Monday, December 7, 2009

An Important Lesson From Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Customers expect more from the companies with whom they choose to do business now more than they ever have in the past. Good companies listen to their customers and are constantly in flux in order to accommodate them. They test, adapt, and evolve, almost as if the customers themselves were running the company.

This is much different than the way it was fifty years ago, when the orders were dictated by upper management and trickled their way down to the rank and file employees, who were supposed to carry them out. There are still a lot of companies that try to run themselves in this fashion. While customers demand change, the CEO and the board of directors, in the interest of keeping themselves where they're at (the top) create a bureaucratic layer in the company designed to insulate them from the customers.

This layer is generally called "customer service". Want to know why we're often on hold with people in India? The company is working very hard to ignore you. You might as well yell at the referee on television during a football game. They're counting on it pacifying you without having to actually deal with the source of your frustration.

Of course, I'm not being fair to customer service, because it can be used to both help and hurt a company. Good companies use it to create a feedback loop, where customer requests are taken into consideration by those in charge, and decisions about how to implement those changes are made, then implemented where needed. And those at the top are sincerely grateful that the customers submitted their feedback, because they know that they're better for it.

Lesser companies assign their customer service department the thankless job of damage control and containment. Keep the hoards at bay with this printout of one-liners. If that doesn't work, offer them a free shirt. (This isn't so much "customer service" as it is "management service".)

If you work with Django in any capacity, you're probably aware that it's pretty easy for any developer to get involved in the process of developing with Django itself. You can read the guidelines on the contributing to Django page, and you can keep yourself informed of the latest developments going on by subscribing to the django-developers mailing list. If you're using Django, it's not a bad idea to read that page and then subscribe.

On a couple of occasions, I've gotten myself involved in submitting suggestions. The last time I did this, I thought I had found a security bug, so I fired off an e-mail to the Django security e-mail address. Within a couple of hours, I got a reply back from Jacob Kaplan-Moss. (If you haven't read The Django Book, he's one of the guys who created Django.) I didn't get an e-mail back from his personal assistant, or an automated response telling me that my inquiry would be looked at eventually, or a reply from India. It came from Jacob himself.

It's reassuring to know that the creators of Django are still very active in its development. They're eating they're own dog food. (And why not? Django rocks.) But I'm certain that Jacob and Adrian, in their rise to Django stardom, have been afforded the means to choose their consulting gigs.

The most interesting part is that, after a little back and forth to clarify the issue, it turned out the error was mine. I had forgotten to apply a recent patch the Django installation on my server. In reality, I sent an e-mail to the Django team asking them for help with a problem that didn't exist and, basically, wasted their time. In spite of this, at the end of our discourse, Jacob thanked me, very sincerely, for my time and for taking the trouble to help him resolve the issue.

That is great customer service.

You could argue that, without a product to sell to me, Jacob's kindness wasn't really customer service but instead just common courtesy, happening between two developers with a common goal. I suppose there's a slight distinction between customer service and just being polite to your fellow man, but I believe it's a very fine line. Django is free, but the fact that those at the top are listening to their "customers" is a clear indicator that Django is still very much on its way up. They still want to provide great customer service, and to those of us using Django, that's great news.

If you're just starting a small e-commerce site, you should be taking every part of customer service very seriously. The technology part has gotten very easy to do, but if you just throw up a site with products on it, hook it up with a drop shipping company, and wait for the orders to roll in, it's not going to help you one bit if no one is there to answer the phone when customers call in with their problems. You must read the e-mails and respond thoughtfully to each of them.

Someday, when you're a whole lot bigger as a company, you can send your customer service to India. But I think if there's ever a day that the Django team decides to do this, it will be the same day a lot of us developers start to consider switching to Ruby on Rails.

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