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Taking A Customer From Like To Love: The UX Of Long-Term Relationships

What do you mean “improve”? I charged him correctly, didn’t I?.

My manager looked at me, disappointed:

Yes, Des, you charged him correctly. But a vending machine can do that, too. They show up on time; they’re more accurate; I don’t pay them by the hour; and they’re never hungover. Your job is to do something that a vending machine can’t do. Your job is to make our customers happy; give them a good experience; bring them back here again. Get it?

I started to wonder. This was a gas station; how could I deliver a “good experience”? Surely, customers just want to get in and get out. Nonetheless, if I wanted to keep the job, I’d have to try. I started chatting to customers and casually asking questions. Did they find everything they needed. Could we order in a particular newspaper for them?

Do they have our phone number in case they need to check whether we carry something? Why did they stop buying from the bakery? Customers regard gasoline as a cost that they have no say about. They enter the store annoyed at having to spend fifty bucks. My job was to change that. I got it.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

MBAs call this “customer experience,” although when it’s spelled out so plainly, it sounds more like common sense. And like most common sense, it’s rarely that common — especially in the world of subscription software, where we need customers to stick around.

User experience designers are great at making software friendly and usable for new customers. We design clean, clear sign-up forms, smooth on-boarding experiences, and even helpful blank slates once users are inside the app. Once customers have used the software for some time and have integrated it in their workflow, their relationship with the software becomes more complex. UX designers have no stencils for designing “how the customer feels about the software after six months.” This matters because the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model depends on loyalty, on the idea that customers won’t flinch when they see your monthly charge.

Competing On Service Link

Initially, all markets compete on price. However, competing on price simply isn’t relevant with Web apps, because they are all in the same $0 to $99 per month bracket. Think about it: what sane person would switch project management tools just to shave ten bucks off their monthly costs?

We have reached the point where the service part of SaaS is most relevant, the point where the experience your customers have with your company will determine whether they stick or switch. Say you’ve been paying $50 a month for your time-tracker for the last three years. Have you enjoyed the service? Have you ever been personally thanked for your loyalty? Do you feel that the provider values your $1,800?

Customers Who Don’t Feel Valued Leave Link

The Rockefeller Corporation studied why customers leave one company for a competitor and found the following:

Why do customers leave?5

Look at what’s not here. No mention of price or quality. How you make customers feel is what drives their loyalty, and it’s here where website owners are in trouble. Website owners are disconnected from their customers, save for a conference party or survey each year. If you asked them to introduce you to 10 of their customers, most would struggle, grimace and then get a developer to break out the SQL. Imagine trying to run a bar, convenience store, hair salon — heck, any service — with that level of apathy towards the folks who pay your wages. It shouldn’t be surprising that your customers are willing to jump ship the second a competitor launches a sexy iPhone app. If you’ve never cared about your customers, why would they care about you?

Warren Buffett talks about building a moat6 around your business to make it untouchable. The strongest moat you can build is one based on strong relationships. Low prices can always be beaten. Stunning design ages quickly and can easily be copied. Impeccable uptime can be matched, and your features copied. However, a good customer relationship is unique, and loyal customers are hard to steal.

Some Things You Can’t Wireframe Link

Wireframes and mock-ups are excellent for figuring out and discussing screen layout. You can follow all the rules of wireframing7 to create a compelling user experience, but you can’t wireframe how a customer feels after 15 months of using your software. To deliver a compelling experience, you need to also consider “touchpoints” and “timepoints.”

Touchpoints Make It Holistic Link

Matrix showing different touchpoints8

Touchpoint diagrams help you see the various ways in which customers come into contact with your software. The diagram above from a holiday home website shows that the mobile experience is bad for non-iPhone customers, and that email and phone support should be improved. An amazing website is of no use if your call-center staff is rude or your developer is a jerk to customers on Twitter. Great experiences are about getting everything right; it goes well beyond fancy sign-up forms, cute mails and game-ified tutorials. Sure, all those things help, but the customer experience has to be comprehensive. Quality is fractal9. Your customers will judge your company based on all of the experiences they have with it, not just those dripping with CSS3 effects. Using a touchpoint matrix such as the one above will help ensure that you’re considering all of the experiences your customers will have.

Timepoints Make It Long Term Link

Acquisition funnel10

Anyone who has relied on metrics for customer acquisition will be familiar with some variant of the funnel above. We start with a lot of visitors, and convert a small few of them into customers. While this scenario is rather contrived and rosy, it does provide a way to measure different parts of your Web app. It does not, however, look at what happens next. If you ignore your paying customers, and they hear from you only through their invoices, then you can expect the relationship to deteriorate over time. Here’s how that goes:

Happy customer gets sad11

We need it to go more like this:

Like to Love12

Improving Your Customer Experience Link

Achieving this requires that you put a plan in place and put someone in charge of customer communication. There is no universal method that works for all software; it’s an iterative process. Your customers need just enough personal communication to feel valued, while not feeling like they’re being nagged constantly. As a start, I’ve prepared the simple questions below; someone on your team should be able to answer yes to all of them.

