I spent six years of my life providing high-end tech support for a Portland-area CAE firm, and so I like to think I know a little about customer service, both in terms of customer expectation as well as the realities of delivering support. There are obvious differences between supporting software and published board wargames, although perhaps less than you'd think. In particular, rulesets are quite a bit like software in that they tend to change from initial availability, are generally supported online with regular updates, and have more or less the entire customer base acting as the final line of QA.
While knowing that your purchase will be, to some extent, protected from poor development is nice, at the same time there's a less tangible element of customer support that it's apparently difficult to teach some companies. That's the ability to not only set expectations, but also to deliver on those expectations. What follows is my experiences with three different wargame publishers over the past month when I ran into problems with my expectations. I will not mention the names of the companies, but anyone with any experience with them will know immediately who I'm writing about.
The first story involves a pre-order for a game that has been anticipated for years. Literally. Like most companies, this one has a pre-order system where you are charged for the game at some point close to it's release, within two months at most but more likely within two or three weeks of the game being shipped to pre-orders. I had not had any problem with the company up to that point, although I will note that on the lone occasion when they contacted me about a credit card that had expired and I sent back the information I got no acknowledgement that they had gotten the message. In computer systems, this is called "handshaking" and it simply means that I say something, they say something back and include the notion that they are responding to what I said, even if that's *all* they are doing - "Yes, I got your message". A store receipt is an excellent example of this - I give them money for a product, and they give me a receipt to show that there was a transaction. In this case, it wasn't a big deal, as I eventually got the game they were charging for.
However, the next game out the door was a bit more of a problem. I heard that they were shipping the game, but as time went on and I didn't receive my copy (pre-ordered sometime in 2006, I believe, perhaps earlier [Note: It was 2006]), I started to wonder if they did indeed get the pre-order. I checked their online system, and sure enough I was listed. A little research on the 'Geek showed that they were having some issues with their database, so I sent a note asking about the status of my game. [Note: the thread noted that a big release a year ago had had issues, and obviously so did my copy of the new game. The main guy at this company has told me that if I wasn't issued an invoice for the game, that would be a problem, so we're still figuring this part out.]
[Note: It turns out that I contacted them via an address that they'd used to enquire about my credit card info with the earlier game. That original message had no material on it to suggest that I should not reply to it, and when I sent a message that was the address I used. In my head I'd misremembered me using the Contact Us links on the company's website, which I should have gone to after not getting a response to that address. I'm unsure at this point what that particular address was for, or if there was a recent change.]
A week later, I sent a second message saying that the game was starting to show up in stores, and that I couldn't tell if they'd charged my credit card because that particular card didn't have a way for me to do this easily. I also asked if they could please get back to me so that I could go out and get my own copy if they had not sent the game.
A week later the game is in Jesse's store. I decide not to buy a copy as the last time I did this (same company) I ended up with two copies of the game in question. Another week later, I get my credit card statement and sure enough, I wasn't charged for the game. I send mail to the publisher telling them that I'm disappointed that they lost my order, despite it being in the online database, and that I could have had the game a week before had they taken two minutes to respond to my email.
[Note: Of course, they never saw my mails, so did not ignore them.]
[Note: Hilariously, the day after I send that email I post this blog entry. Within a short time, I have the full attention of the main guy at the company, although in a very Great Dice Tower Controversy kind of way, which isn't really my intent. To make matters more interesting, just before I hear from him I get a box from the company and no idea what's in it. Could be the game I'd preordered, although it was shipped three weeks after they'd finished those preorders. Could be another copy of a game they'd sent in the interim. They are going to look into the matter and figure out what's in the box so that I can refuse it if I wish to. I've urged them to figure out a way to manage their database so that when an invoice is generated that an email is sent to the recipient. Trying to keep their database updated is also an issue, but considering that GMT Games can't seem to get the old games out of their listing, I guess I can't complain more than a little. The important thing is that I'm left to guess what's in the box when it comes unless I'm constantly scanning certain CSW groups, and I'd prefer to be better informed than that. Maybe a newsletter? Either way, I have a game in a sealed box in my house and you wouldn't believe how much that bugs me!]
I'll note that this is the email address they ask people to contact them through. Their office hours stop at 2pm EDT, and my experience has been that there is *never* anyone in the office answering the phone.
[Note: See above for the address SNAFU. The above paragraph should be ignored entirely as it's unfair and untrue.]
