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March 15th, 2006 - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal

March 15th, 2006

March 15th, 2006
08:56 am


A Lesson Well Worth Learning, or: Vive La Difference

When I worked at bookstores, angry customers would want to talk to me. Like all customers, sometimes they had legitimate things to be vexed about – being out of a book that we damn well should have had, being treated rudely by one of our employees – and sometimes they were just full of shit.

But whatever their reasons, everyone knew to keep me the hell away from a mad customer.

It was a difficult task to do in the small bookshops I started in – when there are four employees, you’re pretty much Johnny-on-the-spot whenever someone enters – but as I climbed up the chain and became an Assistant Manager at a fifty-person bookstore, the employees all rallied the wagons ‘round to put a barrier between Ferrett and The Angry Customer.

“But I want to talk to a manager!”

“I’m a manager,” they’d lie smoothly, stepping in front of the customer to obscure their line of sight while I puttered away, oblivious, in the background. “What can I do for you?”

My problem was – and still, sadly, is – that I have a hard time not matching anger with anger. The proper response is to look very concerned, no matter how ludicrous their complaint, and to nod as if this is indeed a matter of grave proportions, and to say with dignity that you’ll investigate the matter. There were managers who could tell someone to their face that they could stuff the idea of a refund, but somehow managed to make the customers feel good about being refused. (My current boss, Pete, is a master at this.)

And then there was me, who could give a complaining customer a pony and a backrub and still have them griping about that surly guy down at the store. I’m good if the complaint is legitimate and the customer is decent about it – and a surprising number are – but if they’re grouchy or their need is frankly silly, it’s Katy bar the door.

But today, I got a reminder of why my approach is so grievously stupid.

There is a café around the corner from me, which I got really poor service from on several occasions and blogged about it. Admittedly, it wasn’t the nicest entry I’ve written, but it was as accurate as it could be from my perspective (and I had friends I brought along in an attempt to bolster their business who had similar experiences).

The café owners stumbled upon my entries, and left a couple of anonymous comments in my journal telling me that I had “to make up your mind whether u like this place or not” and “those guys have been nothin but nice to you and you think its your right to get treated that way where we think they can just hire a bouncer fer people like you who have ill intentions or unless otherwise one was born that way.” Furthermore, they complained to a person about my blog comments so much that he actually wrote a defense touting the café’s excellent service and atmosphere (which is now, strangely enough, a protected entry).

I don’t blame them for being mad, or even for commenting. It’s what I might do on a bad day.

But it’s hurt them.

Is their service as good as my friend says? I don’t know. Ever since they complained, I’ve felt distinctly uncomfortable about going back, especially since I don’t know which one of them left the comments. I sort of worry that if I go there alone, one of them will give me The Look and go, “You’re that asshole who wrote those entries, aren’t you?” And then I’d find myself in that sort of very delicate and uncomfortable discussion where I have to apologize for making someone feel bad, even as I do not take back what I said.

So even though it’s right around the corner, I’ve stayed away.

Sadly, their understandable gut reaction has cost them a fair amount of business, since there have been some days where I’ve said, “Wow, I want a mocha cola, but I don’t want to get into a hassle.” It’s like being on the outs with someone you don’t know well enough to have an honest conversation with. I doubt that's what they meant to do, of course... But that exactly the sort of tense, uncomfortable atmosphere that I create when I’m surly to someone’s complaints.

Now compare this to Paulius at the Velvet Tango Room. One of the local Cleveland blogs, brewfreshdaily, discussed the VTR’s new policy of “pure ingredients,” and one of the commenters had some fairly nasty things to say about the VTR’s prices and its snobbery.

But Paulius did something I hardly ever think to do: he responded with genuine kindness and concern, explaining his position (and the admittedly-exorbitant prices of his drinks), and apologizing for giving the commenter a bad impression. He invited the guy back as a personal guest, offering to show him the place in a different light.

That’s class.

I can’t imagine it was easy for Paulius to hear people comparing his bar to the orgy scene in “Eyes Wide Shut,” but still he responded with concern to a guy who was saying that “A finely made drink is still finely made whether you pay $8 for it or $16. The extra 8 doesn’t make it any finer, unless you’re a pretentious upper class twit who’ll buy anything that’s marketed to you,” all the while forgetting that even $8 is a ludicrous amount to pay for a drink that you can make yourself for $20 a bottle. When you drink, you only pay for atmosphere and convenience, so it’s just a matter of how much of either you get.