Test Your Relationships Link

  • Do you greet new members, introduce yourself and let them know that they can contact you at any time?
  • Do you check in with them after they’re settled in to see how they’re doing and to see whether they’re making the most of your app?
  • Do you talk to your users about new features before and after implementing them?
  • Do you send them the right types of messages at the right time?
  • Do you check in with your customers after their first year to thank them for their loyalty?
  • Can you easily tell the difference between your most loyal customers and yesterday’s sign-ups?
  • Can you tailor your communications to different types of users?
  • Can you name 20 of your customers and tell me something about them?

There is no shortage of questions you could add to this, but I find this initial set is enough to distinguish those who genuinely care about their customers.

Cut The Excuses Link

There are plenty of reasons why one might believe that this change is too hard to make. App owners will argue that their time is better spent adding features and fixing bugs. This is only partially true. Your customers are with you now without those planned features and with those bugs. I’m not arguing that you should ignore these tasks, just that those tasks are not the only important ones. Recall why customers leave: it’s not likely just because your competitor has launched an iPhone app. That’s one straw, but the camel’s back is already overloaded.

What If I Don’t Have Time? Link

Do you not have time to invest in keeping customers happy? The rule of retention is that you must be willing to spend as much to keep a customer as you did to acquire them. Leaky buckets don’t fill up quickly. Software such as Intercom13 makes this degree of customer insight and communication far more manageable. (Disclaimer: I believe in this so strongly that I now work full time on Intercom.)

A screenshot of Intercom
Intercom is the first of a new wave of tools aimed at enabling Web app and website owners to get to know their customers.

Too Much Feedback? Link

No one can afford to ignore their customers. This doesn’t mean that you must do everything they say; it means you should listen and respond. Too much feedback is a good problem to have. Rather your customers tell you what’s on their mind than silently disengage, forgetting about you until their credit-card bill arrives. By that point, you’re already history.

Delivering Customer Experiences Link

For one year straight, I spent one day every week speaking with customers of one of our apps. Before I started this, they were simply rows in a database. By the time I was finished, I had had a conversation with over a thousand people. I heard about what we got right, what needed improvement, and why we were losing customers. Very useful stuff.

Users were delighted to hear from us, because it reminded them that we’re more than a set of pages and a monthly debit. We started a customer blog and featured a few customers each week. We also added their logos to our home page. To customers, this is the business equivalent of being taken home to meet the parents. It shows a real personal commitment. These actions persuaded our customers to give honest regular feedback and to let us know when we disappointed them. We’d rather they say it to us than run into the open arms of a competitor.

Wufoo14 sent all of its customers Christmas cards in its first year. That was a huge hit. It was hardly surprising that by the following year they had too many customers to do it again. As a start-up, you have to play to your strengths. A small customer base offers you a big opportunity to deliver amazing service. Scaling that experience can be tricky. There is software that will help, but, again, solving this is no small challenge.

Start It Today Link

As a simple next step, why not take your first 10 and most recent 10 users, drop them an email, and ask if they’ll take a phone call. Let them know you’re there and that you’d love to hear their thoughts. You’ll be amazed at what you learn, and I doubt you’ll stop at 20.

Additional Resources Link

  • Intercom15
    A product aimed at solving the problems of talking to customers en masse.
  • “What Happens With Feedback,” Contrast
    A post explaining how to ask for and act on feedback.
  • Customer Experience16, Wikipedia
    A good overview of the field, including case studies of companies that invest in experience.


Footnotes Link

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Des Traynor is the UX Lead at Intercom, a CRM & Messaging tool for web-apps. He speaks regularly at international conferences (such as FOWA, Lessconf, CS Forum, MIX etc).

  1. 1

    Vince Baskerville

    August 26, 2011 7:25 am

    Great post & good point at reminding people that UX isn’t just about wireframing.

  2. 5

    Great article.

    As my client base has just started (only 4), I have found 2 of them switched to me for the reasons that are not primarily based on cost, but on the service received.

    Having worked on a sales floor and ran a restaurant you realise the need for rapour very quickly, but its not just that, you need product knowledge.

    When I first started as a sales assistant at a local store, I sold some kit which was Technics seperates and speakers. On the customers way out my boss, the owner was walking in and asked why someone has given the boxes away. The manager turned and told him the box had the original hifi in there. What I did not know was that the HiFi had been sitting there for 5(ish) years and no one could sell it. The people wanted a small simple HiFi with a budget of £200. They walked away with a simple HiFi, but bigger than a micro system which was wanted and costing £450.

