Meet your clients: I just did a customer-facing Zoom chat and it was awesome

We're all conferencing as a substitute for staff meetings and family gatherings. But what about as a way to reach customers you haven't spoken to? We discuss five benefits and offer five tips.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Probably our single biggest societal problem right now is the trade-off between safety and economy in a world dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It's not an easy choice. We all need to keep on living, and yet, we all need to make a living. In this column, I'm going to show you how a COVID-inspired video chat turned into a powerful customer interaction vehicle, which helped with both sides of the safety/economy question.

Also: Video conferencing from home: Ten golden rules for newbies and pros

First, a little background. Most of you know me as a columnist and analyst. But I wear many hats. I'm also a software developer on a bunch of small products. I published my first article (it was a DIY article, 'natch) about three years before I wrote my first line of BASIC, but I've been writing and coding since the days of punch cards and paper tape.

Right now, I have a product that helps support about 10,000 nonprofits, a security product that protects more than 20,000 websites, and eight other products with user counts ranging from 1,000 to 20,000 users. I do almost no marketing, and I support users through an online ticketing system.

I never, ever talk to them.

It's impractical to accept phone-in support requests, and I have managed to successfully avoid going to trade shows for probably 10 years now.

Even though I make a moderate portion of my living from my software products, I have never met any of my customers. They're "out there" somewhere, and I'm in my house. I've never had the real opportunity to sit down with any of them and learn much about their stories, their hopes, or their dreams.

But that changed last week.

I was about to release a major update to the nonprofit software, and I was concerned about how it would launch. I was also stir crazy from being stuck in the house due to you know what. I'd done a few COVID-necessitated Zoom chats with my work teams, and a few more Zoom chats with some writing colleagues, and I found them to be high points of my week.

So, I thought, "Why not do a Zoom chat with my nonprofit customers?" I sent out a mailing to my list. Only about 10 percent of my active users have signed up for the mailing list, so that limited my reach. I also had no idea what to expect from attendees. I scheduled the meeting in Zoom for over an hour but promoted it as only being available for 30 minutes because I didn't know if anyone would show up.

I didn't want this to be a marketing pitch. I didn't want to do a presentation accompanied by a PowerPoint deck. I wanted this to be much more like an after-work chat at the local coffee shop. So, when I did my mailing, I described it as an AMA (ask me anything).

We had nine people show up, half on video. I found I much preferred seeing the video participants to just hearing the audio participants. It was much easier to feel connected to the video participants because I could see their faces, which made it feel far more like that coffee shop chat.

Five tangible benefits

I won't go into the details of our discussion, but I'd like to share with you some of the benefits. These are benefits you may well find if you open up informal customer-facing Zoom chats for your products or services.

Overcoming unexpected concerns. I'm adding a new feature to the nonprofit software and customers were worried that it would replace another related feature. I was able to reassure them that they wouldn't lose their old feature. I am now incorporating that reassurance into all my posts and outreach on this update.

Resolving pain points before they become problems. Since this AMA was oriented around an upcoming upgrade, I got to hear about concerns and areas of confusion among the users. They weren't clear on the actual procedure of implementing the upgrade, something I just assumed they understood. As a result of the chat, I put together a step-by-step upgrade guide, which I'm convinced tremendously reduced the number of support tickets.

Identifying new product add-on (and revenue) opportunities. I use the freemium model, where the core product is open source and free, and I capture revenue on sales of add-ons. During our discussion, the users shared with me a bunch of features they wanted, each of which would make for great new add-on products (and therefore, new stuff to sell).

Encouraging reviews and product championship. Because the folks who rely on this product were able to interact directly with the developer, they got to know me a bit better. I was able to share with them a road map of the product and help them understand its long-term direction. It was neat discovering that, right after the chat, I got a couple of additional five-star reviews on the product's site.

Increasing motivation. I know nonprofits are using my stuff, but it wasn't until one person told me that it enabled all their worldwide travel, and another told me how it was helping abused people get help, that I really understood my code wasn't just code; it was actually meaningful to their good works. That, more than anything, gives me the motivation to keep working on it.

Five tips for your customer-facing Zoom chats

There's always a natural delay between the time I write a column and when it goes live. Often, the priorities of ZDNet's editorial calendar dictate the order in which columns are published. So, I'm updating this about two weeks after I wrote the above sections, and I've since done a second customer-facing Zoom chat. These tips take into account that I now have a bit more experience to call upon.

Be casual. It humanizes you. Don't think of this as a formal event or presentation. This is a new kind of outreach, and it benefits from the very personal nature of a video chat. I didn't give a lot of notice or send out multiple reminders. I looked at my calendar, realized I had a nice open gap on a Thursday two days hence, and sent out a quick mailing. I did the same for the second mailing.

Schedule randomly and based on convenience. Don't make these regimented occurrences. It will get old if you have a chat every Thursday at 2pm, and it might get in the way of something else important on some weeks. Instead, when you have a nice gap in time and want to do some outreach, do it then. You'll be much more relaxed, and that demeanor will help inform the entire tone of the meet-and-greet.

Reserve 90 minutes in Zoom, but promote 30 minutes. I like to make sure my Zoom meetings don't get in the way of my interaction. So, I schedule a big enough block of time to make sure I don't need to deal with the Zoom console when I'm talking to customers. Promoting 30 minutes is great because it's not too long or too short. But if you allocate the extra time (including 30 minutes before -- see the next tip), you can keep going when the conversation merits it.

Allow visitors to join before you do. No one likes being stuck waiting in a holding pattern. I set my second Zoom meeting to open up 30 minutes before the scheduled time and allow visitors to join before I do. When I popped into the second Zoom right on the dot, I found two other participants were already there and having a very nice chat, allowing them to connect with each other as much as with me. (If you do decide to enable the "Join Before Host" setting I recommend you also password-protect your meeting.)

Set Zoom to automatically record to desktop. Zoom will record your entire meeting. It's not perfect, but it's watchable. Set it to record to the desktop instead of the cloud, because then you won't run afoul of Zoom's cloud-recording time limits. Once the conversation is done and the video post-processes, you can upload it to YouTube. That way, people who couldn't make the time slot you chose can watch it on-demand. You're not going to get a lot of YouTube views, but that's not the point. It's making sure your customers know thay can watch if they want.

Here's a bonus tip: Zoom defaults to creating new meetings with passwords. When you promote your meeting, do so to a controlled list (like my mailing list). That way, you can be pretty assured you won't be subject to Zoom bombing. Don't just tweet out your meeting ID and password, or you may regret it.

Also: The complete Zoom guide: From basic help to advanced tricks

Some final thoughts

I approached my first customer-facing chat with great trepidation. I didn't know if anyone would show up, or if I'd have a hundred angry customers, nursing unknown grudges for some product limitation or another. Instead, it rocked. It was not only good business, but it was fun. I was energized afterward, and that was definitely a surprise.

My plan is to do a customer-facing Zoom chat every month or so. I'm not going to set a regular time, but if I have a gap in my schedule, I'll post one, and see what happens.

What about you? Have you done customer-facing Zoom chats, or have you limited your Zooms to staff meetings and family gatherings? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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