Product Support or Process Support?

By Jerry Weinstock
CRM Innovation, LLC

CRM Innovation builds solutions that enhance the functionality of Microsoft Dynamics CRM (Customer Relationship Management). Like all aspiring entrepreneurs I wanted to create a company where we could write great applications that required little or no support and that would sell themselves online while we slept. So now back to reality and the actual question at hand – How to provide an appropriate and relevant level of application support without going broke.

Support for our current products

First a little bit of background to help position and personalize the dilemma. The first several products, AutoNumber, InLine Help,  we created for the Microsoft CRM application to extend its functionality required them to be installed on the customers’ Windows Server where CRM is running. Try as we might we haven’t been able to test internally all the different combinations and permutations of client environments, in particular it seems that the degree that Windows Server 2008 is locked down the more challenging it became. Therefore we would invariably get a support call to assist in the installation process as errors were being thrown. Not typically an issue as they are usually resolved in less than 30 minutes with a screen share. Generally we receive few calls after the initial support call except for those that were inquiring about functions that were generally not well described or we missed in our documentation. In summary most of the questions if not all are product support based since the applications’ are entirely self-contained applications that run within the CRM application.

Subsequently, we released a product which is a Software+Services application that lets a non-technical person create a form for their website to push data directly into their CRM system. Web2CRM then took us one step removed from the CRM application. Now we had a hosted application that connected with the company’s CRM server to retrieve website visitor form information and push data into CRM. So we eliminated the installation issues since it is a hosted application but do get some questions about getting a new account setup and sometimes what are the right credentials to enter into our system so it can access the client’s CRM system. Almost without exception if we had more details in our documentation we would eliminate most of these calls.

The support challenge – our upcoming product

The product we are about to release takes us out now two steps – Data2CRM is a visually intuitive import and migration manager S+S solution to get data into Microsoft CRM from other data files (CSV, Access, SQL) or transfer data out of a to-be-discontinued CRM system into MS CRM. Our application will now connect to two different systems – the customer’s source data files and their CRM system. We are stuck in the middle.

Support is complex

If you have read this far then you are ready to help out with the question at hand – How to provide appropriate support for Data2CRM. The objective is to differentiate between ‘product support’ and ‘process support’. The goal is to handle the product functionality issues differently than the import process issues and perhaps position/price the support types differently.  Since the product will be fairly intuitive (validated by our focus groups) any issues will likely be related to difficulties in importing actual data. In other words separating ‘product’ from ‘process’ will be more difficult to do than our other products where we provide free unlimited email and phone support as necessary.

The support team will need to be prepared to handle data-source related problems such as server/database connections via SQL or ODBC,  data transformations and submission rules. Users will likely ask for assistance with connection problems that are outside the scope of Data2CRM itself. We may end up being asked to essentially ‘teach’ users on how to do a import themselves.

Our audience

We are focused to selling through a channel of Microsoft CRM Partners and as a consequence should be very knowledgeable about the CRM product and likely have used similar products to ours to import data. However, end users may purchase directly from us or also use the product themselves even though they bought it from through their partner who might have provided guidance initially for its first time use.

Support costs impact product pricing

Possible ways to proceed -

  1. Without free support and charge for everything?
  2. Include 1 free incident and charge for everything after that?
  3. Attempt to differentiate between product and process support and charge for the later? How do we define the difference?
  4. Provide free weekly open webinars with training and Q&A and then charge for direct assistance after that?
  5. Charge differently for partners vs. end users?

When we do this how do we consistently differentiate between product and process support? Is there is some test script the user has to run first and if it fails then the error is on their end and support is chargeable?

How can we escalate questions to paid support when the same person is going to answer the question – i.e. for that issue I cannot talk to you for free you will have to pay to continue the conversation?

How do we do this and still remain customer friendly?

How do we not over price our product by budgeting for free support that we really shouldn’t be giving away?

Our plan

The questions and possibilities I posed in the previous section are questions every microISV has to ask and answer for themselves on Product Support vs Process Support. The approach we will test when we open it up the product for beta testing to our partner is to provide weekly, free, open one hour webinars for partners and end users. We will also include one free product support question and charge for process support questions that are customer environment specific. We haven’t worked up the litmus test question to define Process Support. That is a challenge yet to be overcome.

