Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Scam Alert: 'Hit' Scam

Affects: Noobies mostly
Modus Operandi
: The scammers follow around and pester new avatars claiming that someone has taken out a 'hit' on them. They offer to 'cancel the hit' if the new avatar pays them.
How it goes down: Apparently there is a group of these individuals posing as 'hit men'. I'm not sure if this is some kind of roleplay, but regardless, they are attempting to use a scare tactic to extort money from new avatars. These 'hitmen' follow around and harrass new avatars, threating them and stalking them until they are paid to leave them alone. These 'hitmen' also carry around weapons and disregard sim rules regarding weapons. The reporter did not indicate how and if these weapons were used.
Seeing through the Scam: This is a scam that obviously doesn't work on older avatars because even with a little experiece you realize that such things can't exist and that these 'hitmen' are not only scamming, but griefing by way of harassment and to report them. Apparently they are a group called "Hired Hitman".
Damage control: The best thing you can really do is teleport away from these people and if they continue to harass you, report them or ignore them. They might shoot you once, but ignore them long enough, and they will get bored of you.

Business Musing: Mall rentals 101

After all this negativity lately, I thought it would be nice to do something a little more positive, and the idea was suggested to me by Jakkal Dingo to do a peice on getting the most bang for your buck out of a mall rental, especially if you are new to selling in secondlife.

It can be a bit of a daunting task to set up your first vendor or first store. There are a lot of questions and not a lot of people easily accessable or knowledgeable around to answer them. Where is the best location? How will I get seen? Do I need a vendor? Where can I find customers? etc, etc. A lot of newbies look to malls or other rentals to get them started, especially if they are on a basic account and don't have land to set their own store up on. Malls and rentals aren't a bad idea. They have some good things going for them in that having several vendors in one location is bound to attract more shoppers than just one unknown shop in the middle of Backsim Nowhere, but there is also a lot more competition for eyeballs. There is also the potential problems of lag, overwhelmingness of ubermalls, and the expense of renting.

So the big question becomes, how do you get the most bang for your L$ out of a mall rental.

This requires a bit of savvy on your part as a vendor to know your product and have an idea of what sort of audience would be looking for your products. Then you want to find out where those people shop. Obviously if you are selling furry items, trying getting a vendor space in a gorean sim is a bit silly. You have to find the right place for the right stuff. If you are a furry product vendor, do a bit of looking around on the larger furry sims and malls to find places where furries shop. If you sell BDSM/goth items, find out where those people shop, if you sell trendy clothing, find out where the hip fashion scenes are at. There is also the option of looking for a 'partnership' type business. If you sell shoes, find a clothing store that doesn't and see if you can set up near them. If you sell animations of fighting, find a good weapon store to set up next to. Half of marketing involves product placement. Do a little research and it will help you a lot.

Some malls are themed as well. Its a great thing to get into a good themed mall if your products fit that theme because likely the people that show up are going to be predisposed to buy things from you because they like that sort of style.

Aside however from appropraite surrounding businesses and themes, what else should one look for in a mall rental? Well the technical details are a good place to start. How many prims for how much a week, vs how much traffic does the mall have, and how much is that legit shopping traffic and how much of that is from other forms of traffic.

Whats the difference you might ask? Well a lot of malls also have clubs, casinos, or camping chairs attached or around them. This generally is used to drive up traffic numbers ( you can check an area's traffic by looking at 'about land'). However, in a lot of these cases the people who show up aren't generally there for the shopping. Yes, people will see your stuff, but unless you are catering to the crowd scene ( skins, hair, clothes, jewelry with lots-o-bling), you might not get the best value for your money here. For example, if you sell building textures, a club based mall might not be the best place for your store. Also, huge malls are not always the best and only solution. The larger a mall is, the more laggy and often ugly they are. I've also personally found the larger 'club mall' to be a bit on the expensive side. They have eyeballs and they know it, so they charge for it. For the right type of vendor it CAN be lucrative, but not all businesses will get the same bang for the buck. Sometimes smaller malls, themed builds, or tight partnerships are a better way to go, especially if your business is particularly unique or not easily defined.

You should also consider prim limits and how you sell when you are renting a space. Malls typically have one of two ways of limiting prims. Either you pay per the prim, which make things very cheap if you don't have more than a few, or you pay a flat fee for a number of prims, which is generally better if you have a lot. You can save on prim space if you use a vendor. There are lots of free ones out there. (Kayla Stonecutter has a particularly nice freebee, low lag vendor that I give out at the Realmscapes Mall that I run.) But there are lots out there. However, you do not need a vendor, you can set a prim to sell its contents, and clothing creators in particular tend to choose this method. However, this can add up to a LOT of prims and become very expensive if you have more than just a couple outfits to sell. Not to mention all that texture rezing takes a REALLY long time in a laggy mall. Both have their pros and cons, and its best to figure out what works best for your business. Once you've decided that, you can get an idea of what sort of prim limits you'll need to be working within. If you need a lot of prims, I'd suggest looking for a flat fee mall, while if you only need a few, a pay-by-prim model might be cheapest for you.

