Time to read: 11 minutes
You’re just about to launch your first bootstrapped software product. So far, so good.
But you cringe at the thought of providing technical support once your software is sold to a few customers.
You’re afraid that when you launch, a huge number of people might download your software and they might find bugs and then… how are you going to handle the nightmare on your own?
We all suffer from this same fear. We tend to think that the world knows we’re launching something and they’ll be in line to get it. Well, I don’t mean to disappoint you, but that’s not how it works.
You might have clawed your way into being featured on a popular blog soon after you launched. You might have pulled off an incredible marketing campaign yourself and have a list of 1000 people.
Not everyone who reads on a blog about you is going to buy your application. Not everyone who is on your mailing list is going to buy. And not everyone who actually buys is going to contact you.
The chance of you being torn apart by new customers is really low.
So, don’t be afraid to display your contact details. On the contrary, put a huge “Contact me” button on your website and be happy when someone takes a few minutes of their time to talk to you about your product.
Customer service is your biggest selling point
Whenever someone is considering your product over others, they are looking into your support options. That’s because one of the most important questions that they ask themselves is: “What if it doesn’t work?” If your customers rely on the software for completing an important project or task, they want to be reassured that there will be somebody on the other end of the line when they are in trouble.
Following is a real-world example of how important customer support is to customers.
One of the pieces of software we sell, here at BRAIV, is an OpenCart plugin. We’ve got more than 1200 customers already and over 600 comments on our plugin page. Each and every one of the praises we received mentions the superior technical support.
Here are some examples of our customers recommending us because of the service.
First, there is James. I answered a few questions for him and helped him make a few minor tweaks (the code is open, so we do get customization requests all the time):
Then there is Jayson who “doesn’t leave reviews”. I also answered his questions and helped him change a few settings. He wrote one paragraph about the plugin and one paragraph about the help he received:
95% of the people who leave a review have contacted us for one reason or another. They love the software, but the human interaction was what impressed them enough to take the time to leave a comment.
The support you offer depends on your price point
With a low price point ($1–$100) you don’t need to engage in 24/7 support. People will be happy if you just answer their emails. You can start with email based support within 1–3 working days. You can handle the support requests yourself. That’s what we’re doing for our customers and they are happy.
Higher priced software is like luxury goods. You have to offer a service that corresponds to the price. Take my advice on this with a grain of salt, but I think phone support is in order for anything above $1000. If it costs that much, it’s probably complicated or handles sensitive data. Your potential customers will likely have questions before they buy, or they will need help setting up the software.
What channels should you use to provide support? Email, phone, live chat?
Let’s take a look at each one of those.
Email support (Ticketing system)
When it comes to technical support, problems can rarely be solved over the phone. You might need half an hour or even a few to fix a bug. You will need to take a look at the code. Support over email is suitable for this kind of tasks, because it isn’t instant communication.
As long as you’re a single person on the job, any email client will do. But what happens when 2 people log in to the same email account and answer the same request? Or the request never gets a response because everyone thinks someone else is already replying. How about managing 10 different emails from the same person?
It will take some time before you confront these problems, but, eventually, you will need to look into ticketing systems (helpdesks). My advice is to do this at the very beginning, so that you can scale support easily in the future.
The power of a helpdesk system is that it allows you to track your requests over time and manage the cases as separate tickets (tickets are kept in the form of a thread).
Choosing a ticketing system
For the lack of a better example, I’ll tell you about my experience with helpdesks.
Our first helpdesk system of choice three years ago was UserVoice. However, we decided to move from it for several reasons. After looking into different support systems, we liked Zendesk the most. Then we did simple pros/cons lists for both Zendesk and UserVoice. Here’s the gist of it:
- free for one user
- allows you to insert an article from the knowledge base in the email
- includes a knowledge base where you can post self-service content
- you can import tickets from other helpdesk systems
- free analytics with the “Forever free” plan
- the interface (too clumsy and crowded for my taste)
- no ability to see all tickets by a single user (they have since fixed this)
- no ability to merge tickets (they still haven’t fixed this)
UserVoice has much better free analytics than Zendesk’s Starter Plan
- super-clean interface
- powerful “triggers”, which can be activated with different rules
- ability to merge tickets. This is very important, because it becomes a nightmare when the same person sends you 5 emails in a day, all slight variations of the same topic/problem or updates to the same issue
- formatting comments with markdown (I love markdown!)
- inability to import previous tickets from UserVoice into Zendesk (when using the Starter plan). This was the biggest drawback for us.
- limited analytics for the Starter plan
Of course this isn’t a full list of the features of these pieces of software. These are just the things that we paid attention to. Other than that, both UserVoice and Zendesk have all the standard functionality of a helpdesk.
Zendesk’s starter plan is $12 per year per agent (user) and UserVoice’s starter plan is “forever free” for one user.
Things have changed since I originally wrote this post. I recently discovered another support ticketing system–Kayako which has a very cool feature called “Unified conversations”. This is a huge time saver and will make it extremely easy for us to organize things. I’ve been testing Kayako for a while now and there are quite a few things that I love about it.
- Unified conversations. You can move the customer seamlessly from social or chat to email, keeping the conversation in a single thread.
- The interface is very straight-forward
- Lots of customization options
- Amazing support!
- Neat reports
- Ability to organize tickets in folders (really liked that one!)
I have not discovered any significant drawbacks yet. I’m still evaluating but this system looks like it could be worth transitioning to.
All of these support platforms are worth trying out and offer free trials. So, I’d recommend you do your own testing because your mileage might vary.
Live chat support
Live chat can be really handy for pre-sales questions or pointing someone to the correct help article.
