Your browser (Internet Explorer 6) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

Lessons from Louis CK on running a customer service-driven business

Comedian Louis CK had the bad luck to book a New York comedy show on the same night that a hurricane is bearing down on the east coast.

I like this guy a lot – his gutsy, $5 DRM-free download of his show at Beacon Theatre was a textbook example of how to build and grow a long-term relationship with a 21st-century fanbase while still getting paid. So I’m not surprised by how he’s handling this situation (all bold emphasis mine).

Establish Context

Dear New York ticket holding folks….
Okay. I thought about this very carefully and I really started to worry about making 4300 people come into midtown manhattan on Sunday night, which is just when the stormatron 5000 is supposed to crush our empire. new york state has ordered the sutdown of all mass transit (subways, buses and commuter trains) as of 7pm Sunday night.

Before getting into the nitty gritty of his announcement, CK takes a moment to get everyone on the same page. There’s an important reason he’s asking for your attention. There’s a reason he’s about to give you some bad news. Good communication makes no assumptions about the audience’s facts.

Deliver the Bad News

I know that a lot of people are excited to come and they are fine with taking the chance but I really don’t want a pole to smash your face in because you saw some comedy.

Louis isn’t doing his show tonight. He says it with the levity you’d expect from a comedian, but he’s making a serious point: having you safe is more important to him than having you in the audience.

Provide Options

So i asked the City Center (where the shows are supposed to happen) if we could find another date for Sunday’s shows and they gave me March 2nd.  The City Center, being really cool, has agreed to let us do the shows on that night and your tickets that you now hold will be honored on that night.  the same seat, same everything.  If you can’t come on that night, we will either do another show soon after that, or find another show for you in the area in the future.  Or you still have the option to get a full refund for your ticket.  If you already asked for a refund, we can reinstate your ticket if you want to go to one of those shows.
Here, Louis makes it very, very easy for his customers to be made whole. The option of getting a refund without any trouble is huge – it creates trust with the customer. No one is trying to fuck you. Thus, the non-refund options feel like they’re being offered in good-will, not because they’re convenient for the business. Giving fans options also multiplies the chances that people will walk away from this happily.

Accept Responsibility, Acknowledge Frustration

Listen.  I know that probably it’s going to be a starry clear night and the trains are going to be just gliding up and down the traks and a baby zebra is going to whinny as he trots by the City Center on a night that is going to break records for being placid and perfect for a night of comedy.  And I’m going to feel like an asshole.  And I know that some people had their plans set and are going to be pissed off at me.  I know.  but I also know that some of you are struggling with whether to come in or miss the show and this is the closest I can get to a solution.  You don’t have to take a chance and you don’t have to miss the show.  Just come see me in a few months.

CK spends this paragraph acknowledging all the frustration his fans might feel as a result of his decision. He also owns that it’s his call to err on the side of caution. His starry clear night imagery leaves him naked here – he hasn’t chosen to pretend that his hand has been forced by terrible circumstances beyond his control. If he’s wrong, he knows he’s the asshole – no one else.

With this openness, it’s very easy to continue trusting and liking the guy. It sucks you can’t have the night you were planning on, but it’s hard to begrudge Louis for trying his best to do the right thing.

Invite Further Discussion

If it’s any consolation, I’m eating a pretty staggering fee for cancelling the show. But I can take it. What I can’t take is the thought that there’s a CHANCE 4300 people will be in danger trying to get home from my stupid show.
Please email and tell us what you want to do, and ask any question you have.
So that’s that. Cancelled. Rescheduled. Please forgive me. Please be safe.
Your dumb friend
Louis CK

Louis acknowledges the personal hardship that this situation creates for him but crucially does not seek pity for it. He “can take it.” Mentioning the cancel fee isn’t whining or group therapy – it’s Louis pointing out that this isn’t fun for him, either. Knowing his inconvenience is even greater than your own further builds trust, but only because it isn’t a pity party.

One of the most frustrating customer service situations is feeling like your voice isn’t being heard. Too many corporate bureaucracies congeal their worlds in “policy,” ignoring customers with unique cases. Louis CK wants you to feel comfortable talking back. The invitation to ask any questions seals this as a great moment in customer service. The sincerity and humility of his letter would ring hollow if he was indifferent to pushback from the fans affected by the decision.


