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Credibility

I’ve recently read Pete Blackshaw’s Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000, which is a well-written, methodical introduction to consumer-generated media (CGM, also known as UGC, user-generated content). I’d recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read a book on the topic; if you’re social-media savvy, chances are you won’t learn much (if anything) new, but the anecdotes are entertaining and useful, and the structured approach provides good framework language.

Thus, trust, credibility, and authenticity in corporate engagement are very much on my mind, at a time when there’s a new (resurfaced) controversy regarding local-review site Yelp, which is being accused of manipulating user reviews to gain advertising revenues. Naturally, Yelp denies any extortion of local businesses.

As an analyst, I belong to an industry which is constantly being questioned about the credibility and authenticity of its commentary — the age-old question of whether it’s a “pay to play” business where vendor clients receive ratings and recommendations that are more favorable than those that non-clients get. I still find myself having to stress to clients and non-clients alike that Gartner opinion cannot be bought. It’s one of the genuinely great aspects of working here — the organizational commitment to integrity. This is not to say that there aren’t conflicts — a vendor client has more avenues with which to express their unhappiness with an analyst’s opinion, and attempt to influence it in a more positive direction. But in the end, we pride ourselves on serving our IT buyer clients with honest advice — which means that vendor dollars can’t be allowed to influence analyst opinion.

I imagine that for any organization which provides reviews and recommendations as part of its business, and which accepts money from the entities being rated, has problems with rogue salespeople who attempt to imply, or even outright state, that paying for services means more favorable positioning. So the question is, what’s the organization’s attitude, from the CEO down, towards these things? Is it a wink-wink nudge-nudge thing where the organization only pays lip service to neutrality, is it a don’t-ask don’t-tell thing where the organization is willing to turn a blind eye as long as it doesn’t cause obvious problems, or is the organization really dedicated to ensuring that dollars don’t alter anything?

Which of these categories does Yelp fall into? I’m a pretty engaged consumer — I read reviews on Yelp, and I write them from time to time. I’ve got a keen interest in knowing.

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Open source and behavioral economics

People occasionally ask me why busy, highly-skilled, highly-compensated programmers freely donate their time to open-source projects. In the past, I’ve nattered about the satisfaction of sharing with the community, the pleasure of programming as a hobby even if you do it for your day job, the “just make it work” attitude that often prevails among techies, altruism, idealism, the musings of people like Linus Torvalds, or research like the Lakhni and Wolf MIT/BCG study of developer motivation. (Speaking for myself, I code to solve problems, and I am naturally inclined to share what I do with others, and derive pleasure from having it be useful to others. The times I’ve written code for a living, I’ve always been lucky to have employers who were willing to let me open-source anything which wasn’t company-specific.)

But a chapter in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational got me thinking about a simpler way to explain it: Programmers contribute to free software projects for reasons that are similar to the reasons why lawyers do pro bono work.

The book posits that exchanges follow either social norms or market norms. If it’s a market exchange, we think in terms of money. If it’s a social exchange, we think in terms of human benefits. It’s the difference between a gift and a payment. Mentioning money (“a gift worth $10″) immediate transforms something into a market exchange. The book cites the example of lawyers being asked to do pro bono work — offered $30/hour to help needy clients, they refused, but asked to do it for free, there were plenty of takers. The $30/hour was viewed through the mental lens of a market exchange, mentally compared to their usual fees and deemed not worthwhile. Doing it for free, on the other hand, was viewed as a social exchange, evaluated on an entirely separate basis than the dollar value.

Contributing to free software follows the norms of the social exchange. The normative difference is also interesting in light of Richard Stallman’s assertion of the non-equivalence of “free software” and “open source”, and some of the philosophical debates that simmer in the background of the open-source movement; Stallman’s “free software” philosophy is intricately tied into the social community of software development.

The book also notes that issues occur when one tries to mix social norms and market norms. For instance, if you ask a friend to help you move, but he’s volunteering his time alongside paid commercial movers, that’s generally going to be seen as socially unacceptable. Commercial open-source projects conflate these two things all the time — which may go far to explaining why few commercialy-started projects gain much of a committer base beyond the core organizations and developers who care and are paid to do so (either directly, or indirectly via an end-user organization that makes heavy use of that software).

(Edit: I just discovered that Ariely has actually done an interview on open source, in quite some depth.)

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Predictably Irrational

If you deal with pricing, or for that matter, marketing or sales in general, and you’re going to read one related book this year, read Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely. (I mentioned an article by him in a previous post on the impact of transparent pricing for CDNs, and I’ve finally had time to read his book.)

