Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

27 February, 2007

Customer Service still does not matter
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:18 PM

Matt Mihaly posted a blog entry about poor CS on an airline. The airline basically screwed over a vacation he was looking forward to because the airline couldn’t find a crew for the flight he had signed up for. Matt took the opportunity to opine about how CS should be more important than it is. Even a little thing like extending some common courtesy over his plight would have helped.

Of course, I had to be the wet blanket and tell everyone that customer service doesn’t matter.

Of course, I sympathize with Matt completely. I’ve been in a similar situation where the airline, United, screwed up and I was stuck in the airport for half a day because a flight just didn’t happen. I was on my way to a conference with my better half when this happened. We had stayed up late to catch an early fight out and get to the conference a day early. We’d be able to relax a bit, catch up on sleep, and finish up a bit of work she needed to do in order to present her artwork at the conference. Unfortunately, the delay ruined all those plans. In the end we got in after midnight instead of about noon and had to stay up most of the night cutting mat board for her artwork. She went to hang her artwork early in the morning and we slept through the first day of Gen Con. :( We received almost no compensation for our trouble short of a $100 certificate towards purchasing another flight. Like I wanted to fly with United again soon after that!

So, here’s the first problem with expecting good CS from an industry like the airlines: no airline gives truly exceptional service anymore. Every airline has cut service to a bare minimum in order to cut costs. (Boy, was I cranky the first time I flew Midwest Express after learning that they were no longer offering their exceptional meals.) Companies have to deal with the new reality: that most travelers could care less about customer service and will simply find the cheapest fare online and buy it. (Until, of course, they realize they need the good CS to resolve their problem….) People have said they care only about price, not about any other issue, and the airlines have listened.

There is the exception to the rule: if you fly first class I imagine you get a bit better service. But, that’s what you get when you spend 2-3 times as much on your ticket as the peasants in the back. As always, money changes the rules.

So, what does this have to do with Shadowb…er, online games? Well, you can draw the obvious parallels: people don’t really care about CS, they care about price. If CS were really that vital, people would be happy to pay more for better service. But, people seem pretty vocal about not wanting to pay more for online games. $15 is a princely sum, thanks, and I doubt a game charging $100/month but offering top-level CS would be very successful. Unfortunately, I don’t have the money to risk to prove this assertion, but I will happily look on anyone else that does. ;)

Further, most people don’t care about CS. As I posted in a comment on Matt’s blog:

People generally fall into three categories for CS: 1. They require none, 2. They require a little, 3. They require almost constant hand-holding.

For people in category 1 above, your CS doesn’t matter at all. I could have cared less about CS when I was playing DAoC back in the day, because I didn’t need much help; the problems I did have I fixed myself using in-game resources. Most people actually fall into this category from my experience and the data I’ve seen.

Category 3 above are likewise small, but they aren’t really using CS as CS. They’re often lonely people that just want to hear someone’s voice. Even if you had the absolute best CS in the world, these people would still call up because your CS members can’t provide the help they actually need. (And, if they do, that’s generally grounds for being fired! ;) These people are, frankly, unprofitable given the amount of resources they chew up. Honestly, it’s often better to refuse service to these people while recommending they seek professional help.

That leaves category 2 above. This is, likewise, a small group. This is the group where CS matters, but not as much as you might think. I fell into this category in WoW when I screwed up using the game interface [and sold some items I meant to repair. A CSR eventually got back to me and gave me back items that weren't exactly what I had lost]. However, note that I didn’t quit after my poor experience; so poor CS did not affect how much money I gave to Blizzard. No, it was when my friends left the game that I left the game myself.

So, in reality, we only need good CS to deal with a small group of people. Categories 1 and 3 above don’t really care about the quality of CS. And, people in category 2 tend to be very forgiving. As I admit myself, even when I needed the CS I didn’t quit over poor service. I continued to play the game for months afterward, even!

What’s really telling is how people react when I say that CS doesn’t matter. They usually say, as Andrew Crystall commented on the same thread:

Anyway, if I get repeated bad service, I simply won’t use that company again. And I’m prepared to go to what some people would see as an amazing amount of trouble to do that. For things like internet buying, 1 bad experience means no more dealing with that company. And I can hold a grudge for a loong time in these cases.

