Tech, Autos, & Gear in Layman's Terms Since 2006

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July 16, 2011 • Rants and Raves

Positive Comment Doesn’t Make You A Shill, Good Customer Service Doesn’t Mean You’re Right

Over the past couple of weeks I have posted several articles related to products made by Sony – involving gaming, music and computers. I have gotten messages that have alternately called me a corporate shill and a screeching troll. And while I will definitely agree that my passion for gaming, music and technology in general comes through in my posts here, I found it amusing being called both an apologist and basher of THE SAME COMPANY!

This week Dan did an unboxing on the new Toshiba Thrive tablet, and was immediately taken to task for bias. On a RPG discussion there was a massive heated discussion about Avadon on the iPad compared to the PC, which got into all sorts of accusations of bias and trolling from all sides. Then on GottaBeMobile there was a point-counterpoint on the potential match-up of the iPhone 5 vs. Droid Bionic – and that one brought out loads of fanboys on both sides to argue at fever pitch about two pretty much unknown devices months away from release.

It got me thinking – the lines of marketing versus criticism have been so heavily blurred that many folks immediately link effusive praise to ‘being bought’. There are some areas where it is deserved – video games are notorious, with publishers basically signing deals delivering early access for guaranteed scores of 85% or higher in reviews. But at Gear Diary we are very often assessing things we paid for ourselves, and are therefore not beholden to companies to deliver a certain review … and the entirety of the Gear Diary philosophy is built upon honesty and integrity – and cool gadgets.

So there were a couple of points I wanted to make along those lines.

Positive Opinions Don’t Make You a Shill

I am currently reviewing the new Sony S-series laptop which features a bottom-attaching sheet battery that allows up to 15 hours of battery life. This laptop was supplied by Sony for me to use, and as such in theory I am benefiting from Sony choosing Gear Diary to partner with on their ‘Charged & Ready’ program. For some, that was enough to indict my lavished praise as “being a corporate shill”, and wondering how I was “enjoying selling my integrity for some paltry kickbacks”.

Had I not been reviewing stuff for many years I would have been offended by those statements, but instead I realize that such cynical views of positive statements is one of the unfortunate consequences of too many disreputable bloggers who sold positive reviews (sometimes pre-written) in exchange for press coverage or cash – which led to much greater scrutiny of bloggers in general.

Regardless of the root cause, the attitude remains strong – and on pretty much any tech blog expressing a positive opinion you will see among the comments someone asking if the check arrived yet (implying a bought review) … or worse.

The important thing to remember is that tech bloggers are gadget lovers first and foremost. When I look around at many of the folks leading enthusiast sites, they are many of the folks who were debating HPLX, Psion, Newton, Palm, and so on back in the early 90’s on USENET. That means two things – we are passionate about our gadgets … and we have had a couple of decades (at least) to build up likes and dislikes.

It is easy to call ‘likes and dislikes’ bias, and to an extent that is true – for some, anything that reminds them of a particular program or OS triggers either fondness or repugnance. For me, the Newton was a definite favorite, while early Windows CE versions were … not. While for many there is a passionate hatred regardless of context, at Gear Diary you find that while we like or dislike many things, it is experiential – and always prone to be changed.

For examples just read the reviews here – Judie has gone from Windows to Mac to Windows to Mac to Windows to … and on smartphones and tablets has used pretty much everything available. Same is true for Dan. Personally I love Apple products but as a gamer I always need a high-end PC laptop on hand, and adored webOS but found it lacking core functionality I needed and so chose my second favorite, Android.

All over the Gear Diary team there are advocates of Linux and Mac and Windows and Symbian and RIM and Kindle and Nook and so on – but just as often we find ourselves checking out new hardware and saying “I’m willing to switch to that new system”. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

The other thing we do is recognize REALITY. If you were writing about business class smartphones in 2009 and didn’t address RIM as the de facto standard, you weren’t doing your job; same for office productivity suites and Microsoft Office; desktop operating systems and Windows; MP3 players and the iPod; online shopping and Amazon.com …

… and tablets and the iPad.

