Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Good Customers vs. Bad Customers

I've run my own tiny software business since 1995. Before that I worked in a corporate IT department for 8 years. Over the 21+ years that I've been in the business of creating, selling, and supporting computer software, I have run into all kinds of customers. I'm sure that anyone who has been in the software industry for a long time has their fair share of heartwarming stories as well as utter horror stories to tell.

Over the years, I've encountered customers who are highly intelligent, creative, tech savvy, friendly, polite, and downright funny. It's always a joy to meet these nice people, even if it's only in the context of a business relationship.

What might be surprising to learn is that many of my best customers have turned out to be people who needed a little help when they first started using the software. These folks were not afraid to ask for assistance during the inevitable "learning phase" that occurs when you start to use virtually every software program of at least moderate complexity. Nor were they "too proud" to ask for help. They simply asked, got help, and went on to become longtime happy customers who purchase new products every year. I treat these core customers as I would treat my friends; going the extra mile to keep them happy in return for their years of continued support. The kind comments that I've received from these "good customers" has been the fuel that's kept me going for many years.

But as they say, every rose has it's thorn. While MBA's and politically correct blowhards claim that "the customer is always right" and "there are no bad customers", the simple reality is that in any business, 5% to 10% of your customers will be jerks and idiots. If you don't agree with that, then start your own business and get back to me in 10 years. And believe me, there's nothing quite like technology (i.e. computers) that brings out the absolute worst in people.

There are several common types of bad customers that I've come across. Here are a few of the classics:

Mr. Last Minute

This is the guy who buys his fantasy baseball draft prep & tracking software at 10 PM on Friday evening, even though his draft is being held at Noontime on Saturday. Five minutes after he orders, he sends an email to the customer service staff demanding his software unlock code. After 10 minutes pass and he doesn't get a response, he fires off another email saying "where's my code" and complains of shoddy customer service. Although the company website clearly states that all emails are answered within 48 hours and that the company offices are closed on the weekends (it's a regular Mon-Fri business), he calls the company hotline and leaves an urgent and somewhat snide message. He needs his code NOW. After all, he only has a few hours to use this software until his draft tomorrow!

When I logon to check my business email on Saturday morning, I see Mr. Last Minute's messages and hear his urgent phone plea. Although I'm not woking today, I'll still make it a point to send the man his unlock code. Inevitably, I will get a followup from Mr. Last Minute on Sunday telling me that he never got his unlock code or it was too late (he had already left for his draft). And surprise surprise, he wasn't able to learn the software in 2 or 3 hours and setup everything for his draft. Oh, and he wants a refund.

Not only is Mr. Last Minute the worst kind of procrastinator and unreasonable in his demands, by ordering software 14 hours before his baseball draft he's also just plain stupid. What he really needed was a $7 magazine, not a sophisticated software program.

Mr. Know It All

You will run across Mr. Know It All in all walks of life. He is particularly frustrating to deal with in the software world.

Mr. Know It All has setup his software and database, but something isn't working quite right. So he emails you saying that "I setup everything exactly as I was supposed to, but the software just doesn't work." He doesn't give you any details about his problem to speak of, so you politely respond to his email with a request for additional details about what his problem is. He gets back to you with some very flimsy information, but since you developed the software and have many years of experience helping people, you have enough of an inkling to guess what he did wrong. You respond with a solution. He replies saying that you're wrong, don't know what you're talking about, and basically tells you why your software is utterly broken. He did everything 100% right. There's absolutely NO WAY that he could have made a mistake.

Sometimes, this guy will threaten you and demand a refund if you can't help him. So you resort to having this schmuck send you his database. You hook it up in the lab and discover what he did wrong to screw up his data. You send the database back to him with a detailed explanation of where he messed up. He will never say thanks for helping. That would be admitting that he actually doesn't know everything. But at least you have finally shut him up, at least until the next problem comes along that in NO WAY POSSIBLE could be his fault.

Mr. Half Wit

I'm not trying to be mean, but there are some people who should simply not be allowed to touch a computer. When people say that education is declining in America, they're right. I have seen it first-hand. The number of people who write wholly unintelligible emails is astounding. I read messages with absolutely no punctuation, with incoherent run-on sentences, and with spelling errors that would make a 5th grade English teacher cry. Not to mention that I actually receive tech support emails along the lines of "my Rhino don't work, can you help?". Ummm... that really narrows down the problem for me Tex.

