How to Turn Customer Support Into Customer Insights

Have you ever had a moment when you realize that you don’t truly know someone? Perhaps your friend of 10 years turns around and tells you that he doesn’t really like your Game of Thrones viewing evenings.

It hits you in the gut. You start questioning whether you know anything at all. Everything you’ve built, now slowly crumbling into ashes, was based on lies and your imagination.

That, my friend, is what it feels like when you realize that you don’t really know your customers. And if it’s the case, you’re going to have some problems.

gif of tom cruise

How do you know whether your customers will respond to integrating face-recognizing filters into your app? Would your customers value an integration with WhatsApp , for example?

It’s all very well deciding on your gut feeling, but you might as well read some tea leaves in a cup if you’re going down that path.

It’s hard to make a great product if you don’t really know what your audience’s hopes, fears and dreams are.

"But Thomas" , you might infer, "tell me something I don’t know."

It’s a fair comment.

We all know that deeply understanding your customers is key to product development, sales and marketing.

We all know that you’ll unlock new growth opportunities, find use cases you didn’t know existed and come up with great feature ideas based on talking with your customers.

That’s all pretty obvious.

But here’s the tricky thing: How many customer development calls have you scheduled in the last month? How many customers have you sat down with, holding a cup of tea in one hand and a notepad in the other to discuss how they’re using your product?

In many cases, that number is close to zero. In some cases, it’s zero.

It’s so sad. The coffee shop down the road has a better idea of their customers than many online businesses, purely by virtue of the fact that they, well, are forced to talk with customers every minute.

The Easy Solution That’s Actually Really Tough

If you read a few marketing or product blogs online, the pundits make it all seem so easy: just go talk to them!

And sure, talking to your customers is a great way to help you understand your customers, and you should totally do it!

But, when I spent time interviewing Planio customers, I realized that there’s a ton of work involved in it, and it’s hard to do as much of it as you’d like.

You have to reach out to customers, schedule calls or ask them to come into the office.

When your customer base stretches across the globe from Wellington to Seoul, you’ll end up with calls at all hours of the day.

Not to mention the fact that most people aren’t exactly just sitting around waiting for the opportunity to talk to you about your product.

Then, once you’ve managed to convince some people, you have to get on the phone, ask smart questions and try to get your customers to open up.

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And once you’ve gone through all that, you’ll need some way to document the calls so you can reference your insights and learnings when you’re developing that new integration with Whatapp a few months down the road.

But, today I’m here with a message of hope for all you tired product people out there. There’s another source of customer feedback that pours in day in, day out.

You don’t have to schedule it. You don’t have to invite people to come for a cup of tea in your office.

This source of beautiful insights, you might ask?

It’s your customer support. They’re in constant contact with your customers. They hear exactly what their pain points are, what delights them and what they’d like to see improved.

And we’re going to talk about how you can gather, analyze and act on this data you’re receiving.

Tweaking Your Support Responses for More Insights

When you’re talking to people, it’s tempting to rush to the solution as quickly as possible.

Someone asks about whether you have an integration with some particular piece of software, and you tell them that you don’t.

The question is answered, yay!

When you put your product developer mindset, you can get great insights by asking open-ended questions such as “how would it work?” or “what would it help you do?”.

You’ll start to see the wants and needs of your customers. You’ll be able to separate universal problems that you can solve from the specific, one-off needs of one customer.

You aren’t looking for a solution or a judgement. You’re just looking for motivations, feelings, emotions and stories.

These insights are the basis of product development ideas that will push your product to the next level.

Take Stock of Your Current Sources of Customer Feedback

First things first. You should have live chat on your website and within your app. At Planio, we use Userlike, and we love it.

Remember how coffee shop talks to customers almost every minute? That’s what Userlike brings to your online business. You’ll build up a massive stock of interactions with customers using Userlike.

Then, you’ll have customer support emails in your CRM. At Planio, we use Planio’s CRM & Help Desk to handle all our customer support emails.

We also send out onboarding emails with questions such as, “Why did you join Planio?”, which get high response rates. Other sources include phone calls from customers, reviews on sites such as Trust Pilot or Capterra.

Therefore, we have quite a bit of feedback from customers.

I’m talking hundreds of thousands of words from customers. It’s a lot of material, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

sketch of customer documents
Customer feedback can be overwhelming

Tactics for Analyzing the Voice of Customer Data

So, we’ve identified our sources of customer feedback or, as the pros call it, “voice of customer data”. Now, it’s time to start putting some structure to it, so we can then pull product development insights out of it.

