Here’s a question about increasing the profitability and decreasing the development cost of any MMO, although probably no-one except the web-people will recognise it as such (and even some of them won’t get it):
How do you improve the customer support for an existing MMO?
[where do you start, and what do you target?]
Or, to put it another way, here’s three questions that I bet most games companies cannot answer without waffling:
- What is “good” customer support?
- Why do we care about customer support?
- How good is our own customer support?
Before I go any further with this, I want to point out that there are (at least) three main areas of Customer Support, of which I’ll only be covering one. The others are all covered reasonably well within the industry (hmm…maybe not so well, actually – but certainly better than this one).
Those other two areas are:
- Controlling what CSRs (Customer Service Reps) say and do to make sure they are “on-message” with what the Marketing and PR departments are trying to do
- Managing a community via forum-moderation, live events in-game, real-world events, etc
The other kind of Customer Support
…can be looked at in two different ways:
- Handling routine questions, complaints, rants, and moans from customers. Helping them fix their PC enough to play your game. Helping them get their credit-card payment to go through successfully
- Buying future revenue for unrelated products, one person at a time
This latter view emphasises the idea of CRM (Customer Relationship Management). I’ve worked with plenty of people who felt we “ought” to be nice to customers, and make their experience with us a pleasant one. They generally disliked (or detested) the first view, but they themselves were only half-way between the two views; they didn’t really know why we cared (or should do) about customer support. I was like that myself for a long long time, until I sat down and thought about it properly.
We still don’t know what “it’s a service not a product” actually means
I’m sad to say this, but it’s true. On the whole, MMO and Online Game developers/publishers *still don’t get it*. They think they do, but they don’t.
Various people started chanting the mantra “MMOs are a Service, not a Product” back around the time of Everquest (the first one) and Ultima Online. In the game industry at large it peaked around the time of Gordon Walton’s “10 reasons you don’t want to make an MMOG” talk at GDC 2003. By now (5 years later) the industry has understood a couple of things about this subject, but on the whole it’s failed to think about it strategically, and has pretty thoroughly *missed the point*. Most people see the trees but not the wood – the mantra is so short and simple and easy to understand, people tend not to think it through, and so don’t realise the connotations.
What’s the most important high-level goal of a Product company?
“Shift more boxes”
What’s the most important high-level goal of a Service company?
“Purchase more customers”
Yes. The primary goal with a service-oriented business is to BUY something, not to SELL it. Because a serviced-customer is a cash-cow that can be milked at any point in the future, every day for the rest of their life (in the case of corporate customers “the rest of their life” can be a very long time, maybe even measured in centuries). It’s worth buying them, even at great cost.
For people who are accustomed to the box-shifting view of business, this feels like it flies in the face of everything they know about business. Actually, it doesn’t, but it exposes an unstated assumption they’ve made throughout their lives: with EITHER business, you are NOT really selling (or buying) anything – you’re entering into contracts. A “sale” is, to give it its full title, a “contract to exchange a thing of value (a good or service) for a price”. In the case of box-shifters, the terms of the contract merely state that they are receiving “an amount of cash”. In the case of service-managers the terms of the contract state they are receiving “a batphone connected directly to the mind + wallet of the consumer”.
Or, to simplify: box-shifters “sell” for cash right now, and service-managers “buy” a relationship that they can later rent for cash in the future.
And there we have the root of all that follows: any company that chooses to sell a service instead of a product has – implicitly – chosen to FORGO cash IN LIEU OF taking possession of a RELATIONSHIP. i.e. they’ve actually *paid money* to get this “relationship-thingy”, so they’d better make sure they know what they’ve bought, that they didn’t “over-value” it, and that they know how to extract the “rental money” in the future.
Yes, you can still charge cash AS WELL as buying the relationship – but most people are doing that well enough already, and don’t need help from me to do it better.
Time for me to answer some questions…
Why do we care about Customer Support?
(NB: CS == every time a customer needs or wants something and get its from something you’ve done or said, whether they contact you directly, visit your website, or merely go back and read past emails you’ve sent them)
ANSWER: Second only to the in-game experience itself, CS is the richest, most direct part of the Relationship that you’ve purchased. For a service, it is more important than all the rest of your Marketing and Sales.
Marketers fight constantly to get their voice heard loud and clear – and without distraction – by consumers. In practice, thanks to free speech, anywhere that YOU can talk to the consumer, so can all your competitors. And so you find yourself desperately trying to “stand out from the crowd”, and get your message across. Even then, you cannot personally visit each customer, you have to rely on communications channels, different media (print, TV, news reporting, etc) – and each one of those channels introduces Chinese Whispers, corrupting (or deliberately censoring e.g. your mighty claims) your message.
A direct, unfiltered, uncensored, uncontested channel to every consumer’s mind is the best thing a marketer can hope for.
And you have one. It’s
- …sitting down in your CS department swigging a bottle of meths and wondering why no-one cares about it.
- …lieing in a filty heap of smelly clothes out the back of your website, wearing a tattered hat marked “Account Management”.
- …parading itself in a smokey bar full of leering shadows, doing lap-dances in a bra covered in sequins that spell “Abuse” and a thong that says “…My Email Address”.
- …erected a toll-booth at every corridor in your User-Experience Building, with three forms you have to fill out in triplicate for everything from getting a glass of water through to going to the bathroom. The three forms are titled: “Username”, “Password”, and “Best friend’s neighbour’s mother’s maiden name” – and each corridoor has a different layout of forms, and a different set of valid answers. Some of them swap about randomly every morning “…to confuse the Enemy!”.
