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Staying In Touch

October 30th, 2010

Update: I originally cited the content of a customer’s email in this post, and although I didn’t reveal her identity, I don’t think this was appropriate or particularly constructive.

Mea culpa.

In the future I will never cite the contents of a customer’s private email, no matter how anonymously, unless they have expressly permitted me to do so.

I have edited the post to remove the contents of our correspondence with each other. I am leaving the post because I still think it expresses some interesting ideas.

Continuing the recent trend of posts about, essentially, “just doing it,” the purpose of this post is to underscore the wisdom of staying in touch with customers, while acknowledging that doing so brings its own challenges.

Since I established my own web store a few years ago, I have collected the emails of customers who buy my software and, for those who leave the pre-checked option selected, subscribe them to a company newsletter for infrequent announcements:

MailingListCheckbox.png

Infrequently is the operative word here. In more than three years I’ve neglected to send even one email to these folks. This is a problem, because permitting me to contact them set up the expectation that I would. When major releases such as MarsEdit 3 have come out, some people don’t find out until months later, and tend to be annoyed that they haven’t heard about it directly from me.

Yesterday, I finally got around to setting up a mailing list with Campaign Monitor, drafting a simple plain-text letter, and pressing the send button. I finally broke the ice.

For those of you who are not on the mailing list, here’s what I said:

News From Red Sweater Software

Hello from Red Sweater! This is Daniel Jalkut, its founder and, for now, its only employee.

When you purchased one of my products, you agreed to receive infrequent email updates that keep you up to do date with my latest products. Since that time you have received approximately zero emails! I sort of dropped the ball on direct communication, but I’m working to rectify that now.

Messages will still be infrequent and hopefully pertinent, but if you are no longer interested in receiving updates about Red Sweater, just visit this link to unsubscribe:

(unsubscribe link)

On to the news: what’s happening at Red Sweater?

1. MarsEdit 3 Released

Earlier this year I released a major update to MarsEdit, our desktop blog editing application. MarsEdit now sports a rich text “WYSIWYG” editor, support for WordPress pages, and a media browser that integrates with iPhoto, Aperture, and Lightroom. Read more about MarsEdit 3 on the web:

http://www.red-sweater.com/marsedit/new3.html

If you don’t already own MarsEdit 3 you can purchase it for $39.95, or update from a previous version for $14.95:

https://www.red-sweater.com/store/

2. iPhone and iPad Releases?

People often ask about my plans to release applications for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. It’s easy enough to convey my intentions, but a bit harder to make specific promises. I am very excited about building iPhone and iPad versions of my apps, especially MarsEdit and Black Ink. I have made significant progress on these apps but there is still fine-tuning that needs to be done before I’ll be prepared to release them publicly.

3. The Mac App Store

You may have heard the news that Apple is planning to launch a Mac version of the App Store, which will give Mac users the ability to easily browse, purchase, and install applications in a similar manner to the way it works for iPhones and iPads. I’m hoping to get most or all of my apps into the catalog so I can reach an even wider audience of users. The good news for you, my existing customers? More customers will hopefully lead to more revenue, which means more resources and impetus to continue adding great features to the applications you already love.

4. Keeping In Touch

As I said earlier, I am resolving to do a better job keeping in touch. Next time a major update like MarsEdit 3 is released, you’ll hear about it before 6 months have passed! But if you want to proactively stay tuned in on an even finer level, there are some resources available to help you monitor our progress:

Email support. You can contact Red Sweater with whatever’s on your mind, be it a bug report, feature request, or just to say hi.
Address: support@red-sweater.com

Red Sweater Blog. The official company blog is my platform for providing a combination of company news and business-related thoughts and analysis.
Link: http://www.red-sweater.com/blog

Twitter accounts. For short, conversational style updates I maintain a personal account, a company account, and a special account just for MarsEdit:
Link: http://twitter.com/danielpunkass
Link: http://twitter.com/redsweater
Link: http://twitter.com/marsedit

5. Thank You

I want to close by thanking you for your business. I have been working on Red Sweater for over 10 years now, and in the past few years it has reached a level of success that supports myself, my wife, and my son. This is so unfathomable to me that I can only assume the sky is the limit! Let’s keep working together: your feedback and support combined with my desire to build great products should lead to many more years of successful results.

