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Your Customers Are Talking. Are You Listening? Customer research can be yours for the asking, if you're willing to pay attention.

By Gail Goodman Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

While marketing tools and technologies have evolved, one golden rule of marketing has not: Brand loyalty and reputation are still based on the quality of the customer experience. And there's no better source to tell us how we're doing than the customers themselves.

What has changed are the many ways customers can tell us -- and one another -- what they think of our products and services. Customers who readily use social media -- sometimes called "social consumers" -- are gleefully sharing their experiences and airing their views, louder than ever. They are blunt and up-front, posting raving thumbs-ups and scathing thumbs-downs on multiple channels.

Whether on social media, consumer review sites, directories and retail sites, customers are likely talking (or squawking) somewhere about your business. Are you listening? The following four steps can help you engage your customers more effectively.

1. Learn where you stand.
Gain a sense of what's already being said about your business online now. Start searching.

  • Comb the Internet. Do a web search of your business name plus the word "reviews."
  • Check consumer review sites like Yelp, YellowPages.com, Insider Pages and Angie's List, and other service and retail sites that might list your business, such as Open Table, Merchant.com and Groupon.
  • Explore directory and mapping sites like Yahoo Local, Bing Local, Google Places, Citysearch, and Local.com for your business name and reviews.

2. Get people talking.
If there isn't much buzz about your business yet, stir up some. Engage customers in a two-way conversation by asking for their opinion.

  • Ask customers to review your company on the sites that matter in your industry.
  • Request feedback in your email newsletter and across various social media.
  • Start, monitor and participate in conversations about your business or a related topic on Twitter.
  • Find out what's on your fans' minds by using Facebook's Questions feature.
  • Survey and poll customers to learn what your company does well and where it falls short, as well as anything else on their minds.
  • Solicit feedback at the close of sales and client projects. Place links with a phrase like "Tell us what you think" on your website and in e-mail newsletter so customers can offer their opinion at any time.

Related: Three Ways to Spark Engaging Social Conversations

Remember: Phone and in-person contact still matter. Pay attention to what customers and others tell you when you speak to them by phone, in your store, or at the office and events.

3. Actively monitor and listen.
Entrepreneurs who care what their customers think make listening part of their marketing. Ask for consumer opinion and feedback while also tracking everyday conversations about your business:

  • Monitor mentions of your brand on Twitter using Twitter's search tool.
  • Stay on top of comments, questions, and other consumer posts on your Facebook page's wall. Use Facebook search to find other pages with mentions of y our brand.
  • Set up search queries related to your business on Google Alerts or Social Mention and receive the results by email.
  • View all the social media activity concerning your company via a web-based dashboard like HootSuite or an email tool like NutshellMail.

4. Respond to feedback.
They've talked. You've listened. Use that customer feedback to take action:

  • Make improvements and adjustments to your business.
  • Introduce new products or services.
  • Identify niche audiences.

Then be sure to communicate to customers what you're doing with their feedback.

  • Share those stories across media channels, with links on Twitter to your Facebook page, blog, website, and email newsletter's sign-up page.
  • Recruit your company's most enthusiastic fans to be in customer testimonials, so their story becomes part of your story -- in video, web and print media.
  • Thank individuals who go out of their way to give you feedback, even if it is hard to hear.

Related: Let Testimonials Do the Talking for You

While you can't control everything consumers say about your business, you can control the quality of your products and services -- and the customer experience. Be open to the comments offered by clients, wherever you engage them. Successful businesses walk the walk and listen to the talk.

Gail Goodman is the author of Engagement Marketing: How Small Business Wins In a Socially Connected World (Wiley, 2012) and CEO of Waltham, Mass.-based Constant Contact Inc., a provider of email marketing, event marketing, social media marketing, local deal and online survey tools and services for small businesses, associations and nonprofits.

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