When Customers Speak, Who Listens?

Posted: September 25, 2007 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts, The Gaming Industry

 Human beings have neither the aural nor the psychological capacity to withstand the awesome power of God’s true voice. Were you to hear it, your mind would cave in and your heart would explode within your chest. We went through five Adams before we figured that one out.

-Metatron, “Dogma

Since the first company was founded, customers have wanted to speak with a representative of that company who is able to deal with potential issues or concerns.  And since studio heads like Rob Pardo and John Smedley aren’t likely to start responding to each and every customer complaint, MMO studios have their own representatives which act as an official company “voice”:

Customer Service. 

Regardless of the business or industry, no two words have the same type of emotional impact or direct power as “customer service”.  You can dress the words up and play with them, referring to “customer care”, “guest services”, or “subscriber help”, but at the end of the day, it’s all just a semantical shell game to hide the same basic expected functionality – customers have an issue, and they want that issue addressed.

Customers don’t want to be patronized.  They don’t want to jump hoops.  They don’t want to pay extra.  They have issues, and they want those issues resolved.

It’s that simple.  Really, it is. 

So why are there so many complaints about customer service in regards to MMO’s?  Because as simple as the problem is, the solution is rarely anything less than completely complicated. 

Cold, Hard Cash

First and foremost, we have to accept that customer service costs money.  More than that, it costs significant money.  Better employees or contractors cost even more money.  And all that money has to come from somewhere.

“Wages for customer service representatives reflect the nature of the job as a mostly entry-level position. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for a customer service representative in November, 2003, was just $13.81 an hour, or $28,720 per year.”

SFGate.com, August 27, 2006

If just 10 full time CSR’s were working for a studio, that amounts to just wages of $287,200.  It takes the full montly totals of 1,595 MMO subscribers (at $15/month each) to cover just the payroll of 10 entry level CSR’s.  That averages out to roughly 160 customers per representative at that rate…which is unrealistic considering that in this example, the subscription amount is ONLY used to cover the costs of customer service.  And of course, studios don’t get the full amount of subscriptions just for customer service.

Even if a studio were able to spend 5% of their total subscription values on customer service, that means we’re looking at roughly 3,200 subscribers paying $15 each month just to cover the salary of ONE entry level CSR.  That value quickly jumps to 32,000 paying customers just to cover the base salary of a small team of 10 entry level CSR’s. 

Of course, we’re not counting pesky values such as health or dental benefits.  We’re not discussing 401K contributions.  We’re not interested in vacation time or sick pay here.  At 5% of total revenue (which is huge, mind you) a studio is able to cover payroll for a basic team of customer service for the measly trade off of just 32,000 paying customers.

Assume a standard benefits package and round down to be conservative, and we’re looking at roughly 4,500-5,000 paying subscribers required to support the basic costs of each full time dedicated customer service rep. 

If you want more qualified or experienced CSR’s, you have to increase the costs.  If you want managers for those CSR’s, that’s still more costs.  If you’d like to have CSR’s with some technical background or knowledge, you guessed it – more costs. 

But for this example, assume we can make it work with just basic, run-of-the-mill entry level workers.  So we’re looking at a piddly 5,000 subscribers per CSR.

So what can those CSR’s actually do? 

In most general customer service call centers, an average customer service rep (or CSR) can handle around 8-12 average service phone calls per hour over the course of an 8.5 hour shift, or around 60-100 calls in a day.  That gives the CSR an average of around 5 minutes or less per call.

In a technical customer service call center (read – most gameplay related issues), you’re probably averaging call lengths of 2-3 times as long, which cuts down total issues a representative can handle in any given day to somewhere around 20-50 issues per day.

Wait!  What!?

That’s right.  A competent, dedicated, full time CSR is probably working hard to clear 50-60 tickets per day…but requires roughly 5,000 subscribers to cover costs. 

See the dillemna yet?

Even if you tickled the numbers a little and worked out 100 tickets a day cleared and only needing 2,500 subscribers for costs, it still isn’t exactly pretty, now is it?

And remember, customer service doesn’t produce revenue.  From a bottom line standpoint, customer service is essentially a black hole for money.  It’s a necessary evil from a purely profit perspective. 

This is not to say that studios see customer service as evil, but I wouldn’t exactly blame them for trying to find ways to cut back on costs as much as they can. 

This means you’ll likely see studios hiring seasonal or temporary workers for the periods immediately surrounding big releases.  I’d guess that companies like SOE are bulking up CSR’s right now in preparation of the Rise of Kunark release, for example. 

You might see companies outsourcing for basic issues (such as name change petitions).

