We all know the adage about rules: they are made to be broken.  Rules exist to keep behavior consistent.  I don’t mind most rules when they make sense.  It would probably be frustrating if every time you called a company to ask about something, you got a different answer depending on the whims and moods of the managers or workers there.

However, rules are one thing and guidelines are another.  Recently, I’ve been calling a few companies trying to use some gift certificates.  The response has been varied.  The first company was fantastic.  I swear that everyone who works there must be taking happy-friendly pills because they have been a joy to work with.  Company #2 had more rules, but the worker bee that I spoke with decided to go the extra mile and checked with the executive management who were feeling benevolent that day.  Company #3 was a bunch of automatons.  They had similar rules to Company #2, but weren’t willing to go the extra mile.  Directly communicating with management yielded the same rule-bound thinking.  They were putting good will on the back burner.

Offering superior customer service is one thing that keeps people returning to your company.  I remember one particular CAD software company that had a superior product to everything on the market at the time.  Their salesforce, however, was arrogant and hated by their customers.  They lost the opportunity to grow because their customers didn’t want to deal with them.  In my book, Design, Code, Test, Repeat, I tell the story of another company that wanted so much money for their product that one of their customers decided to simply start their own company to compete.

In the software field, customer service, especially for smaller companies is vital.  The problem is that it can suck up vast resources before you know it.  Having your developers answer customer questions will get customers the answers that they need, but has a real drain on development productivity.  In addition, once a customer gets the direct line to a developer who was able to help, they will almost always call that developer back directly the next time they have a question.  This makes customers very happy in the short term – they get their answer.  What they don’t see is that in the long term, they may be helping that same developer work significant overtime to catch up to a schedule or slip the schedule – bad for the customer in the long term.

To help with these issues, establish fair, but flexible rules for dealing with customers.  How much does it hurt to extend a trial license for another week, for example.  Isolate your developers from direct contact, if this becomes an issue by using online forums, or by having customers call a helpline number.  Having a customer liaison, if you can afford one, will eventually make the liaison very knowledgeable (he or she will have to get the answers), but he will then be able to share the information with all customers who have the same problem (and chances are, more than one person will hit the same problem).  A liaison will also provide a more consistent experience for all of your customers – some developers should definitely not be talking to customers directly.

Keep your customers happy and you give your company a shot at repeat business and future or continued prosperity.  It only takes one bad experience to make your customers hate you and look for another place to do business.