Using technology to get inside customers' minds has sent an Auckland advertising firm in a new direction. Customer Radar, the brainchild of advertising executive Mat Wylie, allows consumers to fire off feedback through text or web-based applications, giving businesses a real-time insight into how things are going on the shop floor.
Wylie says feedback is traditionally obtained through customer surveys and market research, or sporadic use of mystery shoppers.
That results in reports that can end up languishing on a desk in head office months after the event.
With Customer Radar, everyone from store managers to the chief executive can see what people think of their business in real time, immediately highlighting any holes in service or customer experience.
"Customers often have a clearer view of your business than you have," says Wylie, 42.
The live technology dashboard can show trends over the day, between sites or different product lines. "The whole idea behind it is basically putting information into the hands of people that can use it."
It also short-circuits complaints being widely disseminated through social media and other online forums.
Wylie says making it easy for customers to vent negative feedback, and being able to respond directly, not only takes the issue "offline", but also provides valuable information on how to improve the business.
Creating Customer Radar in early 2009 was part of an evolution for Wylie's own advertising business, Dynamite.
Wylie was an old hand at the advertising game, having established Dynamite in his early 20s with a couple of mates after being laid off from his radio advertising job.
A decade and a half on, in the mid-2000s, he could see that technology was going to change the face of advertising and consciously decided to reinvent Dynamite with a tech focus.
He also had plans to grow his business internationally, while still remaining New Zealand-based.
While taking time out from the business on an Entrepreneurs' Organisation retreat, Wylie wrote down his ambition to transform Dynamite from a consulting-based to a product-based business, by creating technology tools that could be used by companies anywhere in the world. "I had no idea what that meant or how I was going to do it but I knew that's what I wanted to do."
After creating and testing a concept for customer feedback technology, Wylie went to a couple of existing clients to see if they were interested in funding it.
They liked what they saw but weren't interested in paying for the development, making Wylie realise he needed to back himself and invest his own money.
In early 2009 the first version of Customer Radar was built and tested successfully at Cheapskates, a mate's Auckland skateboard store.
What followed was the year from hell.
Retailers loved the product but the fallout from the global financial crisis saw budgets slashed, leaving potential customers with no money to spend on anything deemed non-essential.
Wylie says it put him under enormous pressure, forcing him to sell an investment property to pump cash into the fledgling business.
Driving home at Christmas in 2009 - a year in which Wylie also became a first-time dad to twin daughters - he wondered if he'd have a business when he got back from holiday.
"That was probably the most frightening time."
Reflecting now, he says it didn't feel like a blessing at the time, but the pressure accelerated and improved the development of Customer Radar. "The global financial crisis has actually made us sharpen the value of what we are doing.
"We realise that we have to get better, we have to be really good and show really good value for this to make retailers part with their money."
Four years on Wylie says the business has gone through significant growth and feels as if it is on the tipping point of something great.
Clients, including BP, Noel Leeming, Muffin Break, Pharmacy Brands and clothing retailer Ballantynes, have pumped nearly 500,000 comments into the system.
He says it's likely that many people will comment through Customer Radar in the coming year. "We've learned a lot over the past four years.
"The technology is at a point where it allows us now to start scaling up."