Archive for the ‘customer service’ category

One of My Competitors Owes Me A Favor

September 12, 2007

I run a small business which sells software over the Internet to people who need to create bingo cards, typically parents and teachers.  Today I got a nice, polite email from someone who had lost the code which unlocks their software.  (I sell the codes, and having one makes the software more useful than the free trial version.)

Unfortunately, my customer wasn’t really sure she was my customer.  She wasn’t sure exactly what software she had purchased, but “Bingo Card Creator” sounded pretty close when she found me on Google.  She said she really wanted to use the paid version but didn’t want to purchase it again, and asked if I could please check to see if she had bought from me before.

Well, of course I checked.  As it turns out, she probably bought from one of my competitors.  Most of us have quite similar names.  Rather than having her contact the Bingo Card Maker, Printer, Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker, I sent her an email substantially similar to the following: 

“I’m afraid it wasn’t me, ma’am, but have a copy free with my thanks for your continued support of small businesses.”

Now, I can hear the skeptics going “Alright, when a small businessman starts giving his only product away for free as thanks for patronizing his competitors, he has finally gone off the deep end”.  That is not true — I’ve been off the deep end for years, and I love it, the water is fine. 

As much as this sounds like a very mushy lets-get-together-and-sing-kumbaya moment, I think it defensible from a cold dollars-and-cents calculus.  (And, if I’m wrong, I get to pull this trump card that says “It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong, there is nobody around to fire me for a kumbaya moment here and there”.  God, I love being my own boss.)  Let’s talk about those reasons for a moment.

Three Totally Heartless & Mercenary Reasons For Treating Your Competitor’s Customers Like Your Own

1)  It costs me nothing.  One of the beauties of the software business is that serving your 307th customer is, quite literally, free.  (Its that first customer who costs you millions… or in my case, about sixty bucks.)  All I had to do was copy/paste her email address into the website of my partner which sends out the purchased CD keys, mark her for a free copy, and tell her that I did so.  The action took less than a tenth of the time it will take to actually blog about it.

2)  It saves me from having to write additional emails to the lady, who I predict will require just one additional email (a quick reply to the thank you note I’m sure she’ll send), as opposed to the possibility of having to write several of the “Could you check under my husband’s name?” “No, ma’am, it doesn’t appear to be there either.” “Oh, I’m sorry for wasting your time.”  “Its no problem, ma’am, have a nice day.”  variety.  I do love writing emails to bingo players, don’t get me wrong, but the cold dollars-and-cents calculus says “End conversations as quickly as practical” and making people deliriously happy works wonders for doing that.

3)  I just made a passionate advocate for me (and did I mention it cost me nothing)?  Within the last twenty four hours alone, I spent ten whole dollars (half a sale!) bribing Google to pay the likes of myspaceglitter.com (and other, more relevant sites who are escaping my memory at the moment) to show wee little unemotional, unobtrusive text advertisements.  The goal of the ads is to convince largely uninterested folks to trust me enough to click on a link and give me five seconds of their time.  99.4% of the people who saw one of these advertisements weren’t even willing to part with the five seconds!  And it was still a smart business decision to do it.  Despite the fact that after literally 199 gratuitously unmotivated partially attentive listeners turned me down, there was one who said yes.  That one person doubled my investment.

Why wouldn’t I do something which is much cheaper than $10 to achieve something which is much more valuable than catching the corner of the eyeball of a disinterested MySpace browser?  I just, in all probability, made myself a passionate advocate for life.  Whenever she thinks of bingo cards, she’ll think of Bingo Card Creator, and whenever someone around her talks about bingo cards, she’ll talk about Bingo Card Creator.  Basically, she’ll be like my own personal Apple fan.  (And I didn’t even have to call it iCreateBingoCards.  Take that, Steve Jobs.)

At the very least I made someone’s day.  The story will rate a mention to whoever she talks to about her day today.  The chance of this getting mentioned at the dinner table or in the staffroom asymptotically approaches 100%.  Wouldn’t you mention it?  When is the last time anybody you did business with gave you what you wanted, for free, without you having to ask for it, and without expecting anything in return?  