Seriously. Think back to two years ago. Tablets meant either Tablet PC or so-called ‘Convertibles’, both running a version of MS Windows theoretically optimized for tablets and pen input but in reality just a series of compromises. That was the latest in a two decade history of marginal devices going back to the GRiD DOS tablet in 1989 – and while there were loads of interesting concepts through the years, nothing ever lasted very long or gained much traction. The marriage of software, hardware, screen and touch technology simply wasn’t possible until very recently. In fact, before the iPad the Tablet PC space was pretty much a novelty or specialty niche, used in hospitals and by traveling insurance salesmen more than normal consumers or businesses.

Then the iPad arrived and sold more units within the first 6 months than every Tablet PC ever … combined … by a lot. Instantly in April 2010 Tablet Computer went from a vague definition to … iPad. There have been some decent Android tablets – Samsung Galaxy Tab, Motorola Xoom, HTC Flyer, and so on – but none has caught significant traction and the general opinion of Android tablets is that the OS is ‘half-baked’ and the hardware is always lacking in some significant way. The BlackBerry PlayBook is one of the better non-iPads, but suffers a dearth of apps and features. The HP TouchPad is such a flop that within a month Amazon and BestBuy have cut prices and a new faster model was already announced.

So again, as of July 2011, Tablet = iPad. Pretending otherwise is being delusional; and accepting reality is NOT being biased or a fanboy or a corporate shill.

If someone writes about smartphones in 2011 without acknowledging the monstrous success of Android and pretending it is Apple vs. RIM vs. Palm vs. Microsoft like in 2007 … now THAT would be an example of being a delusional blind Apple fanboy!

Specific to the Sony S-series reviews I have been doing, my main focus has been on the battery life, and the performance of the computer in the context of that highlighted feature. I have been using the laptop extensively during the last couple of weeks, and have really been impressed by pretty much everything – the speed, keyboard, screen, graphics performance, ergonomics, size and weight, and of course the battery life. I know I could make it lighter by removing the sheet battery, but I love not carrying a charger with me.

Are there issues? Certainly, the trackpad buttons are a bit unresponsive (or, more that you have to push them ‘correctly’) and the screen lid is very thin and light and feels very fragile (not going to test it though!). My point is – sure I have been very positive, but not out of whack with my impressions. I mean, I’m routinely getting 11 hours of battery life without changing work habits at all!

Good Customer Service Doesn’t Mean You’re Right

In my ‘Adventures in Customer Service’ post about Sony I complained about the auto-billing for Qriocity, and how I was treated when I tried to initiate a dispute to get a refund. I was quickly sent a couple of messages noting that it was entirely my fault, that most subscription services don’t offer refunds, and that I was on yet another anti-Sony ranting crusade.

Of course on one level they were correct – I knew I had a 30 day trial, and as someone who rails about personal accountability I have only myself to blame for not checking to ensure I had canceled. And perhaps if I had found that getting in touch with customer service wasn’t made intentionally difficult, or had gotten a reply that didn’t feel like it was sent by a SPAM-bot I might have just walked away and learned my lesson (again).

But instead I ran into the wall of Sony hubris – while simultaneously crowing about how they are reaching out and reconnecting with gamers after the outage, they were sending me form letters, blatantly ignoring questions while answering, asking for information then not using it, and being rude and accusatory in emails. At that point it was no longer about the $9.99 but about being treated like a valued customer.

And I have never one to think that ‘the customer is always right’ … in fact sometimes the customer is a complete idiot and totally wrong, and needs to be told so. Given how slow and cumbersome the ‘dispute’ process was, I had hoped for Sony to at least give an extension of service time – but even that wasn’t something I ‘deserved’.

But then when I was hoping for a reply from the very rude and unhelpful supervisor ‘Sarah K’, I instead got what initially looked like a ‘starting over again’ reply from James G … and I have to confess that my reply was a tad bit terse. But James replied quickly back and we went back and forth a few times – he was concise, contrite, and genuinely tried to understand my situation and apologized for the impact of the PSN outage without ever saying that I was right.

After we went back and forth a few times with information, he said that he had attached my situation to a request for refund. He said that rather than figure out what I deserved, he would let the higher level customer service people make the call one way or the other. He also said that although I mentioned simply adding time to make my ‘post-dispute’ time 30 days, it would likely be either a refund or nothing – and that decision was final. Again, there was nothing he said indicating I was ‘right’ or that I deserved anything, he simply put submitted the ticket.

