I’ve found that the absolute best and easiest way to keep our customers happy is to provide them with a product that follow three very simple rules: solve one of their real problems, make it as easy as possible to learn and use, and make sure it works as expected. That’s it! Three very simple rules by which to run almost any business. What’s amazing is how often these three simple rules but incredibly powerful rules are so often overlooked.
To be a success, you don’t need to have the end all be all widget, no one expects a coffee maker to also be a stove, microwave, etc. Most people will be extremely happy with a coffee maker that is easy to operate and makes great coffee consistently. Of course I suspect some of you are already saying a coffee maker that makes coffee for you in the morning while you sleep is better than one that doesn’t. Yes, of course, assuming it FIRST follows the three main rules, it’s easy to setup and use and it makes great coffee every morning, without failure. If you fail in any of the three rules, then I would strongly suggest that you first fix them before you proceed to add new features such as automatically making coffee in the morning.
Why? Well let me ask you this, how long will a coffee maker that is combersome and/or complicated that makes ok coffee most mornings last on the market? I don’t think it will be long before this coffee machine is a thing of the past.
These rules are not rocket science. They are common sense rules that really work, as you can see with our success with LandlordMax Property Management Software. We are continually adding new features and functionality, but only after we have confirmed that they obey to the three golden rules: it solves our customers needs, it’s easy to use, and it works every time. For the last step, we do substantial internal testing, then we pass the product on to our beta versions where it is sent to our beta group of customers. It’s only after it has passed all these steps that we finally proceed to release a new version. We do our absolute best to make sure that everything works the first time it goes out the door.
Going back to the rules, the first and easiest rule, find a problem that needs solving. How many businesses have created a product that doesn’t really help the customer? Or what about products that solve one problem but cause another? Or my favorite, what about products that solve a problem, but only work some of the time (those are the most frustrating for me personally because its like being dangled a carrot in front of your nose). So the first thing you need to do to start a successful business is to find something that needs solving, something that will make someone’s life easier and save them time. Don’t create something that will require more effort than the current system, or that’s more complicated. Find a solution that is easy and works all the time. You don’t necessarily need an original idea, what you need is to find a problem that is not correctly addressed today.
For example, how many of you have a change jar? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a machine that rolled your coins for you? I hate having to sort them all out and take the time to roll them all up, so I wait until I absolutely have to, making it even that much more arduous. Now what if there was a machine to do this for you? Well there is, more than one machine. Since I’m not a bank, I can’t afford a premium machine that costs a lot of money and can roll enormous amounts of coins in no time. I just need a simple cost effective solution that’s easy to use (dump the coins in the machine and gets the rolled coins out), and that works every time (doesn’t get jammed every 5 minutes with coins, or that the coins are not correctly sorted and my penny rolls have dimes in them, etc.). I haven’t been able to find such a machine, they all have their problems, or they cost an arm and a leg. I’m sure if someone came up with a cost effective solution to do this chore, it would sell well, and this is definitely not a new and innovative idea!
Let’s take another example, property management software. My company, LandlordMax Property Management Software helps landlord’s and property manager’s (and property management companies) run their real estate portfolios, which if you have more than one rental property, you will quickly understand the need for some kind of property management system. Is there really a benefit for the user to use software versus paper and pencil? There most definitely is, otherwise my company wouldn’t be around today. What we offer to our customers is a way to enter in information about your properties, tenants, etc. Although that’s nice, that’s not the real benefit. The real benefit is that we can quickly sort through all that data for them in very meaningful ways in seconds. Whereas on paper they would have to sort through reams of papers, we can generate reports for them in seconds. We can give them information on their cash flow, how much profit they’re making, when their leases are up, which tenant lives where, who owes what, etc. Our benefit to our customers is that all their information is available to them in seconds, sorted based on their specific needs at the time.
Of course we don’t only offer this, we offer many other features as well, such as amortization table calculations, etc. to help with their other tasks, however, if we didn’t have the reporting capabilities I just mentioned, and our customers needed to sift through all of their data on the different screens, then our solution would only solve a small part of their problem, and it wouldn’t be a good solution. Would it be enough to purchase the software? Maybe, maybe not, but with reporting on almost everything at the tip of a finger, that’s definitely something our customers really value.