This is what Seth Godin calls a “purple cow” — would you talk about a purple cow if you saw it?  Of course!  Its a purple freaking cow.  A purple cow is remarkable (in both the “wow” sense and in the “I am going to talk about that” sense) just by virtue of its rare charm and charming rarity.  Heck, its probably even remarkable if it didn’t happen to you!  (“Guys, you won’t believe what I just saw — a purple cow!” is a fun story to tell.  “Guys, you won’t believe what Jimmy nearly ran into today — a purple cow!” still beats talking about the weather.)  Purple cows are basically designed to go viral.  (Well, you know the cow caught something, otherwise why is he purple?  Ba-dum-bum.  Sorry, I used to be an English teacher, we have to surrender our sense of shame to learn the secret mysteries of the subordinate clause.)

Two More Touchy-Feely Bits (Indulge Me) 

1)  Karma.  Now, I’m Catholic and I don’t do karma, but I find the word karma helpful for shortening the thought that some combination of cosmic justice, happenstance, and community causes good things to happen to people who do good things. 

2)  I really do believe that folks who support small businesses, like my fellow software authors (and most of my competitors are individual authors — you think IBM is going to develop synergistic practices for best-of-breed bingo solutions anytime soon?), deserve a pat on the back when possible.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing business with big business, don’t get me wrong.  I have unrestrained admiration for several billion dollar a year businesses.  That said, there is something just a wee bit noble about helping the little guy when that is an option, and noble acts should be rewarded.  (I mentioned karma, right?  Karma, like charity (and forest fires) begins with you!)  Besides, any taste on the part of customers to buy from small businesses is a rising tide that lifts all our boats.  I don’t care whether its bingo cards or wedding seat planners or superhero novels, every little marginal step that gets taken to make Joe and Jane Consumer more willing to trust their credit card details with an anonymous little shop on the Internet helps all of us move our conversion rates to the next level.  Everybody wins.

And I really love when everybody wins.  Doesn’t everybody?

[P.S. If you liked my approach here, you’ll probably get a kick out of my other articles about customer service.]

[P.P.S. This article has been edited since it was first posted, so that it relies less on you knowing me to make sense of.  I also fixed some spelling mistakes and eliminated a run-on or three.  Professional pride, what can I say.]

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Conflict of Interest: Payment Processors vs uISVs

July 5, 2007

I sometimes take a bit of guff from other uISVs for not using a “real” payment processor.  Some folks believe Google Checkout/Paypal are “unprofessional” or “hobbyist”.  I respect that opinion.  However, if the recent events at SWREG are any indication, I’ll wear that amateur label proudly.  They recently introduced a new upsell item in shopping carts of the uISVs they serve, and its one that makes one recall the many alternate definitions of the word professional.

Andy Brice has got the story covered and the BoS forums are buzzing about it, but in brief, SWREG has placed a button labeled Continue after the last page after the checkout funnel.  If you click the button, you will be billed $9 a month to your credit card, silently, until you figure out who the heck is billing you and try to cancel.  This is orchestrated by an outfit called Reservation Rewards aka WebLoyalty.com aka TravelValuePlus aka BuyersAssurance.com aka AnyoneWithSixDBAsIsTryingToScamYou.com.  Theoretically, they send you coupons in return for your $9 a month.  Many, many folks report never getting the coupons, never receiving a single of the multiple emails they steadfastly claim to send, and never having done the double opt-in gymnastics that they claim isolates people from getting locked into their service without wanting to be.

See, here’s the rub.  There is a nice feature of the Internet that folks learn early: if you don’t give your credit card details to someone, they can’t bill you.  Entering your credit card details is a signal both of major trust and of the fact that you understand that, absent you taking some action, you’re about to authorize forking over some money.  WebScamInc could never get “millions of satisfied customers” to authorize the $9 for nothing purchase with their lack of service, so they piggyback on the trust the customer has in you.

