I run a small business which sells software over the Internet to people who need to create bingo cards, typically parents and teachers.  Today I got a nice, polite email from someone who had lost the code which unlocks their software.  (I sell the codes, and having one makes the software more useful than the free trial version.)

Unfortunately, my customer wasn’t really sure she was my customer.  She wasn’t sure exactly what software she had purchased, but “Bingo Card Creator” sounded pretty close when she found me on Google.  She said she really wanted to use the paid version but didn’t want to purchase it again, and asked if I could please check to see if she had bought from me before.

Well, of course I checked.  As it turns out, she probably bought from one of my competitors.  Most of us have quite similar names.  Rather than having her contact the Bingo Card Maker, Printer, Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker, I sent her an email substantially similar to the following: 

“I’m afraid it wasn’t me, ma’am, but have a copy free with my thanks for your continued support of small businesses.”

Now, I can hear the skeptics going “Alright, when a small businessman starts giving his only product away for free as thanks for patronizing his competitors, he has finally gone off the deep end”.  That is not true — I’ve been off the deep end for years, and I love it, the water is fine. 

As much as this sounds like a very mushy lets-get-together-and-sing-kumbaya moment, I think it defensible from a cold dollars-and-cents calculus.  (And, if I’m wrong, I get to pull this trump card that says “It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong, there is nobody around to fire me for a kumbaya moment here and there”.  God, I love being my own boss.)  Let’s talk about those reasons for a moment.

Three Totally Heartless & Mercenary Reasons For Treating Your Competitor’s Customers Like Your Own

1)  It costs me nothing.  One of the beauties of the software business is that serving your 307th customer is, quite literally, free.  (Its that first customer who costs you millions… or in my case, about sixty bucks.)  All I had to do was copy/paste her email address into the website of my partner which sends out the purchased CD keys, mark her for a free copy, and tell her that I did so.  The action took less than a tenth of the time it will take to actually blog about it.

2)  It saves me from having to write additional emails to the lady, who I predict will require just one additional email (a quick reply to the thank you note I’m sure she’ll send), as opposed to the possibility of having to write several of the “Could you check under my husband’s name?” “No, ma’am, it doesn’t appear to be there either.” “Oh, I’m sorry for wasting your time.”  “Its no problem, ma’am, have a nice day.”  variety.  I do love writing emails to bingo players, don’t get me wrong, but the cold dollars-and-cents calculus says “End conversations as quickly as practical” and making people deliriously happy works wonders for doing that.

3)  I just made a passionate advocate for me (and did I mention it cost me nothing)?  Within the last twenty four hours alone, I spent ten whole dollars (half a sale!) bribing Google to pay the likes of myspaceglitter.com (and other, more relevant sites who are escaping my memory at the moment) to show wee little unemotional, unobtrusive text advertisements.  The goal of the ads is to convince largely uninterested folks to trust me enough to click on a link and give me five seconds of their time.  99.4% of the people who saw one of these advertisements weren’t even willing to part with the five seconds!  And it was still a smart business decision to do it.  Despite the fact that after literally 199 gratuitously unmotivated partially attentive listeners turned me down, there was one who said yes.  That one person doubled my investment.

Why wouldn’t I do something which is much cheaper than $10 to achieve something which is much more valuable than catching the corner of the eyeball of a disinterested MySpace browser?  I just, in all probability, made myself a passionate advocate for life.  Whenever she thinks of bingo cards, she’ll think of Bingo Card Creator, and whenever someone around her talks about bingo cards, she’ll talk about Bingo Card Creator.  Basically, she’ll be like my own personal Apple fan.  (And I didn’t even have to call it iCreateBingoCards.  Take that, Steve Jobs.)

At the very least I made someone’s day.  The story will rate a mention to whoever she talks to about her day today.  The chance of this getting mentioned at the dinner table or in the staffroom asymptotically approaches 100%.  Wouldn’t you mention it?  When is the last time anybody you did business with gave you what you wanted, for free, without you having to ask for it, and without expecting anything in return?  

This is what Seth Godin calls a “purple cow” — would you talk about a purple cow if you saw it?  Of course!  Its a purple freaking cow.  A purple cow is remarkable (in both the “wow” sense and in the “I am going to talk about that” sense) just by virtue of its rare charm and charming rarity.  Heck, its probably even remarkable if it didn’t happen to you!  (“Guys, you won’t believe what I just saw — a purple cow!” is a fun story to tell.  “Guys, you won’t believe what Jimmy nearly ran into today — a purple cow!” still beats talking about the weather.)  Purple cows are basically designed to go viral.  (Well, you know the cow caught something, otherwise why is he purple?  Ba-dum-bum.  Sorry, I used to be an English teacher, we have to surrender our sense of shame to learn the secret mysteries of the subordinate clause.)

Two More Touchy-Feely Bits (Indulge Me) 

1)  Karma.  Now, I’m Catholic and I don’t do karma, but I find the word karma helpful for shortening the thought that some combination of cosmic justice, happenstance, and community causes good things to happen to people who do good things. 

2)  I really do believe that folks who support small businesses, like my fellow software authors (and most of my competitors are individual authors — you think IBM is going to develop synergistic practices for best-of-breed bingo solutions anytime soon?), deserve a pat on the back when possible.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing business with big business, don’t get me wrong.  I have unrestrained admiration for several billion dollar a year businesses.  That said, there is something just a wee bit noble about helping the little guy when that is an option, and noble acts should be rewarded.  (I mentioned karma, right?  Karma, like charity (and forest fires) begins with you!)  Besides, any taste on the part of customers to buy from small businesses is a rising tide that lifts all our boats.  I don’t care whether its bingo cards or wedding seat planners or superhero novels, every little marginal step that gets taken to make Joe and Jane Consumer more willing to trust their credit card details with an anonymous little shop on the Internet helps all of us move our conversion rates to the next level.  Everybody wins.

And I really love when everybody wins.  Doesn’t everybody?

[P.S. If you liked my approach here, you’ll probably get a kick out of my other articles about customer service.]

[P.P.S. This article has been edited since it was first posted, so that it relies less on you knowing me to make sense of.  I also fixed some spelling mistakes and eliminated a run-on or three.  Professional pride, what can I say.]