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Why I Love My Angriest Customers

What do you do when a customer says you should be "hunted down and beaten to death"? Evernote's CEO, Phil Libin, treats it as market research.
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A Japanese marketing exec writes: We get a lot of customer feedback online. I’d like to relay it to management, but we don’t have a good channel for doing so. What do you do at Evernote to funnel feedback to top management?

Channels for client engagement? Let's see...

I have a publicly visible Twitter account (@plibin), and my email address is very easy to guess, so lots of people contact me directly about what they love or hate about Evernote. (Plus, I just added another email address for Inc.com readers who have questions for me, plibin@inc.com.) When any customer can just email the CEO, the company becomes pretty attuned to feedback.

We also have a Facebook page, blogs, forums, Twitter feeds, etc. We get rated on multiple app stores and written about on countless sites. We hold meetups, we have ambassadors, we make podcasts. We are swimming in a constant conversation with our customers. You could no more isolate Evernote from customer feedback than you could isolate a whale from water.

In that sense, we’re no different from a thousand other companies.

Before you create a customer feedback channel, you need leaders who want to read it.

Your problem is not the lack of an adequate channel to management. It is a lack of adequate management. My suggestion is that you quickly go and fix this and come back to the rest of this column when you're finished. I'll wait.

OK, now you've got a management team eager to embrace customer feedback, but you'll quickly run into other problems. As your company becomes better known, you'll progress through the three phases of Internet customer feedback quantity: 1. "not enough!"; 2. "just the right amount!"; and 3. "way, way too much!"

I'm joking, of course: There is no Phase Two. At Evernote, we spent about a week wondering if we were going to get enough feedback and then the past five years trying to survive the avalanche. The trick is understanding what feedback is and isn't good for. In short: Customer feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It's terrible at telling you what you should do next.

The three kinds of customer feedback

There are many types of customer feedback, but it's useful to group them into three main categories: Complaints, Suggestions, and Compliments.

Usually, it'll feel as if the categories are Complaints, Complaints, and Complaints. 

Complaints are great; the more detailed, the better. They tell us where our product or overall experience is failing and directly influence our development road map. No matter how unpleasant customer complaints may seem, they are the best form of actionable market research. In addition to being superuseful, they have the advantage of being the easiest form of feedback to get. No training or solicitation required. People are naturally good at complaining. 

The problem with complaints is that they can be quite demoralizing to people inexperienced with being criticized online. That's because the Internet is the most efficient invention in the history of the universe for concentrating dissatisfaction into its purest, darkest, and most bilious essence. The result is that for every well-written and measured complaint that you receive, you'll probably get one that's a bit… disproportionate. 

On the night before we first released the Evernote service, in 2008, I made a quick screen capture movie pointing out the features. Apparently the audio of my voice was not satisfactory, because the first comment we received was, "Whoever did the voiceover in this video ought to be found and beaten to death." 

I respectfully disagree, but even in a comment like that, there was an element of truth. The audio was bad. My narration was sloppy. We fixed it.

It's all about how you handle it

Internet complaints are great at telling you what you did wrong. Don't take them personally, and don't rush to implement the suggested corrective measures, but do pay attention. Also train new team members on how to read Internet criticism without losing their mind. 

The second most common type of customer feedback is product suggestions. We look at all of these, and occasionally a really great idea jumps out, but the vast majority are not useful. Your customers can't design your product for you. Keep an open mind about suggestions, but don't let them take you too far astray from your own product vision. People have a great innate sense of what's making them unhappy right now, but they're not very good at predicting what will make them happy in the future. That's your job.

And if you're good at your job, you'll get a sprinkling of the last type of customer feedback: compliments. The best of these come in the form of user stories that tell how your product made a lasting difference in someone's life. 

Share them with the team.

Questions about business, entrepreneurship, or leadership for Phil? Send them to plibin@inc.com.

Last updated: Feb 11, 2013

PHIL LIBIN | Columnist | Co-founder and CEO of Evernote

Phil Libin is the co-founder and CEO of Evernote, a Redwood City, California-based software company. In 2011, Evernote was Inc.'s Company of the Year.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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