And THAT, more than anything else, is what burns my biscuit about this.  It is bad enough that a business would abuse their own customers enough to facilitate theft by fraud from them, and some large businesses did this quite often in the Wild West days of the Internet.  What makes it particularly galling, though, is that a customer at SWREG is not SWREG’s customer — he’s the customer of some uISV somewhere who stays up nights toiling away writing emails, polishing web copy, and smashing bugs to earn the trust of people he has never met over the Internet.  And what does the customer get for being foolish enough to trust him?  He gets stabbed in the back by someone whose only purpose in life is to be a convenient CGI interface to a merchant account.

Oh, but it gets better.  Over at Andy’s blog, Jessy from SWREG has this explanation of why they allowed a scammer to take up residence on their service.  Its… well… here, read it.

Hello,

The offering is a perks offering for customers. In no way are they tricked into using this, and it is clearly disclosed what they are signing up for. The signup page looks nothing like the order form or SWREG clearly differentiating it from the product purchase.

Customers are also very easily able to cancel the perk offering at any time. They can choose to pay the fee and receive great discounts at very popular, well-known brands/stores within their country.

SWREG has made this optional for our clients. These are offerings used at Amazon and EBay, nothing new or out of the ordinary for customers.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Thanks,

Jessy

(Email address omitted by me.)

This is willfully obtuse.  Yes, if you read every word on the SWREG order page, you will indeed realize that the 8pt font says you are submitting your data to a third party and authorizing them to debit your credit card.  The 24 point font on the blue button, however, says “Yes.  Click here now”.  And SWREG, as an e-commerce merchant, should darn well better know that Internet pages are not made to be read.  They are made to be scanned — readers evaluate, in a period of seconds, whether or not anything on the page has interest to them and then they drill down into that content, either by reading it or interacting with their interface.

A large block of small text font on a web page, placed against a blue button with a strong call to action, isn’t asking to be read.  Its asking to be missed.  It is exactly where any web site designer worth their salt would say “You know, if I put that in CrazyEgg or did a real heat map study, that area would be a deep blue dead zone.  I sure hope the content writers don’t put anything important there.”

There is also the context to consider.  This is important — if you are in the middle of a transaction, and you have already gotten over the mental “Give this vendor [i.e. the uISV] money” barrier, then everything from the start of the funnel to the end of the funnel reads Click next to continue.  If that button had said, in 48 point font, “Click here to format C:\” I still could have gotten 5% conversion with it!  Its like putting something on the second to last page of an installer — we all know that nobody reads anything, they just mindlessly click next until the application pops up or they are dumped to their desktop because our industry has trained them for decades that nothing they are about to see is important.  That is why, when we design web applications, we put destructive actions behind popup confirmations, and we put really destructive actions behind things which are designed to jar the user out of their GUI induced fugue, like “Type d-e-l-e-t-e to drop the database”.  Spending money is customarily put behind a similar speedbump, entering credit card details, and this scam is designed precisely to circumvent that safety valve.

Oh, but spending money isn’t necessarily destructive, as Jess points out.  Maybe folks like the discounts they’re getting at a wide variety of establishments in their country, for the low, low price of $9 a month.

Tell me, do the one thousand, nine hundred, and seventeen customers who commented on just one of the “Reservation Rewards is a scam” thread sound like they are satisfied customers happy to have received discounts?  Lets review a couple of these comments, shall we?

Daniel said

wow i cant belive this i just noticed these same charges on my account and only noticed because it made me overdraft in my debit account. i called the bank and they told me that it has been going on since july thats $54 that they have talken with out me knowing i have no idea where they got the info tho i always shop through paypal but makbe that is the problem all i know is that this needs to be stopped it is wrong. 

Matt said

Thanks for putting this up. I just got off the phone with these guys. They claimed they “were making an exception to the rules” when they refunded 4 months worth of charges to me. I asked where they got my CC# and they claimed it was from ebgames.com, a site I sometimes buy stuff from. I’m filing a complaint with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection and will be taking the issue up with ebgames.com customer service and perhaps the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection if that doesn’t work out well.

