Eric Sink has been running a series of articles about the art of running an ISV (independent software vendor) and his latest one is, as always, excellent.
The executive summary: Eric claims that if ISVs are unwilling to trust their customers, then they won't have any.
He goes on to explain that while the idea of customers having to trust the companies that they deal with (in any line of business, not just IT) is well-known, it is just as important for companies, and ISV's in particular, to trust their customers.
He gives eight ways that ISV's can trust their customers.
1. Have a weblog.
Weblogs give me a way to see the people behind the products. ... The goal is to give the world a personal glimpse of the people behind the product, but not to get too personal.
Well, that's easy: you're reading it now At first, I was reluctant to post anything vaguely personal but realized pretty early on that it was a Good Thing (tm) to do, for exactly the reasons that Eric gives. So now you all know that I play music, have studied higher maths, am something of a non-conformist, have travelled a bit and may become a monk at some point in time. And so on...
2. Offer Web-based Discussion Forums
Together, you and your customers form a community. ... Give your customers a place to talk about your product, even if you don't always like what they say.
This is the key difference between a company like Microsoft or IBM and an ISV: the connection between vendor and customer. Whether it be the personalized service we can provide or the incorporation of feedback and suggestions from users into the software or even just the ramblings on the weblog about my non-Awasu life (what little there is of it :roll:), there's a much closer relationship at play than when you get the latest version of Office.
As most of you already know, our forums live here. I've never moderated any forum posts or weblog comments unless they were spam and in fact, I see negative posts as an opportunity, both in terms of feedback to improve the product and also to demonstrate they way we handle such things.
3. Don't Hide Your Product's Problems
[S]oftware customers usually want to know that a product will be steadily improved in the future. ... But not only do users want you to keep improving your product, they usually care about specifically how the product grows and matures. They want to be reassured that your product will be growing deeper, not just wider. I define these terms like this:
- A product gets "wider" when it appeals to new users.
- A product gets "deeper" when it works better for the users it already has.
The question of "deeper" features is a really good one. We're going to be revamping a lot of the existing features in Awasu and beefing them up so that they work better and more intuitively than they do now. The work on My Channels folders is a good example of this, where we're taking the existing functionality (channel categories) and changing the way it works to make it easier to use and in the process, adding some new stuff to make it more powerful.
4. Don't Annoy Honest People
License enforcement code is a terrible waste. We spend time and money to design, implement and test it, just like any other feature of the product. However this "feature" adds no benefit for the user.
Also a really good point. We thought long and hard about how we were going to implement licencing and eventually decided to just trust people. You get a licence key when you purchase Awasu and the software has some simple (but effective) anti-hacking devices in the code but overall, we rely on peoples' honesty to stay in business.
We've noticed a lot of Advanced Edition registrations coming from companies recently and while the Advanced Edition is not actually licenced for commercial use, we haven't followed up on any of these cases since the Professional Edition has only recently been released . However, now that the Pro Edition is out, there's really no excuse for using an incorrectly-licenced version of Awasu (hint hint)...
5. Offer a Painless Demo Download
This is so standard nowadays that I feel silly mentioning it: Provide a demo download so people can try your product before they buy it.
This would be our free Personal Edition. Eric raises the point that it should be a time-limited, not feature-limited demo. The Personal Edition is not as comprehensive as the paid versions but we have reasons for making this version free and as such, it's not really a demo. Further more, just about every feature in the paid versions is also available in the free Personal Edition to some degree e.g. channel reports are there but you can only have up to 5 of them.
6. Offer a Money-Back Guarantee
A money-back guarantee dramatically increases the transparency of your company. Now your prospective customer can see everything a customer can see. They can taste the product, sample the technical support and smell the purchasing process. If any of it displeases them, then they can just hit "Undo" and get a refund.
This is a really interesting one. We don't specifically offer a money-back guarantee but if somebody is genuinely unhappy with Awasu, we will (and have) given them their money back.
However, we do ask to be given the opportunity to try and resolve any problems. If Awasu won't install or run on someone's machine, we would be happy to give a refund but if the user has only tried running the installer once before giving up and then refuses to help us try and get things working, well, we're naturally going to be a bit more reluctant.
Part of the reasoning behind this is exactly what Eric talks about: transparency. The free Personal Edition contains virtually every single feature in the paid versions, so you can try it out and see if you like it before you buy. You can see what goes on in the forums. You can even email us with questions and we will reply In other words, there's nothing that happens with the Advanced or Professional Editions that doesn't also happen with the free Personal Edition.
But after all that, if you're still not satisfied, then yes, we'll be happy to give you a refund.
7. Share a Little About Your Financial Standing
[S]haring a few select tidbits can sometimes increase confidence for your customers. Lots of software companies don't survive. Customers want to know if your firm will be around for a while. If your firm is conservatively managed and operating profitably, let people know.
Well, I'm not going to be retiring any time soon But we're making money, it's profitable and we won't be disappearing into the ether
8. Talk About Your Future Plans
Customers really want to know about your future plans. They want to know what new improvements will appear in the next release and when that release will be available. When they ask these questions, surely there is something you can say?
We often talk about what's coming or even what we're working on right now so if you keep your eyes on the weblog and the forums (they have RSS feeds too; look for the Awasu icon at the top of each forum page) you'll get a feel for what's coming.
My Channels folders is definitely next since work has already started on it :-). The Awasu 2.2 release cycle is going to be a short one and will include a seriously-revamped UI, major improvements to the way the Workpad works plus a bunch of other features to improve the way you can track information as it bounces around inside Awasu.
Man, it's going to be a busy year