Signal vs. Noise vs. Customers

There’s quite the conversation going on over at 37signals‘ “Signal vs. Noise” blog today, and I’m still puzzling over why said conversation is even taking place. What’s going down: Matt Linderman, from 37s, today put up a post that starts like this:

Useless, absurd, must, need, appalled, just, infuriating, essential, etc.

“What could be more fun than those magnetic words that let you write poems on the fridge? How about a set of magnetic words that let you write support emails. Our kit would include the following: useless, absurd, must, need, appalled, just, infuriating, essential, oversight, pointless, confusing, nutty, and maybe some good phrases too, like ‘it can’t be that hard,’ ‘i’m a programmer, i should know,’ and ‘even Blogger let’s you do that.’ Of course, the whole set should be ALL CAPS too.”

He then proceeds to excerpt fifteen customer emails that 37s has received, annotating each one with a snippet of text that certainly could be interpreted as an accusatory finger, highlighting what was wrong with each email that their support line had received.

After reading and re-reading the emails that Linderman posted, I’m even more puzzled. Yes, some of them contained some hyperbole. But what about the others, like this one?

“Please call me regarding my basecamp system — (615) 780-XXXX.”

Yeah. Boy, I could see how that would be upsetting…a customer wanted to connect with someone at her service provider. Or how about this one?

“We NEED a web based system like Basecamp, but I cannot tell if it will be any better by reading the information you have available. I’m looking for sort of a web based excel-like program. We need to be able to see at a glance every sponsor’s name, sponsor level, address, contact info, if they’ve been billed/payed, if we need/have artwork, and if they have comments. We need to authorize up to five people for editing and another 60 or so for viewing.”

Indeed. A customer clearly spelling out his requirements and needs. That customer must obviously be deluded and prone to hysterics.

The conversation plays out over 120+ comments. And then “JF” (I’m assuming Jason Fried, of 37signals) jumps in with two comments that, frankly, just seem defensive and tinged with the slightest bit of hubris, all at once.

“We’re well aware of that, we’re well aware of our cash flow, we’re well aware of our churn, we’re well aware of our signups, we’re well aware of our growth, we’re well aware of our big-picture customer satisfaction. We’re well aware of what we’re doing, thank you.”


“120 comments in and I’m surprised we haven’t heard from a progressive thinker who might wonder if all this ‘bad’ stuff is actually good for business. Could these sorts of discussions actually be good for a non-traditional business like 37signals? Do sales/signups go up on days with these heated debates? Could there be a positive business motive behind all this that more traditional business observers haven’t groked?”

Now, Cerado is a customer of 37signals, in that we use Basecamp. But this last quote from Fried has given me pause, and I’m hoping it’s not a canary in the coalmine. The phrase “Do sales/signups go up on days with these heated debates?” is looking at a point in time. It’s solely looking at the transaction. Now, couple that with the fact that (I hope!) any rational customer would certainly entertain taking his business elsewhere if he saw his support request pilloried in the public square as an example of what not to do. Put those two data points together, and one begins to wonder if 37signals is truly doing something differently (as they continuously claim), or if it’s just another business looking for the quick turn, long-term-relationships be damned.

Others talking:

Zoli Erdos
Jason Kolb
Kandace Nuckolls
Steve Portigal
Marcus Campbell
Joe Taylor Jr.

(thanks to Zoli for the tip)

10 Replies to “Signal vs. Noise vs. Customers”

  1. 37Signals Lost the Signal (for a Moment)

    Signal vs. Noise is all noise today, as the good 37Signal folks decided to make fun of their cu…

  2. What 37Signals is not only alienating their clients, they are also missing a potentially HUGE opportunity:
    Even if some requests, questions and so on can seem “stupid” at first, there is often a real concern, issue or need at the heart of it, but it isn’t spelled out.
    What you have to do is engage in a conversation to probe what the real issue is, even if say a feature request at first seems to be completely out of line with the product “vision”:
    Sometimes you may just find that it is in reality something completely different from what they asked for that is the real issue, but you wont find that out unless you take the time to find it out.
    And addressing that issue may very well be completely in line with what your product vision is, even if you address it in a slightly different way than what the user initially requested.

    People rarely spell out what they ACTUALLY want or need, but engage in a conversation, and you might actually find out what it is together.
    There is a classic

    Oh, and if you are considering taking your business elsewhere, you are welcome to take it to 😉
    It is a small project/task management application my company has been developing that has some similarities with Basecamp. Still in it’s early stages, but constantly improving..

    In all honesty, these types of applications aren’t really rocket-science to create (I’ve heard 37Signals never take more than 3 months. Agendapoint is less than 1 man-month so far).
    The barriers of entry are low, so long-term profits (if any) are bound to be equally low. So depending on that revenue ONLY is probably not a brilliant business plan long-term (we do a lot of consulting as well as product development, products both give some revenue, as well as show-case the skills of the company).

  3. May God Curse Our Company the Day We Mock Our Customers

    I debated about whether or not to post this for two days now. My hesitation mainly derived out of fear of others potentiall…

  4. I’m the author of the post at Signal vs. Noise.

    I feel like you’re putting some words in our mouths. We didn’t say we were upset. We didn’t say these customers were deluded or prone to hysterics.

    We did say some of these comments raised an eyebrow. I disagree that raising an eyebrow is equivalent to having a “support request pilloried.” We didn’t ridicule/mock our customers nor did we intend to. We used our customers own words. We quoted directly.

    Fwiw, we don’t think the requests were stupid and we do value customer feedback. We showed theses comments so people can see the different realities that exist for individual customers vs. companies vs. the customer base as a whole.

    Why share this info at all? The truth is these sorts of conversations are happening all the time in companies all over. Is it better that they be hidden from the public? Or is it better to have an open, honest dialogue about them?

  5. Matt, thanks for the comment. I feel we’re getting into a game of “litigous etymology” here. You’ve used the phrase “raise an eyebrow” in a number of different places, on a number of different blogs in your defense of this post.

    Others define it thusly:
    “to shock or surprise people; to cause disapproval or worry”

    (ref: )

    In plain English, what do _you_ mean by that phrase?

    And while we’re picking semantic nits, the formal def’n of pillory is “To expose to (public) ridicule and abuse.” A number of the comments (stated by others, not by 37s) in your original thread met this definition.

  6. Look, are these guys in the software industry or are they trying to be rock stars? Given the fact that their core products have pretty much stagnated while they spend all their time writing books and proclaiming how great their methods are, I’d say they’re turning into the software industry’s equivalent of Michael Jackson. How about admitting that you goofed guys? Is that really so bad? “Sorry, we shouldn’t have posted that. We’re working hard at addressing our user’s concerns.” That’s all it would take to salvage your reputation. People respect apologies, you owe one to your customers, especially the ones who sent the emails you mocked.

  7. I pay $49 a month for Basecamp … if I saw one of my emails broadcast to the world, in a negative light, I would kill my account. In fact, I’m researching replacement products now.

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