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There's some subscription-based data processing web service - users pay via PayPal for the right to use the service. The "terms of service" document prepared by lawyers explicitly says that there're no guarantees so customers can't possibly file a lawsuit.

Now the service doesn't always work trouble-free. Sometimes there're network problems and so it's unreachable to some clients. Sometimes there's a problem with third-party services the service depends upon. So something like twelve hours per year total it doesn't work. This is not perfect, but IMO very good.

Yet clients feel that since they've paid for it - it must just work, period, at all times and they even write claims for compensation to the service support.

I'd guess they just don't read the "terms of service" but I can't be sure.

What's the standard practice (besides having "terms of service") to prevent users from having unreasonable expectations?

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Of course they don't read the terms of service. Who does? That's the only reason why you hide "you can't sue us" in there, as opposed to posting it on your frontpage. –  Joachim Sauer Mar 1 '13 at 14:40
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How is expecting your stuff to work unreasonable? Sure 12 hours of downtime per year is good, but as a customer, I don't care. The best thing you can do is to show (or fake) some empathy and promise to fix it as soon as you can. –  Telastyn Mar 1 '13 at 14:41
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On a more constructive note: try to present a human face, when you do fail. And that might just mean a professionally created error page with a well-worded "sorry, we made a boo-boo; we'll fix it as quickly as possible" message. –  Joachim Sauer Mar 1 '13 at 14:41
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@sharptooth - so? Who cares if they have that unreasonable expectation? Let customer service and/or lawyers tell them to take a hike and get back to making your business better. –  Telastyn Mar 1 '13 at 15:03
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If they demand compensation, ask them to calculate the amount stipulated in the terms of service. –  Blrfl Mar 1 '13 at 19:58

7 Answers 7

I think the only real answer here in helping your customers with unreasonable expectations is to be proactive with positive customer service.

What I mean is take every opportunity to reach out to your customers in a positive way when things are going well and go above and beyond to satisfy them when things are bad and most will overlook the small issues and negative experiences.

Overwhelming positive customer service will quell much in the way of negative experiences.

As a side, most users do not adequately read the ToS but stating it when they have a problem is not perceived as a positive experience. Sometimes even when you are right and they are wrong, you just have to make it right for the subscriber. What that is for your particular business I don't know. A free month maybe?

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"As a side, most users do not adequately read the ToS but stating it when they have a problem is not perceived as a positive experience." +1 for this part. You can be a legal snob, but don't expect it to be good for business. –  Joe Z. Mar 1 '13 at 14:58

Make some promises, make them prominent, and keep them. If you fail, extend your user's subscriptions appropriately to cover the down time. Don't promise anything you don't think you can deliver, but if you start making (and keeping) promises, then you'll take care of a lot of the customer issues.

Now, your lawyers may try to weasel-word you (in the TOS) out of making these promises real. Don't let them do it.

Don't promise you'll give away the store if it all goes pear-shaped on you one day (because it will), but don't treat these promises like marketing-speak. Mean them. Own them. Live up to them.

Do realize that you'll always have some annoying customer who thinks that having sent you $5 entitles them to everything in the universe, and compensation in the form of jeweled goblets filled with caviar whenever you have 5 minutes of downtime. Just be firm and tell them no. They might walk, but don't give into irrational demands - give them what you'd give everyone else, and get on with your day.

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Not really a simple 1-step-do-this-and-fix-everything solution, but a really great idea. I love companies that do that. –  Joachim Sauer Mar 1 '13 at 15:30
    
@JoachimSauer - Yea, in this arena, there are no simple, one-step solutions. –  Michael Kohne Mar 1 '13 at 15:31

One other thing: A "terms of service document prepared by lawyers" is not good enough. Write plain language and state your service (and limitations of it) clearly in advance and in no more than 5 lines.

Plain and clear language come first. Legalese is totally unimportant in developing good customer relations.

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Even if i agree with you, it's still extremely important to have a legal terms of service document, that covers you when things go bad. –  mri Mar 1 '13 at 16:58
    
Sure, but it's not the first thing to present to the user. Add a link to the full agreement below your plain text explanation. That can even be interpreted as giving your user the legal stuff and extra. In other words, it might even strengthen your 'legal case'. –  Jan Doggen Mar 1 '13 at 18:09
    
Ok, I'm totally on your side now. :) –  mri Mar 1 '13 at 18:42
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"Legalese is totally unimportant in developing good customer relations." Not only is it unimportant, it can be detrimental depending on the way you present it. –  Joe Z. Mar 1 '13 at 21:12

Terms of service are a good start. That helps protect you legally.

