I had a pretty good day dealing with problem companies yesterday. As I turned off the lights to go to bed, my wife asked me how I was. I told her I'd had a busy day, she responded with 'but you won!'
Trouble In Suburbia
We'd had some shutters made for the windows on our house, and the company measured them incorrectly not once but twice. This made they delivery time go from 8 weeks to 4 months. We were kept in the dark during the entire fiasco and the only time they communicated with us was to ask for money. So I took to an email to their MD, and he put his hands up and is now making things right, to the tune of about £1500 of shutters fitted for free.
The oil company had delivered contaminated fuel which meant our AGA stopped working, each time this required a call out of an engineer costing £70 per trip. He advised they pump out the bad oil and replace it. Again, I wrote, and they are coming today to replace the offending oil.
My business bank was meant to send me a new security device so I could use my internet banking, they said on March 27th it would take five working days, as of yesterday it hadn't appeared, and I couldn't use my account and pay people. A phone call that took me beyond the outer shield of the call centre staff with their scripts got me the result I needed; it should be here today.
The list above sounds like I'm both unlucky and a professional complainer, I think I'm neither. Things go wrong and when they do we have to take steps to get them put right.
I now want to switch from the problems of middle-class suburbia to our particular industry.
When I Were A Lad
In the 1980s I was selling recording equipment that went wrong more often than it does now. We had no internet, no email, no forums and few companies offered phone support. I recall that when a product went wrong, you had two options. The first was to write a letter to the company about the problem and then try and sort it out via post. The second was to put it in the box take it back to the dealer and then they would send it back to be repaired. If you were lucky, and they had a spare, they might lend you another one while you waited for your unit to be returned from repair, but it could take up to 4 weeks.
This kind of world sounds like hell compared to today, but this was our reality. We could shout at the dealer if we wanted to, but this was unlikely to help as their hands were tied. We could ring up the brand and tell them how unhappy we were, but again this did not expedite the repair or replacement. Even worse we had no audience to share our woes with, the best we had for a place to retell out story and shame the brand was over a pint in the pub or a letter to an industry publication.
Fast forward to today, and things have changed beyond recognition. Most of the products we use are software based so if we have an issue that can be fixed fast; then we can have a solution in minutes if not hours. If it's hardware, then it still happens a lot quicker than the days before we had overnight deliveries. In the 1980s it was a case of sending it with British Rail's Red Star parcels using trains, you took the box to a train station to be sent. Then at the other end someone would pick it up to repair it.
Now we can go onto company websites, take to Facebook or Twitter, go onto forums and blogs and express anything from mild frustrations to outrage. Often the telling is not based on facts but on our perception of the issue, which in many cases is a failure on the user to either read the spec, the manual, the company website support pages or all three. Before you know it they are on Facebook or Twitter telling the world how they have been 'insulted' by the service and how they will never use the brand again, it is a last resort option but it shouldn't be the first one.
It seems we've gone from the world of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells to Outraged of Twitter.
The language used by some (and I don't mean swearing but improper grammar) and based on excessive and misplaced rage, ranges from laughable to raising serious concerns about their anger issues. Some people have created Twitter personas just to express anger at things they see as an injustice they need to put right. You see pages and pages of a forum taken up by five people agreeing with each other about how terrible a product or brand is, which they then claim is a clear sign of a brand being in the wrong and them being right. Just to be clear five people posting in circular agreement over 300 posts is not 300 complaints it's five, it's nothing more than a feedback loop or an echo chamber. Take a careful look at claims which suggest an argument is valid because it has 30 or 40 page worth of forum comments; the analysis will often show you that it's made up of the same people simply repeating themselves ad infinitum.
Meanwhile, any reasonable person wanting to find the hidden gems within a forum has to endure this crap, most reasonable people simply give up and go somewhere else to find the answer.
Of course, the forum owners are over a barrel, do they let this kind of behaviour go unchecked and risk alienating their users and the brands or do they step in and moderate in a reasonable manner only to find themselves accused of censorship or prohibiting free speech. It an almost impossible problem to solve, in fact some major brands have closed their user forums or withdrawn from them, I know of at least three major brands who have advised their staff not to engage in forums on behalf of the brand.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf
I am genuinely sad, those who set up these forums and blogs did it with a genuine desire to help people, to share knowledge in a way that would benefit the many, not to create places for the malevolent to flourish.
