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How to Track Feature and Service Requests

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This post is part of a series called Productize Your Freelance Services.
How to Test New Feature Ideas

When you sell your customers a new product or a service, you’re offering what you expect they’ll want. How well you sell, or don't sell, depends on how your offer taps into their needs and desires.

You base your sales offer on the market information you collect. To improve the quality of information you’re acting on, you need to tap into the feedback of your customers. This is a direct source.

More often than not, your customers will let you know all about what they’d like. You just need to prompt them and give them an avenue for placing requests.

These requests are valuable pieces of knowledge for your business. The feedback you receive lets you improve what you offer your customers. It helps ensure that you win over more customers and increase your sales.

In this article, you'll learn how to create an environment in your business that encourages customer requests. You need to track your customer feedback systematically and then aggressively act on that data.

1. Create a Welcoming Environment for Requests

Step 1: Setting Policy

Your customers may be wary of telling you about what needs they have so you'll need to encourage feedback.

Put a systematic process in place for handling feature requests.

If you aren’t the only person who has contact with customers at your business, it’s worth creating a written policy on how you will respond to feature requests.

You can acknowledge service or feature requests with a form email response, which makes sense if you’re not able to take immediate action on feedback.

If you're able to put a little more work into responding to requests, ask your customers to answer a few questions, or set a policy of asking for more information to make sure that you completely understand what their needs are.

Think about what sort of work you’re willing to put into dealing with these requests at this time, as well as what types of opportunities you’re in a position to pursue.

You’ll almost certainly have to modify your policy after you start dealing with the requests from your customers. Put a systematic process in place for handling feature requests. Having a basic policy to start with means that you can adopt faster, rather than having to deal with incoming messages on the fly.

Step 2: Assigning Responsibility

In addition to setting a policy on how to handle feature requests, you need to establish who will handle such requests and when. With a few exceptions, it’s good to have one person take point on handling this specific type of feedback so that ideas don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Honestly, it’s a little rare that you’ll get a particularly good suggestion only once, but even that’s a good argument for having just one person take responsibility for the feature or service request process. If one response proves particularly common, having one person handling all requests means that person is far more likely to notice the trend, letting your company take action on actually implementing that feature.

Step 3: Soliciting Feedback

Once you have a policy of some sort in place, even if it’s just a framework, you need to solicit the feedback that will help you make your long-term plans.

Depending on your customer communications process, you may be able to just add a line to your website or your email templates that invites your customers to make suggestions. Something like “Is there a feature you’d like to see added to our product? Tell us about it!” can go a long way to getting you some new information.

Consider following up with specific customers to ask about what features or services would make a real difference for them. Ask if there’s anything you could do to cement their relationship with you or, if you’re talking to customers who ultimately chose another vendor, to win them back.

Such conversations can be awkward, but are worth having, especially in industries where a few core customers make up the bulk of your business. You can send out an impersonal survey, schedule time for a face-to-face conversation, or anything in between to solicit feedback.

To a certain extent, the decision is an extension of the question of how committed your company is to taking action on this information. If you’re not going to move on the feedback you collect quickly, you may get your customers’ hopes up for a new feature and then dash them with a slow response.

2. Choose a Centralized Tracking Tool

Step 1: Communication Flow

There are plenty of apps already out there that can log and track feature requests for you, as well as contact forms and other tools that can be easily tweaked to serve the same purpose. You can even use a spreadsheet to keep track of what your customers ask for — as it happens, that’s the strategy I use.

Before you can finalize your tool of choice, consider how you already communicate with your customers: it’s a certainty that if you try to add in a new way to share information (even if it’s specialized and incredibly useful), you’re going to have a very hard time of getting your customers to use it.

That may not be an argument against using a specialized app, provided that you can budget the time to log information into the system yourself. You do want to make sure that whatever solution you use has a way to compare the different requests you receive, even if it’s just categorizing anything similar into a group.

Step 2: Timely Processing

Don’t give into the temptation of leaving all of the information you collect in a folder in your email. It may seem like a good idea, particularly if you aren’t planning to act on that information soon, but anything you leave in your inbox will be ultimately ignored.

Dealing with responses as they come in is the only way to keep your feedback from turning into a mess.

By the time you’re ready to look at that information, there will be (hopefully) a whole stack of responses, which will be overwhelming to deal with. You may be able to process a handful of suggestions, but you’ll wind up just making a decision and going for it — without the support of the information you’ve gathered — in order to get the process over with.

Dealing with responses as they come in is the only way to keep your feedback from turning into a mess. You may also find issues in the responses that you receive that actually need to be addressed immediately. Depending on how well your users understand your product or service, you may get requests for features or services you already offer.

You need to direct those customers to the information they need more effectively and, if you get a lot of requests that you can already fulfill, you'll need to look at how you’re presenting your services or products. You may also get some messages that would better fit in your support queue.

3. Plan When You’ll Take Action on Your Feedback

Step 1: Analyze the Data

Once you’ve got a steady stream of feedback about what new features or services your customers would like to see, you need to actually analyze the data you’ve got. Dig a little deeper when it appears that ‘everybody is asking for this particular widget.’ You want the whys behind the requests.

Your clients may be requesting a particular feature or service because of the way that they’re used to working. It’s not uncommon for customers to try to recreate an old workflow inside of a new tool. Then again, they may want an add-on that reduces the work they have to do on their end.

While you can sell a new feature that makes your product or service seem more like every other system your customers use, it’s going to be more advantageous to offer a feature that’s an improvement on the status quo.

Exactly what sort of analysis makes sense for your business depends on what you’re selling, but you’ll likely need to go back to your customers and ask more in-depth questions. Look at why they made a request and, if time has passed, whether they would make a similar request today.

Step 2: Prioritize Opportunities

There’s no way to add every feature or service your customers have suggested in one big push, especially if you’ve been collecting information for a while. There will be some suggestions from customers that you identify as crucial. Prioritize the requests.

Think about what smaller features will be easy to build out at the same time as pushing through a major update or even a whole new service. What would make sense to launch as a package?

With that sort of structure in place, you can create a feature roadmap and set dates, at least for your first round of improvements. Given that you’ll likely keep getting more feedback in, it’s best to leave your long-term plans a little flexible, while you tackle prioritized items in sprints.

An Immense Trove of Data

By tracking the feature and service requests your customers send you, you’ve got a guaranteed edge on your competition: you’ll always know that there’s at least some interest in the features you place in your business development plan before you even start preliminary research.

That doesn't guarantee that you’ll make money by implementing every single feature or service you’ll be asked for, but this direct customer feedback is definitely a head start in your planning.

In the meanwhile, having a set process for collecting and analyzing this information means that you won’t lose anything in the shuffle. The opportunities that come in will surprise you.

Graphic credit: Some rights reserved by OCHA Visual Information Unit.

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