What’s your plan?

———-

My name is Jerry Weinstock, Business Development Manager and founder of CRM Innovation in Lenexa, Kansas. We are a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner for the Dynamics CRM and build solutions that enhance it’s functionality.

The MicroISV Digest

The MicroISV Digest for the week ending August 10th, 2009.

(If you have an announcement of interest to your fellow microISV, indies or startups, please email me at bob.walsh@47hats.com with the word digest in the subject.)

News and Announcements

  • Pamela Slim, Escape from Cubicle Nation, will be holding a day-long seminar on just how to break the chains that are keeping you in your soul-destroying corporate bondage and finally take the plunge to start your own company August 28th in San Francisco. Pam is an extraordinary coach and the person you need in your life if you are stuck where you don’t want to be. Highly recommended. Details/costs here.
  • Join Dave Collins, SharewarePromotions and I for a hour-long Web Site Critique Webinar August 26 at at 5:00 PM UK time (Noon Eastern, 11am Central, 10 am Pacific). Dave and I will fold, bend and mutilate your web site – all to help you improve it and gain more customers.
  • Dave Cholerton, Arten Science, have released version 1.8 of their bulk emailing software for Windows and Mac OSX. R10BatchMail now supports multiple email attachments and name merge capability.(via email)
  • Anthony Williams, Just Software Solutions Ltd., have released the Linux port of their just::thread C++0x thread library. This library is an implementation of the multithreading portion of the upcoming C++0x standard, and is now available for gcc 4.3 on Linux as well as Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 on Windows. (via email)
  • You know your software is successful when other people start making software to complement yours. Enrico Berti, Napkee Labs, has released Napkee – which takes mockups created in Balsamiq Mockups and renders them to to HTML/CSS/JS and Adobe Flex 3 in one click. Awesome! Kudos to Peldi Guilizzoni, founder of Balsamiq for helping another startup founder make it.
  • Kurt Huber, Accounting ASAP, has just launched its new web-based accounting set of applications for small business. Accounting ASAP is designed be as simple to use as possible, yet still handle most accounting tasks needed by small business, such as Accounts Receivable (Invoices and Receipts), Accounts Payable (Purchases and Payments), General Ledger and Financial Reports. (via email)

Relevant Blog Posts, Podcasts, Videos and Articles

  • One of my favorite must-RSS sites is back from Limbo: Richard Buggy has reanimated Planet-MicroISV, a blog aggregation site for all good things microISV.
  • Jeff Atwood over at Coding Horror has come up with one hell of a good post you should read: Software Pricing: Are We Doing It Wrong? Jeff argues that low software prices like that for the iPhone are force multipliers far more powerful than most software vendors realize.
  • Speaking of Escape from Cubicle Nation and Pamela Slim, Pam interviewed me for her Escape from Cubicle Nation Podcast this week: I think we covered several good topics for startups and microISVs.

Further (mostly relevant) Reading

  • And finally, in the public interest, or at least the interest of everyone reading MicroISV Digest who spends far too many hours at a keyboard, take a moment and read this Business of Software thread: A Developer with Neck and Back Pain. Besides the real experiences of some of us, you’ll find several very good links to resources for avoiding career-ending neck, hands and back issues. They are real and if you’re a developer the sooner you take them seriously, the less pain you will feel.

Of interest for .NET microISVs/Startups…

If you are interested in getting some quality time and support for your startup or microISV .NET app, check out the upcoming Microsoft BizSpark Incubation Week for Windows 7, to be held at Microsoft Technology Center, Reston, VA Monday 8/24/2009 to Friday 8/28/2009. This event is ½ day of training, 3 ½ days of active prototype/development time, and a final day for packaging/finishing and reporting out to a panel of judges for various prizes.

This event is a no-fee event (you pay your own travel expenses) and each team can bring 3 participants (1 business and 1-2 technical).