When it come to actual prices of rentals, it varies pretty widely. You might pay as little as 1L$ per prim, or you might pay as much as 1000L$ a week for 20 prims in a high traffic location, or you might not pay anything at all and sell at a commission location (this is where the mall owners take a small percentage of whatever you sell. They only make money if you make money.). Most malls rent on a weekly basis, however some rent by the month, and some even rent only in USD. (the ElvenMyst market is one such 'mall' if you want to call it a 'mall'.) So it varies. If you are starting in a new mall, especially one that hasn't been around too long, I suggest you rent week to week, for a little while to be sure that you aren't having any trouble with the mall management, and that you are selling enough to justify your existance at the mall. Also, some malls can just vanish, or management may be difficult to deal with for you. Its wise to be a little careful at first to ensure you are comfortable with your choice of location and method of payment. After you've gotten over that inital period you can start paying for longer stints to be at the mall. If you aren't making enough sales to cover your rent in a month or so you may want to consider looking for a better location. There is no point in paying a lot of money to rent a high traffic spot if that traffic isn't benefiting you!

Most merchants end up with a few key locations outside their 'main store' these days. Ever since P2P teleporting was instituted, having a main store has become a nesessity. Most merchants sell more from their main stores than malls because they can control keywords, classifieds, and other such variables from their own land parcel. If you are serious about your business, you probably will end up renting or owning land to set your main store up on. But while you are working up to that, you will need to do some work to promote your mall location. Its not unheard of to set up a 'main store' in a mall rental, but if you intend to make it big, you may have to negotiate with the owner to get sufficient space and prims to do so, as well as having the parcel description and keywords modified to help customers find you.

Just because you are in a mall with other vendors doesn't mean the traffic will flock to you, you will have to do some work to get people to your store. Also, having an attractive, easy to navigate display is important. If you can, show your products around. Get them into reviewer/blogger hands, and make sure you've got a classified set for your stores ( or at least in your picks) on your profile. Sponsoring events is also a good way to get some exposure, aside from just wandering around secondlife and talking to people. You can also buy advertising on places like SLxechange, SLboutique, the Metaverse Messanger, inworld, etc, etc. Posting your products in the forums and adding your store locations to your signature in the forums is also helpful.

For established vendors, malls can be a good place to get a bit of exposure. If you have a large product catalogue, you can often make a bit of bang for your buck by finding a good smaller spot and putting a selection of products that appeal to that audience with landmarks to your main store for more. It gets you out there, and provides just as much (if not more) presence than an advertisment on a billboard. Think of it like an 'outlet'.

One of the biggest complaints of malls has to do with the management and the lag. Many experienced or seasoned shoppers will avoid malls for the lag alone. There are several reasons for lag. The biggest culprit tends to be scripts. Its important for malls to keep scripts, especially ones with listens and triggers to a minimum. Poor building with extreme textures, lighting, or particles is another. There is also the problem of too many vendors in one place. A frequent problem with malls is what I call the 'filing cabinet' effect. A land owner will try to cram as many stores as they can in a particular area, but don't really build in sufficient buffer space. Some sims are also just inherantly laggy due to other people's builds in the sim. This can cause lag in a sim that isn't even related to the mall. Its important to check this out before you plunk down your L$.

The management can make or break a mall. Before you rent, its often a good idea to just talk to the mall owner and see what they are like. Ask how long the mall's been in business, what sort of traffic they have, ask about themes, and just see how they are. Like any business, Mall owners should be professional, courteous and helpful towards inquiries. Its also a good idea to ask for mall policies before renting. Most malls have a 'rental agreement' or something like it, which you agree to when you rent from the individual. A lot of them include clauses regarding 'no refunds', which you really should be aware of before you rent. Also be aware that malls can come and go with the tide. Not all malls do, but the transient nature of secondlife is a factor. One day, you might go to check your store and it is just gone, along with the whole mall. So make sure you check your mall store frequently, and keep an ear to the ground either via the mall's group or by chatting with the owner from time to time.

If anyone has any more 'Mall tips' or experiences to pass on feel free to post them as comments. :)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Jumped the gun

Erf, it seems I'm not immune to being zealous and overshooting things sometimes.

My previous scam report, while the body of the report is sound, i was a bit hasty in my finger pointing and thusly have had my hand slapped and found time for an abrupt egg facial. I want to respond in a timely manner to scam reports, and seeing as people generally don't report them directly to me, I have to actively keep an eye out for when people mention them. Also, like so many others, I work durring the day and don't have the time nessisarily to verify each claim right away. I usually do work on verifying them, but sometimes by the time I get to them, things have changed again, not to mention I am but one person.

I'm not infalable. I'm still a human behind the screen and I can get wrong information. I'm not present obviously when I'm hearing reports from other people. Generally I'm a little more cautious than I was this time around, but zeal got the better of me here.

However, that being said, if someone has issue with a scam I've posted or persons named in the scam, PLEASE do feel free to contact me or leave a comment of your own. The one thing I ask however is that you please do so politely without cussing me (or anyone else out) out, and that you please use proper english. I abhor AOL speak or 'speak' of any kind. It is likely that I was meerly misinformed. I'm more than willing to hear the other side of the story, and if I am wrong, I will change, and I will appologize.

From now on however, I will structure a few rules for myself before naming specific people which should prevent future zealotic mishaps. My general purpose is to inform and educate, not engage in witchhunting per se. I will structure these rules around that goal.