Daniel Jalkut
Founder, Red Sweater Software

To unsubscribe from this email list, just visit this link:

(unsubscribe link)

Delivery Confirmation

Campaign Monitor made the mass delivery painless for me. Thanks to their sophisticated tools, I know a day later that the vast majority of recipients received the letter, and only a small percentage have unsubscribed. Out of the thousands (wow!) of messages that were sent:

97.1% appear to be delivered
2.9% bounced
1.48% unsubscribed after receiving
1 reported it as spam (1 person, not percent – can’t win them all!)

This kind of feedback is great, but nothing compared to the direct responses I got from customers. The semi-personal tone of my letter inspired customers to respond in kind with heartfelt support and encouragement.

I received dozens of responses, ranging from the brief, enthusiastic “Word!” to longer, philosophical letters about small business, following one’s dreams, and the meaning of work in life.

Then, early this morning, I received this:

[EDITED: In retrospect, I do not believe it was appropriate for me to share the content of a customer’s email here, even if information about her identity was removed.]

An upset or merely irritated customer always calls for a cautious response. The last thing I want is to escalate the situation. But this response is particular challenging, due to the number of provocative facets:

  1. The customer is not pleased by the email I sent.
  2. The customer is using a sarcastic, admonishing tone.
  3. The customer projects a lack of respect by omitting proper punctuation and sentence structure.
  4. The customer’s core criticisms are vague and subjective, making it hard for me to evaluate whether an apology or correction is called for.

These facets sort of multiply with each other and make it difficult not to respond defensively. My first reaction is to shout something into my email client like “What the hell?! Most people like a little humanity in a company, and furthermore, I did enumerate benefits where appropriate, and the content of this letter addresses the most common questions I have received over the past few months. And … and … who pissed in your Wheaties, anyway?

Instead I take a deep breath, vent a little to my friends on IRC, and respond:

[EDITED: As with the content of the email from the customer, I don’t believe it is appropriate for me to include the content of my response.]

I then proceeded to vent on Twitter about the response. I wasn’t particularly looking for comfort, but was glad to receive supportive responses from people who agreed there was cause to feel irritated by the customer’s tone. A sample of the dozens of reactions:

“That’s the kind of thing, when said in person, earns someone a kick in the teeth.” — @dssstrkl

“That guy is a jerk. Keep your personality in your work. if he doesn’t like it, let him use products from huge faceless corps” — @scottaw

“Personally, I couldn’t live with myself without adding a note about their tone. Why encourage an asshole.” — @mrgan

“Screw that guy. He’s just jealous that your Indie endeavors are successful enough to support you and your family. Good on ya!” — @fonix

“He presumes to speak for all your customers, co-opting “us.” He does not. Bravo on your measured and thoughtful response.” — @artgillespie

“That guy replied as if you were trying to sell him something. Your letter was more like a ‘state of the union’ communication.” — @morrick

Many of the responses refer to the customer as “him,” while none of them refer to “her.” In fact, this customer is either a woman, or a man with a very feminine name. Apropos of not much, but it’s interesting that we tend to assume somebody who is “being a jerk” is a man. I would have made the same assumption.

Do I feel a little disingenuous about responding to the customer politely and without indication of my annoyance, while essentially glorifying her message behind her back on Twitter and now here? Yes. This is not really my style, and I don’t think it’s very classy of me to share the private message of a customer, even if I am preserving her anonymity.

But, I think this experience is instructive both to customers and other small-business owners. And since I already vented on Twitter and essentially let the cat out of the bag, I thought I might as well go all the way.

Staying In Touch

What does it mean to stay in touch? It means building and preserving a relationship with customers. The stronger the relationship, the greater the empathy for the other’s circumstance. But as with other relationships, the increase in communication and contact leads to an increased risk of misunderstanding and offense.

My letter served a valuable purpose. It let my customers know that I’m thinking about them, that the checkbox they vaguely remember leaving selected wasn’t pointless. That I do have plans for the company and for the products they purchased, and that I am interested in turning a new leaf with regard to communicating directly with them.

The challenging customer and my reaction to her has also been helpful. It reminds me of the related importance of “staying in touch” with my own values and priorities. Over the course of Red Sweater’s growth, I have used a very rules-based approach to how I handle just about everything. Running my own business means biting my tongue and doing “the right thing” even when the instinct in my animal brain wants to do the opposite. This is true for coding habits, fiscal responsibility, and yes, customer support habits. A variety of informal rules help to keep me in line.

