Thursday, June 26, 2008

Over-the-Top Customer Service

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.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Was It Worth the Money?

I'm a little late with my wrap-up, but better late than never, right? And before my wife says it, I'll say it—this blog entry may be considered at geek level orange. So if you don't like the typed content, there are links to pictures throughout.

Going to Apple's World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) is by no means cheap. It's close to two grand before you add in airfare and a hotel room for six nights. So now that I've attended my first one, the most common question I get is, "Was it worth the money?"

Absolutely! Without a doubt. No question in my mind.

Your mileage may vary, but I got so much out of this trip that I will do it again in a heartbeat. Let me break it down a bit to examine the benefits for me.

Keynote Address: Out of everything at WWDC, this was only marginally better than watching a text feed from my computer at home. Yes, Jobs RDF (reality distortion field) was present, but not very powerful. Maybe because everything announced was already rumored. Maybe because the iPhone product demos went on and on and on and on. They counteracted any excitement that Steve built up.

Sessions: I was pretty lucky and picked many great sessions. Sure I can watch them later on ADC iTunes but the Q & A after each session is missing from those recordings and many of those were golden. Developers—smarter than me—were asking questions that I wish I had the wherewithal to ask at the time. I only felt the need to walk out of one session—and did. Thanks to the MacDevNet podcast that recommended it was okay to do that.

Labs: These were great. Having the ability to monopolize a Core Data engineer and bombard him with questions was invaluable. I only wish that I had been more prepared with questions and could have taken advantage of more labs. Of course, I have plenty of questions now that I didn't ask. Next year I'm taking a few days before WWDC to prep with code samples and questions for these labs.

CocoaHeads: Several top notch Mac developers put on presentations at the SF Apple store. Unfortunately, I arrived way too late to see anything but the top of the screen and the back of the SRO crowd. Another mistake I will not make next time around.

Parties: The parties were good, but not great for networking. Too loud and too crowded to really talk and get to know someone but lots of fun and helped me meet a few people that I only knew via Twitter or email. Apple's Bash was easier because it was outdoors. Still the best conversations happened at the more personal outings at local bars like the Chieftain.

Networking: Outside of the parties is where the majority of the networking happened. It started early on Sunday during registration. I saw a tweet that Fraser Speirs was sitting in the registration hall. Trying to be social, I approached someone that I thought looked like Fraser (I only know him from a tiny Twitter picture) and talked to the wrong person. Of course as I walked away and checked Twitter on my iPhone, Fraser tweets, "Some guy just asked someone two people down from me if he was Fraser Speirs." Nice. I'm outed on Twitter, so I owned up to it publicly and then went back to give Fraser a hard time for letting me walk right by him.

I knew at this point that it was going to be fun coordinating meetings over Twitter. Many of us posted information about what session we were in and where in the room we sat, along with the "shirt of the day" tweets. It's a good thing that Twitter reinforced their servers for the conference (Twitter tends to go down more than Yahoo's stock price) or we would have been lost.

It took every single day that I stayed in San Francisco to meet everyone on my list and I still missed a few. We talked between sessions, ate lunch together, shared code, and opened the door to several opportunities to connect our products. If the only benefit I got out of WWDC was the networking, I would say the trip was worth it.

MacDevNet Roundtable: Scotty held the first Developers Roundtable around an actual table (oval, not round, but that would be picking nits) and I was invited to sit at it. Doing a group podcast with the actual people present is so much nicer than negotiating for your chance to speak on Skype. Have a listen if you haven't already heard it. Besides me, Scotty hosts Dan Wood, John Fox, Daniel Jalkut, and Craig Syverson. Somehow, I even got labeled as the "fanboy" in it.

I did take some pictures with my handy-but-not-good-in-low-light iPhone. Next year I'm taking a real camera and getting better photos. I guess I have a lot of "next year" vows. I hope I remember to read this and do them.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

What's a WWDC?

If you're a Mac software developer or a die-hard fan, you probably know that WWDC is Apple's World Wide Developer Conference. For developers, this is the place to go to suck in as much knowledge as we can in a five-day period. Apple hosts sessions to teach about development tools and related topics and they also give us labs to sit and talk to the people that designed the Apple's systems. It's geek nirvana!

It's also a chance for developers, who are spread around the world, glued to their computers, and typically carry on conversations limited to 140 characters at a time, to actually sit face to face and have a real conversation. This is my first time to go, so I don't know which I'm looking forward to more—the schooling or the socializing.

The Mac developer community is so giving and open and has helped me tremendously with my development of both Debt Quencher and MoneyWell. I'm not sure I've sold enough copies of both to pay for all the drinks I owe these guys, but I'll do my best to pass around my gratitude. I'm more excited than my daughter if she were told that everything is now available in pink... and free. Just yesterday she asked if we could get a ping pong table... in pink... with pink paddles... and zebra striped balls. The girl scares me sometimes.

The only difficult part is continuing to run a microISV company while I'm MIA. My wife, Judy, is set to come on board full time to work with me at No Thirst Software, but that doesn't happen until July 1, and I'll be at the conference from June 7 through June 14. This means that my average one-hour response time for support will suffer a bit. It will be worth it, though, because what I learn at the conference should greatly accelerate our two pending MoneyWell projects (2.0 and iPhone versions), which means more software goodness for our customers.

Even if you're not a geek, you should pay attention to Steve Job's Keynote on Monday morning. What he announces may very well make you want to create a new expense bucket in MoneyWell.