That scary user feedback

And how 'scary' can actually mean 'really, super good'

Jen Land | Director of Product Management, Marketplace, DDM | May 2, 2016

Back in 2008 — in a previous position with a different company — I sat in a meeting with my CEO at the time to talk about implementing reviews on our e-commerce site. I was excited about the prospect — I was running an initiative to increase visible customer interaction and bring a sense of community to the site, and reviews fell right in line with that goal. I was ready to roll. I couldn’t wait to hear what customers had to say about what we sold and the site we sold it on.

And the CEO’s feelings about this idea? Let’s just say she did not feel the same way as I did.

We talked about it for some time. I walked her through the benefits of this kind of content. I showed her examples of reviews on other sites, and explained how it could be a powerful resource for shoppers. Through all of these real-world, data-supported points, my CEO failed to catch the excitement I felt. She gave me a lot of reasons why she was resistant to the concept, but after all was said and done, her apprehension boiled down to one thing: customer interaction can be very, very scary.

Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely agree with that assessment. I did then, and I still do. But “scary” does not always mean “bad,” and in the case of customer interaction, I would go so far as to say “scary” more often can mean “good” or even — dare I say it — “really, super good.”

So what is it about hearing from your customers — the very people who keep the lights on at your company — that can be so terrifying? Well, there’s the fact that humans tend to shy away from conflict in general (most of us, anyway).

And, there’s the fact that you probably feel a lot of passion about your product or company, and you have a natural desire to avoid hearing negative feedback about something you love.

And then there is the fear that (cue scary music) other customers may read the negative stuff if it’s out there.

Okay. All that is understandable. But let’s talk about these fears. I think it’s fair to say that no one likes to be criticized. And it’s harder still to be criticized in front of people that you are in turn asking to invest in your brand and spend money with you.

Yes, all of that is fair. But stop for a minute and ask yourself: do you really believe in what you’ve built? If so, why are you so worried about hearing from your customer base (or your customer base hearing from each other)?

Think about it this way, even if you get negative feedback (and you will — oh, you’ll get negative feedback), you should view it as an opportunity to learn about what you can do to make your product even better, and not as an infallible, public declaration that this thing you love isn’t so great after all.

Let’s talk about a real-world example of customer/brand interaction done right (this is not a company I work for, now or in the past, it’s just one of my all-time favorite feedback success stories).

The Hoover Company has been around since 1908, so you can imagine they’ve had plenty of time to hear all of the negative feedback a customer could come up with. But here’s the cool part: rather than viewing themselves as just a business that makes vacuums, the Hoover Company has created a compelling case for promoting transparency and taking advantage of digital tools to create a solid customer service and customer-driven product development loop.

To that end, Hoover committed to reading every single review that is submitted. It told its customers it intended to do just that. Then it did just that. And talked about it where other customers could read/watch/hear it.

And something pretty interesting started to happen when the company read and responded to the reviews: it found that a lot of times, the “negative” feedback it was receiving turned out to be useful suggestions that could be integrated into its product life cycle.

So let’s talk about where I work now. The marketplace division of is an organization led by a vice president who takes customer feedback very seriously. (You may have read an article he wrote about that very subject a few months back.) This means that we in the marketplace division engage in a lot of activities that encourage the very kinds of feedback that most people find so very scary. We do regular, thorough user testing — both online and in person. We have several Facebook pages with active comment strings for our various online products. We include prominent feedback loops to gather comments on new and legacy products.

But we don’t just ask for the goods — we act on them. Just like Hoover, we read all of the feedback that comes in. And our vice president takes it a step further: he actually responds to a great number of the comments — and asks those of us involved in product development to do the same. We tell customers who we are, and we let them know that their comments are not going into a faceless void. More than once we have received comments back along the lines of, “Wow, I didn’t know a human actually reads these things.”

And you know what? Turns out, mostly it’s not as scary as it seems. Many of the people who started as frustrated users have turned into our most valuable ongoing beta testers, giving us the vital intel from the real world to help us build products that people are incredibly passionate about. None of that could happen if we never asked them what they thought in the first place.

We also never shy away from admitting when we’re wrong. If something is correctly reported as broken, we acknowledge the mistake and the frustration that can come from it. If we have to do that in a public forum, we will — and have.

We’ve learned from our customers — by asking them — that a customer will actually put more trust in a brand with some negative feedback under its belt. Especially if they have acknowledged that feedback, and made steps to address it.

As odd as it may sound, there can actually be a negative connotation attached to products or brands that have a disproportionate amount of public positive feedback (such as reviews). An appropriate amount of negative feedback actually adds legitimacy to the positive feedback.

One last thought: not all feedback is going to be relevant, actionable and valuable. Sometimes customers just want to vent. Sometimes their suggestions are not the best suggestions. But hearing all that scary stuff — and responding when it’s appropriate — is the important key to instituting a customer experience that is truly for the customer.