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Fewer boxes. More loops. There are two important lessons I have learned as a PM that made me start thinking in loops and stop thinking in boxes:

  1. No user touchpoint occurs in an isolated box.
    It is easy to get tunnel vision, focusing on one feature or KPI you are trying to drive this month. Asking “How can I get the user to use new feature X?” without understanding what they experienced before and after that point, or their expectations coming in. One of the best ways to zoom out and really improve the entirety of your user’s experience – including customer support interactions – is to develop a complete, multi-touchpoint customer feedback loop.
  2. Product development should never be a black box.
    “If you build it, they will come” might be a nice Hollywood movie line, but it can be dangerous in a product development setting. A “Build-Measure-Learn” loop involving real conversations with users as you iterate is essential to improving everything from the tiniest feature to the whole customer experience.

“The fundamental activity of a [product team] is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere. All successful [team] processes should be geared to accelerate that feedback loop.”
– Eric Ries, Author of ‘The Lean Startup’

This “loop beats box” mentality can really drive both how you think about collecting customer feedback in your organization, as well as how you make product decisions. If you set up a genuine, multi-touch closed feedback loop with your customers, your team can break out of silos and improve your product and user experience at a quicker and more productive pace.

This is all good in theory, but to have an automated, manageable, and thorough Closed-Loop Customer Feedback System requires some planning.

So, how do we do this?
Here is what we will cover:

  1. First, we will look at what makes up a Closed Customer Feedback Loop.
  2. Then, we will look at some less obvious benefits of closing the loop.
  3. Last, we will look at some tools and techniques you can use as a Product Manager and throughout your organization to ensure customers are brought to the forefront.

What is Closed Loop Feedback?

Typically, customer feedback is a one-way street. Get feedback. Make decisions. Rinse. Repeat. Feedback is collected in a survey, series of interviews, or maybe customer service tickets. It is then aggregated, analyzed, and reported. That is equivalent to taking all of your customers’ responses, putting them into a nice little box with a ribbon, then presenting them to your team.

what is closed loop feedback?Think about it. In what real world setting would that pass for real conversation? We saw in the 2014 UserVoice State of Product Management Survey that Sales and Executive teams dominate influence over product strategy. This happens despite Product Managers ranking actual users and Customer Support as far more valuable sources of product feedback. The best way to combat this imbalance is through closing the customer feedback loop.

A Closed Customer Feedback Loop, is a process of continued collection, reflection, and real conversation with users at multiple touchpoints in the customer lifecycle.

To close the feedback loop, you have to:

  1. Listen to what your customers have to say
  2. Address customer concerns promptly and properly
  3. Talk with customers regularly
  4. Track customers’ actual behavior
  5. Understand where customers are coming from
  6. Create new lines of communication
  7. Solve underlying customer needs
  8. Involve all teams in the conversation

On that last point, Nickey Skarstad, Group Product Manager at Etsy, shared a great tip during her talk at UserConf on using customer feedback to build better products:

“I actually encourage my team – everyone from product designers that I work with to the data analysts that are working on my team, as well as the engineers – to actually get into the prototype [feedback forum] and talk to people. My team has found it really rewarding because they are able to have real conversations with people.”

This level of conversation not only lets you (and your team) build better products for users, it can even affect how your users themselves behave with your product. Let us talk about how we can get there.

Make It Personal

Imagine you were in a long-term relationship. Every once in a while, your significant other gives you little bites of unsolicited feedback on your behavior here and there, maybe more and more frequently. A perceptive partner might pick up on this pattern and ask “Is something wrong?”, hear them out, then go back and think about that feedback moving forward.

Done. Finished. Everything is peachy. Right?

Not quite. Life is not so simple. Some issues can and should be addressed in real-time, and there are almost certainly nuances to their reactions. This does not mean picking apart every little detail about each other, but having ongoing conversations and open communication rather than just the occasional one-way feedback collection is more likely to build empathy and growth. You need to “get” your partner – and your users.

What Do We Get Out of Closing the Loop?

Better products. Better users. Fewer headaches. Stronger teams.

Let’s take a couple of case studies: Etsy, the creative seller marketplace,and Atlassian’s Confluence, an enterprise team management tool.