Like many of you reading this I have gained invaluable help and support from forums over the years, it just seems that despite the efforts by the faithful to make them meaningful, too many people want to spoil them. I avoid Twitter for much the same reason, Facebook less so because it's easier to know who you are talking to and that helps to keep the dialogue a lot more reasonable, people still have heated debates but attaching their real name to comments tempers the more extreme kind of behaviour.
My view is that if you want this kind of freedom of expression and believe in what you say then you should operate under your real name and not some anonymous handle that posts from a cloaked IP or email address. It's very telling how different both the tone of the conversation and the behaviour of participants differs in things like beta forums where each person knows the identity of the other. Or take this blog, you are far less likely to see misplaced anger and spurious claims made by those using their real identity than those who do not reveal their online persona.
Without that measure of simple accountability then my Mum claiming to be a top sound engineer can post on this blog and say how fantastic I am, or someone with an axe to grind can tell you that I kill puppies in my spare time, for the record I don't.
Hiding behind a pseudonym these participants have no skin in the game - surely if one wants to make allegations that can damage a reputation then at least they should stake their reputation on the claims. And we the reader of these comments has no way of verifying both the validity and motivation of the comments. That's why I'm of the mind that anonymous comments should be taken with a huge pinch of salt. If someone isn't willing to put their reputation on the line with a claim or complaint then should we take any notice of it?
Until that happens then I'm afraid this online malaise will continue, and people and the brands will only avoid these places. It seems the professionally outraged have done all of us a disservice - they haven't improved things but made them worse, they are the cyber equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.
Which brings me back to the real point. We have the technology that means we can communicate as never before; anyone can say anything to anyone and without any real accountability. This freedom in the right hands has the potential to help all of us get better products and better service, and we can find answers in minutes - this is good stuff. But in the wrong hands, it has the opposite effect. If brands avoid the places those who spend their lives stirring up trouble inhabit then where do we go with our genuine concerns? Where do we go for a reasonable discussion about a problem we are having?
My wife's Dad went into the Apple forum to try and solve an issue with his iMac. He has run massive civil engineering projects such as London Underground, he manages budgets of millions of pounds and can hold his own in even the toughest board meetings. He posted his question and was then met with a barrage of abuse, ranging from calling him an idiot or telling him to 'read the fucking manual.' Suffice to say he hasn't been there since.
This kind of problem is why many other professionals avoid online communities these days; they have neither the time or the energy to have to sift through this sort of stuff. A new product is announced, and within minutes the thread has been hijacked by someone who doesn't like the price, or that the product has a copy protection method they don't like and so they use yet another thread to express their annoyance about it. Or they hate Windows, or Macs. Or that they bought the original version of the product in 1983 so deserve a free upgrade, after all, they have been 'loyal' customers... you get the idea.
Should We Just Suck It Up?
Am I saying we should just sit back and let things go, well yes and no? Aristotle said this;
"Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."
As I make clear in the introduction to this article, I think there are times when we should complain, but we should first choose our battles carefully and secondly deal with those concerns appropriately. Pragmatism is our friend in these situations.
It's easy in a moment of anger to forget to stop and consider what we are really trying to achieve; Richard Kyte puts it like this;
"Anger is a dangerous and unpredictable emotion. The old expression “to fly off the handle” refers to how an axe head sometimes comes loose from the shaft at the top of the swing, causing harm to anyone who happens to be in the path of the flying projectile."
Let me take you back to the story of our window shutters as an example; when the MD of the company called me up to discuss the matter he said: "shall we just write off the £350 you owe us?" That sounds like a win, I keep some money and get to tell him how his company stinks, and I never see them again. Instead, I said that the work they had done was good, it was their communication that had been poor and that we needed to get the rest of the work done. Of course, I could out of principle never spend a penny with them again, that might make me feel better, but it doesn't get the work done. It means I have to find a new company, go through the process of getting a new quote and get the work done. They may not be any better in the end, in fact, they could be worse! So I said I wanted to continue to deal with them on the proviso things improved. This was when he offered to fit about £1500 worth of shutters for free, I then invited him over to the house to measure up for the other shutters that still needed to be installed, another £1200 worth of business for them.
What is telling is that when the MD came to the house to see us then the moment he shook my hand, the caricature I had invented from my digital interactions, fell apart. He arrived with a bottle of wine and a personal apology. The person with 'skin on' spoke real audible words to me, he was warm and friendly and nothing like the digital version of him I had imagined. We chatted about the weather, our kids and where we were going on holiday. He looked me in the eyes and apologised, that part of a one-hour meeting lasted perhaps 30 seconds. It was enough to settle the matter.