It’s interesting to live in a world where a comedian is schooling other businesses on how to deliver great customer service. People with better understandings of the psychology of Louis’s profession can probably explain what mental muscles he’s built that make this style of authentic communication come so naturally. But whatever the source, Louis CK believes – rightly – that his success is tied to how much his fans like, trust and respect him. Even though it’s expensive in the short-term, he knows that the cancellation fee for the show is a tiny pittance for the long-term health of his fan relationships.

Customers, Never Guests

The trouble with the Hero’s Journey is that there will be trials.

The universal trial, of course, is money and I’m hardly exempt. There’s a sixty day delay between me making money from an iPhone app and Apple actually paying me. That leaves immediate, painful gaps in my cashflow.

The obvious solution to this is consulting — I’m privileged to know how to do a lot of things that are useful to people. Unfortunately, I’m still learning how to market, grow and manage that particular end of my business, so I’m painted into the most dread of corners: retail.

I live by the axiom that no honest man is too good for honest work. So while retail is often the dullest, most imagination free work you can do before hitting manual labor, that’s not the part that I hate most about my seasonal job.

No, the worst of it is this: I have to call my customers “guests.”

This is some of the most odious corporate newspeak bullshit in recent years. It has always irked me. Guest means a specific thing: certainly it implies hospitality, which may explain the intent, but it fails to properly convey the truth of the relationship between the store and the customer. Being the guest of another places the guest in the inferior position and the host in the superior position. While manners may require that hospitality be extended, being termed a guest in the final equation simply means that the customer does not belong there. It suggests they belong somewhere else.

This is the wrong view.

The customer is not a guest of the store. A successful retail experience means that the customer is at home in the store.

Somewhere, somehow, having “customers” became a distasteful condition for large corporations. This is unfortunate and I wish they would cut the crap. The truth is that there is honor in having customers. There is honor in upholding the sanctity of the customer relationship. Being a customer of a business means something very specific that no other English word can capture. Being a customer means being the lifeblood of a business. Being a customer means being the motive force behind a powerful organism that provides products, services, livelihoods and, ultimately, the basic existence of others. Being a customer is being part of a tradition that keeps babies nourished, families housed and people clothed.

That means something. Something potent. Something that must be continually venerated if we’re going to keep moving forward as rational people. Does any of this sound remotely like having a “guest” to you?

I’m proud to have customers. I’m proud to respect their importance to my business and their contribution to the fact that I’m not sleeping outside tonight. That is essential to my work ethic and it will never, ever change.

The end of my seasonal retail job can’t come fast enough. I’m not sure my teeth will survive the grinding required for me to get the word “guest” past my lips on every shift.

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.

Bad Products: Help A Reporter Out

Publicists are expensive. I do everything I can to keep my costs non-existent, so I don’t have one. But I still want press. One option I once read about that seemed promising is a mailing list called Help A Reporter Out.

Unfortunately, HARO, as it is called, is an awful product. It makes the fatal mistake that many fast-scaling services make: screwing the most important customer.

Three Customers

HARO has three customers: journalists, who need leads, sponsors, who pay for placement, and subscribers, who consume sponsored content and respond to journalist queries.

Subscribers are the most important customer as they are required for both sponsors and journalists to even bother with the product. Without subscribers, there’s no one for sponsors to influence. Without subscribers, the journalists get no responses.

A typical HARO email goes something like this:

  1. Lengthy sponsored message
  2. Cutesy personal update from the mailing list administrator, Peter Shankman
  3. An absurdly long list of journalist queries

The practical result of this is that a subscriber will have to scroll an entire page before they even get to what they care about. Even better, HARO is sent out as often as three times a day.

Now, I disclaimed that as typical. What’s more interesting to my point are atypical HARO messages. These don’t happen often, but happened often enough to piss me off. HARO has particular rules about how subscribers should interact with journalists. It’s pretty obvious stuff, if you’re not five years old, but boils down to please don’t spam the reporters. Sometimes a HARO subscriber would go off the reservation, do something naughty, piss off a reporter and end up in Shankman’s bad graces.

It’s a closed system – a mailing list, after all. The solution seems pretty simple. When applicable, speak to the individual’s boss, if their wrongdoing was in the service of a larger organization. Then, kick the person off the list.

That’s it. Problem solved.