The lesson for me is that kindness does pay in business. Now I just gotta remember to use that.

(52 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

10:47 am


Incredible Web Accomplishments
If you're not familiar with Web stuff, AJAX is the new buzzword that is transforming the web. See, in the old Web - quaintly called "Web 1.0" - you couldn't actually do much until the user went to another page. The Web was a largely static medium - the user went to page, you displayed some data, he pressed a button that took him to another page, which displayed some other largely-static data, and so forth. Once the user had opened a page, there was no way to get new information without refreshing and reloading the page... Which meant that once the page was loaded, you were at the user's mercy. If he didn't go to the next page somewhere, you were frozen in time, your data already displayed, unable to do squat.

But AJAX uses some JavaScript tricks to open up a continuous connection between the page and the Web servers, allowing you to update stuff in real time. GMail's the perfect example of a Web 2.0 application - it checks for new mail and displays it on the page without you ever having to click "Reload." In that sense, the Web has become a much more interactive application (and at some point, I need to sit down and learn AJAX just so I can be one of the cool webmasters).

But the old Web had another hidden problem; it couldn't track what you did between page loads. It had no way of telling that the reason you never got to the next page is because you couldn't find the "Next Page" button. Likewise, if you hovered your mouse over an ad and almost clicked an add, it didn't count. The Web was a binary state; you clicked or you didn't.

But thanks to Crazy Egg, that may all change. As this blog entry says, "Ajax gives you the ability to track visitors right down to their mouse moves. And guess what? Someone has finally implemented this idea - woot! Crazy Egg is a website tracking system that records every click by your users. It then produces a heat map that is overlaid on your site, allowing you to understand exactly what your users are doing."*

That's both a good idea and a bad idea. It's bad, obviously, because it allows a site to potentially see everything you did. If you were writing a heated reply in customer survey form and changed your mind before you submitted it, Web 1.0 had no way to know. Web 2.0, can store that original comment and compare it. It's very much a Big Brother-style situation.

On the bonus side, though - and keep in mind that the bonus side of new technical achievements that can be used intrusively rarely pan out as cool as promised - this allows you the ability to track usability like nobody's business. StarCityGames.com is a very cluttered site, but it has to be; we have a lot of vital information that we need to present "above the fold," on the first page that customers see without scrolling down. If we installed this (and we don't plan to at this time), we could use the overall mouse-clicks to track where a customer starts on the page and where he ends up, which in turn could make us realize that customers aren't finding the things we want them to see. In other words, we could be virtually looking over your shoulder to see where you got confused, and then design a site that would be much more intuitive.

I'd like to think that this would lead to a glorious era where Web applications became more instinctive as people used these tools to focus on user design. I can hope. We shall see.

* - I should note that at this point, I have no idea whether Crazy Egg is as good as advertised. My suspicion is that it'll probably be a little slow and clunky, or require mega-hardware to use properly. But even if Crazy Egg isn't all that and the bag of chips, someone will try to make it work, and eventually will. Thanks to joegrossberg for pointing me at this one.


(31 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

08:21 pm


The True Horror Of The 1980s
Today was a day spent in real work - the kind of work that existed before we all stared at screens for a living. The kind of work that obviated the need for "exercise," since at the end of a day of heaving stuff and climbing and pounding you were in goddamned shape.

The reason for all of this labor is because tomorrow, we are having the house insulated, and as such the furniture must be at least three feet away from the outside walls so they can cut tiny holes in the wall and fill the empty spaces with fire-resistant cellulose fiber. This involved moving two bookcases (and their weighty books) downstairs, as well as shifting the seven zillion boxes from their spot in the attic into a closet at the back end of the basement.

Because I was a Man on the Move, I wanted to listen to something funny to occupy my mind while I toted and lifted. Fortunately, my wife had gotten me a comedy DVD set a long time ago, knowing who I admired in the world of comedy, and I put it on the Monster Penis Home Theater System and cranked it up so it could be heard from anywhere in the house. And yet this was a monumentally bad idea.

For no matter what you think of the long-departed Sam Kinison's humor, I think we can all agree that we don't need to hear his act in surround sound.

(11 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

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