Strategies for Effectively Handling Customer Feedback

Effectively handling customer feedback is one of the most important responsibilities of a product manager. It’s also one of the most challenging. We recently held a Product Stack webinar in Portland, Oregon, that covered several topics related to customer feedback, including strategies for soliciting, managing, prioritizing, and making the most of your customers’ suggestions. The panel members, representing ProductPlan, Pivotal Tracker, Notion, Airbnb, and other local PDX tech scene members, answered several audience questions on the topic. Here are some of the highlights and a couple of questions they didn’t have time to address.

Strategies for Effectively Handling Customer Feedback

How do you make the most customer feedback, especially when it comes in through customer success or customer support channels?

At ProductPlan, we do everything we can to turn customer feedback into a conversation or dialogue. But, unfortunately, the least effective way to handle customer feedback is to collect it, put it in a spreadsheet somewhere, and forget about it. On the other hand, if you can jump on feedback when it comes in and actually discuss with the customer, both parties are much more likely to walk away feeling satisfied, even if you’re not ultimately going to implement their request.

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“The least effective way to leverage customer feedback is to collect it and put it in a spreadsheet somewhere and forget about it.”

If a customer comes in with a feature request or other piece of feedback, it’s extremely effective to ask them more probing questions. For example, if they’re requesting a specific piece of functionality, ask them why they want that in your product. What problem are they trying to solve? How would adding this piece of functionality improve their experience, daily work, reduce friction, etc.? By putting the customer’s feedback into a real context, in this case, their actual work and behavior, you’ll walk away with a much richer understanding of their underlying problem and motivations.

Patterns and trends

A bonus is that this exercise makes it easier for customer success (and eventually product management) to identify patterns and trends in customer motivations. The human mind is excellent at constructing and identifying narratives. Asking more probing questions makes it easier for customer success and support to place customer requests in broader narratives and spot frequently recurring ones. Passing that kind of narrative feedback to product managers can make it easier to develop user stories with added context. Instead of seemingly isolated feature requests and generic feedback about specific features or functionality, you end up with a richer understanding of the underlying problems your customers are experiencing, which you can then try to solve in the most effective way possible. The important thing is that the solution might not be related to the initial feature request that came in from the customer.

For example, you might implement a change that solves several customer problems at once because it addresses a broader issue in your product, like opening your API up instead of responding to one customer’s request for specific app integration. Maybe they don’t actually care that much about one specific integration, or maybe that one integration would solve that customer’s problem, but no one else’s. Seeing a feedback narrative along those lines, i.e., “I want your product to talk to other apps I use,” might push you to develop or open your API so all your customers can build out integrations, etc.

How do you let customers down gracefully when you know you’re not going to implement their requests or feedback?

Again, the key here is communication and empathy. It’s much more likely your customer will feel satisfied if you’re open and transparent about your thought process. To succeed as a company, you will need a clear strategic vision of where your product is headed. This becomes increasingly complicated as you grow and your customer base becomes more diverse. Customers might share some core similarities, but at some point, they’ll likely want more specialized features, functionality, etc. You need to balance their desire for specialization with your long-term vision, and reconciling and aligning those (sometimes competing) interests is no easy feat.

Most people don’t like to be told “no,” especially when they’re paying the person who is telling them “no.” But, if you’re open and communicative about your thought process, prioritization strategy, and long-term vision, you’re more likely to have a positive discussion with your customer, even when you’re telling them it’s unlikely you’ll implement their suggestion anytime soon. The key here is to have that honest discussion. You should hear your customers, even if you don’t always do exactly what they want.

At ProductPlan, when we talk to our customers and explain the trade-offs regarding their feedback, like “here’s what you’re asking for and here’s what we would consider aligned with our broader vision,” we try to be as candid as possible. We may never implement a specific request because it’s just not within the scope of our product strategy, even if it sounds like a great idea. That’s why we partner with other tools, build out integrations, and cultivate resources for our customers when we can’t fulfill a specific request directly. The overwhelming majority of the time, our customers leave these interactions feeling heard, respected, and satisfied with our response.

How do you get customers to more effectively prioritize their requests?

ProductPlan has a built-in prioritization feature that helps product teams figure out which items to pursue next. You can use different scoring methods to prioritize items before adding them to your roadmap. The goal here is to take some of the subjectivity out of the prioritization process and turn it into more of an objective process, i.e., how is this feature going to move revenue compared to this one?

We also think that’s a great strategy that can be applied to external customers. When a customer reaches out to you with several requests, ask them to rank them for you. Ask them to imagine they only have a limited number of resources to apply to the development process for those features. How would they themselves apply them? Letting your customer wear the product manager hat for a minute can be an eye-opening experience for all parties involved and should help them highlight the most critical requests. At ProductPlan, we’re lucky that most of our customers already have their own product manager hats. Still, customers in any field or industry can temporarily play that part and do a little prioritization during a feedback call.

Apart from customers submitting feedback voluntarily, how do you actively solicit customer feedback?

There are several ways you can actively solicit feedback from customers. At ProductPlan, our product team regularly conducts interviews with customers. Customer success and customer support also represent feedback touchpoints and actively solicit feedback from multiple customer groups. It’s a great practice to get feedback not just from your most vocal customers but from your newest users during the onboarding process, as well as your churning customers when they choose to leave. It’s never a happy moment when a customer churns. Still, it can be a great opportunity to identify critical gaps in functionality, especially if you see multiple customers leaving for the same reason.

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“It’s a great practice to get feedback not just from your most vocal customers, but from your newest users during the onboarding process, as well as your churning customers when they choose to leave.”

Other great options for actively reaching out to your customer base for feedback include customer satisfaction tools like Net Promoter Score. Regularly reaching out to your customers for NPS rankings accomplishes two things, simultaneously giving you a great sense of how you’re doing and letting your customers know you’re interested in their feedback. In addition to getting a quick check with the rating, NPS offers customers another opportunity to provide qualitative feedback in the comments.

How to see the big picture

When we do NPS surveys, we consolidate all the comments and share that information with our entire team. Sharing NPS comments is a great way to align multiple teams around common issues; it helps product managers further understand which direction to take and helps other teams like engineering see the bigger picture and link their daily activities to real people and real emotions (whether positive or negative).

Whether you’re receiving voluntary feedback from your customers or actively reaching out to them with surveys, NPS, or other feedback mechanisms, everything really comes down to empathy and transparency. Listen to your customers, be transparent about your plans to implement their suggestions, or explain why their feedback doesn’t align with your product strategy and share all of your learnings and experiences with your entire team. The more all your product stakeholders feel heard and informed, the more satisfied everyone will feel.

Have more best practices for handling customer feedback? Please share them in the comments below!