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September 17, 2005 / jnolen

Customer service != someone to yell at

DHH of 37Signals (yes, them again) posts a really eloquent point about the new model for customer service. He says

One of those transitions is the exchange of base-level support from paid vendors to passionate volunteers. It's a trade-off where you often get better-than-before information, but have to give up your I-can-scream-at-you-because-I-pay privileges.

At my previous job, we frequently made decisions based on the comparison that technology A offer a vendor support contract while technology B did not. And while it may have made the people who signed the checks sleep easier at night, in no way did it actually help those of us who had to work with the technology. Because screaming at someone rarely did any good, and certainly didn't get us a solution any faster. In fact, there were several occasions where, had we had access to all the bug information hidden within vendor A's organization, we could have solved our own problem in a matter of hours instead of fighting for weeks with the vendor's tech support.

Which is not to say that all commercial support are doomed to failure. But in my experience, the more information that is available (like source code, bug tracking or support cases) the better the customer and the vendor are able to work together at solving problems. I've been in crises before where systems were down and tensions were high. But the feeling of helplessness and of being kept in the dark virtually guarantees that things will devolve into the client screaming at tech-support.

But DHH's point is really that you'll get a lot further asking nicely for help from someone who wants to give it to you than you will from demanding it from someone who is contractually obligated to do so. And besides, would it be so bad to put things on a more equal footing? Or inject a little civility into these relationships?


  1. Patrick Lightbody / Sep 18 2005 3:04 am

    DHH may or may not have a point. None of it matters if you’re selling in to a large company. 99% of the top 2000 companies will require someone to yell at… whether it is productive or not isn’t their concern. Covering their ass is :)

  2. Jonathan Nolen / Sep 18 2005 7:44 pm

    I see your point, Patrick. Companies have done it this way for a long time, and this is not the kind of behaviour that could ever be eliminated. The cover-your-ass motive is very strong and an absolute necessity in plenty of organizations.
    But I think there are other companies who could be convinced that it would be better to a) have more information available, b) have a choice of outside resouces to call on c) give their own employees more power and more control over the decisions. Besides, if you have to yell, yelling at people inside your company is probably more effective than at the customer service rep.
    Also, I think it is worth pointing out that the whole CYA benefit is mostly illusory. It’s not like anyone ever goes sues and Oracle for money lost because of downtime. (At least, not that I know of.) It really just gives people permission to throw up their hands and say, “Well, the vendor is working on it.” Personally, if I were the developer I would want to be able to do something besides wait for the vendor to come through with the answer. If I were the VP of Engineering, I would want the opportunity to say, “Well, if these guys aren’t solving it quickly enough, let’s find someone else who can.” And if I were the CEO, I would want to hear something from my VP more than, “the vendor is working on it.”
    So yeah — this is how big companies do business. But my hope would be to tick that 99% down by a few percentage points by proving that better results are worth more than the illusory security of finger pointing.

  3. Alicia / Sep 19 2005 11:56 pm

    Your point seems a bit muddy to me. On the one hand you are calling for more information to be available for customers to solve problems themselves, and on the other hand you’re comparing paid vendor service with unpaid volunteer help. I think we can agree that more information is better for the customer, but there will always be problems (or customers) that require outside help. The problem with volunteers are:
    1. Availability: They are under no obligation to help you. If your problem isn’t interesting to them, or you’re using an old version of the software, or you ask at the wrong time of day, or they just don’t like you, good luck getting an answer.
    2. Competence: There is no accountability. You can spend hours trying to implement the solution an online “expert” has given you and if it doesn’t work, too bad. Unless the product you’re using is popular enough (or buggy enough), you’re lucky if your volunteer has peers chiming in to help separate the wheat from the chaff.
    3. Communication: Knowledge does not equal ability to communicate. Assuming you’ve found someone who knows their stuff and is willing to walk you through a solution, you’re still in trouble if you have communication problems. Technically proficient people are notorious for skimming over the portion of the solution they feel is obvious. And let’s face it, some people couldn’t explain how to butter bread to save their lives.
    There will always be a place for paid support. My hope is that the level of support can improve with the addition of support forums/bug info/etc., since the easy questions can be answered without a call. That frees up time and salary money to have truly solid support staff in place, assuming the company has its priorities straight.

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