Toxic Geeks: The Outspoken Customer is Always Wrong

Or Fallacy #5: You should listen to the naysayers.

I want to go back in time and fucking murder Harry Gordon Selfridge. Not only was he a pioneer of holiday deadline shopping (Only 40 days until Christmas!), he invented the worst phrase to grace any customer service counter in the last century. Fuck “The Customer is Always Right.”

Let me clarify here: I’ve spent a lot of time in customer service. I’m not that jaded guy who posts in the retail thread in GBS. I fucking love customers; they are amazing, and all 99% of them want is to be treated like people and have someone help them get what they desire at this moment. Most of the greatest moments in my past employment have involved helping really “difficult” people get what they need done. With a lot of motivation, a great attitude, and a dash of competence, you can make almost anyone happy that they stopped by your business today.

I further believe that customer service should absolutely be the center of any business that wants to be successful. If you can identify what your customers want, and give it to them, you will make it happen. What someone calls a “problem customer” is just an opportunity to create a loyal patron; that may sound corny, but I have found it to be universally true.

No, you can’t make everyone happy, but you shouldn’t want to. I’ve discovered this blog, which really echoes a lot of the points I’ve been making in this thread. Allow me to quote from a particularly fantastic article:

One of the first things you learn in any marketing program is that you not only don’t have to cater to everybody, but that you shouldn’t. There are customers out there who can faithfully buy from you and still run your company into the ground. Effective marketing includes making these people go away with a minimum of fuss. Smart folks avoid the temptation to poach from toxic segments.

Yes, that’s right: smart business practices involve saying no to customer segments. You’re going to hear a lot of shit about your business if it gets to any reasonable size; just look at the Paizochat above. Should you listen to these people? I mean, they’re your customers, right? You should be responsive to customers, right?

Wrong. Absolutely, completely wrong. Especially in the gaming business, you are going to find a direct correlation between how much a person protests things and how disconnected they are from your primary customer base. That’s right: you shouldn’t listen to the people who rant and rave. It seems contradictory to a customer service mindset, yes; but it’s good business sense. Here’s why:

Toxic customers drive away business.

This happens most visibly in game stores, where a single arduous “customer” can drive away dozens of potential paying patrons. They can do this in a lot of ways: cheating at tournaments, running abusive or arduous ‘events,’ shit-talking and edition warring, or just plain being creepy. It spreads across the hobby (and across all customer bases, really). That guy who trolls the newbie who asks a question on your message boards is literally ruining new business.

Toxic customers are not interested in buying what you’re selling.

Let’s laugh at Gau’s experience as he tells an anecdote from fast food management! I worked for Carl’s Jr. for some time, and if you’ve ever been in a Carl’s Jr., you know that they don’t have much for a dollar menu. This seems stupid at first; every damned fast food place has a dollar menu, why don’t they? Why am I paying $1.40 for a basic hamburger? That’s bad business! I’ll just go to McDonald’s!

You know what? I hate to say it, but we didn’t (and they don’t) want you. Carl’s Jr. has made an intelligent decision by not having a dollar menu. They’ve designed their business model around the image of everything on the menu being huge, delicious, and satisfying. Having a tiny burger for a buck would undermine that. On the other hand, you can get a quarter-pound charbroiled hamburger for $1.40, and it’s fucking delicious. If that’s too much for you, you are welcome to go to McDonald’s and get a 10:1 patty on a piece of cardboard.

There are ancillary benefits, as well. By not having a lot of super-cheap items on the menu, you are saying no to the stoners (mostly), but saying yes to people who will pay a decent price for something that tastes a cut above Burger King. Sure, we didn’t get as many of the dudes who are counting change to pay for their tacos, but we get a lot more of the soccer moms who don’t even listen to the total and just hand you their credit card. (It was pretty routine to get forty or fifty dollar cars during dinner rush.)

