How to effectively use customer feedback to optimise your product

Michael Venn


Taking feedback on board can be hard. You’ve spent weeks, months or even years working on something and you know the rationale for every decision made and every feature implemented – so negative comments can sting. What’s more, tough decisions often have to be made about whether to prioritise development or to focus on repairs – should marginal issues be fixed or should the product’s benefits be amplified? Handling criticism can be tough, but it’s also extremely important.

Customers who leave feedback are real people, who have actually used your product, and are now taking the time to tell you what they liked or didn’t like about it. This provides the information that you need to make it better.

If you take a look at most review sites, you will see lots of 5-star reviews or lots of 1-star reviews. In most cases, people leave reviews when something is exceptional or terrible. Although receiving shining reviews and comments feels great – and is a great team motivator – the more critical reviews can actually be much more useful to helping you improve your product. And while responses might seem extreme – people get angry, after all – you can interpret this emotional outpouring as passion for your product. Indeed, it proves that your offering is promising – so, if it works, it can obviously provide a significant benefit to your customers’ lives.


Get feedback fast and build a minimum viable product

Modern marketing strategy puts customer feedback at the heart of product development. In the traditional world of business plans, you would write up your approach in detail, perhaps do some market research, then develop a product concept over months or years, before bringing the product to market. It would only be then that you would get customer feedback. This is an expensive process, and if the product subsequently fails then the investment is wasted.

A core part of the Lean framework, and of agile software development, is to build customer testing and feedback into every stage of the product development process. Rather than setting out on building a perfect product, these approaches call for the organisation to create a minimum viable product (an MVP) – the simplest version of the end product that fulfils its basic requirements but isn’t necessarily polished or perfected. However, the subsequent launch of the product is only the beginning of an iterative process of refinement.

Even before the MVP is finished, though, the product and its features can be tested. You can get market data at the earliest stages by simply asking real people to interact with your offering. For a physical item or a piece of software, you might ask whether consumers understand what the product does and how to use it. Does it do what they expect it to? Meanwhile, for a service, questions might include whether customers like the presentation, the delivery and the options available – or are there novel elements that they would love, but that no one has ever thought to include? All of these questions can help to point you in the right direction as to what people want and what you should be building. Furthermore, the internet makes it easier than ever before to beta test your product – advertising your software or services on Google AdWords, for example, and monitoring how new users interact with your product as you develop it.

Most importantly, testing helps you to lay out a roadmap. Are there features that you believed were mission critical, but which are roundly ignored by real users? If so, then they might not matter after all – and your time and energy would be better spent improving core functionality and delivery. This can even lead to a pivot, changing the direction of your business, if you discover that your userbase would actually far rather use your product for something other than you had originally imagined – for example, that it’s the elderly rather than weightlifters who can’t get enough of your energy supplements (or alternatively that both love them and you need to segment your audience). Different people may well use your product in different ways, and averaging out this data will wipe out any insights that you might otherwise obtain – so it’s important to target your approach to the different market segments you serve.

If your product has found traction with an audience that is wildly different to the one that you imagined then you may well be onto something – but you’ll have to conclude whether your original target market was off-kilter and whether you should continue building with them in mind or instead switch tack to your actual customers.

In the early years of Airbnb, co-founder Brian Chesky would visit hosts, ostensibly with the aim of providing better photography for their listings, but with the real purpose of meeting them and getting detailed feedback about their use of the platform. This obviously isn’t a scalable solution (when put to the perennial question, “Will it scale?”) but it allowed the company to gain deep insights into its users at an early stage and to develop the product accordingly.


The wrong customers

However, you shouldn’t always assume that the customer is right. Before the age of the automobile, people might well have asked for a faster horse rather than a car, while few people could have imagined the iPhone in the mid-noughties when the trend was for phones to get smaller and smaller.

Indeed, not all feedback is equal. Prioritising customer comments is very important and doing so determines the direction of your product and of your business.

Some comments will come from customers who have used your product for months and truly engage with it. They will know the pain points for their use case and the problems that your product solves. Someone who has just signed up, however, may not yet necessarily realise the true value of your product, let alone what they actually do or don’t need.

You will also get people who haven’t understood the values and benefits of your product nevertheless providing recommendations. Taking feedback from these people can be very dangerous as they are making requests without knowing your overall purpose. In these cases, it is more important to find out why the overall benefits and mission haven’t been effectively communicated to them in your marketing materials than to reconfigure your offering to match their expectations.

It can nevertheless be extremely useful to get information from users early on, while the sign-up and onboarding process is still fresh in their minds (and they can, of course, provide demographic information during the sign-up stage as well as details about what they want from the product).


It can be hard to know whether to focus on fixing problems (bugs) or continuing to develop the core offering. The awkward answer is that you probably have to do both. However, if users are running up against significant points of frustration then they may well give up on your product, complain about you online or even ask for a refund. This costs you money and burns your ability to consolidate growth and build market share (if you had a bad experience with a product then you probably wouldn’t go back to it whatever happened, after all).

The first point here is to make sure that customers can reach you with queries and complaints, whether on the phone, by email or via social media. The second thing is that you should monitor mentions of your brand name across social media and the internet – so if someone notes a complaint then you can reach out to them quickly and directly and see if you can help them with their issue. This is both responsible and actively demonstrates your commitment to your customers.

Everyone who uses your product will have an idea of a change that they believe will make it better. However, you can’t possibly fulfil every single request. This means that you need to see what changes and improvements will make the most impact to the wider audience and that will most effectively align with your intended end users. If your platform is falling over (phone support has gone offline or your e-commerce site is down, for example), then fix it asap, but if you have a single bug report of an obscure use case, then you can potentially leave it until later and focus more on product improvements in the meantime.

While customer feedback can feel like a burden, it offers an enormous opportunity. After all, this is information from paying ‘product testers’, telling you how to improve your offering. Ultimately, to find product-market fit and meet your customers’ needs, it is crucial to ensure that you are collecting feedback, measuring its significance and then developing product improvements accordingly.