Your quality as a vendor is often demonstrated best by how you deal with prospects who have decided your product or service is not for them.
As Francis wrote in his last post on customer service, we have a particular preoccupation with this subject because of its timeless relevance to any technology company:
“Customer service is based on what I have come to call my first law of competitive differentiation, the proposition that, in an age when almost any technological or cost advantage will rapidly and inevitably be eroded, the only sustainable competitive differentiation for most companies is to treat their customers like the centre of the universe, which they are.”
My most recent experience should be of particular relevance to software vendors, especially software vendors that are targeting niche markets and are trying to keep a lot of balls in the air with a small team.
It all began with Dungeons & Dragons
Yes, I was a basement nerd with a pouch of odd-looking dice. In 1993 there arrived on the market a software program RPG gamers could use to create maps and floorplans for their various tabletop adventures. It was also ideal for aspiring novelists who wanted to create professional-looking maps for their imaginary places. This program was called Campaign Cartographer.
Being a cartography nerd too, I often salivated over the magazine ads for this software. But I was in college at the time and lacked either the money or the computer capable of running it. Years later, when I did sit down to create a professional-looking map for my latest fictional work in progress, I was working in the graphics and production department of a newspaper where I had access to commercial-grade scanners, printers and the latest full-powered version of Photoshop. (I also had a manager who appreciated that toying around for my own purposes was in reality improving my photo editing and illustration skills for the job.)
It wasn’t until a month ago that I finally decided to download the latest incarnation of Campaign Cartographer for my new fiction project – a post-apocalyptic piece for which I want to create a map of the future that encompasses Eastern Ontario, Western Quebec and northern New York.
Campaign Cartographer is produced by ProFantasy out of the U.K. The company has branched out over the years with a roster of complimentary and ancillary tools that allow for the creation of everything from 3-D models to cosmic star charts, character portraits, starship floor plans, dungeon maps and even random generation of an entire city with the push of a button.
It also has a product called Fractal Terrains, which lets you play with high-res digital maps of the earth’s surface. We’re talking about NASA-grade stuff here.
But I haven’t the time to buy and download a piece of software just to play around with it. For my apocalyptic vision of the future I had quite specific needs and had given up on free online resources to get the map image I wanted. So I tried Fractal Terrains to get that real-world map.
Trials and errors
I had some trouble mastering the basics and being impatient about it, I nagged the generic customer service email. That put me in touch with a helpful fellow named Ralf.
Once he got me past my learning curve, it became apparent that this product didn’t have exactly what I was looking for. (It had to do with displaying real-world bodies of water, the details of which I won’t bore you with.) If I had done my homework in advance, I would have figured that out before committing to a purchase – lesson learned.
Not being one to throw down even a modest sum lightly, I asked if I could have a refund so that I could instead try a different approach using Campaign Cartographer. He quickly provided me with a voucher on my account that I used to make the other purchase.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Campaign Cartographer is a great program that can create beautiful maps in countless variations. It’s been around for decades, an obvious testament to its enduring appeal and value. However, I quickly found myself frustrated by the learning curve. It’s a vector-based program, whereas I have drilled in Photoshop, a raster-based program. But I’m a dabbler who would rather be writing than mastering the learning curve for something I won’t use that much. It made more sense for me to go back to the raster-based world I know.
So I went to Ralf again, and asked if I could get another refund, with my reasons as to why. I had also downloaded a couple of other complimentary drawing tools as part of a bundle purchase with Campaign Cartographer, and these I had decided to hang to, so it wasn’t a complete loss for ProFantasy. Still, in the space of two weeks, I had purchased and downloaded two main products, only to give them back. And, since, these other two tools were somewhat dependent upon Campaign Cartographer, I also pestered Ralf about what functionality I would lose, if any, without it. He again answered all my questions promptly and factually.
Above and beyond
But where Ralf really earned his badge of custom service honor came two days later. I was just thinking about checking my credit card record to see if the refund had been processed when he sent me an email apologizing for not having already processed the refund because he was busy at an industry conference in the U.S. and much of the London team was out on vacation. Sure, enough, he processed the refund a few hours later once he was able to make a secure login.
It was then that I realized how lean and tight of a ship ProFantasy must be, which make me appreciate all the more how accommodating Ralf had been. I have no idea how many downloads ProFantasy must have, but it sells internationally, its products have been used to create images and interactive atlases for major publishing houses, and it’s been working this niche for 20 years. And yet, at a time when industry trade shows and vacations had the operation down to a skeleton crew, it seemed that the clumsy fumbling around of one fickle customer was of utmost importance.
The moral of the story
A well-defined product has a well-defined target market. You can’t expect to be all things to all people, or that all people will find it worth their coin even if they do appreciate its capabilities. But how you treat these tire-kickers can still impact your bottom line. Word of mouth matters. Just because a prospect walked away, doesn’t mean they won’t refer others to your door … as long as you’ve left them with a positive last impression.
Image: ACS Industrial Services