Shareware Beach

Wednesday, 9 February 2005

Transparency at JGsoft

Filed under: Just Great Software — Jan @ 11:43

When running my business, I’ve always believed in transparency and trust, rather than trying to hide my warts and thinking of potential customers as thieves. Overall, I can say that I’ve reaped the benefits of doing business this way. Customers are generally pleasant to interact with, and often send their praise and suggestions for improvements. It’s particularly gratifying when the same people send their feedback year after year.

Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Eric Sink wrote an interesting article, “Tenets of Transparency, in his MSDN column. In the shareware discussion forums I frequent, the dominant tone seems to be that customers are a liability rather than an asset, and that non-customers are potential thieves rather than future customers. For people who think that way, Eric’s article is a must read. For people who don’t think that way, Eric’s article is a must read too.

1. Have a weblog

I’ve had this blog for quite some time, but until today I hadn’t announced it to customers in any way. I initially planned this to be a personal blog for voicing my own opinions, rather than a business blog that provides customers with inside information on the business. As more company managers start business blogs, there seems to be a trend that those blogs are turning into corporate propaganda vehicles just like web sites, newsletters, brochures, etc.

I do plan to keep Shareware Beach as my personal (and only) blog, but with an additional “JGsoft” category providing a glimpse into my business. I’ve now also linked to this blog from the about JGsoft page.

2. Offer web-based discussion forums

This is something that’s been on my “things to consider” list for a few years now, but it hasn’t made the cut so far. The last thing I want to do is set up forums that end up looking like a deserted wasteland. There’s quite a difference between a forum, and a real community. Setting up a forum is easy. Building a community is hard, and is largely up to the customers.

While most people seem to use and recommend public forums that can be read by anybody, I’m actually leaning towards private forums that can only be accessed by paying customers. Personally, I’m always more candid in a closed group than in a public forum, even if I don’t know most of the people in the closed group. Branding the private forums as some sort of “club” might foster more of a community sense between the participants.

3. Don’t hide your product’s problems

All six JGsoft product web sites have a version history page listing all the gory details about each and every bug that was fixed, and each and every improvement that was made.

The best way to cover up problems is to fix them. That’s why I put out new versions frequently, even if it sometimes feels a bit embarrassing releasing a bugfix version one or two weeks after the latest release.

4. Don’t annoy honest people

It never ceases to amaze me how many software publishers are more preoccupied with protecting their product against piracy rather than making it worth buying. Crackers will crack the crappiest of software, just for the challenge. But customers won’t buy crap.

A free trial version does need incentives to make people buy. Note that I said incentives, not restrictions. While incentives usually include time limits and/or feature limits, it’s important to remember they’re incentives to get people to buy rather than use the trial forever. When the trial expires or when the user attempts to use a disabled feature, the attitude reflected in the message that appears can make the difference between a sale and an uninstall. They’re not nag screens!

One of the best decisions I ever made was switching from a license key mechanism to unlock the demo, to a separate demo and full version download system. With the key system, people would always have problems. Some would have the key or license number without software, and others would have the software but not their license information. With the separate download, the only thing that needs to be saved is the download itself. The license information is embedded in it. To download a free update, the user only needs to remember his or her email address. This change both increased customer satisfaction and support requests. If somebody asks us how to get the new version, it takes us 5 seconds to send them an elaborate, standard reply. The only time we have work is when somebody changes their email address. That requires a manual update in the database. A side benefit is that the email addresses in our database are now much more up to date than when people needed a license number to register the demo, rather than their email address to download.

5. Offer a painless demo download

Without a demo, it wouldn’t be shareware. That said, not offering a demo also has its advantages. The free evaluation version of RegexBuddy is not available on the RegexBuddy web site, since sales went down when we offered it. It’s probably a combination of three factors. 1. RegexBuddy’s functionality is well-defined. It’s easy to show the whole product on the web site. 2. RegexBuddy is cheap enough for impulse buys. A book on regular expressions costs more, and takes time to deliver. 3. We offer a solid money-back guarantee.

I also disagree with Eric that feature-limited demos are a bad idea. HelpScribble and DeployMaster are not time-limited, but feature-limited. The demo versions produce watermarked output, and HelpScribble’s demo cannot export source formats. The reason feature-limiting works well with these products is that the limits feel natural to the user, rather than an arbitrary.

6. Offer a money-back guarantee

Like many people, I was hesitant at first. While adding a 3-month money-back guarantee didn’t result in a clearly measurable increase in sales, it increase my satisfaction knowing that each and every customer is truly satisfied with the product. It’s also been a very long time since I’ve had to deal with “customers from hell”. I guess these people now simply ask their money back rather than complain like mad. If your business gets customers from hell, you’ve set up shop in the wrong neighborhood.

Don’t pinch on the guarantee period. Why offer 30 days if you can offer 2 or 3 months? If a customer is satisfied after 30 days, they’ll still be a couple of months later. In fact, if the deadline for asking a refund is tight, people might go looking for reasons to ask a refund more actively and be more uptight about minor issues, since they wouldn’t want to overlook any problems when the refund period runs out. With a generous refund period, people can be more relaxed, which will automatically improve their experience.

7. Share a little about your financial standing

I followed Eric’s advice and added a paragraph to the about JGsoft page. Re-reading what I wrote, I’m not sure if it makes me feel more confident about buying from JGsoft if I were a customer.

8. Talk about your future plans

Customers who send in feedback will get a personal reply saying whether a feature will be implemented, whether it will be considered, or if I think it’s a bad idea. I put that last one a bit more politely, though. I never make any promises, though, unless the feature has already been implemented in a version that’s currently in development. It does happen that I change my mind, or postpone a feature to a future release, and I don’t want to disappoint customers.

I never publicly pre-announce products or upgrades. Vaporware is a terrible thing. And even if the pre-announced product is real, it will reduce sales of existing versions. When big companies pre-announce products, they’re trying to stall sales of competing products. But that only works if you’re a big player in your market segment.

Customers who buy an old version just before a major upgrade do get the upgrade for free. They’re not being cheated by not knowing about upcoming versions. That would be even worse than vaporware.

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