This post came off as pretty critical of MarketCircle, and that really wasn’t my point. I wanted to use a bad experience I had with MarketCircle to illustrate a general principle, not to poke at any particular company. I did that poorly in this particular piece; for some follow-up on that see this post which I wrote later that day, analyzing how and why this piece so spectacularly failed to accomplish my desired goals.
In any case, I do not want this piece to turn people off of using MarketCircle’s software. I leave the unedited version below because I believe in having the intellectual integrity to own one’s mistakes. This was one of mine.
The quickest way to make me bid your company or product farewell is to patronize me. Don’t talk down to me. Never treat me like anything but an adult. The moment you do, I am gone.
A story: When I started working as a freelance software developer on the side a few years ago,1 I looked at my options for tracking time and invoicing clients. I eventually settled on Billings, by MarketCircle. It’s solid software: it is reliable, works well, and does everything I need it to, including tracking different clients and projects easily and sending them estimates or invoices. Best of all, from my perspective, it was a local app. You could sync with a server out in the cloud somewhere via Billings Pro, but you did not have to, and you could use the Mac-native application, not some web app out there. Last but not least, it had a great menubar app. I was sold, and I gladly dropped $40 for a single-user license.
Fast forward to June 2013. MarketCircle, like a lot of software development companies, came to the conclusion that it is really hard to develop software as a series of discrete releases, for which you get people to pay over and over again. Perfectly sensibly, they discontinued development on and support for their standalone software and provided a (discounted!) migration path for users to upgrade to the Pro (syncing, etc.) version of the software. Note that they did not do anything to disable functionality in existing Billings installations—just provided an upgrade path and stopped developing it. That is the right way to handle it. So far so good.
I am a software developer, and I have seen the pressures that exist in this industry. This move made good business sense to me, and I liked Billings as a product. I was quite willing to look at their Pro plan, and possibly even to invest in it, despite the fact that I did not need it, because I believe in supporting the developers of the software I use.
I emailed them a couple follow-up questions. One of them, and among the most important to me because of how I work for one particular client:
I note that in Billings Pro, unlike in Billings, I can’t track multiple slips simultaneously. This is problematic for me, as I often do this to keep track of hours worked against a “Personal projects” bit so I can see my hourly variations. That’s a make-or-break kind of thing for me—any chance you guys will change that behavior?
To elaborate: I like to track my total hours worked every week in a simple way, so I have a “Personal” timer going alongside the project timer for whatever I am doing. The fact that Billings let me do this was one of the selling points for me. Even so, I did not necessarily expect them to support the functionality going forward. The response I got started out reasonably enough:
We allow you to have multiple active timers, but you can only time one task at a time in both applications. In Billings, there was a bug with this, however, this was corrected in Billings Pro.
Thus far, fair enough: they saw this as a bug. I disagreed, but I understand.
Then this, though:
While we all multi-task we cannot work on two billable items at once.
Whoops. You just talked down to me.
You also clearly didn’t read the original email, because you followed up by asking this:
Can you explain a little more about what you track and how and I can see if there’s a different way to do this in Billings Pro that will give you the same result?
Hmm. Let me get this straight: I told you what I track and how I use your software, and you thought the appropriate response was to instruct me on what I can and cannot do with it? Clearly not having even read the original question carefully?
Let me explain: you don’t tell your customers that they can’t use your software in ways peculiar to them. You particularly do not do so as though explaining to a child that we simply cannot do certain things. If a user has a quirky way of using your software, you can of course say you don’t intend to support that quirky behavior—but you do not get to tell them that their unanticipated usage is wrong, and especially not in a condescending tone
I cancelled my Billings Pro trial within five minutes of receiving that email. The original software I kept: I was at a busy time in the year, switching time- tracking software is non-trivial, and it wasn’t hurting me a bit to keep using the original software anyway. As I am evaluating time tracking software again, not least because I do not know through how many OS X upgrades Billings will continue to perform properly, MarketCircle isn’t on the list. It only took one bad experience to leave a bad taste in my mouth and convince me to move on.
At this point, it looks like I’m headed to Harvest. It turns out they don’t support multiple timers, either. But they haven’t talked down to me, and that makes all the difference in the world.
There is a takeaway here for anyone paying attention. Namely: respect your customers. Do not talk down to them. Do not assume their uses for your software are wrong, or stupid, even if they are not what you intended. (If anything, that means your users have thought of use cases you didn’t.)
It is going to far to say that the customer is always right. Sometimes, the customer is wrong. Sometimes, I am wrong as a customer. But the customer is always someone to respect. The moment you stop treating your customer with respect is the moment you cross the line into being a company with which I want to do business to one I will avoid.
Edit and Addendum
When I posted this on App.net, a few thoughtful acquaintances pushed back, noting that the customer service interactions did not read as condescending to them. It is possible that I misread the original customer service rep’s tone in interacting in me. This is a constant danger in dealing with text-only communication. I take some responsibility for that—but I also note that the frustration had already built up in the course of a conversation that had already included a number of failures to respond to address or respond to my questions and concerns.
I should also note that I didn’t mean this as a critique of MarketCircle in particular, though re-reading the post in light of the response, it is clear it comes off more that way than I intended. My interactions with MarketCircle were meant simply to illustrate the broader point: customer service matters, and even one bad customer experience can turn off a customer.
But the takeaway from this addendum is a bit different: I can sympathize with the difficulties facing the customer service rep. I failed at precisely the same task of communicating my intent in writing effectively. Now, whether that rep meant it the way I took it or the way others took it in reading the post, he certainly did not accomplish what he meant to with the exchange. My sympathies are with him. I am perfectly willing (though not perhaps happy; humility is rarely particularly pleasant) to say that I got it wrong here.
All that being said… I still have a bad taste in my mouth, and I am still leery of doing further business with MarketCircle. And that does make the original point in a way, because the emotional response from a bad experience, even one you did not intend, doesn’t fade quickly or at all, even in the face of reasonable articulations of alternative explanations for the bad experience. You have to work at a good customer experience continually.
MarketCircle actually saw this piece—presumably via my link on Twitter—and got back to me, looking to fix this issue, which I really appreciated. In some sense, then, they are doing exactly what I advocated in this piece.
Early 2010, if you’re curious.↩