Mr. Half Wit doesn't know all that much about computers. He's not quite sure how to download a file, and he doesn't know how to look at the folders on his hard drive. Nevertheless, he just plunked down a pile of Hamiltons to use an advanced piece of software to run his fantasy baseball league. He doesn't read the Help files because "I don't learn too good by readin', I'd rather you walk me through it over the phone". Mr. Half Wit is in WAY over his head. Couldn't the league members have found somebody a wee bit more competent to be the league commissioner?

I understand that not everyone is a smart cookie, and I try to be very very patient with everyone. I will help Mr. Half Wit as much as humanly possible, but it's a major waste of my time and a huge money loser for my company. He'll eventually move on to something else next year, drop into oblivion, and cease to be your problem. But the time you wasted on helping him for free costs you lots of money, and it would have been far better had he never ordered from you to begin with.

Mr. Impatient
This guy is sort of a mixture between Mr. Last Minute and Mr. Know It All. He buys your software, uses it for 2 days, and then abruptly demands a refund because it's "too complicated", "takes too long to setup", or is "not intuitive enough".

Counting high school, college, and professional work, I've been involved in the computer software field for close to 30 years. Without any shame whatsoever, I will say that there's simply no way that I can learn to use a new software program in 2 days (unless the program is quite trivial). But hey, Mr. Impatient is utterly outraged when he cannot learn your program in a day or two; a program that took you 2.5 years to develop (just for version 1.0).

Mr. Impatient is not only terribly unrealistic in his expectations, he has an enormously over-inflated ego. He believes that he's so smart that he can learn in 2 days what it takes everyone else 2 weeks to learn.

There are two types of responses that you'll get from Mr. Impatient. The first goes something like this: "I use computers a lot and am not a newbie, but your software is just too hard to use even for someone like me. How can you even sell this program?" Obviously, Mr. Impatient thinks he's such a computer wiz that if he can't figure things out in 2 days, well then your software must be complete crap. What a load of hooey. I guess all those happy users we have amassed over the years don't matter, huh? Anyone who thinks you can stay in business for 13+ years by selling crap software must be smoking crack.

The second type of response you get from Mr. Impatient falls along these lines: "setup takes too long. If you skip over some of the setup steps, the software won't produce the results I want." Well duh! For a supposedly smart person, Mr. Impatient gets an "F" in logical thinking. He wants the software to spit out customized results tailored to his particular settings, yet he doesn't want to waste the time entering any of those settings. He must be hoping to get results through pure magic. You load the software, it reads your mind, you click a button and poof, instant results!

Of course, Mr. Impatient will never ask for help when you offer it. Actually working through a problem would fix his issue, but he doesn't have the time for that. He has no time for help manuals or tech support emails. If he can't figure it out right away, you're history.

Dealing with Mr. Impatient is a very good reason why your software company should, if at all possible, offer free trial software. It allows people to download and install the program, take a quick look around, and decide if they want to actually buy a full copy. Hopefully, this will weed out the Mr. Impatients in your life. You pray that these guys realize what you already know, that unless you're really willing to put in the time to learn a new program, don't even bother buying it.

Mr. Bullshitter

At last we come to Mr. Bullshitter. You've been using the software religiously for years, and you KNOW that it works great. Countless customers have sent you kind notes telling you how much they like your product. You get lots of repeat sales.

But along comes Mr. BS to ruin your day. He buys your product, installs it, and then sends you an angry email telling you that he gets continual errors when he uses the software. Not only doesn't X function work, but Y and Z are broken as well. The darn thing just crashes all the time. It's junk and you're a shyster.

You offer to help Mr. Bullshitter and ask him to explain exactly what's troubling him. He never sends you any details, any screen shots or files, and he'll never let you see his database. He just rants and raves and insults you. In essence, he never gives you the chance to PROVE to him that the software does indeed work as advertised.

Basically, this guy is just a Class A jerk. There's nothing you can do about him since he resists your efforts to help him. He'll either just fade way, or if your company offers refunds you can give him his money back and say good riddance.


Fortunately, I would say that 90% of my customers are pleasant to deal with. They're certainly not jerks, egomaniacs, or morons. And I respect them because they treat me and my company with respect. If they need help, they go about things the right way to get it. They are polite and say thank you when it's warranted. They're reasonable. In short, they're GOOD customers.

If there was some way to screen the small percentage of BAD customers before they bought products from us, I would jump on that in a heartbeat. They waste your time and make you lose money. They put you in a foul mood. They make otherwise sane computer software developers question why they ever got into this field to begin with. But that's life folks. You can NEVER please everyone. Some people will love your product, and some will hate it. There's absolutely nothing you can do about it... except to maybe vent about it on your blog!

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