Not to pick on Andrew because he’s a generally good guy, but he does make my point: he doesn’t say that he rewards companies with good CS with repeat business. Instead, he says he’ll punish a company with bad CS by withdrawing his business. So, really, all a company has to do is provide the minimum level of CS he doesn’t consider “bad” and they’ll keep him as a customer and derive a maximum amount of profit. Of course, most people (including me!) are this way as well. So, there are many other issues that are more important to CS to retain us in games.

In the end, CS does not matter as much as some people think it should. I’m not happy about this, but it’s the reality of the situation.

Additional Note: I figure I should add some words of explanation here in case someone stumbles across this in the future. As I point out in that last sentence, I don’t really like the fact that CS isn’t important. I also point out in the blog post linked above that the majority of Meridian 59‘s expenses go to paying our few CSRs; in fact, they are currently making money whereas I am not taking a paycheck from the company. Also, in the current project I’m working on, my boss has publicly disagreed with my assertions; I have only very minor influence in how the CS team will be set up. So, when the CS in a future project invariably has some aspects that someone doesn’t like, this post should not be used as a vector of attack. (Oh, but I know it will.)


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21 Comments »

  1. Actually, CS matters because the people in category 2 talk to lots of other people, blog about it publicly, and generally make a big deal of it when the service is either exceptionally good or bad.

    Comment by Michael Chui — 28 February, 2007 @ 3:01 AM

  2. I think you’re overestimating the effect this has had on the games, Michael. As I have said many times before, the largest games have been notorious for having terrible customer service, from UO’s era of “I cannot help thee with that” to the lack of timely responses after volunteers went by the wayside in EQ and later games. I’ve read a number of poor CS stories about WoW online and have even posted one myself, but WoW doesn’t seem to be suffering for it.

    Again, there are other factors that are much more important for the success of a game. Once again, popularity makes up for a lot of sins.

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 February, 2007 @ 4:08 AM

  3. See http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/customerservice.html for a contrast from another area of software development.

    Fog Creek is not a huge company and so maybe it is the small games companies that should provide goos service? Or maybe MMOG are such a good product (like flying) that you can always go for just good enough.

    Comment by Dominic Fitzpatrick — 28 February, 2007 @ 4:19 AM

  4. From my various experiences it really seems that your entire CS experience with a company can depend upon who you’re talking to. If you don’t get what you need, hang up and call back!

    Comment by Bartoneus — 28 February, 2007 @ 5:11 AM

  5. I also pointed out that someone being bitter an your game can also cost you multiple subscribers who otherwise would not have quit, so it IS a problem.

    It’s not just CS for me, though. There was a good five-year period after B5:ItF was canned where I point blank refused to buy Sierra games new.

    (And when it comes to something like bus companies, and there’s two of them, one repeatedly annoying me DOES make me use the other…)

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 28 February, 2007 @ 5:21 AM

  6. Customer service matters.

    It matters for _you_ more than it matters for your customers.

    Article here, but the upshot is that when a customer calls customer service, they have a problem. You do not want to give customers problems, so every CS call is a potential opportunity to improve your business.

    –GF

    Comment by Glazius — 28 February, 2007 @ 11:14 AM

  7. A company will still do the minimum required to make maximum profit.

    The second bus company isn’t going to provide “good” service, they’re happy to not be a bad as the other company.

    Using customer service complaints to identify business problems are still only going to address the minimum required to have less poor CS.

    Going back to the first class airline passengers, would it work to have a first class MMO account? Can I avoid the hardcore and immature if I pay more?

    Comment by BugHunter — 28 February, 2007 @ 12:44 PM

  8. Dominic Fitzpatrick wrote:
    Fog Creek is not a huge company and so maybe it is the small games companies that should provide good service?

    Yes, it is more important for us smaller companies. As I have mentioned before, most of M59′s expenses are paying for the CSRs. Actually, I’m no longer taking a paycheck from the company but I’m still paying the CSRs. In essence, I’m spending a larger percentage of my income, per customer, than most other game companies are. So, you can’t ignore CS entirely.

    Andrew Crystall wrote:
    …someone being bitter an your game can also cost you multiple subscribers who otherwise would not have quit, so it IS a problem.

    Not really. Lum the Mad’s rantsite was going strongest during the peak times of UO and EQ. We heard regular amounts of vitriol about how the games sucked, the customer service was awful, the developers and community managers were asses, etc. Yet, Origin and EQ had to cry themselves all the way to the bank with the hundreds of thousands of people that were playing and paying. Really, it was the competing games and the age of the games that put a bigger dent into the populations than the very public ranting of the people over on Lum’s site.

