Dealing with Disaster

For a small-press publisher one of the key differentiators is the ability to give high-quality, personalised customer service. There is no better illustration of why this is important than when things go badly wrong. So, as a guide for how to react and how to resolve an awkward situation, here's a case study of something that happened to Contested Ground Studios in 2008.

After the first print run of Hot War we found out that our printers had a fault with their cover laminating equipment which wasn't noticed until after the books had been shipped and sold. The fault caused the covers to curl badly.

A problem like this is a customer service issue because, however you look at it, those books are sub-standard product. How do you deal with something like this and avert the potential bad publicity surrounding such a thing? Quick answer: act, don't react.

The first indication this was happening was when one customer contacted us to say the cover had curled. In the first instance we thought that it was just a few copies affected. It was only later on that we realised the problem affected at least fifty percent of all the books printed (two-hundred each for Hot War and Cold City v1.1). In this situation, you can either sit on your hands and hope the problem just goes away or you can pro-actively go out, admit there is a problem and compensate your customers.

In a case like this, there are several groups of customers that you have to deal with. The first (and largest) were those who had bought books from Indie Press Revolution (IPR). In discussions with IPR, we came to the conclusion that the best thing would be to abstract customer emails from the downloadable sales data and email them directly.

Let me say this: please be careful when using data such as this to email customers. A lot of the time, they are not expecting contact from a publisher, maybe they have ticked 'no contact' boxes as part of signing up to their order. be aware of this and apologise and immediately explain which you have taken this action.

The second group of customers were those who ordered directly from our own on-line shop. Downloading sales data from PayPal again allowed us to amass an email list and notify the customers of the problem.

Another vital point: use the blind copy (BCC) function when emailing groups of customers, for whatever reason. Sounds obvious, but it is a mistake that gets made far too often. People do not want everyone and their dog being sent their private email address, so double check! Then check again.

The third group of customers are the most tricky to get in touch with and verify purchase. Those who bought the games at Gen Con need to be notified but there is a lack of contact data. So, we put notices up here, on Story Games and other prominent fora in the hope this would attract the attention of Gen Con customers. At this point, you have to rely on the honesty and integrity of people. On this kind of non-direct post, don't mention what you are offering in compensation, ask people to contact you to discuss it directly.

What we offered customers was a partial refund on the cost of their purchases. In the case of IPR and Gen Con customers this was $10 refund per book. In the case of direct CGS customers, this was a £5 refund per book.

Overall, the response to this was very positive. People were, in general, pleased that we had addressed this issue and offered some form of compensation for it. The situation also allowed us to enter into a friendly and productive dialogue with some customers that we wouldn't otherwise have had. This helps give us a more human face and less of a 'folks pushing books on the internet' kind of thing.

You'll also come across situations where the offer doesn't fit to what the customer wants. It might be the case that they don't have a PayPal account, as was the case with some IPR purchasers. In this case there are a few things you can do such as purchasing an IPR gift certificate, offering free PDF and so on. Never ever say "We can't do that" or "That's not what we offered". Be responsive to the individual needs of the customer and always remember that you are at fault, not them.

I'd suggest that in a situation like this, there are three stages you should go through:

1) Admission: Admit that there is a problem and take responsibility for it.

2) Offer: Let people know that you are happy to offer some for of compensation for the issue.

3) Dialogue: Enter into a dialogue with the customers and make them feel that you have their need at heart. Which, as a small press publisher, you should have anyway.

Being open and honest throughout is the way you should handle thing. Don't obfuscate or dissemble. Just say what the problem is, take hold of it and make sure you sort it out. In many cases, this can turn the situation from a PR disaster into an opportunity to create stronger relationships with the people who buy your games. And this is a great thing.