Customer Feedback Is a Gift

Like a visit to your elderly parents, the talent is in the listening
Sep. 26, 2023
Otto Pohl

I’m in Germany to spend time with my aging parents. I was with my father over the weekend when he was fresh up from a nap, had his lunch, and wasn’t yet heading to a walk, exercises, or another nap—that shrinking, precious moment when his cloudy eyes sharpen. Shortly before the pandemic my parents moved back to Germany and into the house where he grew up. Everyone else who lived here has passed; He’s the last with memories back to when his father completed the house in 1939.

I asked about the final months of World War II. He talked about the endless bombers screaming overhead to demolish the nearby city of Kassel. When warnings came for Göttingen, they would rush to spend the night in the basement bunker his father had been prescient enough to build. Most of town was spared, but the train station and some factories were hit.

During the long, slow rebuilding after the war, he told me he watched dump trucks bring debris from downtown to lay the walkway in the middle of Brothers Grimm, a boulevard near the house. I went there this morning and sure enough, I saw the broken bricks and cement blocks still visible on the path. I had been here countless times, literally walking over the story the path had been trying to tell me.

Last week I finished a website for a company whose software automates restock orders for retail. The startup has had some great early sales, but the founder said he noticed that promising sales calls with senior management would frequently grind to a halt when product buyers were brought in. I interviewed several current clients and in one of the calls, the client CEO mentioned that his buyers had initially been skeptical but ultimately realized that it empowered them instead of costing them their jobs.

I took another look at the language the company had been using, and suddenly the problem was obvious. Promises that the software would “eliminate the guesswork” from orders because of the “automated ordering process” were an accurate description of product value, and appealing to a CEO or CFO—but to buyers, the first would offend and the second would make them feel redundant.

After confirming this lightbulb moment with a few more calls, out went any language that intimated a loss of control or disparaged manual processes. In came descriptions how the product liberated the inner artist of the buyer to focus on curating product selection while the software took care of the important but boring and technical work. I rewrote the site with lines like “we focus on the science so you can focus on the art.”

The startup CEO reports that the first sales calls using the new positioning have gone much smoother. Fingers crossed.

Stories are all around us. We can walk over them for years, or we can listen to what the world is telling us. The customers at the order automation startup are like my nonagenarian dad. Every interaction is fleeting and precious, so seize every moment you can to lean in close and listen to what they are telling you. The quiet, almost whispered wisdom of even an offhand comment can suddenly reframe your perspective.

Look at your business and your customers. Who can you talk to today to open your eyes to the secrets lying in plain view all around you?

Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country. Learn more at