Making Them Pay: Tales from the Immutable Stack

This is pretty much the entire text from the talk I delivered at Paymentsfn 2018 on May 24, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.

Edgar Allen Poe - The Gold Bug

In his story The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, Edgar Allan Poe wrote

“Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger, portion of truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.”

And it is in that spirit that I lend another perspective, voice, and beating heart in the hope of unearthing some more truth around payment technology.

While it may seem like we in the tech world don’t share much with a 19th century poet, I’d like to tell you a story.

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In 1843, Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Gold Bug was published, which ended being the most popular and lucrative work he released during his lifetime.

Most of you have likely never heard of it. You’re probably familiar with The Raven or The Tell Tale Heart, but probably not The Gold Bug.

However, it was this story that won him a whopping $100 at the time ($100 being the equivalent of a little over $3000 today), which was the total winnings from a short story contest held by The Dollar Paper, a Philadelphia-based publication of the day.

Edgar Allan Poe was actually was one of the first American authors to actually attempt to make a living purely through writing and as the headline of this blogpost indicates, he wasn’t very good at it.

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link to read

Unfortunately, Poe was the son of two actors. His father abandoned the family not long after Poe was born and his mother tragically died when he was just about a year old. An orphan, he was taken in by a wealthy merchant one John Allan who had young Edgar Poe baptized Edgar Allan Poe.

While a student at the University of Virginia, Poe repeatedly gambled away money meant for tuition and school supplies and eventually dropped out. This lead to him becoming estranged from his foster father Mr. Allan. Additional quarrels with Allan — who was rich and extremely adulterous— lead Poe to be disowned by Allan and excluded from the will.

So no trust fund. No parents or foster parents to fall back on. Poe had just a pen, a vivid imagination, and dogged persistence.

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So The Tell Tale Heart was published before The Gold Bug in January of 1943 and Poe was reportedly paid $10 for it.

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His poem The Raven published in 1845 came on the heels of The Gold Bug’s success. However Poe was paid only $9 for it.
It was The Gold-Bug that drew standing room-only crowds to Poe’s lectures and  gained him fans across the globe in places as France, Russia, and Japan.

In fact , he was actually paid twice for the story. First $52 by Graham’s Magazine a periodical for which he served as an editor but then he heard about the Dollar Paper’s contest and withdrew the piece from Graham’s — notably never returning that initial $52 to Mr. Graham, mind you.

I don’t begrudge you if you’ve never heard of The Gold Bug. To be honest, I’d never heard of it either before I sat down to write this talk. Having read it,  I can’t necessarily recommend as it is to— put it bluntly–kinda racist. Without excusing racism, I do think the kernel of this story and Poe’s story more generally is useful in illustrating a central point I’d like to make.

THE STORY

In The Gold-Bug, an unnamed narrator travels to meet with an old friend, one William Legrand, who lives on an island near Charleston, South Carolina. Legrand is sort of an eccentric prodigal son type who is full of endless fanciful sort of get rich quick schemes.

So when our narrator arrives, LeGrand and his companion, a freed yet still in servitude black man called Jupiter explain, that while wandering through the woods they came across a live beetle that they believe was somehow made of solid gold.

Our narrator listens politely to the story and then slowly heads back home to Charleston never actually laying eyes on this gold bug since Legrand had curiously lent it out to a friend.

A month later Jupiter comes to the door of our narrator and beckons him to return to the island. LeGrand who is now sweatier and wild eyed than ever informs him that as it turns out on this excursion where they’d come across the bug they also come across a scrap of paper connected to Spanish treasure hidden by one long dead pirate Captain Kidd. With that paper, LeGrand had been able to decipher the location back out in the woods where they’d be able to get their hands on the loot.

A month later Jupiter comes to the door of our narrator and beckons him to return to the island. LeGrand who is now sweatier and wild eyed than ever informs him that as it turns out on this excursion where they’d come across the bug they also come across a scrap of paper connected to Spanish treasure hidden by one long dead pirate called Captain Kidd.

With that paper, LeGrand had been able to decipher the location back out in the woods where they’d be able to get their hands on the loot.

LeGrand says to our narrator

“This bug is to make my fortune to reinstate me in my family possessions. Is it any wonder, then, that I prize it? Since Fortune has thought fit to bestow it upon me, I have only to use it properly and I shall arrive at the gold of which it is the index. ”

After some cajoling LeGrand convinces Jupiter and our narrator to head back out into the woods to a particular tree. From there the instructions are very specific, they have to tie the gold bug to a string, climb up the tree, dangle the gold bug on a string through first the right eye lobe then the left lobe of a skull nailed to a branch at the top of the tree. Then Jupiter — who is doing all the work here — is to drop the bug and X marks the spot where they have to dig.

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The narrator at this point relates a certain amount of doubt to us saying something we in the startup field likely all can relate to:

“Upon the whole, I was sadly vexed and puzzled, but, at length, I concluded to make a virtue of necessity –to dig with a good will, and thus the sooner to convince the visionary, by ocular demonstration, of the fallacy of the opinions he entertained.”

So after quite a bit of digging and shouting and napping and more digging they actually finally obtain the coveted treasure. When they’ve dragged it back to the shack, LeGrand explains to Jupiter and our dear narrator that he hadn’t been crazy after all that month. Instead it turns out he’d been wound up in an elaborate cypher which required quite a bit of code cracking and Sherlock Holmes style detective work.

In the end, Jupiter and our narrator are fascinated, and from what I could tell highly relieved that their friend had finally gotten he was looking for and would hopefully stop dragging them into the woods at night.

Now LeGrand with his righteous indignation about being due his fortune in life is surely just a thinly veiled version of Poe. And in some ways, Poe is himself not so different from us in the startup field.

