Roughly 80% of my customers do not buy software.  I don’t mean this in the sense that they are pirates, who grab software which they want without paying for it.  I mean this in the sense that their relationship to their computer is not primarily mediated through applications.  Many of them do not particularly like using their computers, and use only the programs which do what they need to do, rather than seeking out new, exciting things that they can do with their machine.  And what they need to do is generally simple: they need to create documents, they need to write emails to their nephews and coworkers, and they need to check the status of that lovely knickknack they are secretly hoping to snipe on eBay.  (Side note: about half of my customers have used eBay.  Yep.  It is that mainstream.)

Now, if I do say so myself, I’m pretty decent at selling software to these people who don’t particularly buy software.  You might be, too, if you’re wandering off the well-trodden “I am going to sell to software developers like myself” uISV path.  (Not that there is anything wrong with that, by the way, but it has its own challenges: you’ll be forever worrying about OSS coming along and eating your lunch, and your customers are in general loathe to spend money to accomplish something they think they can just whip up themselves… if they had a couple months free.)  Here are some of the things I have learned over the last few months of this.

The look of your program is critical.  Since release, I have upgraded my program with precisely three new features worthy of bullet point: a font selector, word wrap, and stock icons.  Before the upgrade (which, off the top of my head, I think was v1.03), I was getting two emails a week asking whether there was any way to do font selection, and perhaps one every two weeks regarding word wrap.  Do you know how many people ever mailed me saying “Your program looks kind of drab”?  Not a single one.  Do you know how many compliments I get in the average week now that my program looks bright, inviting, and the perfect thing for Grandma the bingo enthusiast who runs Windows98 and types her emails in ALL CAPS because that shift key is too difficult for her?  More than I have gotten for every feature request, ever.  The amount of space download sites allocate to screenshots is tiny, and mine having a splash of color in them instead of looking like a spreadsheet probably gets me some clicks I would not otherwise have gotten.

They want to know someone is home.   A certain segment of my customers needs a little hand-holding before they are willing to part with their credit card information over the Internet.  Typically, what they do is send me a single email asking a question about features: “Can I print a call list?”  “Yes, ma’am, go to the File Menu and select Print Call List.”  And then I go to sleep for the evening and wake up to You’ve Got Money.  My theory on this is that people want to know that the program is being actively maintained by a real live human being, and they want to know that if there is a problem somebody will be on the case.  Which is why I have my email address plastered to nearly every page on my website and in the program itself.  Some people say that if you’re selling at my price point ($24.95) you cannot afford to offer personalized customer support.  I say you can’t afford not to: your skittish prospective customers seeking reassurance will run away.  (I also write reassurances into my web site copy: your credit card information is safe, full money-back guarantee, upgrades available forever, free support from someone fanatically dedicated to making you happy, etc).

The ordering pathway needs to be failure proof:  I have taken significant steps towards making my ordering pathway failure proof: it is the same for PC and Mac, there are extremely few options and I bury all the ones except the most common (single copy of the software available via download), I ask for no additional information besides what I need to process the order (telephone numbers and shipping addresses?  Why?), and all roads lead to Rome from my purchasing.htm page: practically anything you click within the main body of the page will take you directly to the ordering page.  (Side note: purchasing.htm is NOT the ordering page because people who hit it typically have come from a link in my application.  Many of them are just interested in seeing what the link does or checking out the price.  As a direct consequence, I use purchasing.htm to make my “Close the deal” sales pitch to wavering prospects while simultaneously allowing folks who have their credit card out to consumate the purchase in 15 seconds or less.  My average is actually 42 seconds, most of it spent waiting for Paypal’s site to load by my guess.)