17 thoughts on “Customer Relationships and Support for Online Games and MMOs

  1. David "CrazyKinux" Perry

    A brilliant piece that should be a mandatory read for anyone in CS, remotely connected to CS and to any Exec at an MMO Developer or Publisher. So very few of these folks “get it”

    Will do my part to help spread the word!

    CK

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  3. Clive Lindop

    Good piece Adam. I just wanted to throw in something else and get your thoughts.

    I would add to your list the customers view of a customer supports value system.

    I’ll clarify!

    I’ve been involved with mmo development on and off since 2001 but as a player from the mid ninties, I would have to agree that bad CS can colour the players entire experience and be a significant factor in customers withdrawing thier subscription. At the same time players will endure significant failures of service if they feel they have a significant and valuable relationship with CS and the operator.

    The example that springs to mind is Eve Online, which I played for almost 4 years. In general the perception of the CS within the player community was very favourable.

    There was the perception that the CS was fast, fair and proactive. Players felt thier problems were taken seriously and resolved to the best of the CS ability. There was also the sense of a significant dialogue with CS, a ticket could be opened and if needed a lengthy ‘conversation’ had to resolve it.

    Significantly a sense of ‘justice’ is vital to a healthy CS / Customer relationship. Even if a decision went against you as an Eve Online Customer, the willingness of CS to justify and explain it, generated the perception of ‘fairness’.

    This was vital when major failures of service occured. A particular incident springs to mind to illustrate this.

    A couple of years ago it became public knowledge that a small number of individuals within the CS team had allegedly been aiding a guild (corp) within the game by spawning significant resources for them using thier GM tools.

    Now this is of course a nightmare scenario for an MMO operator, with players questioning the fundamental existance of a fair playing field within your product. The operator acted quickly and publicly to resolve the issue and reassure thier audience. This in itself would never have been enough alone, the significant faith the customers had in the operators and the history of an open constant dialogue (via devs and CS) helped enormously.

    As difficult as it can be to quantify, the customers perception of the ‘character’ of your CS is a significant factor in the relationship. In particular with customers who have never used the CS. They hear about the experiences of others and base thier assesment of whether to bother using the CS at all upon this shared perception. Certainly we have all at one time or another played an MMO in which it was widely believed that the CS was worthless to use and in fact an active hinderance to customers game experience.

    Wow sorry didnt intend that to be so wordy but you got me thinking!

    Thanks

  4. adam Post author

    @Clive

    I see that as just another tool in the CRM (is marketing) toolbox. It has a cost; is it worth it to your game given your audience profile and the game brand? How will you leverage it a d can you afford to capitalize on it if you do decide to do it?

    Like almost everything elaein CS that tool is “trivially” profitable *if* you can afford the capital expenditure required to get it up and running. Most smaller companies cannot, at least initially. Weak companies therefor write it off permanently – and you even sometimes hear them speaking at the leading industry confereces,saying so in front of hundreds of people. Smart companies know to revisit and periodically reevaluate it until they can afford it.

    One of my employers liked to spend all the cap ex on it and get it flowing nicely then instead of reaping the rewards they panicked at how much theyd spent and insisted on shutting it down. No it doesn’t make much sense when you view it like that, but my point is they almost certianly weren’t viewing it that way, when they probably should have been.

  5. Andrew Crystall

    Clive, I’m sorry, I was a resonably early player of Eve and your description of them is entirely unrecogniseable to me.

    Yes, the common questions could be answered by the help database. However, getting a petition answered? Usually took a minimum of a week. And was usually a useless answer, in text. Note that the in-game and out-of-game systems never properly synched. Also, I know a fair few people who reported abuse (and I was there at the time) while not doing anything remotely abusive themselves were handed bans.

    And, there was allways, allways issues with GM’s having access to data. On more than one occasion, an enemy fleet zero’d in on us after a GM’s visit to fix something. Some GM’s were downright notorious for their bias.

    The foum moderation? Was both uneven and heavy handed, with some people’s downright abusive behavior tolerated, especially if they were for example writing chronicles or articles for the Eve magazine (including an outright permaban reversal when a certain author said they’d pull out if it wasn’t reversed) while other people were banned for extensive periods for RPing moderators didn’t like, “oversized” sigs which were not oversized at all (happened to me, *twice* – two of my three “offences”, the other one being critical of a dev descision which lasted 72 on the test server), etc.