Fine. Enough poking games-companies in the eye with a blunt implement. Where do we go from here?
What is good Customer Support?
That makes it quite easy to answer this question now. It has to:
- Monetize the relationship we paid so much money for
- Prop-up the relationship when it starts to falter
- Cement the relationship and make it stronger
- Remind the customer how much nicer you are than their last Girlfriend/Boyfriend, and that if they leave you they’ll never find true love again
- KEEP THAT RELATIONSHIP AT ALL COSTS! (up to the difference in how much it’s worth and how much it cost to buy in the first place)
I’m sorry to all the people who diligently work in CS with no thought of monetization and think they’re just genuinely helping people. Yes, you are helping people. But you’re paid to do it because someone else in your company (your boss? your boss’s boss?) is using that as part of how they monetize it, or as part of something that helps to make sure the customer is still around in the future solely in order to BECOME monetized.
I put that last item in caps for a reason other than dramatic effect. Since the first item is “to make money” the last item is “…(profitably)”. If you calculate the total FUTURE revenue from this customer, and then spend up to that amount in order to keep them, you are guaranteed to always be profitable. Since you cannot guarantee they will remain a customer, you have to put a percentage discount on the expected future revenue that is proportional to how many of them you think you will lose unavoidably. Obvious stuff, and obvious difficulties abound there … all makes for a busy time for CFO’s and CMO’s to extract the most profit possible.
How good is our own Customer Support?
Most companies cannot answer this. In desperation, they collate graphs such as “number of support queries per month” and “percentage of support queries marked as Resolved by the customer, and with a customer-rating of 4 stars or above”. So what? That tells you some stuff about how good your CSRs are at being nice to people (not a lot, but some); it’s largely irrelevant from a wider CS point of view.
What you need to evaluate (again, self-evident from all the above) is more like this:
- How much money are we spending on each customer? (min, max, average, median)
- this is a simple headline figure, it solves no problems, but it can hilight that there IS a problem … somewhere
- should be “total cost of the Relationship” not “how much do we pay our CSRs”
- Segmenting customers by type, what’s the profitability for each Relationship?
- Choosing those types is what you pay your Marketing Director for, it’s not trivial (inventing them is tricky, but working out how to actually MEASURE each type can be really difficult)
- examples include:
- “people who bought our product at retail”
- “people who bought the digital distribution version via steam”
- “Spike TV viewers who saw our review in January 2005″
- “Parents who liked our game so much that they bought a copy of our game for their children”
- “Parents whose children liked our game so much that they bought a copy for themselves”
- “People who created an account on our website”
- Ditto what’s the loss-of-relationship rate?
- i.e. ONE of the inputs for calculating that “discount percentage chance-of-losing-a-given-customer-over-time” figure mentioned earlier
- How much money are we making from each customer?
- YES, it’s “what are they paying in monthly subscription / virtual goods purchase volume”, but NO that isn’t all it is
- How much cash have we made by selling them some unrelated product or service (careful: that one will need to be monetized too)?
- How many unique products have we sold them?
- What are the trends in all the above for our userbase, zero-aligned?
- i.e. if you measure all those figures and graph them over time for a user, you get one graph for each that shows e.g. “after 12 months, they bought their first secondary-product”
- …if you average that for “all users in a given segment” (see above) then you get a graph that is both observational (based on fact) and also predictive for any future consumers of the same or similar type
- You can then use this to spot trends in your relationship-management and relationship-capitalization
- Then get fancy: instead of graphing the above by “time” on the x-axis, graph it by “milestone”. This way you can see if e.g. “having to visit the website to file a bug” is damaging your Relationships (people buy less other stuff once they’ve done that), or is failing to capitalize as much as intended (people don’t buy ANY MORE THAN BEFORE after they’ve visited your website to file a bug)
- Read that example carefully. Think about it. Most MMO/online games companies don’t think about it.
- HINT: Remember what I said earlier, about how the Relationship is a direct channel to the customer. Think about what that SHOULD have been going down that channel while the user was filing the bug
- …and so on…
All the above list is, to a marketing person, teaching a granny to suck eggs. Good ones should know this stuff inside out. On a daily basis they ought to be working with more detailed, cleverer, more difficult-to-measure-but-we-measure-it-anyway-because-we’re-hard-workers demographics and actions. I’m presenting it more to illustrate the point than as an actual guide (I wouldn’t advise any real company to blindly do the above verbatim).
The Relationship is *everything*, and it must be:
- Monetized profitably
at all times. It may seem that the last of those conflicts with the first three. In fact, all four of them are mutually conflicting, and you have to continually comprise, and re-compromise, finding the dynamic balance that best fits your company’s overall strategic aims.
The mistake many game companies make is to obssess about just one of the above (usually the “guarded” part if you “care about the company’s reputation”, or the “strengthened” part from a partially-enlightened marketing person). Many just ignore all four of them, and instead only look at the “spending” half of the word “profitably”, and ask continuously “how can we reduce CS costs?”.
Many game companies consider that the roles of the Sales and Marketing departments are to do this kind of analysis and activity on “future customers”, and fail to recognize the inherent waste of potential profitabilty that comes from ignoring the most valuable asset the company has: the hundreds of thousands of Relationships that it has bought, and paid for, but is only partially monetizing.
UPDATE: I just spotted this short post by Furqan over at Altgate that’s pretty relevant to this topic – about measuring the “value” of a free (i.e. non-paying) customer.