To nominate your team please contact Sanjay.Jain@Microsoft.com or Ashish.Jaiman@Microsoft.com. More info here.

Is Twitter the Spawn of the Devil?

If you judged by the reaction of some microISVs, absolutely. But Twitter is neither the Spawn of the Devil or a magic wand once waved producing millions of dollars. It’s a new communication medium, and like blogging did it will take some time before the naysayers stop grumbling and the spam artists move on.

That said, we live in a society being hugely changed by each major new innovation on the net. Anyone care to argue that Google, e-commerce or blogging is a waste of time and productivity?

New medium – new opportunities; probably more opportunities to do it wrong than right. But that applies to everything.

The point I’ve made repeatedly – and will keep making – is that Twitter used right will help your startup or microISV engage directly with more current and prospective customers. This is A Good Thing. For all the issues Twitter has (it’s down as I write this), it’s still the early days for this medium; a good time for nimble businessowners (that’s you) to get going with it before the broad mainstream does.

I and Kristen Nicole wrote The Twitter Survival Guide because in our judgment a little solid information, perspective and insight makes all the difference when making room in your business operations for a new tool. I certainly would not mind if you bought and read it, but if you sell software, it is time to get on this one way or another.

Here’s a few pointers – especially for existing microISVs  – about adopting Twitter.

  • Start with three accounts. Three? Yes, three: one is your personal non-customer facing account where you chat, interact, flirt, rail against and generally converse with other people. The second is your CEO twitter account (whether your company has 1 employee or 100). Use this account to respond to customer complaints, provide tech support, help people who have the problem your product solves. Lastly, you product has a twitter account, and tweets about new releases, bug fixes, blog posts of interest, etc., and is mainly a RSS+ feed if you will.
  • Twitter Search is your friend. It will find the people who are talking about your product, concerned with the problem domain it addresses (whether that’s running an agricultural co-op or improving worker satisfaction or any other imaginable thing), people who just might do business with you if they knew you existed. Define and save and regularly revisit your Twitter searches, or find a service that will do this for you.
  • Birds sing in the morning. Unless you want to drive yourself crazy, you already have regular times in the day when you check and process voicemail and email. Adding Twitter to those same periods works surprisingly well because you’re already in “communication mode” and squeezing in a few DMs and RTs (direct messages and retweeting tweets of value) is easy while on hold returning a call.
  • Find a Twitter client that works for you, but watch for new tools. I now use Tweetie for the Mac and iPhone – they work great for me. But new Twitter tools, services and products are coming out daily: once a month do a “best Twitter client +[your OS] search just to stay in the loop.
  • Find the right mix of Twitter topics to tweet, retweet and follow for your online brand. In the same way you should be focusing your company’s blog, focus your company’s micro-blog. This is particularly important once you hit the Dunbar Limit of people you follow: there’s no way to comfortably absorb all the tweets that will appear in your personal Twitter timeline. You need to focus.
  • Don’t market at people, talk with people. Whether it’s pointing out a good movie (personal), steering a prospective customer to the right tool for what they want – be it yours or a competitor’s, add value to the conversation. By all means share with them about the things you’re passionate about, but listen to what they’re saying too.

Dismissing Twitter as a waste of time, useless and something you as a microISV can safely ignore is the easy way out: like most things, it all depends on how you go about it.

The MicroISV Digest

The MicroISV Digest for the week ending August 3rd, 2009.

(If you have an announcement of interest to your fellow microISV, indies or startups, please email me at bob.walsh@47hats.com with the word digest in the subject.)

News and Announcements

  • Jake Liddell, FourPDF, has launched his URL to PDF service. I ran this site’s home page through it and was amazed at how accurate the rendered PDF looked. Instant brochure! Jake is looking for feedback on his site and his business model. (via BOS)
  • Steve Cholerton, Arten Science, have released Version 3 of R10Cipher, of their cross-platform, comprehensive file and text encryption product. Version 3 adds numerous enhancements, key management and 384 bit encryption. Available for Mac, Windows and Linux. (via email)
  • Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson, Climbing Mind Ltd., has launched Version 1 of ThoughtMuse, an online mindmapping tool. Thomas is looking for feedback on his site and service. (via email and BOS)
  • Alex, Jitbit Software, has released a new version of Jitbit CRM, a lightweight, cost-effective ASP.NET-based CRM. (via email)
  • In show #31 of the Startup Success Podcast I talk to Jay Cincotta and Kendall Miller about their launch of Gibraltar Software. Jay and Kendall explain how they came to decide to do a startup, how their using Twitter to publicize it, finding companies to partner with and more.

