The difference between "customer service" and "customer support": Are MMO publishers falling short?
In late July, a number of World of Warcraft subscribers tried logging into the game, only to discover that their accounts had been suspended. You might remember reading our coverage of the Blizzard "chargeback mess;" a story that circled that blogosphere, mainly as second-page news. Since then, there's been some progress made in untangling the situation—or, at least, a revised statement from Blizzard, finally. The story had the unintentional side-effect of bringing the issue of Blizzard's customer support out of the shadows once again for its semi-annual, public flogging.
The concept of "MMO customer service" is one that's always perplexed me. Obviously, it's something I think about when I encounter my own problems, whether it's an in-game or billing issue. Beyond my personal experience, I've read countless scathing testimonies and damning articles about customer service in the MMO industry, or more appropriately, the lack thereof.
In fact, there's only one industry that comes to mind when I try to think of something worse: the cell phone market. Does "customer service" even exist in the world of MMOs, or has the concept actually devolved into what we know as "customer support"? These days, I feel a heck of a lot more like a "subscriber" than a "customer" in the eyes of my game publishers. And maybe that's a big part of the problem.
"Subscriber" and "customer;" what's the difference, anyway? Technically, there is none—it's just semantics, I suppose. But ideologically, I think there's a big difference; and it's one of the main reasons why MMO publishers—especially the larger ones—are falling short.
Last spring, WoW.com featured an article that exposed Blizzard Entertainment's "F" rating by the Los Angeles division of the Better Business Bureau, a widely-known non-profit agency developed to monitor and report on the business practices of companies:
[…] our favorite game developer has earned an F. The BBB says that they've been given this rating "for reasons such as that they have failed to respond to complaints, their advertising is grossly misleading, they are not in compliance with the law's licensing or registration requirements, their complaints contain especially serious allegations, or the company's industry is known for its fraudulent business practices." Ouch.
Since then, Blizzard's rating has reached a "B;" an accomplishment that was probably influenced by the publicity that surrounded the old rating. But, on the other hand, you can just as easily argue that the reason its score lowered to an "F" last spring was because of an uneven ratio of reporting parties. After all, people usually don't seek out the BBB to submit a report when they're happy with a company's service.
At the time, I didn't find the story surprising. While I realize that a few thousand complaints don't represent even one percent of WoW's subscriber base, I still found Blizzard's BBB rating indicative—on the micro level, at least—of a growing trend in MMO customer dissatisfaction. Generally, this would be the point at which I'd link a few forum testimonials or customer rants as proof, but c'mon…do you really need them? We've all seen it, dozens of times, scattered throughout a publisher's official forums or on fansites; pages of QQ,(What is QQ?) diatribes of frustration and players atop virtual soapboxes explaining how a "real" company should treat its customers.
The real issue isn't the BBB score back in April, nor is it exclusive to Blizzard and World of Warcraft. Blizzard just happens to be the easiest to target because it owns the lion's share of the market. The truth is that any game company can be guilty of providing shoddy customer service to its player base, no matter how small or large.
The problem is the difference between "customer service" and "customer support." There's a reason why many companies with under-staffed, under-trained or under-funded customer service departments slap the term "customer support" on a box or website; it doesn't imply the same entitlements. If there's a single adage that comes to mind when you think of customer service, it's most likely "The customer is always right."
Whether or not you were raised in a family or culture that taught you that ideal is irrelevant. As a subscriber of "MMO X", we are customers of the company that develops and publishes it. But far too often, I get the feeling that many of our favorite MMO companies have the notion that we're somehow privileged to play their products. While it's true that playing an MMO isn't an inherent "right" that we have, I think the industry has grown complacent from the success it's enjoyed throughout the past decade.
And we're all partly to blame for that. It's a product that usually provides us more fun than we're willing to part with, despite the problems we encounter. I don't think I'd be wrong if I guessed that many of us would keep playing, and paying for, an MMO even if an in-game CSR told us to go screw ourselves. Sure, we would probably complain—perhaps even demand that some sort of amends be made. But would the majority of players quit the game? Probably not; and that's something many of the big MMO companies have come to realize throughout the years. We will get angry, we will sometimes scream and yell…but, most of the time, we will come back for more.
All the meanwhile, product issues and problems that would never be tolerated in many other industries are overlooked and allowed to persist.
You don't have to look too far and wide to find instances of retailer neglect on the part of MMO publishers, whether it's innocent players caught in the crossfire by blanket bans, accidental and fraud-worthy billing problems or just plain old indifference on the company's part. But if you've never experienced a problem playing an MMO that required assistance from a CSR, you're not necessarily in the minority. Some people can play for years without even opening a single in-game support ticket, let alone dealing with the nightmare scenarios you read about online.
It's about the problems that do come up, though—or more specifically, how an MMO company chooses to confront the problem, as well as the customer. By now, you might be thinking that I have a major grudge against MMO companies, or a personal axe to grind. I promise you; I don't. I've dealt with my share of "hiccups" throughout the years, but for the most part, my own MMO gaming history has been relatively stress-free.
It's the complacency that bothers me; this whole new trend of MMO companies leaning further toward customer resolution than customer satisfaction. The fact that a successful MMO company might have to deal with thousands of "support" issues on a daily basis shouldn't excuse that company from treating every player like a customer, instead of a subscriber ID.