    My Manager moaned at my boss becuase I was with them for 45 mins. My boss turned to him remarked how I sold it in my first week when he asked him to sell it 2 years ago. From then on, 40% of customers walked in looking for me through word of mouth from other customers.

    Same goes for the restaurant, I worked at our sister restaurant for a week and the next week I had 7 sets of customers visit us instead.

    All commented on how friendly I was, and even when I was busy I was still happy to help or direct people to people with more knowledge than myself.

    This is where alot of business’s/ people fall down. People lie about what they know on the spot just to keep a customer. What they don’t realise is people eventually pick up on this.

    I don’t believe the customer is always right, but what I do believe is that what make a great product is the customer/ user. They are the ones to use it in a way you wouldn’t. Even when they are wrong it should make you think about what they are trying to achieve. Working in programming you see alot of know-it-alls who mock users/ customers. They don’t like me for the reason that people will come to me becuase I listen, discuss and then resolve.

    All because I have built repour and trust….

    Hope that wasn’t too much of a rant…. :)

    • 6

      Forgot the other point…

      People will pay anything at first (to a point) but unless you have a good rapor and honest relationship, the customer WILL loose faith in you and your service/product and 9 times out of 10, they won’t say anything and jump ship at the first chance.

      The next stage is the most deadly, rumors. A bad rumor/ reputation spreads 10+ times faster than a good rumors/ reputation.

  3. 7

    Joan Mulvihill

    August 26, 2011 8:19 am

    I love this article! Not only is it well written and engaging, its really on the money, in every sense! In a land far far away, well Galway actually so not that far away but it was quite a long time ago when I was in Uni. …misty eyes… I was a naive student who wrote a thesis on the buyer-seller relationship with absolutely zilch real-world experience. If I knew then what I know now! It strikes me that the essence of a long-standing relationship is when you get to the “forsaking all others” bit. This article is relationship counselling for business, building loyalty and overcoming the times when things go wrong. Dr.Phil, meet Dr. Des…..

  4. 9

    “The rule of retention is that you must be willing to spend as much to keep a customer as you did to acquire them.”

    This is one of my favorite parts of your article Des. I think you’re spot on in this thought and something that too many people/businesses ignore. Some really do believe that once they have a customer, they’re there to stay which is a way of thinking I don’t understand. In today’s world there are too many choices and people are less faithful to a brand and demanding more in the way of ‘customer experience’. At the same time, it shouldn’t just be about doing a service to ‘keep’ them it really should be because you care about them. After all they’re the ones keeping you in business. Customers are smart, they’ll pick up on fake affection. The common sense part is to be genuine and to listen, help them the way you’d want to be helped. But then again, common sense isn’t so common.


  5. 11

    > I believe in this so strongly that I now work full time on Intercom
    Wow, that’s great product placement for Intercom! Congratulations!

    • 12

      Thanks Manuel

      • 13

        I did, I just wasn’t going to engage you on it.

      • 15

        I’m sure Des did “get the irony”, he just has more class than to pander to facetious comments.

        If some well placed marketing links appear within an article which I find valuable, I think it’s a small price to pay for what I have learned from that writer’s business experience.

    • 16

      You’ll have to excuse him.

      He’s from Barcelona.

  6. 17

    Think you can specify some other software that does the same thing as Intercom, or at least comes close ?

    This looks to me like an ad for Intercom, next to a lot of links that point to your website.

    The article was nice, but the whole promotion thing ruined it for me. You need to work on your Customer Experience.

    • 18

      Hey Piry,

      I mentioned Intercom because it’s contextually relevant. If I leave it out, the article has a sense of “what now…”. I mentioned the blog links because, well, it was that or re-write them here.

      Sorry the article was ruined for you.


      • 19

        I think you misunderstood my comment. Let me repeat:

        Think you can specify some other software that does the same thing as Intercom, or at least comes close ?

      • 22

        You keep responding defensively to all of these kinds of comments and totally missing the point. No one suggested intercom wasn’t relevant. In fact it is too relevant. It looks bad for you and your product to write a piece like this where you obviously stand to benefit from people buying into your premise, whether you had been more subtle about your marketing or not. This is PR, and doesn’t look good for Smashing especially, but your product as well.

  7. 23


    Great article and so true. Just one very important (imho missing) element in your recipe: sincerity. Do it because you would do it anyway because being true and good and caring to others is just a good thing. :) Having said that, reading between the lines perhaps you meant that all along.

    Anyway, good stuff and thanks!


  8. 24

    Jason Coudriet

    August 26, 2011 4:21 pm

    Tremendously solid article!

  9. 25

    awesome, just began working with a startup in a competitive market we believe customer service will set us apart, thanks for the affirmation.

  10. 26

    Definitely a good read! Customers like me fall in the 64% who thinks that you don’t care about them.

