You’ve done everything to get the feedback flowing–and now the real work starts. Aggregating ideas and priorities from dozens of people, each with unique perspectives and priorities, is challenging to say the least.

Whenever someone sends their comments, it’s all too easy to reply with a generic “Thanks for your feedback” email. It’s fast and it lets you get back to work–or rather, it lets you get back to what you think is your work. But few activities will help you improve your business more than talking with your customers. Use your feedback as an opportunity to start a conversation with those customers.

Have a Conversation

With few exceptions, any time I received a feature request, I wrote back with a personal reply explaining our thoughts. One of three outcomes generally occurred. Sometimes the person who sent the feedback would elaborate on their idea by clarifying their thoughts or offering additional suggestions. More often than not, this was an eye-opening experience that left me with more inspiration than I knew what to do with. In other cases, by sharing insights into our thinking and priorities, the customer was able to make a more informed decision about whether Sifter was the right tool for them. Then there was my favorite outcome: from time to time, they agreed with us and either retracted their feature request or came up with an even better suggestion that aligned perfectly with our vision. These extended conversations with customers can take time, but they always pay off.

Don’t Take It at Face Value

People are usually pretty bad at knowing what they want or need, let alone articulating it. This isn’t their fault–they just don’t have the big picture. Their feedback may come to them as a fleeting thought at a moment when they’re already busy taking care of their own work, and they aren’t thinking about your product beyond that it’s getting in their way. When a customer asks you about something, you may have to read between the lines–sometimes their symptoms belie a different problem entirely.

Try not to take any questions or feedback at face value–even when they seem obvious. Try to understand the motivations behind their questions or suggestions. If you take the time to chat with your customers, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how often a little digging can save you from fixing the wrong problem.

Recognize and Accept Conflict

If you have more than one customer, you’re going to have conflicting goals. Different customers will use your product differently, and it can quickly become challenging to make one set of customers happy without upsetting another. This can lead to several possible outcomes: you can be paralyzed by the fear of upsetting anyone and do nothing; you can accept that your solution will be perfect for one audience but bad for another; or you can search for a compromise that works for everyone.

Of course, this is easier said than done. If you were to constantly compromise your features to try to appeal to disparate viewpoints, you’d create features that don’t make anyone happy. Sometimes you’re just going to have to make difficult decisions.

Remove Feedback Friction

Make it trivial for customers to provide feedback. That means providing as many channels as possible and monitoring all of them. Contact form. Live chat. Email address. Social media. Phone number. Yes, a phone number. Everybody is different and they’ll prefer and be comfortable with different channels. So the more channels, the better. Don’t forget to monitor all of them.

The phone is one of the best channels because it enables a conversation, and those conversations can be infinitely more informative than an email. Casual conversations create serendipity and help expose minor shortcomings or spark inspiration. Find ways to enable those conversations and learn.

In addition to providing the channels, make sure that people know you’re truly listening and care deeply. When you act on a customer’s feedback, let them know. Thank them for the feedback, and, if you can manage it, send them a small gift. They’ll remember that you care, and when they run into a problem again, they’ll reach out to help you fix it.

Rely on Patterns

Finally, don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to every bit of criticism. Until a certain request becomes a recurring pattern, don’t do anything. Adding every single feature from one-off requests will quickly bog you down in development work that will only help a few people. Your best bet is to take it all in and dream up a solution that will solve the most problems for the largest group of customers.

When you begin to receive a certain type of request on a regular basis, don’t just design a solution. Spend time really talking to customers to understand their needs around those requests. Then set out to build something.