At this point, I'm very tempted to drop out of preorders. In general, once you add in shipping I can generally get every game for less than I give them, and they'll end up with a much smaller portion of the pie, but if I can't trust them to respond to e-mail, I'm not quite sure where to go from here. Unfortunately, they publish some good games, so I'll still buy from them, but they sure haven't done anything to engender brand loyalty.
Story number two is also related to preorders. This time, I was charged for the games (one part of a larger order, the other a pre-order). The order comes in missing Game 1, but absolutely no notification that the game isn't in the order unless you look very closely at the manifest. No email, no nothing. I contact them and ask when they'll be back in stock, the answer is within a month, two at the outside. The preorder game is due out around the same time, so I figure no big deal. I'll note that the original order was made in July of 2008.
As time goes by, I occasionally write and ask if either game is available, noting various pages on the company website that state that the game is available. They always ask what pages, I always send URLs, and they never update them, apparently because other pages say that the games *aren't* available and that's good enough. During this time, I order other games from them, where they say that the order is going out that day, only to get a notification two weeks later saying that the games have just shipped.
This week, the games finally arrive. The pre-ordered game's story is detailed enough that the company's president writes an extensive article on their website telling everyone the entire sordid story of what happened. He also writes another long article about their epic interstate move and many wonder why this man is allowed to run a company.
My copy arrives with no scenario book and two misaligned countersheets. I contact the company via their website and let them know about the problem. Three days later, I have received no notification that they've even gotten my request, much less that they are doing anything about it. I expect that I'll see the missing materials within a few weeks, but certainly no sooner than that. Maybe. If there's any poetic license in Heaven, I'll get the components one year to the day that I paid for them.
[Note: After a week, I've yet to hear anything from this company as to the status of my request. At the very least the game is useless without the scenario books, even if they were to think the counter sheets aren't misaligned enough for replacement. My experience has been that they ship when they say they have shipped (as opposed to when they say they *will* ship), and since I haven't heard anything I expect it will be sometime in early June when the replacement components arrive based on past performance.]
[Extra Note: Here's hoping no one calls *that* company and tells them about my blog! Ha ha!]
The third story is how things should have gone in the first two stories. I get errata counters to a game that came out late in 2008, and notice that some of the counters in my set were misaligned badly enough that the critical text on them is unreadable. I contact the publisher that evening asking if I can get a replacement countersheet (assuming that they weren't all a problem, although this company would almost certainly have sent out a replacement to everyone who had preordered or purchased the game). The next morning, I have a response asking for the specific number of the countersheet, which I'm able to figure out by looking at the scans on BGG. I get back to them with the number, and by noon my replacement is in the mail, which I expect to get tomorrow based on past performance.
[Note: I got the replacement counters today, two days after they sent them out. Geographic proximity helps, but it says something when one company has the fix in my hands before another company deigns to respond. We'll leave the first company out of this particular equation ;-)]
I do like to reward excellence, so it will come as no surprise to you when I say that the third company is GMT Games. They set the standard for not only wargame publishers, but companies of every stripe. While they have the occasional dud or underdeveloped game come out, they also recognize that they need to do whatever they can to fix things for the customers. They were the first to pioneer the P500 idea of charging for pre-orders during the production run up to ship, they were the first to do Living Rules that were downloadable, they are the first to provide Ventrilo servers to not only allow real-time demos and "town meetings" for their customers but also for use by anyone for any reason.
Those who know me know who the other two companies are, and I've certainly dropped enough hints. I understand that most companies don't have the personnel to do everything that GMT does, but at the same time I'm more than a little alarmed that they don't have enough people to do simple things like respond to basic questions via e-mail. In both cases, I think that my business with them will be limited to purchasing through retail stores. No more preorders, no more direct sales with improved profits. I tend to like doing this because it helps keep the companies in business, but if I can't be sure that they even *have* my order/pre-order, it becomes difficult for me to work with them directly. If the games are good enough, they'll find other publishers if either was to go out of business (and in at least one case, that's extremely unlikely when they have a retired MLB player bankrolling them).
[Note: Bankrolling is the wrong term. I don't know what the exact relationship is, but I don't think many wargame companies have owners/investors that have the kind of funds available that an ex-pro ball player and future Hall of Famer would have, even if it was simply for nostalgia value. I at no time intended to say that this company tended to be lax because they didn't care about their customers or weren't worried about staying afloat. I did mean to say that they have a better safety net than most, at least in theory. I'll also state that I'm planning on keeping my preorders going with them.]
And all it took to keep me happy was a freakin' e-mail response.
[Note: And in the end, that's exactly what I did get, and I'm much happier. Now if I could just get this freakin' sealed shipping box out of my life!]