Simple Plan To Meet Most Customer Service Needs

I am going to break my own rule about providing specific advice here on this blog. I made that rule because there is no point in anyone giving me money, which I can exchange for goods and services otherwise unavailable in a strict barter economy, if I’m just sitting here blathering away. But I started this site to provide obvious truth to the seven people who find me amusing, and by god, this is as obvious as it gets:

Step 1: Identify what is preventing your customer from using your product.

Step 2: Tell as many customers what the problem is, how they could work around the problem (if possible), and when you will fix the problem.

Step 3: Fix the problem in the given time.

You don’t even need management consultants for any of this. You need eyes, internet access, and the sense evolution gave this flatulent beagle dog lying under my desk. Please bear in mind that the animal in question once got her head stuck in a box of Triscuits. Another time she ate a pound of cough drops. She barks at pizza boys after they leave. This is not a smart dog. This is simply a dog bright enough to anticipate that a hot dog might roll off a flat platter and positions herself accordingly. Yeah, yeah, I could get a platter with edges. What can I tell you, I drink beer when I barbecue.

But I’m bringing my IQ down on purpose in a controlled environment when my sole responsibility is not burning the burgers. When I’m on a job, I manage through tremendous effort to pull my mental capacity up to the canine level. I look for places where hot dogs might fall to earth, and I sit there.

Take server downtime, for example. Long ago, in the dawn of prehistory (by internet standards), back when customer service was done by unpaid volunteers after a stringent application process testing the wannabee’s ability to use a search engine, I would be merrily playing my favorite brand of crack when, boom, servers down. No explanation, no ETR, no nothing. This motivated me to fill out an application to do a job that in India takes six months of training. Since I could spell, and there was no readily searchable proof of my facility with the f-bomb, I was in and on the front line in less than a week.

That was when I discovered that the customer service team didn’t get any warning about the downtime, either.

A volunteer’s job at the time, in the event of the game going down, was to head to the official chat areas, which would fill up with people wanting to know what would happen. I used to joke around about tripping on the extension cords, or spilling Diet Coke on the server. But I was as in the dark as anyone else. Changing brands of crack wouldn’t have helped. The experience was the same everywhere.

This state of affairs led to the cornerstone of my philosophy as a provider of customer service. When the servers go down, find out why, and tell people.

It works! Human expectations are so staggeringly low that we’ll sit around like contented sheep as long as we know what’s wrong and roughly when it will be better!

I did discover that Step 2 in my Grand Plan as outlined above takes a bit of experience. For instance, when you ask a programmer how long it will take to fix a problem, he tells you how long he will take to fix his part of the problem. It is a rare specialist who realizes that you, as a community weenie, consider “the problem” to be “people cannot log in.” The code issue may well be fixed in 30 minutes, and this hypothetical technical person does not realize that taking a room full of servers offline takes 15 minutes, testing a patch takes 30, pushing the patch from the test server to the live servers takes an hour, testing the patch on a live server before opening the login server takes another 30 minutes, putting the patch on the patcher takes 15, and then bringing the whole show back online takes 15. That’s more than two hours for a simple fix to an easily identified problem the coder was able to execute in one try… and if the community weenie only talked to the coder, the customers would have heard “30 minutes.”

But you can solve this conundrum by getting up, walking over to the customer service department, and asking how long the mechanical process takes. Then you saunter by the testing team and ask them how wacky a test process will be for a given kind of fix. More obvious truth!

To further refine your time estimate, there are different breeds of programmers/producers, and a good community manager has strategies for all of them. There are the Scotties, who swear every task will take seventeen hours and a methamphetimine drip. You can subtract an hour from all of their estimates when you post, as long as you don’t subtract the part where you hail them as heroes for beating their estimate. Scotties NEED that.

There are the dreamers, who give estimates like “an hour”even though they have never in their lives knocked out an assignment in such a short period of time. The trouble with these guys is that they lose all track of time when they are following their bliss, and when they come out of the trance, it feels like it’s been an hour, and they blink at you with surprise when you scream that it’s been seven. Every one of the dreamers has a different multiplying factor. It doesn’t matter how senior they are, either. Astonishingly important people can have a multiplying factor of four. Yes. When they tell you two hours, you tell your community eight. Don’t worry about getting caught; the dreamers think that what you do is silly, and that THEIR job is the only one that really matters to the success of the company, so they’ll never check the website and find out what you’re doing.