(You can feel free to add this to the SWREG defense: Well, if Reservations Rewards is good enough to scam ebgames’ customers, then it is good enough to scam ours!)

Don said:

I am currently serving in Iraq, have been for 4 months, and noticed that I have been recieving charges from WLI for $7 (am I a lucky one to get off so cheap?). I have gone to their webpage with an unloaded weapon—you see, you have a logon & password to see “your” account information. Beings I did not know I was a member, needless to say I do not have that info. So I e-mailed them my name as it appears on my credit card, told them to cease, desist & refund….. Hoping for the best.

You know what lack of capital letters, fractured syntax, and a certain lack of savvy about e-commerce reminds me of?  Oh, yeah, a significant portion of my customers.  (Even English teachers “let their hair down” when they are writing emails, sometimes.)  Unlike any significant portion of my customers, these folks are howling for blood.  And if you’re using SWREG, they are howling for your blood, because despite the fact that you are the little minnow and SWREG is the multi-million dollar corporation to the extent that anyone realizes you are in fact separate entities (and most don’t) the presence of SWREG’s website wrapped within a mere portion of your own makes it look like they’re working for you.  And, hey, with them getting a sliver of the transaction, that is what the relationship really is.

Which is the problem from SWREG’s point of view.  They can’t increase their cut of the transaction size, or you will flee to one of their competitors, or decide to go to e-junkie/Paypal.  You can get a customer to purchase from you multiple times to increase your revenue, but that is only an option for SWREG to the extent that you stay one of their vendors.  So they are constantly on the lookout for new revenue streams, and both aggressive cross-selling to your customers and selling them down the river to scumbuckets.com are apparently options on the table.

So, what to do about it?  Well, if you’re not a customer of SWREG, great.  Celebrate your good fortune… and give your e-commerce provider a jaundiced look and a quick assessment of whether they would ever stab your customers in the back.  If they would, make preparations for your inevitable separation as soon as that provider makes the decision that your future loyalty is worth less than the amount they can extract out of your customers today. 

I came very close to giving Google Checkout the boot once, on Earth Day.  They proposed to cross-sell my customers into a $10 carbon offset.  It wasn’t nearly this scummy — the carbon offset was clearly marketed as a separate item, it would have required another separate checkout process to buy, and of course the only reason you would actually click on a button saying Click Here To Buy a $10 carbon offset is if you wanted to actually buy an indulgence offset.  Google’s saving grace was that they realized this was going to be controversial and offered me an opt-out.  (It really should have been an opt-in.  I have no strong opinions either way on begging for alms soliciting charitable contributions but impair your customers’ experience to do it, not mine.  I don’t see any “Thanks for searching for flapjack recipes on Google.  While you’re here, interested in buying a carbon offset?” cluttering up your famously minimalist interface.)

And if you are a SWREG customer?  I think Tom Rath on the BoS boards said it best:

Now I need to spend the next few days alerting my customers of this con, apologizing profusely to those who found themselves roped into it, and write cheques to cover whatever expenses have been incurred by those foolish enough to trust my company’s judgment.

I don’t know what Tom Rath sells off the top of my head, but whatever it is, that paragraph makes me want to buy one on general principle.  Those are the words of a man you can trust.  That is the tone that we strive to strike as little honest fish in a stormy ocean filled with unscrupulous sharks trying to take a bite off of anyone doing business on the Internet. 

And SWREG?  Well, suffice it to say that the W in the name is looking like a dorsal fin to me at the moment.  Duh duh, duh duh, duh duh duh duh duh duh…

Community-oriented Marketing — Forums, Usenet, Mailing Lists, etc

May 26, 2007

“So what did you think of the Season Finale of Heroes?””Dude no spoilers I haven’t seen it yet.”

“Oh, alright, highlight the following to see what I thought: *start highlight* The fight scene between Hiro and Sylar, which was supposed to be the highlight of the entire series, was over in less than two seconds.  He stabs him, the end.  What a let down! *end highlight*”

“Hi forum people!  Buy cheap Lost DVDs at spammerplanet.com for only $49.95 per season!  Free shipping!”

“Spam!”

