Just like amplifier feedback made Jimi Hendrix great, customer feedback provides the life blood of software.

Feedback provides information that can be used to prioritize new work, learn about new work you didn’t know you should do, or even identify work that is scheduled but shouldn’t occur. Even product managers and analysts are only able to predict how a feature will be received about 10 to 30 percent of the time.

A very crude thought experiment to frame this … about five to 15 weeks of a year’s engineering are providing the anticipated value to a customer. If you’re waiting a year for feedback, don’t be surprised if you’re a constant victim of missing anticipated value.

Efficient & frequent

Feedback streams are a crucial part of your development strategy. It’s a process that should be done as efficiently and frequently as possible for maximum value. To gauge an organization’s feedback, consider the following:

  1. Can each functional area (i.e. sales, support, engineering, etc.) of the organization can provide feedback on the state of the software delivered?
  2. Do customers know how to provide feedback on the state of the software delivered?
  3. Can you evaluate major and minor areas of the application’s use by end users without surveys or other human-based interactions (aka telemetry)?
  4. Can you use your own product, and if so, do you (sometimes called “dogfooding” or “drinking your own champagne”)?

Person taking written notesFeedback principles

If you have answered “no” to any of the above, there’s some work to do. Here are some principles:

  1. Telemetry data should track what happened, not what you want to know. Avoid setting up your telemetry to answer specific or leading questions. If you break this rule, you miss out on crucial information.  The best a-ha moments come from discovery of a question you didn’t know to ask.
  2. Never put ownership of good feedback on customers. It’s not their job to understand how to improve your product. Anytime you get clear information about what it takes to meet customer needs, consider clear actionable feedback pure gold.
  3. Do not expect sales feedback and customer or support feedback to relate to one another. They may be similar but sales prospect needs and customer needs can be wildly different even for the exact same customer you on-boarded a year ago.
  4. Be wary of “sunk cost fallacies,” where a feature is loved by a precious few but doesn’t benefit the customer or organization. Oftentimes, this looks like “we’ve already put so much into this, if we just do ‘X’ it will be great.” That may be true but ensure your activities have measurable results that can be evaluated in a healthy way.  Both great innovation and colossal waste can originate from iterating to convert cost to value. Know the difference.
  5. As your organization grows, dogfooding may have diminishing returns if the individuals producing the software are not part of the user base.
  6. Understand statistical relevance. Focus groups are good sources of discussion but don’t underestimate gathering feedback from large groups of a statistically relevant user population. This may be difficult for a startup but as your user base grows, so should your feedback strategy.

Take action

It’s important that members of an organization understand the consequences – good and bad – of changes. It’s not about celebrating or condemning success and failure but understanding how to make effective changes.  Harness feedback effectively and your organization and product will grow. Ignore feedback and you’ll do so at your peril.

Jacob Harris

Jacob Harris is Exponential Impact’s chief technical adviser and director of engineering for North America for Cherwell Software. A technology professional and leader since 1996, Jacob been the architect behind large-scale solutions for retail systems, healthcare services, public education, procedural geometry and physical science. He is a panelist for the National Cybersecurity Center on the topic of blockchain and its impact on the industry. For several years, Jacob has advised organizations on technological impacts of emerging technology. He holds multiple Microsoft certifications and is a University of South Alabama alum with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in physics. Jacob’s views are his own and not endorsed by his present employer.