Any company wants sales, but customer feedback can translate into dollars too. “The competitive advantage comes from the calibre of insight you’re getting from data,” says Simon Foster, founder and CEO of Chatter Research.

The 14-person company does that for clients like cosmetics company Lush, Mastermind Toys, Staples and Purdys Chocolatier; all by using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze what their customers are saying.

To Foster, traditional customer surveys are annoying and limiting. What you learn as a company depends on what you ask. Nobody can ask hundreds of questions. Besides, many survey questions are leading, and most customers don’t even bother answering.

“We decided to take a different approach. Why don’t we ask customers to just tell us about their experience?” says Foster.

Chatter Research, founded in 2016, reaches customers by text (if they’ve opted in) after they leave a store. That applies to brick-and-mortar or e-commerce retailers. Questions are open-ended. Customers can say anything they want.

Depending on what’s on their mind, Chatter can “burst” the topic, says Foster, and get more and more granular. The AI is “listening” for 850 topics, specific to the store experience, and Chatter can categorize that information instantly.

The whole process takes maybe 1-2 minutes. Response rates increase by eight times. Chatter’s own AI takes the responses and, instead of just providing a score, generates real-time insights. With the rich quantitative and qualitative data, clients can design actions that drive measurable improvements in customer experience.

“Our tagline is conversation in context,” says Foster. “We’re asking people about an experience moments after it happened. You still have an emotional feeling about it. There’s no recall involved. So we take a lot of barriers down.”

Think of the value of a focus group. Customers are just talking, and listening to them triggers some incisive questions. That’s the Chatter Research model, says Foster. Except that instead of reaching a handful of customers in a room, they can engage with thousands a day through SMS surveys. Today, over 3,000 stores use Chatter.

Getting off the ground, Chatter Research worked with the Ryerson Futures Initiative, which Foster says was enormously helpful. That included the chance to get introduced to potential funders, and just be in a supportive space.

“You’re surrounded by people who are in the same boat, building a company, and you feel they have your back,” says Foster.

He started Chatter Research after 16 years of management experience at technology and digital media companies. Sitting on the other side of the table, he recognized the drawbacks of typical customer surveys.

Foster advises would-be entrepreneurs to just pursue their passion, and not worry about perfecting their product or service before taking it to potential customers. View them as your collaborators. Foster approached companies that might benefit from Chatter before he even had a line of code written. Getting that input early can save you considerable time and money in development.

Given that the company revolves around customer insight, Chatter Research also makes it easy to get feedback from its own customers. A live chat option allows any store manager, district manager or COO to reach out to Chatter. Everything goes directly to Foster.

“I love being the frontline of every piece of feedback, good and bad. You feel closer to the customer. They get responses within 10-30 seconds. We’re super nimble, super responsive. We’re up against billion dollar companies, and I know they can’t deliver the service we can.”