Tales from Customer Service: Buy it and Shut the Hell Up

Whether it's at a restaurant, buying a TV, or getting a used Blu-ray from Amazon, we all want good customer service. At the very least, we want a pleasant experience.

What's interesting is that while some companies are striving to make you feel warm and fuzzy, others couldn't care less.

The difference is incentives.

Let's take two rather egregious examples, in hubris at least, if not overall harm. The first is game publisher Ubisoft, which has taken a seriously draconian stance on digital rights management (DRM) for their games. Nearly all require you to register the game for it to run (fairly common), while others require access to the Internet each time you play, so the company can check to make sure that you have a "legal" copy.

Now, I think all kinds of theft are retarded, but there is little proof that DRM does anything other than punish those who have legally purchased their games. Take this most recent incident, in which Ubisoft had to shut down their servers, making many of their games unplayable. . . for those who had legally purchased them.

Ubisoft's response? Sucks to be you (I'm paraphrasing).

Then there's game publisher DICE, whose Battlefield series of games has long been the pinnacle of big-map first person shooter gaming. Their brilliant game design has been continuously let down by pathetic game construction. Buggy releases and patches that cause more problems than they fix are all part of the DICE ethos, apparently. A patch released in December - that supposedly fixed a certain issue - ended up causing a problem in which thousands of players can't load maps between levels. As in, finish a round, then the game just hangs on a black screen instead of loading the next map. So instead of seamless play from map to map, you have to close the game, launch it again, then wait to log into the server you were just on. Five plus minutes out of every 20 spent just staring at your computer. A forum thread has been up since December with thousands of complains, including my own.

DICE's response? Silence.

The simple fact: there's no incentive for either company to solve these problems. In both cases, you've already purchased the game. You've already given them your money, so wha'cha gonna do about it, sucka? It's a mugger taunting you after he's stolen your wallet. I mean, it's not like I'm going to forgo playing Battlefield 3 to play that abomination Modern Warfare 3. Honestly, how many sales do you think Ubisoft loses for being so paranoid?

In fact, an argument could be made that there's an incentive for them not to make the games work as customers want. Ubisoft seems to think that we're all a bunch of thieving whiners, and heavy DRM makes them money. DICE's mindset (apparently) is to spend millions on game development, and $50 for support.

However, in many other ways, customer service is becoming a vital aspect of modern business. Amazon's Marketplace and eBay are great equalizers, letting small companies reach vast audiences. Potentially incredible for sales, but treat enough customers poorly, and you're done. Instant feedback can be a killer. This doesn't quite work as well as you'd hope, though, given that there's a retailer with a 95% Seller Rating hawking used copies of my book for $45. I sure wouldn't mind a piece of that 450% markup.

With Amazon and eBay we see a direct incentive for good customer service, or at least, an incentive against poor customer service. Other websites like Yelp and Angie's List offer other ways for consumers to praise/penalize service. How many bad reviews do you need to see on Yelp before you decide to try a different restaurant?

Of course, it's not always so cut and dry. Best Buy won the battle against Circuit City despite the latter's significantly better customer interaction. Trained and commissioned sales help were incentivized to know about their products, and to seek out customers to assist them. Best case: you got waited on quickly, and were given an informed take on the products. Worst case: you were swarmed at the door by greedy, seedy salesmen pushing products that made them the most money. I worked at Circuit. I've seen both cases.

Perhaps this is why Best Buy had an edge, at first. No pushy salesmen, just walk in, grab what you want, and head out. Simple. Now when people complain that Best Buy employees ignore them, or don't know anything about the products, I have to laugh. Weren't you the same people that hated Circuit City?

In many ways, there's an almost Darwinian culling of companies that don't care about their customers. It's ongoing, but slow. For example, here's how to destroy your company by being a jerk (with an update here). Where there are other places to purchase an item, customer service becomes the deciding factor. That bodes well for the future of customer service - at least where there is such an incentive.

Perhaps social media is the newest example of this interaction. Many companies have hired people whose sole job it is to scour Twitter and other sites for mention of a negative experience with said company's products or services. This sort of digital first responder tries to minimize a potential social media backlash by solving problems on a one-on-digital-one basis. Expensive? Maybe, but as the great Winston Churchill once said: "A bad Tweet gets halfway around the Internet before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."

Words to live by, Winny. Words to live by. Here's hoping it catches on.