Don’t listen to your customer… Have a conversation!

When I was at Microsoft there was this big push back in 2002/2003 for us to be Customer Focused. It came from the top (Steve Ballmer), so it must be done. Back then, I thought I understood what that meant. I’ve read customer feedback, I participated on Usability Studies sessions, I pushed my developers to do the same, etc. So I must have been Customer Focused…

Then I left and about 9 months later I released the Alpha 1 of Sampa. As always I tried to be Customer Focused. But this time it was so much more, I was deeply worried for the sake of my business that I would understand, listen to and deliver on my customer needs. That was so much more than I could ever have realized at MSFT.

Enough stuffing, here is what we do in Sampa today:

#1 — Publish contact email everywhere

Sampa customer feedback email is I published many times on this blog, on the Sampa blog and it is easy to find on our website (, click on Contact on the footer.) I do get a lot of spam because I put the email publicly, but the benefits of having an easy email is more important than the worry of receiving a couple hundreds of spams per day. BTW, we also have enabled a lot of aliases for our feedback email, because sometimes people just try random email addresses, so, all of these work as well: bug, bugs, sampa, support, contact, sales, press, etc.

I promised that we will never be like Google, which is near impossible to find a contact form, email or phone number.

#2 — Have an easy contact form on the Web Site

This is a big mistake that some smaller companies make. Big companies usually prefer to have a contact form (and sometimes no email address, like Comcast), but smaller companies don’t add a form to their site because they think if they are providing an email address there is no need. Yes, it is better, but not 100% of the time.

Imagine that You’re on an Internet terminal in an Airport; you’ve just found a bug and want to report it or you want to ask a question. For sure, that terminal won’t have your email configured. So, if Sampa doesn’t have a form to submit a question, the only way to do that is by finding the email address on the Sampa website, copying that address, going to the address bar of the browser, sign in to your email, create a new message, paste that email address and enter your question. Easy? Not so much.

#3 — Have a one-click easy contact form on the Design Site

This is one of the best features of Sampa. We have a persistent button on the top of the screen with a Ladybug (

) graphic called “Quick Feedback Tool”. Click on that button and you’ve get a *one* field form to enter whatever you want to say to us: feedback, comment, question, praise, bug report, whatever. Click ‘Send’ and we get that message. There are many important aspects of this way of sending feedback:

  1. It is always just 1-click away from anything that you can be doing on Sampa;
  2. It has only 1 field — free-form text — you enter whatever you want.
  3. It doesn’t take you away from the current context. It opens a dialog box and once you send it you are back where you were before.
  4. We send all the necessary technical information on the background to help us investigate the issue (which page you were in, what is your email address, site name, etc.), so we don’t have to ask you for those things.

More than 90% of all feedback that we receive on Sampa comes from that simple form. About 5% comes from direct email contact, and about another 5% comes from the Contact Form on the website.

#4 — Send anniversary reminders

I don’t like the term “Listen to your customer” (hence the title of this post). You should be proactive and engage them. Besides sending confirmation email when you create an account, we make sure that we send you a reminder for the 1 week and 1 month anniversary of your site. Both emails *proactively* ask for feedback and contain a link to a survey. Very few people fill that survey, but still, if we can get a couple of surveys filled per month is awesome.

#5 — Have a blog for the customers!

Heck, even Dell has a blog. When I say have a blog for the customer, I mean for your company to have a blog for the customer. Got it? If not, this is not a pre-sales, this is not a corporate blog, this is not a blog to talk about the challenges of building the product, or dealing with suppliers, or bragging, or cursing. It is a blog for the customer. The only things that should go into that blog is posts that will help your customer make better use of your product. Period. Now, at Sampa we don’t have that (gosh, I’ll have to fix that). What we have is two blogs in one: Customer Blog and Corporate Announcements blog.

#6 — Have a newsletter for the customers!

That is important and most Web 2.0 companies don’t do that. They think it is annoying (because of annoying companies like Dell) and the truth is that it doesn’t have to be annoying for the customer. First of all, the frequency has to be reasonable. Daily or weekly emails is a no-no in my book. Imagine if every company that I bought something from or I’m using one of their products would send me a weekly email. Do either monthly or bi-monthly emails.