As I have gained confidence in my own decisions, I find myself more prepared to break these rules. I suppose that pragmatism slowly takes over. When I first started out, I informed my decisions by asking “what would a good business do?” Then I learned to admire other Mac software companies such as Bare Bones, Rogue Amoeba, Panic, and Omni, and asked myself “what would they do?” I still defer often to the wisdom of others, but sometimes I have the distinct pleasure of asking myself “What would I do?” and acting on it. Staying in touch with myself is as important as staying in touch with my customers.

22 Responses to “Staying In Touch”

  1. Reed Says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience and insight Daniel. It is fantastic to see a company (regardless of size) put so much thought and consideration into its communication.

  2. TheShamanMarketer Says:

    Thanks for the laugh, Daniel!

    I’ve had to deal WAY to much with that sort of people before I “dropped out”. Folks who have had too little business of their own and visited way too many “success trainings” and business seminars. They have learned that marketing communications should pretend to be all about customer benefits, may that mean lies or not. And now they think they need to lecture you… jeez.

    I am a paying user of MarsEdit (more pay than use actually, but thats ok), I liked the style of your unexpected email, and I can only encourage you to keep the personal note NOT out of your business and your “professional communication”.

    Target group marketing also means “negative target group marketing”: clearly defining the sort of jerks (male or whatever, who cares) you do NOT want to serve. And yep, there are people out there who care about who is behind the software they are using, not just the “benefits”.

    cheers and keep up the great work!
    Martin AKA “TheShamanMarketer”

  3. Mike Cohen Says:

    Jeez – who pissed in his coffee? It’ll get really fun when you start seeing reviews in the Mac App Store. “This isn’t Microsoft Word so I’m giving it one star”.

    I love MarsEdit and I was happy to receive that email.

  4. Miraz Jordan Says:

    As a user of Mars Edit I already know what the software can do for me and my business. It does it multiple times per day. I enjoyed your readable and interesting email. I like the warm and personal tone.

    I suspect your annoyed emailer was having a bad day. I think you handled it well.

  5. Doug Adams Says:

    You handled the situation great. Never engage to enrage. I similarly have to deal with a wide-variety of Viewer Mail. It’s part of the job. And, FWIW, I like the personal touch in your newsletter.

  6. The Plaid Cow Says:

    1. The sender was correct—there wasn’t a value proposition related to the email.

    2. The sender cares about you getting it right the next time. More than I did—I just deleted the email as useless.

    3. What was the purpose of the email? What was the reader supposed to know (or do) after reading it? Besides the note about MarsEdit 3 (months late), what other concrete information was included?

    4. “You can contact Red Sweater with whatever’s on your mind…”, but be warned that any private communications may be posted on my blog to be made fun of.

    4a. The sender has likely already found this post and is already seething.

    5. If you don’t understand the questions raised in the email, ask the send what they mean. He cared enough to send it.

  7. Jaddie Dodd Says:

    I appreciate your recent email and hope to receive such email from you more often.

    Try not to spend your energy on assholes.

  8. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    @The Plaid Cow:

    Points taken. As I said in the post I don’t consider that I handled this ideally, but it leaked into the public (by my own fault, yes), and this post documents that.

    What was the point of the email? As you noted, to let people know about MarsEdit 3. Also to let customers know…

    • …that the mailing list they enrolled in actually exists.
    • …where I stand with iOS and the Mac App Store.
    • …about a variety of communication channels that are available.

    Your comments make it clear that none of this information was useful to you, but I’m not sure why are you so convinced it wasn’t useful to others. These issues come up in a large number of inquiries I receive from customers.

    You are right that I could have engaged the sender more carefully before venting about it publicly. The tone of their response got the better of me.

  9. daiyami Says:

    Worth explicitly noting as a contributing factor—the email is very “I…I…I”. You don’t mention debating whether you wanted to write as “I Daniel Jalkut” or as “We Red Sweater”, but my sense is that communications from businesses often tend to pick “We” even when it’s a one-person shop (I thought I had seen someone, maybe Second Gear, address this a long while back). So that does stand out, and I bet if you sent the same email using “We released…” and “Red Sweater plans…”, the tone projected would be very different, even including all the same personal info.

    That said, I first saw the customer’s email via twitter and on reading this post now, am surprised by how NOT personal the marketing email was. The customer does have a small point about “what value does this email bring to me?” Right now the answer is basically “news”, and I’d count all 3 things you just posted as “news”. I’d agree that news is a widely valued commodity among people who use indie Mac software, but you might look for a way to expand the value of communications beyond just “news”. Tips about little-known features, coupons, etc.

  10. dvb Says:

    All very interesting!