“Spam!  Reported!”

“Where are the “#”#%ing mods?  I tell you, this forum has been going downhill since Tommy stopped running it.”

Recently, in the Business of Software forum, somebody made the observation that I have never posted to Usenet about Bingo Card Creator, and they reasoned from this that posting to Usenet about consumer software is unpopular.  (For those who may not know me: Bingo Card Creator is software which produces bingo cards for teachers.  I wrote and sell it as a small business.)  I’m both flattered and frightened that I’m supposedly representative of good marketing practices.  However, I think the conclusion should be a little broader than they one they drew: it is ineffective to directly market to a community which you are not a part of, be that a forum community, a mailing list, or a Usenet group, regardless of what you are selling.

What Community-Oriented Marketing Is

The key thing about Usenet or a PHPBB forum or your local school’s teacher mailing list is not the technology that is used to drive them.  The key thing is that they have a community, quite possibly a very tight knit one which has built up over years.  That community has its little social rituals, in-jokes, standards of acceptable behavior, shared history, friendships, rivalries, dramas, a whole tapestry of meaning for its members that you, the outsider, know nothing about.

If you attempt to sell something directly to the members of a community you are not a part of, you risk a great chance of falling afoul of community norms and an almost certain chance of wasting your time.  Many communities are quite opposed to the commercialization of what they perceive, correctly, as their shared social space.  Some have debates rage for years about whether its appropriate or not to put AdSense ads on a forum sidebar (sidenote to board admins: please don’t.  Regardless of whether its appropriate or not nobody will click them.  They’re coming for the community, not to be marketed to.  The only way to use AdSense on a forum is to put interstitial ads between posts and harvest misclicks.)  Some of them are filled with Slashdot-esque folks who are fundamentally opposed to people other than themselves making money for any reason.  Some are filled with folks who either do not have money or should not be spending it if they do have it.  If you’re not a member, you will not know the lay of the land, and you might step directly into one of the minefields.

Legitimate Ways To Market To A Community You Are Not A Member Of

Of course, there are a variety of approved ways to drop an advertisement in a community.  You could, for example, buy an AdSense ad there — see above, though, its tremendously unlikely to be effective.  Some communities have established Advertising boards — this should be a pretty big hint to you that they really would not appreciate an ad in their main forum.  Of course, traffic to their advertising board is a bare fraction of what it is to the main forum (if everyone wanted to see ads they’d be accepting of ads there!).  I spent about 2 hours when I started up Bingo Card Creator running around the Internet, finding ESL forums, looking to see if they had an advertising board, and dropping in a tasteful and honest ad for Bingo Card Creator if they did.

The Relative (In-)effectiveness Of Direct Marketing To A Community You Are Not a Member Of

The best performing ad out of those sends me a total of perhaps 10 visits a month, resulting in 2 trial downloads.  Think of that: one hour per trial download per month (TDPM — many marketing expenses are evergreen on the Internet, so its handy to watch how a one-time investment continues sending you traffic as opposed to watching the one-time spike of traffic immediately after posting).  By comparison, there are many, many better ways to deploy one hour of my scarce time.  One way would be to work at McDonalds, because a trial download is only worth about fifty cents to me.  But thats no fun.

Writing my Squidoo page took me 2 hours.  That was worth 5 TDPM.  Already thats doubly effective.

Writing a list of Dolch sight words for my website was “slightly” more effective.  It generates about 200 TDPM, partially from organic search and partially from folks who pass the link to their friends.  That page took, yep, about an hour to write and we’ll call it another hour work of linking from my blog over the last year.

Writing a single blog post about Free Bingo Cards took me about 15 minutes.  That generates about 150 TDPM.  (Note: I had quite a bit of help on that post thanks to an impromptu brigade of friends who decided to link to it.)

Oh, and in my portfolio of marketing efforts, there is one community link that sends me 20 TDPM.  It cost me 0 minutes to write, because I didn’t write it.  If I had written it, it wouldn’t have sent me a single hit.  The reason the link is so effective is because someone who was trusted in their community put their reputation on the line and said “Hey, check out this site, it will help you educate your children”.  It wasn’t an anonymous fly-by-night posting from some Internet entrepeneur (sadly, half of the world now thinks that is a euphemism for “spammer”), it was a recommendation given to the community by their childrens’ teacher. 

