It always amazes me the number of businesses who use the Internet without really understanding how it has changed everything in business, not just the bits they find useful. The entire balance of power has been shifting towards information rich customers for years now and one of the things about this shift is that people’s tolerance for a company’s behaviour when things go wrong has also changed dramatically.
It has always been the case that when things go wrong, the single worst thing any company can do is to make a customer feel he is being ignored. In many ways, even a half-arsed press release is (just) better than none at all, but frankly the days when a press release drafted by a PR professional whose job it is to pretend everything is all right are long gone. That approach never worked, only now the fact the PR Emperor has no clothes (and in truth never did) is impossible to hide. Customers are going to tell each other just how much they hate you, if indeed they do, regardless of whether or not you participate in the discussion because companies can no longer frame the terms of the debate. This article is an example of that, in fact.
And so I was amused by a fairly trivial incident: a purchased a copy of the Epic/Microsoft games studio shooter Gears of War for the PC. Cool game. How do I know? Because I have repeatedly played the first two to ten minutes of the game before getting a wargame-g4wlive.exe crash to desktop. And judging from the number of screaming customers on the Epic forums, I am far from alone in experiencing this.
Now the truth is, games these days are bloody complex things and it is rare to get a major game released without some significant kinks, so far be it for me to criticise Epic for releasing a bugged game… it happens and is probably an inevitable fact of life.
Also I have no doubt that Epic has an army of coders working to fix the (many) issues that people have reported and most likely they will solve them all soon. Looking at their forums, both Epic and Microsoft developers posted early comments and that is exactly the correct approach. If people know for sure that someone is on the problem, it is amazing how much slack they will cut a company and in many cases, dealing frankly with the issue and frequently acknowledging there is a problem makes people empathise rather than criticise.
But after the initial surge of developer input, the forum started filling up with often highly irate and typically semi-literate gamers cursing and howling because they had become convinced that as the first attempts to patch the game had not helped a great many people, the companies had just banked their money and written the game off. In truth I think that is highly unlikely at this stage and it is an avoidable self-inflicted wound to have well paid programmers working to fix what may be a difficult problem but because your inept PR department does not make that clear on a daily basis, customers whose game is about as useful as a prismatic beermat are left incandescent with rage at being ignored (as they see it). Crazy corporate behaviour.
Interestingly, posts to the forum filled with F words and imprecations about the marital status of the developer’s mothers when they were born, seem to be generally left on the forum. I posted an invective-free article urging Epic to get themselves a new PR director and the post was taken down, which I must confess I find vastly amusing. So no prize for guessing which department is responsible for the Epic forums then.