Is the customer always right?

Sure! Usually, unless they’re saying something dishonest hoping for a specific outcome, then they’re intentionally misleading – but when that’s not the case, the customers feelings are definitely valid. That doesn’t make them the best problem solvers, though.

Maybe I’ll take a step back, maybe some people who are reading this haven’t heard the phrase “The Customer is always right!” (because I’m probably old and “cheugy”), but growing up when and where I did this was statement pretty popular. You did not question the statement, you followed the statement. The statement can be retroactively used to justify past actions taken, the statement shuts down all arguments because “the customer is always right” and you’ll find that justification in places you would never expect as our lives became more blended with earning an income (sometimes called “entering adulthood”).

This statement was basically treated as a rule, and of course once you know a rule you know how to take advantage of it. When a rule is poorly written the potential for it to be taken advantage of is much higher, and the idea of a rule that gives someone ultimate authority in a situation is clearly ripe for taking advantage of. Personally, I don’t blame people playing my games for taking advantage of rules I made – I believe the onus is on the rule-maker to ensure their rules are designed in such a way that the rules in-and-of-themselves prevent players from creating horrible play experiences for other players. After all, Bad Actors exist and should not be ignored.

Coping with a flawed rule

You may disagree with the flaws I’ve hinted at in what I’ll call the customer rule, just like players may disagree with various rules in a game (from limitations in social interactions to perceptions on difficulty), but I’m going to go forward with it as my example. In this particular case, I’ll still interact with various people in life who subscribe to the customer rule, if I pointed out how I felt this rule was flawed every time it is used to “prove a point” it would just escalate a needless conflict.

There’s nothing I can do about the rule itself or other peoples choice to subscribe to the rule, so instead I choose to find a way of interpreting the customer rule that applies to all cases. When a customer is upset, excited, bewildered, or just plain angry – there is no value in dismissing their emotions. In this respect, the answer is yes, the customer is always right.

This is especially true as the one making the rules within a game. As the rule-maker you had intent behind the rule in the first place, if the rule is making people upset it’s important to at the very least audit the rule to ensure it’s doing what you expected it to do in the first place – or if it is accomplishing what it’s set to do, if the negative consequences outweigh those accomplishments. It’s very possible accomplishing what the rule set out to do while also mitigating negative consequences can be achieved by updating or replacing the rule.

Having valid emotions does not make someone a better problem solver, and if a topic ends up with a lot of attention chances are there will be a barrage of proposed solutions (potentially contradicting each other). As a developer if feedback is feeling overwhelming, chances are it’s because some of the proposed solutions sound like a lot of hard work. Don’t let the idea of hard work get in the way of validating the customer, you may not feasibly be able to do exactly what is wanted, but doing exactly what is requested is a pretty extreme method of validation. It’s not required!

Validation can come in small doses, and is much easier if your customer trusts you. Hearing “yeah that sucks, sorry, we’re looking into it” from a developer who has proven to act in good faith can be incredibly validating – but don’t lie, that breaks down trust. “yeah that sucks, sorry” may be all you’ve got if you know that either work can’t be accomplished, or will never be signed off on by the people who sign off on work. Dishonesty erodes trust, and saying “we’re looking into it” without ever showing your work addressing the issue comes across as quite dishonest.

Who is the customer?

I couldn’t let it go, so I’m going back to the customer rule to dig deeper. If you’re hired by a company to develop a game for them, groups of customers may look like (in no particular order)

  • Players
    • Tend to be sub-divided into categories (ex: “PvE”, “PvP”, “Crafters”, unique per game) due to groupings of potentially contrary opinions
  • Anyone above you in company hierarchy
    • If they can put a task on your list (directly or by proxy) their opinion on what that task means is important
  • Other developers
    • Either in their hearts or in their career, feedback coming from the perspective of someone who sees themselves as a peer
    • These can masquerade as players, may only sometimes identify themselves
    • This customer can come loaded with the entitlement of “I’m a developer, so what I’m saying matters more than all these other people”
      • Feedback from a place of entitlement is tricky to validate, always much easier to validate feedback that shows the work as opposed to “You do this thing, you should do this other thing”
      • Hint hint: If you feel you’re in the know, if you feel you’re a peer, show your work – it’s a lesson I still struggle to apply consistently myself
  • Investors
    • Their stake in this game is for it to make money
    • You and everyone around you have their jobs only because of these customers
  • Marketing
    • Their job is to get your game experienced by as many people as possible
    • This customer has a very unique and important perspective, their feedback may seem very strange when compared to other customers, this is because they are trying to do a very different job
  • C-level executives
    • Contractually obligated to ensure the investor-class customer is the only customer that matters to them
    • Reward mechanisms are based on opinion of their job being done, not reality, this can make feedback from this customer opaque in their intent, very tricky to validate
  • Media (including reviews)
    • Unlike marketing, it’s not their job to get your game experienced by as many people as possible
    • Very broad group here, going to be a lot of cross-over with other customer types
    • Due to the nature of this feedback being directly tied to a job being done, validation…
      • …is probably a conflict of interest
      • …is difficult! Is it the opinion of a person or the outcome of a brainstorming meeting of multiple people?
      • …is probably best shown in the form of an update to the game and a polite request to please give it another try to see if the opinion has changed

When you’re a developer in a company you have lots of sources for a large array of expectations and feedback. While game development is a complex process, even brick-and-mortar stores are going to have more “customers” than who walks through the door to buy a thing – parent companies or owners, distributors, layers of management or investors will have strong opinions that help shape the workplace thus impacting the day-to-day of everyone on the ground.

Crux of what I believe is the largest flaw in the customer rule – anyone is a potential customer. It’s a rule that gives absolute authority to a poorly defined group.

Nothing is lost in listening

It’s (too) easy to dismiss customer concerns because it feels like they don’t fall in what is considered a valid group, unfortunately when it comes to feedback reality will assert itself whether you choose to dismiss the information or not.

If you’re told people aren’t having fun in your game they certainly aren’t going to have more fun if you choose to segment out a chunk of the user-base and ignore them. Same if it’s not profitable, not marketable, or not feasible to complete the project at all! Willfully ignoring any feedback may not have negative consequences, but it also may, it’s a gamble. Consequences for ignoring feedback will tend to be several steps removed, and once even one step removed it can be difficult to draw a connection from past feedback given to current problems that are a result of ignoring information (that was dismissed).

On the other hand, once you’re presented with feedback it’s already been presented! There is no additional effort to acknowledge that what’s being said may be someone’s truth and mentally keep it on file to see if it checks up against other observations. That very act can help validate the source of the feedback which helps build trust, it’s a win-win scenario.

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