Customer Feedback, or What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

As a marketer, you never really go on vacation as everything you do is seen through a marketing lens. Recently, I researched and booked my vacation online. Before confirming reservations, I checked customer reviews. One hotel reservation was based on a stellar guidebook review, but I subsequently discovered the hotel’s low ranking on TripAdvisor. Based on these complaints, I canceled the reservation. Later, however, I received an e-mail soliciting feedback.

Small and boutique hotel managers have become Internet savvy. Unlike major chains, they have limited marketing budgets and limited abilities to compensate clients whose experience may be less than optimal. Keenly aware of the power of online customer reviews, they monitor such sites as TripAdvisor.

Having received a bad online review, one hotel I visited works hard to provide a wonderful customer experience by offering a glass of wine when guests arrive, knowledgeable travel advice, and a bottle of wine when they leave. The owner innately understood Nielsen BuzzMetrics’ Pete Blackshaw‘s recommendation that marketers should understand the types of experiences that trigger talk value.

A hotel stay is the quintessential experiential offering. Learning about monitoring and responding to the consumer conversation can be applied to any product, of course, particularly infrequent, expensive ones. It’s important marketers determine when aspects of their offerings cause customers to comment online, to enhance features that cause delight, and to fix those that are negative.

Gathering Customer Input

Your aim in collecting customer feedback and listening to the conversation is to get your target market’s perspective and to uncover issues or insights you can’t get from other analyses. Before starting, check whether your firm collects this information in areas outside the marketing function.

Some suggestions for collecting feedback:

  • Invite customer input on your Web site, in correspondence, and through other touch points. Read it and, at a minimum, thank customers for communicating. Tap customer service and call-center staff to get their help and insights on these efforts.

  • Track consumer comments and buzz on relevant message boards, forums, and rating sites. Starwood Hotels takes this a step further. Writing as the Starwood Lurker, customer service coordinator William R. Sanders participates in message boards and engages consumers. Since November 2000, he’s made over 12,000 posts to FlyerTalk. Notable is the transparency with which Sanders does this, adding to his credibility on the board as a customer advocate.
  • Set up an online customer research panel to solicit input on new initiatives and ongoing issues. Ensure members feel they’re being heard, and thank them for their participation. One online resource for this is Communispace.

Assessing Customer Feedback

Here’s how to put feedback data into an actionable format and analyze it:

  • Categorize and track customer comments on your site and other consumer touch points. Consider having someone read through comments and organize them based on corporate goals or needs. The aim is to uncover issues, trends, and new ideas.

  • Use surveys to measure post-purchase impressions. To develop a set of metrics around softer aspects of your offering and customer experience, use a consistent questionnaire. Online tools like SurveyMonkey.com can facilitate the process. Starwoods Hotels creates goals for hotel managers based on these results.
  • Monitor online consumer-generated media (CGM). These outlets capture unsolicited consumer response. Free tools such as Google Alerts, Technorati, and IceRocket can track the online conversation. Alternatively, you can use a premium solution like Nielsen BuzzMetrics that can monitor and analyze feedback both online and across a broad range of touch points.
  • Check sites where consumers comment and rate products/services (if they exist for your offering). In travel, these include as TripAdvisor, Zagat, and BizRate. This will give you a relative idea of your ranking compared to your peer set’s, as well as comments that can shed light on areas that need improvement and opportunities you may be overlooking. If there’s negative input, respond immediately. TripAdvisor’s marketing SVP Christine Petersen notes that though hoteliers are encouraged to respond to posts, the company has strong policies and internal filters and tools against fraud (e.g., hoteliers posting favorable reviews about themselves.)

Although more difficult to measure precisely, gathering and organizing customer input from both CGM and customer touch points yields insight regarding your customers’ experience and attitudes. This information will help you improve your offering and address customer concerns.

You may be surprised at what you discover.

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