This started off as a rant against Intuit. This is a company that seemingly revels in generating angry customers. Every year when they update TurboTax, they do something to piss of their customer base.
With Web 2.0, whatever that is, these transgressions are always right out there in the open. When are these companies going to figure that out?
When I first looked on Amazon, TurboTax Deluxe Federal + State + eFile 2008 had 450 reviews. 157 – more than one-third – were one-star reviews, which is as bad as you can get. More one-star than five-star, even though most people consider this the best tax software available. And what makes it even worse is that Intuit managed to erase a TON of negative reviews by essentially changing their SKU and resetting the review count at Amazon.
Why are people so angry at Intuit this year? Because they decided that raising the price and nickle-diming customers wasn’t enough – their brilliant MBAs thought they could extract even more from their customers, so they restricted TurboTax to printing only a single tax return. I’d like to meet the brilliant strategist who thought that up.
Pricing should be based on what the market will bear, not based on how much the product costs you to make. But you also have to be fair to your customers, especially if they are repeat customers, which is typically true for TurboTax. If your customers don’t think you like and respect them, they will desert in droves as quickly as possible as soon as a viable competitor comes along. Don’t believe me? I’ve seen it happen. Consumer franchises are always fragile.
When Micropro shipped WordStar, we didn’t yet have the Internet or big-box stores. People bought software from small local stores or from the company direct. Some companies thought the stores had an obligation to support the software, since they had such large margins (typically 40% in those days). In theory this is reasonable, but in practice it was absurd. Even the most stubborn managers quickly realized that stores weren’t supporting their software. So the smart guys – WordPerfect – made customer care (not just support) a primary business differentiator. And MicroPro, which had been the dominant word processor, continued to tell customers to go to their dealers for support.
First MultiMate, and then WordPerfect took over WordStar’s #1 slot pretty fast. MultiMate also quickly lost their dominant position, because the product was so bad (I managed it for a short time when I worked at Ashton-Tate, and it was the worst software I ever worked on). But WordPerfect stayed #1 until Windows shipped. Microsoft’s utter conviction in the future of Windows played the decisive role in making Word the eventual winner in this category. While we were scratching our heads about whether to support Windows or OS/2, MS worked feverishly to develop and promote Word for Windows.
(By the way, could it be that this was the biggest finesse ever in computer industry? Is it possible that Microsoft never intended to support OS/2 at all, but pretended to so everyone else would waste massive amounts of money and effort on OS/2 instead of on Windows? Interesting thought.)
I was reminded of this today by a “conversation” I had with Bevmo. Every time I use their website, I’m aggravated by how truly awful it is. I could recite a list of problems, but there’s really no point, and here’s why: when I sent them a customer feedback form, they cleverly told me how I “really” should be using their website. Pahleeze. I’ve been doing websites since 1995! I wasn’t asking for no stinkin instructions, I was using a Web 2.0 tool (there we go again) to start a conversation with the store about how they could improve their website. And I wasn’t even going to charge them for this advice!
OK, I know that if I got to talk to the CEO of Bevmo, I would probably have gotten a more reasoned response. But CEOs listen up: unless you’re answering the phones and emails, you’d better make sure that there’s a robust and reliable feedback loop from customers to management and developers!!!! Hey, I wrote some feedback about Zoho products and I heard from their CEO. I had problems with some postings on Craig’s List, and I heard from Craig himself. And at Bevmo, somebody told me I was too stoopid to use their site. I ask you: who’s stupid, and who’s smart?
Just to close on a note of personal branding, which is the primary topic of this site, the same lessons pertain to us as individuals. You’ve got to listen, not just talk. We have better tools than ever before for doing this – if you’re looking for a job and you’re on a success team, that’s your primary feedback loop. You’d better listen and fine tune your efforts, or you’ll end up like WordStar did. If you’re writing a blog to help in your effort to become a subject matter expert, seek out and act on the suggestions of your readers. Make sure you come back from in-person networking meetings where you learned as much from others as you offered them about yourself!