Toxic Customers are, often, not even customers

Let’s get back to gaming, now. For Magic 2010, Wizards announced a sweeping list of rules changes, most commonly remembered as “the day damage stopped going on the stack.” If you read the article, they make the goal of this clear:

As we set out to create the forthcoming Magic 2010 core set—which is a completely new approach to the core set ideal, as announced earlier this year—we opened up everything about how we make Magic cards to scrutiny in an attempt to make that set, and the game as a whole, more accessible.

Wizards is the king of customer feedback in this industry. They spend a metric fuckton of money to determine what their customers, the average, normal customers at the core of their base, are saying about them. In 2008-2009, a choir of players, new and old, sang a simple message: “This game has become too complex.”

This couldn’t have been easy for R&D to handle. Complexity is a double-edged sword: too much, and you can’t teach it to new people, and some people stop having fun (and hence stop playing). Too little, and the game can seem simplistic, boring, and unappealing. They did a brilliant job of balancing this in the 2010 changes.

What happened, though, of course? Thousand of voices rose from the hellish parts of the internet, decrying the changes as “ruining Magic.” The backlash was, to be honest, impressive in its scale. A smaller publisher, or one with less direction, might have gone back on their announcement. Wizards didn’t, because they knew what I could have told them, too: most of these “players” aren’t customers. They aren’t the ones shredding packs of new sets. They aren’t showing up to FNM or Pro Tour qualifiers. They’re embittered, old-school players who wouldn’t buy new sets anyways (since “new cards suck”).

Magic 2010 made Magic an objectively better game. More new players are picking up the game than ever before, and these changes are directly related to that fact.

So, what do you do about a toxic customer?

Spokane is really blessed to have an awesome and successful local bookstore. They root out a lot of their “bad” customers through simple marketing. They don’t do the big events with the huge, doorbusting authors that Barnes & Noble might; instead, their authors and events cater pretty specifically to their target demographic. It is really shitty to be a locally-owned bookstore in the twenty-first century, and they have only survived by literally building an identity around it.

In the case of a game store, I once had a conversation with the owner of Merlyn’s. John is an awesome guy, and he has a simple strategy: they run positive, inclusive events, like D&D Encounters, FNM, open Warhammer, and Clix. Sometimes the grognards come in droves, but the easiest way to keep a bad player out is (in his words) “to fill the store with dozens of good players.”

All of the good publishers are moving in this direction, too: actively pushing products out the door that “good” customers want and “bad” customers will hate. The previously discussed Beginner Box, the Dungeon Fantasy and Action modulesOpen Fire!, all of these are made to bring new, good customers in. The different companies have various strategies for how to “support” (read: ghetto-ize) the negative, toxic customers, but this is certain:

If you’re not interested in moving forward, you are going to be left behind.

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4 thoughts on “Toxic Geeks: The Outspoken Customer is Always Wrong

  1. Matthias says:

    Great post! Sometimes when a company does this sort of thing well, some part of my brain picks up on it and I instantly respect it, though it’s not very conscious.

    I actually work in marketing (I work with magazine editors to ensure good reviews) for a huge corporation that deals with the video game industry. And sometimes we get a toxic one and have to figure out how to minimize the damage. It can be challenging. The internet is a huge venue for negativity!

  2. Yeah, people will hate me forever for that post. In an established game company, you can actually spin the difficult segment off and give them control of the antique, less accessible elements of the IP. GW ultimately did this with Specialist Games, which runs on a shoestring and lots of user input to keep Epic and Blood Bowl running. For a new project, the bad guys can become a serious problem, particularly these days when you want to bolster your stuff with quality user content. When a community has value, sometimes it’s not a positive value, and you minimize it like any other liability that lacks other significant benefits.

  3. [...] the Star Trek reboot in specific. This topic is largely precipitated by an article that I read on this blog, which discusses another “hot topic” reboot – Magic: The Gathering. In fact, this blog [...]

  4. Jose Cohen says:

    So true, and so very applicable to other industries, even (cf. the “Why can’t we drive the Batmobile?!!1″ forum whining surrounding Arkham City). Well written.

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