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Lessons in customer feedback, from the Salt Lick

Posted by Jason Keith  June 21, 2012 10:13 AM

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Any successful business owner will tell you that customer feedback is vital to success, but it's especially true for small businesses. Knowing what customers want and what they don't is important, especially when one is just starting out. That means actively listening to customers but also going the extra mile to find out what they think about a business and how it could better serve them in the future. I ran across a great example of gathering customer feedback this week, when I was contacted by the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant in Texas.

For background, the Salt Lick is one of the most renown barbeque restaurants in the country, having been featured on numerous cooking shows and winning all kinds of awards. They've been in business for 40 years. I had the chance to visit during the South by Southwest Conference in March, and it was so good I had to go online and order some food for my wife to be delivered back in Boston. I placed the order and it showed up, as expected two days later. It was fabulous, so good in fact that I re-ordered the same thing just a few months later. This time, I got a personal email from a very nice women at the company asking me for specific feedback about my order (image at right shows the questions). This wasn't a survey, it wasn't a form email, it was a personal email from a real person asking me how everything went.Salt Lick Example.jpeg.jpg

Needless to say, I was impressed. Not only did I provide the feedback that they wanted, but I made a point to thank her for asking. I was struck by this not only because it was personal and asked for feedback, but because the Salt Lick is routinely crowded, with waits in the hours range on weekends. It's a very successful business. Theoretically speaking, they don't need to solitcit feedback about how good their mail order business is, the business will make money based on its already stellar reputation. But obviously it's something they are interested in growing and want to ensure that is working, which is why they reach out to real customers and ask for real feedback. By doing this, their chances of making it a success (as they have their restaurant) increase dramatically.

The amazing thing about customer data or feedback is that customers are almost universally willing to provide it when asked. According to a recent study by Canadian firm Empathica, the overwhelming majority of consumers provide feedback to retailers when it is solicited. But only 29 per cent believe someone at the company actually pays any attention. A too high 71% who doubt that retailers will even listen are usually right - in most instances no one is paying attention. That's a shame, regardless of the size of the business.

As a small business owner, it's imperative to keep your finger on the pulse of your customers, otherwise it's going to be too late by the time you notice they aren't coming back. Here are a few easy ways to know what your customers are thinking, in order to adapt your business and keep the majority happy:

Feedback doesn't need to be formal:

Surveys taken by 1000 people is a great way to gather actionable data, but it's also complicated and time consuming. It also means one has to have hundreds of customers, which isn't always the case. Sure the Salt Lick took the time to email me directly, but it was by no means a formal request. You don't have to be formal either, sometimes just sending a "how are we doing" email to a dozen customers or so can provide valuable feedback you might not have known about - positive or negative - and also give customers a feeling that they matter. That alone makes sending the email worth it.

Appreciate the feedback, in a visible way:

As the survey above mentions, most customers are skeptical that the information they are giving isn't being used in a meaningful way. When you do ask customers for feedback and decide to make changes in the business as a result, follow up and let customers know. Every so often business will run "You asked, we delivered!" promotions, but it doesn't have to be that complicated. If customers want a certain product or tweak to the business, call it out for everyone to see, and ensure that it's clear the change was made due to customer feedback. It will go a long way in increasing loyalty.

Simple conversations CAN equal feedback:

Never miss an opportunity to ask customers how the business is doing. Even if it's just an off hand conversation that sprung up with a customer in a one on one situation, you can pick their brain on what could be improved and what is going well. Customers will almost always give feedback, but when they don't even realize that's what they're doing, they'll be more likely to do so. Never miss an opportunity.

How have you gathered feedback from customers? Did you make changes to the business as a result?



This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Jason Keith has been working for and with small businesses in the New England area for more than 10 years, specifically small, micro businesses. Born and raised in Massachusetts and a former journalist, he provides a unique perspective on the issues facing small businesses locally and nationally.To reach him directly email

This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone.

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