If you’re in a customer-focused business (and really, who isn’t?), you’re always looking for feedback. How was their experience when they entered your store? Were they able to easily navigate your website? Wal Mart  (who knew they had a blog?) even asks whether the cashier greeted you before you swipe your credit card at the register.
When you get actionable, constructive feedback, things are great. You can share positive comments with your team as a way to boost morale, you can make modifications based on their suggestions that can help improve the customer experience, and you can increase customer loyalty by showing that you really do care about what they have to say and that you’re nimble enough to make changes.
But feedback isn’t always that cut and dry. Customers don’t always know what they don’t know or know what they think they know. We’ve all been there…a customer sounds off about something  totally off the wall and does so in a totally disrespectful manner.
Instead of just dismissing their comments, strip away the noise to get to the underpinnings of why they’re frustrated. If they were responding to a survey or questionnaire, start by looking at the design. It might seem a little cerebral, but survey design can often mean the difference between getting great feedback or throwing accelerant on an already bad situation. What questions do you ask? Are they open ended? Multiple choice? Are they vague? A good example of this is the prompt you see when you’re standing at the register at Wal Mart mentioned earlier. They clearly define what they’re trying to measure instead of asking broader, catch all phrases like “customer service” (which could mean responsiveness, friendliness, level of professionalism, etc.).
But surveys are only part of the equation. Look for opportunities to use focus groups to gather feedback from customers. Marketers do it all the time, but any client-facing business can benefit. One of the best examples I’ve seen is using focus groups to evaluate the effectiveness of your website. Google Analytics are great, but if you’re trying to determine how people find information on your site, get them in a room, give them specific tasks, and observe (and ideally record the session with their permission) how they navigate the site. Ask them to talk through each task so you can hear what they’re thinking first hand. I have to thank the marketing director at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School  for teaching me how to conduct an effective focus group—it’s a skill that comes in handy quite often.
To make the most of customer feedback, 1) identify the things you wan tot measure—and make them specific 2) determine the best method for collecting said feedback (online survey, over-the-phone questionnaire) 3) take an objective look at the responses (especially the negative ones) 4) tweak your process as needed if it’s not getting the information you’re looking for and 5) if you’re looking to increase your response rate, you can always go the way of big box retailers and entice your customers by entering them into a drawing for a chance to win a gift card (even though they usually never mention the drawing is across all of their stores so your chances of winning are about as good as your chances of getting hit by lightening…but I digress).
Have you found other effective ways to collect actionable feedback  from customers?
Shawn Graham is Director of MBA Career Services at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (www.courtingyourcareer.com ).