Scam Alert: Re-Box Sellers

Affects: Merchants & Designers
Modus Operandi
: The theif buys or aquires an item with a designer's box which has copy/transfer permissions. They then aquire other items, rip the textures, and then apply the new, ripped textures to full permission clothing they've aquired in their inventory to cover their tracks regarding what they are doing.
How it goes down: The scammer goes around collecting freebees or aquiring clothing in boxes from top designers, either buying or aquiring them through yardsales, friends, yada. They then take the outfits out of the box and replicate the boxes. After this, they take the clothing they aquired, rip the textures, and reapply them to full permission clothing they have in their inventory (renaming it is optional). After which they put the newly minted forgery clothing into the designer's box and proceed to sell it in a store or yardsale enviroment. The scammers name remains out of the creation field, so it becomes nearly impossible to track them unless you are in the scammer's store looking at the OWNER rather than the creator.
Seeing through the Scam: This scam is kind of nefarious as it implicates innocent parties by way of the very permission scheme that is supposed to help prevent this sort of abuse. By using other people's items, the scammer effectively makes those people appear to be the culprits, thereby having innocent designers banned from larger stores for no reason. I do urge that designers and store owners, while angry, don't jump the gun. Make sure you have the facts before taking drastic measures or you may ban an innocent person and let the actual perp get away, or in this case, remain free to continue to rip you off!
Damage control: It is sad that these sort of things continue to press designers into selling non transferable, non copyable objects, but in this case, it is the box/bag/packaging that your outfits come in that you are going to have to protect. Designers, make sure if you sell clothing in a box/package that the box is set to no modify. This will prevent the scammer from using your boxes as they can't put anything in them.

**Updated x2**
Avatars implicated in this scam:
Joane Diller owner of PIECE OF HEAVEN

Originally Candace Sullivan was also implicated in this scam, however, this has come into question and as a result is no longer believed to be directly involved. Appologies to Candace.

Innocent Avatars who's boxes have been used in this scam:
Ashlin Leandros of Mixers

As usual, if anyone has more information on this, please leave it here as a comment.

Buyer Beware: Interview with a con artist

Most of us who have been in SL even a short while are aware of the scams that involve people leaving an object somewhere to catch us unaware into paying into it. From invisible prims over vendors, to objects promising big returns, to rigged casino or camping equipment the MO is always basically the same. Make an object, wait for some sap to use it, cash in.

But what about the old fashioned strait up con? When its not a passive object, but an avatar actively soliciting with a silver tongue?

In more recent times we've seen a little more of this sort of activity. The latest being the 'store management' scam where an avatar was actively in a well known designer's store and soliciting that they had 'deals' on the afore mentioned designers stuff. These guys were pretty braisen, but were reasonably easily caught. However, the fellow I met the other night, was a bit of an eye opener even to me.

I was exploring the new sim, Nakama, which has this funky anime neo-tokyo kind of vibe ( and I'm a sucker for it). It happened that I ran into this fellow. He was in a tux with a red carnation, and a pair of nerdy glasses. His overall appearance screamed 'geek at a wedding'. But thats neither here nor there. He complimented me on my avatar and quite unexpectedly got into a conversation. I'd actually seen this guy before in the Crimson Falls sim, but didn't really talk to him then. It was through the course of this coversation I learned he was a conman. And not only that, he was a genuinely intelligent, silvertongued one too. It was clear to me, this guy knew what he was doing.

He spoke of his victims as 'marks'. His prey was newbies. He knew well that oldbies, despite having more money are a lot harder to fool. By preying on newbies, he is relying on their naieve newness to avoid getting caught. He himself has been around on SL, doing this for quite some time, over a year if memory serves. But with alts, naming names in this case is useless. He would simply change. Its the con thats important here.

He performed his con several times while I was present, although he would always go out of earshot for the actual act itself. But it would always start with " want to make some money?" or something along those lines, and the avatar approched was always less than a few weeks old. When I asked later what he said, he told me it was a "trade secret" and suggested that he was a con man IRL as well as SL. When I asked him what he got out of it, he said that generally he might get 10-50L, but he's gotten some people to pony up as much as 600L for 'male enhansement' if you will, or had his marks buy him other things. Exactly how or what he said is still unknown to me at this time. But given that he seems to get around, I'm sure that some of his 'marks' might be able to shed some light on this if they read this blog.

I think its safe advice to give in this case, that if someone is promising you easy/free money, that the 'scam-o-dar' in your brain should start ringing pretty loudly. Promising big returns for even a small investment, anything which gets you to put out money first, is suspicious activity. This fellow, unlike some others was EXTEMELY smooth. He seems very nice, very polite. But make no mistake, if he can he'll seperate you from your cash in a heartbeat.

Remember: Everyone is out to get your Lindens.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Scam Alert: Skin Stealers

This scam alert is a little different in that it deals with more 'theft' than it does an active scam. However, there is still a scam in that they have stolen someone's hard work and are attempting to profit from it by passing it off as an original, and its quite obvious looking at the evidence that was provided to me. Other skin dealers, or other merchants may wish to check these individuals out incase they've ripped off anyone else.

