Every business, whether it sells a service or a product, whether it caters to a niche audience or a broad range of buyers, needs to iterate to maintain its relevance. As the world changes and improves, you need to make sure your business is improving alongside it, but the road to a better business is fraught with difficulty and risks.

How do you know which angles for improvement to pursue? How do you know whether an iteration was successful? The answers to questions like these can come from one of two sources. First, they come from your own better judgement, and the judgement of others inside the company. Second, they come from external information, especially feedback from customers and potential customers.

The challenge of building a better business lies in the fact that either one of those compasses can lead you astray if you don’t know how to use it. A founder or company executive’s vision for a product might be taking it in a direction that diverges from what makes it work for its average user. Customers providing feedback usually aren’t operating with a complete understanding of the product, and customer suggestions can be half-baked and ill-conceived. So, how can you balance internal vision with external feedback and criticism?

Gathering and Processing Feedback

In order to work with feedback, you have to have it. Sometimes, it will come flooding in on its own, which generally means you’ve either done something very right or very wrong. Most often, though, you’ll need to work to communicate with your customers and potential customers. For most people, the amount of time and energy that they would need to expend in order to reach out to you means that they’ll only do it if they have an extremely strong reaction to your product or service. On the other hand, a customer can jump ship to a competitor as a response to mild dissatisfaction.

As such, it’s important to both provide an easy avenue for customers to send you feedback of their own accord, and to reach out to customers, especially those who might have had a negative experience, and ask for suggestions that might help improve that experience. Assume that every piece of feedback is valuable until proven otherwise.

To fill the first need, you can use public comment software. It gives customers an easy way to leave specific feedback online, and more importantly, good public comment software will give you tools for sorting the feedback you receive and making it much easier to read through and extract the salient points.

You can only reach out to customers directly if they’ve given you contact information like phone number or email, which will reduce the size of the pool that you can draw from. This makes it especially important to avoid driving any customers away with obtrusive messages. Ideally, this kind of customer digital engagement would be handled by a representative who would assess each case individually and provide specific information when requesting customer feedback, thereby showing the customer that they’re dealing with a real person who will be responsive to their needs. If that’s not an option, though, there are other ways of making sure a customer knows that their concerns are being heard.

In this respect, the wording of a request for feedback is important. There are any number of strategies that you could use, but most important is to make sure the request sounds respectful, humble, and personal. False friendliness and salesy language won’t get you far. Once you’ve got the customer’s trust and attention, you have options for collecting their feedback. A survey will allow you to fine-tune the kind of information that you get, but won’t necessarily allow a customer to voice their own specific ideas and concerns. It’s always a good idea to provide the customer with a link or directions to the method you use to receive direct, unprompted feedback. This will also allow you to collect more of your customer feedback in a central location.

Finally, customers with strong feelings about a product will often post a review rather than sending their concerns directly to the provider of that product. Looking at reviews can help you find dissatisfied customers and reach out to them, but it’s just as important to communicate with enthusiastic satisfied customers to ask for feedback on what you’re doing well.

Crystalizing Your Vision

Every business is predicated on a vision. That vision may be as simple as a unique value proposition, the idea that you can provide a necessary service that others cannot or do not provide, or it may be a set of ideals based in a drive to improve the world and the lives of people in it. Regardless of the form it takes, the vision of a company should be rooted in serving the needs of human beings. Helping people is, after all, good business.

Most businesses have a vision, and a good one. The trick is to allow that vision to consistently guide the processes of change within the business throughout its life. The vision needs to be crystalized into a set of rules or questions that can be applied to new ideas or challenges that the business faces. Essentially, it needs to be applicable, a lens through which leadership can examine the choices ahead.

Crystalizing your vision into a specific set of statements gives you something to measure your decisions against. It also gives you something to measure the quality of external feedback. Your company’s vision should be rooted in the needs of the people you serve, so it may need to change in response to certain feedback, but it can also warn you if a piece of feedback doesn’t represent the needs of your customers as a whole.

How to Decide the Next Step

The impetus for an iteration can come from feedback or from the company vision, and more often than not, you’ll draw on both sources to find the right path. This isn’t a matter of weighing the two against each other. Internal vision shouldn’t compete with customer feedback, and positioning the two on opposing sides will only create unnecessary stress and conflict.

Rather, the best practice is to synthesize information from both sources into something greater than the sum of its parts. Your process will need to be keyed to your business, but a basic set of steps might look something like this:

  • Sort through feedback and measure it against the company vision. Set aside feedback that seems to miss the mark.
  • Search for commonalities within the remaining feedback. Do many pieces of feedback address the same issues?
  • Choose one of these issues, or bundle together a few that have good synergy.
  • Apply your crystallized vision again. How can you make the next iteration on your product serve that vision as well as fix the issues at hand?

After a process something like that, you can begin the work of implementing your new idea. Once it’s live, new feedback can start rolling in, and the process begins anew.

There’s one final step that you should consider taking after each iteration, especially unsuccessful ones. Ask yourself if the company vision is still practical. Does the value proposition still hold value? The most important thing is to maintain a connection with and an understanding of the people you serve.