The lean app developer and customer communication

Lean App Developer

Being lean = less waste

It seems like everywhere you turn these days, there’s another great piece on the importance of “Being Lean.” Learning from Eric Ries, Steve Blank, David Cohen & Brad Feld and many others really drives home the point that startups should move faster, focus on developing customers and testing hypotheses. We are huge proponents of the lean methodology, as evidenced by our presentation at the Lean Startup Seattle pitch event.

They’re not just lessons in books, however – every successful app developer we’re working with has an incredible focus on 3 important things:

  • Finding their core customers,
  • Figuring out how to make them happier,
  • Focusing on the things they care about the most.

A major benefit of the lean methodology is that you AVOID building features that customers don’t want. We think that this is extremely relevant to app developers because users expect applications to just work. The more complex you make your app in a vacuum, the more hypotheses you’re making about users’ wants and needs. This tends to result in apps that are confusing and overly burdensome on new app users. So, we urge you to keep your apps simple to begin with and to learn and grow with your customers in order to be more successful and efficient.

Customer service & communication: your secret weapon

At Apptentive, we are driven to provide powerful yet simple tools for direct customer communication so that app developers can build the best apps possible. When done well, customers don’t need to be “sold” or “marketed to”, they just need to try your app out for themselves and let it speak to them. Customer communication is absolutely vital to the process of innovation: it allows you to learn. Information directly from consumers about what’s working for them and what is causing friction helps you assess your execution against your goals.

We came across an interview with Eric Ries on the Assistly blog that was incredibly relevant to how we think about customer communication and app development. Eric addresses why customer service is critical to learning (emphasis ours):

ABS: How would you rate the role of customer service and support in the lean startup?

It’s very, very important, but it must be understood correctly. In larger companies customer service is seen as a cost center, a necessary evil, not related to the mission. Marketing and product development are outbound functions, and customer service is seen strictly as inbound. That’s extremely shortsighted because we’re really better off trying to have a deep understanding of the customer and their behaviors. Customer service is really a learning function.

We can do so much more to integrate support into product development to tighten that loop. It’s easy to say but hard to do. Most companies do not have a way to value this “validated learning.” At the end of the day you can have all your slogans, but what are you actually doing?  You need actionable data. That’s why I advocate the tenets of the lean startup—rapid experimentation, shorter development cycles, and measuring actual progress to learn what customers really want.

Learning from customers has never been easier

Today’s consumer environment has trained people to speak up and share their thoughts and opinions any time, any where. Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, their blog or directly in your app, customers expect to be heard when they speak up. This means that as an app developer you have a huge advantage: simple solicitations of feedback are consistent with user expectations. You don’t have to teach customers to help you out – they’re ready and waiting for you to ask and listen.

Your opportunity awaits you – are you going to trust Eric, Steve, Brad, David and the rest of the people urging you to listen to your customers?

(for those of you totally unfamiliar with the lean startup principles, we suggest stepping through the slides below, they’re very helpful and a quick overview)

Lean Startup presentation for Maples Investments by Steve Blank and Eric Ries

View more presentations from Eric Ries


Better ratings for your applications

[Editor’s Note: Due to the popularity of this post and the ever-changing nature of the app stores, we’ve released a free 55-page eBook full of actionable steps to improve your App Store ratings, rankings, and reviews. Enjoy!]

Better Ratings

Begging for ratings is lame

It’s a commonly held belief that more good ratings and reviews will lead to more success for your app.  As a result, we see a lot of developers experimenting with ways to get ratings.

Ratings solicitation tactics
If you’ve ever engaged in one of the following, you know what we’re talking about:

  • Asked all of your friends to download and rate your app
  • Used your Twitter account to remind every follower that they should check out your app and rate it
  • Told every friend you have on Facebook to download your app and like the Facebook fan page you’ve made
  • Installed code in your app that prompts a user to rate based upon how many days the app has been installed

If you’ve been doing this, it’s not the worst thing in the world. After all, you’re trying to grow your business. We understand why you’re doing it and we think you’re ahead of many developers who aren’t even thinking about how to help themselves out.

There is, however, a better way. Asking for ratings needs to be about YOUR APP CUSTOMER.

Stop yourself and think about the rating process in this way:

How can you make your customers’ lives better by asking them to rate you?

This is a challenging question for some developers. Fortunately, we’re learning about this every day with our customers and we’ve discovered a few principles you might find helpful in thinking about ratings, reviews and the overall customer experience:

Ask a simple question: how many people love my app?

