The Self-Publishing Option Part 3

By Kathy Crawford

As one changes from author to self-publisher there are many choices that must be made. One of those is how to handle customer service. While you might think that the box art and advertising are much more important, your decisions about customer service can have long-term positive or negative financial implications for your business. Your decisions in this area must be carefully considered. In this article, I will discuss the reasons for and the options available for customer service. Future articles will discuss setting up customer service, opportunities to make customer service a profit center, and the day to day operations of a customer service department.

Why have customer service? Because you have to! First, customers, retailers and distributors expect that there be a phone number to call for problems and questions. Not having a customer service line means that customers with problems will go back to the retailer for help (or exchange) resulting in product returns or bad customer relations The retailers will then turn to the distributors and finally to you with returns or complaints. Second, customer service gives you valuable feedback with which to improve or enhance the product. Third and most important, your master distributor will probably insist on some support.

Before you can decide which option to choose, you must decide how much basic support the product will require. You must take an objective look at each version of the product and decide how much support it will require. It may not surprise some of you that Chris claimed that the Mac version of Balance of the Planet was perfectly bug-free and would require no support. And in fact, we have not had one complaint about bugs or problems with the Mac version; but that does not mean that we have had no calls. There was the guy with the 16-color display who wondered why his colors did not match the screen shots on the box. There are people who lose the installation card or don’t read the installation card. There are people who get bad disks. The disk duplicators say that less than 1% of the disks will be bad. If the game sells 25000 units, that’s still 250 calls.

The IBM world is even more complex. In addition to the kinds of calls mentioned above, there are all of the compatibility issues in the IBM world. Have you really tested the product on every clone with every option of mouse, sound, graphics, and applications? Of course not -- that would be impossible. You must be prepared for calls about compatibility issues. For every 1000 units sold you can expect from 10 to 150 calls. You must guess what that number will be.

After you have decided how many calls you expect, there are four basic options you can use to cover customer service: cover the calls yourself, pay your master distributor to do it for you, find a third party service to cover for you, or set up a customer service department to handle the calls. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages.

Do It Yourself
Covering customer service yourself is the cheapest way to go. You publish your phone number and the hours that you will answer the phone on the warranty card. This option would have worked for Mac Balance of the Planet because we have received less than 4 calls per 1000 units. However the intangible costs can be disconcerting. Remember, you are publishing your personal phone number in every box. Our customer service line has gotten calls at 6AM Sunday morning and 11PM on a weeknight. One call came in just as we were sitting down to Christmas dinner with our family. Random calls disrupt a programmer’s thought process. If you get very few calls, you could save a bunch of money doing it yourself; a great many calls could seriously disrupt work on future projects.

Master Distributor
Paying your master distributor to handle customer service is simple and convenient. Our contract does not allow me to say how much our master distributer would have charged us, but I can assure you that it was not cheap. Let’s say that the master distributor charges you 75¢ per unit sold to handle customer service. If you sell 20,000 units, you will pay the master distributor $15,000 to handle customer service. That’s a lot of money. And what do you get for it? How do you know that customer service is handled properly?

And what about the warranty cards? Do they go into the master distributor’s data base or are they sent to you? If they are sent to you, how do the customer service people know who they are helping?

Third-party services
The next option (finding a service that would learn the product, handle the calls, and create the warranty card database) looked most attractive to me. I expected some sort of per-call charge, so that the more calls the service received, the more it would cost. The problem is that I could not find such a service. Most such services charge a fixed rate. Maybe the numbers just don’t add up. Maybe I will run the numbers and set up that business myself it seems like too good an idea to let slip away.

In-House Customer Service Department
The last option is the most difficult. Setting up a customer service department has a lot of advantages and huge risks. The advantages are complete control and lots of feedback. You can create databases of your customers, databases of your types of calls and monitor the sell-through of the product on a daily basis if you want. You decide how to handle different types of problems. You can make customer service a selling point for your company. You can even survey your customer base for new products or services. The only risk is money and time. You have to hire people, manage them, pay them, rent office space, and hook up phones. It can be worth the effort but it can lock you into leases and payroll. I will discuss this last option in more detail in the next article in this series.