WHaLP assessments

I was first introduced to WHaLP (short for Wants, Hates, Lacks, Problems) assessments by the amazing Joanna Wiebe of in an article on . Here’s how I use the WHalP assessment. First, I’ll start by exporting all the chat transcripts from Userlike into an Excel sheet, so I can quickly scan through the messages. As I browse through the customer feedback, I’m looking for four things:

  • Is there something they want? For example, I’ve noticed that project managers often WANT to be part of the strategic decisions behind a project.
  • Is there something they hate? In past analyses, I’ve noticed that project managers get annoyed when they’re presented with vague goals and are expected to deliver specific results.
  • Is there something that they are lacking? I watch out for words such as “I can’t” or “I need” in customer feedback. For example, project managers often need to provide documentation in writing for decisions to extend scope or move deadlines.
  • What are problems that motivated them? I’m looking for problems that will drive them to seek a solution, because obviously product ideas that eliminate these pains (pain-relievers) will be attractive to them.

I don’t overthink the process, and you might find that things they hate overlap with problems that motivate. The point is to start building up a profile of potential areas where your product can become even more compelling to them or where you can create product add-ons for specific groups.

As you read through your customer feedback, you can paste in the exact comments in the following fashion:

screenshot of WHaLP assessment example
Here’s example of a WHaLP assessment I did on chat transcripts from people in the Planio app and website using our Userlike account.

Already from these few entries I can start to see feature ideas, product improvements and topics such as data security are important to our customers. There’s also some comments that I’ll probably ignore, but I’ll get to that later.

In fact, we noticed that two people were looking for more API documentation, so we just released the Redmine API at Planio documentation . Previously, we only had a blog post and a link to the open-source Redmine site, but obviously those resources weren’t doing the job.

'Vitamin' or ‘Painkiller'?

If you’re in the business of looking for investors, you’ll be asked whether your product is a vitamin or a painkiller.

A ‘vitamin’ is a nice to have. It’s like the vitamins that you can buy in a pharmacy without a prescription. You won’t worry too much if you miss taking your daily vitamins.

The painkiller is a ‘must have’. It’s the painkiller that the dentist prescribes after a root canal operation, and there’s no way you’ll do without your painkiller.

So, let’s use our customer feedback to figure out whether people are looking for a vitamin or a painkiller, shall we?

Now, when people sign up to Planio, we ask them a simple question: "Why did you join?"

We get a lot of replies to this question, because the timing is perfect - just as they’re signing up.

And so we have thousands of responses to this question stored as issues in Planio.

I’d recommend you set up something similar. Here’s the email we ask of new people signing up:

screenshot Pianio onboarding email
Screenshot Pianio onboarding email

Now, I download the responses from Planio as a CSV file, so I can quickly scan through hundreds of responses in Excel. Here, I’m looking for two things:

  • What are the barriers and pains that made people look for a solution such as Planio?
  • What are the drivers and delights that made Planio attractive to them?
screenshot Pianio analysis
Pianio's barriers, pains, drivers, and delights

So, you can see above that Planio mainly falls into into painkiller category. A person is “badly in need” of something like Planio, and another person is suffering from bad communication. One person even uses the word “painful”.

The “Faster Horse” Problem

So, thanks to analyzing the customer feedback, we have insights into our audience. We have more information on what their hopes, fears and dreams are.

Obviously, we can start to see product ideas and improvements based on this analysis.

For example, if you see a big problem that your target audience is experiencing, it might be a candidate for your product backlog of new features to develop.

At the same time, you can’t blindly implement customer feedback.

Ultimately, you’re the custodian of your product, and you need to make sure that you provide a coherent solution.

Your customers are going to tell you their problems, pains and what they want and value.

They won’t, however, tell you what the solution is.

As the famous line from Henry Ford goes, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'faster horses'” .

sketch of the faster horse
Henry Ford: "What do you want?" Customer: "A faster horse"

And that’s the thing about customer feedback: talk is cheap, and customer behavior is usually more indicative of what they’ll actually do than vague promises like “Yeah, I’d totally buy Planio if you had face-recognizing filters” .

As a product owner, you can add customer feedback in with other sources such as customer interviews, customer observations and quantitative data.

This will give you the context to make good product decisions.

For example, if a restaurant owner tells you that she’d buy an app to replace paper menus, but then you realize that she doesn’t even have a computer in her restaurant, you might discount her promise significantly.

Side Note: be very wary of building anything for restaurants, not matter how good your idea seems on a Friday night after a bottle or two of red wine.

Start Small, Start Today

Listen, it’s tempting to spend months setting up beta testing groups, creating a program for interviewing people and getting scientific-level amounts of data before analyzing.

That’s fine if you’re at a massive corporation such as Procter & Gamble that does customer research at massive scale.

But for many startups and small businesses, the simple techniques above will help you reach a new level of clarity about your customers and what they need from your product within a reasonable amount of time.

And, while I may be biased here, I’d recommend installing Userlike so you start getting customer feedback on your app or website within the hour. And I’d obviously recommend using Planio to organize your insights and start turning those insights into working features in your product with your development team.

May your business live long and prosper!