Continuing the recent trend of posts about, essentially, “just doing it,” the purpose of this post is to underscore the wisdom of staying in touch with customers, while acknowledging that doing so brings its own challenges.
Since I established my own web store a few years ago, I have collected the emails of customers who buy my software and, for those who leave the pre-checked option selected, subscribe them to a company newsletter for infrequent announcements:
Infrequently is the operative word here. In more than three years I’ve neglected to send even one email to these folks. This is a problem, because permitting me to contact them set up the expectation that I would. When major releases such as MarsEdit 3 have come out, some people don’t find out until months later, and tend to be annoyed that they haven’t heard about it directly from me.
Yesterday, I finally got around to setting up a mailing list with Campaign Monitor, drafting a simple plain-text letter, and pressing the send button. I finally broke the ice.
For those of you who are not on the mailing list, here’s what I said:
News From Red Sweater Software
Hello from Red Sweater! This is Daniel Jalkut, its founder and, for now, its only employee.
When you purchased one of my products, you agreed to receive infrequent email updates that keep you up to do date with my latest products. Since that time you have received approximately zero emails! I sort of dropped the ball on direct communication, but I’m working to rectify that now.
Messages will still be infrequent and hopefully pertinent, but if you are no longer interested in receiving updates about Red Sweater, just visit this link to unsubscribe:
On to the news: what’s happening at Red Sweater?
1. MarsEdit 3 Released
Earlier this year I released a major update to MarsEdit, our desktop blog editing application. MarsEdit now sports a rich text “WYSIWYG” editor, support for WordPress pages, and a media browser that integrates with iPhoto, Aperture, and Lightroom. Read more about MarsEdit 3 on the web:
If you don’t already own MarsEdit 3 you can purchase it for $39.95, or update from a previous version for $14.95:
2. iPhone and iPad Releases?
People often ask about my plans to release applications for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. It’s easy enough to convey my intentions, but a bit harder to make specific promises. I am very excited about building iPhone and iPad versions of my apps, especially MarsEdit and Black Ink. I have made significant progress on these apps but there is still fine-tuning that needs to be done before I’ll be prepared to release them publicly.
3. The Mac App Store
You may have heard the news that Apple is planning to launch a Mac version of the App Store, which will give Mac users the ability to easily browse, purchase, and install applications in a similar manner to the way it works for iPhones and iPads. I’m hoping to get most or all of my apps into the catalog so I can reach an even wider audience of users. The good news for you, my existing customers? More customers will hopefully lead to more revenue, which means more resources and impetus to continue adding great features to the applications you already love.
4. Keeping In Touch
As I said earlier, I am resolving to do a better job keeping in touch. Next time a major update like MarsEdit 3 is released, you’ll hear about it before 6 months have passed! But if you want to proactively stay tuned in on an even finer level, there are some resources available to help you monitor our progress:
Email support. You can contact Red Sweater with whatever’s on your mind, be it a bug report, feature request, or just to say hi.
Red Sweater Blog. The official company blog is my platform for providing a combination of company news and business-related thoughts and analysis.
Twitter accounts. For short, conversational style updates I maintain a personal account, a company account, and a special account just for MarsEdit:
5. Thank You
I want to close by thanking you for your business. I have been working on Red Sweater for over 10 years now, and in the past few years it has reached a level of success that supports myself, my wife, and my son. This is so unfathomable to me that I can only assume the sky is the limit! Let’s keep working together: your feedback and support combined with my desire to build great products should lead to many more years of successful results.
Founder, Red Sweater Software
To unsubscribe from this email list, just visit this link:
Campaign Monitor made the mass delivery painless for me. Thanks to their sophisticated tools, I know a day later that the vast majority of recipients received the letter, and only a small percentage have unsubscribed. Out of the thousands (wow!) of messages that were sent:
97.1% appear to be delivered
1.48% unsubscribed after receiving
1 reported it as spam (1 person, not percent – can’t win them all!)
This kind of feedback is great, but nothing compared to the direct responses I got from customers. The semi-personal tone of my letter inspired customers to respond in kind with heartfelt support and encouragement.
I received dozens of responses, ranging from the brief, enthusiastic “Word!” to longer, philosophical letters about small business, following one’s dreams, and the meaning of work in life.
