It’s a familiar restaurant scene: The grinning manager breezes by, then saddles up the table to interrupt the dinner conversation: “And how is everything tonight?” Many of us will instinctively nod. “Great,” we’ll muffle through our muffuletta.

And maybe it is great. Or maybe we just want Johnny Manager to leave as soon as possible. It’s not exactly a scientific display of customer feedback.

For small businesses, especially new ones, feedback can be crucial. It can give you an idea of what your customers enjoy and what needs improvement. You may hear of a problem you hadn’t considered, or get confirmation that your efforts are appreciated. And you may hear a positive (or negative) story about your employees that you’ll want to address.

Here are a few ideas for seeking feedback from your customers:

  1. Don’t make it a chore: If you’re expecting customers to go to great lengths to do anything, you’re probably out of luck. The old-school comment card is still kicking around, but will customers eagerly participate? (The data suggest a return rate of only about 5 percent.) Taking the time to actually write something down (instead of texting, clicking, swiping, typing) may seem downright quaint. And when was the last time you actually picked up a phone to call the “Give us Feedback” number from a receipt? Find ways to make it easy, like …
  2. Explore online surveys: There are lots of survey widgets you can use on your website. Start with the well-established ones, like Survey Monkey, and see what option works best for you. Be careful on how you word the questions. Wide-open, general questions might not be terribly beneficial, because you won’t get a specific answer. Look at what formats are available, like a ranking system, or multiple-choice questions.
  3. Incentive or no incentive? There are plenty of online debates about whether offering prizes for feedback is necessary. How effective they are is also debatable. Think about all the grocery store receipts that have a little note at the bottom, saying if you go to the store website and fill out a survey, you could win a cash prize or a gift card. If your website isn’t a primary spot for purchases, chances are customers haven’t had a reason to visit it. So incentives for survey feedback might help.
  4. Don’t be annoying about it: If a survey request pops up every time you visit a website, you might stop visiting that site. Making constant requests for feedback is like asking everyone in your office, “Does this outfit look OK?” on a daily basis. No one has to answer your questions. So don’t irritate your potential customers while asking them.
  5. Be ready for anything: When you ask for customer feedback, you might get the extremes of good and bad, especially if you allow the sources to be anonymous. (On the other hand, requiring personal information will turn off some customers.) It’s not hard to find harsh reviews on Yelp, or flat-out bizarre reviews on Amazon. Look for the constructive criticism amid those extremes. And don’t forget about good old-fashioned conversation when you’re out and about in public.