Listen Up -- Your Customers Are Talking

Today, the customer is in charge -- and highly vocal. The reality of customer feedback is not a new phenomenon. For as long as products have been available for consumption, consumers have been sharing their opinions on those products. The only difference between now and even five years ago is the increased ability for customers to share their feedback on extremely public platforms. Facebook, Twitter, blogs and review sites have become message boards for consumer feedback and insight. Even though companies' ability to interact with customers has improved in parallel with customers' ability to speak out, it's been estimated that among social networks and traditional selling channels, companies mishandle 80 percent of customer engagement opportunities. The information that customers share through these channels is an invaluable asset that must be considered carefully and regularly.

The digital era has marked the start of a new age for customer-driven businesses. In an August 2012 Forrester Research, Inc., report titled "The New Messaging Mandate", author Shar VanBoskirk writes, "the balance of power has tilted in favor of your customers, who are increasingly empowered in today's digital environment. Only marketers who are customer-obsessed and adapt to consumers' changing behaviors in real time will succeed." Listening, innovating based on what you hear, and responding to your customers will not only give your business a competitive edge, it is the best way to ensure your company's long-term success.

Listen to Repeat Buyers

A seemingly passive activity such as listening can positively impact ROI. Businesses tend to place higher value on customer acquisition but it seems that investing in existing customers may have a higher payoff. The retail industry serves as a prime example. An Adobe study shows that retailers spend massive amounts of their marketing budgets to convert prospects into buyers, while 40 percent of their revenue comes from return customers that make up only 8 percent of their visitors. U.S. retail marketers would have to bring in five new shoppers to equal the value of one return customer. The most important lesson to glean from this is that your time and money is much better spent on appealing to and interacting with the customers you already have. Listening to their feedback is the first step.

An ideal way to engage with customers is to be present where the customers are spending time. Dedicate some man-power to proactively engage with customers on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and even Yelp, if that is where your customers are. For deeper insights with a broader scope, consider online surveys or Facebook Polls. By listening to loyal customers and embracing their feedback you stand to drive business decisions that will delight them. Give your best customers what they are clamoring for before branching out to new prospects.

Wield Insights for Innovation

Software is innovating at breakneck speed. It is imperative that businesses innovate and modify their product at an equal if not faster rate to stay relevant. The most effective way to do this is to tap into consumer needs that manifest themselves in consumer feedback. For example, Timbuk2, a messenger bag company based in San Francisco, expanded its product line based heavily on customer input. In 2007, a Timbuk2 customer posted on the company's community site that he/she would be interested in a Timbuk2 diaper bag. At the time, diaper bags were not part of the Timbuk2 product line, nor were they a part of the company's product roadmap. Nonetheless, the idea spurred a lot of reaffirming activity on the site. This urged the company to launch the new line of bags -- much to its customers' delight.

Innovation for innovation's sake is useless. Customers are more empowered than ever to voice and share their opinions and this feedback proves as an excellent repository of fuel for creating the best possible experiences that should be mined at all times.

Use Content to Start Conversations

Remember that customers want to be communicated with, so deliver the type of content that will elicit positive two-way communication. One of the more obvious avenues for doing this is through social platforms. Each time you tweet, post a Facebook status or blog, your content should be relevant, engaging and mindful of your audience. Closely monitor how customers interact your content through "shares," "likes," re-tweets, and comments and, more importantly, respond.

Take this one step further by making use of Big Data and analytics tools that enable you to deeply understand your customers. This will enable you to deliver content that your customers want to engage with. Being personal and authentic are like having the keys to the city when it comes to customer communication. Companies need to have a pulse on what's being said about them and who is saying it so that they can act and respond accordingly.

Be Authentic in Your Communication!

It is almost impossible to interact with every single less-than-satisfied customer on an individual basis; however, addressing issues via social channels like Twitter and Facebook is an excellent way to reach customers and delight them. Virgin Airlines, known for its superb customer service, is a great example. If you travel frequently, chances are you've been uncomfortably close to missing a connection or even worse have lost your luggage. With a mix of advanced technology and social engagement, Virgin is addressing these critical customer concerns in real-time with real solutions. Virgin allows passengers in-flight to interact with its support staff on the ground. Being perceptive not only to what customers need in the moment, but to what they need next is what sets the Virgin experience apart. The lesson to be gleaned from Virgin is to take advantage of the power of social and engage with customers in real-time on the issues that matter most to them.

Successful product development and relationship building does not occur in a vacuum. Those that do not take the time to listen and respond to feedback will be left offering irrelevant products to a disconnected audience. A company that engages with its target audience regularly and authentically though great content will not only have the upper hand to develop desired products, they will have a set of buyers lined up to make purchases.