Questioner that just won't quit. HELP!
April 19, 2011 1:34 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with a customer that just won't stop asking pre-sale questions?

I run a small software company, and all our customer interactions are e-mail based. I have a potential customer that just won't stop e-mailing us questions. We're on e-mail number 38 as I speak. It is basically one-a-day for the last few weeks. It seems the more info we give, the deeper this person tries to understand the product. They seem obsessed with "getting the most" out of the application, even though the application's selling point is frankly its simplicity.

We take a lot of pride in our communications with customers, but in 5 years this is the first time that someone has basically "outlasted" me.

Context: It's a simple web publishing program. We have a 80-page user manual online. Cost is modest (~$50) for what it does. English appears to be their native language, and all e-mails have been in English.
posted by foggy out there now to Human Relations (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: Have you already spent $50 supporting this person? Consider "firing" the prospect. This person is not going to become less troublesome once they become a customer.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:36 PM on April 19, 2011 [24 favorites]


This isn't a customer, it's a potential customer. I'd refer them to the manual that is online, assuming they can view it without purchase, and say that while you do not provide training, you do a certain amount of customer support for paying customers.
posted by mikeh at 1:38 PM on April 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


For each question, post a reply pointing back to the appropriate page in your user manual.

If you do not have a place in your online user manual corresponding to this, create a new entry. Then post a reply pointing back to the new appropriate page in your user manual, with a "Thanks for reminding us to add this to the FAQ" line.

This person will either get tired or will eventually help you fill out your FAQ to dizzying completeness. It's a win-win.

Stop at some arbitrary number, should they ever reach it, and say, "For the cost of this product, we just do not have the level of support you need."
posted by adipocere at 1:39 PM on April 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


I have two thoughts, one paranoid, one not.

Thought one: Congratulations, you have a special friend! In government, you get people like this writing in all the time. They write letters, I think, mostly to entertain themselves. Any response, no matter how terse or content-free will elicit more and more letters.

Thought two: this is some kind of clumsy attempt at corporate espionage, and the email writer is trying to grok your product because they want to mimic it or because they have an idea so similar to that they're trying to figure out if you copied them.

Either way, the answer is to simply stop responding to this person.
posted by LN at 1:40 PM on April 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


My immediate questions based on what you say here is, "Is this person really a potential customer?" Because if I was kind of a flake* who thought I had the million dollar idea that would take you down, I might do something like this thinking it was "inteligence gathering".

*for values of "kind of a flake" equal to "not quite commitable"
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:42 PM on April 19, 2011


Doh. LN beat me to it.

Hmmm, are they asking questions that might possibly give them ideas about security vulnerabilties?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:44 PM on April 19, 2011


My favorite line for these folks?
"I'm sorry, we are unable provide the level of service you deserve."
Then don't respond to any more of his emails. Works every time.
posted by Floydd at 1:52 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would slow down my response time. If you normally get back to them in a few hours, wait a day. Then, ask for a credit card number to process the order.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:55 PM on April 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Either stop talking to them or enter into EXTREME SALES MODE!!

Turn around and become an annoying software sales person back. Give only marketing lines about the product while trying to learn as much about them and their organization as possible. It will reveal that either they're a government organization looking to submit your software to some kind of process, or that they're trying to steal your "trade secrets."

Call them every day. Send over a contract. Ask them if they want a bulk discount. Basically make the transaction REAL. You're currently offering everything for free without anything in return. If they continue to ask questions, ask them to sign an SLA or even hint that you offer one, and be gracious: "All questions currently asked and answered will NOT be counted toward your SLA quota for the year, ACT NOW" (This might not be a good idea... if they are in fact a government branch you might be screwed, but you get the general gist). Sales speak can be a useful tool in situations like this.

No more anything without A) more clarity on who the hell they are and why they want to know, or B) cash in the bank.
posted by teabag at 1:55 PM on April 19, 2011 [12 favorites]


Thought one: Congratulations, you have a special friend! In government, you get people like this writing in all the time. They write letters, I think, mostly to entertain themselves. Any response, no matter how terse or content-free will elicit more and more letters.

That's what I'm thinking. For people like this, you have to stop trying to please them, because it's impossible. They are never satisfied, and they love having someone doing their bidding because it makes them feel important (some of these people, I am sad to say, are mentally ill). Going forward, give the bare minimum, like a link to the FAQ. You'll find their interest in bothering you will decrease and they'll find another sucker to attend to them.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:59 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, I had this same type of experience. What I would say is:

"Why don't you come on in, and I can answer all your questions for you"
or
"Why don't you give me a call at X time at YZ number and we can discuss this".

Do that with all his future questions. Whichever is more appropriate considering his distance from you.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:00 PM on April 19, 2011


You can send an email a few times that look like an auto-response that links to basic information for them to do their own research. There won't be an impression of a personal response, while still providing a basic level of customer service. A few times of the same form email, and I'm guessing it will likely stop.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:04 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I suspect this someone would also want a lot of support as a paying customer. If you make the sale you might regret it, so putting them off politely could do your business a double favor.
posted by griselda at 2:12 PM on April 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


automatic vacation reply might be your friend.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:15 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies. This person has asked no security questions or anything that would be of benefit to a competitor. I've had that happen before and handled it quickly. This person is more concerned with things like color profiles in jpegs and the "optimal" dimensions for web pages; personal preference items where there is no one right answer.