    True, the e-mailling was somewhat, not entirely, content free, but the letter itself acknowledged that it was just to break the ice on the whole “updates” idea.

    Me, I always like to hear from you. And not *only* because I’ve known you for, well, you know, a while. Hearing from the personality behind products is nice. Part of this Modern Age I’d even hazard.

    This is a shot in the dark, a blind speculation, but I wonder if, crassly and generally speaking, men have had more practice at — and less risk from — enjoying a modest continuum between business and socializing.

    At any rate, pray continue the good work!

  11. Matty_P Says:

    I think dvb makes a really good point. Daniel seems to consider himself a “personality”; someone famous in the Mac Indie community. And for that, we are supposed to feel “special” because he takes some time to communicate with us “regular” people?

    Lose the attitude Daniel and I sincerely recommend that you stop posting customer’s emails to your blog. I am embarrassed for you.

  12. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    @Matty_P:

    I am embarrassed as well, and I’ve edited the post to omit the content of the customer’s email. Thanks to you and others such as @The Plaid Cow who helped stir the right thought processes in my mind to understand what a mistake this was.

    As for me considering myself some kind of personality who expects people to feel “special” for communicating with them, you couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s a nice theory, but it doesn’t sound anything like the me that I know.

  13. Patrick Burleson Says:

    @Matty_P

    That is by far the furthest I could think of Daniel. He may be a well known Indie developer with well known products, but he doesn’t reflect that in person. I’ve seen him at conferences talking to anyone and everyone. I spent a hour at a bar with him and Manton discussing kids and being indie.

    Was I intimidated to initially walk up to him because I know he’s well known? Sure, but that’s my own problem to overcome. It’s not a feeling radiating out from him that he shouldn’t be approached because he’s “famous”.

  14. Riccardo Mori Says:

    I am among those who liked Daniel’s communication exactly because It felt much more ‘human-made’ than other companies’ newsletters. To those who have criticised it for not ‘bringing value’: isn’t it a bit depressing that today everything has to have some degree of usefulness to be accepted or appreciated? The man is trying to build some form of communication with his customers, for Pete’s sake, and he’s doing it with a personal touch, or at least trying to find and set a tone. Daniel is explicitly stating that in the letter: “I sort of dropped the ball on direct communication, but I’m working to rectify that now.”

    I follow Daniel on Twitter and I’m usually updated with what’s happening regarding Red Sweater products, but maybe not every Red Sweater customer does the same and so the letter Daniel sent can actually be of use to somebody. So there’s the value.

    And for me there’s great value in the gesture itself — communication. Or at least a human attempt at establishing one. Much better than a lot of newsletters from other companies that end up being completely empty with their sad ‘rehashed press release’ tones. The kind of communications that do not communicate at all and usually result in my unsubscribing or in their landing in my spam folder.

    Keep up the great work, and don’t listen to the voices :)
    Cheers,
    Rick

  15. Lee Says:

    A fairly small percentage of the population are assholes. Ignore them. If it isn’t you they are ranting about it’s someone else. If you ever get an email like this again, just delete. As U2 put to song “And don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

  16. Jeff Barbose Says:

    Daniel,

    When you said “It’s worth adding that nothing in my “polite” response was untrue.”

    You’re putting a rather fine point on things.

    I like to surround myself with people who naturally live in the spirit of the law and consider the letter of the law something there only to resort to when everything else fails.

    I think that’s how most of us Mac developers have always operated, and a reason why we are Mac developers and what comes through in the fit and finish, spit and polish of Mac applications. The same applies to iOS developers who come from that world, as well as, it appears, a good number of iOS developers who have begun to realize that we Mac developers haven’t been bullshitting about this high level of good will and ethic.

    Your response to this guy wasn’t anything in spirit OR letter like the support you gave me when I was trashed extraordinarily publicly (the sh*theads got their “column about Mac tech” up on the Macsurfers.com) because, like you, I was one of the “Landed Gentry of Macintosh Developers™” :) They don’t deserve any more of a reference than that; they feed on that stuff.

    I’m not saying you should have attacked this person, obviously, because I’ve just gotten done saying that’s not you.

    But more than almost anyone I can think of, you have a gift for being both disarming and candid. Often at the same time.

    This person who wrote to you has all the hallmarks of our Unlanded friends who don’t speak for a group, they count on the being the unaccountability of such claims. The tone isn’t sarcastic, it’s so earnest that it’s smug and superior and O So Right.

    The email wasn’t specific to the email sent out, other than being a trigger, an excuse, the appearance of a valid reason to make wildly spastic insults all over the map and cover himself by calling it all a map.

    Keep candid, Daniel, please, but do it in that way seem to magically do that drives point home instead of just bouncing off. That’s a gift.

    Matty_P, please take this in the spirit in which it’s intended: informational. Daniel *IS* well known in the Mac Indie community. One of the best known. It’s a fact. Accept it.

    Another fact: no one’s asking you to feel special about anything or anyone, and if you feel put on, or inferior, or find yourself with feelings that you can find a good place for, that’s your own issue for bristling at the well-earned and well-deserved success of another person.

    And here’s one bit of perspective for you: Daniel posts earnestly and humbly—I believe, from everything I know about him—that he’s amazed he’s able to do something he loves and support his family by doing it. And what are you doing? Visiting HIS website, co-opting HIS comments, trying to psych-101 him, and trying to knock him down as many pegs as you possibly can.

    Let me put on the Red Sweater for a moment: work hard, believe in yourself, put your energies into your own dreams, your own work. Don’t be afraid of succeeding entirely.

    Matty_P, did you respect any of that? Make you giggle? Believe it at all?

    Daniel’s been saying stuff like that wherever he sees people struggling or whenever he’s asked for his advice.

    Compare that to the advice YOU just gave.

  17. Matty_P Says:

    Jeff,

    What have I done? Like Daniel, I also once worked at Apple (dev on the Xcode team no less). Daniel went too far by publishing a customer’s email (and he did the right thing by taking it down and apologizing). He realizes he went too far.

    I don’t know Daniel personally so all I can go on is his blog and his Twitter feed. It is my personal opinion, which I believe I am entitled to, that Daniel comes across as aloof and conceited on his feed. If that isn’t the way he is in real life so be it, but again, he should realize that a percentage of his customers *do* follow him and that it reflects upon his person as well as his company.

    I appreciate the lecture Jeff. Now I’ll crawl back into the hole you painted for me.

    Matt

  18. Jeff Barbose Says:

    Matty_P,
    I didn’t address anything you said but this:

    “I think dvb makes a really good point. Daniel seems to consider himself a “personality”; someone famous in the Mac Indie community. And for that, we are supposed to feel “special” because he takes some time to communicate with us “regular” people?

    Lose the attitude Daniel and I sincerely recommend that you stop posting customer’s emails to your blog. I am embarrassed for you.

    I didn’t say you weren’t entitled to your opinion.
    I didn’t even know your opinion on Daniel posting that person’s email.

    I couldn’t fathom how you could intepret Daniel and his public utterances and articles and appearances as conceited, much less “aloof”, until you said this:

    I appreciate the lecture Jeff. Now I’ll crawl back into the hole you painted for me.

    to me.

    I don’t have the energy to go chasing after all that misdirection, and this thread’s already for the wear for my participation in it.

    Apologies to Daniel.

  19. Kevin Walzer Says:

    Daniel,

    I understand it’s easy to let bad/snarky responses from customers get under your skin, but I don’t believe you owed that customer an apology for the tone of your e-mail/newsletter communication. You have the ability to communicate with your customers, and he/she has the ability to unsubscribe from your newsletter. Be polite, be professional, but be yourself. It’s one of the foundations of running your own business, and you can’t put a price on it.

    –Kevin

  20. Victoria Wang Says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Just wanted to say, I admire your ability to change your mind on something and make a public apology about it :). It’s hard to do, and there some people who can’t seem to do it at all.

    Also, I appreciate that you mentioned the gender of the customer with the critical feedback; it’s an interesting point. I’m amused that even in your blog comments, people continue to refer to her as “him.”

    Hibari’s website and my interactions with customers have been largely inspired by your ideas on keeping your personality in your business (e.g. your interview with Dan Wood), and so far it has been absolutely the right decision.

  21. DDA Says:

    “Apropos of not much, but it’s interesting that we tend to assume somebody who is “being a jerk” is a man. I would have made the same assumption.”

    I find this one of the most interesting things about this post.

    I can see why someone might be upset (or at least confused) over the email; the description of the checkbox is, “Only the biggest news” yet the real news in the email was, “I’m going to be communicating more!” While this might well be big news from Daniel’s point of view, for most customers, it probably isn’t.

    It didn’t really bother me, personally, though.

  22. Mike Says:

    Nice read dude. Thanks for sharing this with us all..

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