How Customer Feedback Can Help You Predict the Future

Last year, University of Maryland researchers studied how online reviews and customer feedback posted on review site Yelp could determine when a restaurant would close. A few months later, Cornell University published a study that described negative reviews as a kind of “condemnation to death”, particularly for businesses at their early stages.

If these academic findings suggest anything to less-than-optimistic business owners, it is that customer feedback can help predict the future — which, frankly, sometimes doesn’t seem all that great.

Of course, there’s a bright side to the clairvoyant potential of customer feedback. What customers say about your business can serve as a source of incredibly useful information — the kind that you can leverage to drive the growth of your organization, and which you can use to shape — instead of just predict — your future.

Predicting consumer behavior

True enough, customer feedback can say as much about what will happen as what has happened. And one of the things that feedback can help you predict is the purchase behavior of your potential customers.

Online reviews and ratings are particularly useful. Did you know:

  • According to Cone Communications, 4 in 5 consumers reversed their purchase decisions based on negative online reviews.
  • Research firm YouGov found that 78 percent of American consumers would read reviews before making a purchase, with 61 percent saying they do so to make sure the product or service works. More than half read at least four reviews before they can feel like they have enough information to decide on a purchase.
  • According to ReviewTrackers research, more than 33 percent of diners would not choose to eat at a restaurant rated below 4 stars on online review sites.

The Oracle may be able to predict when Keanu Reeves would knock over a vase in her kitchen or when the Machine War would end, but customer feedback’s powers of precognition predict the stuff that truly matters: will people buy from you? Will they keep buying? Will your brand reputation attract potential customers or drive them away? Are you in a position to meet your sales goals and become a profitable business?

Predicting visibility and engagement

Customer feedback is also a strong predictor of your business and brand’s visibility, particularly on digital channels, local business discovery platforms, and search engine results.

  • According to a Moz report, review signals (review quantity, quality, velocity, overall rating, etc.) are one of the seven most influential factors affecting local search results.
  • A report by Adweek detailed how new online reviews — say, 800 words of review content — can boost search performance and makeup as much as 70 percent of fresh content for a branded page, which search engines will consequently reward with higher search results.

Not only does great customer feedback help improve search performance; it also boosts your visibility on social media channels, helping you be found more easily. This, in turn, drives top-of-mind awareness and engagement.

In case you missed it, Facebook recently introduced a new Services feature, which lists the top local businesses in an area based on Facebook reviews and ratings. Other services like Foursquare and Google Maps also help users discover businesses based on customer-generated feedback and similar types of content (star ratings, photos. tips, etc.).

Predicting growth and development

Marketing executives aren’t the only ones that can benefit from customer feedback clairvoyance. Your entire organization can make useful predictions — and smart business decisions — based on information provided directly by your customers.

Human resources, for example, can leverage customer feedback to monitor employee performance. (The rude receptionist who caused multiple one-star reviews obviously won’t win Employee of the Month anytime soon.) Sales teams, meanwhile, can more reliably measure value perception and effectively adjust pricing or promotional strategies based on the opinions of existing customers. Customer experience managers can use feedback to capture overall customer sentiment and anticipate (then resolve) pain points in the customer experience; while executive teams can extract data-driven insights from feedback in order to improve ROI and enhance stakeholder value.

Best practices in managing customer feedback

By managing customer feedback, your business can take the guesswork out of a lot of things. You won’t need tarot cards, crystal balls, or human palms, but here are steps you can take to get started:

Plant flags on your digital properties. To join the conversation, you’ve got to know where it’s taking place. This is why it’s so important to claim your business listings on all relevant review sites, social media channels, local search services and apps, and other digital properties.

Doing so not only puts you in a position to identify useful feedback and listen more closely to what customers are saying online; it also creates opportunities for your business to respond. And, believe it or not, efficient listings management actually has a direct impact on your bottom line, with the Boston Consulting Group suggesting that simply signing up and creating a free Yelp listing helps generate an average of $8,000 in annual revenue from the review site.

Don’t just monitor; respond, too. If customer feedback suggests that the future of your business looks bleak, do something about it. Respond to those online reviews and social media comments. According to Modern Comment, 78 percent of consumers think that responsive businesses care more about them than businesses that do not respond at all to feedback.

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t get into fights with reviewers, no matter how unfair or cutting their criticisms might be. Avoid knee-jerk responses and always keep the conversation professional.

Share customer feedback across all levels of the organization. It’s ideal to assign a main point of contact on your team to manage customer feedback. But don’t withhold the information from other team members and departments in your organization.

Sharing feedback, regardless of sentiment, creates a win-win situation. Five-star reviews and praises from the customer serve to boost employee morale and reaffirm jobs well done, while low ratings and negative comments offer valuable insights on how and where your business can improve.

Not enough feedback? Ask for it. It’s difficult to predict the future if your business isn’t generating a sufficient amount of customer feedback. In this case, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Request for reviews. Pepper your site with links to your Yelp or Facebook page. Conduct customer surveys. And say thank you to those who took the time to share their experiences with your business.

Your ability to proactively request and generate customer feedback is bound to warm people up and trust your business more. An About.com study called “The Trust Factor” supports the idea that, for consumers, reviews and feedback are much more trustworthy than social signals, with 50 percent of respondents saying that reviews (positive and negative) are the best peer-to-peer contribution to trust.

Wrap-up

Users on review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor can be vicious, making it easy for some business owners to fear or disengage from all kinds of feedback channels. But there’s really no need to do that; it’s important that you stay optimistic. Customer feedback is a valuable asset for businesses of all types and sizes, and companies that leverage its clairvoyant potential will have a bright future to look forward to.