Remember: the surest way to better ratings is to have a better app FOR YOUR CUSTOMERS. It’s that simple.

Apple share of PC market trend chart - Apple's 11%

“Only” 1 in 10 PC buyers is getting an Apple device. Seemed to work out fine for them

Your app doesn’t have to make the entire world like it. It just has to have a rabid and loyal fan base.

Like Apple.

Got it?

Start with that goal in mind and work backwards from it.

You have limited time. Learn FAST.

A lot of our customers have fewer than 10 people working on an app.  Not a lot of resources. Which features do you prioritize? Which bugs are the most important?

One of the reasons we’re big believers in the Lean Startup movement is that it’s designed for organizations with resource constraints. A major benefit of the approach is to reduce waste by reducing the number of useless features you build as you discover your market’s needs. The more your product benefits from what you learn on a daily basis, the more likely you are to be efficient in its creation.

Ratings and reviews are prime opportunities for you to learn. Here are ways in which you can utilize ratings/reviews and customer feedback as learning tools:

  • The comments from ratings and reviews can inform your view of what users care about
  • The velocity of your ratings, that is, the number of ratings you get per day or per week can inform you about changes in customer perception. Are you suddenly seeing a lot more ratings and reviews? Did you make a change to your app that creates a reason for people to be more active in giving feedback?
  • The score – the actual values that people are giving you. This is an obvious one isn’t it? Most people just focus on the overall rating, however, instead of analyzing how it changes over time and monitoring significant shifts in the trends.
  • What is it that makes people unhappy when using your app? What can you learn from the critiques and complaints you receive? Are there customers who just don’t make sense for you?
  • What is it that people LOVE about your app? This is the most important thing you can learn from your ratings – what is it that delights people and what kind of people are delighted by your app?

When you look at ratings and reviews, think about what they’re truly about: giving customers a voice. Your goal should be to build upon that, giving them a voice so that you can learn from their feedback and make your app better.

So, how do you do that?

Ask simply…

App Ratings Done Right: Asking Your Users' Opinions

Who loves you? Find out how you’re REALLY doing.

People often overlook the importance of asking nicely. Pay attention to when and how you ask for information. Pay attention to what you’re really asking for as well. What are you trying to discern from your app customers?

We think it’s fundamentally about love. If you can earn a customer’s love, you’re on to something. You’re probably on their home screen, they use you daily, and they actively recommend you to their friends (usually by demoing your app in-person).

It turns out that asking a simple question gets honest feedback, constructive criticism and yes, more customers who truly love you. (We’re happy to share our app ratings component with all of you for free, by the way)

When you ask this simple question you inform your customers that you care about their feelings and needs, while respecting their time. By giving your customers permission to answer no, you communicate that the question is really about THEM, not about you. This is a huge departure from the traditional tactics we’ve highlighted above, which are really not about your customer’s needs. Consumers are smart and they can tell when they’re being asked to do something just for you.

When you’re asking customers to share their opinion, you’re also setting the expectation that you’ll be listening. That’s a huge gap in the current behaviors we see by developers who are asking for ratings. In today’s incredibly connected environment, customers expect to be heard and responded to. So, give yourself that capability (or use us to be able to respond to consumers quickly and directly).

…and respond nicely!

Responding to consumers who are expressing frustration is often all that’s required to soothe the frustration. Instead of being incapable of following up with the person having the problem, you can actually get in touch with them and possibly debug your code together.

While many developers think that people just want to vent and complain, we find that most people appreciate the knowledge that something is actually being done about their problem. Negative ratings and reviews are not about publicly badmouthing an app so much as achieving consumer catharsis. By establishing a direct line of communication with your app customers and reducing the friction required to speak up,  the person with a problem is far more likely to talk WITH YOU.

While being willing to listen is great, true consumer happiness comes when you respond. Just the act of responding nicely provides catharsis to your customers, delighting them at a time when most consumers are left alone.

You don’t have to tell customers that you’ll solve their problems (sometimes you just can’t) but by being honest, polite and apologetic you’ll ensure that they realize you are a real person who actually cares about the time they’ve invested in your product. That is not an impression most of those consumers will ever forget.

Plan for the long-term & respect your customers

Ultimately, we’re here to help you build a business that lasts. We understand that many of you feel similarly to Arash Payan, who created Appirater due to his frustrations around the behavior exhibited by consumers in the existing ratings and review model. As he wrote on his blog:

“In comparison to the unhappy user, the satisfied user rarely takes the time to review your app. Which leaves you with crummy reviews from uninformed users hurting sales of your app.

