“Not much.” 

I often hear a bit of grousing from folks who don’t quite understand selling B2C software that you’ll spend all your time telling people how to find the start menu, end up getting McDonalds-esque wages, live in a van down by the river, and have to beg for change from passerby.  Presumably you’d use that change to buy a latte at Starbucks and stay for using their WiFi to answer your support mails.  This is a slight exaggeration of the amount of work involved in supporting customers, even customers who are less than technically proficient.  Trust me, I do my fair share of instructing people in basic computer concepts (OK, to install a program you double click on the …), and I don’t spend all of my day doing this.

My uneducated estimate prior to starting Bingo Card Creator was that 5% of all customers will require support, ever.  However, given that I’ve got eight months of history to work with now, why go from an uneducated estimate?  I used the not very scientific method of iterating through all the emails in my outgoing mail folder (I follow the rule that the CS rep should always reply to every email) and subtracting the ones which were to myself or to peers instead of prospects and customers.  I did this for the period from February 1st through March 14th (Japan time), which is approximately 6 weeks of time and which includes the discovery and resolution of two major issues which escaped my notice and generated numerous customer emails.

During this six week period, I have in excess of 600 confirmed unique installations of Bingo Card Creator, at least 2,000 downloads, and 32 sales.  And how many emails did I write?

Twenty-seven.  Thats about .84 per sale, 4.5% of confirmed installations, and a percent and change of downloads.

Thats not support emails, incidentally.  Thats everything: pre-sales inquiries, support emails, “Thank you for bringing that to my attention” for folks who mentioned that I habitually butcher the word “convinient [sic]” on my blog, outbound inquiries to people who had purchased Bingo Card Creator multiple times asking if that was a mistake or not (someone wanted an extra CD for his sister), and outbound emails saying that an order was being held up by Google/Paypal for verification and asking if they would please accept this CD key with my apologies for the delay.

The breakdown:

Pre-sale inquiries/How do I do X inquiries: 10

Support (The program is broken!): 8

Payment Processor Issues: 4 (I initiated 3 of them)

Are you sure you wanted to buy two copies?: 1

Thank you for your comment: 3

Registration Key Not Received: 1

So lets talk about how return-munching this support burden is: The median mail takes me 3 minutes to write (registry key inquiry — 1 minute to check e-junkie for their key, 1 minute to write up a brief paragraph, one minute to type my key-issuing Direct Access autotext and check to see that the mail meets my standards) , with the most demanding email being 20 minutes and a significant number being 15 seconds (“Thank you for your interest in Bingo Card Creator.  Unfortunately, Bingo Card Creator does not support using pictures on bingo cards.”  — I have this macroed, too.)  If you assume my average is about 4 minutes an email, which is pretty close to accurate, then I am paying myself roughly $370 an hour, give or take, to support Bingo Card Creator.  This is slightly more than I made as a CS representative at Quill. 

Other ways to contextualize how little customer support actually costs me:

Its approximately 5 mails per 6 customers.

Its approximately 2 emails every 3 days.

If it scaled linearly with customers and I was selling 5,000 units a year (income in excess of $100,000 USD) I’d be writing a backbreaking 11 emails a day.  (Do you think that its a given that a real business generates many more emails than that?  Apparently somebody didn’t give these four major web apps the memo.)  I have strong doubts, incidentally, that support emails scale linearly with customers: my intuition says its actually closer to constant or perhaps logarithmic.

Will everyone have experiences like this?  No.  There are a couple of factors which make me send more email than other people, and a couple which make me send less. 

What makes me send more:

  1. My niche is one of the least computer-savvy available on the Internet.
  2. I am fanatical about customer service.  If Google Checkout holds up an order for 1.5 hours in authorization that customer gets an apology whether they’re miffed enough to write in about the incident or not. 
  3. I twice introduced critical bugs into my program/business which generated multiple repetitive emails.  (One build disabled a key feature of my software for about two weeks.  I shipped a handful of CDs with defective graphics on them.)

What makes me send less than other people:

  1. I sell a very simple application.  There are not too many things which can go wrong.
  2. I give very explicit directions to my customers at every step in the process.  My application’s main window includes a step-by-step how-to guide for the most common use case.  If you buy a CD from me you get your CD key and instructions on how to input it at the confirmation page for your order, in your email confirmation for the order, stamped on the envelope your CD arrives in, and printed on the face of the CD itself. 
  3. When I get multiple inquiries about a single subject I figure out how I can avoid getting them again.  Example: I got multiple inquiries about CD keys and implemented the above-described defense-in-depth.  I got multiple inquiries about Music Note bingo and made a blog post about it that I can just point people to now.
  4. I make judicious use of auto-text and templates to make the process of writing support mails quicker and more useful to the customers.  For example, I have an auto-text which inserts my “Thank you for buying, here is your key” template, which has instructions which I have endeavored to make as simple as possible.  This is an improvement to ad-libbing the directions every time I issue a key, which could result in some customers getting less optimized directions and me wasting my time rewriting the wheel, so to speak.  The key here is being judicious.  People aren’t paying you money so that Direct Access can have a conversation with them.  You need to read, understand, and resolve their issue rather than skimming, classifying, and auto-replying to their issue.
  5. Customer expectations for support for a $24.95 program are pretty low.  Suffice it to say that no school district has ever contemplated a Service Level Agreement for their mission critical bingo card needs.