Affects: So far, 2 skin dealers, Ambyance2 Anubis & Lost Thereian
Modus Operandi
: The theives have apparently ripped Ambyance2 Anubis & Lost Thereian's skin textures and set them for sale at their own store
How it goes down: The exact nature of how they got the skin is unknown to me at this time. It could have been through careful screenshots, but I've also heard of a texture exploit in SL that lets you steal textures. At any rate, it appears they get the textures, alter them very slightly ( more blurry, slightly washed out details.) and then set it for resale at their store.
Seeing through the Scam: This sort of scam is very hard to see through. To a new person, unfamiliar with the original designer's work, they probably won't be able to tell the difference. However if someone is a fan of a particular designer, or in this case, skin maker, they may well recognize the product for sale as being a direct rippoff/knockoff. Its best to notify the creators in such cases to let them decide how they want to resolve the problem. In this case, the skin makers have made it very clear that the products in the vendors don't belong to the avatars in question.
Damage control: This is more something the retailers have to deal with than the general consumer. However, if you do see a designer's items for sale in a retail setting by someone other than the creator, it might be good to drop them a note and a landmark so they can check it out.

Avatars involved in this theft
: bad Plasma and Meshell Jezebel
Offending Store: Bad Boys in Amydria 86, 95, 32
Wronged party:
Ambyance2 Anubis & Lost Thereian of Naughty Designs

Notecard with evidence will be posted on the Caveat Emptor Association messageboard at our office in Bruin. ( Bruin 84, 215, 23)

Monday, July 17, 2006

Business Musings: Alt-itis or "I-bought-this-give-one-to-my-alt"

Since Linden Labs opened up the floodgates of 'no verification' free registration, its been a rather bumpy ride. Not only is there a lot of new, wonderful people, but we've also got a lot of twinks, greifers, and of course, the infamous Alts arriving onto the grid in droves. While the not so cool of the new crop deserve their own topic, the one I'm going to muse about today is the alt. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means "Alternate" as in name or account.

With the new free registration a lot of long time residents have been making them. There are a multitude of reasons. Wanting to change names, escaping stalkers, getting around bans, as banks or vaults for L$, controls for business ventures, roleplaying, privacy, and the list goes on. But as this "alt-itis" has spread through the general populace, there has been an increasing number of instances of folk demanding businesses to provide free copies of previously purchased items to alt accounts for free.

This poses some interesting questions to retailers, and especially affects those that sell no transfer items. Are we selling to the avatar? or are we selling to the person behind the screen? Should one purchase from one 'user' cover all their accounts? The universal answer seems to be largely a resounding 'NO'.

One of the biggest reasons for this is the potential for scamming. There is currently no way for a merchant to verify if an alt, is in fact, the alt of a past customer. Also, if that past customer was more than a month ago, it might be that the merchant doesn't keep records from that long ago. The alt, may not be an alt, but a friend, or perhaps someone who's never bought an item from that merchant before ever. These scammers exist, and their numbers are on the rise. (I'll probably do a scam report on them once I have sufficient information, but thats neither here nor there.)

In real life, if we want two shirts, we have to buy two shirts. Walmart will not furnish us with extra shirts because we bought a single shirt from them in the past. This principle applies with alts. Just because you bought it once with your main account, doesn't mean the retailer now has some unspoken duty or obligation to furnish your alt with all the same products. Some might be incredibly sweet and will provide such things, but it should NOT be expected.

I think its fair to assume for retailers that each account is a unique and individual identity. Just because they 'bought something on their main', does not mean that they are entitled to free product, which is basically what this boils down to. The alt is a seperate person. Retailers should also not let customers make them feel bad for this policy, as it is the only way to prevent alt scamming.

As consumers and alt owners, we must realize that if we want to have something twice, we should reasonably expect to pay for it twice, especially if it is an item of value. If you don't think you should have to pay for the same thing twice, then find something else. An alt is a good excuse to find something new and unique for that alt. You don't have to be stuck to the same things your main had. If you are very attached to those items, then you should reasonably expect to have to pay again. If the product is *that* good that you'd want it twice and priced reasonably, there is no reason to begrudge the creator their tiny fee. Realistically you are only paying something like sixty cents to the creator, although for some very expensive things this can range up to about 5$. I pay more for my lunch on a daily basis.

For retailers, this becomes a policy issue. It would be a good idea to revise your policies to include this senario as it is becoming more and more common. 'sucky' customers in these instances are also becoming more common, and can get very angry if one doesn't do what they want. However, you shouldn't feel obliged to bow to this abuse. Whatever you decide, make sure that it is clearly visible and avaliable for your customers to see and know about. Then when they show up asking for alt handouts, you can hit them over the head with the policy that was clearly displayed and avaliable.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Business Musings: Customer Service pt 2

As I mentioned in my previous post, I worked IRL as a sales associate for a number of years. The company I worked for was a large one and had a very high focus on customer service. In the world of business, it can be a maker and breaker for a small struggling business. Customers DO appreciate good customer service. If you impress your customers with professionalism, responsiviness, courtesy, and individual satisfaction, you'll have customers till the day you close your doors. People LIKE when other people make them happy, and they will come back. This is especially relevant to new businesses that are just building a clientelle. They will come back to you again and again. This works IRL and it works in SL too.

Customer service is just as much about protecting the customer as it is about protecting the retailer. Retailers generally want to make sure their customers are going to continue to be served by their establishment. But an abusive minority can make an otherwise excellent and kind retailer's life a living hell.

