Why indie app developers should care about customer support

Listen to the interview and check out the show notes

When did Bombing Brain get started?
When the iPhone SDK was first announced, Gene and Tim jumped on the idea that they could build their own app and start a business. I had known Gene from high school and we had kept in touch. As they were about to finish it, they had asked me to come on board to do some design work. Before that, the biggest thing you could hope for was to work for one of these giant software companies like Microsoft and Adobe. They were indies out there on the Mac but you couldn’t imagine trying to do that yourself. So they got me involved and I’ve been with them ever since.

What are your main products?
Our biggest product right now is called Teleprompt+, there’s an iPad version, an iPhone version, and a Mac version as well. What it does is turn your iOS device into a teleprompter. We also have another app called Setlists, which is similar but it’s specifically geared towards bands, musicians, and singers who need to keep track of their lyrics and put songs into a particular set and have that broadcast to the whole band when they’re doing a performance.

They will help you sell apps to other people

I saw the video of your talk on customer support at 360iDev and I wanted to understand why do you personally care about customer support?
Customer support is a passion of ours at Bombing Brain in general. We became known at being good at it. It seemed obvious to us that if we’re going to sell this app to people, that we should care about how people viewed us as a company. We want to be proud of it, we want to stand behind our work. When you get a lot of support inquiries, you have the option to blow people off. But if you care about the future of your company in the long term, you really need those customers to become advocates. They really have to become loyal to the company itself and if they see you as someone who stands behind their product, then they will tell their friends. They will help you sell apps to other people. That recommendation from a friend is something that I can’t do. I can’t go out and call every person with an iPhone and convince them that I’m a nice guy, but their best friend can.

We've never had a problem of wondering what comes next for our app because our customers are so willing to tell us exactly what they want

In the early days of the app did you get a lot of customer support requests?
Yes! None of us were professional videographers, so we put in the features we felt would be obvious. But right away our customers were coming back with – “Well, if I am going to use this for my job, I need it to do this or I need it for that” and so it became this laundry list. We’ve never had problem of wondering what comes next for our app because our customers are so willing to tell us exactly what they want.  When customers get the feeling you are listening to them and their needs, it goes a really long way to them recommending you to the next customer.

In the talk you mentioned that you also included a lot of the support within the app. What are the ways you are doing that?
One of the things you have to realize is that when you start getting lots and lots of customers, as a 3 person group you’re not going to be able to handle all the emails coming in. You start coming up with ways you can solve their problems before they get get to the point where they are emailing you. So we added in a lot of documentation – we wrote a users manual and we published that in the iBook store where you can download it for free.

In addition to including the documentation in the app, there’s a help section and it’s got blog articles that we’re writing about the app and all the instructional videos for the app. We try to provide as much guidance as we can so you can get an answer on your own, because I know from personal experience last thing I want to do is contact developer and ask them a question.  Even on our website, we spent a lot of time on documenting everything as much as we can. It’s a great resource if you are the kind of person that is shy or who doesn’t like to go out and talk to strangers and you want to get a quick answer to a question. For common cases, we try to have the answer in the app or on the website.

When did you decide that you should include all of this? It sounds like a fair amount of work.
Yeah, it’s been an amazing amount of work, but it’s has been spread out over the last 3 or 4 years. When we started the app it was amazingly simple. It really was just a thing of text that would scroll and you can add the text and use to speak and revise the font and that was about it. As we added more and more to the app, it gets more complicated. The features get more complicated and that’s when we started realizing we’re getting too many support inquires from people that they don’t understand the app. In some cases you actually go back and fix it in the app and make the UI geared to be understandable. That is the ideal, so people will figure it out on their own without really having to read something, but we also feel very strongly that you need document.

To say all people won't read is a huge misconception

There’s a belief that people don’t read documentation.  Is that what you found with your customers?
I think it’s true that some customers won’t read it no matter what you do, no matter how much documentation you provide and no matter how much effort you put into the app store description. To say all people won’t read is a huge misconception. I think that there a number of people that prefer to read the documentation. The reason why it doesn’t seem that way is because those are the ones that never call you, because they read it and they got their answer and you never hear from them.

Another thing about having the documentation that’s nice is you can refer to it. I think in many cases what happens is people jump to email, hit the support link and write a email. Tim, the main guy who answers the support emails, will write, “Here is the answer to your question about this feature and this is how you do it and by the way, this is all on page 47 of our manual.”, and he’ll show you where the manual is. This is just a little reminder that the manual exists because some people just don’t know that it exists. It’s not their fault, but I think once you get that reminder that there is a manual and then maybe the next time and again, you’ll remember it. We don’t them to have to wait for us to respond to them when they can get the answers themselves in like 10 seconds. It’s just providing another avenue for them to get that information if possible.

Did you notice a dent in the number of requests as you started getting documentation out or did you keep getting a lot of requests?
Yes, but our user base is always growing and the number of requests is always going to grow no matter what you do. But I’d say it’s kind of a hard thing to measure. We certainly didn’t see an immediate drop in requests. It’s not like that would solve all of our support problems and we wouldn’t have to do support anymore. But I still feel very strongly that it’s well worth it. It gives people the sense that they can take you seriously. It gives and inspires confidence to us as a company that you go through the effort to write documentation.