Trust Is Key

That is what community-oriented marketing comes down to: trust.  If you don’t have it, then building it up will take quite a bit of time, and you have much better options for marketing in terms of time spent per marginal exposure gained.  (See the above list for some ideas.)  If you are trusted somewhere, you might be able to effectively market there, based solely on your existing trust.

I personally haven’t used that method.  I am trusted, for example, in a community of ESL teachers close to where I live.  I know I could send out a email to the list and get 50 downloads of Bingo Card Creator in a day.  However, I’m trusted precisely because I have not been a self-promoter for the last three years, and I see no reason to throw that trust away now for a piddling amount of money.  On the other hand, I was a volunteer translator for a major Japanese ESL textbook, and they were kind enough to throw me a link from my biography (on the acknowledgements page) to Bingo Card Creator, which can’t possibly hurt.  That is marketing, but it is marketing which enhances my trust in the community rather than detracting from it. 

I strongly suggest that you do the same — don’t aggressively push your product at anybody who knows you and could possibly use it.  That makes you into the Internet equivalent of the Mary Kay lady, somebody who aggressively tries to promote her business to all of her soon-to-be-former friends to the exclusion of anything approaching a real, honest relationship with them.  Instead, continue going about interacting with your communities just like you do right now, and the marketing will more or less fall into your lap.

Finally, continue providing an excellent product and service to customers.  Customers are the first, last, and best marketing team you will ever have.  They are already trusted in more communities than you can even conceive of, and when they plug your product for you their words will be trusted and their consciences will be unburdened, because they are doing it to help their friends rather than to help themselves.  Its a win-win situation for everyone involved.

And, yes, I was severely disappointed with the last episode of Heroes.  Grr.  They’d better improve for next season. 

Busiest Day For Customer Support Ever

April 26, 2007

I had not one but two issues that couldn’t be taken care of in a five minute email.  Oh no! 

a)  One customer still hadn’t received her Registration Key despite getting the automated email, emailing me about this yesterday, and getting a handwritten email from me yesterday.  Luckily, her signature included her voicemail number, so I left the voicemail.  Ahh, shades of my old job. 

b)  One customer hadn’t received their CD yet.  A quick check in SwiftCD showed that it was sent on March 29th.  Ahem, “oops”.  I mailed them to confirm their address (customer error in the input field is the #1 cause of non-delivery, by far, so any time you get a report of non-delivery you should suggest in a non-confrontational way “Could you just confirm your address for me so I can send this out?”) and will be FedExing them a new copy as soon as I receive it.  (Yes, at my expense.  Yes, that will eat up most if not all of the profit from this order.  Shipping bloopers fall into rounding errors in the greater scheme of things and you earn so much customer goodwill by addressing them promptly at cost.)

Speaking of which, I realize that I completely flew past my April 15th stats update.  Don’t shoot me, my birthday is April 16th, which after adjusting for timezone issues means that I was karaoke-ing until the break of dawn when I “should have” been telling you that sales for the first half of the month were crushed by Easter.  They’ve since picked up (not up enough to hit my $1,000 target, probably up enough to make a new record), and I’ll tell you the exact stats on the last day of the month.  Or thereabouts.

Trust Your Customers

April 17, 2007

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?

How Much Time A uISV Spends On Customer Support

March 13, 2007

“Not much.” 

I often hear a bit of grousing from folks who don’t quite understand selling B2C software that you’ll spend all your time telling people how to find the start menu, end up getting McDonalds-esque wages, live in a van down by the river, and have to beg for change from passerby.  Presumably you’d use that change to buy a latte at Starbucks and stay for using their WiFi to answer your support mails.  This is a slight exaggeration of the amount of work involved in supporting customers, even customers who are less than technically proficient.  Trust me, I do my fair share of instructing people in basic computer concepts (OK, to install a program you double click on the …), and I don’t spend all of my day doing this.