Viewpoint 2: The Retailer
Unlike the viewpoint of the Consumer, the Retailer has a lot more work than to just be polite and sensible. Especially as your business grows, the issue of customer service will become more and more complicated. The retailer has many issues to deal that relate to customer service, but don't nessisarily come to mind when one thinks about it who's never had to deal with it. It is vitally important to plan for these issues and have policies and strategies in place for when the problems arise. Some practices from real life can help provide some much needed guidelines that will help you structure your customer service plans.

Fraud Threat & Policies
One very real, and very scary prospect for many retailers is getting ripped off. IRL this stems from everything from shopplifting, to register scams, to embezzlement, and anything inbetween. In secondlife, some of these threats do exist and they are real worries. This makes it vitally important that retailers establish their policies on various issues early in their business lives and make it CRYSTAL CLEAR to their consumers what their stance is on these issues. Not only does this help the customer make an informed decision about shopping with you, it gives you a consistant guideline when dealing with complaints and issues that is well known and well publicised. Lets examine some of the most common ones, and look at how this relates to customer service issues.

1) Return fraud & Return Policy
This is exceedingly common IRL. Especially in stores that have return guarantees. People will bring items back without a receipt and demand a refund. They also bring back highly used, obviously damaged IN use, extremely dirty (or downright disgusting) items and demand a refund. While at least one doesn't have to deal with the horror of dealing with actual merchandise that is.. uh.. sticky or something, but as secondlife retailers we still end up having to deal with the dreaded 'return policy'. Where this gets complicated is permissionsissues in secondlife.
While permissions are designed to help protect our intellectual property and creations in secondlife, they are, in a word, clunky. They sort of work, but there are work arounds that many retailers have pulled their hair out in frusteration over. A lot of retailers sell 'no transfer' items to avoid people buying their stuff and reselling it for cheap or more expensive depending on the item. But this poses a problem when it comes to the issue of returns.

The problem is that the customer cannot actually return the item in question. Ever. No transfer is no transfer. The retailer has no way beyond honor system that the customer will delete the inventory if they issue a refund or exchange. This makes a lot of retailers very sour or at the very least leery of exchange or refunds period. To make matters worse, there is the same sort of fraud that goes on IRL to some degree going on in SL. People trying to return things they never bought, or get a 'replacement' when they never even purchased one in the first place. I cannot tell you how _EXTEMELY_ common this is. It gets worse the more popular and widespread your products become, so it is best to get solid on your return policies from DAY ONE.

One of the things that you can do that is extremely helpful in preventing this sort of fraud is record keeping. I know that we, as the artistic sorts we generally are that are running these businesses tend to LOATHE paperwork with a passion, it will save your butt if one of these rather unsavory sorts comes begging you for a refund or for product they never bought. Secondlife does keep track of all your transactions for about the last 30 days, including names of who bought something, what they paid and what vendor or object they bought it from. However, what if someone comes wanting something replaced from 3-6 months ago? Hard to verify if you haven't been keeping records.

How I do this is I have a vendor that sends me an email with the details of who bought what, when, from where. I have a filter on my Gmail account that tags them all and goes into the archive. When I get a free moment, I input it into an excel type spreadsheet. ( this is also a great way to track sales data!). This way, I can easily check if someone has bought something from me, when they bought it, where they bought it from, and how much they paid. If you don't want to get a vendor that has that feature, be sure to simply download your transactions on a monthly basis and store the information for later reference.

So if the customer can't return the item, what do you do? You can't discriminate based on what you think of an individual's honesty. Its very important that whatever it is you decide is to your level of comfort is set down clearly and followed consistantly. You have a few options.

A) No refunds or exchanges. Period. You don't give them. If you choose this route, make sure that this is ALL OVER YOUR STORE and in a notecard inside the item and in the vendors when people click on them. Make it ABUNDANTLY clear and then stick to it.

B) Refunds or exchanges within a period of time with 'reciept'. A common policy is refund within 14 days, exchanges only after that time for up to say, 30 days. Once that time is up, you are not obligated to do a refund or exchange of any sort. Although you can stipulate any timeframe you wish as the retailer. Again, write this all over your store and put it in notecards. Make it clear to customers. The 'reciept' is your record of the transaction. Make sure you keep very tight records if you do this. People will try to take advantage of you. Sad, but true.

C) Refunds or exchanges done with a 'reciept'. This means you are willing to exchange or refund at any time for any sale which you have record of, regardless of if the customer will or won't delete the inventory. The reason I say this is because even if the customer says they will, doesn't always mean they will. So you as a retailer have to be willing to accept this fact. As long as you are willing to do this, its fine to have this policy. Again, make it clear that you do refunds and exchanges so people know what to expect from you.

Whatever refund/exchange policy you decide to adopt ( or variation thereof) I suggest putting signs up or at least having a notecard avaliable with all your store's policies for customers to take.

Obviously if you have transferable merchandice that is no copy/mod/transfer, it is easy for the customer to give you back the merchandise and get a refund or exchange almost normally, just like in a store. However, it is still important to have a refund policy in place, as someone might have bought the item from someone else and is now coming to YOU for a refund. Remember, if it is transferable, its resellable. So they could have bought it from a yardsale for half of what its worth, and are now coming to you to return it and get the full value back. RECIEPTS ARE IMPORTANT to prevent this sort of fraud. Also, people can replicate the look and feel of retailers boxes and contents, so its important to check items before you refund for fraud.