Otherwise:

  1. Don't promise what you can't provide

    This is good both legally and for customer satisfaction. If you're advertising better service than you're providing (100% Uptime!) on your main page, even if the Terms of Service are more laid back there's going to be trouble. This also applies to comparing yourself to services that you can't match/etc. Focus on what you do well and sell it for all its worth, but do make sure you can actually live up to it.

  2. Try to show the customer that you feel their pain when things don't go well

    Things break, services go down. When they do, make sure the customer knows you care. Don't let them bully you into feeling like you have to provide more than you said, but if you have the opportunity to go above and beyond, do so. And certainly if you DO drop below the terms of service, make sure you compensate them properly.

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Okay. We don't promise what we can't provide, but customers feel we have promised that. What can be done with this part? –  sharptooth Mar 1 '13 at 14:50
    
They are legally protected, but they are not protected from people voting with their feet. –  Joe Z. Mar 1 '13 at 14:54
    
"Try to show the customer that you feel their pain when things don't go well" - I think, this contradicts to the first point "Don't promise what you can't provide". And then he, probably, can ask compensation from employer as well. –  SChepurin Mar 1 '13 at 14:54
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why do they feel that way? I think you'll need to understand that before you can fix it. If some part of your marketing is misleading, figure out what it is. If your customers are just demanding their dream product regardless of what you've said, you may need to tell them "these are the terms, take it or leave it". If they can't accept that, they probably shouldn't be your customers. –  Ben McCormick Mar 1 '13 at 14:55
    
@JoeZeng true, which is why the terms of service aren't enough –  Ben McCormick Mar 1 '13 at 14:56

What you can do:

  • Be willing to weedout bad clients.The customer is always right, but in my interpretation, if they don't want to pay for services or they believe they've paid for services at a price I'm not willing to provide, you're no longer my customer. This could be a mutual agreement, maybe not. There is another old saying about getting what you paid for. If you stay at a cheap hotel expect cheap service. If I stay at a five star hotel and want a peanut butter sandwich at 4 O'clock in the morning and they run out, someone better run down to the corner store and pick up a jar and it's not going to be me. That's the expectation and the fact you paid a lot of money supports that agreement and justifies their rating.
  • Manage Expectations with warnings. Website outages never happen at a good time. Most people would prefer scheduled maintenance, so they can plan around it. If you're not doing that, you should. Send an email. Post it on your site when they log in. Keep people informed. Taking the site down because you're trying to manage the added growth could be interpreted as a positive sign that you'll be around.

The success of Facebook wasn't the idea for a social networking site (It wasn't the first.) it was the ability to manage the technical requirements of adding millions of users and keeping up with the volume without crashing like all the other sites. It is nearly impossible to do, but they've separated themselves very successfully.

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I work for a company that also provides data as a service. So I feel your pain. We have decided that keeping customers for the long term is more important and thus we decided to give refunds (so in the long term we keep them paying a monthly fee).

The only way to stop the complaints is to start providing refunds.

Do it such a way that you detail exactly how much you will refund (explicitly how it is calculated) and under what conditions the refunds kick in. Differentiate planned vs unplanned outages. This can be very strict just document it. Make the calculations done in such a way that it will be unlikely that you refund much (this is not unreasonable either) and the max you refund is one payment (assuming customers pay monthly).

Customers will vote with their feet and stop paying if the don't like the service.

Put on the home page down-time in the last 12 months and expected down time in the future (given past experiences). On the front page put a link to a page that details all down times and explain why the service was down. just be open and honest.

You have to remind people that downtime for a service is expected and document the conditions under which you expect to fail.

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This really isn't your question, but that a system works all the time isn't "unreasonable". With that being said, it would depend on how your system reacts to failure by third party systems and providing a good user experience when those occur.

As for your question. I would say that the best way to handle user's expectations is to provide them with a good experience in working with your system. This will help reset your user's expectations of the system. As pointed out in the comments, "No one reads the terms of service anyway".

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'that a system works all the time isn't "unreasonable"' - if the users are adults, they would hopefully have internalised the fact that there is nothing that works all the time. It is absolutely unreasonable to expect that something will. –  AakashM Mar 1 '13 at 16:53
    
If the users are accustom to high availabity systems, they will expect some number of '9's of uptime. 12 hours/year is 99.8% uptime averaging to 20 minutes/week. I expect the system I work on to have 99.99% uptime (less than 1h/year of unplanned downtime). I recall getting refunded some amount when my cable was out for a period of time - why wouldn't I expect the same of any other service that I pay for? –  MichaelT Mar 1 '13 at 17:09
    
@AakashM To me that is semantic, I would say expecting that a system work all the time is not unreasonable. Understanding the fact that things don't always work is something different. –  Schleis Mar 1 '13 at 17:16
    
@Schleis I don't really understand what you mean by 'that is semantic', but in any event, expecting something that you know will not be true seems odd at best. –  AakashM Mar 3 '13 at 21:17

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