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TL;DR In situations where it's objectively user error, I encounter two types of technically un-savvy person:

  • the "it doesn't seem to work for me, it's probably my fault, can you help" type, and
  • the "it doesn't work, sort it out" type.

What is the most effective but polite way of responding to the latter type? I am looking for the best approach. As they are paying clients who I hope to see again, I need to present myself as competent (i.e. bluntly: it's definitely not a problem my end) but also politeness, and even professionally "caring".

Example case:

I send my photography clients links in an email to a zip file they can download, containing all their edited photos. 95% of the time, they open the link with no issue. 2.5% of the time, someone tries the link and hastily sends an email saying "for some reason I cannot open, does it definitely work?" which I can deal with. And 2.5% of the time I get this: "the link doesn't work". After testing the link, I then spend ages agonising over how to present my response. In all cases there must be some genuine reason the link isn't working for them (e.g. you can't open a zip file from an iphone, the file downloaded but they didn't notice, whatever...), but I find that the phrase "it doesn't work" is almost a way for that person to say "don't show me how to make it work - fix it your end", and that's the problem I am trying to navigate.

Possible approaches - can you think of more?

  1. Saying "it works for me". This says "I don't care if you can or can't open it" and isn't a good response.

  2. Short response with open question e.g. "Hi, can you explain exactly what you are doing"? My concern here is that the person already believes the problem is NOT their end and they will send an equally useless response like "I am clicking on the link" with no further detail.

  3. Respond with more detailed questions e.g. "Hello. I have tested the link my end, all is okay. Are you trying to open this on an iPhone, Windows PC, Mac? Can you explain what happens when you click the link? Do you know where files usually get downloaded to when you download them, and can you open that location etc." - the answer they will give will usually be "nothing happens" and that empowers them to think I am over-complicating the matter. This approach would work with me, as I like to read things in detail, also I am generally decent enough to admit that I missed some detail and it now works ok. But often the types of people this applies to are not the ones who read questions in detail and are not happy to admit they made a mistake, so it is often not the best means.

  4. Send a new link and ask if that one works. Despite knowing it worked before, this is like a placebo that allows them to think I have done something different, giving them a way out of being shown up?

  5. Send a video by Whatsapp to the client showing me doing the very basic steps of clicking on the link in the email in my sent items, and that link definitely working, using a polite tone of voice to narrate what I'm doing and therefore how they should do it. Maybe patronising, but also seems like a watertight way of showing them they are wrong.

Even if I manage to show them the link working, is there a clever, low-key way of helping them to get to the point in thinking that it may have always worked, instead of them thinking "well, obviously he just fixed it and didn't admit this".

Perhaps dear reader you may think I'm overly obsessed by the detail of how to deal with this; maybe that is true. But it's something that takes up a lot of my brain space in dealing with customers and I suspect the generalisation of this problem may apply to many other areas of life as well.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Jul 4 at 10:17

10 Answers 10

24

Your best bet is to not use zip files at all. I had a photo shoot with a photographer and he delivered finished results on Adobe Lightroom. From there, I had the option to download them all as a zip file, but the first thing visible with the Adobe Lightroom URL is thumbnails of all the images. This is by design, to prevent the very situation you're describing.

I'm sure there are services you can find that are similar to Lightroom. Even if the photos are available for a fixed amount of time (30, 60, 90 days) on such a site, you remove a real pain from your workflow by taking this approach. If you need to charge more to offer such a feature, then charge more.

Lastly, all zip files are not created equally. There is a sub-format called Zip64. If your application is creating Zip64, client applications / operation systems that don't support it cannot open the file. The format that you create is not always obvious, it's a pain in the rear, and this is plenty reason to avoid zip files because of how much effort you expend when you get the client who's in this situation.

Good luck.

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    IMHO the OP's question isn't a technical one, but a customer service one. I would guess that no matter how you delivered he final product to the client, there will always be that 2.5% of people who will have issues and complain with a "fix it".
    – Peter M
    Jul 1 at 15:07
  • @PeterM There may always be a percentage that have issues, but that percentage will vary depending on how easy it is to follow the process. It's likely that this solution will decrease that percentage. So while this answer doesn't address how to do customer service for that percentage, it explains how to make the problem reduced which IMO is more important.
    – Rick
    Jul 3 at 13:07
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    Oh! Don't forget, just like you may have had an X/Y problem - the customer who complain may also be having the same kind of thing ...
    – Steve
    Jul 3 at 17:11
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    @Rick: "it explains how to make the problem reduced which IMO is more important" - not quite, it explains how to make the problem reduced in the very specific example case from this question. That way, the answer is unfortunately pretty useless to every visitor who encounters the same issue as described in the question, but with respect to a case that does not revolve around downloading zipped photos. Jul 3 at 20:43
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    This should not be the accepted answer, unless the question is changed, which is bad form. Consider future visitors to the site who arrive here based on the title of this question. Jul 4 at 11:23
65

Honestly, my approach coming from a software development perspective: All users are right even when they’re wrong.

