Your customers have a lot to say, if only you take the time to listen to them. Soliciting feedback from customers can help you improve products, improve retention and create a better overall customer experience.

Good feedback can even help you identify the customers out there that can be encouraged to become advocates for your company and provide testimonials or referrals. A total of 82 percent of small business owners say referrals are their main source of business, which is why most companies try to leverage feedback and customer data to encourage positive reviews.

It should come as no surprise that the most successful companies tend to do a great job of getting customer feedback. Even Apple, a company that prides itself on innovation and defying consumer expectations, has a page set up so that customers can give feedback for any of their products. That might not be the best solution for your business, but there are plenty of other ways to gather valuable feedback.

Customer Surveys

The simplest and most direct approach is the customer survey. Have a question you want customers to answer? Ask them! Even if you don't have much experience here, services like Survey Monkey have tools in place to help you create a survey and interpret the results. When crafting questions, just keep a few simple things in mind:

  • Every question in the survey should be aimed at the same end goal.
  • The rating scale should be consistent across all questions.
  • Ask some open-ended questions. Strict ratings and numbers can be useful, but you'll get some of the most insightful feedback when customers have the opportunity to talk about what they want.
  • Don't ask questions that bias the customer towards a certain answer.

In addition, try to keep surveys as short as possible. The longer the survey, the worse your response rate is going to be. If you want to maximize the number of people that take the survey, consider offering special deals to people that complete all the questions.

Social Media

The downside of customer surveys is that they're one-sided. You put out a list of questions, the customers fill out their answers and then that's generally it. You might get some good data, but you can't really follow up on answers to dig deeper into an issue or clarify comments.

The good news is that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. all provide great platforms in which you can engage customers in real conversations. Asking questions on social media can generate plenty of helpful feedback and you can immediately respond to any concerns.

In this way, you kill two birds with one stone. Not only are you gathering useful information, you're deepening your connection to your customers and improving your image by publicly addressing their issues.

Usability Tests

The problem with getting customer feedback is that any issues you uncover will come after the product is already out on the market, and first impressions are powerful. If you want everything optimized as much as possible ahead of time, that means having users test out your website or product to see how the overall experience works.

If you're looking for a website or app review, UserTesting can show you what the average consumer looks like when using your site and it's available at a cheap price with a quick turnaround time. These insights will help you uncover holes, bugs and necessary features that you would have never dreamed of in development.

All these different methods have strengths and weaknesses, so it's important to utilize a mix. Usability tests are highly reliable, but tend to be limited in application. Social media is the least scientific, but allows for conversation. By using all the available tools, you can get the information you need to deliver the best possible service.

Published on: Nov 10, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.