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Archive for August, 2009

Little Things: Don’t Ignore ‘Em

I saw this Bing ad on Facebook:

Bing Ad

See the little movement lines, there on the left? They suggest the weird little dollar coin is moving from left to right. In western cultures (to whom the ad was targeted) left to right progression is associated with forward motion, while right to left progression signals backward motion. This something you’ll see in movies and comic strips if you’re looking for it. Here’s an example we all know and love:


The stylized arrow beside the word “Back” is pointing, appropriately, back, via a right-to-left perspective, while all of the letters in that word are also skewed right-to-left. The word “future,” conversely, is skewed left-to-right. It’s an instantly recognizable logo that succeeds by embodying its idea without whacking you over the head with it.

So look again:

Bing Ad

Bing is talking about getting cash back, but illustrating their point by showing cash flowing away. This isn’t the economy to be talking about cash flowing away. I’m not sure that the dissonance this creates registers for most people but when it’s already unlikely that people will engage with your ad unit, the last thing you do is add subconscious resistance.

Yeah, it’s tiny, but the tiny things pile up into the enormous sand dunes that dog every last Microsoft endeavor with needless, unnecessary friction born of poor taste and obliviousness.

For more on this, enjoy a deconstruction of the hideous Bing logo.


I remember the first time I went to IKEA.

It blew my brain open. It’s the coolest retail experience in the history of the world.

There’s only one problem: you gotta keep track of a lot of data if you want to get out of there with everything you wanted to take home.

Enter SwedeShop, my unofficial IKEA shopping list app. Find out more at the main site:

Tallymander 2.0 Beta

Over at dot-com there’s a signup form for Tallymander 2.0. It’s filled with cool stuff requested by users and I’d love some help testing it. More here:

Customer Service Isn’t a Callcenter

If you plug the term “customer service” into Google’s image search, you get this, as of today:


Out of 20 images, 10 depict people either wearing a headset or holding a phone.

It’s a sad state of affairs: we’ve all come to think of customer service as this thing that kicks in when a company has screwed up.

That’s not the way it should be. True customer service comes from a passionate, proactive culture that embraces every opportunity to make the customer happy and loathes the idea of ever being a source of disappointment.

Regular readers will note that Netflix is a darling of mine. It’s with good reason: my personal relationship with Netflix is entirely positive. They provide me with a great product at a great price and have been consistently fervent in their interest to keep me happy as a customer. Beyond that, Netflix is a quintessential, recession-proof example of a company that spends its every second trying to make their customers as happy as possible. In a fascinating look at how a Netflix distribution center works, the Chicago Tribune revealed one of the most telling internal processes of all:

[VP of Communications Steve] Swasey, who drove in from Columbus, Ohio, where there is an even larger hub, pointed to a photocopy taped to the wall — a picture of Disc 4 of “Rescue Me” Season 4 alongside a sleeve that promised Disc 4 of “Rescue Me” Season 3. It’s a kind of Netflix perp walk. Some diligent associate caught the mistake before it shipped. “To me, I see it as a goose-bump moment,” Swasey said.

Sure, he’s the VP of communications. But the choice of words is so specifically visceral that you can’t doubt its authenticity. Not only does this organization care so much about their customers that they have real, living, breathing humans ensuring the discs match the sleeves, they even go so far as to nail potential customer disasters to the wall like trophies. They don’t know if you or I are enduring a TV cliffhanger that must be resolved with the very next disc of 24. They don’t know if you’re having a bunch of friends over to watch a specific episode of Rescue Me. All they know is that if you don’t get you exactly what you asked for, you’re going to be disappointed and they’ve failed. Right on up to the VP level, what might be seen as something quite small is enough to confer goosebumps.

That’s not an accident. That’s an organization spending a significant amount of time and effort on ensuring that its customers are its focus. Not after they’ve screwed up. Not after the customer is unhappy. They’re taking uncountable invisible steps to ensure the customer never has a reason to be disappointed in the first place.

The other modern paragon of customer service virtue is Zappos. True story:

My dress shoes were shot. Once upon a time I worked in an office and dress shoes were an integral part of a daily professional image. I needed new ones.

So I wandered around the mall with my girlfriend in search of something minimalist, comfortable and professional. I’m a picky bastard so after an hour, we’d discovered nothing quite my style. Finally, we found something perfect at Macy’s: simple, black leather, comfy as hell. After waiting about ten minutes for service, someone bothered to ask what I needed. When I requested my size in the shoes I’d found, I was told they were out of stock.

We left. I was about ready to resign myself to going barefoot the rest of my days when my girlfriend, a longtime fan, told me I needed to check Zappos. Sure enough, there were my shoes at a better price than Macy’s. At midnight, in around five minutes, I’d placed my order and with standard shipping expected to see my new shoes the next week. It was easier than shopping around, at least. I was happy enough with the whole experience.

Eleven hours later, my shoes had been delivered.

Let me say that again: eleven fucking hours.

This was eight months ago and I’m still a little speechless about this. My expectations were set so low by other online retailers, with their two days of processing and absurd charges for overnight delivery, nothing could have prepared me for the ridiculous, effortless haste Zappos showed in delivering what I’d ordered.

I’d never been unhappy with Zappos. I was already pleased with their prices, their solid website and their ever-present friendly tone. Behind the scenes, though, Zappos had spent countless effort, time, brainpower and what must be boatloads of money creating an infrastructure that can get a guy’s shoes delivered almost as quickly as he can choose them. Way the hell from Kentucky to anywhere in the country, no less. (This wasn’t a fluke, either – they reproduced their feat multiple times since)

This is behind-the-scenes, utterly invisible to the customer.

