Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Customers on the Attack

The other day, I read an article on "What to do when customers attack." (Hate to get too self-referential here, but I posted on it over on Opinionated Marketers.) The point here is not to cover the same points about setting up RSS feeds and avoiding the temptation to cut and paste brochure content in your response. No, the point is that the title of this article had the impact on me,. Well, if not as evocative as Proust's little nibble on the madeleine, the article prompted a definite bout of painful nostalgia.

The title alone, with nary a bite taken out of it, brought me right back to the good old days when it was a lot harder for customers to air their complaints about you in an out of control, hellazapoppin' forum for all the world to read. (Let's face it, life could be a lot easier then.)

Many years later, I can still cringe when I think of a couple of customer encounters of a decidedly lousy kind.

Both cases involved the same product: an exceedingly high priced, and wildly difficult to use development tool. (Here's where I learned the true meaning of the marketing term "robust" as the cover-story for a lot of hideous product problems.)

It was not as if none of our customers got any use out of the product. But those who did tended to fall into one of two categories. They were either technical geniuses who actually enjoyed that there were only 32 other people on the face of the earth smart enough to use the product, or people who paid us a lot of money to have our customer service folks use it for them. (Twelve of the 33 geniuses capable of using the product actually worked for our company.)

People who fell into neither category? Well, buyer's remorse is not too strong a word.

In one case, the customer tried for years to get the $50K that his company had paid for a license back. Tough luck to him. (And at $50K, we had practically given them the software compared to what some of our customers had paid.)

In any case, we were a pretty close to the bone outfit, and there was no way in hell that we were going to take back software that the company had accepted and had, in fact, used to some extent. I know they used it because I saw them use it with my very own eyes, and because - out of pure desperation - we had engineered a workaround (interface to the interface) that made it possible for anyone who could type to get some use out of the product. No, it wasn't the full blown use that the vaunted genius users could get, but it was something. Last I heard, the customer was still trying to get his money back from the remnants of the remnants of that company. (In truth, I think a lot of this customer's agita was motivated by his belief we were snobby, Eastern city slickers lording it over the folks in Smallville. If only he knew, we were just trying to make payroll that month and really needed the $50K. I can still recall exactly what this customer looked like, and the fact that he was related to a minor character actor with a role on Hill Street Blues. He should have taken the Sarge's advice to be careful out there.)

The other customer was someone that we all really liked an awful lot. In her case, another division in her company was using our software and acted as an internal reference for us. Apparently, she didn't think to ask whether you needed the equivalent of a PhD from CalTech to use the product. Caveat emptor!

She called one day in tears, telling us that she was going to lose her job because she had chosen our product.

As low as I felt when we had layoffs, I can honestly say that I do not recall feeling any lower than when one of my colleague's relayed this conversation to me. Plenty of people who worked at our company lost their jobs because of things we'd done or hadn't done. This was the first case of someone outside of the company going down because of us.

We, of course, sprung into action and came up with all kinds of workarounds and free consulting.

Our customer didn't lose her job - although I don't think they renewed their support agreement, either.

Interesting that in Case 1, we stonewalled and ignored (and privately made fun of) the customer who explicitly attacked us and asked for their money back.  He was a pretty unpleasant, nasty piece of work, and all his attack did was put our backs up. Maybe if we'd liked him better, we'd have done something. (Short of giving the money back, of course.) In this day and age, this customer would have no doubt gone on a completely rabid online rage against us. (I should probably do a little Google and see whether he has.)

In Case 2, the customer had a complaint, but didn't directly attack us. She made a cry for help (quite literally), and we listened and worked with her to save everyone's day. This customer didn't have a particularly aggressive personality, but in today's environment - where trash-talking is just a keystroke away - would she have resisted the impulse to get online and bust us? And how would we have responded? I wonder.

You will NEVER please all your customers, all the time.

There are also situations in which the plain vanilla fact is that all lot of your customers may end up not particulary thrilled to be on your board.

I've been in those situations.

No tasty madeleine there.

Just painful.

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