All I could say was THANK YOU! Suddenly I had gone from very unhappy and dissatisfied to very happy and satisfied – and I STILL had no expectation of a refund! I KNEW the Sony policy was no refunds; I KNEW that I had failed to ensure that my auto-renew was canceled; I KNEW there was no ‘dispute process’ so my not using the service was MY problem. I am beyond needing to feel ‘right’ – in my professional life I come across things I don’t know or am wrong about all the time, and have learned that accepting those things is part of learning and growing. All I wanted was to feel like someone was treating me like an actual human being and customer.

A few days later I DID get an email … and a full refund. And while I was glad to have closure, I actually felt a bit guilty about the refund. Since it came from my PSN Wallet (from a gift card), I immediately went to the PSN store and bought a couple of sale PSP games worth just over $10. Given how things went it seemed the right thing to do.

But it reinforces my point – my dispute wasn’t so much about my rightness as it was about being heard, about an acknowledgment of an extraordinary situation, and something beyond the repeated strains of ‘POLICY SEZ NO … U R SOL’ that I got from SIX Sony customer service reps, including one supervisor. The content of what James said was little different, but the WAY it was said made all the difference.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Review Scores!

I’ve been re-reading Wil Wheaton’s “Memories of the Future – Volume 1”, which has loads of text and then ‘grades’ episodes from Season One of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time I was reading about Metacritic dropping yet another site due to corrupt scoring. And I am always involved in debates on game forums about scores versus text in reviews.

With Wil Wheaton, I was reading what he considers some of the worst episodes, and he is giving them a C- grade. The score (grade) doesn’t mesh well with the text, which really reflects upon how little granularity there is in that type of system. These “scores versus text” discussions are everywhere that discussions about games spring up, and they always flow the same way: someone says the score is too low / too high, another person responds that it fits / doesn’t fit the text, and someone else talks about how many people never read the text, and then the whole thing goes in circles until a new game is released and the discussion can start fresh.

That is one reason I love writing for Gear Diary – you get the flavor of the balance of positives and negatives if you scroll to the bottom and read the likes & dislikes … but even without a score, the real story is in the text of the review. So rather than reading a summary and numeric score, we invite readers to share context, and as a result I find the comments reflect upon the overall opinion of the reviewer rather than just saying ‘you scored that X, which must mean Y and that says Z about you’.

Why do I mention review scores in the context of the other two things? Because without a review score our articles will never be on Metacritic / GameStats / GameRankings, but they do get the same amount of attention on enthusiast sites where they can be discussed in more detail. That is the best of all possible worlds, since it means we don’t get pressure to deliver a certain score; and while I have publishers debate certain points, I have never been asked to change the ‘tone’ of a review … well I DID get asked once several years ago when the editors had already changed my review score to please the publisher – and needless to say that was the end of that.

At Gear Diary, the emphasis is on quality and integrity; of giving a product (and manufacturer) a fair chance and honest assessment.

2 Responses to " Positive Comment Doesn’t Make You A Shill, Good Customer Service Doesn’t Mean You’re Right "

  1. dbmurray says:

    As one who also writes reviews, I can certainly relate to your frustrations. I try not to get too upset over unfair criticisms of my reviews, though.

    Unfair criticism goes with the territory. After all, if it’s fair for me to review a product, then it’s more than fair for someone else to react to it, even if it’s a knee-jerk response.

    What’s more important is whether or not my reviews are beneficial to my readers.

  2. Deni Tako says:

    That sums up GD in a fantastic nutshell. I’ve been reading here since Judie started the site, and will continue to read daily. I make many purchase decisions based on what I read here, precisely because I find the reviews to be related to the writers actual experience with whatever the product is, how it fit into their daily life and what they liked and disliked. Sometimes, the things they dislike are the things I actually do like, which can also help me make a decision. Sometimes things that are critical to them in how they need to use a gadget are less relevant to me, but I’m still interested in their opinions.

    I wish there were more sites with as much integrity, enough to even change hosting providers on a moment’s notice simply to keep consumers informed of possible scams and not giving in to pressure from a provider to remove “controversial” posts or reviews.

    So many other sites are simply recycling posts from press releases or other sites – “me too” posts. They get quite boring after a bit, since they all seem to say the same things. At GD, there is nearly always some personal input from the writers to help you evaluate whatever the product is.

    Besides, where else can you find information on a cat box, a car and computers all on the same site? It’s just plain fun at GD, because there’s literally something for everyone who likes gadgets.