Relevant Blog Posts, Videos and Articles

Further (mostly relevant) Reading

  • Here’s an interesting statistic: Of the 30 entrepreneurs profiled for the 2008 Inc Top 30 Under 30, 18 have personal or business Twitter accounts and 19 host personal or corporate blogs. Check out Greg Rollett’s post, How Gen-Y Startups Use Social Media to Shatter the Status Quo. If you’re still not convinced that Gen-Y’s approach to the net is different from that of those of us who can still remember a pre-Internet world, give a listen to the BBC’s Peter Day’s World of Business podcast this week on how Gen Y is driving corporate training towards Social Media: Learning Curve.

The juggling act: Building an ISV on top of a client business

By Ka Wai Cheung,
We Are Mammoth

I work at a small web shop. We do work for clients. Six guys in a wide-open room building microsites, web sites, and rich applications for big agencies and startup clients.

We’re also a small ISV. We’ve built two web products for public release: a data-modeling platform for Flash and Flex developers called X2O (www.x2oframework.com), and a web-based issue tracking tool called DoneDone (www.getdonedone.com).

Since launching both of these apps in the past year, we’ve had to do some in-house juggling – support our grassroots ISV business while maintaining our client work. In the meantime, we’ve stumbled upon some great lessons and observations from the trenches.

Here’s how we got our own products out the door and started making money while our client business thrives more now than ever.

Build products that’ll help your business right now

It’s hard to justify building apps that might not actually make a dime for months and months when there are clients willing to pay for your services right now. So, hedge your bets. Build products that help your business now. That’s reason enough to build a product anyways. Looking at it in reverse, if you’re already building internal apps for your own business, why can’t you turn it into a product?

We built X2O to get rid of the tedious nuances of building database-driven Flash and Flex applications for our clients. Instead of building database schemas, SQL queries, server-side code, web services, and client-side data parsers by hand for every client project, we wrote code generators to handle that for us. After a few months using it internally, we decided to wrap all of those generators up and built a web client on top of it, and – voila! A product was made. X2O was a product we needed anyway. The months we spent on it were helping us build apps for clients much faster.

The same thing was true for DoneDone. We paid $120 a month for a web-based issue tracking tool that flat out sucked. A horrible UI, too many dropdown boxes and filters, and not enough direction. We searched for other tools and they all did too much. So, I started to write my own, with our own rules and unique focus. In three months, we were using it to track our own bugs. Two months later, we threw a billing component behind it and started selling subscriptions to other similarly-jaded companies.

Building apps you’ll use anyways takes the pressure off. I worked on DoneDone for weeks at a time while the other five focused on client projects. If DoneDone weren’t something we could use right away, the pressure would really be on. If this app doesn’t succeed, what’s to become of me???

Avoid the “pet project” syndrome

Client projects are rarely completed on-time. But pet projects are never completed…period. If you’re serious about building a microISV, better treat your product as part of a client project and not just a pet project. There’s a chance in hell that it might actually get out the door. If you build tools that you need anyways, make them a natural part of your client work.

It also helps maintain momentum. Deadlines don’t have to be arbitrary. With X2O, we added big features (like a CMS generator) and small tweaks (like support for non-western languages) when we needed them for our clients. The due dates for X2O fell in line with due dates for other client deliverables.

Bonus? Your testing infrastructure is already set up. There’s something tangible to test your product against. The hypothetical get answered right away. If we were actually using this bug tracker…wait, we are actually using the bug tracker!

Pet projects don’t have the same sense of urgency that client projects do. Make your products as much a part of your client work and you’ll notice a huge difference.