Fortunately, the bulk of the techies you encounter as a community person are level-headed, and give you a genuine estimate based on what they know of the problem and their own abilities. But they are not going to call you up with status reports, and if a job turns out to be more complex than anticipated, every decent programmer is going to dive in and put their nose to the grindstone without calling you up. This is okay. It is YOUR job to stay updated without jogging anyone’s elbow and slowing up the process. If you get in a snit because no one calls you with updates, you should consider a different job. Perhaps one in strategic planning. Community managers do not sulk. We get OUR thrills by muttering “I told you so,” but that’s a different post for another day.

No matter what breed of coder you’re dealing with, take all of the information from code, CS, QA, and the producer if he’s the kind that produces instead of playing the competition’s games all day, and add two hours for your initial estimate. At least, until someone who is stupid and has veto power over you catches you and gives you a stern lecture about it.

All the knowledge in the world does no good if you aren’t sharing it with the customers. If your website cannot be updated on the fly by a confused chimpanzee (i.e., your typical writer of a certain age faced with technology), you do not have a communication tool. If you rely on forums to get the message out, you are not communicating with the vast majority of your customers. Estimates vary, but anywhere from 60% to 80% of your players wouldn’t go near a forum if it promised them oral.

But most companies have a website that your typical writer can update without too many tears. Great. Here’s the two biggest mistakes people make: 1) They post that servers are down, but nothing else. Um, if you are “communicating” something that everyone already knows or they wouldn’t be checking your website, you are not communicating. Tell ’em something they don’t know, like why. 2) When the ETR changes, and it does, the new time just goes up, and the old time vanishes without a trace. Bzzt! Wrong! You cannot change things that have been posted, or people lose trust in your site as a reliable source. Every time you make a change to anything on your site, you must put “Edited at X:XX; Reason: XXXXX.” This is a demonstration of transparency and integrity. Players are reposting what you say, and will know if you have made a change. You cannot just shift their foundation without warning or explanation, and this applies to changes large and small.

There it is, the obvious and the perhaps less obvious combined in one handy post. You can extrapolate and figure outa strategy for things beyond server downtime.

I’m cranky about this aspect of customer service today because of my airport experience on Tuesday. My 5:55 departure was listed as “delayed” when I checked in at 4:00. I got to my gate with nothing more than the usual aggravation of security that doesn’t keep me one whit safer, and what a well-equipped gate it was. There was the status board with the flight number, destination, time (now reading 6:30), and a few blank lines. There was a ceiling-mounted LED scroller. There was a loudspeaker, reminding me every two and a half minutes not to set down my backpack lest I cause a panic. There was a local loudspeaker, audible only to those of us at the gate. And there was a whiteboard on an easel.

No human, but all of these tools were clearly intended to communicate with minimal human intervention. Someone was in fact changing the data. 6:45. 7:08. 7:45. 8:10. And then my flight number and destination disappeared entirely, replaced with an entirely different destination. While Brazil sounds FUN and all, I really just wanted to go home.

There was no human at the gate, the service desk, the airline service desk, or the next seven gates I wandered past. I finally caught an airline employee just as she was about to disappear. She was very friendly and professional, and three clicks revealed the situation – major storms at the airport where “my” plane was. It hadn’t even left the ground. My gate was reassigned to another plane that had been delayed. Once “my” plane got off the ground, a new gate and time would be assigned. The information was right there at her fingertips, but there was no employee responsible for telling the hundreds of confused, tired customers milling around three hundred yards away.

Three hundred people sitting in a location with a blue, cloudless sky cannot possibly know without being told that their flight hasn’t even left the originating airport.

You can take the girl out of community, but not the community out of the girl. I went back to my gate and used my soft, dulcet, hardly-audible voice to let people know the score.

The mood changed almost immediately, at least for those within range of my bleating. Everyone who heard me took the attitude of “well, you can’t do anything about storms,” and settled down to read and wait for more information. But the people who didn’t hear me got angrier, and in some cases hysterical. When an employee finally got to the gate, it wasn’t pretty. The general mood when we boarded at 9:15, even less so.

Now, in person, most of us have social restraints that keep us from acting out. Three hundred customers is, in MMO terms, miniscule. A number of the three hundred people there in the airport knew the situation, either from checking their own computers, from talking to friends at the originating airport, or my loud mouth. Only a handful of people were furious enough to be abusive to the airline employee (whose duty involved printing out seat assignments, not communication).

Take away the social constraints of face to face contact. Multiple the number of customers by thousands. Take away outside sources of information. Exponentially increase the level of passion and devotion to the product, and how personally the customer is taking a given inconvenience.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you hire a community person.

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34 Comments

  1. Corvus said,

    June 14, 2007 at 11:30 am

    You don’t know me, so I’m guessing I wasn’t included in that count of 7 people. But, as I believe the universe provides continuity and connection, you might as well make that 8 people who found you amusing that you started the blog for.