Just because 95% can operate an interface without issue doesn’t mean it is the correct way. Users get used to bad interfaces, masking what is a bad scheme. More experienced users also have knowledge gathered from past experiences, but a good interface should rely on that knowledge as little as possible. My suggestion would be to take their issues at face value and use a more self explanatory method to send them the photos. If you’re tech savvy yourself you can easily put together a landing page that has a download link and instructions, perhaps even an embedded video showing it preemptively. You won’t be able to fix everyone but you can reduce their friction before it becomes friction. If a landing page is out of the question, then do a video showing the process and send that preemptively. Why wait until they’re frustrated?

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    It's the correct approach outside of Software Development too. The reason the customer says "fix your end" is because that's exactly what OP needs to do. It's not the technological aspect of OP's end that needs fixing, but rather the OP's incorrect assumptions about the customer and the systems.
    – Theodore
    Jul 1 at 18:36
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    I don't know how many times I'm absolutely convinced that my software cannot fail in the way the user describes, and many times, they are absolutely right. Developers (and others) can have a lot of bias about how well their system works, and can make assumptions about how users will behave that are frequently wrong.
    – Steve
    Jul 3 at 17:08
  • @Steve, most definitely. Designing is putting yourself in the user's shoes. I've done a lot of UX design as well, and this is the perspective to use there too. Sometimes people do things in the most odd, round about, indirect manner you can possibly imagine, but it is your responsibility to design for those possibilities, or design something that really funnels them into your stricter flow. Jul 5 at 13:02
16

I recommend 5, but different.

First, try to reproduce the error. Even if you are sure the customer is wrong, there is always a chance that they found a bug you were not aware of.

Then, ask for a video meeting. Apologize, say you attempted to reproduce the issue, and ask them to show you what they are doing.

In the meeting, first have them show you. There are two reasons. First is that there is still a chance there is an issue. Second, you can see how they are using the software, which might reveal a design issue or other chance to improve the product.

Finally, in the (admittedly likely) event that they are wrong, gently and politely ask them to try to do it the right way. Word it as a suggestion, a workaround. Don't tell them that they are wrong. Thank them for their time, and tell them that you will use this to improve the product.

And then do so. Add help elements on the form. Improve the manual. Change the UI to change the confusing element. Try to improve so the next person won't have this issue and won't have to take up your time. OR at least not with this issue.

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    "In the meeting, first have them show you. There are two reasons." - no, three, and the third one is often an important one: What they said (and probably believed) they did is not necessary what they actually did. Jul 3 at 20:59
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    @O.R.Mapper very good point. And a fourth point on myself, it will make the customer feel seen/listened to. That you are taking them seriously. Jul 4 at 3:37
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    +100. Though the next issue is that you'll have lots of users who are just incapable of using any video call software to share their screen and show you what they're doing :-(
    – jcaron
    Jul 4 at 8:18
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    Also, often having the customer narrate by voice what they are doing helps themselves solve the problem. Just what we programmers do when we explain our code to the toy penguin/the office flower.
    – til_b
    Jul 4 at 10:55
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I'd just say it was working when I tried it and ask them if they can send a screenshot or any errors they got.

This should get them started on a better explanation of the problem.

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    "How do I send screenshots?"
    – 134121
    Jul 2 at 16:12
13

It sounds like you're thinking about this the wrong way.

Your customers are hiring you to take photos, but delivery is part of the service you provide, and you should be trying to make it awesome. Even for technologically savvy customers, the experience of finally receiving your product and concluding business is an important ritual. If you delight them then they will be more likely to recommend you to friends or leave you positive reviews, and this will affect your business.

Sending a link can certainly be part of this process, but think about what happens when your customers click on that link, whatever device they're using, and design that experience. Make sure they see their photos immediately, presented professionally. Give them individual, archive, and slideshow download links, as well as a print button. Provide an option to get a snail-mailed thumb drive.