The second important aspect is the content. Don’t make it sound like a car dealer sales event. Make it useful. At Sampa we only announce the new things that will make customer enjoy more or learn more about our product. It always start with the new Customer features (we don’t waste your time with our “better datacenter”, “better backup”, yada, yada) then we always explain how to get started with them. Sometimes, we might add a link to a survey (same survey as #4), and that is it.

#7 — Promptly reply technical questions.

Did you ever send a question to a company, and 5 days later you get an answer? And, you had already forgotten about that? That is bad. Some companies setup automated answers to acknowledge that they received your question. I find that ok, but not very useful. Bloglines does that, and on their case I find it annoying. My Datacenter (Isomedia) does that as well, and on that case I find it very useful. The difference: Bloglines is not a life-or-death situation, Isomedia is a life-or-death situation for my company.

Being realistic, Sampa is not a life-or-death product either, so we don’t send you an automated “thank-you-for-contacting-us-here-is-your-ticket-number” email. On the other hand, no email or contact to Sampa goes unanswered. During business hours, I personally reply to every customer question in less than 30 minutes after receiving it. While I’m at home or on the go, I have my Smartphone (and sometimes my laptop) with me. If I can answer the question without an investigation I reply immediately, otherwise I can only answer when I’m back at the office. On the worst case scenario, a customer answer will take between 12–18 hours (yes, I work every day of the week).

#8 — Send survey to users.

I talked about that on #4 and #6. Before a “do”, here is a “don’t”: Don’t do that stupid in-page survey popup (like Microsoft and Seattle P-I). When I’m on their website I’m busy. I’m reading something or looking for something. I’ll never stop my current task to answer a survey (unless I’m really mad and want to trash-talk them).

Email surveys on the other hand I do answer from time to time. Why? Because if I receive a link on an email for a survey I don’t have to answer it immeditely. I can leave at my inbox and later, when I’m not so busy I can click on it and answer it. I also love when they state that average time it will take to answer a survey. From 5 to 10 minutes I’m ok. Anything above 15 minutes (or 10 questions) I’m out.

We use SurveyMonkey at Sampa (it is easy and for the simple stuff is free). Besides sending surveys on Anniversary and Newsletter emails, we also send “focused” surveys to get a specific kind of feedback. We try not to annoy too much our customers, but with some of them we treat each other on a first-name basis already.

#9 — Direct contact top users.

A top user is not only your more consistent user, he is also, potentially, your best advocate. He is a top user because what you are providing works really well for him/her. Do you know why? Do you know what they want to do? How they want to use the product? What they thought was the best and worst of the product?

We do contact our top users directly. By ‘directly’ I mean is not automated. We send them a personal email. We thank them for using the product, ask them what they are thinking, what they are trying to do, what they found hard to use, and, sometimes, we even ask if we can call them to have a 1:1 talk. About 80% of top users don’t answer, or answer saying they are too busy and don’t want to talk or discuss the product. The other 20% are ecstatic that somebody is asking them what they think.

#10 — Always leave a door open for feedback.

Every moment that we “touch” a customer, from when they sign in to when they receive a confirmation email, when we send them a survey or the monthly newsletter, every single time we tell them that any and all feedback is welcomed, positive or negative. Every time we answer a support question, we tell them to contact them at their convenience if we didn’t solve the problem satisfactory. But listen carefully, this is not an impersonal corporate-talk asking for feedback. This is trully sincere and personal. I hate those taglines of customer support people “My goal is to make you enjoy more our product.” or “We love that you’re using products from XYZ Corp. Contact us at any time if you have problems”.

That is probably the longest post I ever made, but it is worth it so it will keep me honest as we grow to be a big corporation. Here is caveat… All that I talked above is how to engage and get customer feedback. What I didn’t talk about, yet, is how to use that customer feedback and this is one of the biggest traps that I know in business, and that is another post.

My favorite blog to customer focus is Creating Passionate Users. Kathy Sierra knows her stuff. Subscribe immediately.

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.