One of the most interesting (and difficult) parts of running an independent software business is responding to support email. It is very time-consuming and often more frustrating than writing code because the solutions can be illusive. You want to help the customer, but it’s not always obvious how.
Two blog posts in the last week take entirely different approaches to customer support. The first is from Ryan Carson, who is well known for DropSend and The Future of Web Apps conference. Here’s a snippet from his response to a customer:
I am now marking your email address as spam and your communication will no longer get through. If you don't want to use our service any more, please cancel your account.
I was relieved to read the comments, which are more sane. I think Ryan made a mistake in how he dealt with the customer, and wasted a bunch of time in the process. Adding a customer to your spam filter? Yikes. I would have refunded the customer their $5 immediately.
(I actually like a lot of what Ryan writes and the events he puts on, but lately I find myself noticing the differences. As another example, his post about outsourcing programming work to Russia left me puzzled.)
Joel Spolsky also wrote an essay on support, and it’s just about perfect. I especially like his section on memorizing awkward phrases:
It's completely natural to have trouble saying "It's my fault." That's human. But those three words are going to make your angry customers much happier. So you're going to have to say them. And you're going to have to sound like you mean it.
For almost every support email I get, I start by responding like this:
Hi Bob, Thanks for purchasing Wii Transfer. I'm sorry to hear it was not working correctly for you.
This does three things right away that I think are important:
- Greet the person by their name. Kind of like making eye contact. And it's respectful without being overly formal.
Thank them for using the product. If they haven't bought it yet, replace "purchasing" with "trying."
Apologize that the software gave them trouble. This is mostly equivalent to Joel's "it's my fault" phrase.
Although I could probably respond faster by using some macro shortcuts that do this for me, I actually type this out every time, varying it slightly as is appropriate for the question. I then move on to the actual solution or follow-up question about their issue.
This is more than just trying to be nice to people. As someone in the comments to Ryan Carson’s post said: you need to show the customer that you are on their side. Going negative demonstrates that you care about receiving their money but not actually building something useful that makes their life easier.
Here’s a portion of 37signals take on being on the customers side, from Getting Real:
At 37signals, all of our support emails are answered personally by the people who actually build the product. Why? First off, it provides better support for customers. They're getting a response straight from the brain of someone who built the app. Also, it keeps us in touch with the people who use our products and the problems they're encountering. When they're frustrated, we're frustrated. We can say, "I feel your pain" and actually mean it.
Most people who buy Mac software from independent developers know that it’s only 1-5 people behind the company. We can’t compete with the Microsofts and Adobes of the world on application size, but we can compete on quality customer service. Being small is a competitive advantage.
I’ve exchanged at least a couple hundred emails in the last few months with customers or potential customers. (I don’t actually distinguish between users who have bought the product or who are just trying it out. They all get the same level of support.) Have I handled each one perfectly? Probably not. There are a few people who are still experiencing problems. But my hope is that just writing this blog post will serve as a guide and reminder of why taking support seriously is worth it.