In Shankman’s defense, it seems he does do this. Then he takes it a step further, by venting his frustration into the next HARO email and scolding the entire subscriber base at large. Here’s a sample:

READ THIS: This morning, while being given a behind the scenes tour
at Busch Gardens, I had to spend a portion of the tour on my mobile
phone, calming a reporter from a major publication. Seems someone
at a major agency took it upon themselves to form an opinion on
what kind of story the reporter was writing, simply from the query
alone.  Long story short, this was a situation that should not have happened.

This isn’t brain surgery here, guys: If you can answer a query, do
it. If you know someone who can answer a query, send it to them. Do
not post them on the web, in blogs, or on message boards, and do
not email the reporter saying “You should do it this way.” Had I
not gotten an EXTREMELY sincere apology from a top-level person at
the agency, I’d be outing the person who caused the mess in the
first place, as well as outing the agency. Instead, he’s just banned
from HARO.

Five rules of HARO here: READ THEM.

I can only speak for myself, but as a former subscriber, it’s worth listing all the things in this message I don’t give even a tiny fraction of a fuck about:

  • Shankman’s very special behind the scenes tour
  • The frustration of said tour’s interruption
  • The existence of an over-sensitive, irate reporter who doesn’t know how to use the delete button on her keyboard
  • A rehash of common sense HARO rules I already know
  • Shankman’s super-duper ballbusting phone call to top-level Tommy
  • The ban of another subscriber
  • The power of passive aggressive ALL-CAPS text

The Precious Commodity

HARO exists thanks to a simple reality: time is a precious, ever-dwindling commodity. If reporters weren’t in a hurry, they’d spend weeks on just one story, finding the perfect source for their piece. They don’t have that luxury. HARO to the rescue. Similarly, subscribers don’t have time to build a publicity campaign, research publications or spend weeks pitching themselves. They often don’t even have time to learn how. Again, HARO to the rescue.

The issue is that HARO does not give any reverence to the time of its subscribers. Quite the opposite: not only do we have paragraphs of crap no one cares about at the top of each message, there’s this occasional business of Shankman feeling empowered to command the entire list to spend time reading a rant about the misbehaviors of a single participant.

This doesn’t even begin to take into account the amount of time it takes to scour the actual list of queries. Taken in aggregate, it’s shocking. Let’s not forget, it’s a thrice-daily proposition.

The reason it happens is that while subscribers are the most crucial part of Shankman’s business, they’re also the most plentiful – the most easy to replace. Sponsors are magic unicorns, treasured and protected. Journalists are golden geese, continually laying the eggs that make each HARO message. Subscribers? There are tens of thousands of those.

So HARO gets away with it. For now.

Complacency Breeds Contempt

I just checked my calendar. It’s 2009. A mailing list? Hell, let’s move the whole thing over to Usenet. Infinitely more retro chic and you don’t need to bottleneck the queries through a single guy.

The problem with HARO not caring about its subscribers’ time is that it completely erodes loyalty, trading every ounce of goodwill for an ounce of contempt with each message. When something better comes along, they’ll have no problem switching. Ask Blockbuster how that works.

Fine, so you’re saying if I’m going to be a douche and trash this guy’s hard work, I should have a better idea, right? Glad you asked.

Let’s Do It Better

Build a website.

That’s it. A problem actually solvable with a website. Could have been huge during the dot-com bubble, but I bet it’s enough to at least keep Shankman fed. Here’s what you do:

  1. Persistent accounts that store basic bios and feedback ratings. Elevate the stars, demote those who don’t play by the rules, make it clear who’s making the best contributions
  2. Categorized, post-moderated, RSS-enabled members-only query threads that let reporters post their queries whenever they want or need. Only postable by verified reporter accounts to keep the bozos at bay
  3. Tagged queries: instead of having to parse a tedious headline that’s different for each query, provide the option for easy-to-scan tags
  4. User-configured search agents to send email alerts any time a query seems of interest
  5. Daily sponsorship opportunities, to keep Shankman in Busch Gardens tickets

That’s it. I bet you could accomplish most of it with Ning, without having to spend a dime. If you wanted to take it to the next level, you could impose a monetary bozo filter for new accounts.

Will it happen? Eventually, I’m sure it has to. Linking journalists with sources is an important job. Just because HARO’s implementation is completely hamfisted doesn’t mean someone else’s won’t eventually hit the mark. Will Shankman do it?

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair, via Daring Fireball

So who knows. In the meantime, I’m off to half-heartedly find some other way to get journalists to talk about me.