How to get customers who love you even when you screw up

This is Part 5 of a 5-part series: Joy of Honesty in Business.

During the first year of Smart Bear’s existence, my software was crap. How did I get customers, and why were they so vehemently loyal to what was clearly a wobbly, new product from a teeny tiny company-of-one?

Because of folks like Tom.

So Tom calls up one day…

Now wait, understand this is already a newsworthy event! Remember we sell software to software developers, legendary for their phone-aversion. (I’m no exception!) So let me try that again:

Tom called me. On the phone.

Tom wants to talk about new features. What a relief — for six weeks it’s been nothing but bug reports. Real bugs, I admit. In fact, Tom had single-handedly debugged a significant amount my shitty code, even enlisting his own employees for the cause. (Why had he done that?)

Anyway, Tom lists 20 new features he’d like to see. When does he expect delivery? “Oh, I know you’re just a one-man shop, so just do your best. If you get through this half as fast as you get through bugs, we’ll be fine.”

Whozajigga-wha? I never said I was a one-man shop!

“We” always use the first-person plural when talking about “our software” and “our release cycle” and “our tech support.” My website was professional-looking (uhhh right?). Tech support always came from [email protected]; my name was never on it.

So was Tom the Sherlock Holmes of small business façades? Hardly. The web site doesn’t look that professional. Tom’s gotten sales support, tech support, and bug fixes for weeks now; he recognizes the same style and phrases. He’s called the main line and never found anyone but me.


But this was going to be a problem (or so I thought). See, Tom worked for a big company (I don’t have permission to say which) with thousands of employees and billions in revenue. Big companies don’t buy software from one-man shops. Or so I’ve been told.

I almost puked out the mantra of how, yes, I’m the only full-time employee, but I use consultants for stuff when the workload goes up. And I almost went into defensive mode, talking about how good our my service was and all that.

But fortunately I recognized that Tom didn’t want to hear that. Tom was saying, “I know who you really are, and I accept it. I still want to do this. How about a few features since we put up with those bugs?”

had to match that honesty. Anything else would be an insult to his intelligence and a step backward in the relationship.

Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.
–Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t until I visited him in Ottawa that I fully understood why Tom was so solicitous. We met with two of Tom’s bosses in a small office to discuss widespread purchase and roll-out of our peer code review tool.

Tom introduced me in a way I didn’t expect: “Half a year ago I found this company in Austin. They had the beginnings of a code review tool. I’ve been guiding their development so now it works perfectly for our environment.”

Hmmm, that’s not exactly accurate… or is it? I’m on the spot, so I just nod in agreement.

The bosses questioned the utility of the tool. How much time could it save? Tom had the answer: “I do sixty code reviews every day.”

He might as well have said “I can squeeze crude oil from cow patties.” One boss flatly said “That’s impossible.” Honestly I’m not sure whether he was referring to Tom’s fortitude or the tool’s efficiency. But they both looked at Tom’s evidence and approved the roll-out.

In that moment I understood Tom’s motivation: Tom was a hero.

Tom had figured out how to deliver code with fewer bugs and was training his new hires faster than other team-leads. Tom didn’t do this by paying IBM or implementing a process he read about in Dr. Dobbs — he found a little company (us… I mean “me”), and he was now personally responsible for directing our product development. We jump when he says jump, therefore the perfect product (for their company) had been forged.

All due to his prescience, product development prowess, and a relationship he had forged with the founder.

Don’t forget, this was before “relationship” became the buzzword of modern marketing — before blogs and Twitter and back when the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook wasn’t women over 55.

I can’t begin to tell you the amount crap Tom put up with over the years. We’re good at this now (no really, 15 people counts as “we!”), but back then screens would lock up, reviews would inexplicably disappear, installers would install the wrong files, and occasionally we’d run computers out of memory.

He put up with all of it why? Because it was just him and me. Because he knew I always kept my word. Because he knew he could stick his neck out for Smart Bear and I wouldn’t let him down. Because he knew I would ensure that as the product changed it continued to solve his problems better, because I didn’t want to let him down.