My uneducated estimate prior to starting Bingo Card Creator was that 5% of all customers will require support, ever.  However, given that I’ve got eight months of history to work with now, why go from an uneducated estimate?  I used the not very scientific method of iterating through all the emails in my outgoing mail folder (I follow the rule that the CS rep should always reply to every email) and subtracting the ones which were to myself or to peers instead of prospects and customers.  I did this for the period from February 1st through March 14th (Japan time), which is approximately 6 weeks of time and which includes the discovery and resolution of two major issues which escaped my notice and generated numerous customer emails.

During this six week period, I have in excess of 600 confirmed unique installations of Bingo Card Creator, at least 2,000 downloads, and 32 sales.  And how many emails did I write?

Twenty-seven.  Thats about .84 per sale, 4.5% of confirmed installations, and a percent and change of downloads.

Thats not support emails, incidentally.  Thats everything: pre-sales inquiries, support emails, “Thank you for bringing that to my attention” for folks who mentioned that I habitually butcher the word “convinient [sic]” on my blog, outbound inquiries to people who had purchased Bingo Card Creator multiple times asking if that was a mistake or not (someone wanted an extra CD for his sister), and outbound emails saying that an order was being held up by Google/Paypal for verification and asking if they would please accept this CD key with my apologies for the delay.

The breakdown:

Pre-sale inquiries/How do I do X inquiries: 10

Support (The program is broken!): 8

Payment Processor Issues: 4 (I initiated 3 of them)

Are you sure you wanted to buy two copies?: 1

Thank you for your comment: 3

Registration Key Not Received: 1

So lets talk about how return-munching this support burden is: The median mail takes me 3 minutes to write (registry key inquiry — 1 minute to check e-junkie for their key, 1 minute to write up a brief paragraph, one minute to type my key-issuing Direct Access autotext and check to see that the mail meets my standards) , with the most demanding email being 20 minutes and a significant number being 15 seconds (“Thank you for your interest in Bingo Card Creator.  Unfortunately, Bingo Card Creator does not support using pictures on bingo cards.”  — I have this macroed, too.)  If you assume my average is about 4 minutes an email, which is pretty close to accurate, then I am paying myself roughly $370 an hour, give or take, to support Bingo Card Creator.  This is slightly more than I made as a CS representative at Quill. 

Other ways to contextualize how little customer support actually costs me:

Its approximately 5 mails per 6 customers.

Its approximately 2 emails every 3 days.

If it scaled linearly with customers and I was selling 5,000 units a year (income in excess of $100,000 USD) I’d be writing a backbreaking 11 emails a day.  (Do you think that its a given that a real business generates many more emails than that?  Apparently somebody didn’t give these four major web apps the memo.)  I have strong doubts, incidentally, that support emails scale linearly with customers: my intuition says its actually closer to constant or perhaps logarithmic.

Will everyone have experiences like this?  No.  There are a couple of factors which make me send more email than other people, and a couple which make me send less. 

What makes me send more:

  1. My niche is one of the least computer-savvy available on the Internet.
  2. I am fanatical about customer service.  If Google Checkout holds up an order for 1.5 hours in authorization that customer gets an apology whether they’re miffed enough to write in about the incident or not. 
  3. I twice introduced critical bugs into my program/business which generated multiple repetitive emails.  (One build disabled a key feature of my software for about two weeks.  I shipped a handful of CDs with defective graphics on them.)