  11. 27

    @Doug – Yes, I should have clarified that (it was intended)
    @Jason/Ryno/Ayaz – thanks guys

  12. 28

    Good reading. You care also about your readers, if you respond to the comments too. Quite a good proof that you don’t just say something and do different.

  13. 29

    Good points. Well written. Thanks,

  14. 30

    Dominik van Treel

    August 28, 2011 4:21 am

    Thank you for your article! Very Well-written :-)

  15. 31

    Hi Des!

    It’s true, there is no many articles in SM which I read from begining to end, but this one I read. And I did right. You showed me many ways how to improve my websites and projects – thanks for that. And thank you also for getting me know about Intercom (no irony :D), maybe I found it useful.

    Greetings from Slovakia,

  16. 33

    Great article. One of the best I read on the subject.

  17. 34

    Very nice article. And not only for apps… for CRM in general!
    Do you have a link to the official research of The Rockefeller Corporation?

    many thanks already!

    • 35

      Hey Johan,
      I believe the study is part of quite an expensive resource – I recommend reading Ron Bakers Pricing on Purpose, as it gives a great overview and is in general a fantastic book.

  18. 36

    A very very informative article about CRM,,really one of the very best articles i have read on this subject,,a very awsome site,,really gonna bookmark it..keep up the good work..this site and,,have really become my favourite sites now.

  19. 37

    Thanks Vasu!

  20. 38

    Benoit Collet

    August 29, 2011 4:36 am

    You just said all what needed to be said for every SaaS CRM!

  21. 39

    Great article, really hit the nail on the head. Michael Bosworth, John Holland & Frank Visgatis’ book “Customer Centric Selling” has been a great addition to my arsenal of business / sales books over here at Lform Web Design. Easy read and very helpful in increasing my sales.

  22. 40

    Chuck Longanecker

    August 29, 2011 7:50 am

    Nice work Des. It’s always a good reminder to add a bit of “soul” into your web service. We’ll be checking out Intercon for our apps.

  23. 41

    Spot on! It echoes a culture I’ve been trying to create for a long time at my current SaaS biz. Thank you for writing this!

  24. 42

    I especially liked the part about mapping all the touchpoints to ensure the customer has a delightful experience across all modes of communication. Too many online businesses view themselves as pure-web medium and ignore the human touchpoints.

    My take on this – even if you can’t talk to all your customers all the time it’s ok. The very attitude of wanting to talk to your customers will ensure you reach out to all your customers in a meaningful way, and more importantly it ensures you value the channels that let the customer talk to you should the need arise.

    Sandeep Todi
    * Smart HR system in less than 24 hrs *

  25. 43

    Justin Mifsud

    August 29, 2011 11:51 pm

    Excellent post Des. Always great to read articles that come from experience in a real world scenario. Well done and keep them coming!

  26. 44

    Great article! I agree 100% that customer service makes the difference, and $10/month doesn’t mean anything to the end user after the initial purchase. It’s all about meeting the client need effectively and making them feel valued.


  27. 45

    Marian Bhatti

    August 30, 2011 2:00 pm

    Just leaving a quick comment to say I’m enjoying your blog…

  28. 46

    Richard Shapiro

    August 31, 2011 4:19 am

    This article by Des is filled with great tips for any business. To me the most important point that Des made and he made many….is that customers want to feel that the company appreciates their business and really cares about them, not only as a customer, but as a person too. Richard Shapiro, The Center For Client Retention

  29. 47

    Honestly, this is the first article I’ve read in it’s entirety in a VERY long time. Thank you for writing with such conviction in this article, it really made it resinate more.

    I will def. be sharing this with everyone I work with, it’s a must read.

  30. 48

    Great post. It reminds that product features and usability is not everything to servive in the market year after years. After sales services and customer relation is something which will help you grow and get the loyal customers. Which end up with increase turnover and market share.

    Thanks Des for amazing article.

  31. 49

    Awesome post! Customer service should be the top priority of ANY business. I read the following blog post awhile back and thought that what they did was a great idea:

  32. 50

    Esther Stringer

    September 20, 2011 6:44 am

    Great article about a holistic approach to ux

  33. 51

    Doesnt the reality of Walmart completely blow the Rockefeller study out of the water?

    • 52

      August 24, 2011 I love panuet butter and banana toast This is one of my favorite breakfasts too.

  34. 53

    Great post. Thanks.

  35. 54

    Helping customers have a great experience is one of the best ways to win them over and create advocates for your business. I work with a video production company called Catapult Impact ( ) and we’ve designed a software platform which allows you not only to send a video email directly to customers, but you can track who watches it, when they watch, how much they watch, who they share it with, and what kind of device they watched it from. Our clients have experienced amazing success with it so far.

    It’s helped us a lot with being able to personalize the message we sent to our clients.


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