How to Understand What Your Customers Really Want: Creating a Scalable Customer Feedback Engine

In order to build a product your customers love, you need to get inside their heads. It’s not enough to understand what they do, you must understand why. This requires you to interact with your customers on a deep, personal level and gather data from various perspectives. Early on, you should spend a significant proportion of your time gathering user feedback, and as the company grows, you must invest in developing the systems and processes to make it a part of the DNA of your company.

In this article, I’ll provide a step-by-step framework, recommendations, and tools you can leverage at any stage to gather critical customer feedback to drive your product strategy. By the end of this post you will be able to efficiently tackle and answer these questions:

  • How do my customers think and behave?
  • How can I get my customers to tell me why they do or don’t like my product?
  • How do I gather quality feedback at scale?
  • What features should I build that will make the biggest impact?

I also covered this material in my latest video on my YouTube channel, be sure to like and subscribe to get weekly videos about product design, software development, startup strategies, and leadership: 

YouTube video

3 Ways to Gather Customer Feedback

There are three main ways to gather user feedback. You can:

Ask them – Understand their intentions and opinions

Observe them – Understand how they actually behave and interact with your product

Analyze them – Identify patterns and predict outcomes in the aggregate

In the early stages, you will rely heavily on personal interviews, where you try to understand the intentions and opinions of your customers. Once you’ve built a prototype or product, you should conduct usability testing and capture real-time recordings to observe their behavior. As your user base grows, you’ll want to embed analytics to find patterns and make predictions at scale.

Phase 1: Ask Them

When you are conducting interviews, the goal is to develop empathy and trust with your potential customers. 

You want to gain the perspective of the user to understand their goals, frustrations, values, culture, environment, and so on. Get to know their favorite products, brands, and celebrities. You are attempting to understand their entire worldview that shapes their behavior and decisions. 

Once you’ve grasped your customers’ true perspective, you can begin to dive deeply into their toughest problems. In the first interviews, you should focus on getting to know them personally. Then, you can begin to dive in and understand their toughest problems.

Chaos to Clarity

Key Questions to Keep in Mind While Conducting Customer Interviews

  • What solutions are they using today?
  • Which problems take most of their time and money?
  • How significant are these problems?
  • What solutions do they currently use?
  • How do those solutions succeed?
  • How do they fail?

There’s a high chance that your competitors aren’t completely scratching that itch, which allows you to offer a better solution. Asking these types of questions can help uncover unique opportunities or identify gaps in the market. When conducting each interview, put your product idea aside and focus first on the problem. If you have a product in the market, use this time to learn about the context in which your users interact with it and ways your customer’s experience can be improved.

Now let’s jump into some proven methods for gathering quality feedback from your users. 

Email Drip Surveys

Drip marketing is a communication strategy that sends, or “drips,” a pre-written set of messages to customers or prospects over time. These messages often take the form of email marketing, although other media like SMS can also be used.

Drip campaigns are a great way to gather product feedback because you can schedule it along the customer lifecycle and react to user behavior.

Recommended Tool: Mixpanel

While not a traditional email marketing tool, Mixpanel allows you to trigger an email message based on user behavior. 

For example, this can occur when the user first registers, when the user is 7 days into the product, after completing a new workflow, or when they’ve referred a friend using a referral code.

You want to keep the emails short and make it easy for them to respond. Make sure that you have these baked in throughout your customer lifecycle.

Key Questions to Ask in Email Surveys 

  • How is your product succeeding or failing?
  • Why did they choose to sign up, purchase or refer to your product?
  • What other problems were they having that you might not be addressing?
  • How could the product be better?

Dormant and Exit Surveys

Dormant means when a user has gone inactive. At this point, you know you’ve lost their interest, so you have to be very careful with how you ask for feedback. 

I typically trigger dormant surveys two weeks after the user hasn’t used my product in a meaningful way or an exit survey when they’ve canceled a subscription. I like to create an email with one-click responses.

You can make the email with pre-canned responses so that all they have to do is just click a button and they receive an automatic response.

Common One-Click Responses:

  • I haven’t had time to use the product
  • I switched to another product
  • Your product was too expensive
  • I don’t have that problem anymore.
  • Your product was too buggy.
  • Your product didn’t live up to my expectations.

Rather than trying blindly to create new features in an attempt to decrease churn, this will allow you to understand WHY people aren’t adopting or sticking with your product. 

You’re getting the feedback from the horse’s mouth at the precise moment that they are most likely to give you the most accurate answer.

In-App Feedback

You can also gather feedback directly in your application. This can be done by simply developing a pop up at the end of a workflow  with a quick thumbs up or down metric or a 1 to 5 rating scale that measures their experience with a particular feature.

There are various tools, like Apptentive or Instabug, where you can embed pop-up surveys into your product. This allows your users to give quick and easy feedback.

So at the end of the workflow, it might be a perfect time to say, “Hey, you’ve made it! Hopefully, we’ve helped you accomplish ‘X’ goal. Now we want to get your feedback.” Remember, this technique works best when the experience is fresh in the user’s mind.

