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Improve Business by Encouraging Customer Feedback

4 minutes Read

When you’re running any small business, direct feedback from your customers is essential for continual improvement as well as for customer retention. Though people generally love to share their opinions, they sometimes need encouragement, so as a business owner you should constantly be asking for opinions from your customers. And you should use every outlet available to do so. But be prepared for sometimes brutal honesty. Just remember that even harsh criticism can be constructive if it helps you improve something that genuinely needs improving. Customer feedback can also clue you in to what you are doing well and can provide just the spark of encouragement you need to do it even better.

Good or bad, customer feedback can be your best friend.

Ways to get feedback

Social media. The rise in social media has been a boon to restaurant and other small business owners, giving them increased opportunities to learn exactly what their customers want and don’t want. On Facebook, for instance, restaurant owners can respond quickly to questions and complaints on the restaurant’s fan page. Customers/fans can see they are actually a part of your restaurant’s decision making process. When customers participate on your social media they can also serve as a focus group or temperature gauge, and can even become brand ambassadors. Social media can be a means to deepen and solidify the relationship between you and your customers.

Although your business may cater mostly to locals, social media sites such as Facebook also give you a chance to broaden your reach. You never know who might be peeking in on your public page(s). You’re playing to a largely unseen audience, but every one of those audience members could be a potential customer.

Use Facebook or Twitter to solicit feedback and encourage conversation, either via individual posts asking customers for their opinions about various matters – maybe a “question of the day” that somehow relates to your business – or by conducting a survey. (Facebook has a handy survey app you can use.) Again, though, you need to be prepared for honesty. Also be prepared to acknowledge all responses, good or bad, promptly, politely, and professionally.

This includes unsolicited feedback, which should be answered as quickly as possible; a good rule of thumb is to respond within 24 to 48 hours. If it’s a compliment, a simple thank you note and a return compliment can be delivered quickly and sincerely (with a follow-up question to keep the conversation going, if you wish). But complaints should be handled with an eye to restoring the failed relationship. You may need to do some investigating to discover the trouble so you can solve it.

One caveat: monitor conversations closely in order to avoid letting your fan page be a forum for hateful, abusive posts that serve no constructive purpose. Don’t routinely censor negative opinions, or you’ll get a reputation for dishonesty or indifference – but don’t be a doormat for haters either.

Your own web site. Here you can have even more control over the conversations that appear publicly than you do your social media sites. You don’t even have to publish the conversations; just use your site to solicit customer feedback. You can pop a feedback form on to your site easily enough, or you can set up a survey page. It’s simple to set up an online survey with a free plug-in application from Survey Monkey, Constant Contact or Zoomerang. Be sure to post the link to the survey everywhere – on comment cards in your restaurant, on your social media sites, and so forth. You might also check your marketing software for an existing survey option and use it to email your database. Just choose your questions carefully; craft them to elicit detailed responses, and avoid asking simple yes or no questions. (Here are some tips.) As with your social media sites, pay attention to all feedback and respond promptly, politely, and professionally.

This brings us to the question of what you should do about unsolicited feedback that shows up on external review sites such as Yelp. Of course you have less control over these conversations than you do those on your own sites, but you are not powerless. Do keep an eye out for comments and respond to them, and if a complaint seems legitimate, do everything in your power to “make it right.” Always take the high road in public and private conversations with the complaining customer. And if you’re able to resolve the complaint to the customer’s satisfaction, politely ask them to make note of that on the forum where they complained. Thank them for taking time to give their feedback.

Comment cards. This is the old-school way of doing things, but it’s easy and efficient. Customers don’t have to leave their names or contact information, but do give them that option and encourage them to use it. Reassure them that their privacy will be protected.

Small focus groups. If you have the time and wherewithal, small focus groups of customers can provide valuable insights. Here are some tips for conducting focus groups.

Every customer matters

No matter how comments come in, replies need to be customized, even personalized. If it’s a complaint, the reply should include an acknowledgement of the issue, a reason (not just an excuse) for the problem, and a promised action. A small gift (e.g., a coupon for a free appetizer or dessert) is also appropriate. If you use an automated response, the message should indicate when a personal response will follow. Whether you conduct an online survey or are responding to comment cards, be sure to follow up with customers by phone if possible, or at least by email.

One point to remember: Suggestions and ideas may come in from loyal fans and customers who frequently refer others to you and are among your most valuable customers. But sometimes their suggestions are inappropriate, so you need to be diplomatic in your response to them. Perhaps you can offer them a free dessert as a reward for the most creative suggestion of the day.

In any case, always make it worth your customers’ while to give you their feedback. Even with a form, more customers will complete it if you offer them something of value. A good way to encourage participation: entering everyone taking the survey in a contest or drawing for a free product or prize.

You can hire expensive consultants, take extension courses at the local university, or attend seminars and workshops and trade shows to help you learn more about running your business. These may all have their place as you continue to grow your business. But no matter how large or how small you are, no matter how old or how new your business is, nothing beats going straight to the source: the customers who actually eat at your restaurant. After all, they’re the whole reason you’re in business in the first place.


Photo credit: ratch/