Your call center, if you need one, should be staffed with friendly, empowered people who answer quickly, work directly for your organization and give everything they can to address the needs of the customers they work with.

Then you should go further, giving everything in your soul to ensuring that most of your customers are so happy with what you give them, most don’t ever call you.

The Gravest Pain of an iPhone Developer

It’s a chattery time for App Store problems. Apple rejected Google Voice, then neutered Ninjawords and still presents an utterly opaque face to developers.

There are a laundry list of problems facing the growth of the App Store. I won’t bother to rehash them here. Let’s focus on the one that most thoroughly jeopardizes the future of developer businesses: Customer Service. Every other problem can be overcome or worked around but without the power of caring for your customers, your business has no reason to exist.

In an aside to a link last month, John Gruber muses:

I’m wondering how much of the problem is that the App Store is built on the foundation and framework of the iTunes Music Store, which was designed from the outset specifically as a venue for selling 99-cent downloads.

This is the most crucially important point: the iTunes Store was never designed to sell software. Among other things, Craig Hockenberry enumerates all the ways in which the App Store is hobbled by this historical truth. It’s a good, important post that you should read if you care about this kind of stuff. But it doesn’t address long-term outcomes related to customer service that will doom the developer community.

As an iPhone developer, I have no control over my storefront – Apple manages it for me, with basic data I provide. On the one hand, this is incredible news: access to a huge pool of customers, a complete distribution infrastructure and – best of all – I never have to worry about payment processing.

There’s just one issue: Apple doesn’t give a damn about my relationship with my customers.

Generous, attentive, impassioned customer service is an important piece of any successful business. My customers mean the world to me. Unfortunately, iTunes does not provide a clear, encouraging feedback channel.

User Reviews

When you’re selling music, user reviews are a simple tool. Much is subjective, but overall quality will be reflected in the reviews.

With software, the reviews have become more complicated. The most tantalizing way for a customer to speak out about software that is giving them problems is to write a review. And that’s what they do. Bug reports, feature requests and anything else that comes into their minds gets dumped into the reviews. And why not? The ability to write a review is prominently featured and uses a built-in, official form. It’s infinitely more seductive than leaving iTunes to write an email to the support contact. It’s also a venue provided by the same service that is taking the customer’s money, so it feels more intimately linked to their purchase than anything they can do on an external website or in their email client.

This is infuriating since the communication is strictly one-sided. There’s no way for the developer to follow up on these reviews to ask for more information. Without that information, acting on a bug report is often impossible. The worst part is that without dialogue, it’s impossible for the customer to learn more about their problem, discover workarounds and discover that there’s a living, breathing person who truly cares about the quality of the software they’ve just purchased.

Like it or not, the iTunes user review becomes the support form of last resort.

The Consequence

There are ways around this. Tap4Help is an interesting example, providing a built-in feedback and support request system. Developers, like Lucius Kwok, report some success explicitly declaring their email right in their application description with a call to action encouraging its use. I do this, too, but it doesn’t catch them all.

Why not? Nothing will ever come close to the power and authority of iTunes itself. I theorize that part of the reason so many customers prefer the review form to using a support email or link is that they know that iTunes will provide them satisfaction. No matter what, iTunes will show their review. They will be heard.

By keeping these customers so thoroughly at arm’s length, Apple retards the formation of relationships that will build developers’ business. I’ve turned angry emails into loyal customers through the power of honesty and genuine interest in customer issues. I’d desperately love to provide that dialogue for every customer, ever, but iTunes, under the current system, will continue to siphon off some portion of those opportunities into its black hole of customer reviews.

Having good conversations with your customers is as essential and non-negotiable as having an engine in your car. When Zappos tweets at me in thanks for my praise, I feel as though my relationship with the company has been further validated. When Netflix gives me complete and generous support when I have trouble with their service, I feel respect for them, since their conduct conveys respect for my business.

It’s all about how the customer feels. If you never get to talk with them, you’ll never get to impact that feeling.

Let’s Do It Better

This is not a hard problem to solve. If you happen to work on the iTunes Store infrastructure team, you may feel differently, but the company you work for is in the business of accomplishing the impossible on a fairly regular basis. My sympathy is limited.

Developer Review Replies

This is the easiest part. Let the developer reply to user reviews. This isn’t groundbreaking and I’m the eight thousandth developer to suggest it. So make it happen. The developer can join the conversation and solicit additional information so that bug reports that go into the reviews can actually be productive. Notify whomever left the review that they have a response via email. For bonus points, let the customer reply directly to that notification to reach the developer.

Feedback/Support Form

Let the user provide feedback or support requests through an official, iTunes-embedded form. Send the feedback to the developer via email, with an anonymized reply-to address, like craigslist uses, so Apple can cover their ass on privacy concerns. For bonus points, provide a rating for each application that states how responsive each developer is to requests sent via this form.

There is no step three. With those two provisions, an open dialogue has been created for anyone who bothers to seek one. Software, even for the iPhone, is not music. The one-sided echo-chamber conversation of the iTunes Music Store does not work in the App Store. With the two modest tools I’ve described, developers will have an infinitely easier time creating the relationships they need to build their business.

I’m not going to hold my breath. Hopefully Apple is working on this stuff, but in the meantime, I need to figure out better ways to put myself in easy reach of my customers.