The final delivery is when you convince your customers that they're getting their money's worth. People aren't rational, and there is a lot you can do to improve that impression that costs you essentially nothing.

P.S. I know you said that this link delivery was just "an example" issue, so consider this an example response.

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    +1 for "delight your customer". But there are some grumps out there that just cannot be pleased. I find they're often the same ones that "can't be bothered" to troubleshoot basic computer tasks, like downloading a zip.
    – 134121
    Jul 2 at 16:04
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As a more general approach:

This type of customer won't appreciate being proven wrong.

They will probably not appreciate you guiding them through the solution - they want the problem solved without using any brain power.

Therefore, find a solution that does exactly that and is also the least work for yourself.

What that is doesn't matter. Sell them a dvd, send the fotos in a different way, whatever. Just don't spend time on helping them figure something out they don't want to figure out.

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    My computer doesn't even have an optical disk drive. "a different way, whatever", +1. Just not in a zip file because this isn't 1995. - 2.5% of the time, you fork over a thumb drive and hire a bike messenger. Cost of doing business.
    – Mazura
    Jul 2 at 11:26
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    @LoremIpsum no, I honestly think that 99.9 % of ppl that say "it doesn't work" instead of "please help me because I am clueless about PCs" are willfully clueless and will do everything to stay that way.
    – DonQuiKong
    Jul 2 at 12:46
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    In my experience, this kind of customer also values your work the least. If you stay with them long enough, they eventually come to believe you should provide all kinds of work for free, including whatever special delivery method you do just for them. It's best to simply refuse their contracts, or raise the price accordingly.
    – 134121
    Jul 2 at 16:01
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    @134121 oh I didn't mean you should provide that delivery method for free. I meant: send them an offer for dvd delivery that totally covers your costs.
    – DonQuiKong
    Jul 3 at 14:30
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    @wizzwizz4 A version of the 20/80 rule is that 20% of your customers take up 80% of your time. "Firing" the most time expensive customers can bring back real returns.
    – 134121
    Jul 4 at 15:41
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When sending your e-mail, you could send and PDF which explains how to work with link and the ZIP-file. This assumes your workflow is always the same so you dont have to create many PDF for every use-case.

With this approach you could ask if the clients understood the explanation and signals that you already tried everything so only cases where the link is really brooken will fall back on you.

If you want to use a more elegant way you could "hide" the PDF in a Link in a footer of your Mail. So the 95% don’t get annoyed by it.

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Since this does not happen often, it could be an option to just have an alternative ready for those cases, that is easier for them.

Anecdotally, my attached files in an email recently were sent on my side, but not received on the recipients' side. After a second try where I (as the client) insisted that everything looked correct on my side, they suggested I could just share a google drive link instead. The problem was not solved, but it was out of the way for now. Smooth experience.

So if your clients fail to use a link to zip file, they might be used to a cloud service. You could do any of these:

  • Always provide multiple links that work in different ways, so that they can just try the second one if the first one "doesn't work"
    I would assume that a list of "direct link to zip", "link to shared google drive", "link to some apple cloud share" you could cover a lot of different client's setups and experience.

  • Ask them to choose how they would like to receive the files

    • Either just for the few who have issues
    • Or as a checkbox at the time when they order.
      I would avoid this option because if it then "fails to work" that is worse.

But that is just reducing the 2% to 0.2%. There will always be some people for which it does not work, who insist the problem is not on their side, and in those cases you will have to walk the line between blaming them and taking blame. It's mostly about phrasing there. I suggest going with something like:

"I am sorry this is not going smoothly, "
(acknowledging their experience is subpar without actually saying you did anything wrong)
"Please try it again on a different device or in a different browser."
(a clear option to go forward)
"If that is not an option or doesn't work I would need some more details so I can figure out what is going wrong."
(Not "what you are doing wrong". It does not matter where it is going wrong, we will fix this together.)

After that, the scene should be set well enough that they are not unwilling to debug due to stubbornness. Because it is not about who is wrong. If they say that it also did not work with the other link / other browser / other device / whatever you recommended you can specify what details you actually need to know to help them.

Another great way to shift away from the blame game is to provide a list of "common" issues. That way it is clear that the issue does not lie on the technical side but it is also clear that other users have similar problems so they don't need to feel bad about it.