He measured the remaining windows and told me those would be fitted with a 20% discount. We get our job completed, he gets to keep a client and makes some more money. Everyone is happy.
And this is where pragmatism comes into play; I could have won an argument, I could have spent the next few months telling everyone (interested or not) how terrible the company was and how nobody should use them. I could have taken to social media, to the shutter and home design forums warning people off them, I might have felt better for a while, but in the final analysis, everyone would have been poorer for it. The entire cost to put shutters on our windows is now around £2500; the original quote was for about £5500.
This isn't the first time this happened. A couple of years ago when the blog was redeveloped we changed the way we offered premium content. We planned for months before it happened to make sure no one would be left out of pocket or feel let down by us. Despite all that planning, a small minority did express some concerns and one, in particular, was very unhappy, so much so that it soon deteriorated on our comments section to something that could easily get out of hand. This concerned us greatly and so I reached out to them by phone hoping to find a resolution. We spoke on the phone for some time and again the internet personas were replaced by real people, our words had tone and nuance to them, we were able to explain ourselves and if we misunderstood one another restate our words until we were both hearing one another. I offered to do what I could to make things right. Within a short time, the matter was resolved.
But it didn't end there, over the weeks and months that person became my friend and we started to meet at some of the Expert events. They then appeared in a video I made talking about their work and now contribute to one of our blogs. On this occasion I wasn't the one complaining but the one trying to fix it, but he made a decision to take his complaint and find a solution.
It worked out so well that my internet foe is now my real life friend for whom I have enormous respect.
5 Steps To Complaining Well
The pragmatic approach is to ask the question "Do I want to win an argument or solve my problem?" They are not the same thing, so here are 5 steps to complaining appropriately and getting the result you need.
1. Make sure you have all the facts. Does your system meet the specifications for this product to work? Have you read the manual? Have you checked on their website for known issues, FAQs, or tips and tricks? Have you asked someone else who owns the product for help and advice? Before you make any attempt to complain you should have done this otherwise you could end up looking like a fool.
2. Don't broadcast your frustration. Speak to the brand privately first, use their support email address, if they don't have one and they have social media then send them a private message via Facebook or Twitter.
3. Set out your concerns/issue politely and without emotion. Avoid assuming the worse or making accusations, despite what some people may tell you most companies are not out to get you or to rip you off.
4. Give them a reasonable time to respond, take into account time zone differences, office hours, weekends and holidays. Don't assume people are sitting on their email waiting for your complaint, and it might take a couple of days to sort out. They might need to speak to someone else or do some research - after all, you want the right answer, not the fast one.
5. Commit to finding a solution. When you get a response and start a dialogue, then work with them to find the solution. You may have uncovered a bug that only happens to people using a certain OS in a particular language with a certain DAW, and by working with them, you not only solve your issue but help other people from having to deal with it.
Sometimes I've not taken this path and allowed my impatience and anger get the better of me and ended up looking like a dick - rarely have I come out the winner.
Taking to Facebook, Twitter, forums or blogs to vent your complaint might make you feel good for a short while, but it has the potential to make things worse not better. Social media is a little like driving, like you I've done my fair share of sitting in my metal bubble thinking everyone else on the road is a moron and shouting 'f*ck you' from behind the glass - it makes me feel righteous for a moment, but it seldom improves road safety or etiquette. We will always have bad drivers, in fact, it might be me and not everyone else who can't drive.
In the same way in the digital space, we are always going to have trolls and those who just want to damage the good work of forums, blogs and social media by their endless rage-fuelled hijacking of them to peddle their pet peeve. We can't change them - but we can change ourselves by choosing to not take part in their attempts to derail a thread. In some cases we can try and right the ship by getting the thread back on track, in some cases this won't work with the more determined, so the best approach then is simply to ignore them after all 'fires fail for lack of fuel.' Watch they will simply move to another place and another audience to continue their mission.
Modern technology has made it too easy for people to blow things out of proportion or to make it harder for those with real grievances to resolve their problem. You might think that wading into every discussion on social media is helping to make our industry a better place but in many cases it is having the opposite effect, it is making things worse. If you spend all day on social media bad mouthing brands then you only have yourself to blame that they have vacated the places that gave people a voice. When the boy cries wolf too often then eventually no one comes to help when there really is a problem.
We need to hold companies to account when they get things wrong, but unless we dial down the overblown rhetoric of many discussions, then we are in danger of making it harder for those who have genuine concerns to express them freely and in an appropriate way.