So he pinned his own reputation on it and won. As a bonus, he lived vicariously through Smart Bear as a product designer.

If I hadn’t fessed up and behaved honestly, perhaps none of this would have happened.

What will your first hundred customers look like? Big, established companies with bureaucratic purchasing systems that you will bluff your way through? Well-known consumer-advocacy bloggers?

No, they’ll be early-adopters — folks who like trying new stuff and like working with new companies who still have spark and something to prove. Folks who want to be part of the creative process and be able to tell their friends that they were there at the beginning.

If you pretend to be something you’re not, they’ll see right through it. Then what have you done? You’ve lied to those who would have loved you for who you are; that’s not how you build a relationship.

It doesn’t mean never telling a lie. Cath Lawson points out that authenticity doesn’t mean abandoning social white lies. We all know the difference between outright lies and the business equivalent of “No those pants don’t make you look fat.”

Theoretically, honesty should be easier than dishonesty. After all, “if you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything” (Mark Twain). It’s true that in business you’re so accustomed to fluffing your feathers and making a show it can be hard to remember to act like a normal human being.

“Be yourself” is just as hard in business as it is in personal life. But it’s worth it.

How much truth is too much truth in business? Join the conversation and leave a comment!

20 responses to “How to get customers who love you even when you screw up”

  1. OK, this is not some stunningly insightful comment on your article, rather it is just a quick thank you for some encouragement and a little inspiration. I’ve just launched the first beta of our (cough … my) first product an online appointment booking tool and within the week I’ve got seven customers and, the motivation behind this note, my first support call. This was from a an older chap running a small driving school looking for a way to move his business forward. By being open and honest he helped me firstly fix the issue then look how to tailor both our (doing it again … my) product and our help pages to support the needs of customers like him.

    Thank you for your article, it helped.


  2. @AlexE — Congratulations! Your site looks great. It’s clearly useful and I love your pricing scheme. The "featured provider" is awesome too — what a great way to provide useful into to customers and valuable free advertising at the same time.

    I saw the acronym "MOT" when I tried booking something with a mover. What does that stand for?

    I imagine many of your customers will be small businesses who understand what it’s like to get started — many will still be going through it themselves. They’ll appreciate honesty and they’ll want you to succeed, I have no doubt.

    It’s it cool to have customers pulling for you?

  3. Jason, got another story for you… On, I list books that are required for the next semester. I’m always really concerned about its accuracy and I have nightmares of students spending hundreds of dollars on the wrong book.

    I got an email from a student… I think the subject was "wrong book." I swallowed hard when I opened the email. The email said, "For Chemistry 101, you have the wrong book. It should be ISBN # 1234567890. Just thought I’d let you know, keep up the great work you guys are awesome!"

    I was floored, not only was he not pissed off, he was helping me out. So I sent him a $10 gift card. :)

  4. @Dale — nice, thanks for sharing that. Why wouldn’t someone be nice when they know it’s a real human being behind it? And now you’ll make him doubly happy with the coupon.

    Often screwing up but making it right gets you more love than if you never screw up.

  5. Every once in a while you read a blog post that makes you sit back and say, "Wow, I honestly learned something from this." It’s even more rare to be able to extract an action from the post that will improve your life.
    I’ve just done both. I’ll head out now and expose some long hidden truths about my business.
    Good work Jason.

  6. @Ryan — Wow thanks so much for saying so. Your blog looks nice — I’ve added it to my reader. Let me know when REACH is available; looks cool.

  7. I lot of the time, the customers just want to know WHEN it will be fixed. Even if you say, "I’m not sure, but I will certainly keep you posted with updates as things progress", they are cool with that. They want to know what to expect so they can plan ahead. It’s not about interrogation and any customer who expects things to be perfect better be paying accordingly.

    Empathy is key. If a customer knows you are always looking out for them, you can generally get away with more hardcore truthiness.

    Thanks for this post. I’ve worked for companies who did not take this approach, and believe me, it was painful.

