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Idiot Customers
an article by
Al Harberg

On every software newsgroup on the Internet, I read developers' complaints about how a lot of their customers are idiots. What a bummer! I've been blessed. In seventeen years of doing marketing work for software developers, I've never had an idiot customer. I've had some clients who had some misconceptions about what a press release is, or how publicity can help build name recognition and generate sales. I've had people who will never win a prize for clarity of communication. But I've never had to deal with an idiot.

        In the old days, I hear it told, people had to have a decent level of computer knowledge to load and run an application. Children had perfect manners, snowdrifts were deeper, and everybody knew that if the multi-disk archive you were trying to install used version 2.04g or later of PKZIP, you should start unzipping the archive by putting the last disk into the floppy drive first. All computer users were geniuses.

        Today, they let anybody buy a computer, and some of these new computer owners barely know which end of the mouse to plug into the computer. Life has gotten a lot tougher for software developers.

        I believe that you treat people the way you perceive them, and that most people can sense how you feel about them. If you think your customers are a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic, then you'll treat them that way. And they'll know how you feel about them. Your message will be loud and clear. If you think that your customers are particularly bright people, then they'll feel that sentiment too, and respond appropriately.

        Zig Ziglar is a sales trainer who built several successful sales careers. A decade or so ago, he started his own company which markets sales training books and audio cassettes. His work is widely available in book stores, in libraries, and on eBay, and I recommend it highly. He believes that sales skills are learned, and that successful salespeople don't manipulate their prospects.

        Zig tells a great story about rats. It's a true story about a bunch of Psychology 101 students who are required to spend several hours working with graduate students to document how well rats run through a maze. The students are divided into three groups. The first group is told that they have the average rats. There's nothing wrong with average rats. It may take them a while to run through the maze and find the cheese, but that's what average rats do. The second group was told that they had the smart rats. These rats, the students were told, would run through the maze and find the cheese so fast that the students would be amazed. Sure, they'd make some mistakes, but these were some mighty smart rats.

        The third group of students was told that they had the idiot rats. Sure, they'd eventually find the cheese, but they'd bump into the maze walls, and make wrong turns. After all, they're idiot rats.

        At the end of the experiment, each group of students wrote up its findings. The first group wrote a boring report about average rats doing an average job of finding their cheese. The second group wrote with pride about how adept their rats were in negotiating the maze. The third group wrote a sad report about their idiot rats' struggle to find their way through the maze.

        The punch line, of course, is that all three groups of students worked with the same group of rats. You treat rats (and customers) the way you see them, and they respond the way you expect them to respond.

        Is it true that today's software users are less competent than users were a decade ago? I'm not so sure. I did a little dBASE consulting for a local company back in the mid-1980's, and of the eight ways that you can insert a 5-1/4 inch disk into a floppy drive, I guarantee you that they'd had first-hand experience with seven of them. These people weren't idiots. They were inexperienced. Once I'd put a label on each of their floppies, and explained that they had to put their thumb on the label when they inserted the disks, they never had another problem.

        But aren't today's software users a lot less experienced than users used to be? I sure hope so. Because that means that there's an enormous marketing opportunity for somebody who is willing to treat users like valued customers, and not like idiots. If you can find a respectful way to tell users why they have to choose between your .exe and your .zip download files, then you're going to have a competitive edge over your competitor who resents the fact that idiots need to have something that simple explained to them. If you can make people understand why you offer a big download for people who need VB run time files, and a small download for people who don't, you'll have an advantage over your competitor who sees the users' ignorance as a character flaw. And a larger group of less-experienced users means that the entire marketplace is expanding.

        Do you need several different sets of instructions for how to download, install, and use your software? Probably. It would be nice if you had a Quick Start guide for power users, normal documentation for knowledgeable users, and very simple, very detailed, step-by-step instructions for less savvy users. Do you need to include a tutorial (or several tutorials) in your help file? Do you need to beef up your fly-over hints? I think you should do whatever it takes to make these folks comfortable with trying and buying your software.

        Find a friendly, respectful way to show inexperienced prospects how they can benefit by using your programs. Most of your competitors won't take the time. You'll get more direct sales, and more referrals to their friends and colleagues. Friends tell friends about people who treat them nicely.


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