And of course, you’ll see companies switching to less expensive email/web based solutions (phone time is expensive and takes longer).  You lose a bit of the personal touch, but those same CSR’s can handle many more tickets when they don’t have to speak to customers who may have trouble explanining their issues.  The CSR’s can quickly read through tickets, find pertinent information, and provide resolution.  Instead of hand typing out ticket responses, CSR’s can pull up pre-written “canned” responses which best match the response needed, and potentially edit the response if desired.

Some companies might even use a fully or semi-automated tool such as Oracle’s Brightware suite, or RightNow’s self-service automated customer service toolkit. 

Though these tools are expensive, they allow automated response to most common issues that have been preprogrammed into the application’s sophisticated search settings.  There’s a margin of error, but it’s typically one that most companies feel is able to be lived with, provided the margin is low enough to be dealt with by the CSR staff.

A Paradoxical Situation

And therein lies one of the paradoxes of the information age.  In order to apply the best solutions to the most customers within the most reasonable time frames, companies have to accept a certain level of recycled tickets within their own internal systems.  In other words, for the greater good, some customers necessarily slip through the cracks right away.

It’s not perfect, but then again, what is?  It’s simply not economically feasible to meet the needs of the overly needy customerbases that most MMO’s create for themselves.  Unlike a retailer where the majority of issues likely relate to tracking numbers or product troubleshooting, MMO customers are ongoing centers of need.

By their very nature, MMO’s aren’t stable products.  These virtual worlds are constantly evolving and changing through patch after patch, and often it’s the CSR’s who take the brunt of the inevitable frustrations which will come out after these changes.  Even when tools such as bug reporting tools or developer feedback tools are available, many customers resort immediately to petitioning any and all bugs encountered – and then become doubly upset when they’re informed by the CSR’s that there’s nothing that can be done to resolve the problem by customer service.

In addition, unlike retail customer service, the CSR’s in MMO’s are also expected to act as police and referrees, enforcing rules of conduct and “play nice policies”  – petitions for which require unrealistic expectations regarding response times (“so-and-so is training me RIGHT NOW”) or desired resolutions (“my group just killed a named and so-and-so looted the no trade item that he didn’t really need so we need you to get the item back for us to roll on”).

This amounts to more time required per ticket – sometimes amounting to 20-30 minutes (especially if the CSR has to find players in-game and observe/interact/take appropriate actions).  That’s going to dramatically eat into how many tickets can actually be handled…and so most CSR’s worth thier salt are going to probably try to not waste much time if they can, leading to a perception by players that the CSR/GM’s “don’t care”. 

Sure they care.  But they care about the tickets piling up in the queue and they want to make sure they can address as many issues as possible in as timely a manner as possible.  While the CSR/GM has been here handling your training issues, a raid on a different server just had their zone crash, a group on a different server just had a chest spawn in the ceiling, 22 people filed reports claiming cheating on a PVP server, and 47 people filed inappropriate name reports on the roleplay server. 

And through all this, there are likely throngs of happy customers milling about their daily business who probably rarely need to petition for any issues at all, and who have nothing but good results when they do, there will always be a vocal minority who slipped through the cracks and become upset – very upset – and have no problems letting everyone they know about it.

Though it’s been said that there’s no such thing as bad press, that’s not true when it comes to upset customers.  A single upset customer can quickly become a central hub for more upset customers, which can snowball into a series of upset customers essentially acting as subscription circuit breakers within their own social networks. 

For upset customers on forums, they often cite total estimated revenue going into the company on a monthly basis and then use that to justify what they see as poor expenditures spent on customer service.  Other costs within the company are often ignored in these complaints which focus solely on the total amount of subscription costs and often are quite insulting to the CSR’s themselves.  Usually we only get a fraction of the story on the official forums as the customer complaining is likely trying to pick up a sympathetic audience and will most often demonize the studio while downplaying any possible personal outbursts.

And therein lies the rub.  We don’t often hear the loud lionizations of the studios or their unsung CSR’s.  We only hear about the days things went wrong.  Even years later, we might have forgotten the dozens of petitions we filed that were handled quickly or efficiently, because that one that slipped through the cracks is what really sticks in our craw.


Now, it’s easy to read this far and come to the conclusion that I feel the companies are doing everything they can and the customer’s are always to blame, but that wouldn’t be accurate at all.

Fact is, I think the companies aren’t doing the best they can and often are creating their own problems by buying into some of the industry paradigms which may look better on the bottom line but can often have negative perceptional backlash. 

As with most issues related to MMO’s, I think most problems with customer service start and end with technology, specifically design choices.

  • For one thing, studios could take more effort to test their updates and patches.  The same lessons we cite for releases and launches should be used with monthly content updates and hotfixes.  Release a buggy patch and you’re only shooting yourself in the foot regarding customer service.  I’m sure the coffee never stops brewing the day after a bad patch.