  8. This blog is a gold mine! Thanks for sharing all your wisdom and experience with us. I will definitely be reading and applying the information and techniques you generously offer.

  9. @Ares — thanks for the kind words! I too look forward to your commentary; I find some of the best conversation and ideas comes from the comments, not the content. :-)

  10. What a fantastic story about one man shops. I, too, am a one man band in the design and project management world in LA. I love the transparency, and snickered out loud at the part where your client said he’d been shaping you to be his tool for years.

    Weird thought, but isn’t that what we all want? Savvy customers providing you real working data on how to make them successful daily? It’s odd to hear someone say it, but you obviously have been making him a hero for years… That’s just plain Customer Love!

    Kudos to you on the share. :)

  11. @Laurie — Yes that is what we all want, or we should anyway, good point. It is odd to phrase it that way: "Make your customer a hero to her peers," but it does makes sense!

    It also represents a personal investment by the customer. That is, you’re not only "solving a pain" or some other trite marketing concept — you’re improving this person’s career, you’re making him important, you’re giving him something to brag about. So this person needs you to succeed, because only then will they personally succeed.

  12. "Did You Ever Stop To Think, What An Important Part Concentration Plays In Your Business & Life?"

    As a student of the science of mind, life, and business, Muhammad realized that the most successful men and woman all possess the ability to concentrate—using the mind’s force to its fullest capacity, thus allowing them to materialize visions and goals. The premise is that people who are unable to focus on a central thought often get discouraged, allowing negative ideas to penetrate their stream of thoughts. Think Big, Grow Big, in Business and in Life shares principles and techniques of shutting out all these destructive thoughts while giving way for constructive ideas, enabling you to think only of what will be beneficial for you. This comprehensive study will not only show you the far-reaching effects of concentration, but will also train and develop your mind to catapult you to your greatest potential.

    Great mental concentration can dwarf the biggest of giants who lack this ability. The power of man’s mind is untapped, so it is necessary to be trained to accomplish even the greatest desires and ambitions. Reawaken and develop your concentration, the most essential key to success, and start to Think Big, Grow Big, in Business and in Life today.


  13. You basically summed up our own marketing mantra: "no bullshit". Our marketing is basically an Apache-like software distro with source and tutorials so potential users can kick the tires. We usually insist on writing into contracts that "this project might fail for reasons X, Y and Z".

    According to the usual wisdom, our customers (some even Fortune 500) shouldn’t buy software from us (we’re only two people full time with contractors and a biz admin, but we’ve been around nearly 10 years, speaking to your small is beautiful idea).

    The no-BS policy is a blessed change from my last company, where our VP of Marketing would say things like "I know this sounds sleazy [pre-emptive vaporware product announcements to undercut similar announcements from competitors], but it’s the norm in marketing". Around the time of the IPO, the newish CEO (acquired when the company hit 60 or so people) even gave us a "mission" and "values" and insisted we hang framed versions in the conference rooms. I seemed to be the only one in the (remote) office of 20 who found them ironic; the reality was that the company was actually better than its whitewashed "values".

    My mom led by example; honesty and full disclosure was her business (and life) strategy. She outsurvived (in the auto industry consulting biz) all of her buzzword-laden peers with customers who would bend over backwards for her.

  14. Hey Jason, thanks for a great article.

    I’m currently thinking of going it alone and setting up a one man code shop with an idea I have, but have been worried about how I would support the users and whether I could appear "professional" enough. It’s great to hear that not only is it possible, but also your users will help you out too.

  15. I love this story. It is great to hear people in the same situation or who have been. I am in building a Projected Digital Signage company, Looknglas, that displays moving signage and video directly onto storefront windows. Very cool. But since it’s a relatively unknown technology-driven product/service, there is always that temptation to puff or dissimulate when explaining to customers. But I agree with you and Mark Twain. And in the end, if someone gets mad because I am honest, then I don’t want the hassle of an assinine customer no matter what the money. There is too much business out there. I think that honesty is an incredible value added. Thanks for spreading the good word.

Sign up to receive 1-2 articles per month: