to lie on surveys.

Worse yet, some of these "liars" aren't actively trying to lie, it's just that their brain can't correctly recall (or predict) their feelings and experiences. As we see in this study, customers weren't outright trying to lie, but they were terrible at predicting their "future intentions" when asked via a survey.

According to the lead researcher, in many instances...

"...focus groups and/or one-on-one customer interviews tend to be better venues to get at these answers, since it is possible to ask follow-up questions and go on “fishing trips” with the customer in this setting."

A one-on-one customer interview? You mean a conversation with a customer? :)

The problem: How do you initiate a conversation like this to help you improve BOTH your product and the content you create that helps solve people's problems?

One creative solution that I love comes from Derek Halpern in the form of the "What Are You Struggling With?" question.

The process works like this...

  • The introduction: Whenever a customer signs up for a particular email opt-in on your site (as such your content newsletter or via a resource download), make sure your email marketing software is set up to send them a follow-up message.
  • The follow-up: In your autoresponder, ask them a variance of the phrase, "What are you struggling with?" For instance, if you sell software that helps people with with their personal finances, a question like, "What part of your finances gives you the biggest headache?" will work perfectly and can reveal a whole lot about what is on your customers' minds.
  • The organization: You can use the Help Scout system above (combining Help Scout/email + Trello) to keep track of the most popular responses. You'll now have a deeply personal (and organized) look at your customers' biggest woes.

There's only one problem with this strategy... you actually have to respond back to people!

This is why it works especially well for newer companies, and even better if your a new company is looking to create the kind of content that helps you solve people's problems and acquire more customers ... the responses generated will literally tell you what problems to address!

When Customer Feedback Goes Wrong

There's no reason to go overboard with customer feedback when it comes to the value your product provides. Not all suggestions will need to be implemented just because a customer happens to mention it.

As our friends at Intercom put it:

Customers don't always know what they want in a product, and many features that get requested are often spur of the moment requests, not true improvements that will solve major pain-points for a majority of your users.

The bottom line: While customer feedback is an amazing source of new ideas and insight from the people who actually pay for your product, you and your company get final say in implementation, and you shouldn't jump the gun on product features just because a minority of customers asks for them.

Gregory Ciotti
Gregory Ciotti

Greg is a writer, marketing strategist and alum of Help Scout. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.