I've "fired" customers before, but I was hoping for something a bit more subtle this time because the guy seems to genuinely need the application.
posted by foggy out there now at 2:30 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree with SpacemanStix—find some reputable web resources you wouldn't mind throwing your recommendation behind and hand the 'potential customer' off to them with a note to the effect that the software is still an option for them to purchase, but technical support isn't something you offer.
posted by carsonb at 2:39 PM on April 19, 2011


This person is more concerned with things like color profiles in jpegs and the "optimal" dimensions for web pages; personal preference items where there is no one right answer.

Perhaps there is a graphic/web design website you could recommend to him? And if he keeps asking questions of this nature, either don't respond any further, tell him to let you know if he has questions specifically about the program, or just send him the link again.
posted by wondermouse at 2:42 PM on April 19, 2011


Can't you just level with the person? That is, tell them they're on the wrong side of the line dividing pre-sales questions from paid consulting?
posted by facetious at 3:00 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


My experience is that people like this never end up buying the product. Whether it's on eBay or a customer of my craft business, the people who want it usually just buy it. The people with a million questions want attention and/or something so perfect that nothing ever quite fits their needs. (Which ultimately is an attention-seeking or control-freaking thing.) I'd stop returning emails or send a "we're hard at work, we'll get to you when we get to you" email until they buy it.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 3:15 PM on April 19, 2011


It sounds like he needs and wants training. Is there a book or a class that would benefit him (and maybe even some of your other clients)? It sounds like he's willing to put in the time needed to learn to do a really good job. Maybe his use of your system could even be a really great example you could show others in the future. Even if not, tracking down other resources that could help him might not be wasted effort -- it could be that, if you posted them on your web site, others would find them useful.

Good luck.
posted by amtho at 3:51 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you run a forum for your software? Sounds like this person would be an excellent candidate for forum membership and some crowdsourced responses to his questions.
posted by mosk at 3:55 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


This person is more concerned with things like color profiles in jpegs and the "optimal" dimensions for web pages; personal preference items where there is no one right answer.

It sounds that this person wants you to teach him how to do web design/publishing. Tell him that is beyond the scope of your support, but you can recommend him such and such books and websites. That should be your default response until he takes the hint.

It would surprise me if he bought your product.
posted by clearlydemon at 3:58 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is it possible that this person somehow got a bootleg copy of your product and is trying to learn how to use it?
posted by xedrik at 4:09 PM on April 19, 2011


It sounds that this person wants you to teach him how to do web design/publishing. Tell him that is beyond the scope of your support, but you can recommend him such and such books and websites.

Going beyond the scope of business would be an unexpected and charming bit of generosity were this the first inquiry. At this point, however, to do so would only communicate poor boundaries. "Sure! We'll be happy to step even further away from software development and sales, in order to vet website design instructional resources for you!"

This is beyond the scope of business. It's totally appropriate to say so and leave things at that. Not only appropriate, but critical to maintaining a profitable company.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 4:33 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Instead of limiting the scope of your business, why don't you put together a package for him where you do offer him the support he wants. You can say something like, "I think that you're best off taking a web design course, but even though this level of support is outside what we normally do, we can put together a special support package for you for about $X per in-depth email." You don't have to make X too reasonable.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 5:57 PM on April 19, 2011


They just like talking to salesmen.

/david mamet.

Lose them.
posted by dobbs at 6:06 PM on April 19, 2011


We call these clients "Vampires". Do what teabag says and start demanding cash from them for "Consultation" fees.
posted by ovvl at 6:44 PM on April 19, 2011


Could this be an indication that you need to figure out a way to offer free trials? Would he be able to answer his questions if he had a free week to test out the software before he had to pony up the cash for it?

Aside from that issue, the cold hard business answer is to cut him loose now. You're already in the hole with this dude, if your product is a one-time $50 charge.
posted by ErikaB at 6:45 PM on April 19, 2011


Response by poster: We have a forum, but I'd hate to inflict our core users to this guy's never-ending list of queries.

We also offer fully-functional free trials, and that's what this guy is trying to use now. I can't imagine how many questions he would have if he had to pay upfront.

In the time since I first asked this question, he's e-mailed me 12 more questions - most of which are "why does it" questions instead of "how do accomplish this" questions. He apparently wants to understand the motivations of the software or something.

I'm going to end it now. Thanks for everyone's answers.
posted by foggy out there now at 7:00 PM on April 19, 2011


FWIW - you're in a similar business as my company is in. We've offer fully-functional trials and have had customers who behave like this one. Our solution is to either cut them off cold or sick sales on them. I understand that you don't necessarily have the resources for that.

We routinely have customers who try hard to get us to write their entire solution for them. Our support engineers are really good about drawing the line between getting the customer working with our code and writing an entire app. In one case, we've had our CEO call the customer's CEO and suggest that an aggressive review of a particular engineer would be a benefit. It happens.

You did the right thing.
posted by plinth at 5:48 AM on April 20, 2011


Ah Tire Kickers! They get more of a charge out of asking than doing. I feel for you. Most of my time spent at CES and COMDEX was dealing with those guys. Best of luck to you.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:08 AM on April 20, 2011


At my last job there was a notorious individual who kept calling us, normally at least once a week. Once any of us realised who it was we would depress the 'secrecy' button on our phone and just get on with work until they stopped talking. The record was 22 minutes.

We eventually got bored and changed tack to giving them about 2 minutes to ask a question, if they went beyond that we told them we didn't have time to discuss it and hung up.

They kept calling.
posted by knapah at 10:11 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


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