Every business owner knows that one of the best ways to improve your business is to listen to what your customers have to say about you.

Perhaps you've followed that wisdom and held focus groups, fielded surveys, and conducted conjoint analyses. Done correctly, these can all be effective tools. But sometimes, to get richer insights, you need to take some not-so-obvious routes.

As a CEO of a growing consumer Internet company, I spend a lot of time listening. So does our team. Here are five of our secret listening tools that have yielded real results.

1. Keep customer support in-house and staffed by smart people.

Many companies regard customer support as a necessary evil and a loss leader. They do what they can to keep costs down, even outsourcing it. This is a waste of a valuable asset--engaged customers.

If someone writes to customer support with a problem--or tweets about it, or posts it on our Facebook page--it usually means two things:

  • There really is a problem; and
  • It was bad enough that he or she took the time to write about it.

We view that complaint as an opportunity and respond quickly and personally--no robo-responses! We don't just address the issue but also ask questions, and the complaining customer almost always takes the time to offer more information.

Make sure you keep track of customer responses--especially for most requested features and improvements. You may discover the next product idea for your company. And by responding personally and effectively, you can turn your biggest critics into your biggest advocates.

2. Use job interviews as an opportunity to learn.

Especially in today's job market, most of the people who want to work for your company will come in with ideas on how to improve your business. Of course, we evaluate their ideas from the viewpoints of strategy and company culture--but our interviewees also tend to be Shop It To Me customers who are excited about the company's potential. They not only know the product well but come with a thoughtful, fresh perspective. 

Ask your interviewees about your product, and really listen to the responses. Those ideas will tell you how much the candidate cares about your product, of course. But keep an eye out for patterns as well: If you find many of your candidates are talking about similar ideas, it may be time to assess whether they have merit for your business.

3. Try out new ideas with "stubbed" features.

One of the worst things you can do is waste time and money creating a service or feature that no one really wants. We're a Web-based business, so we can get feedback by paying attention to what our customers click on--and what buttons they ignore. That helps us explore new ideas: Say we want to know if people really want to use a new filter; we list it as an option and see what percentage of our users click on it. 

You don't even have to fully flesh out a feature to get feedback; you can use "stubbed" (or fake) features to gauge user interest. Let's say you are an online retailer, and you want to know whether customers would use (and pay for) same-day shipping. Instead of building out the whole infrastructure, add a link that says, "Want same-day shipping?" The link brings up a window that says, "We're so happy you want same-day shipping. Because we have just started this service, we are providing it by phone...." and provide a number for users.

Track clicks on the link, as well as calls to the new number--and hire couriers as a short-term measure, rather than building out your own same-day shipping force. Yes, you'll lose more money per transaction than if you had scaled from the beginning--but you'll quickly get a sense of customer demand and may be able to avoid spending millions to build out the infrastructure.

4. Test constantly.

We are always introducing new products and services; constant user testing is built into our business process. Though we could hire an outside firm to do this for us, we've found we get great information by doing a scrappy, casual version ourselves. We'll give sneak peeks of features in the works; our users' impressions often tell us what's confusing or unclear and what they love the most.

We also mix up the environments: Instead of always inviting users to our usability lab, we sometimes bring them to a café. Some people will speak more frankly in an informal setting; others benefit from the lab's distraction-free environment.

Get your users involved early, often, and in a creative and surprising manner. You will be surprised and humbled by what you learn.

5. Initiate customer conversations yourself.

I got this great idea from the CEO of another start-up. When we're testing a new product or feature, we get personally involved in real time. In addition to running analytics, either I or my product manager will also send personal emails and ask for immediate customer feedback.

Here's how this works: Let's say we have just launched a big, new feature. We identify users who try the product, and, within 15 minutes of that trial, some of those customers receive a personal email from one of us with a note like this one:

Hi, Bonnie!

I'm Charlie from Shop It To Me, and I am in charge of the new Product X. I am personally getting in touch with a small group of users to get immediate feedback.

Have you tried X out? I'd love to know what you think (good and bad). Also, let me know if you encountered any problems I can help address.

Would you mind taking just a few minutes to share your opinion? You can either email me directly or fill out this quick anonymous survey, if you prefer: [Insert link here].

Thank you so much!

It works. We get a high feedback rate, and the feedback is usually pretty detailed, because the consumer just used the product. On top of that, our customers feel valued--they learn that their opinion matters to us.

6. Get out there.

There are scores of other opportunities to get user feedback in relaxed environments that may elicit more candid comments. When I meet new people out of the office--whether at a dinner party or networking event--I always use the opportunity to learn more. I ask if they are our customers and then ask them what they think about us.

Being with your customers in natural surroundings is a great way to learn. They're likely to be truthful where they are most comfortable, and that means they're more likely to tell you what they like (and don't like). Every person you talk to is a potential customer with a set of needs that you can try to help solve.