Reducing purchase anxiety is a feature

Talk to anyone outside of the software world, and you’ll quickly realize that one of the most gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing acts is buying software. Even if one has evaluated the product in question top to bottom, past experience of bugs, botched updates, missing features, and outright failures and crashes has tempered any enthusiasm or confidence that might be felt when the time comes to pull out the credit card or write the purchase order.

Of course, the blame for this lies squarely with the software industry itself – the failures in software quality are well known, both discrete instances as well as in aggregate. Those of us whose business and livelihood are tied to the sale of software (whether sent out the door or delivered as a service) must do whatever we can to reverse this zeitgeist.

Given that, we’ve decided to adopt a very simple, no-nonsense “Satisfaction Guaranteed” policy for PDFTextStream. Hopefully this will help take the anxiety out of someone’s day, somewhere.

This isn’t a new idea, of course. Lots of software companies have had guarantees of some sort or another for ages, but I think my first encounter with the concept as a business owner was Joel Spolsky’s post from a couple of years ago:

I think that our customers are nice because they’re not worried. They’re not worried because we have a ridiculously liberal return policy: “We don’t want your money if you’re not amazingly happy.”

Joel raised the issue again on a recent StackOverflow podcast, which prompted me to think about our own approach…

What do we do about unhappy customers?

To be honest, our customers are pretty happy. Of course, we occasionally receive a bug report, but we generally knock out patches within a couple of days, and sometimes faster. In the 5 years we’ve been selling PDFTextStream, we’ve never had a single request for a refund. Part of that is offering up a very liberal evaluation version, but I’d like to think it’s because what we sell does the job it’s meant to do very well.

Given that, I’ve never thought to make a big stink about a refund policy – it just never came up. But hearing Joel and Jeff talk about the ire that they felt towards various companies that refused to issue refunds when they weren’t happy with something motivated me to make our de facto policy explicit. Thus, the new “Satisfaction Guaranteed” statement.

Part II: the Open Source Influence

An elephant in the room is the influence of open source software on customers’ attitudes towards buying software, and the assessment of risk that goes along with it. As more and more users of technology (just to spread the net as widely as possible) are exposed and become accustomed to the value associated with open source software (which, in simple terms, is generally high because of its zero or near-zero price), it increases pressure on commercial vendors (like us) to up our game along the same vector.

But, the impact of open source software on pricing is a pretty stale story. The real impact is derivative, in that a zero or near-zero price means that the apparent risk associated with using open source software is zero or near-zero. The promise of proprietary, commercial software is that, if it does what the vendor claims (whatever that is), then that software will deliver benefits far in excess of its cost and far in excess of the aggregate benefit provided by the open source alternatives, even given the price differential.

The problem is that a lot of people only turn towards commercial options as a last resort because of the aforementioned historical failures of the software industry vis á vis quality: the apparent risk of commercial options is higher than that associated with open source options, simply because the latter’s super-low price is a psychological antidote to any anxiety about quality issues. So, there’s flight towards low-priced options, rather than a thorough search for optimal solutions. Injecting an explicit guarantee of performance and reliability (like our new “Satisfaction Guarantee”) might be enough to tip the relative apparent risk in favor of the commercial option – or, at the very least, minimize the imbalance so that it’s more likely that price won’t dominate other factors (which are potentially more relevant to overall benefits).

Of course, this can only work if one’s product is actually better than the open source alternatives, and by a good stretch to boot so as to compensate for the price differential. In any case, it’s a win-win for the formerly-anxious software user and buyer: they should feel like they have more choice overall, and therefore have a better chance of discovering and adopting the best solution for any given problem, regardless of software licenses and distribution models.

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