2)Replacement & Support
We all know from experience that SL is extremely flakey. With each update there are new bugs and old ones that rear their ugly heads. This frequently causes inventory glitches, scripting bugs, and all sorts of unexpected weirdness. Add to this that customers may be new, or unfamiliar with building and in making a modification or addition to their new whatever-it-is-you-sell, they may accidentally break it. This means they will be coming to you for support.

While you are writing up your policy notecard, one section should be definately be on your policies regarding replacements and upgrades. Many designers provide upgraded products for free to existing customers, while others might have them avaliable for a discounted price, or some don't offer upgrades at all. Its important to say where you stand from the outset. Replacements 'with reciept' is the norm, generally speaking. If the guy payed for something, its courteous and professional that if he asks for a replacement (of the SAME product, provided there has been no upgrades or version changes), give it to him. We've all had stuff disappear from our inventory or become corrupted. Just make sure you've got a record of his or her purchase.

Support in and of itself can become a full time job if you aren't careful. As your business grows, you'll probably find more and more of your time is eaten by supporting your products. If this becomes a problem, I'd suggest hiring some trustworthy people to help handle inquiries, but if you can't or don't want to, you'll definately want to set your boundries regarding what you will and won't support. If someone gets a faulty product, finds a bug in your product, or has a legitimate problem, it should be something that you at least take the time to investigate. You, the retailer, are still human and make mistakes. Something could have the wrong permissions, be packed in the wrong box, be misnamed in a vendor. Its important to make sure that YOU haven't made a mistake because if you did, you are going to want to fix it ASAP before you get more people coming to you with the same problem. However, that being said, once you establish it isn't your fault and its not a technical problem with your product, then it becomes another issue entirely.

As a retailer you are only responsible for supporting your own products. You are not responsible for compatability or 3rd party modifications UNLESS you specifically advertise that you support a particular 3rd party product. If you do support a 3rd party product and find that you are getting reports that it isn't working, you should do your best to investigate the problem. Most customers are pretty good about waiting if you are investigating a problem or at least they know you are 'working on it'. A lot of times, they just want you to acknowledge there might be something wrong. In these cases, be polite and calmly thank them for telling you, you'll look into it. If they get at all pissy, remain calm, be as polite and professional as possible explaining to them how it will take some time to fix it and if It is legit, you'll be issuing a fix, or notice or something. Most should be happy with that. Some, of course, won't, but always try to be professional even with the thick headed customers.

Professional Conduct
When it comes time to actually enforce and use your policy remember the #1 rule of customer service: Be polite, courteous, and professional. There is no need to cuss out a customer. In fact I suggest NEVER swearing at a customer no matter how profane they are with you. When faced with an irate customer, policy is your saving grace and your sheild. Use it, stick to it. Just make sure whatever policies you have, they are fair, consistent, and readily avaliable to all.

Another handy tool is a FAQ notecard, especially if you tend to deal with the same questions over and over again. This helps customers help themselves before they have to come to you for help. Also, it might answer many questions they may be about to ask, even after the first.

Its not easy to resist the urge to become angry and beligerent with a customer that is being angry and beligerent to you. Most of us are artists. We don't deal with this sort of thing too well being sensitive, emotional, and often moody creatures. If our businesses are large, we may end up dealing with several of these sorts a night. It gets tiresome and sapping. But remaining professional will make you and your business stand above the others that can't. Word of mouth is a powerful tool for or against you. Good customer service will get you noticed and recommended.

How far is too far?
A big question remains is how far is too far to satisfy a customer? This really depends on your comfort level. For a legitimate customer, I will go as far as I reasonably can to satisfy them.
As an example, in a case I had within recent memory, I had a customer purchase an avatar I made of one gender the day before I came out with same avatar but the other gender (they were quite different despite being the same race). He asked me if he could have the other one, because he had misunderstood my vendor and bought it on a risk that I had mismatched it with the picture in the vendor. An honest mistake, if perhaps a little risky. But I had the records of his purchase, and he had bought it only the day before. It cost me nothing to give him the one he wanted, and being new, I figured it would be good exposure for the new avatar. So, I gave it to him, and thanked him for supporting my shop. He was so pleased that he even put up a sign for my place at his land as an advertisment for me. It was a win-win situation.

However, not is all peaches and cream, such as in this example, where my 'reciept' policy saved me from ( someone I later learned was) a scammer. A girl messages me while i'm offline asking me to message her. I respond via email/IM that I'm at work and won't be in world for a while and what her inquiry was regarding. She replies that she needs an avatar replaced. I ask her what it was and when she bought it. The reply ( this is all offline ) comes back specifying the avatar she wanted, which happened to be one of the most expensive that I sell. I ask her when she bought it and she gives me a month. I check the records I have and have no receipt. I have a strict 'receipt required' policy. I ask again to confirm and tell her I have no record of a purchase. There is a slight argument where she repeatedly asks to have the avatar replaced. I remind her I'm not in world, but without a reciept I won't do it. Eventually I simply say that I'll be in world later in the evening if she wants to take it up with me in person, she never replies. I later learned from another retailer in my area that this is a common ploy for the girl trying to get something for nothing. So my policy has saved me without compromising my customer service.

