How to get my money

Avid e-consumer pleads: "treat me right"

Peter Seebach
Consumer at large and president of Plethora Internet
June 2000

A version of this article first appeared on IBM DeveloperWorks.

Let's get one thing straight: Past the initial venture capital phase, you will get your money because some consumer gave it to you. I'm the consumer. I'm the one bringing money to our relationship. I can live without you. You cannot live without me.

You need to consider what I want. You also need to think about what I don't want, because I will remember your transgressions for years to come.

Give me some respect
You need to respect my opinions. Don't mistake me for an industry consortium; their standards may not be mine. Here's a couple of things that have been popular with "industry leaders," which have not gone over as well with consumers.

Let's keep this between us
Don't sell my name and address to other people. I will resent you if you do. Don't think of it as your customer list; think of it as my private information, shared with you only because I thought I could trust you. If you want to sell a customer list, how about a list of customers who have specifically told you they won't mind? If you don't think anyone would sign up for such a list, why are you abusing your customers like this? (In fact, some people really won't mind, and they will sign up for such a list if you offer one.)

No fake trust
If I tell you your policy bothers me, don't say "but it's certified." If it is, the organization "certifying" you has done you a disservice. The only certification that matters is that your policy makes ME happy. This applies most visibly to privacy policies, but really, this works for everything. Industry standards and government regulations mean nothing; customer standards pay your salary.

If you have a logo from some agency, and a friend of mine says it's a joke because he got spammed by you, whom do you think I will believe? Earn your reputation, don't buy it.

Your Web page is your public persona
I will quite likely judge you by your Web page. It's your public persona; it's the image you have chosen to show me. Web pages don't just happen by themselves, so I will assume that your page reflects your nature. If your Web page is inconvenient to me, I will assume you want it to be inconvenient -- or, at the least, that you don't care that it's inconvenient.

Keep your page accessible
Your Web page must be accessible. Accessible means I reserve the right to hit your page with a text-only browser. It means I may have image loading turned off. It means I may have JavaScript turned off, or JavaScript might not work in my browser. You know what makes you look like a Grade-A idiot? A JavaScript link that does nothing but go to a URL. Anchors can redirect to a URL just fine, all by themselves, even without JavaScript, without depending on a feature many users lack. And don't tell me to upgrade my browser. I have. I run with JavaScript off because it's a security nightmare.

If I can't read your page, I won't stick around. If you have a picture of some text, you are wasting my time and bandwidth. Text links are fine; image maps may be interesting, but an image map with just words on it is insulting. Your user may be blind, and reading in Braille, or using a text reader to hear your page. "Image! Image! Image! Link! Image! Script! Image!" You're yelling at me without saying anything; is that the image you want to present?

Let me search your page
There should be a search engine with a link to it labeled "search." It should be on the front page (or even on every page). It should work. It should not give me weird error messages. Test it occasionally to make sure it's still working.

Content, content, content.
I may not need to talk to anyone; maybe all I need is information. Post some. Post FAQs. For instance, if you sell software, make sure it's easy for me to get product updates, demos, patches, or related files. If I can solve my problem easily by using your page, I'll fix my problem at 3 a.m., at absolutely no cost to you.

Link to resources I'm interested in. If you have user-run pages related to your product, link to them. If one of them isn't totally complimentary to you, link to it anyway; I respect your honesty, and I know that you think your product is good enough to withstand a little healthy criticism.

Finally, corporate hype is not content. It might be PR, but that should be supplemental, not the focus of your page.

Give good information
Make information about your products available. With software, I want lists of bug fixes. With books, I want errata. If I'm downloading files, label them with size (kilobytes, not "seconds"), and date them. Dates are important; I may not have a version number handy, but I may know if the new version is newer than my last update. Tell me how to find the version (or edition, or model number) of the thing I have, and tell me what's available. The more information you give me, the more informed my decisions will be --- and thus, the more likely I am to be satisfied with them.

Talk to me
Amazingly, I sort of like PR. PR effort shows that you really want me to notice you. I like that. So, tell me about your company. Tell me what you do. It may shock you to find that a customer would go to the press section, but you see, if I'm going to share my money with you, I want to know you.

Tell good stories
Talk about your success stories. Nothing vague like "we've been active since 1988." I want to know what you're doing, not when you started doing it. Certainly don't tell me anything that's untrue. Don't call yourself a "leader" unless you really feel that an objective observer would consider you one of the top couple of companies in your field -- otherwise it smacks of fast-talking. But do talk about things you do that are cool, even if they aren't directly part of your company mission. Tell me about standards committees your staff participate in. Tell me about the employee who runs the Usenet Kook of the Month contest. Have pictures of your company softball game. Show me who YOU are, not just what your company would like to be.

Admit mistakes
Don't hush up your mistakes. If you screw up, put a big fat apology right out there on your front page. I will have heard rumors. When you address those rumors, you put them to rest. If you don't address them, I will assume that they're true, and that you think that kind of behavior is acceptable. A problem fixed is better than a problem denied: either is better than a problem covered up.

Offer value
Offer me some resources that are useful even if I'm not a customer of yours. If you're doing graphics software, give me a freebie utility that I can download and play with. Maintain a FAQ about your industry, and make sure it's not too biased. The more value you offer me, the more likely I am to become a customer, and stay one.

Never lie
Never lie to me. It disgusts me that I have to say this. We can have no relationship if you can't be honest with me. If you have to lie to me, I can only conclude that your product, policy, or people (whatever you were talking about) are so unbearably awful that you'd rather lie than admit anything. I'll probably be right. If you lie to me, I'll find out, sooner or later. I will complain bitterly, and I will take my business elsewhere. Also, I will tell others...

Be human
Finally, be human. This is hard these days. I want to talk to a real person. I want to talk to someone who isn't following a script, and who doesn't have to follow a script. Even if the person I'm talking to can't change the policy I don't like, I should be talking to a person, with personal opinions. I want to talk to people who aren't afraid to tell me their personal opinions, even when those aren't the company line.

Don't worry too much about "appearing professional." If I pay you, you are a professional. That's what the word means. I like people; I may even be one myself. I'd rather do business with people than with policies.

When it comes down to it, if you meet my needs, you will get my money. I want you to treat me with respect, and I want you to recognize that, as a customer, I'm a part of your business. These are the things that have offended me in the past, or that have made me happy in the past. You don't have to do all of these things, or even any of them -- but every time you go against the wishes of the consumer, you throw away good money.

And finally, the moment you have all been waiting for:

This week's action item: Sneak into your Webmaster's office and turn off all the extra features in his browser.