Ampel Feedback gets customers’ comments on the spot

Local entrepreneur Sebastian Garbsch got the idea for his latest startup business in the least likely of places: an airport bathroom.

As Garbsch recalls it, he was catching a connecting flight at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago about six years ago. While washing his hands in a bathroom, he noticed a phone on the wall with a sign next to it that read, “If this bathroom needs to be cleaned, dial 64.”

“I remember thinking, ‘Guys, leverage technology here,’” Garbsch said. “Sensors and displays were only getting cheaper, even back then. They should have had a button that said ‘If this bathroom needs to be cleaned, push red.’ That would have been so much more user-friendly.”

The experience left the germ of an idea in Garbsch’s mind – an idea that eventually grew into his second business, Ampel Feedback. Ampel works by putting an iPad or tablet device in a business space, usually steps away from the cash register or point of purchase. “How are we doing?” a sign reads, encouraging customers to stop for a moment and provide feedback right on the tablet screen. Garbsch calls it “in-the-moment customer feedback” – something he believes is an antidote to the pain points that tend to plague other customer survey strategies.

“Usually, maybe multiple weeks after you’ve had a customer service experience, you get an email asking for feedback,” Garbsch said. “At that point, you might have already forgotten the experience. There’s a very small likelihood that you will actually complete the survey. With Ampel, we’re reaching out to customers in a way that is a lot less invasive. It’s way easier to answer one or two questions right after the transaction, versus waiting a month or two and then being asked 15 or 20 questions.”

According to Chuck Korson, owner of BLK MRKT, a coffee shop in Traverse City’s Warehouse District, Ampel Feedback delivers significantly higher engagement rates and more useful feedback than other tactics the business has used in the past. BLK MRKT has been testing Ampel for about a year and a half.

“We use Square Feedback on our receipts to gather a very basic impression of a customer experience at the shop,” Korson said. “I would say our response rate from feedback through Square is maybe one to five percent. Square isn’t anonymous, which limits the sort of comments or suggestions that people leave. In comparison to Square, Ampel tends to bring in much more useful and constructive feedback. It is also more specific to our business, because the questions are actually tailored to the business.”

There was a bit of a learning curve at first, Korson said.

“We definitely had a learning curve associated with the placement of the system. But now that we have found the right place for the kiosk, we have been seeing a steady engagement with customers,” he said. “I think the system feels like a part of the business now.”

“Ampel” is the German word for “traffic light,” and the software reflects that concept. The default question interface within Ampel asks customers to provide feedback using the three traffic light colors: green for satisfied, red for dissatisfied, yellow for somewhere in the middle. Businesses also have a few other question formats to choose from, including fill-in-the-blank questions and 0-10 ratings. The content of the questions themselves is fully customizable, so that businesses using Ampel can ask for feedback on specific aspects of the customer experience.

With a background in business, Garbsch has spent years thinking about the customer experience and how to improve it. His first company, called Formative Fitness, is a personal athletic training studio that has been operating in downtown Traverse City since 2009. While Garbsch knew a thing or two about starting a business, he knew less about finding his way in the tech sector. He says his rookie status in that world is part of the reason that Ampel Feedback has taken so long to come to fruition. Today he has a minimal viable product in place at several local businesses and is targeting a 2019 product launch.
The only problem? He’s no longer the first on the scene.

In the time since Garbsch had his airport bathroom epiphany six years ago, he says he’s actually started seeing tablet-based feedback systems in airports. Other businesses, meanwhile, have sprung up – and found success – with very similar technology to what Ampel is offering. In 2013 a company called Posmetrics started making waves with an almost identical business proposition: an iPad kiosk in a business’s highest traffic area, encouraging customers to provide quick feedback while passing by. Through Y Combinator, a renowned program that helps promising startups get funding, Posmetrics collected $500 million in seed money. In October 2013, the business was featured in Forbes magazine. By 2015, the entrepreneurs behind Posmetrics had sold their technology to Revinate, a business that helps hotels with customer relationship management.

The question is whether being a little late to the party will affect Ampel Feedback or hurt its chances at success. Sherwood Smith, who owns a local consulting firm called Avenue ISR, doesn’t think so. Smith has advised Garbsch throughout the product development process and says that Ampel is a high-quality product – even if it’s not as revolutionary as it could have been when Garbsh first had the idea.

“I wouldn’t say Ampel Feedback is breaking new ground in terms of technology, but I would also say that Sebastian has worked hard to create a user interface that is really positive and flexible,” Smith said. “I think a lot of northern Michigan businesses could benefit from getting ‘the voice of the customer’ into their business decision-making. This is one good way to get it.”

However, Smith doesn’t think products like Ampel will render other survey strategies obsolete. On the contrary, he thinks there is still a place for lengthier, meatier email surveys, among other tools for gathering customer feedback. The best strategies for doing market research will vary depending on the business, and many companies could benefit from using multiple strategies at once. The important thing, Smith says, is that businesses make sure they have some sort of plan in place to learn more about customer wants and needs.

“No one thing is sweeping everything else away,” Smith said. “Techniques like telephone surveys and mail surveys are still used, alongside all kinds of new tools and resources. The point, ultimately, is that it is way better to invest a little time and effort into doing research and gathering data rather than flying blind. Some companies waste millions of dollars on decisions that easily could have been tested and evaluated first.”

Regardless, Garbsch thinks that Ampel will be an effective first step into the market research realm for local retailers, restaurants and similar businesses. He has plans to build other features into Ampel after the launch, both to differentiate from competitors and to help businesses do more than just collect feedback. One idea is to devise some sort of loyalty program that incentivizes customers to give feedback. Another is to add an element for collecting phone numbers and email addresses from customers who opt to share them, so that businesses can build up their contact lists.

“If anything, seeing other businesses doing similar things has reaffirmed that this is a very viable product,” Garbsch said. “This market is still very new, and there are still a lot of businesses out there that don’t have any instant feedback system. So, our goal, starting with our final product launch in January or February, is that we are not only as reliable, customizable, and affordable as any other instant feedback solution, but that we also differentiate ourselves.”

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