Who wouldn’t want to be a mind-reader? Wouldn’t it save all the expense and time we currently devote to extensive structured customer feedback research? Or maybe we need to consider other ways to get inside the heads of our customers?

In the movie ‘What Women Want’, Mel Gibson played a chauvinistic hot-shot advertising executive who suddenly acquired an ability to read women’s thoughts after suffering a freak accident. It proved a short-lived gift, but while it lasted, he was able to capitalise on the intelligence he gathered to create ads which resonated brilliantly with female consumers. View clip here.
So okay, it’s real-life not Hollywood we live in, and we can’t sit about and wait for freak accidents to give us superpowers of insight. However, we can get smarter at using insight from daily encounters with customers to inform our service strategy and delivery.
I was reminded of this by an interview with CEO of Travelodge, Peter Gowers, who frequently stays in the company’s chain of more than 500 budget hotels around the UK and Ireland. He believes that CEOs can become over-reliant on formal customer research and forget to listen to the actual voices of individual customers. 
He is personally determined to glean useful feedback every time he talks to customers. While it is not a unique approach for a CEO, it is nevertheless uncommon.
I know from a personal viewpoint, I would quite like the chance to tell some CEOs what I think of their company’s service. It would be more fun than feeling obliged to fill in an online customer feedback survey every time I make a purchase of any sort.
What often aggravates or frustrates customers (including me!) when completing feedback surveys is that the standardised formats frequently leave little room for individual anomalies in terms of issues you’d like to address or problems you might have had. 
I certainly would not wish to decry or devalue the wisdom of taking a structured approach to customer feedback through use of analytics etc as this clearly helps organisations to mine data more efficiently and to spot important trends.  But we do still need to proactively seek unstructured feedback in less formal ways. 
Unstructured insight frequently contains golden nuggets that (considered alongside more conventional feedback surveys) deliver a richer understanding of our customers, their wants, their gripes and what it would take to keep them coming back for more.
For Travelodge’s CEO he achieves this by chatting to fellow guests at the check-in desk and listening to their views on anything from decor, to food, location and how comfortable the beds are. Travelodge’s mission is to be the UK’s favourite hotel for value but Gowers knows price is only part of the equation and that perceptions of value are based on the whole guest experience not just the room rate. 
It might take providing extra pillows or cheaper internet access to nudge a guest’s perception of value in the right direction but in the case of Travelodge, (which is spending around £1 million a week on redecorating hotel rooms),  talking to guests directly can deliver valuable insight on whether it is spending money on things customers actually value.
You don’t have to be a CEO or to work for a hotel chain to adopt this approach. Staff at all levels engage with customers daily and in some cases they may themselves also be customers of the business they work for - their views can be added into the customer feedback melting pot.
The watchwords for both formal and informal feedback strategies are ‘actionable insight’ as whatever information is gleaned must be used to drive service improvements.
Many of us will be departing soon for summer vacations - you may not be standing next to a CEO at check-in but your voice as a customer deserves to be heard. What is more, the company you spend your money with should be prepared to listen in as many ways as possible.