    Seriously, there are reasons these games have Test servers, right?  Shouldn’t that be where testing should occur?  If a bug goes live with a patch AFTER it’s been noticed and discussed on testing forums, that not only affects the customer service frontline in the trenches, but also gives the entire design team a nice big black eye.  If the issue is resolved later, it only adds to the perception that the test server isn’t necessarily useful or that the company isn’t necessarily committed to quality releases.  

  • Do not close tickets without confirmation of the issue resolution.  I can’t stress this enough.  In fact, I couldn’t stress this enough in June 2005 when I brought it up at the first Everquest II Community Summit.  If a petition is closed and it didn’t resolve the original issue, it’s simply going to result in a new ticket being opened which not only is addressing the original issue, but also likely addresses the new and additional issue of poor customer service.  If the response is bad enough in the first place, you can all but guarantee that a screenshot of the ticket will find its way online. 

    At the very least, allow customers the opportunity to reopen tickets they feel haven’t been resolved to their satisfaction.  Allow customers to “grade” or survey tickets that have been closed.  Allow them the opportunity to get in a few parting shots or final words – they’re paying for that priviledge. 

    Provided a customer isn’t abusive, then the issue they’re reporting should be taken seriously and treated with respect.  An issue should never be closed to the standard of satisfaction according to the CSR, but rather according to the customer’s satisfaction.

  • Every designer or developer or producer should file at least one petition per month in their own petition system while playing in a dungeon or hotzone.  If you can’t file a petition easily in under 20 seconds during normal play conditions, then the system is too bulky and cumbersome for your customers. 

    Fix it. 

    Seriously, if you have to provide special instructions or guides for your customers to follow just to file a customer service ticket, that’s a problem – and a big one at that.  Filing a customer service ticket is something most customers aren’t going to do unless they’re already upset with something.  Don’t make the process itself something that adds to the frustration. 

  • At the end of the day, customer service is about expectations.  Don’t forget that.  If a customer takes the time to file a report, take the time to respond.  If you tell a customer you’re working on a problem, provide an ETA and follow up when you say you will. 

    Even an autoresponder which clearly states the report has been recieved and which sets an expectation of current response time can make the difference between a customer sitting online for a few hours waiting for a response or logging off knowing that there should be a response waiting for him or her the next day. 

    Don’t make customers play a guessing game to figure out when they may or may not be helped. 

  • Explain.  If a CSR can’t help a customer, then there should be an explanation as to why that is.  Even a canned response doesn’t have to be generalized.  Give as many specifics as possible without overwhelming the customer. 

    Remember, the customer has come to the CSR looking for help.  If that help isn’t available from customer service, then there should be a reason why.  Provide that reason.

  • Give options.  Customers who can’t be helped aren’t sure where to go next.  If a direction isn’t provided, the customers will start finding any outlet to vent their frustrations that they can – which usually means the official (or worse, unofficial) game forums. 

    It doesn’t matter if the rules say not to post customer service issues on game forums – players who feel disenfranchised will absolutely go there anyway, and they’ll start explaining why they feel that way, and they’ll post screenshots of the conversations which won’t be fair to the studio, won’t be fair to the CSR, and which will absolutely only provide the worst possible light to shine upon the situation from the company’s standpoint. All of which could have been potentially avoided had the customer been provided a legitimate escalation point. 

    Don’t make the customers guess where to go next for resolution, because chances are that won’t be the place the company wants them to go.

  1. […] hours after I posted “When Customers Speak, Who Listens?“, a guildmate posted the following story within our private guild […]

  2. Raylorn says:

    In a previous job I handled 3 shifts of Tech Support for the largest privatly held web hosting company in the world. This is a BIBLE for any and all tech support managers. ( my previous boss gave me The Art of War by Sun Tzu. A good read but a bit too tactical for tech support.)
    I am not saying that this is the only place you can get this information, I am saying that I would hae paid good money to know this when I first got the job. I only learned through trial, error, and experience that people expect to be helped. That is your job when you are in that position no matter how inane or stupid you make think the question or situation. Be polite, Be prompt, and most of all be helpful.

  3. Raylorn says:

    Maybe I should spellcheck my work before posting…. hehehe sorry about that.

  4. AverageJoe says:

    This might be kinda off subject, but…….Let’s just use 32,000 for a ghost number of subscribers. All I kept thinking is that you forgot to take the 32,000 paying customers and multiply it by $49.99 or whatever the cost of an expansion ends up being $49.99 x 32000 = $1,599,680.00 PER expansion. Take the original box set, and the 3 expansions that have been released and multiply it simply by the number 32,000 (which we know the playerbase is significantly larger) then you have $6,398,720.00 in box/download costs. Take $15.00 a month x 12 x 2 years of playing with those 32,000 players and you can add another $11,520,00000. Add those two numbers together and you have roughly $18M on only 32,000 subscribers. Now let’s say that the number 32,000 is too low. Let’s be conservative and say they have 8 times that number of subscribers… 256,000 and it doesn’t look so bad to hire $144M. That’s alot of headbands for Scott.