While this is how I do business, I know other retailers have other comfort levels. I know a retailer who absolutely does not do refunds or replacements. This retailer is very strict about it and it does meet with a great deal of resistance. But I also know this particular retailer has had more scammers, beggers, and irate, angry customers than you can shake a stick at at their door. I helped this retailer in question develop policies to help them deal with some of these problems, and while they may not be the most popular, they are consistant. And I know they will bend over backwards to help legitimate customers who are polite and willing to comply with their policies.

But it is a source of a constant reminder that no matter how good at customer service you are, there are people who will NEVER be satisfied. This is when you must brace for impact and dig in with your policy manual firmly in hand. You cannot satisfy everyone all the time. Its a fundamental rule of reality. You should only feel obligated to do as much as you have said you will do and nothing more. Do not let customers bully you into doing things that YOU are not comfortable with. Your policies are a reminder, not only to your customers, but to yourself as to what your obligations are. They are your golden rules. If a customer is extremely rude and will not listen to you or your rules of business, you have a right to say " No, I will not serve you. Please leave".

This is known as 'Denial of Service'. People can be banned from stores, malls, and other business places for rude and disruptive conduct in real life. It can also be done in Secondlife. There is a mute button, feel free to use it if someone can't stop swearing at you and being a general ass because they won't take 'no' for an answer. You can ban the individual from your land and store. This may insight attacks against you, but they will be in the wrong. Save the conversation in a notecard and file Abuse Reports freely if the individual feels the need to grief you because he can't have his way.

But you should try to use this as a last resort. Hopefully this helps. Please feel free to post any questions or ask me inworld.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Business Musings: Customer service pt 1

Before my current RL employment, I worked in customer service for a number of years as a sales associate. As a result, I'm fairly knowlegeable when it comes to what sorts of things you can reasonably expect from both a retailer and a consumer perspective, and what you can't. Its no secret that the success of a business can hinge on this thread, particularly in a highly compeditive business enviroment like the one we have in Secondlife. Fortunately, Secondlife gives us a chance to run a business without the real life worries and overheads, and we get to experience things from both sides of the table. We are both the consumers and the business owners if we want to be. Although, many people who run businesses in Secondlife don't have business management training, hell most don't even have staff. So the issue of customer service in a virtual business becomes very interesting.

View Point 1: The Consumer
Obviously the most familiar point of view for most people is going to be on the consumer end. In the real world, if a product is broken or wrong when we buy it we can take it back to the store and have it refunded. If we are dissatisfied with service, we can complain bitterly and make store managers bend and fall all over themselves to make us happy. If we get bad service or bad food at a restaurant, we can get a free meal. Its commonly accepted in our society that if we aren't pleased with the product, service, or consumable we've paid for, we will make damn sure the establishment takes it back or refunds our money. This same behavior translates over to Secondlife business. I've heard of many 'customer service' horror stories through various mediums including first hand. Sometimes, these are genuinely bad, and sometimes I'm sensing something that as a seasoned customer service person like to call a 'sucky customer'.

Its fine to expect reasonable customer service from even a virtual business, but the key word here is reasonable. When you endevor as a consumer to get the best in customer service, you want to be a 'savvy client' and not a 'sucky customer'. Dollars to nickels the savvy client will have the store owner happy to bend over backwards to satisfy their client. So what is the savvy client vs the sucky customer? Glad you asked!

The savvy client is, in a word, smart. They are careful with their shopping and also careful to read the policies of the store they are in before making large purchases. They try demos, get people to model potential purchases for them. They KNOW what they are buying. They might ask around if anyone has bought from a particular designer if its a very large purchase. Many store owners have policy notecards avaliable at their stores, and if they don't, ask!
The savvy client knows the following about secondlife business:

1) Permissions sometimes make it impossible to 'return' an item purchased. ( no transfer). Many retailers do not give refunds on no transfer items. No transfer also makes it impossible to exchange. Be sure that you can live with a retailers return policy before buying!

2) In secondlife, 9 out of 10 times you are going to be dealing directly with the designer, of which there is only one, with potentially hundreds of customers. So that designer is a very busy person. If you have to talk with them, be polite but direct. Sending a 'hi' message likely will get ignored. Its best to be brief. eg: " Hi there, I just bought your (blank) at your store in (blank) sim, It said it was a modable, but the permissions appear to be wrong. Can you help?"

3) You get more flies with honey. Being polite and courteous will get you a lot further than threats or swearing. That sort of behavior turns the conversation off right there. Many designers are more than willing to make compromises or fixes to help a customer, but if the customer starts getting angry and mean, they are going to be a lot less inclined to help you. If the designer is not willing to accomidate your immediate request, then try to find a compromise. Many designers are not willing to refund money, but might be willing to assist you with product.

4) Deal with problems right away. Don't want for a month before going back to a designer and asking for a change or refund. Try your product right away and make sure it works the way you intended it to. In real life, refunds and exchanges are limited to 30 -90 days. In secondlife, a lot of retailers only keep records for a month, so if they go to verify your purchase after a month, its going to be hard. Some retailers might keep longer records, but its really best to deal with things immediately.

5)Make sure you are talking to the right person for the right problem. Some retailers are groups of people, each one having a different responsibility. If you are having trouble with a script in a product, make sure you are talking to the scripter and not the texture artist.

