Saturday, March 03, 2007

Customer Service in Comics: Is the Customer Always Right?

At many places of employment, if you were to ask what the slogan or philosophy of the foundation of the business is, most of the time the answer would include customer satisfaction and "the customer is always right" as part of the mission statement. I know that at my business, we like to refer to our customers as the boss, and we listen to their needs as much as we can. We also try and always give our customers the benefit of the doubt and work hard to serve their needs.

This is a normal school of thought for how to be successful in business. Even if the customer isn't always right, treat them with a modicum of respect and work to keep their future business. After all, it isn't usually the ones that complain that always leave, polls have repeatedly stated that most customers just leave and go do business elsewhere without giving a business the benefit of the doubt. It is just a small percentage of people that will give a business a second chance with some verbilization. That is why it is critical to listen to customer feedback and to do things correctly the first time. It is vital to keep customers satisfied to maintain a successful business model.

In the comic book industry, I have mixed feelings about the customer service provided and the mission statement involved. Let me get specific for a bit.

1. Comic book Conventions: Conventions are a fantastic opportunity to get feedback live and in person from the customer. There is a one-on-one value that is hard to get elsewhere. The customer has come to you, and wants to see you. That is invaluable. Having books to sell and other commodities that tie in with the product give it a profitability aspect that is key.

So why is it that some creators show up late or not at all? Why are panels filled with self-deprecation and back slapping? Why waste the opportunity to speak with your customers or even worse treat them like cattle, herding them in the direction you think they should go?

2. Internet Presence: After much reservation, I have come to the conclusion that having whole issues or previews up is a valuable tool. I regularly go to DC and Marvel's websites to see what books are coming out, and enjoy viewing the covers prior to the release. It helps me to know what to look for. On the other hand, I went to Top Cow and Virgin's websites and was frustrated that they were not up to date and that the flash features made it hard to navigate. Keep them current, or don't bother.

The internet can be a catch-22 for creators. The interaction on message boards and blogs is a valuable resource. It is a great place to promote an upcoming project and enhance goodwill by positive interaction with the customer. It is a liability for a creator like John Byrne, who is the most obvious example I can think of. He had been considered an icon for so long that to see his unpleasantness and be the victim of it ruined any false illusions of greatness that had been held up for so long.

3. The actual comic book itself: When a comic book is good, it is the best tool of all. Having a cohesive creative team and a quality product is gold. If it works well, it sells itself. Pandering to a creative ego can be self destructive in the long term, such as the creator who always liked to put himself in a book, even if for a panel or two. At first it is cute, but after awhile, it is just plain egotistical.

4. Public Image: A creator like Mark Millar, whose past work has been critically acclaimed, can do a lot of damage to his own image very quickly. Using a mentality of "I'm smarter then you and I know better what you want then you do" has really put a crimp in his reputation. Along with Joe Quesada, their smugness and sense of self-righteousness about Civil War has been off-putting to many customers.

Another example of this is Erik Larson, whose column at Comic Book Resources has unfortunately damaged his rep with customers. His self-assured posts have been good at times; there have been other examples where he has crossed the line into "I'm right and you're wrong". It is a fine line, and henceforth hard to distinguish at times. As the head honcho at Image, it probably would have been a better response to keep his head close to the drawing board rather then use it as a figure head.

Conclusion: I have always been concerned about the varied response to "customers" of the comic industry. I know that we are a vocal bunch, and I know that we aren't always right, but our voice needs to count. To see that erosion of customer service is a shame. I want to see a turn from "we're smarter then you and know what you want" to "what isn't working and give us some suggestions". While I blame the internet for part of this, I see the value in getting back to a more face-to-face approach.

Give consumers a panel at a comicon. Every 50th customer to enter a show gets a golden ticket of sorts and gets to lead a discussion that the business types can learn from. Ask questions, don't just assume.

Check out all types of blogs. Don't just go to the most negative, biggest pot-stirrer. Take a real look around. There are so many diverse comic blogs out here now, and so many fans with positive messages. The most negative ones are sometimes pandering more to the audience then speaking with conviction.

Really work those sales numbers. Do polls about why books are being dropped. Work with retailers. They are the true front line of the industry. They see what is being put back and have great feedback.

Use the communications network that has been set up in ComicSpace. There are many customers there already, and they would be a great resource for polls and/or questionairres.

As with every industry out there, customer service is key. To get feedback, communication is the tool of the trade. I know that with the laws of supply and demand there are many more fans then creators, but without the dollars infusion of purchase, it would all be a moot point.


Unknown said...

It's a good essay, Heidi, but it doesn't take into account how the comics industry works. For instance, the reader is the end-user who is NOT the customer for the Big Two. The comics companies' customer is by and large the retailer.

Likewise, when you're talking about work for hire, where the company owns the characters and the freelancers are contractors, comics creators aren't engaged in a direct monetary relationship with readers (obviously I'm not talking about the secondary market here, just the primary one of storytelling). You may write and draw with readers in mind, of course, but you're actually selling your services to the comics companies. Thus, the comics companies are the freelancers' customers in a sense, and the work needs to please them (via their representatives, the editors) first and foremost.

This basic concept, this divorce of creation from consumption via middle stages, needs to be borne in mind before undertaking any sort of "customer is right" discussion as regards the comics industry. It's simply not applicable in the same way direct services (say, a fan commissioning a customized work from a comics artist) is.

Heidi Meeley said...

