One of the challenges of running a small software business is how to turn customers into advocates for your company and products. It's a challenge because unless there's a support exchange, it's entirely possible for your customer to go the entire lifetime of the app without ever having any direct interaction with you. Some customers may want that completely disconnected, self-service relationship. It's one of the many customer benefits of selling downloadable software - everything's automated and instant. But for a small business that's trying to stay afloat and grow, lack of interaction with your customers can keep you out of touch with their needs and also make you miss out on opportunities to unexpectedly surprise and delight them.

As a business owner, you want to take advantage of every opportunity to thrill your customers and turn them into real fans of your app rather than just being regular users. This leads to more trust in your company and your product, which really shows up as increased sales whenever you come out with a paid upgrade. It also leads to customers spreading your app via word of mouth in person and on Twitter, Facebook, etc.

So, how do you do this?

For me, it all sort of clicked when someone told me I need to encourage serendipity. I need to make every effort to create a positive interaction with as many customers as possible. For my company, that means regularly doing three things.

The first, is to have a responsive presence on Twitter for my company and each of my apps. The key point there is responsive. Twitter is more like a flowing conversation than an inbox to be triaged. Responding to an @reply a day or two after you receive it won't have the same effect as replying within minutes. I try and respond to every support email I get within twenty-four hours. But I keep Twitter notifications enabled on my iPhone so I can reply to those as fast as possible. Customers have come to both expect and love that level of access to the developer of their (hopefully) favorite apps. Further, in the early days of VirtualHostX, I even made a habit of gifting free or heavily discounted licenses to Twitter users who spoke favorably of the app. Those tweets may have cost me an immediate sale, but they turned into retweets and additional sales down the road via upgrades.

Another point of contact I make a point of initiating is right after someone makes a purchase. There's no better opportunity to show a customer you care than the moment they buy your product. It's at that time that they're likely on a high from your app. They've just reached the point where they're so satisfied with your trial version that they were willing to hand over their hard-earned money for a license. Further, they've put their trust into your company that you won't let them down. Immediately reinforcing their feelings with a positive interaction encourages serendipity.

For two years, whenever someone in the US would purchase VirtualHostX, I'd make a point to write them a hand written thank-you note on Click On Tyler stationary and mail it to them. You wouldn't believe how many amazing tweets and thank-you notes I'd receive back in response. It cost me time and about $0.90 per customer to do this, but it really made a big difference in how customers felt about my company.

One final tactic I'm going to be implementing this month is sending an automated followup email to users a few days or a week after they purchase. My goal is to make it as personable as possible and communicate that they can reply and start an immediate conversation with the actual developer of the app they just purchased. Previous emails I've sent to my mailing listing asking for product feedback have seen amazing response rates north of 60% - so I'm very optimistic that this new email will have a great effect. I do have to give credit though. While autoresponders aren't exactly a new idea, it did take this blog post by Justin to push me over the edge into doing so.

So those are the three things I'm doing to encourage customer happiness. Your goal, with whatever actions you take, should be to find and promote positive interactions with your customers.