Be the good client to your own products

There’s an interesting psychological switch that happens when you start building your own products after years of building products for someone else. You’re thrust into the role of being your own client. When should we launch? Can we launch without A, B, and C? Can we just add this one little piece? It can’t be that hard, can’t it? Suddenly, you become that client – the one that keeps you awake at night is now staring you directly in the mirror.

Be the good client. Don’t get caught up in the weedy details and focus on what makes the app better, not what makes everyone in your room happy. Do it to get your product up and running faster. It may just be a refreshing new way to work as well.

Decisions in groups of three

We don’t have big roundtable discussions for our apps. We don’t need a dozen opinions. If one of us wants to add email-to-ticket support to DoneDone, or RSS feeds for our issues, we decide what to do right now.

We found that decisions should be made in a group of three. We debate for 20 minutes and take a vote. Majority wins. Usually, we’re unanimous by the end of a debate. And, if three people think it’s a good idea, it’s likely that four, or five, or six people will to.

We have to make decisions quickly because there’s other work to do.

Let your apps rest

You should always rest a steak when it comes off the grill. Cut it open too quickly and all the juices flow out. Once it gets tough there’s no going back.

The same is true for your product once you’ve launched. Early on with DoneDone, we kept tweaking it. Slightly new iterations would pop up on an almost-daily basis. There’s a tendency to finagle too much with your own products because, well, they’re yours. Stop working on your app constantly. When you’ve gone live, making constant iterations (especially interface tweaks and functional additions) can hurt the user experience. Even if a new version is better, it’s unnerving to have things change so soon. Let users get used to what’s there before you adjust it again. It’ll give them a chance to tell you what really needs to be fixed.

As an added reason, there’s other client work to keep us occupied – work that’s generating revenue right now. If products were the only thing we worked on, then we probably would feel the itch to add new features to them constantly. In a way, having client work still be the focus of our business makes our products mature better.

So, if you’ve been thinking about dabbling into products, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. In fact, it very well may enhance your client business, not hamper it.

Now, what happens as your product grows its customer base and you need to start adding support? Price it just right and the amount of effort you expend on it will be worth the increased time you need to devote to it. It just becomes a bigger client of yours.

Oh, and how do you price software just right? I’ll leave that question to someone else.

————-

My name is Ka Wai Cheung. I’m a partner at We Are Mammoth in Chicago. We build rich data-driven web apps for clients of all flavors. I’m also a designer/programmer, avid blogger, and co-author of the book Flash Application Design Solutions.

Allow me to introduce myself…

It’s been a while since I’ve explained who I (Bob Walsh) am and what I do regarding microISVs and startups and it seems this blog has picked up a lot more readers recently, so here goes. Please feel free to skip this post!

1. You’re reading my blog 47hats where you’ll find hundreds of posts on topics that concern microISVs and startups by myself and others. If your startup/MicroISV is launching, releasing a major update or making a special offer, please let me know by emailing me at bob.walsh@47hats.com and I’ll probably include it in next week’s MicroISV Digest.

2. Have a listen to the Startup Success Podcast – interviews with successful startups and companies doing interesting things for startups. Please contact me if your startup relates to others or you’d like to help other startups by talking with myself and my cohost, Pat Foley about your startup’s experience to date.

3. The Web Startup Success Guide just came out – just about everything an aspiring web software company founder needs to know. What you’ll learn:
• How to define the value your web app will deliver to its users
• Evangelizing your startup via social media—from Twitter to Facebook, from YouTube to your own social network
• Which web app pricing strategies work, and which don’t
• What alternatives to traditional business structures will let you launch and run your startup without all the legal mumbo–jumbo
• What services and web apps exist today to help your startup succeed
• How to get meaningful online press for your web app

Plus, interviews with David Allen (Getting Things Done), Rafe Needleman (CNET), Marshall Kirkpatrick (ReadWriteWeb), Guy Kawasaki (Garage Technology Ventures), Dharmesh Shah (OnStartups, HubSpot), Joel Spolsky (Fog Creek Software), Eric Sink (SourceGear), Pamela Slim (Escape from Cubicle Nation), and 40 other people who can help your startup succeed.