    What you say make sense, but history does not show this to be the case.

    Glazius wrote:
    You do not want to give customers problems, so every CS call is a potential opportunity to improve your business.

    More than this, I (and all developers) want to make money. The awful fact is that helping a customer also costs money. That $10-15/month you pay doesn’t buy a whole lot of CS before you’re starting to cost me money.

    As I said in the post above, you’re correct for the people in category 2 above: people with a few problems. The ideal is to fix their problems and have them move to category 1 where CS doesn’t matter anymore. But, there’s a tradeoff point where providing that level of CS just isn’t profitable (or possible in the case of large companies).

    BugHunter wrote:
    Going back to the first class airline passengers, would it work to have a first class MMO account? Can I avoid the hardcore and immature if I pay more?

    That has been tried before. Simutronics offers a platinum service for about $50/month (for a text game!) which gives you access to special servers. EverQuest also had a premium server, Stormhammer, for $40/month that offered special access to CS, but that was shut down last year, IIRC. So, it’s possible, but it seems to work best in niche games. Overall, though, most people are cheap and don’t want to spend more than they have to. Me included. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 February, 2007 @ 3:30 PM

  9. I work in a slightly different industry from games (still software though), and CS is a huge, huge part of customer retention for us. Granted, people still buy a new product initially regardless of CS, but as time goes on and other companies release competing products (some of them quite good), the CS is a big reason that many customers choose to keep using our products instead of going with the competition.

    It works the other way too. Bad CS can very quickly drive customers into the arms of the competition. It may take a few bad experiences and a few years, but eventually they will leave.

    And if that competitor provides a comparable service without along with a better CS experience, you will be hard pressed to ever get that customer back.

    The way I see it, CS is a long-term investment that you make in insuring customer retention and building brand loyalty. It ties directly into word-of-mouth for your products. It may not impact sales of an individual title in the short-term, but it absolutely will affect long-term revenue streams. The MMO industry, at least in the US, hasn’t quite reached the saturation level necessary to see the effects of this, and it probably helps that no one in the industry seems to do a really good job of managing it, but it’s getting closer every year, as more games are released.

    You’re also very right that people tend to have to pay for good CS in other industries, so why should MMOs be more different. I’d submit, however, that CS costs are relatively fixed in comparison to other development and production costs. Therefore, a consciencious publisher should be able to build those costs into the base box and subscription price without a large impact to consumeers. I don’t know how the money gets spent, but I have to beleive that if you have 500,000 people paying $15 a month for your game, and your game is decently put together, you should be able to cover the cost of decent CS and still come out of it with profits for your shareholders.

    Comment by David (Tal) — 28 February, 2007 @ 3:30 PM

  10. Actually, the degree to which customer service influences customer loyalty depends on the industry. Commodity industries typically have poor customer loyalty, with customer service having very little influence on that loyalty — the (economy) airline industry is a perfect example of that. On the flip side, MMOs can get away with poor customer service, in most cases, because it’s not really a prime differentiator in the market — gameplay continues to be. Customer service that really truly sucks will drive away players, as will problems that make it difficult for newbies to get started, but you’re probably not going to live and die by it.

    Comment by Lydia Leong (Amberyl) — 28 February, 2007 @ 9:30 PM

  11. Dominic Fitzpatrick, not lum-scale “bitterness”. That helps. (And is more like investigative journalism)

    The people who gank nerbs. Who run scams and exploit and generally try and break things because they’re bitter. Who disparage the game and pick apart changes at every opportunity they get, and discourage people from signing up. Petty bitteness, which dosn’t help.

    “On the flip side, MMOs can get away with poor customer service”

    Again, see “MMO’s are generally fast-burn”

    The problem with flying is this – I can either fly “full price” with British Airways, or I can fly cheaply with about three other providers. BA’s service dosn’t provide me with enough of a better service to be worth the double or more they charge. The budget airlines provide a very, very similar atripped-down service, and there’s nothing really differentiating them except cost.

    That is what makes cost the inportant factor there.

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 1 March, 2007 @ 6:05 AM

  12. If CS were really that vital, people would be happy to pay more for better service. But, people seem pretty vocal about not wanting to pay more for online games

    This kind of argument never works. It assumes that most customers are willing to be reasonable, and they’re not. Most American consumers demand both a low price and good CS, and they will not even consider relenting on one so they can have the other. Never cite consumer opinions as if they’re the result of careful, selfless logic.

