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Internet Erases True Customer Service

In case you haven't noticed - and I'll bet you have - the last remnants of what used to be called "customer service" are quickly evaporating from the planet. Unfortunately, we can blame this sad legacy directly on the Internet and the value system that it's creating.

One of the most annoying parts of this trend is that companies pretend to offer more customer service while actually offering less. They have redefined what it means to help customers solve problems, and many have decided it's now enough to simply maintain a support area on a Web site. Human interaction, if available at all, is often an expensive luxury.

An underlying assumption of net-based customer service seems to be that most consumers are lazy, uneducated slobs who will easily find all the answers if they'll just take the time to read the instructions. Although this may be partially true, little or no provision is made for serious customers who encounter bugs or defects caused by the manufacturer.

Of course, this arrogance is most pervasive with the makers of computer software, much of which is growing in complexity while at the same time being delivered to end users with little more than on-screen documentation. Those "Missing Manual" books are popular for good reason.

TIME OUT

Unfortunately, for those of us who use supposedly "professional" software, these customer service lapses cannot only be time-consuming, but dangerous if issues like file integrity are involved. Unless you are willing to fork out exorbitant fees, it can take days-if ever-to get a problem resolved.

To illustrate this situation, I'd like to relate a personal experience I recently had with Final Draft, a company based in Los Angeles that makes one of the most popular scriptwriting applications for television and film production. I began using this company's software in the early 1990s and always felt it was not only an excellent product but came with fine customer support.

In fact, I remember a time a few years ago when you called tech support at Final Draft, you might speak directly with either Mark Madnick or Ben Cahan, the original founders of the company. In any case, problems were then solved quickly and responsively with a single phone call.

Over the years, Final Draft's user base grew and expanded to include not only professional writers, but writer wannabes from all over the world. As the company grew, I have no doubt it was flooded with questions from novices. And I have no doubt those calls cost Final Draft time and money. But its solution to the support problem-the same one chosen by many small companies-completely changed the customer-vendor relationship.

It was a couple years ago-as I best remember-when Final Draft made its move. Suddenly, to speak with a human, you had to pay for it. After the first minute, calls to tech support cost $2.50 a minute.

If you wanted "free" support, you had to access the company's online "knowledge base," which contains about 700 answers to frequently asked questions. Beyond that, you were left to e-mail support that is tied to an online bulletin board.

APPLE BUG

This change didn't affect me until last December when I started having file corruption problems with Final Draft after I upgraded to a new version of the Mac OS X operating system. Certain that I was doing nothing wrong and finding no relevant mention of such problems in Final Draft's online knowledge base, I called the customer support "pay line."

After working through the normal suspects, the technician admitted there may very well be a previously undiscovered conflict with the new version of Apple's software. I was e-mailed an updated version of Final Draft and given some general tips on how to deal with corrupted files.

Though there was no issue of my failing to follow the correct procedures as a licensed user, Final Draft didn't hesitate to charge me the full fee for speaking with a human technician. At the same time, the company established a new relationship with me as a customer. From now on, if I needed quick service, I would have to pay the company to help correct conflicts or bugs in its own product.

The file corruption problem didn't go away. I spent hours reformatting the script, only to have it become corrupted again. I was certain then and remain so today that the corruption problems were the result of some arcane incompatibility between Final Draft and Apple's operating system update. But I refused to pay again for what was not my problem.

Over the next few weeks, I continued to exchange e-mails with Final Draft's tech support staff using their e-mail-based system. It was an act of frustration, since the written exchanges always seemed to be canned or vague.

Finally, I got a phone call from a technician at Final Draft acknowledging there appeared to be some conflict causing my corruption problem. I sent crash logs, files and other data to help solve the problem and he promised that Final Draft's top people would "look into it."

That was the last I heard from a human at Final Draft. Its auto e-mailer kept sending messages like: "We will assume your issue has been resolved if we do not hear from you within 72 hours." I finally gave up in frustration, my "issue" never resolved. I was able to finish my project by working with alternative software. Though I like Final Draft, I vowed to find an alternative. Life is too short.

Then, out of the blue while writing this column, I received an e-mail notification that a new version of Final Draft had just been released. Version 7 boasts new features and a special limited time upgrade price of $59 to "preferred customers" such as myself.

It was a "gotcha" moment. If I hadn't been writing this column, I probably would have ignored the new version. But my curiosity as to whether or not they fixed the problem got the best of me. I paid the $59 and downloaded the new software.

Whatdayaknow? The old master script that Final Draft had assured me was corrupted now worked on the new Version 7. It behaved the way it was supposed to again. All it took was a new application upgrade and an additional payment of $59. The elusive problem magically vanished.

I'd call to let the folks in "customer service" at Final Draft know the good news. But, on second thought, I'll just let them read about it in this column. Why pay $2.50 a minute to tell them what I suspect they already know.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.