On the downside, real-time chat is not suitable for in-depth technical support. Keeping someone on hold while you’re hunting down the problem is not a pleasant experience for you or for the customer. Another disadvantage is that live chat is an interruption for a developer. If you’re working solo, you’ll need to be focused when developing your product.
Phone support can be quite time-consuming and overwhelming for a single person to handle. But a higher priced product means fewer sales, which allows you to spend more time with each customer. That’s why I’d recommend starting with phone support only for expensive and possibly enterprise targeted products.
Talking over the phone with potential customers is also a way to reassure them. If you’re handling sensitive data or asking for a lot of money, trust is a huge factor.
Phone support can also be used for remote desktop help sessions, if your customers can benefit from this kind of technical support.
But before you rush into offering it, think again about your pricing point. Carefully consider if the price you’re charging can justify the time spent supporting the product over the phone.
A lot of the bigger companies have dedicated support accounts on Twitter and Facebook. People are getting help over social media, so it is a thing.
Since social media is about instant communication, you are expected to reply right away. Again, in a single person company, this can be overwhelming and it can eat up your development time (like live chat support).
On the plus side, being able to respond right away to someone who is trying out your demo or has a question about your product is very powerful.
Reducing the time spent on support
1. Create self-service content
Ever since we, at BRAIV, have used a ticketing system, we’ve had FAQs and Knowledge base articles. The impact that these have on the support load is tremendous.
For example, we have a free demo of our OpenCart extension. One of the differences between the demo and the paid extension is that the demo doesn’t have the cart and checkout features, i.e. There is no “Add to cart” button.
Most people read the description and understand that the demo is limited. However, some don’t. And because of that I had to answer the question “Why can’t I see the Add to cart button on my website?” about 3-4 times a day.
To solve the problem, I simply added an article to our Help Center.
My Google Analytics data shows that for the past month 17 people have read that article and I haven’t received that question. This means that I have saved the time to reply to 17 tickets. Even if I had a canned response, even if I just copied and pasted the reply, that would take me some time. Let’s say that it takes approximately 2 minutes. I have saved 17×2=34 minutes this month by having that article alone. Now, I could do something meaningful in half an hour, couldn’t I?
How can you do the same just after launching the product?
- Set up a Knowledge Base. UserVoice and Zendesk have this feature in their starter plans. This is one of the reasons why I recommend having a ticketing system from the very beginning.
- Add a few “How do I…” tutorials to help the onboarding process.
For example, our OpenCart extension comes with an Administration panel. One of the articles that I created at the very beginning was “How to use the Administration panel”. People are pointed to this article right at the end of the installation instructions. I simply describe what does what in the admin panel interface and how the settings will affect their store.
You can do the same for your software. Think about the most common tasks that your users will complete with the software and write a few articles to start with.
- Keep an eye on the questions that people ask and add them to the Knowledge Base. I use the rule of three—“One is an incident, two is coincidence, three is a pattern.” When someone asks the same question for the third time, I add the answer to the Knowledge Base.
- Create an FAQ. We use the FAQ to answer pre-sales questions, because these need quick answers and I can’t be online 8 hours a day (or I don’t want to, because I have other things to concentrate on :)).
So, think about the concerns your potential customers may have—your licensing policy, your support policy and so on.
For example, our customers are much worried about the validity of the license. That’s why one of the questions in the FAQ is: “If I want to install the extension on another domain, do I need a separate license?” Some people get confused, because they don’t realize that “another domain” is not necessarily “a different website” (a different set of files on the server).
2. Listen carefully to the users
When you hear the same question or problem more than once, it’s time to think about a redesign of an existing functionality or for adding new functionality. If you want your product to be successful, you need to build what people want. Unfortunately, it’s not all black and white. Getting user feedback is an art on its own. You need to keep the balance between listening to users and following your vision for the product.
I’ll say no more and let you read the story of how we learned to listen to users the hard way.
Free support or paid support?
We all know that support can’t be truly free. The cost is either built into the product price or is paid afterwards.
In my personal experience people don’t like being charged for support from the very beginning. Sometimes they might need a little bit of hand-holding at first. Sometimes they might even be unable to install the software. Sometimes they call missing features bugs. Instead of “no credit card number, no help” policy, you can offer a limited free service and charge afterwards.
For example, some of our users are not internet savvy and they don’t know what an FTP client is. Some are also afraid that “the extension might break their live store”, which happens sometimes with OpenCart. We address such problems by providing free limited support.
Free support has the benefit that people feel someone is there to help them set up the shiny new thing they just got. We get a lot of amazing reviews from customers to whom I just helped install the software and answered a few questions. Not a lot of effort for me, but the effect is huge.
It’s easy to escalate free support into paid. Since you have already shown your customers great service, you can offer anything that goes beyond your support limits as a paid service. For example, we offer help after an incidental backup restore or another developer error for a fee.
Putting it all together
Here’s how all this works for us and what our support setup is:
- I do technical support for 6 OpenCart extensions(1 best-selling) in 2-3 hours a day.
- We have a Help Center where I add solutions to the most common problems our users face. It’s constantly updated.
- We have an FAQ which answers mostly pre-sales questions. The link to the FAQ is right on the sales page on our website and on the extension page on the http://opencart.com marketplace. I hardly get any pre-sales questions.
- I deal with support only once a day, at the end of the work day. I find this better than having 2 separate support windows. After a certain amount of optimizations to your support structure, you only get the bugs and the strictly specific questions in your inbox. So, I actually have to modify code for most of the requests. It’s technical support. It doesn’t need to be instant communication.
- We use Zendesk as a helpdesk + knowledge base system and are very happy to pay $12/y for it.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. This article is long enough already. If you want to learn even more about supporting your software product, sign up to the free course at the top of this page.