There’s no doubt the web and software landscape have changed dramatically in the past 10 years. Not in just how software and services can be delivered, but also from the all important angle of ‘customer service’.

What does customer service have to do with it all?
Alot!

Call it Customer Service. Communication. Community Management. Whatever you call it it is all about communicating with your customers, potential customers and supporters in an ethical and progressive manner.

To deliver software in the old way required huge investment. If budgets allowed, it would involve expensive user research and processes to validate design and development decisions. However, organisations would have to wait until the product was out in the wild to truly know if the results led to success. Complaints, issues and praises would all then be handled ‘behind closed doors’ where the average user would not really have an honest idea of how good or bad the software was.

Now that many business models have flipped and the web has gone truly social, businesses are having to think of different ways to improve the quality of their software and the support they provide.

Embrace change

The truth is that you cannot hide from feedback from your customers. It’s incredibly easy for people to make or break you. Afterall, a review (positive or negative) by someone not directly associated to your organisation is likely to be taken more seriously than something your marketing team carefully crafts. Instead of hiding in the cupboard and dreading what people might or might not say, wouldn’t you rather be at the core of these conversations?

It’s possible if you are prepared to be adaptable, open and… wrong.

It’s a partnership with your customers

Any business knows how much effort goes into gaining a customer. Why on earth would you not want to treat them like treasure once they have signed up?

They are the people using your software day in and day out. If they have a problem with it, then so do you. Developing a strategy to encourage feedback on your product is core to creating a better application.

Customers can report usability issues. Bugs. Feature requests. But you have to make it easy for them. If they don’t know how, they won’t waste their precious time trying to figure it out. It may take a bit of time and effort to get an effective communication platform up and running. It’s not free as it will use up some of your resources, but it is time well invested as the feedback provided can help improve the product across the board – it’s not just about fixing bugs.

Of course, this does not replace and effective software testing approach. Never should the quality of an application rely on customers to report the issues, rather it is should be treated as a separate and complimentary strategy to improving your software.

Use your own software

Some great web success stories exist out there. Businesses who have scratched their own itch. They needed a bit of software to solve their needs, couldn’t find one, so decided to create their own. Basecamp is a well known example of this.

There are great advantages with this approach. Not only do they often have the passion to drive the success of their application, but they are also using their own software. This means the whole team will know the ins and outs of the software. This is great for discovering issues and for understanding your customer needs that little bit better.

Not every organisation can adopt this approach. If you can’t use your software like a real user, why not research your customer base to see how they are using it? Try to understand them better. Or perhaps perform some budget usability tests. “Rocket Surgery Made Easy” is a great book to help you get started.

Become agile

The challenge is not for everyone.

You must be in a position to respond to what your customers want and communicate effectively on individual issues and the general direction you are heading. This requires a consistent and effective communication strategy in addition to agility from you organisation. It doesn’t mean you need to be strictly agile, but having the open mind and ability to adapt to required changes is essential.

Testuff Customer Service and Development in the wild

We wouldn’t talk about this if we didn’t practice what we preach. It is a continuous evolutionary process. Perhaps it sounds a bit cheesy, but something that works one year may not be as effective the next.
What do we do? Writing it makes it sound easy:

  • We respond personally without robotic automated responses.
  • We tell the truth. If there’s a problem, we simply say it.
  • Quick email responses – within hours, in many cases within minutes.
  • Follow up, follow up, follow up. No email left behind.
  • Monthly releases allows us to quickly prioritize requests from customers.

Our website is also a place of communication with users, new or existing. Information there ranges from an online-guide to a status page, to show the availability of our data centers in real-time. As said, nothing to hide.
We also maintain a close eye on what people are saying about our product on the web through reviews, blog posts and the likes of Twitter. Whether the response is positive or negative, we ensure we respond and take action where is necessary.

Does this proactive customer service make a difference?

From experience within Testuff, we have added numerous improvements to our software as a direct result from customer feedback.

For example, our Labels feature was a result of a customer request. Testuff Reports are often created in response to customer demand and much of our integration with other tools, such as bug trackers and automation tools, are added upon demand by customers requests.

We know that requests do not always make a better product. Whilst every request is taken seriously, it doesn’t mean that we will go an implement everything that a customer asks for. There needs to be constant analysis on whether each addition to our service actually makes a better product and fits in with our vision (and again – tell them just that. Don’t give them a “we’ll do our best” if you don’t mean it).

Of course, we have the advantage that our customers are testers and developers, so quite often they do know what they are talking about!