You can take your stickies and stick them right up…

I manage the Box Office at a large theatre in Washington D.C. and part of my job description is to “ensure the highest level of customer service”.  While that sounds like the typical corporate lingo that few companies actually practice, we do take customer service very seriously.  Part of that is because there is a lot of good theatre in the city these days and the level of service a theatre provides has a big influence on the public’s ticket-buying decisions.  If patrons can only afford to see a limited amount of shows their buying experience sways their choices almost as much as the artistic quality of the product itself.

Since good customer service is large part of my job it kills me when I encounter bad or indifferent service.  It’s pretty easy to rant about customer service in general but my gripe is about a particular practice that many companies have adopted.  As a consumer of video games, electronics, and computer software it’s something I see in these industries most of all. 

Many companies are now relying on user moderated forums for technical support and it’s a frustrating and typically unhelpful system.  If you have a problem with a product you’re referred to an online forum where other customers post their own technical issues and everyone compares notes and solutions they’ve found.  Ideally there are a few company representatives who moderate the forums to make sure posts and replies are helpful and productive.

In theory this system of service seems like a good idea.  It allows companies to save on staffing costs and the combination of many minds, the public, can find solutions to problems that a company support staff may not think of themselves.

But in practice it rarely works, and for me, causes a real disenfranchisement with the product.  To start, the uncertainty of seeking help through a forum post is frustrating.  You have no idea when and if you’ll get a reply; quite often you don’t.  If it’s a particularly busy forum your post quickly gets pushed to the bottom or to another page, making an answer even more unlikely as your problem probably won’t be seen by anyone who might be able to help.

Even worse are support forums ruled by losers who fancy themselves kings of that space.  Their only responses to your queries are snarky, unhelpful comments typically along the lines of “that’s not a problem I’ve ever had”.  Or they comment that the same question was asked by someone two years ago and if I had looked through the posts properly I would have eventually found the answer.

I have no desire to spend more time than necessary perusing a technical forum for a product.  The only reason I’m there in the first place is because the product I’ve spent my hard earned money on isn’t working.  I don’t care to learn the delicate politics of this random internet forum, read its “stickies”, use its broken search function, or research what I’m sure is a fascinating history of postings.  I just want to quickly fix whatever is wrong with the item I’ve purchased and move on.

As a PC gamer, internet support forums are the bane of my existence.  I understand that everyone’s computers are different and developers can’t design their games to match the needs of all users; many times your system needs to be tweaked to work with a particular game.  Most of my computer savvy has come from years of PC gaming forcing me to learn a trick or two about making games run properly.  But sometimes I need help with a particularly complicated problem and have no choice but to seek help from the black hole that is the internet.

Unfortunately the days of seeking help from someone officially related to and answering for a product are slowly disappearing.  I’d be ok with user moderated forums if they existed in conjunction with other modes of customer service but with the savings on staffing I’m afraid the allure of forums is too great for companies to resist – why have staff answering emails and/or calls when you can let customers fend for themselves? 

This rant aside, I don’t get too worked about it as companies who take customer service seriously generally last longer than companies who don’t.  Eventually natural selection from the buying public will sort everything out.


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