Today's socially-engaged customers like to talk. And whether they're communicating via email, phone, in person, on social media or via some other channel, they expect to be heard.

The way customers used Facebook and Twitter to shout down the Gap's new logo last year is just one dramatic example of the impact today's empowered social consumers can have on a business.

For entrepreneurs, more vocal consumers present a challenge and an opportunity. It means you know exactly what customers are saying about you -- both positive and negative comments. Customer comments can give you insight into what's working and what's not working with your product or service. As the owner, you should participate in the conversation and use customer feedback to make smart business decisions.

Here are three ways to show customers you're listening to their feedback:

Know Where to Look
If people have complaints about your products or services, you want to know about those problems and fix them as soon as possible before other disgruntled customers chime in. If they're saying positive things, you want to know that, too, to determine where you're succeeding and figure out how to build on your strengths.

Get a read on what's already being written and said about your business by:

  • Searching for your business name and the word "reviews" on Google, Bing, Yahoo! and other search engine sites.
  • Checking review sites such as Yelp, Epinions, Google Places, and Angie's List.
  • Searching Twitter for mentions of your business.

Get Your Customers Talking
An active listener solicits feedback and encourages two-way conversation with customers. You want to monitor conversation and participate in as well as inspire discussion. Some great ways to do that are:

  • Crowdsource on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to learn more about what topics are hot in your industry.
  • Use Twitter hashtags to get conversations going and track them.
  • Use your email newsletter, social media, blogs and other content as jumping-off platforms to stir up conversations.
  • Survey and poll customers about what issues are most important to them. Ask them in your store, on the phone or wherever you meet them. Involve vendors and partners in the conversation, too.
  • Pick up the phone at the end of a major project or sale, while the experience is still fresh. Ask customers where you could have done better.

Respond to Customer Feedback
Your customers have spoken. You've listened. Now what you do with the information?

  • Report back on how customers' input is informing your business decisions -- whether you're making adjustments in your business, offering new products or services, varying price points and/or how you package services, changing your customer service operations, etc.
  • Ask the hard questions. Prod customers to give you their honest opinions, even if you might not always like what they have to say. Customers who keep negative opinions to themselves are more apt to choose your competitor next time around. Give yourself the chance to build on your successes and make improvements where you've fallen short.
  • Highlight your praise. Satisfied customers are your best salespeople. Create share-worthy content featuring their faces, voices and words. Feature your rave reviews as print or video testimonials, success stories or case studies. Share customer stories in your email newsletter, on your blog and across social media.

Don't assume you know how your customers feel about your business. You can't really know for sure until you ask, listen and get a dialogue going.

Owners who don't listen to their customers are missing out on a priceless opportunity to see their business through their customers' eyes -- and to use that intelligence to improve the customer experience. A reservoir of raw, unfiltered business intelligence is yours for the asking, if you're willing to listen.