Thursday, November 8, 2012

Professionalism: a Rant

I'm a people person!
In what I affectionately refer to as "The Real World", I manage a product line for a company.  I have clients, both within the company, and the actual external clients that my company services.  I'm responsible for keeping the spice flowing, as well as making sure that everyone else who depends on the spice feels good about the way that it's flowing.

So let me preface this rant by saying, "I understand, I get it - customer service is a bitch."

You very rarely hear from happy customers, because they're off being happy with the product you've provided.  Unhappy customers, though, those sons of bitches will blow up your phone, hammer your IM, and email you back to back to back, over and over again.  Very often, there's nothing to be done about issues that they're unhappy about - shit just happens sometimes.  You can't tell them that, though, because they're your customer, and it's your responsibility to make them happy.

So yeah, I get it.  Customer service is the worst part of the work I do, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.

But let me back up, and tie this into the point of this post.  Until recently, I did almost all of my shopping for RPGs at one a few different locations.  I'm lucky enough to live in an area that has over a dozen Half Price Books within driving distance, and their stock shuffles often enough that I can usually find something that strikes my fancy most of the time when I go there.  Other than that, eBay and Amazon.

Then came my introduction to the OSR, and small publishers.  Then came Kickstarter.  Then came the headaches.

Before I go further, let me be clear - I don't mind late product.  It's only late until it's delivered, and then it's there forever.  I would rather wait five years than get a half baked, crappy product that doesn't live up to the promises.

No, what drives me up a wall is lack of communication.

The first scenario that is currently driving me nuts is with not one but two projects being run by the same publisher.  Their Kickstarter's "Project By" lists a company, not a person.  You go to their website, and you find information about how the company was founded way back when, it's a professional looking website with a forum, etc.  You see, I do my research before backing a Kickstarter, and this one passed the smell test.  To my regret, I stopped at the smell test, and didn't proceed to investigate further.  So the first Kickstarter funds, and the owner releases a pdf of the rules, and all is well and good.  The books are on the way, he says.  Soon, he says.  In the meantime, he kicks off a second Kickstarter, for a companion book to the first one.  Fair enough, I think, I don't want half the game, let's get them both!  So I kick in for the second Kickstarter. The day before the end of the Kickstarter, the guy posts an update, announcing that a stretch goal has been reached.

And that's it.

The project funded the next day, and several weeks later, no-one has seen or heard from him.  Not so much as a "Hey we made it guys!" post on the second Kickstarter page, nothing.  I head over to the forum, where it appears he hasn't logged on for a month.

Now, we all want to give this guy the benefit of the doubt.  For one thing, he's got our money, so we don't want anything else to be true.  More to the point, though, I just try, as a rule, to give people the benefit of the doubt.  But we're confronted with a scenario where the best we can hope for is someone who doesn't understand their customer service obligations.  The worst case scenario... well, it's best not to think too hard about that one.

It's not endemic to Kickstarters, though.  I purchased a product from a publisher with a fairly large presence in the OSR.  I spent a not-inconsiderable amount of money on the product itself, as well as a good amount more on some supplementary items.  I received an email thanking me for the purchase, and that was it.  Shipping can be an issue where I live, so I always prefer tracking numbers when I order things (spoiled from my days of buying off of eBay/Amazon, I suppose).  I followed up with an email, asking if tracking was available, and offering to pay more if need be.  Several days passed, with no reply.  I sent a followup email, and after another couple of days, got a vague reply, stating that they thought they had mailed it out, and they would have to check with someone to see about tracking.  After another period of time passed without a followup, I sent another email, checking in.  To date, no reply (no product either, but it's only been 2 weeks since I bought it, so I'm not prepared to get antsy about it yet)

My point with all of this is that I really am a pretty understanding customer.  I don't mind waiting.  I don't mind delays.  I really don't.  I understand that most of these "companies" are just somebody working out of a spare bedroom in their house.  I get that they have lives and families and "real" jobs.  Hell, I wouldn't be happy, but I'd understand, if a project completely fell through due to unforeseen circumstances.  They wouldn't get my money a second time, but I'd understand - there's risk involved in any transaction, and the further removed the consumer is from the product, the greater the risk.

What I do not find acceptable is the notion that open communication is not an obligation of the publisher/designer/owner, and the right of the consumer.  In the case of an out and out purchase, you have my money, and until I have the product, you are in arrears.  In the case of Kickstarter, you have my money, and I am an investor.  Either way, communication is a necessity.

We need to expect and demand better from the people who are running the operations that we patronize.  When I went to the forum to inquire about the first issue described above, there were people on there saying, "Oh, he just does that sometimes - he's disappeared before.", like it was okay.  No, I'm sorry, but it's not okay.  If you're making something and giving it away for free, then absolutely, do it as you have time, at your own pace and communicate as you see fit.  But once you take peoples' money and say you'll have it by a certain date, you have entered into an agreement.  If you need to change the terms of the agreement, hey - you've got the product, and you've already got the money. Get it right, then get it to me.  But going dark, dropping off the grid, not responding to emails is unacceptable and unprofessional.

Dwimmermount is a perfect example.  Not long ago, people were calling for blood, until Tavis stepped up and started giving weekly honest appraisals of what was going on.  He was transparent, he was regular and timely in his communication, and (with some exceptions) the controversy surrounding Dwimmermount has subsided as we hunker down and wait for the finished product.  Tavis trusted in his product and in his audience, and at least in me, his trust has been rewarded - I will definitely trust Autarch with my money in the future.  He was open and honest, and more importantly professional, in his communication and he's gained a loyal customer.  Really, Tavis probably over-communicates a bit, to compensate for the lack of communication at the outset, but other projects and companies should take note - a little bit of communication goes a long way.  You don't need to write a novel for your backers ever day - like I said, I get it - you have jobs, you have families, you have things that come up in life.

But I have never, in my entire life, been so busy over an extended period of time, that I was unable to respond to urgent emails.

These folks want our money, we as a community need to make them earn it.

2 comments:

  1. God old Tenkar over at http://www.tenkarstavern.com/ is kind of setting himself up to be a Better Business Bureau, or at least a Consumer Reports, of the OSR/RPG/Kickstarter universe.

    - Ark

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  2. I will never, ever understand how people think it's better to vanish rather than communicate in the face of bad news. How do people not know that cutting off communication only makes things worse than if you just told someone the bad news? The mind can conjure so many horrible scenarios, so if you leave your customer's to imagine reasons for your silence, they will come up with things much worse than "hey, I've fallen behind schedule but I'm still working on this." Boggles the mind.

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