How To Piss Off Your Customers 101

I sometimes wonder if employees at software companies are required to sit through a class on how best to piss off (and lose) customers. For some reason, the common courtesies that you would take for granted in a face-to-face situation sometimes disappear when it comes to software. In my Best Practices Flash and Flex course, I devote a substantial amount of time to User-Centered Product Development (UCPD) and the importance of usability. In it, I use the butler analogy for how software *should* act. Some of the characteristics of the stereotypical butler in this analogy include "few questions, no complaints", "rarely interrupts, anticipates" and "courteous and respectful." Off the top of your head, how many current applications you use would fit that description?

And it's not just about the application itself anymore. In the Internet Age (tm), we have to take a much wider view of software (or the application.) Software is a service and it transcends the actual bits that make up an application to encompass the *experience* that involves its distribution/download, sale and the handling of updates and the ongoing customer relationship with the product. It appears that certain companies are having a difficult time understanding this and are losing customers because of it.

First case in point: Trend Micro. Product: PC-Cillin.

A year ago, we switched the computers at Ariaware to Trend Micro PC-Cillin and it was a move that I had not regretted until a couple of days ago when I noticed the pop-up on my notebook telling me that the application had expired and I should renew. Now wait a minute... It has what? *Expired?* And you're only telling me this now? You must be kidding. You've just lost two to four weeks of interest on the money I would have paid you if you had informed me previously that I was reaching the end of my subscription. Ok, so I am a little vexed at you but I'm going to update this, right away... Let's see... Ah, there's a handy little link in the pop-up that I can click on to do this. Let me click it... so far so good... What's this? I'm on a web page and it is asking me whether I want to go to the US store or the Australian store. Umm, I'm in the UK. Well, we are the 51st state so I'll pick the US... Ah, all right, a form for me to fill out with my name, address... umm... Ok, so I can only enter a US address because the country drop-down only has United States and Canada in it. Great! Thanks for telling me... So I go back and to the Australian store and have to choose my upgrade. All the prices are in -- wait for it -- New Zealand dollars. I select the PC-Cillin upgrade and get taken to a different version of the checkout form. Only this time, the price is shown in Australian dollars. I head out to and check what that means in US dollars to compare with the first store. Lo and behold, I find that I am getting shafted yet again (this happens often when one lives in the UK and shops online.) I go back and finish the sale anyway and buy multiple licenses because I can't afford for any of our computers to be without virus protection (thanks Bill).

This is one example of a sale they would've lost if their product wasn't otherwise the best of breed and if I didn't have such an important need for it because they didn't spend the same time and attention on the whole user experience with their product (including the most important renewal/upgrade process) that they did with the actual application itself.

The second story doesn't have such a happy ending. As part of the process of moving my applications to Saint, I downloaded the latest version of Trillian Pro from my online account, proceeded to install it and then entered my license information. Trillian proceeded to inform me that my license had expired. Impossible, because I had bought this license back when they had their lifetime upgrade guarantee but what the heck... Didn't Jonas mention this wonderful *open-source* multi-IM application a little while back that he was using? What was it again... ah yes, Miranda IM... let's give that a shot. Five minutes later, I was up and running with Miranda IM -- a lightweight, open-source Trillian alternative with more plugins than you can shake a stick at. After downloading and installing a couple of plugins I've already forgotten about Trillian and has lost out on the licenses it would have sold us as part of my efforts to standardize the software being run on our company machines. Instead of Trillian, we'll be running Miranda from now on.

In the age of Google and open-source, customers are fickle creatures. If you're going to remain competitive with a *commercial* product you better consider the whole customer experience and understand that software is a service -- and an ongoing one at that. Treat your customers as guests at your hotel, beguile them with the amenities or lose them to the bed and breakfast around the corner.