Customer feedback: Lessons from the lockdown

As any successful vendor knows, customer feedback is essential to the development of business strategy. After all, if you don’t know what people want in return for their money, you’ll never get your venture off the ground or sustain and grow your enterprise.

However, for too many organizations, for-profit and nonprofit, gathering customer feedback is a once-in-a-while endeavor when it should be baked into their standard operating procedures.

Working in quarantine for the past two months in a large and highly impacted city like New York has shown me how various companies have been adapting to the radical changes in the economic conditions brought about by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Below are three instances in which companies have used an “outside-in” approach to integrate input from their customers to adapt to the new reality. I’ll take look at an iconic 24-hour diner, a large public bureaucracy and a tech company.

Working the register

One thing I’ve learned is that, during a quarantine, people crave buckwheat kasha. The co-owner of Veselka, a legendary Ukrainian diner in the East Village of New York City, learned this by going full circle to one of the first jobs he did for his dad: working the cash register.

Jason Birchard ran the register when he was a teenager, during his gap year before college, and then, once he joined his dad at the family business, worked the overnight shift. It was his idea to stay open 24 hours, a notion his father supported on the condition that Jason staffed and ran it. Hundreds of comedians, actors and artists since have made Veselka their 2 a.m. stop.

When New York shut down in mid-March, Veselka closed completely. After he and his wife fought off a bout of COVID, the team opened the restaurant for take-out and delivery orders only. I was there the afternoon they were closing, and I was there the day they opened. Jason was at the register, in part to optimize cost control and to make sure the new operation was working. But the most important reason, he said, was that working the cash register gave him a front-line, unfiltered understanding of what his customers need and what they are willing to pay for.

Jason worked with walk-in customers, delivery guys on bikes from GrubHub and Caviar, nationwide shipping partners from Gold Belly and his staff. After a week as cashier, he realized people really wanted buckwheat kasha and they adjusted the take-out menu accordingly. (Veselka had opened with a limited menu.)  Jason told me his dad used to always work the cashier on Sundays when people would come by the diner, which was also a newsstand, and pick up the fat Sunday New York Times. His dad saw his customers and heard what they needed. Face-to-face interaction with your customer, or with the courier who will deliver your product to your customer, gives you a direct, unfiltered view of the person you need to delight.

Send a survey

I’m a parent to two high schoolers in the New York City public school system. (The NY Department of Education serves approximately 1 million students each day. It is the largest public school system in the United States.) Remote learning began suddenly in mid-March. Each of my kids’ schools have approached the new set-up in different ways; both have been able to keep my kids engaged. Given the quality of the teachers and administrators there, I was not particularly surprised.

What did surprise me, however, was something that landed in my email in-box about a month into this remote learning reality. I got a link to take a survey for the Department of Education to give my input on how the remote learning was working out for us as a family.  (I confess, my first reaction was that this was some scam or phishing scheme.) A large state-controlled bureaucracy with a byzantine relationship to city government is not exactly the model of innovative management. And yet, there it was.  A series of questions about my perspective on how my kids are learning.  Each kid in the system got a related survey.

The information from the survey will be sent to each school so leaders there can “understand student and family needs and to plan improvements to remote learning over the coming weeks.”  As of this writing, the DOE is still processing the results. Since then, the teachers and the parents’ associations have been encouraging people to complete the survey.

Online tools have made it easier than ever to conduct surveys. You continue to need to be cautious of phrasing your questions correctly and of interpreting the results accurately. However, the sheer mechanics of asking your customers to send you feedback through a questionnaire has never been easier. (Within minutes of completing an Advanced Placement exam, my kid was sent a short questionnaire as a Google Form from her teacher asking about technical difficulties in submitting the exam.) There is no barrier to at least try a survey from time to time. Zoom has a poll feature baked into their video conferencing tool to get input from participants of virtual meetings.

Watch your users

Our shift to remote learning gives another example of how companies can get input from their customers by watching their behavior. It is still too soon to be able to see who has been able to successfully adapt, but a broad landscape of competing video conferencing providers suddenly thrust into the spotlight has forced the educational system to accelerate their technology learning curve as teachers navigate the differences between Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams and other niche providers.

In New York City alone, Zoom has had a quite a ride in the past two months. We’d been using this video conferencing tool for a few years at dPrism. (We have been frequent remote workers, leveraging the cloud since before it was mainstream.) One million students of the NYC public school system shifted to remote learning on the Zoom platform in the span of one week. After security breaches hit the system (and Zoom-bombing became a mainstream term) the DOE issued a directive for schools to shift to using the video conference tool from Google called Meets.

When the dust settles, I look forward to reading a thorough case study of Zoom vs. Meets. In the meantime, the rollout of each video conferencing tool serves as a good reminder of the importance of using your digital product to collect information from your customers.

I suspect its highly likely both Google and Zoom are monitoring the use of their tools and talking with students, teachers, administrators and policy makers (who control the budgets) to make sure they understand the needs of their customers.

Next steps

Customer feedback is a core component of a successfully digital strategy. The real value, however, is not the bits and bytes that come from the data, but the insights that are gleaned from data analysis. These can be simple but important observations just like the one that the owner of Veselka got by being in front of his customers for 10 days and hearing them ask about putting something with buckwheat kasha on the menu. It is a super food. How well do you listen to and hear your customers, and do you adapt your behavior? Listening and adapting to customer wants and needs is your venture’s superfood.

Look at yourself from the outside-in. What tools do you have in place today to get ongoing customer involvement? How are you hearing feedback from the market? When you started your venture (or when the founders started your company) how did they hear from their customers? Are any of those channels still in place? Should you bring some of those channels back?

Customer feedback is a core part of any successful digital growth strategy. Just because we are wearing face coverings and staying at least 6 feet apart does not mean that we cannot hear from our customers. In fact, their signals can be even more clear now with a quieting of the noise.


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