A podcast discussing news of note in iOS Development, Apple and the like.

#182: Unconventional Wisdom, Listen to Spock.

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I am doing another run of t-shirts for the show. After I did the campaign for them last fall I heard from a lot of people that they missed out. This year I’m giving the campaign a nice long run (through April 28). The shirt design this year combines three distinctly geeky things—underscores, square brackets and fixed width fonts.

Shirts are $14.59 (never longer than 15 minutes). Get one at http://teespring.com/developing. My thanks for the dozens of people who have already got one.

Unconventional Wisdom

I’m doing a series of episodes trying to take contrarian positions against conventional wisdom in software development. My goal is to challenge the assumptions we make and help us to think more critically about how we conduct our business.

The result is something that isn’t 100% my actual position on things but should be productive and hopefully thought provoking nevertheless. I’ll be making sweeping, un-nuanced statements for effect. As with everything in life, it is more complicated than I’m going to present it. The interesting part of being in business is navigating that nuance for yourself.

The second topic is customer support.

Providing good customer support is important?

I can’t count the number of times I have heard “the thing we pride ourselves in is our customer support” at conferences. I have so often heard people getting up and talking about how they love interacting with their customers. How this has driven their companies forward. How it is the responsible thing to do as a software engineer. I couldn’t disagree more.

The needs of the many

To start off my attack on the important of good customer support I’m going to start off by invoking Spock—which should likely settle the matter. The needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few. That in a nutshell is the core of the problem with providing good customer support. Every business (except perhaps VC based shops) are always operating in an environment of scarcity. You are forced to make hard decisions about how you spend your time and money. Within that context any time and energy that you are putting into customer support is necessarily taking time away from energy that you could be putting into making your product better. Helping customers individually is terribly inefficient. Hopefully your product has a large enough audience that any one person is a vanishingly small percentage of your overall customer base. Would you rather spend a few hours definitely making 99.99999% of your customer’s experience better or making it possibly better for the 0.00001%?

Relentlessly focusing on making the product better and better also has the effect of reducing the need for one-on-one customer support.

Horrible, unscalable hourly rate

If your product is available in the iOS app store the revenue you receive per customer is likely pretty small. You are likely getting somewhere between $0.70 and $2.10 per user (at best). If you spend 15 minutes helping a customer out you are looking at an hourly rate of $2.80 - $8.40/hr. You’d be better off burning coffee and mispronouncing names at Starbucks. Also, how can you scale up your product with that type of cost. If you want to provide customer support for increasingly more and more customers you’ll need to hire someone to help. You are then either paying them minimum wage or taking a loss with each request.

Worst customers

Not to pass a judgment on the actual people using your software but the people who require your support are also necessarily your worst customers. The best customers for your business are ones who give you money then cost you the least. These are the customers you want. You want to make life as good for these people as possible. They are going to be the reason your business is able to be sustainable. To apply the 80/20 rule you want to optimize and focus on the experience of the productive 80%, not the counter productive 20%.

You don’t need it

I’m often struck by how most of the wildly successful apps in the App Store provide no customer support whatsoever. I’m thinking of games. You hardly ever see a game with a ‘Contact Us’ button in it. They just build a solid app, deploy it to the market and then reap the benefits of their labors. “But productivity software is different,” you say. Is it, or are we just lazily relying on customer support to fill in the holes we allow to grow in our products? In many ways the need to provide customer support is a symptom of a problem in our products. The need to provide extensive support or help to our customers necessarily means we have missed something in our development process. Maybe we should just put more effort in getting it right the first time.