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How to minimize your customer base

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

After some good experiences with customer support (thank you in particular Hauppauge on the PVR-150, well done!), I recently experienced some excellent teaching on how to drive customers away, courtesy of Apple iTunes.  Using the a cost-minimizing approach that have evolved from analyst's realizations that every customer costs money, some sophisticated techniques have evolved:

1.  During installation ensure that as many tasks as possible will be left permanently running on the users machine, regardless of whether they are needed or not. (ITunes, iTunes Helper and IPodService for example)

2.  If part of your product or service is to provide data, ensure that is incompatible with most popular applications. In this case ensure that your music format is incomtabible with all popular music players (yes, I do understand about DRM)

3.  Ensure that every trivial step needs internet authorization.

4.  Buy as few servers as possible so that it can take 1-15 minutes for a transaction or authorization.

5. Create fake progress bars that repeat over and over regardless of the transaction or application status, so the users won't know the application is hung.

6. Ensure that if the application is not hung, but access is unresolved when the users exits, the full program stays memory resident and cannot be rerun until the process is terminated in the Windows Task Manager. 

7.  Ensure that direct support is deeply hidden:  First direct the user to an FAQ (which makes sense), but then drive them to a peer-support forum where inexperienced but well-meaning folks cannot solve the issue.  Ensure this forum is populated with sympathetic folks who assume that PCs never work and tell the user buy a Mac.

8.  If the user does find the email support link, ensure no human looks at the email, and provide an automated response to the first recognized keyword, eg, "Hello there" can be responded with, "It looks like you're writing a letter…."  Follow this with links on better letter-writing, and suggestions to read the FAQ and use the support forum.  Ignore any other requests or information.

9.  At the bottom of the response, say, "In the impossible event this redundant information has not solved your issue, please email us and provide the following information."  Ensure that you ask again for all the information the users already provided in their email request.

If you're lucky, the customer should go away at this point and not use up any more valuable corporate resources.

The next step gets funnier.  I emailed them back with the information requested and they responded (honest!!) with "As the previous agent stated; It sounds like the issues is with the computer connecting to the iTunes Music Store when authorizing, which is what the progress bar is indicating it's trying to do. The iTunes Music Store team answers non-technical questions about billing, customer accounts, downloading music, and iTunes Music Store content."  And then suggested I visit the FAQ or the forums.  ROFL! 

But the sort of good news: there was an AppleCare phone number at the bottom of the message, and that did connect me eventually to a fellow who was enthusiastic to help out.  Rather ironically the problem fixed itself in the meantime.  From chatting to the AppleCare guy, it's clear there are two divisions:  the "music" people who provide no technical support whatsoever for their product.  And the "Apple" people who are so keen to support the brand they will try to support a product that is not theirs.  Two extremes in customer care.

So let's take a guess: which division will survive?

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Categories: Technical