    Anyway, good post. I, too, once got my head stuck in a box of Triscuits.

  2. Trevel said,

    June 14, 2007 at 11:50 am

    Who hasn’t, in this workaday world, got their head stuck in a box of Triscuits? I always assumed it was the North American rite of passage.

    At any rate, wanted to point out — in my estimation, a post saying “the servers are down” DOES say something. Not that the servers are down, but that people KNOW the servers are down and — by implication — someone is working to bring the servers back up. I have played smaller games where this amount of information was vital — someone knew and cared.

    Not that additional information isn’t useful — setting levels of anticipation is a very good thing to do — but don’t diss the “we know it’s broke” note.

  3. zcline said,

    June 14, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    Very odd. You seem to enjoy punishing yourself. I really can’t imagine anyone who would want to do a community management type role, from what you’ve described it sounds horrid. And yet, here you are, blogging about it! I’m a child of the 80s so I know it takes “Diff’rent Strokes” to rule the world/run a successfull MMOG, but wow. If I were in charge of one of those, or in a position to hire people, you’d definitely be running my customer service group. Its rare enough to find someone smart, let alone someone smart who actually cares.

  4. Gar said,

    June 14, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Hmm, Corvus beat me to it, I’ll clock in at the number nine spot.
    I work in retail, and can confirm how much better the attitude customers have when they are given a time estimate as to when the product they want will be available.

  5. Hanna said,

    June 14, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    The first rule of consultants is to give away for free good information. Just enough of it so people know you’re damn smart.

    You’re not giving us even a smidgen of your full knowledge, which is fine. Someday, someone’s going to be paying you good money to set up a Customer Service team. In the meantime, you’re entertaining and enlightening us, which is a perfectly fine goal in itself.

    I’m very glad you started a blog.

    Love,

    Hanna

  6. Ken Sykora said,

    June 14, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    “The trouble with these guys is that they lose all track of time when they are following their bliss, and when they come out of the trance, it feels like it’s been an hour, and they blink at you with surprise when you scream that it’s been seven.”

    Wow… this described me on such a ridiculously accurate level that the only explanation must be that I am you.

  7. John said,

    June 14, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Based on what is currently happening…this is a very well written, “I told you so”

    Nice read. Thank you.

  8. Sanya Weathers said,

    June 14, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Edited, 3:53 PM EST because proofreading is HARD.

  9. Khan said,

    June 14, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    Nice post! The part about the “dreamer” programmer described me to an unsettling level, although I do not view the community relations folks as lesser beings. And sometimes the time delays are for completely valid reasons … often involving Triscuit boxes. *cough*

  10. Michael Neel said,

    June 14, 2007 at 4:44 pm

    Programmers, QA… IT – we have to change. “Scottie” didn’t do good if he beat his estimate. The “30 minute” fix isn’t great because of a quick turnaround time on a bug. Software, be it a website, office app, or MMO, should only define success from the customer’s satisfaction. Because that drives the bottom line: profit. Sure it’s hell to listen to and *gasp* engage a customer, just ask anyone in customer service. It’s easy to say, “well – their idiots” and walk away. If you have any pride in your work though, you’ll realize a system users hate is a failed system, even if there are no bugs.

  11. Amber said,

    June 14, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    DAoC was my first MMO, so I think I was spoiled from the beginning. (yes I know how to kiss ass even when there’s absolutely no reason to…) So once I branched out to other games, I was dismayed to see that other companies didn’t put near the emphasis on CS that I was used to. The points you made in this post should be obvious to even the most clueless of producers, and yet…not so much in reality. CS in the MMO space seems to be heading in the right direction these days, but very few companies seem to really give it the emphasis that it needs.

    On the other hand, it took you ages to finally give me my pony, so do try to do better in future kktyvm. =P

  12. Bremyyn said,

    June 14, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    Tweets, just wondering which one of those seven I am.

    Aside from that, there’s a lot you could teach the world about Customer Service. Why not write and publish a “general” CS book? You can still be a consultant. If anything it might give you the ability to branch out to other industries that aren’t currently privilaged to be aware of your greatness.

    Heck, it’s not like you don’t have any experience in writing.

    /grin

    Brem

  13. Apache said,

    June 14, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    I’d be more worried if people weren’t angry when servers went down.

  14. DrewC said,

    June 14, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    Michael Neel said,
    “Software, be it a website, office app, or MMO, should only define success from the customer’s satisfaction. Because that drives the bottom line: profit. Sure it’s hell to listen to and *gasp* engage a customer, just ask anyone in customer service. It’s easy to say, “well – their idiots” and walk away.”