Elayne, you make several very valid points here. It is tough to equate the comic book industry with other industries because of the absence of ownership. I used the thought process of how a sales person for lets say, Bayer Aspirin would think. The person is hired to represent the corporation,and to see to it's best interests in exchange for a paycheck and possible bonuses. Just because there isn't ownership there doesn't mean that there isn't a sense of responsibility to the product. Likewise, at a grocery store, the manager doesn't own the products or the manufacturing process involved in getting products to the state they are in when the end user consumes them, but it is up to him or her to display and market those items to their best advantage.

In that aspect, I am very convinced that Marvel for one has taken the stance of knowing more of what the customer wants then they do. In regards to Civil War, we are made to believe that we want a complete shake-up and reboot of several major characters. While this is a marketing strategy that may bring in new readership, what will it do for the current customer base? Will the new readers stay on or was it the gimmick that brought them on?

It is all very subjective, and that is why it is easy to see this from a very different light. I respect your views on this, Elayne, even if I see it differently.

Swinebread said...

Short term profits over long-term stability of the franchise in my opinion.

Elayne said...

"In regards to Civil War, we are made to believe that we want a complete shake-up and reboot of several major characters."

It doesn't matter what "we're" made to believe, True Believers! (Your post has helped inspire my next ComicMix column, by the way; tune in Wednesday.) The whole point of Civil War is that it sold very, very well, and that's all Marvel needed it to do. The common (and usually unspoken) believe is that readers often have no idea what they want until it's given to them.

Carl said...

Wow, that's news to me! Thanks Marvel! I'm glad you guys told me I wanted the Marvel Universe (from my POV) destroyed and made to feel like I had read an alternate history. You know, where the bad guys won, like if Hitler had won WW II or the USSR the Cold War? And it was right and proper and everyone was happy about it? Make Mine Marvel? Sure, when you 'unbreak' your broken universe Joe Q...

James Meeley said...

It doesn't matter what "we're" made to believe, True Believers!

And that type of thinking is why the growth of the consumer end of comics (or the "end user"), both with the pre-established readers and potential new ones, has remained almost completely stagnant for well over a decade.

The whole point of Civil War is that it sold very, very well, and that's all Marvel needed it to do.

In terms of this quarter's financial earnings? Yeah, that probably is all they need for such things to do.

In terms of a long term growth of the "end users" and an overall healthy and strong marketplace presence beyond this quarter's earning report? No, it is not. Far from it, in fact. As swinebread noted, that type of thinking is merely "short term profits over long-term stability of the franchise." Such thinking nearly killed the industry when the speculation bubble burst. Continued thinking like that might just sound the death knell.

The common (and usually unspoken) believe is that readers often have no idea what they want until it's given to them.

A common and MISPLACED belief, is what that is. One that needs to stop being seen as mantra and dispelled, before this industry can more forward and upwards.

Heidi may not have all the answers and solutions to this industry's problems of long term growth and stability, but a lot of this is basic business principles that almost every money-making enterprise uses. It might be a bit trickier uing it in an industry based more of freelance work, than of those with a vested interest in the corporation, but that doesn't mean that none of this should implimented. The comic industry would do well to look at how other indusries run business, if they want to grow their markets and have a long term viable health for thier industry as a whole. They need to look beyond the minor profit of the moment and look towards long term goals that might not pay off right away, but will have larger benefits down the line.

Heidi Meeley said...

Swinebread- that is well put. I tend to think things are headed that way for Marvel.

An example I would use is this: Profits are down for the quarter, so overstock inventory is shucked out the door for half price while marking up the new stock as high quality merchandise. It has that feel to it for me.

Heidi Meeley said...

Elayne, it is certainly true that the common perception is that surprising and thrilling the reader with something they don't expect is the way to go. Marvel certainly did bring new readers on board with this marketing strategy. My concern is that it isn't a long term gain. I have spoken to a dozen random fans at my local comic book shop and half of them have dropped any Civil War related title while the other half is hanging on for the ride. In another three months I plan to seek these same people out and see what their thoughts are just to see if there is any longterm gain.

I am a bit trepidatious but also a bit eager to see your column Wednesday. I will put it in the positive column in the fact that it gave you a kind of inspiration. :-)

At any rate, one thing I am eager to do is follow up on this at the next comic show I go to by asking the fans that I see what their take is and pray I haven't opened a can of worms!

Heidi Meeley said...

Carl, there is no doubt how you feel about the subject, my friend. I know that Marvel damaged their relationship with you as a reader throughout the Civil War process.

Keep me informed as the fallout happens to your thoughts, Carl.

Vaklam said...

In terms of a long term growth of the "end users" and an overall healthy and strong marketplace presence beyond this quarter's earning report? No, it is not.

My wife said exactly the same thing last week and I agree. Despite their big recent sales I believe they will take a financial hit down the road.

I am buying almost no Marvel titles right now because they have almost all been infected with the current storyline. I won't buy any others for quite a while until their mainstream stuff becomes something I care about.

Heidi Meeley said...

Vaklam, I am glad to hear that your wife and I came up with the same conclusion. It is nice to have some validation on that.

As for Marvel, pretty much all the books I am getting are non-Civil War related. It is just the way I am feeling and responding to the changes, and I am okay with that.

Chris Arndt said...

Looking at it a year hence, from the perspective after the Last Spider-Man Story, I think it's sufficient today to say that Joey Q has provided us with something we never thought wed get in so-called ongoing comic book series.

We got an ending.

Why should I buy more Spidey comics? This is not a boycott by any means. I'm simply not within the audience to buy these new comics.

I was certainly never the customer for new comics. By the logic of "TCIAR" I'm never right. And it's true. Even when I am right I have given up my voice regarding "buy don't buy" on whether comics stories are good or not.