If Apple would allow developers to respond to reviews, or more easily challenge the validity of a review, this would be no big deal. But I don’t have any hopes of Apple wising up and fixing anything, so I’m left trying to get more positive reviews of my apps to drown out the negatives ones.”

Those frustrations are very real, but it doesn’t mean that you should settle for solutions that don’t get to the heart of your customers’ needs.

The app world is more competitive every day and the only way to consistently win is to have a core base of users who absolutely love you. Those folks will keep you on their home screen, applaud your updates and eagerly give you feedback, if you make it easy. They will tell their friends about you, they will pay attention when you release new apps and some of them will help you build the best apps you can possibly make. So, aim for winning more of those customers and keep their needs in mind.

Remember: if you’re trying to get ratings just to get more ratings, you’re doing it wrong.

The Mobile Marketer's Guide To App Store Ratings & Reviews

Our winning pitch from Lean Startup Seattle

Get Lean, people

Yep, we’re unabashed Eric Ries and Lean Startup fans. It turns out, so are a lot of other entrepreneurs in Seattle and they’ve created quite a vibrant Lean Startup community. Red Russak, in particular, has been wonderful about organizing meetups and Lean Startup events here in Seatown and spreading the gospel of the scientific business.

When we heard about the Lean Startup pitch event, we wondered if we were ready and put our names in the ring with a bit of trepidation. The other 29 companies in the field were all working on interesting problems and had great pitches, but ultimately, the judges decided that they liked the Apptentive story the best. With a format of 30 15-second pitches, 11 1-minute pitches and 4 2-minute pitches, we got to talk about Apptentive and our team in 3 different segments, take a look and let us know what you think – would you have picked us :)?

 Our 15 second opening pitch

15 second pitch at Lean Startup Seattle’s pitch event from Apptentive on Vimeo.

Our 1 minute pitch

1 minute pitch at Lean Startup Seattle’s pitch event from Apptentive on Vimeo.

Our 2 minute pitch

The decision!

Thanks again to the Lean Startup folks for organizing such a great event and to the judges for liking what we’re working on. If you’re an app developer, what are you waiting for – join the club and get Apptentive today.

The startup CEO must be the market maker in information

At the heart of every startup is a hypothesis.

There is, stated or not, an idea about what can be sold to a set of customers. The lean startup movement, led by Steven Blank (check out his excellent book) and Eric Ries* make this point eloquently and repeatedly, so I won’t rehash their words. The job of the CEO, they point out, is to focus on this hypothesis and then to test it, repeatedly, until the hypothesis and the actual market environment match, resulting in success and business for the company.

The CEO must make the market in information at their startup.

MarketMakersjobWhat do I mean by this? Consider the “market maker” in the financial sense, where it is most often utilized. A “market maker” is a liquidity provider. They are willing to take the risk to both buy and sell stocks, trusting in their ability to manage inventory of the stock. There are a few key things that they must do in order to be good at their job:

  • Understand the supply and demand dynamics for each asset they trade in
  • Understand their own organization’s ability to execute
  • Consistently deploy their organization’s ability to take an immediate risk (the $.10 difference in the illustration) and then sell that risk for a profit.

The CEO’s ability to “make the market” determines company success

CEOsjobJust like the market maker, every CEO is focused on a matching problem. If  they can figure out what their team can supply such that it is demanded in sufficient price and volume, the company can succeed and grow. The CEO gets paid on that matching of supply and demand and uses information in order to accomplish their goals. In order to do their job well, the CEO must be the master of information in their company. Every successful CEO that I’ve met and been around has always been incredibly savvy at making information flow appropriately in their organization. Typically, they:

  • Ensure that information is flowing across the team
  • Gather information from early customers, potential customers and the sales team
  • Translate information from the team (here’s what we can build, are building and think it makes sense to build) and from the market (here’s what we want and what we would pay for) such that both sides move towards agreement.

“Making the market” in information can be learned.

As a startup CEO, then, it’s important to be focused on how information is moving internally and externally. Each CEO should be highly focused on efficient and productive communication among the team, while informing their work based upon what the marketplace is saying. If the external market is constantly asking for “faster, simpler” and the internal teams are totally focused on “more features, cooler design” then the CEO isn’t doing their job. Pretty simple.

In the past, getting meaningful information at a startup was very difficult, even if it was a tech startup. To be an excellent startup CEO, one often had to be an extraordinary communicator and salesperson – they were the ones most capable of gathering the requisite information.