6) Retailers are not responsible for your after the fact modifications. While most retailers will happily replace products that disappear from inventories or are accidentally lost or damaged, they are NOT responsible for your meddling after the purchase. They are also not responsible for making other people's products work with their products. Being that there are hundreds of thousands of different products out there, there is no way to make them all compatable 100%. It is highly unreasonable to assume otherwise. After that point of you modifying something, it becomes asking for help. Its not even support, because its not the same as when you bought it. You are asking for help, be respectful. Some retailers don't have time to provide that sort of help, but they might be able to recommend you to someone who can.

7) Be very careful about your purchases. Make sure you aren't lagging, no one is clicking the same vendor as you, and the vendor has fully rezed before you buy anything. Lag is a huge cause of bad buys, especially in highly lagged areas like malls. Be aware, buy with care.

The rules of thumb: Ask nicely. Be polite. Say please and thank you. Read all notecards carefully before buying. This will make sure you are prepared to know who you are dealing with and what their rules are.

The 'sucky customer' is almost the complete opposite of the savvy client. They are rude, demanding, badgering, belligerant, angry, swearing, ignorant, and often vindictive. They tend to be the ones that sour tempermental designers against even the savvy consumer. Artsy people don't usually have the temperments to be bitched at by a hundred people in one day, and anyone tends to reflect the emotional noise they get bombarded with. So if they are having a bad day, chances are, the designer is going to be crabby. Its best to assume designers have had a bad day.

Okay, so what happens when you've been a good consumer and been polite and the designer still isn't helping you. Okay, there is a few options. First one is to look at what exactly you are asking for and try some variations. Can't get a cash refund? Okay, well what about a exchange? Is there only one part of the purchase you don't like? ( color, feature, style) and can you get or purchase just that part? The next thing is to check the designer's policies. Many designers will hit you over the head with them. Is there a way to work within the policies to make you happy with your purchase? Try that.

Still not able to work something out? Well this might well be into a case of Sucktacular Service then. Most times if the customer is polite and flexible, the retailer and customer will be able to work out some kind of compromise. But the retailer does have the right to put his or her foot down and refuse service to someone who is beligerent. You may not agree, but they have the right. Retailers IRL have this too. Its usually called " Denial of Service" and its a punishment usually reserved for shoplifters, problem customers, or particularly beligerent or obnoxous individuals. So if you are a sucky customer, they can, and will ignore you. Its best to be a savvy customer and you are much more likely to get what you want.

Scam Alert: Moneyball Scam

Affects: Small Casino operators, small games operators, anyone who might use a money ball.

Modus Operandi: The scammer distributes a copy of the offending object called "VGI Money Ball" en masse. Once the victim rezes the moneyball and gives it debit permissions, the scam is underway. Please note that this is NOT a VGI product. It is just pretending to be one.

How it goes down: The victim is given the object free from the scammer or an associate. When the victim rezes the object "VGI Money Ball", it asks for debit permissions. Once the victim has given debit permissions, the moneyball begins to syphon off the person's account in intervals until there is nothing left and gives the money to the scammer.

Seeing through the Scam: Once again, I cannot stress enough that you should NOT give debit permissions to ANYTHING that you don't know explicitly where it came from or are savvy enough to look at the code (if its permittable!) to know if the thing isn't going to rip you off.

Damage control: If you have rezed this object and notice it taking money from you GET RID OF IT ASAP. That will stop it from robbing you. Its not a good idea to just leave something like that out there without testing it first for a good deal of time while online to make sure it ISN'T going to rob you blind. Even if it wasn't a scam, a bug or other glitch could cause severe losses.

If you recieve something with the VGI name, it is advisable to check VGI's website to ensure that it is legitimately one of their products before you use it.

Moneyball affected:
VGI Money Ball

Avatars under suspicion of being involved this scam:
MoeMonnie Bao

Monday, July 03, 2006

Scam Alert: Another Free Slot Machine Scam

This scam is much like the previous scam I posted on, with the exception that this slot is handed out as a freebee and not as a prize to a game. It was originally avaliable on SLexchange.com as "Adriana Lima Slot Machine" but has since been removed.
Affects: Small Casino operators, small games operators
Modus Operandi
: The slots machine is avaliable as a free or low cost vending slot machine from a freebee source or marketplace, in this case, SLexchange.
How it goes down: The victim takes a copy of the slot machine and sets it down on their land for visitors to play. Within a short time, a particular avatar shows up and begins to win large jackpots consecutively until the owner of the casino is drained. This is because the casino game notifies its creator that it is in operation, and the operator is none the wiser. When the owner of the game shows up he can win every time, larger jackpots while only betting 1$.
Seeing through the Scam: This is a case of buyer beware. In the case of slot machines its generally a good idea to do some research and buy from a reputable dealer or get some second hand from someone you can trust. If you have a scriptor friend thats trustworthy, you can get something custom. Generally, if you've got something thats got to have free reign in your pocketbook should be a little paranoid that you are getting something thats not going to rob you blind.
Damage control: If you aren't sure of the machine, its a good idea to test it within the boundries of land you can set to group access only, so that the scammer can't get at the game when he shows up. Look for him. A resident describes how to do this here

Slots known to use this scam
FREE Adriana Lima Slot Machine v1.4 TRANSFER/COPY Non-Comission

Avatar which shows up to collect: Games Fan