Trust Your Customers

I found on BoS a blog post on product activation which should be read and understood by every uISV. I’ll summarize the narrative.

  1. Deliriously happy user buys software product (an RSS reader).
  2. Deliriously happy user recommends product to many of their friends
  3. Deliriously happy user moves around a bit.
  4. Deliriously happy user gets bounced by product activation code which thinks they have shared their license key.
  5. Deliriously happy user writes an email to the author asking what happened.
  6. Author writes deliriously happy user with an email which was less than totally trusting of them
  7. Deliriously happy user gets quite miffed.
  8. Miffed user writes a blog post about how miffed they are.
  9. Blog post gets picked up by Digg.
  10. Author blows last chance to do right by miffed user.
  11. I don’t know what happens next but its sure not “… Profit!”

Good golly Miss Molly this could have been avoided easily. Let us count the ways:

The author could have used product activation against a secret, not against a publicly available piece of information (email address), which is the root of the insecurity in the first place. Registration keys, although they are a nuisance, have worked for decades now. You can alleviate the nuisance with simple usability tricks with them.

The author could have accepted that some keys get abused as a cost of doing business.

The author, after having made the decision that the still deliriously happy user deserved another activation, could have had more grace than to say*:

While you may now activate your software again, the evidence suggests that you’ve activated your single-user license from a suspiciously wide variety of locations. An explanation would be appreciated. I don’t want to have to presume this is breach of license. (Emphases mine.)

After getting monumental bits of egg on his face, rather than offering a refund, the author could have offered a refund, a free license, and an apology. And then blogged the apology, since that would have virtually guaranteed a sympathetic follow-up post (or at least a follow-up link!) rather than the “I’m still steamed about this, let me recount stories around the Internet about how other people think (actual quote) ‘ I won’t be a customer of anything [the author is] involved in until he can prove that he’s become a decent human being.'” post that actually got written.

* How would I have written that email?

Thanks for your continued interest in [Product]. I have arranged it so that you can activate your software again. If you have any other issues, feel free to ask.

That is all you really need to say. But if you absolutely must continue, let trust be your watchword. Insinuating that if there is anyone to blame it is probably you costs you absolutely nothing (wounded pride? I find money salves ego pretty well. Its like a cold compress made of cash, and without good customer service you have less cash to compress!) but defuses a potentially volatile situation a lot more than words like suspiciously and breach of license.

I noticed that you seem to have activated your copy many times. Is there anything I should be aware of, for example an issue that requires you to reinstall the software to fix it?

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5 Comments on “Trust Your Customers”

  1. tijmoe Says:

    Hi Patrick,

    As a new ISVer, this is the kind of story I like to hear about, to not make the same mistake myself.

  2. Jason Says:

    Patrick,

    I agree wholeheartedly. I actually plan to use “activation” in the next version of my product and plan to make it “secret-based” with massive amounts of benefit-of-the-doubt sprinkled in.

    I can’t imagine ever treating a customer the way that guy did. They are each too valuable for that – even if I one day have thousands, as we all hope to get.

  3. Boris Yankov Says:

    Sometimes we get bitter and suspicious when the software we sell does not perform as well as we wanted it to. It is a big mistake, though, to even suggest to a paying customer that he might be pirating your software. You spent so much time and money to make him buy, so much effort to make him happy that it is stupid to loose this for nothing.

  4. Daniel Lundgren Says:

    Thanks for your sane and reasonable analysis Patrick. I agree with your post. If really necessary, the letter could have been “Hi UserName, sure it’s no problem. The license key was deactivated though because it was getting install requests from 79 different countries in 12 hours. This suggests that somehow they key you had got loose in the wild. Sometimes this can happen if you leave your computer out in a coffee shop while going to the bathroom or such. So I am retiring that old key and sending you this new one. Thanks for all your support of our product.”


  5. Great post Patrick. A couple of points:

    “The author could have used product activation against a secret, not against a publicly available piece of information (email address), which is the root of the insecurity in the first place. Registration keys, although they are a nuisance, have worked for decades now. You can alleviate the nuisance with simple usability tricks with them.”

    I rather not get into a discussion about registration vs. activation, but I will say that he probably chose to use the email address because it’s the one thing most users won’t forget or lose. It’s certainly not the best piece of information to use, but it is one that will drastically cut the number of “I’ve lost my activation code” emails he’d have to respond to.

    “The author could have accepted that some keys get abused as a cost of doing business.”

    It’s a cost of doing business, but it’s a higher cost for some businesses than others. His product is very popular, so I’d imagine a massive amount of piracy is involved. In this case it’s worth the author expending effort to try and combat piracy, as even a 1% reduction would have a huge impact on the bottom line.


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