Companies like PlanetFeedback and BizRate aren't just cataloging nasty e-mails, however. They are slicing, dicing and sorting the mountains of information into meaningful categories. For example, PlanetFeedback creates a grading system for each industry and each company within that industry from A+ to F-. I hear the average grade is somewhere near a C. Not only do companies have grades, but the top compliment and complaint categories are exposed for all to see. For fast-food restaurants PlanetFeedback structures the questions to include things like attitude of the wait staff, quality of the food and cleanliness of the restaurant. Of course, you can also have your own unconstrained opinions as well. PlanetFeedback also keeps tabs on which companies are responsive to customer communication and which are not.
So how should you deal with this new customer megaphone? The first thing is to practice engagement: Understand what custommers are saying about you and who is saying it. For example, PlanetFeedback had some evidence of complaints about Bridgestone/Firestone tires before the story of shredding treads broke. Monitoring the comments about your company can be an early warning system, which can tell you about your product or service problems before they become big. You can buy or build an instant feedback mechanism for your own website to track opinions. You can also hire the instant feedback sites to slice their feedback to fit with your own internal measures and goals. For example, McDonalds could gather feedback on Burger King, comparing store performance by region.
Though customers will have a natural tendency to complain through instant feedback, there should also be some compliments. Gathering the good along with the bad means you can give good customers -- who tend to talk less than bad ones -- a megaphone to sing your praises and help win over others to your brand.
Good customers can also help you find problems. Many of the great technology companies, like Yahoo and Microsoft, use their lead customers to help create new products and test them. Having an instant feedback infrastructure will make it easier for these customers to help you. If you engage them, they can be the best watchdogs for your new CRM system, for example -- as long as you build a culture willing to listen to that real-time feedback, good or bad.
Feedback can be a great motivator or a great demoralizer. But you must find a way to take it in. Professor James Heskett of Harvard Business School has shown that for each complaint you receive, there are 20 unreported problems. Therefore, if you get 500 complaints on PlanetFeedback, you know that your customers may have had more than 10,000 problems! It is often painful to look at this data, but denying it will not make the troubles go away.