4. If you’re microISV is built around a desktop application, you might want to read my book, Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality. While it’s a few years old it’s still the best single source of information for the aspiring MicroISV desktop software founder.

5. Join the conversation of your peers at the Joel On Software Business of Software forum. I and my fellow co-moderators work make sure you have a spam-free, high-quality forum to discuss the gambit of issues facing small and not so small software companies.

6. Purchase and read my ebook ($19) on what microISVs need to know to improve their web sites, MicroISV Sites that Sell!.

7. Want to know more about getting started with Twitter for your microISV or startup or yourself? Check out The Twitter Survival Guide. Tools, interviews, insight and more by myself and leading news blogger Kristen Nicole.

8. If you don’t have a blog for your microISV or startup, my book, Clear Blogging: How People Blogging Are Changing the World and How You Can Join Them will show you the value and get you started.

9. I provide consulting services to startups and microISVs including web site copywriting, market positioning, social media and product strategies. See http://www.47hats.com/consulting-services/ for details.

10. In August StartupToDo.com (a training/productivity community for startups and microISVs) will launch. Be Successful Faster.

The MicroISV Digest

The MicroISV Digest for the week ending July 27th, 2009.

(If you have an announcement of interest to your fellow microISV, indies or startups, please email me at bob.walsh@47hats.com with the word digest in the subject.)

News and Announcements

Relevant Blog Posts, Videos and Articles

Further (mostly relevant) Reading

What’s in the book, Bob?

A lot – if you’re an experienced developer ready to stop working for other people and start working for yourself. Below is a PDF of the Table of Contents to give you a more specific idea of what’s in The Web Startup Success Guide:

(If you don’t see a PDF above this line, please let me know!)

Joel Spolsky on The Web Startup Success Guide

twssg(Note: Joel Spolsky, CEO of Fog Creek Software, Joel on Software and the Joel on Software Business of Software forum and co-Founder of Stack Overflow was kind enough to write the foreward for The Web Startup Success Guide.)

Last summer, Paul Graham invited me to stop by his place in Cambridge for an intimate dinner. Just him, his wife, and the founders of three dozen extremely young startups in the Y Combinator program, a bootcamp/incubator/angel investment thingy.

“Would you be willing to speak to these founders about, I don’t know, maybe pricing?” Paul asked me.

“Sure!” I said, and he whistled loudly to get everyone to quiet down.

I didn’t really have a speech prepared. There was no PowerPoint outline I could use as a crutch.

The room was jam packed. All eyes were on me. I didn’t know what I was going to say.

I thought I’d try a gambit.

“So…” I said. “Any questions?”

Ten hands shot up.

“Go ahead,” I said, pointing to a kid in the front row who, I imagine, had just gotten his braces off the week before.

And for almost two hours straight, these poor kids asked me the most basic questions imaginable about the business of startups. Pricing. Features. Marketing. Invoicing. They had so many questions.

I gave them as good a brain dump as I could on each topic. They sat raptly and asked intelligent follow up questions.

These were smart kids, mind you: usually top Computer Science graduates and plenty of experienced programmers. But for all their coding skills, they didn’t really know the first thing about make a business successful.

Which is OK. They’ll learn. It’s not that hard. The hardest part is realizing that even though you’re making an Internet company, writing the code and getting it to work is only a small part of the effort, and not necessarily the most critical one. The business side is just as crucial.

There’s a lot you’re going to need to learn to make your startup awesome. And this book that you hold in your hands, this very book, is a splendid introduction to the topic. Heck, I’ve been running Fog Creek for nine years now; I think I know a thing or two about a thing or two, and I learned something new on every page.

Every single page.

Yes, even that page with the interview of me.

This book is a fantastic resource for anyone doing a web startup or a software startup. Bob Walsh will teach you how to make your startup successful. Buy it, read it, put it under your pillow. Then buy copies for your cofounders. And go out there and nail it with a killer startup that makes the world a better place.

Joel Spolsky
CEO, Fog Creek Software