What makes me send less than other people:

  1. I sell a very simple application.  There are not too many things which can go wrong.
  2. I give very explicit directions to my customers at every step in the process.  My application’s main window includes a step-by-step how-to guide for the most common use case.  If you buy a CD from me you get your CD key and instructions on how to input it at the confirmation page for your order, in your email confirmation for the order, stamped on the envelope your CD arrives in, and printed on the face of the CD itself. 
  3. When I get multiple inquiries about a single subject I figure out how I can avoid getting them again.  Example: I got multiple inquiries about CD keys and implemented the above-described defense-in-depth.  I got multiple inquiries about Music Note bingo and made a blog post about it that I can just point people to now.
  4. I make judicious use of auto-text and templates to make the process of writing support mails quicker and more useful to the customers.  For example, I have an auto-text which inserts my “Thank you for buying, here is your key” template, which has instructions which I have endeavored to make as simple as possible.  This is an improvement to ad-libbing the directions every time I issue a key, which could result in some customers getting less optimized directions and me wasting my time rewriting the wheel, so to speak.  The key here is being judicious.  People aren’t paying you money so that Direct Access can have a conversation with them.  You need to read, understand, and resolve their issue rather than skimming, classifying, and auto-replying to their issue.
  5. Customer expectations for support for a $24.95 program are pretty low.  Suffice it to say that no school district has ever contemplated a Service Level Agreement for their mission critical bingo card needs.

Laugh To Keep From Crying…

February 23, 2007

I just found this morning, through ironically the same customer that was having difficulties yesterday (this must be karma), that a key feature of my software has been disabled in the build on my website for the last 2 weeks.  I had been seeing traffic higher than ever, double the number of confirmed downloads I had in January, and was wondering “Why am I seeing 20-30% of my usual sales?  Well, it turns out the reason was that I was performing an involuntary A-B test: A with the feature,  and B without, based on what day you had first downloaded the software.  A wins by a longshot.

Here’s what happened: I ship Bingo Card Creator with about a dozen preprogrammed word lists.  Since I’m skeptical of my customers’ ability to do the Open File -> Navigate To Folder -> Select File routine, I make this very easy through a Wizards menu.  Click on the Wizards Menu, click your subject, click the menu item which describes what grade level/skill you are working on.  I had known this was a crucial feature when I included it in 1.02 because it alleviates the “empty screen problem” (I essentially can’t sell to someone who hasn’t seen a card printed out, and if you have to type in 25 words before you can print a card then you’re much less likely to invest the time).  I hadn’t known it was quite so crucial though.

Here’s what happened.  The Wizard menu is autogenerated, and unlike the vast majority of my code the logic is pretty smart.  It spiders a particular subdirectory in the installation, doing a breadth-first search of the file system tree, and making every directory a submenu and every properly formatted file an entry in the submenu it appears in.  This lets me add new items to the Wizard menu without tweaking anything in the Java code.  If a directory is empty, it doesn’t get shown.  If no files are found at all, the Wizard menu doesn’t show, because nothing ticks people off like non-functional programs, right?  (Grumble grumble.)

Anyhow, this feature has worked since 1.02 and I test to make sure it works every time I make a build, because its just so critical and because without the feature I’d actually have to type in word lists to type printing and that is slow.

I test in Eclipse and it works fine.

I test after exporting my JAR and it works fine.

I test after wrapping the JAR in the EXE and it works fine.

I test after building my installer and installing and it works fine.

My customer downloads the installer and sees no Wizards menu.

Can you spot what edge case my testing missed?  Oh, its fun — I accidentally introduced a single extra character into my Inno Setup script.  Since my setup script is not in my Subversion I never even noticed that I had made the change.  This resulted in the setup program copying the SampleLists (where the wizards reside) folder into the application directory, not into the application/SampleLists directory.  On my machine, since I was installing without uninstalling (clobbers identically named files but DOES NOT DELETE files not present in the new installer), I still had the old C:\Program Files\Bingo Card Creator\SampleLists directory with the proper structure, and things worked peachy.  Then my old, loyal customers who were doing updates installed and everything worked peachy.  Then new people downloaded the installer and, boom, no Wizards for two weeks.

After work today I’ll release a .01 “upgrade” to bugfix Download.com and all the other places that cache installers.

Lessons learned:

  • Setup script goes into the Subversion repository so that at any time it is either known-good or marked as changed since the last known-good.
  • Uninstall before installing to do final testing.  If I had another machine lying around I’d even do a virtual machine or something so that I was guaranteed of a fresh test environment.
  • Keep the lines of communication open with customers.  They can save you from yourself.