Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Business Musings: Customer Entitlement & Ignorance

I have several friends on SL who have been in the business of creating content for several years now, and a few that are quite large. So large they actually make their real life living making content. We often 'talk shop' and one of the things that repeatedly comes up is the the level of customer ignorance and their sense of entitlement.

One of my friends who ones one of the largest businesses of my circle sees this repeatedly. She is an extremely busy creator with a very large client base, but the bulk of her big customer complaints stems from these problems. She's tried to find ways to educate her customers, but it seems that no matter how many signs or notecards, or even one on one talk she's given, people just don't seem to 'get it'.

As a vendor I can say I've run into this myself, more so in recent times than in the past. The stuff I sell isn't heavily scripted, but it does rely on SL functioning properly when it comes to rendering. For the past several months I've had many complaints about skins being 'blurry' which led me to explaining the rebaking process about a dozen times in the span of two weeks. It was of course, not the textures that were to blame, but their client wasn't baking properly after they put it on, so it appeared 'blurry'. Customers were very quick to ask for 'replacements', but what they didn't understand was that it wasn't the product that was to blame, but SL itself.

In the (latest) instant with my friend, a customer has confused 'features', for 'defects'. In this case, the vendor's product is designed to be customized to a certain degree by the consumer, and her textures are made in order to make this possible. This does create some limitations, and each of her products are packaged in sets according to pre-assembled color schemes. One selects the color set they wish, and then when they buy it, they then have the *option* to modify it as they see fit. She has many signs all over her store that advises customers that she does NOT give refunds because her avatars are all mod/copy, and that staff are present to answer questions and model the products should people want to inspect what they are buying before hand. If there is a legitimate bug/problem, it can be reported to her or staff and they will bust their asses to fix it. The problem is, most 'problems' are opinions, not actual fixable issues.

This is such a case. There are several factors inside the problem. One is a technical issue on the consumer's own computer, namely monitor settings. If someone is using an old monitor the colors will display differently than someone with a new monitor. This is true with CRT vs Flatscreens as well. Flatscreens display much brighter colors with a higher contrast, while CRTs tend to be darker and wash out fine details. This person could not see the detail in the pre-set version. First problem. Second problem is customer ignorance, first of the technical requirements of SL to do certain things, the second is the market demand for customization on this product. In order to make textures that are recolorable by the end user, one has to set their textures up a particular way. They have to be black and white with enough contrast that when a tint is applied, the texture looks correct. This is how it has to be done if you want a pure color to show through. This is what was done, the textures were made correctly. However, this person apparently had a consumer impression that doing black and white textures and then tinting them was 'cheap'. This is not the case, obviously as the product was built to be re-colorable by the end user. It was, in fact, built correctly.

The customer initially complained that the pre-tinted color was 'too dark'. However, being that is a modifiable avatar, and they were informed of this via signs and notecards, they could modify it. However, when given the option to modify the avatar, the consumer then complained that the textures were 'cheap' because they were tintable. The actual product was not 'too dark' but it appears that her monitor was set to dark to see the proper contrast of the original package. However, this doesn't hold too much water as all the products are clearly displayed on the vendors from which they are being sold and the customer did not request a modeling from staff present. This complaint is also coming months after the purchase. The customer at first seemed to want a replacement for the 'deficient' textures, however, was informed that custom textures were not available, which then instigated a lecture from the customer regarding how they felt the creator should build things, with no regard to actual function within SL, clearly displaying ignorance about SL and how things are made, as well as the time and effort it takes to make things and make them user friendly. Ultimately the customer was told the product was functioning properly and after several threats, the customer then left. Of course, this exchange resulted in neither being happy. The vendor/creator suffered many insults and threats, and the customer remained ignorant and had their complaint unresolved.

There are two sides here, the customer and the vendor.

As vendors and creators we don't have the time to take every customer by the hand and educate them. We can do our best to inform them. Having very obvious signs and policies clearly posted at the store or in note cards given out by vendors is a good safety blanket, particularly if you do not give refunds and detailing what you will or will not fix. It may also be good to detail features, in order to justify the value of your products and validate your creation techniques if you find there is misconceptions around them. Having staff trained to answer questions for you can be invaluable to put a barrier between you and them, particularly if you find yourself being overwhelmed by customer complaints/problems/requests. Having a website for your products and a FAQ on that site and in your store might also be helpful. There is going to be instances where you cannot please all your customers all the time, but even if you cannot help them, you can educate them with their misconceptions. Sometimes throwing questions at them can derail their arguments, and so when they start throwing accusations at you, throw questions back at them. Make them get specific, ask how much they know regarding building, ask exactly how the product is malfunctioning, send screenshots, make them justify themselves. Often through the process of simply walking them through a set script of questions can defuse the situation by educating the client without being condescending. This servers two purposes, the client will go away happier when they realize that they did, infact, get a valuable, well made product, and they will also be less likely to be a sucky customer to other vendors. In theory, they may also disseminate the information to other friends, and thereby help to educate them as well. There are always a handful of sucky customers that remain steadfastly adamanet on getting whatever it is they want, but we can't be expected to please everyone, all the time. Make sure you have your policies, stick to them, but if a complaint is clearly based on ignorance, try to use a series of information/qualification questions to educate them and defuse the situation. Complaints are like troubleshooting, you have to walk through the steps. It also makes sure you and your employees treat everyone fairly. Also, if a customer does get the point of threats (writing in blogs for example..) don't balk, stick to your guns. Any publicity is good publicity, particularly if you can still come off smelling like a rose.

As consumers and customers we also have a responsibility to the vendors. That is we must be aware of what we are shopping for and read the materials provided by the vendors regarding permissions, return policies, and pay close attention to what we are actually buying. The vendors are not responsible for our mistakes, and if we buy the wrong item, its not like real life where you can give it back. You have to eat it. If you are very particular about certain qualities of a product, such as how textures are handled, you cannot expect every vendor/creator/artist to use the same techniques. You can and should request modeling, particularly if the product is expensive, such as a skin. If they have a demo, you should try it out. If you know someone who owns a product, get them to show it to you. The vendor IS NOT our babysitters. We have to take responsibility for our purchases. If we make a kneejerk purchase and it isn't *quite* what we expected, but exactly what was advertised, we have no one to blame but ourselves for not putting in that little extra legwork. We also have to consider, that a 1000L might sound like a lot, but its less than a couple of real life dollars we'd spend on pop. If we were as spendthrift in real life as many of us are on SL, we'd probably have a lot more money in the bank and have a lot less debt. But my Starbucks Frappuchino costs more than most of the really good skins/avs/gowns/ etc in SL. Put your purchases in perspective before you run off and make the creator's life miserable. Also, if you have a complaint or inquiry, be polite and refrain from putting your own spin on things, particularly if you are not a builder/creator and understand the logicistics of their marketplace and clientel. Big makers tend to tailor their products to the majority, not the individual, and you can't expect them to pay the same level of attention as a tiny shop might with a very small group of customers. Being difficult, threatening, or constantly bitching will get you precisely nowhere, since these people deal with many of 'you' a day, they will simply lump you into the sucky customer category and ignore your issues. If you want to be heard, you have to use sugar, not vinegar.

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