The book deals with behavioral economics, which can be summed up as the science of the way we perceive value and make economic decisions. It’s an entertaining read, describing a variety of experiments, their outcomes, and the broader conclusions that can be drawn. The book does an excellent job of demonstrating that we do not make such decisions in a fully rational manner, even when we think we are — but because there’s a predictable pattern to this irrationality, you can market and sell accordingly.

Two thoughts, among many others that I’m mulling over as a result:

Ariely asserts that people don’t know what new things ought to cost — they have no basis for comparison. Thus, establishing a basis for comparison creates the sense of value, and can be used to manipulate people’s mental pricing baselines and influence their decisions. For instance, given a thing, an inferior version but cheaper version of that thing, and some other less-similar thing, people will generally choose the thing. That’s relevant when you think about the way people compare CDN services, especially first-time enterprise buyers.

Ariely also shows that given a useful but brand-new thing, people might not know whether it’s a good value and thus may choose not to buy it — but establish a comparison in the form of a bigger but much more expensive form of that thing, and people will see the original as a good value and buy it. This is hugely relevant in the emerging cloud computing market, where people aren’t yet certain what the billing units should be and what they should cost.

Relating this to my usual topics of interest: Amazon has essentially established a transparent baseline in both the cloud computing and CDN markets, with clearly-articulated, readily-available pricing, and as a result, they have implicit control of the conversation around pricing. Broadly, any vendor who puts a public stake in the ground on prices is going to exert influence over a customer’s perception of not only their value, but every other comparable vendor.

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The culture of service

I recently finished reading Punching In, a book by Alex Frankel. It’s about his experience working as a front-line employee in a variety of companies, from UPS to Apple. The book is focused upon corporate culture, the indoctrination of customer-facing employees, and how such employees influence the customer experience. And that got me thinking.

Culture may be the distinguishing characteristic between managed hosting companies. Managed hosting is a service industry. You make an impression upon the customer with every single touch, from the response to the initial request for information, to the day the customer says good-bye and moves on. (The same is true for more service-intensive cloud computing and CDN providers, too.)

I had the privilege, more than a decade ago, of spending several years working at DIGEX (back when all-uppercase names were trendy, before the chain of acquisitions that led to the modern Digex, absorbed into Verizon Business). We were a classic ISP of the mid-90s — we offered dial-up, business frame relay and leased lines, and managed hosting. Back then, DIGEX had a very simple statement of differentiation: “We pick up the phone.” Our CEO used to road-show dialing our customer service number, promising a human being would pick up in two rings or less. (To my knowledge, that demo never went wrong.) We wanted to be the premium service company in the space, and a culture of service really did permeate the company — the idea that, as individuals and as an organization, we were going to do whatever it took to make the customer happy.

For those of you who have never worked in a culture like that: It’s awesome. Most of us, I think, take pleasure in making our customers happy; it gives meaning to our work, and creates the feeling that we are not merely chasing the almighty dime. Cultures genuinely built around service idolize doing right by the customer, and they focus on customer satisfaction as the key metric. (That, by the way, means that you’ve got to be careful in picking your customers, so that you only take business that you know that you can service well and still make a profit on.)

You cannot fake great customer service. You have to really believe in it, from the highest levels of executive management down to the grunt who answers the phones. You’ve got to build your company around a set of principles that govern what great service means to you. You have to evaluate and compensate employees accordingly, and you’ve got to offer everyone the latitude to do what’s right for your customers — people have to know that the management chain will back them up and reward them for it.

Importantly, great customer service is not equivalent to heroics. Some companies have cultures, especially in places like IT operations, where certain individuals ride in like knights to save the day. But heroics almost always implies that something has gone wrong — that service hasn’t been what it needed to be. Great service companies, on the other hand, ensure that the little things are right — that routine interactions are pleasant and seamless, that processes and systems help employees to deliver better service, and that everyone is incentivized to cooperate across functions and feel ownership of the customer outcome.

When I talk to hosting companies, I find that many of them claim to value customer service, but their culture and the way they operate clash directly with their ability to deliver great service. They haven’t built service-centric cultures, they haven’t hired people who value service (admittedly tricky: hire smart competent geeks who also like and are good at talking to people), and they aren’t organized and incentivized to deliver great service.

Similarly, CDN vendors have a kind of tragedy of growth. Lots of people love new CDNs because at the outset, there’s an extremely high-touch support model — if you’ve got a problem, you’re probably going to get an engineer on the phone with you right away, a guy who may have written the CDN software or architected the network, who knows everything inside and out and can fix things promptly. As the company grows, the support model has to scale — so the engineers return to the back room and entry-level lightly-technical support folks take their place. It’s a necessity, but that doesn’t mean that customers don’t miss having that kind of front-line expertise.

So ask yourself: What are the features of your corporate culture that create the delivery of great customer service, beyond a generic statement like “customers matter to us”? What do you do to inspire your front-line employees to be insanely awesome?

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