    The problem is that the most direct feedback most MMO developers get is forum posts, and most people on forums *are* idiots. If Blizzard listened to even 1/10th of the crack pot ideas spewed forth on the WoW forums they would run themselves out of business. That’s where highly paid (yeah right) community management professionals come in.

    When I (infrequently) read the forums for the game I work on, I deliberately ignore the criticism and crazy ideas. I have to let that stuff roll off my back or 1) I’d go crazy, and 2) I’d never get any new work done because I’ll spend all my time obsessing about what I did wrong on the last piece. But when my community manager comes in and says “Hey, read this forum post” I’m going to give that thread my full attention. It’s his job to separate the signal from the noise, to filter out the whiners and the idiots and to pick up the golden nuggets of valuable feedback. And I wouldn’t do his job for 10 times what he probably makes.

  15. Michelle D'israeli said,

    June 14, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    So true, Sanya. As a helpdesk monkey, I’ve found that even when you’re simply asking someone to do something complex (like change their proxy settings), a non-technical explaination makes them feel happier about it.

    Of course, telling people a time and date for a fix doesn’t always work to calm them. This mainly happens when it is something they are overly desperate about and they hear on Saturday morning that the staff who can fix the problem will not be in until Monday morning.

  16. Staryx said,

    June 14, 2007 at 8:19 pm

    You know, that all seems so blatantly obvious to me. It’s a shame some developers don’t see that as well.

  17. Shelby said,

    June 14, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Gotta say, Sanya, I sure do like reading your blog, nice to see the MMO world from a person that sat on the other side of the computer than the players.

    Very refreshing.

  18. Alex Weekes said,

    June 14, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    zcline: “Very odd. You seem to enjoy punishing yourself. I really can’t imagine anyone who would want to do a community management type role, from what you’ve described it sounds horrid.”

    Ahhh, but there are rewards. Sure, there are times when you stop and wonder exactly how crazy you are for putting yourself in a position where you’re on the front line when players go on the warpath. But you know, when you get that face-to-face time with the players, or something just clicks into place and the players swerve from angry mob to happy mob you remember why you do what you do.

  19. Grimwell said,

    June 14, 2007 at 11:44 pm

    *applauds*

    RE:Punishing yourself

    Think of it this way, it’s amazingly comforting to be able to get up from your desk, walk over to a coworker, and say “Dude, my server just went down… when can I get back in? I need to tell people so they aren’t left wondering.”

    All people want when there is a problem is to know that YOU know, that you are working on the problem, and a rough estimate on when it’s going to be back. Updated frequently as things change. You get to give that closure.

  20. Aufero said,

    June 15, 2007 at 12:27 am

    I suspect whether a CS job is punishing depends on whether you like the people you’re dealing with (like Sanya) or regard them as obstacles to what you want to get done. (Like a number of other CS people I could name.)

    There’s no shame in being in the second category (I hope, since I’m part of it) but I doubt it would make for a successful or rewarding experience.

    Which, come to think of it, is part of what Sanya said in her first post here.

  21. Michelle D'israeli said,

    June 15, 2007 at 5:33 am

    Helpdesk work, sitting directly between those who have a problem and the people who run various systems, isn’t too far detached from some aspects of community management.

    As much as sitting on a helpdesk may seem like punishment at times, it is also greatly rewarding. It’s an amazing feeling to have pushed to get a service back up and running. People genuinely appreciate getting real working solutions to their problems. With practice, they will thank you for telling them that the system is not going to be available for a week.

    Much like it may seem pretty depressing to work in medicine, it’s worth it for those who appreciate your work and when you manage to get real noticeable results.

    Community management adds on a lot more to this, such as gathering feedback, building support, providing the community of players with a real face. All these aspects, when they work right, can add a lot more satisfaction and enjoyment to the role.

  22. Nick said,

    June 15, 2007 at 8:19 am

    Man I wish I worked with you :p I really hope the consulting is working out for you. The only MMO I ever really played was DAoC, and you were a great part of that.

  23. Grock said,

    June 15, 2007 at 9:19 am

    I have always enjoyed your musings and do so even more on your blog. Being a former EQ and then DAOC player offered me the chance to delve into your great skills from a customer perspective. (OK enough of the blowing smoke up your @ss)

    It is funny how, what we think good customer service, is lost on folks. Bottom line keep the customer informed. I work as a Service Delivery Manager for a major computer service industry blue giant; long story short my customers are not weenies but Executive Weenies with stock options; sames holds true with them as well.