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It's a link, so I'll assume it's HTTP. Thus, browser may matter.

First of all, try the link [again]. You never know, your host might have just gone down.

Once that is done and the link worked for you, send a generic answer along the lines of:

"Sorry you're having trouble with this! I've just tried it and it worked fine on my end. I tried with XXX (insert browser[s] name here). Which browser are you using? Anyway, could you please give it another shot, and if you still don't manage to get the photos, please send me a screenshot of what is happening at your end, and I'll try to help you sort out whatever IT issue you're experiencing!"

Over the time, try to build up a list of common issues, then you can:

  • Include them in your template email.
  • Put them on some online FAQ that you can refer your customers to.

Other answers are also suggesting useful things, like videos... You won't be able with a video to cover all cases (though you might have more than one video). And the "Send me a screenshot" bit will often lead to more things, people not knowing how to do so, and you'll have to get information out of them another way.

A landing page of sort can be useful, and it's an easy way to confirm that people have at least opened the link in your browser... "Did you see a page with the following message: ....?".

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Whatever follows, start with "I'm sorry…" Is that acceptable?

In your exposition there's no indication that the client is "wrong about (anything)…" even if that's the most likely conclusion.

Sadly, "What is the most effective but polite way of responding" too clearly suggests you see a conflict between "effective" and "polite." Do you, or not?

How does "TL;DR" come into this?

What makes you think these situations are due to "objectively user error"? How is it certain they are not caused by various misconfigurations leading to system conflicts? (It's true, "misconfigurations" often result from User error and isn't that a wholly different idea?)

Is it true that some Users saying "it doesn't work, sort it out" seems to upset you?

That attitude might upset anyone and how does it change anything technical, or make the cause of the problem "User error"?

The most effective way of responding to the latter type happens to be polite, and the two are not different. Can you accept that?

Words to the effect of "I'm sorry. Let's try to sort this out…" are the best approach.

Beyond that, can you be absolutely clear what circumstances and settings are needed for success? That might start with "what Zip expander are you using?" and if they can't cope with that "Do you have (zip expander of your own choice) installed?" and if they can't cope with that, what check would you like to talk them through?

After that send the file again, then talk the client through each and every step needed to make it work…

If it works, conclude with something like "I'm sorry that didn't work right away. Does everything seem OK now?"

When you find the phrase "it doesn't work" means "don't show me how to make it work - fix it your end" how many times has that actually happened? As a straight number and as a percentage of your clients, how often?

Fairly clearly, "… if I manage to show them the link working, is there a clever, low-key way of helping them to get to the point in thinking that it may have always worked, instead of them thinking "well, obviously he just fixed it and didn't admit this" shows that you're seeing this not from the point of view of helping the client, but from trying to win in a confrontation. Which would you really prefer?

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    Wow, so many questions. In order; 1) yes, 2) no (are you trying to be a psychologist?), 3) my section in bold was a TL;DR for the rest of the post, 4) no - why do you think it might upset me? I'm not emotional about it in the slightest, 5) I cannot decipher this non-sequitur or work out how to answer this, 6) again I don't really understand this. What do you mean "the two are not different" what are you referring to?... I can't answer any more of the questions as your writing style makes me feel dysphasic, something I don't usually get when I read. Thanks for responding though.
    – hazymat
    Jul 3 at 23:44
  • Wow! So many opportunities for you to argue. At risk of being sent to Chat, did you notice how everything you said was at best argumentative? 1) If you agree "I'm sorry…" Is acceptable, why not try using that? 2) However defensive you want to appear, it doesn’t take a psychologist to see that “the most effective but polite way of responding" too clearly suggests you see a conflict between "effective" and "polite." Do you, or not? 3) The only way I understand TL;DR here, “for the rest of the post” or not, is if you’re referring to your own Post. Are you, or what? So sadly, more… Jul 4 at 22:39
  • Further… 4) However emotional you think you’re not, your Post made it clear that Users saying "it doesn't work, sort it out" upset you. Why is that hard? If you’re “not emotional about it in the slightest” why did you Post that? 5) I don’t understand your 5)… Can you explain? 6) When you don't understand "the two are not different”, where does that become unclear to you? There are effective ways, and polite ways, and no reason to see the two as different. Sadly, more… Jul 4 at 22:41
  • Robbie I didn’t come here for an argument. Better, as you say, to keep chat where it belongs.
    – hazymat
    Jul 5 at 12:50

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