Etsy has a compelling method of collecting feedback before launching new features. They have a prototype section where their sellers can go in and actually toggle-on nearly-complete features to test them out and offer feedback in forum threads in that same section.

Even after features are being rolled out, Etsy users have a period in which  they can toggle the feature on or off when they like. Etsy’s team members not only engage and respond to users in the prototype feedback area, but they also look at the first few actions users take after they toggle off a new feature to look for patterns.

Confluence, on the other hand, uses a lighter version of prototyping in Keynote in addition to their fuller prototypes. They  have also used a live dashboard of users with photo avatars in their office that tracks individual metrics for that day. This way, they can start seeing patterns and really try to “get” their users. This can help put faces to personas, adding empathy to product conversations.

So, what are the rewards of all of this effort?

Better Products

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Or so say French Revolutionaries (and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben).

When you make product changes, you can just as easily hurt your users as help them. Closing the feedback loop can ensure you are helping.

Etsy’s mix of prototyping, feedback conversations, and tracking actual user behavior ensures that they can address actual user needs. A tool might be  useful in theory for their sellers, but they will quickly validate this, either explicitly through feedback or implicitly by observing users who toggle the new feature off.

Etsy saw sellers disabling their new listing management feature before posting a listing, which was the opposite of what they were looking for. Fortunately, since they set up a channel for conversation they identified the reasons behind the behavior and could talk directly to the users who were exhibiting this behavior.

Sherif Mansour, Principal Product Manager at Atlassian responsible for Confluence, described how his team added a “Provide Feedback” button right in the Confluence app next to the new feature. This provided the most relevant feedback quickly, with over 900 submissions. Reducing friction for user feedback by avoiding forcing users to navigate to other pages or logins improved the amount and representation of feedback they received, as well. This led to better features, iterated quicker with less wasted development time. (Stop by this article on best practices for in-app feedback to learn more about how to do this well.)

Better Users

People do not like change. Users can often react in shock to major product changes or new features, even if they will be successful in the end. By allowing users to opt-in and toggle new features on or off, Etsy was able to avoid the “shock reactions” that typically drown out genuine user feedback. Not only does this provide much higher quality and actionable feedback, it primes the user base for changes and makes them happier and more invested members of the product community.

In the short-term, customers who are at risk of churning to competitors, downgrading, or lowering engagement can be turned around by a single positive real-time customer feedback or support experience.

In the long-term, every positive or negative interaction your customers have, whether it be with support, your product team, or the app experience itself, adds up over time. Improving the quality and frequency of these positive interactions and investments will only increase your customer’s engagement and reduce churn to competitors.

Fewer Headaches

Having closer feedback and communication with your users will avoid big headaches (like product change blow-ups), but will also avoid the build up of small bugs and poor experiences that users have over time.

Stronger Teams

Having everyone from support to sales to engineering to product all interacting and addressing users needs will provide everyone with context on the value they provide. This perspective will ensure each team member will make better decisions since they will be able to empathize with the customer on each part of the journey.

Tools and Techniques to Close the Customer Feedback Loop

tools for closing the customer feedback loop There is a large toolkit out there right now for companies of all sizes.

Everyone from enterprises to startups can leverage scalable plug-and-play solutions that handle customer feedback collection, support, and product prioritization. Still, traditional market research is still useful in certain contexts. A good Product Manager should understand the full set of tools available and decide what they should prioritize.

Here is a list of some of the best traditional tools for closing the feedback loop:

  1. Alert Systems
    From bug-ticketing tracking to in-app customer support ticketing, these systems can send automated alerts to staff and even auto-triage and route alerts to the appropriate managers. Using Alert Systems for aggregate analysis in addition to ad-hoc customer support will provide the most value.
  2. Intelligent Knowledge-Bases
    The majority of top-class products now have automated knowledge bases that can answer user queries from a database of answers. There are tools out there to help. Having a feedback and follow-up system integrated in this knowledge base is the only way to ensure it is continuously improving. Be warned: Users will appreciate instant automated answers, but can quickly become annoyed if they get lost with no way to contact a human.
  3. Case Management
    Assigning customer support cases to managers and ensuring that they are addressed with high quality support quickly is important. If you have an engaged customer community, as Airbnb has, this can be enhanced and scaled by engaging the community. Airbnb has queries first routed to incentivized community members – including fellow hosts & guests – to answer and even take action on tickets. If the ticket becomes complicated, the issue is escalated to a support manager. This both engages the community and helps scale quick responses across geographies and cultures.
  4. Net Promoter Score (NPS)
    Calculated through a survey of customers after they have been served, the NPS is the % of satisfied customers minus the % of unsatisfied customers. Almost every company should track this metric as a general signal of health, but this should not be used as a substitute for more in-depth customer support and feedback analysis.
  5. Surveys
    Customer surveys are important. Whether it be simple sentiment questions using emoticons, or in-depth open-ended surveys to collect action-oriented user concerns, a survey is a great way to understand your landscape of customers and their concerns. Surveys tend to be one-way, however, and high-quality respondents should always be engaged. Reach out to these respondents, ask follow-up questions, or invite them in for user interviews. Most importantly, always thank your users and make them know their voices were heard. (Airbnb, for example, often frames new product releases as being “highly requested by the community.”)
  6. Community Forums
    Similar to the above, a community forum with quality community moderators can be a great tool to have continual engagement with users. Although forums, along with many collection tools, will be a self-selected group of users, they can provide quality feedback on-demand. Consider having a manageable, invite-only forum for your power users or users that fill a specific variety of customer profiles.
  7. In-app Feedback Tools
    Collect feedback where it is most relevant. There are plug-and-play tools that make collecting customer feedback – and even responding to feedback right in-app – very easy, but even a simple button for “tell us what you think” next to a new feature can be valuable. Reduce friction for feedback: If a thumbs up or thumbs down is all you need, then just add those.

…and here are some more inventive feedback tools and techniques:

  1. Beta/Prototype Feedback Collection
    Etsy’s Prototype Feedback “Lab” and “Google Labs” are good examples of full beta versions of features that can be tested out by users with a feedback system built-in. There are plug-and-play beta feedback collection tools, of course, and you should always supplement with actual user testing, interviews, customer support feedback, and tracking actual user behavior.
  2. Tracking In-App Behavior
    Using funnel analytics tools like Amplitude or Localytics, heatmaps or videos of user click habits with plugins like Inspectlet, and even simple Google Analytics tracking can help you understand exactly what your users are doing – not just what they are telling you. After you start to see patterns, talk to your users to validate your hypotheses on why they are taking those actions.
  3. User Testing
    Testing new products or features with users has been made pretty simple. You can now take a simple mockup, an interactive prototype, or a fully built feature and go to a site like UserTesting to get screen-capture videos of users that fit your customer profile using your site and answering questions.
  4. User & Usability Interviews
    Nothing will substitute for talking directly to your customers. If it is a new product, find customers in your employee or friend network who fit the profile or hustle and find them through online searches, Craigslist, or databases and services. Let your users ramble, follow-up on questions, and if you are doing a usability test, let them react before asking them questions or stating what you are trying to build. Consider building a customer panel that you can go back to and rotate through when you need to test new concepts and features.
  5. Shared-Team Customer Support
    The best way to get everybody on board is to have a program where everybody in the organization (or at least key people in each team), has to do customer support for a day. Some organizations even have all employees do customer support for one day at least once every month or two. Either way, this will give everyone perspective and empower them to make more empathetic decisions without having to learn about the user through the same product or support manager.

Summary:

In the end, give your customers more opportunities to provide feedback that will actually be answered. Be active in speaking with customers daily. And finally, empower your teams to support your users at scale. This will all greatly improve your chances of building and growing a winning product, plain and simple.

 

Colin Lernell

About Colin Lernell

Colin Lernell is a Product Manager at the unicorn online education and career startup Udacity (the opinions expressed in this article are those of Colin alone, and not those of Udacity). He has worked in education technology, on-demand marketplaces, crowdfunding platforms, and mobile applications, including HourlyNerd and Tilt. He specializes in Growth & Analytics, as well as Lean Prototyping & User Research. Outside of work, Colin is a former touring rock musician, startup and Star Wars geek, and goes for runs with his beagle as often as possible.