People think that Apple doesn’t document their products. They do and there is actually an iBooks version of the iPad manual to download. Their stuff is documented and it might be short and sweet, because they are making a lot of  the assumptions that these things are very easy to use, which they are. But at the same time they do bother to do it, and I think professional companies tend to.

How does this fit into all the other work that you need to do? How do you decide we’re not going to add in a new feature, we’re going write documentation?
That’s one of the advantages of having 3 of us. In the initial stage, Tim and Gene wrote the Teleprompt+ manual. At one point, I told them to let me take over this, you guys have to go and do bug fixes and other things. For me, it’s an obvious place for me where I could jump in and help the team. As the designer, I tend to be working on the things that they’re going to work on 3 months from now. When there’s a lull, I jump in and work on things like the website or the document. The problem is a lot of the documentation can’t be done til the last stage of the app. As it changes while it’s in development, you don’t want to write it ahead of time and have everything change on you. Plus you need imagery, screenshots and video of the actual app. When it comes to videos that’s a much larger job we have to split, for writing the manuals and things like that, I try to do as much as I can.

With the 3.0 release, are you planning to provide the same amount of documentation that you have in the current version?
That is the goal. Our videos at this point are pretty outdated. We’ve made some changes and added so many features this past year that we never got around to doing new videos for it. So that’s one area we’re lacking a little bit and it’s getting to a point where it can be detrimental if your videos is outdated. It’s telling people to hit a button that doesn’t exist any more.  That’s so much worse than not having a video at all. Now, how much can we get that done by launch is a different story, but we’ll definitely be working on that actively. Hopefully, we’ll get as much as possible. I would like to get the manual updated as well.

The worst thing you can assume is that all of your users are going to have an easy time with your app

Since a lot of people probably don’t have documentation in their apps today, do you have any tips on how they can get started? What or where should they focus?
The number one thing is to have a direct link to your support. I think we, as in the developers, complain about one star reviews. We say why do people treat reviews like they’re customer support. Well, that’s because they think you’re Apple and they think they bought the app from Apple and not you. So they just go back to the page where they bought and it and even though there’s a link that says contact support, they’ll just write a review. Give people a way to get in touch with you privately when they’re mad at you. Most of the time, a bug comes up when you’re on the device, so find a way to help them there. Maybe they’ll go there first before they hit the review button. It’ll build over time and it eventually turns into a pretty full featured section of your app. There’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

The worst thing you can assume is that all of your users are going to have an easy time with your app and not have any trouble at all. That they’re not going to need any guidance. There was a developer on Twitter that said, go into an Apple store and watch people playing with the iPads. You’ll be shocked at what they don’t know how to do. As developers, we all just assume that people know the basics and in many cases, they don’t. I’ve always been a tinkerer, so when I get a new app I just hit every button until I figure out what they all do. But a lot of people are afraid to tap around, they’re afraid of breaking it. So they’ll just stare at the screen for an hour and get angry. There are so many different kinds of users. You can’t make an assumption that an icon is obvious to people or a swipe gesture is obvious. You want things to be fun and discoverable but there’s a frustration to not knowing how to do things and assuming that all people think the same way is really dangerous.

They are trying to find you any way they can

If someone has gone through the documentation and they don’t understand how to do something, how would they get help from you?
Well, there is always the support link and that goes to an email. That’s the best option for us because we use a ticketing system that helps us track it. We try our best to be active on Twitter and Facebook as well. Lately we’ve been getting more more support questions through Facebook and I try to answer them right there. However they came to you, you have to respect that. You can’t get mad at them for going to the wrong place, they’re just looking for help. They are trying to find you any way they can. And a lot of times Facebook is where people are all day long. If they are in Facebook already, they search for you and find you, then they are going to ask the questions right there. If you don’t answer that for weeks you know, that’s make it look like you’re not paying attention. I always tell people, if you’re not going to be actively looking at your Facebook page at least a couple times a week, then you probably shouldn’t have a Facebook page. It makes it look like you are not listening and it’s pretty dangerous.

Difficult customers are actually opportunities

Do you have tips on how to deal with difficult customers?
Difficult customers are actually opportunities, you have to look at it as if this person contacted us because they care about the product and it’s broken. In a lot of cases they have a legitimate gripe, even if they might not be coming at it nice. Usually, that anger though isn’t just because they’re a jerk, it’s coming because they are just really frustrated.

We build an app people use professionally. You’re in a room with an actor you hired and you only have them for a few hours and the app is suddenly acting weird. It’s really frustrating and embarrassing to have your equipment malfunction in front of all those people. So they’re going to react in a very human way. Maybe if they waited an extra day, or a few hours, they may write a nicer email to you. You can’t come back at them with the same anger they threw at you. You’ve got to try to turn that around. We’ve found many times that people will love you if you take their anger and respond to them like a human and help them fix the problem.

Now, that’s not always true and some people are really jerks. Or they just really can’t be pleased. They want your product to be something it’s really not. Or they want you to do something to it that you just don’t really believe in. At some point we just have to agree to disagree and some might even troll you and continue to bug you and continue to harass you and just have to continue to let them have the last word and let them move on. There is a point where you can’t make everybody happy.