Then, early this morning, I received this:
[EDITED: In retrospect, I do not believe it was appropriate for me to share the content of a customer’s email here, even if information about her identity was removed.]
An upset or merely irritated customer always calls for a cautious response. The last thing I want is to escalate the situation. But this response is particular challenging, due to the number of provocative facets:
- The customer is not pleased by the email I sent.
- The customer is using a sarcastic, admonishing tone.
- The customer projects a lack of respect by omitting proper punctuation and sentence structure.
- The customer’s core criticisms are vague and subjective, making it hard for me to evaluate whether an apology or correction is called for.
These facets sort of multiply with each other and make it difficult not to respond defensively. My first reaction is to shout something into my email client like “What the hell?! Most people like a little humanity in a company, and furthermore, I did enumerate benefits where appropriate, and the content of this letter addresses the most common questions I have received over the past few months. And … and … who pissed in your Wheaties, anyway?”
Instead I take a deep breath, vent a little to my friends on IRC, and respond:
[EDITED: As with the content of the email from the customer, I don’t believe it is appropriate for me to include the content of my response.]
I then proceeded to vent on Twitter about the response. I wasn’t particularly looking for comfort, but was glad to receive supportive responses from people who agreed there was cause to feel irritated by the customer’s tone. A sample of the dozens of reactions:
“That’s the kind of thing, when said in person, earns someone a kick in the teeth.” — @dssstrkl
“That guy is a jerk. Keep your personality in your work. if he doesn’t like it, let him use products from huge faceless corps” — @scottaw
“Personally, I couldn’t live with myself without adding a note about their tone. Why encourage an asshole.” — @mrgan
“Screw that guy. He’s just jealous that your Indie endeavors are successful enough to support you and your family. Good on ya!” — @fonix
“He presumes to speak for all your customers, co-opting “us.” He does not. Bravo on your measured and thoughtful response.” — @artgillespie
“That guy replied as if you were trying to sell him something. Your letter was more like a ‘state of the union’ communication.” — @morrick
Many of the responses refer to the customer as “him,” while none of them refer to “her.” In fact, this customer is either a woman, or a man with a very feminine name. Apropos of not much, but it’s interesting that we tend to assume somebody who is “being a jerk” is a man. I would have made the same assumption.
Do I feel a little disingenuous about responding to the customer politely and without indication of my annoyance, while essentially glorifying her message behind her back on Twitter and now here? Yes. This is not really my style, and I don’t think it’s very classy of me to share the private message of a customer, even if I am preserving her anonymity.
But, I think this experience is instructive both to customers and other small-business owners. And since I already vented on Twitter and essentially let the cat out of the bag, I thought I might as well go all the way.
Staying In Touch
What does it mean to stay in touch? It means building and preserving a relationship with customers. The stronger the relationship, the greater the empathy for the other’s circumstance. But as with other relationships, the increase in communication and contact leads to an increased risk of misunderstanding and offense.
My letter served a valuable purpose. It let my customers know that I’m thinking about them, that the checkbox they vaguely remember leaving selected wasn’t pointless. That I do have plans for the company and for the products they purchased, and that I am interested in turning a new leaf with regard to communicating directly with them.
The challenging customer and my reaction to her has also been helpful. It reminds me of the related importance of “staying in touch” with my own values and priorities. Over the course of Red Sweater’s growth, I have used a very rules-based approach to how I handle just about everything. Running my own business means biting my tongue and doing “the right thing” even when the instinct in my animal brain wants to do the opposite. This is true for coding habits, fiscal responsibility, and yes, customer support habits. A variety of informal rules help to keep me in line.
As I have gained confidence in my own decisions, I find myself more prepared to break these rules. I suppose that pragmatism slowly takes over. When I first started out, I informed my decisions by asking “what would a good business do?” Then I learned to admire other Mac software companies such as Bare Bones, Rogue Amoeba, Panic, and Omni, and asked myself “what would they do?” I still defer often to the wisdom of others, but sometimes I have the distinct pleasure of asking myself “What would I do?” and acting on it. Staying in touch with myself is as important as staying in touch with my customers.