Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

Customer Service is Not a Right

In my first post yesterday, I mentioned my own extensive customer service experience.  That is the starting point for the opinions I’m going to write this week.  I want to use it as a framework for putting the Linden Lab customer service policies into perspective.

First and foremost, customer service is not a privelege or a right.  It’s also not a requirement for a successful business.  What makes customer service important is mainly the advantage it can give your business over direct competition.  If two versions of a widget are identical, most customers will gravitate toward the one made by the company who succeeds in making them believe they matter.   If there is no direct competition, customer service then becomes less important. 

When budget time rolls around,  those projects and functions which directly benefit the company’s bottom line are more likely to survive corporate cost-cutting.  Customer Service is a “soft” item – it yields very little in the way of hard revenue stream but it is also one of the most manpower-intensive expenses in any company’s budget.  That’s why it sometimes gets the axe on the first budget-cutting pass.   It’s not that their customers don’t matter – it’s that without a healthy profit margin they cannot attract investors and will likely not stay in business very long.  Something has to go, and the first thing is usually “soft” revenue sources.

Let’s relate that principle to Linden Lab.  The corporate goal has always been to grow the Second Life population and to make SL into a pioneer virtual world.  That doesn’t come free.  The first move to grow the population was to remove registration requirements and to allow anyone with an internet connection to create an account.   We’ll talk about the consequences that had for LL’ s customer service later, but it remains as the best evidence we customers have of where Linden Lab priorities lie.   They were focused on gaining the critical mass of a large subscriber base before they were worried about the customer service issues such a move would bring.

That move was followed by the closure of the official forums.  The official LL line was that it was a black hole for resources they felt could be better utilized through blogs, third-party forums and additional manpower devoted to Abuse Report investigation.  There’s no question in my mind that the old forums were a problem from the company standpoint.  The rezmod program had failed to attract volunteers so moderation was largely performed by Lindens.  The degree of bitching and whining was no greater than it was on World of Warcraft or Everquest boards, but Blizzard and Sony are not trying to attract investors, either.  The image presented by the boards only made their closure that much easier for LL management.  That action was seen by many residents as one of censorship – and the filtering of official blog responses reinforces that impression.

Does that matter?  To you and I, it probably does.  To the Lindens and their long-term strategy,  it does not.  They’re willing to take a few hits now from individual residents because they believe they can draw in bigger fish like Nissan, Adidas, Reuters, Cnet, Amazon and IBM.  By scattering the voices of dissent to third party forums, it allows Linden Lab to present the official website as a unified voice that will only give visitors the official viewpoints.  It also cuts their CS costs in favor of more immediately beneficial efforts.

I said at the start of this post that Customer Service was neither a right nor a privelege, and that it is only important as an advantage against competition.  That is important here, because at this time Linden Lab does not really have direct competition, yet.  Sure, some subscribers have left in disgust but they have been more than adequately replaced by new blood.  Sure, you could claim that any popular MMRPG currently on the market is, in effect, competition.  But is it?  Second Life is currently the only show in town that allows subscribers to retain Intellectual Property Rights to the content they create.  It’s the only user-created open 3-dimensional world on the market as of today.  There,  the Sims Online  and Active Worlds have all either lost major portions of their subscriber base to SL or do not present a credible threat as competition.   There is no hunting, no experience levels, no loot and no raiding in Second Life (other than a few in-world scripted games-within-SL) so it is a beast of a different color.  Until and unless another major development effort is launched by another company, Linden Lab is basically free to pursue their corporate-centric strategy in lieu of a customer-centric one. 

That’s not to say they will completely ignore the residents.  Lip service and corporate-speak aside, they are not foolish enough to publicly admit that SL residents come second to their corporate goals.  They must maintain a semblance of order on the grid by working abuse reports and trying to quell the seeds of chaos with minimum of expense.   Only when the disorder threatens the stability of the grid, as happened with the recent grid-wide attacks, their actions are corporate self-defense more so than defending their subscriber’s interests.  You can’t attract more investors if your product is constantly hacked.  Note the difference in their treatment of grid attacks versus their treatment of IP theft between users.   Then ask yourself when you remember the outcome of any subscriber feedback or Town Hall ever changing the course of LL’s corporate mission.

Until there is a major competitor on the market and the pain of massive customer loss is felt, like it was felt by EA when Sims Online crashed and burned, we’re not liable to see any changes in the way things are.  You and I will be able to continue as “players”, socializing and building our content as we please.  But be prepared for more changes in Linden revenue priorities, subscription fees and customer service policies.  You and I are important but we’re not as important as the corporate goal.

That’s just the way business works in today’s world.

– Cin


October 31, 2006 - Posted by | Second Life

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