    Also, the bug reporting website (STILL, and note it’s not in-game and it’s an entirely seperate system…) randomly drops issues, and since theres no confirmation emails or the like…this is how things like the economics exploit get missed.

    The entire thing with BoB and CCP was overblown, it was a drop in the water compared to known past issues with anti-BOB GM’s, frankly (including incidents of 200+ non-BoB battleships restored, with no BoB ships restored during server lag).

    Don’t take me as pro-BoB (indeed, there’s emnity from them towards me which on at least one occasion has spilled over into RL behavior), but…

  6. Tjuhl

    fits right in:

    Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian: “Information Rules – A Strategic Guide to
    the Network Economy”. Harvard Busines School Press, 1999.

  7. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    I’ve posted a few articles on my blog about CS:
    Customer Service doesn’t matter
    Customer Service still doesn’t matter

    To put some of my thoughts in the terms Adam describes above:

    1) Relationships with companies are generally not important to people. I’ve bought a lot of items through Amazon.com, but I have nowhere near as much loyalty to that company as I have to even the most casual acquaintance I have. So, as a company, you’re trying to foster a one-sided relationship.

    2) Other relationships matter more than the one your customers have with your company. I talked about a poor CS experience I had in WoW in the second article above. The harm to my relationship with Blizzard did not matter compared to my relationships with my friends that still played the game. I only left the game when they left.

    On the other side, I had a free account on a game because I knew some developers at the company. When my friends were playing, I was right there with them playing the game. As soon as they left, I left the game as well even though I had a very good relationship with the company. (Admittedly, the company wasn’t making much money off of me directly, though, so it was still a one-sided relationship.)

    3) Other issues are more important. Game players are novelty seekers, in general. So, a newer game with crap CS is often going to be more appealing than an established game with the best CS. Or, people want to be in the “in crowd”, so they’ll flock to a popular game despite CS issues.

    3) Costs are almost impossible to measure. I listed three types of people in your game: needing no CS, needing a little CS, needing constant CS. That last group drives up your costs significantly, and it is hard to really measure. If you have a phone number, someone is going to use your CS hotline as a cheap therapy session. How much is that really costing you if they call one hour a day every day for a month? It’s a question of how many other people are not getting the CS they feel is necessary to keep playing the game, and that’s hard to really measure.

    On the flip side, how much does a customer that you lose really cost? Were they getting bored with the game and about to leave, anyway? Are they already so bored with the game that they grief the CSRs for fun now? If they leave, will they take a bunch of their friends with them? All these examples have different cost.

    But….

    All that said, relationships are important. In my estimation, one of the reasons why WoW did so well was because of the strength of the Blizzard and Warcraft brands. Blizzard had built up relationships with people over many years by developing high-quality single-player games. I believe this relationship is much, MUCH more important than any relationship a current MMO company can hope to build with their audience through traditional CS means. But, not every company can do what Blizzard did to build the relationships necessary for the game. So, they have to rely on all the other factors I mentioned in my blog posts.

    In the end, CS still does not matter… as much as all those other factors.

  8. adam Post author

    Thanks, Brian!

    I think your CS posts hit the nail in the head wrt plain CS, and I think the last three sentences of the first post sum it up very well. I particularly liked your counters where commenteds brought up some of the classic “thought experiment” justifications people give for CS being worth it, which are what people like to tell themselves are true but which just don’t hold up in reality as soon as you get access to the stats of real live services.

    In that context, what I’m trying to point out is that if you view CS from a different context, with different metrics both of success and of value and of cost, and hence also change the meta activities you engage in, you can justify doing a lot more with it.

    I read your posts a long time ago and they influenced my thinking: they were in the back of my head when I saw examples of organizations somehow contradicting your statements by spending a lot on CS and yet also somehow getting actual business value out of doing so. This post is partly trying to explain that unexpected difference that I saw.

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  10. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Adam.

    You seemed to have addressed a lot of my issues and I remember your posts on my blog, so I figured you had read them. I was restating a lot of my issues in your terms. For example, are you really building a relationship when only one side considers it such (the company)?

    I read an article related to this concept a few days ago: http://www.uie.com/articles/three_hund_million_button The upshot is that a company wanted to build a relationship with customers by allowing them to automatically create an account, but most customers didn’t want to get into a relationship, they just wanted to buy stuff off the site. (The article is an interesting read.)

