I love writing great software, but producing software is only one part of a successful software company. Lots of developers ship software—some of it is pretty good too. When you have a prospect looking at your product and comparing it to half a dozen others, you need to stand out somehow. Features in a product may make headlines, but customers won't hang around if they don't get quality service and support.
I can't blame them. One of my pet peeves is poor service. I knew that I couldn't create perfect software—no one can unless it does little or nothing—so the next best things would be to fix problems quickly and respond to requests promptly. So don't spread it around to the competition, but our secret weapon is over-the-top customer service.
What does it mean to be "over the top" with service? It means that email requests are handled within minutes, when possible, and within a couple of hours during crunch times and off hours. It means that we offer a 60-day money back guarantee without requiring any proof of problems—we do need your feedback though, so please tell us why our products didn't work for you. It means that we won't create ridiculous copy-protection schemes that make you jump through hoops to run our software on your computers. It means that we actually care about our customers and their well-being.
Now this doesn't seem so tricky, but the fact is that many, many companies blow it when it comes to customer service. They don't answer emails, don't give refunds, are suspicious about customers stealing licenses, and frankly, some even see dealing with customers as a burden!
The choice to offer great service or not is pretty simple. As a microISV, we can't afford bad press. Our marketing budget is tiny; therefore, we rely on word of mouth and comments posted on the web and in print. If the comments are negative, then we just bought some lousy advertising with our actions or lack thereof.
When I started developing MoneyWell, the personal finance software market on the Mac was pretty crowded but not so much that I was concerned about MoneyWell standing out. It has a pretty unique design and the envelope budgeting methodology was not widely implemented. By the time MoneyWell shipped, it felt like the competition had doubled and, in the nine months since, it's grown even more packed. To stand out, we needed more than just a great feature set, we needed a great company. Apple gets a ton of free advertising because it has a zealous fan base so why not try to duplicate that marketing method.
In order to balance my time for design and coding with handling support emails, I had to make sure I was very disciplined. First, I made sure my inbox was kept as close to zero emails as possible. I couldn't afford to feel overwhelmed by the sight of hundreds of emails. I became very good at email triage: deleting or filing emails that just didn't need to hang around and answering the short tech support questions quickly.
Next I watched for patterns of tech support questions and looked for solutions that didn't require me to repeat the same answer over and over again. Sometimes this meant changing the software and putting out a quick patch. Other times this meant posting an FAQ or tutorial on the website. I started trying to write detailed step-by-step instructions and then I found that these took up a lot of my time and confused some customers. The solution was to do video tutorials or screencasts.
People love our video tutorials and I love being able to redirect them to these before having to write lengthy email responses. Video tutorials are relatively quick to do. I write a script, record the voiceover and then record the software in action. It helps that my wife, Judy, is a trained voiceover artist, but the bottom line is that customers can watch a tutorial over and over until it sinks in. We produce it once and it get used thousands of times.
As an added bonus, these videos are also used for marketing MoneyWell.
This really is the key to excellent customer service: What can I do to empower my customers instead of making them always reliant on me?
The best service is when we don't have to do anything at all. Just by going to our website, an answer is found. Just by opening our software, the customer is notified of an update. Just by posting a question to our user forum, other customers jump in to offer help.
Service is also about honesty. If I make a mistake, I need to fall on the sword. Most people are going to rush to my defense when I don't try to make excuses and shield myself from criticism. I can't tell you how many times I've immediately apologized for a bug or a missed response only to have a customer write, "Hey that's fine. You're doing a great job. Thanks!" At times, the hardest thing for me to do is swallow my pride and take the blame but I know it's the right thing to do. All I have to think is, "Would I rather be right or have lots of happy customers?" Uh, let's see... yeah, gimme the happy customers.
When I hear other companies complain about their customers, I cringe. Even if those comments don't get back to your customer base, your bad attitude will seep through during your conversations with them. If you don't deal with people well, then you'd better hire someone who does. You can't afford to play the part of the "Soup Nazi" unless you have a product that has no competition.
I have built companies with 40 or more employees and it is difficult to keep the quality of service high as the layers between me and the customers increase, but I'm very determined this time to keep any loss of service to a minimum. Judy starting full time with No Thirst Software on July 1 will help immensely and we won't hire our first tech support person unless he or she is passionate about our products.
By focusing on our customers' happiness and well-being, everything we do is affected. We can't control our incoming cash flow directly because we can't force people to buy our software and affect sales directly. What we can do is take excellent care of our existing customers and optimize how we spend our time. I believe creating great software and supporting it with over-the-top customer service is the best way to grow this company.
Let me know if you see us dropping the ball on this and we'll get to test out how well I fall on the sword.