    A good portion of CS labor is wasted on customers who should not be appeased or cannot be appeased with reasonable action. CS programs should not be afraid to draw lines in the sand and hold their customers to reasonable expectations. Doing so will undoubtedly lose some customers who are used to getting their way, but it will also attract replacements.

    The amount of truly necessary CS is particular to each product and that product’s state of polish. Vanguard, for example, being released in such an unpolished state, needs a larger program (relative to the server populations) than they will likely need later. I do agree, though, to the extent that far more attention is generally payed to CS programs than is necessary.

    Comment by Aaron — 1 March, 2007 @ 3:55 PM

  13. Aaron wrote:
    This kind of argument never works.

    It’s not an argument, it’s an explanation. CS does not make a difference, and increasing the quality of CS increases costs. As a business, I have little incentive to increase my costs unless it will generate more income. That means either more people pay for my game, either new players joining or old players not leaving, or existing people paying more. The only aspect that has much controversy is if good CS helps retain existing players; I still don’t think that providing better CS, past a certain relatively small point, will help this.

    So, there’s no profit from offering better CS. If people really want superb CS, they need to be ready to pay for it. But, as Lydia points out above, this does not happen because gameplay (and I would add perceived popularity) are much more important for attracting people. Once they are in the game, the social bonds keep them in there better than any CS can. In fact, many times the social fabric provides front-line service for people who have problems; my guild has often been more helpful in resolving problems that don’t require admin intervention than CS has been!

    CS programs should not be afraid to draw lines in the sand and hold their customers to reasonable expectations.

    Unfortunately, what is “reasonable”? This differs from person to person. And, just because you gave every reasonable effort to solve someone’s problem doesn’t mean they’ll be happy. It certainly doesn’t mean they won’t post some diatribe up on their blog about how your CSRs are stupid and unreasonable. For example, I’m sure that the CSRs in UO were following reasonable guidelines when they repeatedly told people, “I cannot help thee with that.” But, people still felt upset when their problems weren’t being handled in the manner they wanted. And, thus, the perception that UO had poor customer service.

    But, once again, UO enjoyed a lot of success and it wasn’t until there was a serious competitor that UO started to decline. So, gameplay and perception of popularity were still much more important than CS.

    Comment by Psychochild — 1 March, 2007 @ 4:51 PM

  14. Your real need for CS is inversely proportional to the bugginess of your game. If your game is constantly giving your players “WTF?!?” moments because of technical glitches, your CS team is your last chance to convince them you’re not completely wasting their time and money. And you need a police force to deal with the irreducible 1% of griefers and keep them from getting too blatant. But yeah, a ridiculous chunk of CS effort is soaked up by people who can’t be satisfied, either because their need for contact with your CS has nothing to do with the game, or because they just want to bitch and will go looking for things to bitch about.

    –Dave

    Comment by Dave Rickey — 1 March, 2007 @ 11:42 PM

  15. Im sure an mmorpg would benefit greatly from using CS as mentioned as point one in the Joel on Software post linked previously. Fix everything two ways, where the second way is: “prevent this particular problem from ever happening again.”

    Another notion that I believe the mmorpg industry might have missed out on when it comes to customer relations is that every player will transcend between the types as described by Brian over time. Everyone starts as 1 (the few tards who start at 3 bought the wrong product) and over time moves across the spectrum and becomes a 2. How long this time is depends on the quality of the design and volume of gameplay which is supposedly beneath emergence. Eventually players will have explored the full intended game sphere and once the gameplay goes into emergent mode CS pops in to in most cases put an end to the fun of the players.

    The sollution is most likely not to always deliver bad CS, but rather to change the policies around to generally allow emergent behaviour and allow players to go about their bussiness with some harm-prevention towards those, often more casual players, who might be victims of the players who play their game of emergence.

    The real trick might be to make the games repairable rather than patchable. The whole idea that changes always are bad is a design principle which has its roots in old designs. A modern and serious mmorpg should be able to allow fixing of broken things rather than adding a patch which prevents the broken parts from churning players.

    How many times have you encountered broken designs just to hear someone mention “working as intended”? :P

    Comment by Wolfe — 2 March, 2007 @ 3:20 AM

  16. Dave Rickey (who despite rumors is not dead!) wrote:
    Your real need for CS is inversely proportional to the bugginess of your game.