  5. Kendricke says:

    Most of the time, box sales are considered icing on the cake as opposed to the cake itself. Also, unlike my example may seem to presume, customer service budgets are rarely tied as a percentage to overall revenue. Making more cash isn’t going to suddenly ramp up the values.

    All of this is moot, really. We can argue imaginary numbers all day but it doesn’t change the overall point, which is that customers like to believe that studios have piles of money (ala Scrooge McDuck) sitting around just waiting to be spent on top shelf customer service – that fixing customer service is as easy as throwing more money at it.

    I won’t deny that more money CAN make for better Customer Service, but only if the money itself is managed appropriately. Look at Vanguard – the way the money for that project was handled was practically criminal.

    The real issue isn’t whether or not box sales provide enough money for permanent customer service solutions (you want to take a guess at how much money a software suite like Brightware costs, by the way?). The issue is that customer service requires a lot more revenue that many customers seem to realize, just for basic entry level quality.

    To word this all a different way: How much extra would you tack on to your personal subscription fee to pay for better customer service? Would you personally pay $.50 extra a month? $3 a month? How much money would you personally want to spend per month over your subscription fee which has already increased twice in the past 3 years?

    Now, do you think the average player will pay for better service? Or do they simply expect better service for the prices already being paid? Of course they expect more for the same. That’s the mentality of the average customer. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that expectation.

    If companies like SOE (or Blizzard or Funcom or EA Mythic or Turbine or…) want different expectations, then those expectations have to be set. Because otherwise, we’re simply at status quo…and status quo for most MMO studios isn’t exactly great in regards to perceptions of customer service.

  6. Laldail says:

    Actually, paying extra for better Customer Service was tried in Everquest (original game) and was marginally successful on a single server (forget what it was called – doesn’t appear to be active anymore). That said, they only opened a single server and that was at a time when there were upwards of 40 or more EQ servers active.

  7. Kendricke says:

    You’re speaking of the Legends service on the Stormhammer server, and it cost roughly 4x the standard subscription rate ($39.99/mo as opposed to $9.99).

    For that amount, you had a team of CSR/GM’s allegedly specifically assigned to just the Stormhammer server who ran frequent live events and who would respond more quickly to Legends subscribers. In addition, Legends customers had special forums, special web tools, and access to new zones before they rolled out to other servers.

    In short, it’s the VIP club model – give your top paying customers the best possible treatment in the hopes of maintaining high levels of loyalty from the most profitable customers.

    I’m not against the concept in theory, but any such model would be theoretically self-sustaining from a profits standpoint, as the increased money from the subscriptions would be intended to cover the increased costs.

    Of course, neither you nor I are privy to the details, but I’d wager the model didn’t work out as intended or we’d still see the service running today.

  8. Maybe I am somewhat masochistic, but after reading this I think being a CSR in the gaming industry still seems to be a good job as an entry level position.

    Being a CSR or working in some sort of customer service oriented position should be required for everyone. There are so many times when I am in line somewhere or at a store where I just want to rip into other customers who are unjustly treating the employees like crap. I think its because I have worked in this field that I believe myself to be a better customer. Its the people who expect right away what they believe to be the right answer that are the problem.

    Nice writeup.

  9. Loralor says:

    Definitely, a background in CSR should be forced on everyone to show them “the other side of the counter”, and the realities thoses employees have to endure daily, and keep their smile.

    I found a video recently of a guy that was receiving a tech CSR formation by a CSR veteran. Was hilarious.

  10. AverageJoe says:

    I’ve probably been one of those customer Brack and Loralor, and not because I am a jerk, but because I too have been in customer service positions once when I entered the workplace. And I know what customer’s expected from me, how to handle issues, how to resolve them, and how to get things done (within my means) and ai did…I guess that’s why I’m where I am today, but nonetheless that’s not the point.

    Therefore, when I’m in a situation as a consumer where I know that they have been :

    #1 Trained to act in a professional manner, educated in the product, service, or whatever they are sevicing.

    #2 Paid by the employer to perform their job, not underperform or act unprofessional.

    #3 Trusted by an employer to represent their brand or company.

    That when I see that these things are not being done, it doesn’t make me, as a consumer, feel comfortable enough to treat with respect and professionalism as they are required. In fact, not that this happens to me alot, but I have been forced to ask for a manager before in a situation that I could not get a CS rep to solve an issue, and I unfortunately experienced the same inexperience, unprofessionalism, and treatment that was given from the CS. It’s frustrating as an end user to deal with situations where you are forced to work with inexperience, underpaid, untrained CS reps……just ask Dell, Direct TV, your local energy company….and the list goes on and on.

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