Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Love Thy User: 5 Tips for Dealing with Tough Customers

Sometimes we build products for ourselves, but most of the time our target market is somebody completely different. It can cause all sorts of problems when we’re asking questions and observing people completely different from ourselves. Sometimes, and this can be tough to admit, we don’t really like our users very much.

Maybe you’re not like this. Maybe you’ve never had a difficult set of users who constantly yell and scream about their needs and how they’re not being met regardless of what you do for them. Maybe you’ve never spent time building a brand new feature designed to make your users happy only to have them shrug and say, “oh, that’s not what we wanted at all.” Maybe you’ve never had a passionate community of early adopters all grumpy because their favorite suggestions aren’t being followed to the letter. But trust me, the rest of us have.

The problem is, because most of our users are so different from us, their behavior can be extremely hard to understand or predict. On many occasions, this has led people to ignore their customers or neglect to include them in the development process.

I understand this impulse. I really do. It can be tough to include somebody that you see as irrational or hard to deal with in your decision making process.

But here’s a news flash. That irrational, difficult, whiny, impossible to understand person who is always complaining? Suck it up, cupcake, and include them in the conversation. They’re paying your salary, and if you ignore them for long enough, they’re likely to stop doing it.

Here are a few ways to make it easier to get feedback from difficult groups of customers.

Keep it one on one

When you’ve got a group of people, all of whom seem hell bent on complaining about how your product is ruining their lives, don’t put them in a room together.

A lot of companies like to establish customer advisory panels or customer forums and the like, where they can get feedback from a lot of people at once. These are fine when the conversation can be kept civil, but they can quickly turn into an angry mob as the group forms a giant echo chamber of hate.

Keeping the conversation one on one allows you to spend more time with each person and understand what’s really upsetting him or her.

Keep the conversation in person (or on the phone)

TALK to your customers. Sure, forums, suggestion boxes, and other written forms of communication are useful tools, but when you’ve got angry or unhappy customers, written communication is just too easy to get wrong. Many people who are more than happy to dash off an angry screed in a forum will calm down immediately once they get a real human being to explain their problems to.

It also makes it quick to ask follow up questions and really get to the root of the matter without inadvertently making the customer angrier.

Identify the root cause

When people are angry, they’re not always great about expressing what is upsetting them. What sounds like, “You are ruining my life,” might actually mean, “There is a very specific bug that you’ve been ignoring that is affecting the way I run my business.”

Remember, there’s almost certainly a nugget of truth at the center of the craziest assertion. The best way to find out that truth is to get to the root cause of the problem as non-confrontationally as possible.

Try asking the users to walk you through exactly what is causing their problems. Make sure to ask when and how the problems first started. If they give you a laundry list of complaints, try to get them to prioritize. Often, there is one core issue that is causing the anger, and dozens of other minor complaints that just add fuel to the fire.

Also, once you know the real problem, don’t assume you understand the solution. Remember, you caused the problem in the first place. Ask users to help you come up with solutions. I’m not saying you should just do whatever they ask, but make sure you check possible fixes with them before implementation to make sure that you’re actually fixing the root cause of the problem.

Maintain trust

One important lesson you must learn is that it’s much easier to maintain trust than to reestablish it after it’s been lost.

One company with which I worked had a passionate group of power users who all seemed to be conspiracy theorists. Whenever something went wrong or a bug brought down the site, they would immediately begin concocting wild stories about nefarious future plans that the company had to institute various Orwellian policies.

The company could never understand why the users didn’t believe it when the company explained that there were no nefarious plans in the works. Many at the company wrote the users off as crazy.

The problem was that the company had, in the past, issued blanket statements denying policy changes and then gone ahead with those exact policy changes. After that had happened once, there was absolutely no reason for the users to believe anything the company had to say, even when the company was telling the truth.

Once lost, trust was almost impossible to regain, and many of those passionate power users moved on to other products.

Actually fix their damn problems

Ok, understanding that your users aren’t just raving lunatics is a great first step. Connecting with them and identifying their problems is even better. Now you actually have to FIX THINGS. The best communication in the world isn’t going to help you if you continue to ignore the things that your customers are complaining about.

I know, I know. You’re working on the next release or a hot new feature or an integration with a partner or any one of a number of other things that your customer may or may not care about one bit. But now that you you’ve asked them, you know a lot about what your customer DOES care about, and you should work on those things too. Right now.

In conclusion

Look, I’m not saying that the customer is always right. Sometimes people really are crazy, or maybe they’re just not right for your particular product. That’s fine. You’re going to lose those customers regardless of what you do.

But sometimes the fact that you don’t understand your customers isn’t their fault. It’s yours. Learn to listen to your customers rather than writing them off as angry cranks. Within a very short while, you’ll find that they don’t sound so crazy, after all.

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