Today, especially for tech companies, this is a lot less true. The explosion in information sources and the array of inexpensive information tools has provided aspring CEOs with the ability to quickly understand and make the market in information for their chosen problem. As I look around the landscape of today’s startups and the lean startup methodology, I’m struck by the number of companies that are rising to help management teams better understand their market. For example, consider how these companies are establishing themselves as indispensable to the product/market fit process because of their solutions to fundamental information problems:

  • KISSMetrics: Analytics need to be focused on what makes a business go. They help you simplify and focus information.
  • You got people to your site somehow. Use Unbounce to determine what most of them expect to see.
  • AgileZen: Time spent on project management is often just time stolen from developing the product. Communicate project details faster and make improvement on your output a core goal.
  • Balsamiq Mockups: Communicating information with your team about what the product looks like before ever writing code. Less wasted time, more meaningful conversations about product. The bonus is being able to easily talk customers through your vision.
  • Pivotal Tracker: Build products as stories that match user needs with features. Track your productivity, learn about where there are snags and prioritize the stories that are most important to the external market
  • Wufoo: Easy forms. Using Wufoo to learn more from your customers and potential markets is an incredibly easy way to gather more information in a consistent manner.

CEOs should constantly seek out new information sources.

While those are just a few of the companies helping tackle the information problems facing companies, they are really indicative of an encouraging trend. Innovative companies are providing some really impressive results for their customers by helping the CEO match the external and internal markets in information.

We’ve built Apptentive because we believe in the value of information sharing and enabling direct communication between the CEO and the customer. As we learn more about the principles of the lean startup movement and incorporate them into our work, we constantly come back to a core idea: more unfiltered communication is better. If you’re the CEO, your job is to make sense of the unfiltered communication, to seek out new information sources and to make your teams execute quickly on making happy customers. Go make that market Smile

*Note: Eric Ries has a book coming out this fall about the Lean Startup

A free book worth your time

Free’s good right? Especially when you’re getting excellent information for free right?

Yeah, we thought so. For this reason, we highly recommend checking out the site for MicroConf, a conference for self-funded startups (like us).

We won’t be attending, since we’ll be at WWDC, but we checked out the free reader that you can that you get at their site and were pretty impressed. If you are seeking honest experience and advice about:

  • Things that worked
  • Where people made huge mistakes
  • How it’s possible to built a great business without outside funding

it’s a great read. Simple as that.

We’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of their writers in person and they’re intelligent, driven and practical. The advice these folks offer is about getting shit done and pushing forward. There’s no shortage of material out there speaking platitudes, but to us, much of that feels like a waste of time.

This doesn’t read that way and we were pleasantly surprised to find out that something free wasn’t chock full of advertising and promotional messaging. Nice job folks, hope the conference goes well!

Your customers have suggestions

When you’re building a business, your focus is usually on your next customer: the one you hope to win over today. You spend time planning and researching and grinding to earn a new user, a new app download, a new something. This makes a lot of intuitive sense to people, but in the process, you might be overlooking something very important: your current customers.

clip_image002As we strain to understand how to win over new customers, we often overlook what we can learn from our existing customers that would be applicable. Often, our current customers are the best representations of the “new customers” we are trying so hard to obtain. As big fans of the lean startup movement, we believe that it’s very important to learn as much as possible from your early customers.

Which brings us to our point:

Your existing customers have suggestions.

Every time one of your customers opens up your app and uses it, they interact with what you’ve designed. They experience your product and invest themselves in it just a little bit more. These customers are often the ones best prepared to tell you what to change or improve. For many of them, they stumbled across your application, made a split-second decision and decided to try it out. The ones who are continuing to use it can help you ensure that:

  • You know what new customers will be convinced by
  • You know what a new customer expects in order to use your application again

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Well, I sell all of my apps up front, so once they’ve bought it, it’s up to them to use the app.” To you, we have two additional things to add:

  • Your competitors care about their customers and your customers. Every day they’re trying to get an edge – if you’re lax about how you deal with your existing customers, they’ll figure it out.
  • Customers who use your app regularly are also much more likely to talk about your app and recommend it to others.

Start listening to your customers today

If you’ve developed applications for iOS or the Mac, we’ve made it extraordinarily simple to start listening to your customers immediately. Sign up today to join the growing ranks of Apptentive developers deploying our communications systems and listening to customer feedback.

You don’t have to take our word for it though

Some other smart people talking about customer suggestions: