This post was originally published as an article in Chief Marketer.

In the digital world, driven by interaction and big data, there are many sophisticated ways to get customer feedback and understand what’s on the mind of your audience.  But whatever happened to good old-fashioned conversation?

Before I go old school and suggest engaging in real dialogue (the kind where human lips move and emit sounds), let’s take look at some more technologically advanced ways to generate customer feedback

  • E-listening Tools:  These can mine and semantically analyze online chatter.  These tools are getting more and more specialized for specific industries, e.g. there are different platforms built specifically for restaurants and car dealers.   These days you can’t go anywhere in New York City without running into a hot dog vendor, an investment banker or someone who has developed a new social media monitoring tool.
  • Online Survey Tools:  These tools, like Qualtrics, connect respondents’ answers to demographic and other information in a customer database.
  • Feedback Platforms: Sophisticated platforms like Jive Software and Get Satisfaction can facilitate online customer communities and integrate with social media, CRM systems and marketing automation tools.   This takes “feedback” to the next level by making it actionable – by putting it right in the tools used by marketing and sales teams.  You know things are far along when Gartner even has a Magic Quadrant for this space, called Social CRM tools.

There’s a time and a place for these tools, and they’re very tempting to use. But what about actually talking to your customers?  New technology is wonderful but nothing can provide the context, tone and depth of a human voice—not to mention the important subtleties by reading body language.

We live in a digital world, with short attention spans and universal impatience.  So you might be wondering – will people take the time to really share how they feel when it’s so much easier to click or type comments online?

People like to sound off, to be heard.  Back in my brand planning days at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising we identified several core human needs, one of which is the need for expression, which runs deep in our DNA.  Customers have emotional ties to brands, even in the business world where “rational” criteria is supposed to drive decisions.   In every market, customers with true attachments to brands have a vested (psychological) interest in expressing what they think and feel.

How can you make conversations happen?

1. Just ask! Marketers can conduct focus groups and one on one interviews (and at Saatchi we even hired psychologists and anthropologists to facilitate and analyze the dialogue).  Yet, one effective and easy way is simply by asking people for feedback.  Go to a trade show or an event and talk to current customers and prospects in depth.  One time at trade show, I introduced myself to a customer prospect and effectively said, “Hi, I run X brand and I’m wondering if you can give me some feedback.  The gent spent two hours with me and provided terrific ideas on our product and ways to improve it given the challenges he faces every day.  At the end of our conversation, he thanked me for listening.   He gave me two hours of his time and thanked me.  Now that’s the power of listening.

2. Advisory boards. Many companies use advisory boards as window dressing, as a way to give the appearance of being customer centric.  The ones that do it well put their advisory boards to work and operationalize the process.   Personally, the most productive advisory board I’ve been on put a lot of time and care into its organization.  Some highlights of that board:

  • Annual retreats for members
  • Briefing materials in advance for participants (with some business context)
  • Structured agendas (with time allocated for free form discussion)
  • Breakout groups with tasks to handle.

All of the output of the advisory board session was documented, prioritized and presented to management back at headquarters.  And then after the session, we, the customers, become part of a community.   This group was better than a market research panel, we became a team of actively engaged stakeholders with a vested interest in seeing the company succeed.

3. Get the boss out of the office. Senior leaders should get out of their office and talk to customers more.  In the 1980’s there was a management philosophy called Management by Walking Around, where managers learned about concerns first hand and impromptu discussions were held with the rank and file.  That philosophy refers to managing employees, but the same applies to getting customer feedback, e.g. get out there and talk to people.

W. Edwards Deming said it best, “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realise they have one in the first place.”