How to Build Authentic Customer Relationships That Spark Innovation

Written for EO by Jason McCann, a lifelong entrepreneur and experienced founder.

You wouldn’t be surprised if I said that customer feedback is essential for a startup. And nobody doubts the connection between long-term customer relationships and success.

However, some companies never find a way to fit it all together. Seeking out feedback is one thing. Taking it in, learning from it and translating it into innovation takes intention and commitment. The payoff is well worth it.

At my company, customer feedback has been at the core of building and growing the business. Listening to customer input and responding with product tweaks is business 101. However, our success has been driven by going a step further to operationalize how we analyze feedback, so the insights become a guide for future innovation.

The ultimate goal is to create a lifelong relationship with a customer that’s a two-way street. We want to give the customer a voice to tell us what’s working and what would improve the product or experience. We also want to show the customer that we’re listening. When we do it well, we drive satisfaction and strengthen our bond with the customer.

With satisfied customers contributing up to 2.6 times more revenue compared to their unsatisfied counterparts, understanding what drives their experience with your product is obviously key.

Successfully establishing a mutually beneficial long-term customer relationship is what will take your business to the next level.

Conveying Authenticity in a Skeptical World

In the beginning, it was the early feedback we received from customers that made me realize my startup, VARIDESK, was a much bigger idea than I thought. Of course, this kind of immediate, high-level feedback is critical in understanding what people think of the product and how much they’re willing to pay. But when you continue to engage in authentic dialogue with customers, you can move quickly from gathering information to building a relationship.

Customers will spot fake engagement right away. You absolutely can’t seek input when your only objective is sales. That turns customers off and makes them less likely to trust you going forward.

Authentic outreach is based on wanting to deliver something that works for the customer. You get there by being willing to hear what they have to say and by responding to their feedback in a genuine way.

Sixty-three percent of people prefer to buy from authentic brands. Authenticity must come through in everything you do, including how you ask for input and how you communicate the impact of feedback on your business. When your interactions are based on an authentic desire to understand and serve the customer, the bottom-line improvements will follow.

Along with establishing formal ways to capture customer feedback through surveys and data analysis, look for opportunities to engage in conversations. Call a new customer to thank her for her purchase and talk about what’s working (and what’s not). It’s a personal touch that the customer appreciates, and it’s a chance to hear firsthand how your product or service is living up to expectations.

I’m amazed at what I learn from customer conversations. I love reading a review and then contacting the person to talk about it. That, combined with survey and focus-group research, is powerful. Even better? Getting to return to a customer to show how the feedback was implemented.

Turning Input Into Innovation

When you establish authentic channels for two-way dialogue with your customers, you’ll discover a pipeline for fresh, creative ideas. In fact, MIT professor Eric von Hippel has done years of research showing that 60 percent of successful innovations come from users.

To tap into the gold mine of information strong customer relationships can provide, take these three key steps:

1. Make the ask.
If you don’t ask the question, you’ll rarely get the information you need. Most customers have valuable insights they’re more than happy to share—they just need you to make the ask. Take every opportunity, formal and informal, to solicit feedback and listen carefully to what you hear. Make your customers a priority at your organization.

With so many effective platforms out there, you’re sure to find at least one that’s effective for your particular company. Try using social media channels, feedback from the customer service team, marketing surveys, or Amazon reviews to determine which option works best for your audience.

2. Find your biggest fans.
Find a small group of customers early on who absolutely love your product or service. Engaging a core group who believes in what you’re doing gives you a sounding board for product tweaks and new ideas. More importantly, the conversation will spark innovation as you see how customers are using the product and what they wish it could do.

3. Analyze before you leap.
Direct customer feedback is valuable, but on its own, it’s isolated information. Put it into context by combining it with all of the customer insights and market data you’re capturing. Then, plan initiatives and tests to ensure that new ideas are economically feasible and appealing to the broader market. Build in opportunities for feedback at key milestones so you’re continually validating as you navigate within a dynamic customer market.

Tapping into how your customers think can be a springboard for new ideas, as well as an important checkpoint as you continue to develop your product or service. But it won’t happen by default. Prioritizing customer conversations and data gathering is what keeps innovation flowing, so don’t miss the boat.

A lifelong entrepreneur, Jason McCann has over 20 years of experience building and running successful companies. As founder and CEO of VARIDESK, Jason’s mission is to help companies reimagine the workspace. VARIDESK started with one innovative product and has grown to be a global leader in workspace innovation with products found in over 120 countries.

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