  24. Healer McGreeb said,

    June 18, 2007 at 5:53 am

    NC Soft could learn alot from reading this, as a Guild Wars player i have been greated with the lack of information when things happen situation before, and its not fun.

  25. Mips (Mike ) said,

    June 18, 2007 at 9:21 am

    Really enjoyed reading this… (and earlier blogs)

    A bit off-topic here probably but feel compelled to stick up for ANet/NCSoft here based on my experiences with Guild Wars (re: Healer McGreeb). As far as informing their users/players is concerned they are doing a great job imo.

    Looks to me like using the fan forums is an essential and risky step for CS. And you could argue if it’s worth the trouble since probably only a small percentage of your player base actually visits the forums?

    Most of all I find it frustrating to see that a few so called self-proclaimed hardcore/l33t/uber/whatever players are most often so unbelievable negative towards anything that is changed (but hey… I’m just a noob) – must indeed be like eating bees for the people working on CS when this handfull of players is trying to spoil it for the rest….

    Keep up the good blogs!
    (I was painfully reminded of my programmer days, thnx again 😉

  26. imweasel said,

    June 18, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    “But I started this site to provide obvious truth to the seven people who find me amusing”

    You mean there really are SEVEN?!?!

    🙂

  27. Aeb said,

    June 19, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    My head is still stuck in the Triscuits. Tips to remove appreciated.

  28. imweasel said,

    June 19, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    “My head is still stuck in the Triscuits. Tips to remove appreciated.”

    Obtain:

    1. One .50 cal Browning M2 machine gun

    2. One dead squirrel

    3. An ostrich feather

    Let me know when you have obtained all of the above items.

  29. Sanscour said,

    June 21, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Great rant, bird. Good to see while being Mythic’s mouthpiece you haven’t lost your touch 🙂

    Sanscour (counts himself as one of seven)

  30. Philip Ripper said,

    June 23, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    You should really take the above bit of advice about writing a book on the subject seriously.

  31. Benson said,

    June 24, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    I, as has everyone, experienced this issue from MMO’s, Community Managers, and also in real life situations. As a Community Manager, what I took from your blog, is that you have to have “Real” communication, and honesty behind your words. Understanding that you make mistakes, do not try to hide those, but use them to gain the trust of your community.

    I spent an hour and a half discussing with one of my marines about communication. In the military, it is a different world entirely. A member signs a contract that places them in a position of subjection to their superiors, who once were lowly green horns too. They do not have the priveledge of knowing what is going on all the time, instead, they are told information on a need to know basis. The marine I was talking to was very displeased about the situation, and so deeply did I sympathize with him.

    Though I maintained the “Need to know basis” with my lower ranking marine, because I spent an hour communicating with him about the situation, he has been more receptive to further instruction from everyone in the unit.

    P.S. My dog got stuck in a Baked Lays bag… I intially yelled her name and startled her, but after she stumbled around bumping into couches and tables, I couldn’t help but laugh and aid her in removing the plastic bag.

  32. Vanifae said,

    June 25, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    I also find you amusing, and your post is spot on. Often times I find that customer service in the MMO industry is extremely lacking or half-hearted. It still has a long way to go.

  33. Brian said,

    June 27, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Sanya,

    First off, well written. Nice work. I did volunteer PR on a MUD for nearly a decade. Certainly a much smaller userbase than an MMO, but most of the same issues Im sure. Its a tough job.

    I ended up at this URL due to the on-going PR disaster that is Guild Wars. I have a feeling a lot more traffic is headed this way.

    Thanks for the article and keep up the good work. And send an application to Guild Wars, pleeeeeeease.

  34. Matennon said,

    July 1, 2007 at 9:58 am

    The 3 steps you listed at the beginning are true for most types of managers, I suspect. As a Mission Crew Commander on the USAF Airborne Warning and Control System, one of my primary concerns was identifying problems, informing the crew (and other agencies off the jet, if necessary) of the problem, and an estimated fix time. Keeping folks informed and updated was critical to mission success.

    And you’re right, step 2 does take experience. I’ll always remember the time when we had an obvious computer issue, and I kept going to the computer technician on board for information on what the problem was and the estimated time to repair it, and he kept telling me there was no problem. I went back to my console to confirm that there was indeed a problem, and when I returned to the technician to insist he do something, he again told me there was no problem. When I finally described in intricate detail what the issue was and that it was obviously a computer problem, he finally blurted out, “Ma’am, that’s a SOFTWARE problem!” (His main function was to keep the HARDWARE in good working condition, so computer problems to him translated to hardware only…..)


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