November 19, 2022

Article at WSJ

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I Love Using Technology—but I Hate Buying It

Tech companies need to take a broader view of the customer experience and improve what it’s like to shop, buy and upgrade.

Let me say right up front: I love technology. It thrills me to try out the latest apps and gadgets, to be one of the first people I know to take advantage of a nifty new feature and admire some shiny interface.

But as much as I love using technology, I hate buying it. Even the best products can leave us frustrated if they are hard to buy, learn or stick with.

What I wish is that tech companies would stop focusing so narrowly on what it’s like to use the product, and think more about the bigger picture of customer experience. I want tech companies to work hard to earn my interest (and my dollars). I want them to go the extra mile once they’ve got my business, instead of ignoring me as soon as I make my commitment to them. And I want them to allow us to have a graceful and mature breakup when the time comes.

Here’s what that looks like:

Make my free trial really free and not such a trial

I want a no-strings-attached free trial, with a full set of features. Too many software companies use the free trial to get a credit-card number that they keep charging—and then they make it hard to unsubscribe. Others offer a free trial with such limited features that you have to pay for the full version before you can get a feel for whether the app will actually work for you. Just give me the full app for 7 or 14 or 30 days, and then let me buy it once I know I want to use it.

Straightforward pricing

Imagine if you walked into a clothing store, tried on a suit and then asked the price—only to be quoted a monthly rental price, with no option to buy. Then you get to the checkout and discover you only get that monthly price if you pay for a whole year’s worth of suit-wearing up front. And then when you pay your annual fee and get the suit home, you discover you have to pay extra if you want the pants as well as the jacket.

That is pretty much the experience of buying an awful lot of software and online services: You are pitched on a monthly price that is only available if you prepay for a year. And if you want to just actually buy and own your software, you’re out of luck. Please, just let me know how much it’s going to cost to use this piece of software, and let me decide if I want to “date” (by paying for a month at a time) or get married (by making a long-term purchase).

Tell, don’t show

I hate using gadgets or apps that only provide video documentation. It’s much faster for me to read a few pages of getting-started info (or better yet, to look up specific answers to my specific questions) than to watch a video. And then there are the situations where I need some guidance but can’t watch a video for help—like if I’m in a crowded coffee shop, but forgot my headphones.

Every single tech product should come with a quick-start guide in text form, so that a user can get up and running with a page or two of reading. It’s fine if you need to go digging through user forums for higher-level how-tos, and it’s great if you also provide your quick-start guide in video form for people who prefer to watch a short movie. But please, provide your 101 guide in text form, too.

Support like you sell

So many tech companies are great at reeling customers in, only to subject us to complicated and time-consuming processes when we need tech support.

The last time I bought a PC laptop, it only took five minutes to make the online purchase, and barely more than 20 minutes to set up my home internet service, but I’ve had to wait on help lines for more than an hour just to get my call picked up. Treat your speedy sales process as the standard and hire enough customer-support people to make it just as quick to get a little help.

Just give me a human

I count myself lucky when there is a support line to call; too often, the only tech-support option is self-serve, online documentation or some kind of chatbot.

Even with customer support lines, you sometimes have to spend 10 or 20 minutes proving yourself to a robot before you get to a human.

If you’re going to sell me an app or service I depend on, you owe it to me to pick up the phone when I call.

Let me get tech support at my level

As a skilled user, I’ve already done the basic troubleshooting steps before I reach out to tech support—so let me skip past the entry-level tech-support folks who only know how to run me through the how-tos I’ve already read online.

My less techie friends are just as frustrated by support lines that assume they can speak geek: They need support people who skip the jargon and assume no baseline level of tech knowledge. If you’re going to put us through a voice-response system before we get to tech support, how about some skill-testing questions? Two or three basic multiple-choice questions would make it easy to assess incoming callers and direct them to support staff that are appropriate to their needs.

Remember me

If I’m having a tech-support issue that requires more than one support person or call, please don’t make me tell my story all over again every time you switch me to a new person.

Any half-decent customer-care system should allow your support team to read the notes from the last call and pick up where we left off—but that rarely happens. I will do my best to turn the story of my broken calendar app into a lively and exciting narrative, but honestly, by the time I am telling this story to a fourth tech-support person, I will be hard-pressed to stay courteous, let alone entertaining.

Give me upgrade options

If I buy a $200 computer monitor, I know it isn’t going to last forever and it might be just a few years before it no longer plugs into the latest PC. If I buy a $2,000 computer, on the other hand, I expect to have some options for expanding its storage space—and maybe even for improving other aspects of its performance.

Unfortunately, more manufacturers are making “closed box” systems that prevent customers from making any improvements, or even basic repairs. The obvious message: You want an improvement? Buy a new one!

Go the distance

I don’t want to replace every gadget in my home every two or three years. But hardware and software makers love to box us into a corner where it’s upgrade or die.

I can’t tell you how many tablets I have lying around that are basically unusable—not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because years of operating-system upgrades have deliberately rendered them obsolete.

Give me an off-ramp

A hardware or software purchase shouldn’t have to be a lifetime commitment. I might love using your product for 5 or 10 years, but I eventually need something different.

When I do, I want it to be easy to move: That means giving me a way to export my data, in a standard format that works with lots of other apps. The easier you make it for me to leave, the easier it is for me to start using your app in the first place—because I know I’ll be able to hold on to my work and my data if things don’t work out.

Dr. Samuel is a technology researcher and co-author of “Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are.” Email her at reports@wsj.com.