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The biggest obstacle to knowing what customers really think about us? Fear.

We fear they'll tell us our product or service stinks, that we're horrible people and we should never have set foot on earth.

Yet most companies never hear that type of painful feedback. Our research finds that companies with strong word of mouth and customer devotion behave like high-performance athletes when it comes to focusing on customer feedback. In effect, they are feedback machines. Customer feedback drives their marketing strategies, product development and service expectations.

Australian beer company Blowfly has integrated customer feedback into its company's decision-making process by asking customer “shareholders” to determine marketing plans, product names, street-team strategies and operational decisions usually made by executive committees. In many ways, Blowfly has turned ownership of the company over to customers. This has caused so much positive word of mouth that the company—even before it was a year old—landed a hefty North American distribution deal with hip grocer Trader Joe's.

Toy retailer Build-A-Bear Workshop sends out weekly surveys to its database of six million customers asking them to rate their recent store experience, including the cleanliness of the bathrooms! Company founder Maxine Clark attributes her company's success—it has grown to 113 stores in five years doing $200 million in revenue—to its intense focus on gathering customer feedback.

The opposite approach to proactively gathering customer feedback—waiting for it arrive on its own—is fraught with peril. Research firm TARP has found that for every person who complains, there are 26 who do not. That means if 10 customers complain, another 260 may have quietly dumped you, never to call again. To know what customers are thinking, we must ask.

Companies that operate as feedback machines—using a plus-delta model of understanding what customers love (the plus) and what they would improve (the delta)—make improvements to their operations quickly and efficiently.

Overcome the fear of customer feedback and make a bold move toward creating volunteer referrals with these tips, the 10 Golden Rules of Customer Plus-Delta:

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Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are the authors of Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force.