    But, how many people are just playing a game for reasons that are truly beyond the control of the company? As I’ve said, most games I play for any length of time are because my friends are on it. There’s not much a game company can do to keep me there if my friends are not playing, and they often leave because of outside influences instead of game-related issues.

    So, in the long run, I’m still not seeing a huge benefit to CS beyond the minimum necessary to keep most people playing; what people refer to as “poor CS”. You can try to measure it in a different way, but I’m not sure that stacks up, either.

    My thoughts.

  11. John Erskine

    Thanks Adam,

    This is a really tricky subject, and one that is close to my heart. Brian, you make good points too. Here’ s a rambling stab at some of my thoughts…

    I believe that MMO CS is a tricky beast compared to traditional CRM logic because people do not experience the product in isolated cases, but rather social networks. In fact, I can’t think of a tighter social network than an MMO.

    If I buy shoes from Zappos and have an awesome experience, I feel happy, and I guess I have a ‘positive relationship’ with them. But I don’t spend my evenings hanging around in chat rooms with other Zappos customers comparing notes and having any sort of a shared recreational experience. In fact, if the shoes fall apart, I don’t blame Zappos at all, I blame the company that made the shoes. Anything that Zappos can do to help me get them replaced at that point is seen as ‘good CS’ even if the product was total crap to begin with. Several points in this paragraph could be entire essays or dissertations on their own.

    I think the real crux of CS in the MMO space is that there are many ways that you can totally blow it that will lose customers who are ‘on the edge’ of quitting, who are new to the game, or have low investment in general. Especially customers that might buy a ‘future product’. And, the biggest risk is one to the reputation of the company overall. Here in this thread we have one positive description of EVE’s service, and one negative one. Which one is right? Which one is more influential? I never played EVE more than a few hours, but these descriptions might change my opinion about whether I would play a game from them in the future, or whether I would play EVE again. I have plenty of friends who play EVE now, so if I decide to play I have to be willing to risk my free time on something that might be a bad experience. My perception will be a big factor of this, even if my friends tell me ‘things are great’.

    The real job of CS is to be genuine and to make sure we don’t drop the ball on the straightforward stuff. Did we actually read your question? Did we make sure not to send you some troubleshooting steps which were provided earlier in the thread? Was our response polite and genuine? Was it actually helpful and honest? None of these things cost money, but they do have an impact on how people feel about the company. The genuine and honest things are the really big ones.

    I’ve never worked for a company that said ‘we are happy with bad service.’ But, I have worked for companies that said ‘we want good service for less money.’ Every year, less money. I’ve never worked for a company that has said ‘we want the best service in the world no matter what it costs.’ If we are talking about MMO’s, I’m not even sure the last one is the best, but somewhere between the second and third option surely lies the most value.

    It is very tricky to measure whether someone ‘would have quit’ no matter what you did. But it is relatively easy to measure how many people quit playing after contacting support. If that number is higher than the number of people who quit playing in general, then you’ve probably got some work to do.

  12. Swift Voyager

    Good post, and not incorrect. Just incomplete and a little off target.

    While you’re on the right track, I think you are a victim of the problem and fail to see the forest because you’re standing in all those trees.

    Here’s where you’re missing the mark: Only a very small portion of customer service in an MMO is actually done by the CS department. In a service business, the product *is* the service. Everyone who actually provides the *service* on a daily basis is what counts most.

    Take cable television service as an example.

    -How often do you use the service?
    -How often do you actually call them to get a problem fixed?
    -When asked to rate the service, do you think more about those few telephone calls with CS representatives, or do you think more about the quality of your television viewing experience each day?

    Imagine if your cable company was run like most MMO game companies. They would sell you a package that included about 3 months worth of television programs. Some of the shows wouldn’t be much fun, some wouldn’t let you watch them all the way to the end, and some wouldn’t start at all. If too many other customers were watching the same show, then you’d see the show skip and stutter, which may result in you having to start it over from time to time. When you call customer support…. huh? ….call customer support? ….OH THERE’S NO TELEPHONE SUPPORT, so you have to use e-mail or the web site. They may or may not update the shows and get the broken shows working, but there’s no promises. The next time they plan to release another three months worth of shows could be YEARS from now, or never, since there’s no publicly available schedule or contract agreement saying that they promise to provide any more than the original three months of shows.

    Sure, it’s apples to oranges in *some* ways, but not so much as the game companies think. If they can’t provide mainstream quality service they’ll never break into mainstream entertainment revenue numbers.

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