How not to sell me software

15 10 2008

(The following is inspired by a recent experience – but naming no names!)

Here are some ideas for making sure that I don’t buy software from you. If you do this really well, I’ll add you to my list of companies to be avoided. You might need to take other steps to put other people off, but these will definitely go a long way towards doing the trick for me.

First, make sure your website doesn’t give much detail about your product beyond a general outline of its features. There are obviously many things you can omit that will usually send me away immediately (for example, pricing, licence terms, system requirements). But to really annoy me you should be a bit more subtle at this early stage.

The real trick is to give the “bare bones” without actually providing enough information for me to come to any conclusions. That way I have to actually try the software in order to learn anything, and must guess whether it’s worth bothering with. You can get quite creative with this. A lot will depend on your particular product, but basically you need to make sure that nothing that feels like actual documentation ever manages to leak out onto the website.

The next step is to require me to “register” for a trial, and then login with userid/password, even if all I want at this stage is to see the full documentation. Making me register for a trial of the software might or might not discourage me, depending on the software and how well you handle this, but having to register just to see the documentation is always a real winner.

Follow this up by sending me a hard-sell marketing email with lots of guff in it about how wonderful you are. In this first email, you need to really push your top-of-the-range corporate/enterprise capabilities and consultancy. Throw in as much management-speak as possible. This gets extra marks if I’ve already told you via your registration form that I’m trying your software as a “home” user, and looking for just one licence for personal use on a single system.

However, don’t imagine that a simple automated “do not reply” email will be adequate. That’s half-expected, and far too easy to ignore. Instead, you need to wait a bit and then send a personally-written email that offers to help with the trial. Make sure this is poorly written and includes some obvious stock phrases. The ideal is probably to write each such email individually, but with plenty of “cut-and-paste” of standard sections. Maybe with some badly thought-out scripting or mail-merge for some of it. Repeat my name a few times. Start informally then use lots of “sir” and “mr.” in the body of the email. You’ll probably want to outsource all of this work to the lowest bidder to make sure it’s done as badly as possible.

If I’m in the mood to reply, I’ll perhaps explain that I’ve already looked at some particular competing product and likely to adopt it, but just taking a quick look at some alternatives. I might give some feedback on what I’ve already seen of your own product.

In response to this you need to send me a second email to change my mind. This second email should explicitly presume that I am going to make a purchase from you. Remember, always say “when” rather than “if”.

Your priority in this second email is to bombard me with criticisms of the competitor that I’ve said I’m likely to choose. These should at the very least be highly debatable, but ideally you should try to make them ruthlessly overstated and blatantly alarmist. If possible, base them on an old version of the product rather than its current release. A few outright lies will get you top marks here.

For the best effect, it needs to be obvious that these criticisms are previously-prepared, canned arguments that you keep ready for use against each competing product. You’re looking to make them a completely transparent attempt to scare me away from the competitor, in a way that will only work if I’m ignorant of the facts and unfamiliar with the product concerned. To pull this off you’ll need to ignore the fact that I’ve clearly just done my own evaluation of the competing product and found it to be at least adequate.

For example:

  • Try to scare me away from a highly-respected open-source competitor by explaining that open-source means “everyone” can change the code and this could “damage” my system.
  • For open-source products relating to security, tell me that using an open-source product would, by its very nature, put my security at risk (extra points for each repetition of the word “risk”).
  • Describe the competitor’s product as “unreliable” and your own as “much more reliable”. Be careful not to give any figures or evidence, as that would ruin the effect.
  • Tell me that the competing product has an unfriendly and difficult user-interface. This works especially well when I’ve just finished evaluating it and found its user-interface to be perfectly okay. To get the maximum benefit, make sure that your own product’s user-interface and documentation are a mess.

As final flourish, try concluding this second email with a personalised “call to action” that accidentally uses somebody else’s name (e.g. “call me to arrange your purchase, mr. Earnshaw”).

Finally, make sure that all emails are written by someone that isn’t very good at the language being used (in my case, English). If you have offices in my own country, or another country that speaks the same language, you’ll need to carefully outsource this work to somewhere else. To be really sure, write the emails in some other language and then automate their translation. This might take some effort to set up, but as an added bonus you’ll make me pessimistic about what dealing with your support team might be like.

Please note: I’m dreadful at languages, and don’t expect everyone else to speak mine perfectly. If you’re a very small company or individual, any attempt to talk to me in my own language is wonderful as far as I’m concerned. I’m also happy enough if you write in your own language and leave it to me to try and translate it. But if you have a website and product documentation in English, and you’re claiming to have offices all over the world with multiple offices in the USA and the UK, and you’re also boasting about big-scale corporate/enterprise support and consultancy stuff, I’ll find it very hard to take you seriously if you send me marketing-style emails that seem like they were written by a rather strange four-year-old.

If you want to be really ironic, you can use your poor English to criticise the competing product for having “user made and not official” language packs.

Clearly you can build on that, and I might find it amusing to continue corresponding with you, but the chances are I’ll be long gone by this point.

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