Now that’s only part of the value. What if entering the data was difficult or hard to understand? What if navigating through the software was painful? What if generating a report was painful? What if entering a tenant or accounting entry was difficult? Then the value of the reporting quickly drops. Not only do you need to solve a problem, you need to make it easy to solve. I myself wouldn’t be interesting in a property management software that was difficult to use. It would quickly lose its appeal in no time at all. You not only need to solve the problem, but you also need to solve it in a way that is easy for your customers to use.
So let’s assume that you’ve figured out a problem that needs solving, how should you go about attacking the problem? Well first you should design an interface to your solution, be it a coffee maker, a software program, a car, etc. Your interface should be as easy to use as possible. Generally, if you require a user manual to use it, then it’s too complicated. If you have to explain it to someone else who is not familiar with the product, then it’s also too complicated. The last thing I want to do when I buy a new television is be forced to read through a full user manual with detailed step by step instructions just to turn it on. When I get home from the store, I want to watch my television right away, I don’t want to have to spend an hour configuring the channels, the time, the menus, etc. I just want to hook up the cable in the back and turn on the power, that’s it. Well at least that’s it at first, being a geek and all, I’ll eventually want to dig into the cool features and play with them, but for the first little bit I just want to test drive it. Think of it as a car, I don’t want to assemble the engine when I buy it, I just want to turn the key and drive off the lot with my brand new car. I don’t have the time, and especially not the inclination, to learn and read on the intricacies of every item I purchase, I don’t know anyone who does. I just want to be able to use it as quickly and as painless as possible.
This is my simple wish, it’s not very complicated, but it’s amazing how many products don’t, or won’t, do this. How difficult would it be to highlight with another color in some way the main buttons I’ll need to play a DVD movie? There’s only a few buttons, power, eject, play, stop. Everything else is an extra feature (which is great, I like extra features, but not everyone needs or even uses them), so let’s make sure these buttons stand out some way for the non-expert users, so that I can quickly and easily find them. I would love to be able to put in my dvd movie and press play. I don’t necessarily want to muck around with the audio settings, etc., I just want to play a movie.
There will of course be some more advanced users (who will probably range greatly in skill) who will want to fine tune everything, and this functionality should be available if possible for them (again, assuming the three rules are upheld), but it shouldn’t hamper the 90% of the population that is not interested. Why would I want to annoy 90% of my customers to make 10% happy, when that 10% is very comfortable looking for advance features anyways, and wouldn’t be annoyed if the options are a little more difficult to find (for example a button that is not highlighted).
Let’s look at it another way, how many of you know the intricacies of a car? I mean do you really know how to fine tune your car? Everyone knows how to turn on a car. The next level could be a user whole likes a manual transmission over an automatic transmission, so that they have better control of how the car changes gear. It’s a great feature to provide, but we don’t want to force everyone to drive a manual car. What about a reverse direction? Yes, we should provide that for everyone in an ease to use manner. We don’t want to make it a tricky button that you have to find and press that is located in the glove box, and that will work some of the time. You want it to be at an intuitive location (the gear box), that requires only one step (shifting the gear handle to reverse). You can continue this analogy to the stereo in the car. Most people will want one, even though it’s not required to drive. If you have a radio, you need to have at least the basic features highlighted, such as changing the channel or the sound volume. I think everyone can perform these two tasks on a radio, but what about changing the time, or changing the bass volume, etc. That’s probably a little harder, requiring more expertise. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just as easy to do as change the volume?
In our product, LandlordMax Property Management Software, for every feature we add, we spend the time to analyze how we can make it easier for our customers. Many companies just add news features, whatever that feature is, to their products only giving its customers a quick glance at how to make them easier. Considering that most products, well at least most software products, are built by engineers that are comfortable in complexity, this can mean that many features become daunting for the average person. This is not saying that engineers are smarter, rather I’m simply saying that they are used to dealing with cumbersome interfaces and they have therefore learnt how to deal with them. This is not something I wish to make my customers do. I wouldn’t want to do that myself. If I make a cup of coffee, I don’t want to spend an hour or two just trying to figure out how to make a cup of coffee, I have other things to do with my time.
If I can give my customer the first option of driving an automatic car, with a manual transmission as a secondary option, then I will do it. Why should everyone HAVE to learn manual? There’s just simply no need. So I will provide the option, but set the default to automatic, even if it costs our company a little more initially. I’ll do this because I believe that in the long term the benefits will far outweigh the costs. Although some cars are sold with manual transmissions only (mostly sports cars), the vast majority are sold with automatic transmissions as a default option. Actually, other than sports cars, I don’t think there is any car manufacturer out there that has it’s manual transmission version selling more than its automatic version.
I can tell you that at LandlordMax, we often get emails from customers, or even prospective customers, saying how easy the software is. We are excited every time we hear this! It means that for every person that tells us this, at least 100+ think it and don’t say it. This means that we are achieving our goal. By doing this, we’ve just drastically lowered our customer’s barrier to entry. That is they are much more likely to buy our product because they can use it right away! And more importantly, we’re very much more likely to help them solve their problems.
Once you’ve figured out how to make your product as easy as possible for your customers, you must absolutely focus on making it unbreakable. There’s nothing that frustrates me more than when a product you just bought with your hard earned money breaks! I don’t know of anyone that likes this, do you? Although it’s impossible to make everything unbreakable, you should try your absolute best to release your product in the market without any known issues. Of course no product can ever be 100% perfect, but you should have ironed out all the issues you knew about. I understand that it’s not always economical to do this, but push this limit as much as you possibly can, because the cost of frustrated customers is very very expensive. It can take an enormous amount of energy to create a happy customer that will spread the news about your product to others, but it can only takes a second of carelessness to have a customer spread negative feedback about your company. Keep your customers happy by giving them a great product.
Let’s take a look at another example. Let’s say you build a race car, the easiest race car in the world. It’s fast, it’s responsive, it looks great, it’s pretty much everything you wanted. You get out there, and suddenly after a day of driving, you start to encounter problems with the engine. What impression does that leave you of the car? Are you likely to recommend the car to someone? Are you likely to buy another? What about a smaller and more affordable everyday product? Let’s say suddenly Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola start to make their beverages inconsistently, that each new can of soda tastes slightly different, something good, and sometimes not so good. What if one in every one hundred cans tasted bad? Do you think they would be in business long? The key to success is to consistently provide your customers with an exceptional product as much as you possibly can.
If you want even more reinforcement on this, look at movies. If a movie is a bad, people will talk about it and it will be out of the theatres in no time at all. This happens all the time, it’s very common in Hollywood. Now, if the movie is great, it will last and make a lot of money. Just look at Star Wars the largest grossing movie franchise ever. Let’s take a step back though, how many of you have heard of a sleeper hit? This is a movie that starts with little or no fanfare, but that has an audience that grows or doesn’t stop growing over time. You see, for most movies, opening weekend is the make it or break it time, they will make more money in the first week than any other week. For a sleeper hit, the money will continue to roll in week after week and it will often increase each week! This is very unusual, but it really goes to show the power of having a great product that doesn’t break. If your customers are happy, they will spread the word about your great product. And I’m sure many of you know that a testimonial from a friend, family member, co-worker, and so on, basically someone unrelated to the company is worth its weight in gold. There’s simply no better marketing tool than word of mouth, and this can only be achieved by giving your customers a quality product that will consistently work great, after all, no one will ever refer a lemon to anyone.
It’s amazing how simple these rules are. Solve a problem, create an easy to use solution, and make sure it works. If you want to see examples of this working in the real world, the next time you go shopping, look around, look at how you choose items on the shelf. Most likely you’re in the store for a reason, to try and solve one of your own problems (maybe to mow the lawn, drink a class of soda, find shampoo to wash your hair). You’ll probably look at many items to see what your options are. You’ll probably be looking for a solution that will easily solve your problem. I’m pretty sure you won’t be looking for a lawn mower that comes in a million pieces, or requires special hard to get fuel to start, or that requires several steps to start. You’ll probably be looking for a lawnmower that can be started by the press of a button, and if you’re budget doesn’t allow it, by a pull start. You’ll also be looking for a product that doesn’t have any defects, or maybe remember a testimonial from one of your friends (this is the best shampoo, you’ve just got to try it!). Assuming all the products look like they are well made, then you’ll likely select a product because of its company’s reputation for quality. I’m sure you’d rather buy something that will work than something that won’t. Assuming your company has a product that does all of the above three consistently, then you will likely succeed, no doubt about it!