Challenge: Gather five meaningful customer feedback artifacts a week. 

Whether it’s an interview or survey, you want to aim for a goal of at least five every week. As you scale up, that number may even continue to grow. Challenge yourself, you’ll be shocked how effective this is and how much you will learn. 

Phase 2: Observe Them

There’s a big difference between what people say and what they do. 

People may have a tough time giving you critical feedback, or they may have difficulty articulating their true intentions. 

This is why you have to engage in usability testing.

These are live sessions where the person will use your product to accomplish a goal. Give them some context, but then step back and avoid holding their hand. Let them try to accomplish the goal using your product without interfering.

Observe how they interact with the product, what path they take, and look for where and how they fall off of the rails. 

You’re also looking at body language, a furrowed brow, a sigh or a grunt, or a laugh. Be on the lookout for anything unexpected. 

What if you find them using your product in an unintended way? It could be one of two things:

  1. It was poorly designed and they somehow fell off the rails.
  2. They’ve come up with some novel way to accomplish their goal. This might be an opportunity for a new feature!

Recommended Tool:

After every release, I try to record a handful of videos on from brand new people who have never seen my product before.

This is important because when you do usability testing with an existing user group, these are people that already know and like you, so they want to see you succeed. They’re probably going to be biased towards giving you positive feedback. Also, they’ve already gone up the learning curve, so things aren’t going to trip them up the same way they might a new user.

Note: This type of service is biased towards direct-to-consumer products. If you’re developing a B2B product or a product targeted towards a very specific niche then it might not work for you. In that case, you’re going to need to look to your existing customers or sales leads as a source of beta users. I always like to offer a strong incentive, like a discount on the product, to engage beta users.

Testing can get expensive, priced around ~$150 or so per video, but the insight that I get from these tests never ceases to amaze me —  so I recommend you try it out. 

In-App Recordings and Heatmaps

There are platforms like Hotjar, Lucky Orange, and FullStory that perform in-app recordings and generate heat maps. 

These can then be embedded into your platform to capture live recordings of users who go through your product or experience, without them knowing. 

Chaos to Clarity

Heatmaps help you understand how people interact with your product, so you can find solutions to business-critical questions such as ‘how do I get core visitors to take action?’ or ‘why are users not converting?’ Using heatmaps, you can determine if people are:

  • Following the intended UX path
  • Using decoy buttons or non-clickable elements
  • Experiencing crashes or usability issues

As a visual tool, heat maps help you make informed, data-based decisions for A/B testing, updating, or redesigning your product. Using heat maps have uncovered a lot of issues and given me some really interesting feedback.

Phase 3: Analyze Them

Conversion funnels are key for data analysis.

With the conversion funnel, you want to map out every step in the process that the user has to take to become a loyal, paying customer.

Chaos to Clarity

You need to be able to track events for all of your users and measure the conversion rate through each stage. 

As users move from one stage to the next, you will start seeing engagement drop off. When you see a big cliff, that’s somewhere you need to zoom in and collect more data, track more events, look at more videos, and do more usability testing. 

Recommended tools: AppSee, Google Analytics, Flurry, MixPanel, HotJar, Amazon SQS

Key Performance Metrics

A Key Performance Metric (KPM) helps you understand how your organization or product is performing. 

A good KPM should act as a compass, helping you and your team understand whether you’re taking the right path toward your strategic goals. Here are some key performance metrics you should be tracking and calculating automatically: 

  • Activity
  • 7/30/90 Day Retention
  • Conversion
  • Churn
  • Referral
  • CAC
  • Revenue
  • Margin
  • New Feature Adoption

Whether you’re scripting SQL queries or using a business intelligence tool to calculate these metrics, they should be automated and accessible at the push of a button.

Note: When you get into the realm of analytics, these are the first things that you want to automate. These metrics show the health of your company and you and your team shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time gathering them on a regular basis.

As you progress, you can start getting into more advanced analytics where you start to look at cohorts and predicting behavior across groups with A/B testing.

Chaos to Clarity

A/B Testing

When there is a debate, test it! If there’s debate internally about how to design a feature, you can develop a couple of different options and then measure the outcomes.

You might create two different versions of an onboarding flow, for example. You can tag those users and create cohorts, then measure the difference. The results may show that “people who used onboarding version A were 20% more likely to be retained than people who used onboarding version B.” Given this information, we’re going to use A and we’re going to cut out B. 

The way you do this is by implementing conditional logic in your product. You want to add users to a randomized cohort using a simple database tag, develop multiple experiences behind conditional logic (if statements), and then measure their outcomes. This will allow you to intentionally measure outcomes and avoid endless debate. Don’t forget to remove the code for the abandoned paths so your app doesn’t become a mess.

Tools like Apptimize and Optimizely allow you to do this at a high level with UI based A/B testing. If you want more control, you will have to develop it yourself.

And that, in a long-winded blog post, is three ways to gather customer feedback! 

It’s my mission in life to help startup founders succeed, and keeping their heads above water is job #1. I would love to hear about what challenges you face and what topics you’d like to see covered in more detail. Please leave a comment below and connect with me on social media!