    I’m not sure I agree here. I think the Shadowbane CSRs could have done everything short of visiting each player and giving oral sex and it still wouldn’t have helped the game much. Particularly in a PvP game, the CSRs going out of their way often leads to accusations of favoritism. (Oh, boy, do I know that one….) I guess, really, any game with a lot of competition will have cries of favoritism.

    In the end, the “right” answer is still to make a great game and provide the minimum CS necessary to let players know that CS is provided. ;)

    Wolfe wrote:
    Everyone starts as 1 (the few tards who start at 3 bought the wrong product) and over time moves across the spectrum and becomes a 2.

    I disagree. I think most people are in category 1 and tend to stay there. For my friends and myself, we try to do everything we can to resolve a problem before contacting the CSR, because we know it will usually end in disappointment. I think this is true for most people: they do not want to become category 2. Even if you do have a problem, eventually, it’s usually a question of the gameplay (and socialization) being compelling enough to keep you interested rather than the quality of the CS.

    Comment by Psychochild — 2 March, 2007 @ 4:36 AM

  17. Psychochild,

    I’m afraid you’ve pointed out why UO was NOT a great success. As soon as there was a percieved choice of MMO’s (EQ and later), people flocked to them rather than to UO. The reputation of CS in UO was unlikely to help.

    Something that is important is to NOT artificially seperate your CS and bug reporting services. If someone submits a bug report to CS, let them file it and send the player a “thank you for filing this bug report” stock reply, NOT “please resubmit this as a bug on x webpage”. Becuase a lot of the time, they won’t.

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 2 March, 2007 @ 4:46 AM

  18. The CS tail has to wag the development dog when it comes to bugs, and yes, it you need to take bug reports however they come in. I had the luxury of putting together a Product Quality team from scratch for Camelot, unlike the situation you get when you start with a testing department that doesn’t want to be tainted by too close a contact with the CS department (the only people on the team they can feel superior to), starting with a clean slate was good. All bug reports were channeled into the CS ticket database, all of them were read by one of two humans, and the integration of widely scattered and incomplete reports let an actionable diagnostic picture emerge.

    We also kept something from my time on EQ: A “Hot List” of the top ten bugs that were causing players to request CS assistance.

    If you’ve got bugs that negatively impact play, you’ve got to resolve the situation in a way that satisfies the customer. Eve is about as lassaiz-faire an environment you can find when it comes to most CS issues, but one thing they are *religious* about is reimbursing players for ships that get lost due to bugs. Might take weeks, but you’ll get your ship back if the lag monster eats it.

    –Dave

    Comment by Dave Rickey — 4 March, 2007 @ 11:40 PM

  19. Um, Dave?

    Actually, Eve is known for being very highly arbitrary on if you’ll get your ship back for ANYTHING. Some people get ships back for clear player-related losses, others get told Iraqi-information minister style “there was no lag on that node”*. Often people do and don’t get ships back when different GM’s handle events which occured together (No “group petition”).

    (*I have a quote of this myself, from an event with 15 second node lag!)

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 5 March, 2007 @ 4:31 AM

  20. From my experience with the change from type 1 to type 2 its something that happens after maybe an average of a 100 days /played or so, maybe most category 1 players quit before they hit that line. The change will catch you eventually but for some it might take a year or two of average gaming habits.

    Comment by Wolfe — 6 March, 2007 @ 1:25 AM

  21. Customer Service Experience

    I purchased a gift certificate with 1800skyride for a birthday gift. When I was not contacted to set up this flight I started calling the company. At first I was told that I was not found in their system then placed on hold when confirmation numbers were given. I placed 2 dozen calls only to be told that the person who I needed to speak with was not in that day. To this date 14 days after purchase I have yet to receive a call until I forced the issue with threating to call BBB and Consumer Alert agencies within Georgia was I given any recourse. The supervisor stated the servers had crashed and I would never have received a call even though my credit card was deducted for the $150.00. I was given the we will refund you speech but we are unable to credit your card a check will be mailed next Wednesday….This site is a money making scheme. Customer Service is Customer No Service without quality people running your phone lines another website will certainly come under scrutiny and fail. Keep your money and purchase from a reputable well known company. This is certainly not one of them!

    Diane Lassiter

    Comment by Diane — 22 March, 2007 @ 1:23 PM

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