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Much like Poe, founders have a vision and some positive indicators from the market and people seem enthusiastic about what they are doing. But how do they get the fortune they believe is their due?

In Poe’s day he wrote on spec and the hope that he might win a contest or a small contract that he could go collect on.These days, tech founders throw together a pitch deck and a website and then try to set up a simple system for people to add their credit card and pay them.

So I shared this story with you because I think Poe’s life and work offers a few key lessons for the modern startup.

ITERATION

The first lesson is around iteration….

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Edgar Allan Poe is known as the father of modern horror and also the father of science fiction and also the father of cosmology and cryptography.

Nearly 600 words or phrases were coined by Poe. Some words we still use today, like bugaboo and finicky and multicolor.

This wasn’t simply because he was a creative and divinely inspired human being. He was scrambling for relevance and money. He was iterating and aiming to please.

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In 1839, four years before the publication of The Gold-Bug, Poe published an article in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger where he challenged the readers to send him coded messages to decipher. He received hundreds of messages so he knew the interest and audience was there for this kind of thing and that’s what lead him to write The Gold Bug.

Poe wanted what we all want which is to deliver to customers and be paid for it. He was an artist to be sure but he was intensely concerned about being an entertainer and reaching what today we might call Product Market Fit.

So as Vice President of Customer Success at Clubhouse Software, I help customers find their way around and begin to master our product and I also oversee our customer support team. Support is responsible for being responsive to those customers, and support is also the frontline for fielding any payments problems.

I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember this but in the 80s there was a commercial for a brand of hair products called Vidal Sassoon. Their tagline is “if you don’t look good, we don’t look good”.

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The idea there is that your appearance and success in using their products was a direct reflection on them, and this is true in all manner of customer facing work. regardless of how chaotic or seemingly in flux the company is, the role of success and support is to make the company and product look pulled together and sleek.

We want our customers not only to choose us but to feel encouraged by their choice, both in the product they receive and also in the ways they interact with our company. As such, no matter how the product may we change we need the user experience to feel consistent from initial marketing touch straight through to payment.

In a recent whiteboarding exercise, my colleague in customer success worked with one of our engineers to devise what would be the “ideal invoice”, working backwards from a list of customer complaints about our confusing existing invoice. This is frustrating.
The invoice should just work, so we can work on providing a great experience to the customer.

When we can’t decipher mysterious bank codes but the customer insists their form of payment is valid, we don’t look so good.When we struggle to make refunds or rerun invoices or when we have to read through convoluted logs to understand the how and why of a user’s billing history, we can start to lose customer confidence.

Our payment system needs to look good or else our product and our company start to look downright bad in the eyes of the customer.

INNOVATION

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The second area after iteration where I think Poe can shed some light is in the area of innovation.

Poe’s Gold Bug arrived on the scene at a challenging but exciting time in this country.

The American economy had just rebounded from the Panic of 1837 a five-year depression that many believe was caused by Andrew Jackson’s policies against the banks. At times during that depression, things got so bad that people were giving out this thing called a “Hard Times token” in lieu of pennies.

hardtimestoken Sojourner Truth’s “Aint I A Woman” speech commemorated

This is an abolitionist one. They came in many different themes.

But by 1843, the year The Gold Bug was published, a number of innovations made publishing cheaper and easier than it had ever been before.

These innovations include the first lithographic rotary printing press, a press in which the type is placed on a revolving cylinder instead of a flatbed. This sped up the printing process considerably and a form of it is still used today.

The inventor Charles William Siemens, of the same electronics company Siemens that exists day, had also helped to roll out anastatic printing, a process of printing using zinc plates that made copying of prints, designs, and literature faster and cheaper.

This is incidentally around the same time that Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage were pulling together their work on the Analytical Engine, largely considered to be an example of some of the earliest computer programming.

So lots of experimentation was going on. Electricity was in the air.

We are living in a similar period.

Innovations like the introduction of protocols, the decreasing price of microprocessors, and services like AWS enabled the rise of our current tech industry.

However as our poor unfortunate Mr. Poe discovered, there is quite a difference between riding a wave and being submerged by it.

While I’m not an engineer, in the beginning at Clubhouse we were a tiny team and I worked very closely with the engineers to set up and maintain the payments system.

And the process hit us rather hard.

Enabling payments was one of the biggest hurdles to clear before we could formally launch.

Like at many companies our engineers were hired for their competency in the skills necessary for building our product. While we have to build or integrate and also maintain a payment system, that is not our product. We build and maintain a payment system so we can get paid for building our product.

Now the payment system is integrated in the backend and our backend developers work with a functional programming language called Clojure and a database Datomic. For those unfamiliar, Datomic is a system that is immutable, which of course means that an entity holds on to values over time and as such you get a lot of fancy “time travel features”.

For billing and more importantly for understanding a customer, that is so valuable.

Knowing who did what and when at any given moment in the span of the customer journey is so valuable. For example, if someone was an active user and then left for a long stretch that is useful to be able to trace back actions to find out what may have lead to them abandoning the product. Being able to see the fullest picture of the past and the present is important to people who do any sort of account management. And if you are interested in this, there is also a really great talk called “Exploring Four Datomic Super Powers” that I encourage you to check out. There is a lot of great functionality there.

However, for us, leveraging Datomic to get that full picture meant that we had to take on a large share of the complexity of the payment system and set up our own trialling and payment logic. Something we weren’t terribly thrilled to do. Taking on this complexity also means that we have a hard time using the out of the box integrations with many analytics, metrics, and subscription management services.

Most of the integrations tend to only work properly with the vanilla implementation of payment processing not the sort of mixed up version we’ve implemented.

So at Clubhouse we are still very much in the process of trying to find a middle way where we can leverage the cool innovations of the day like Datomic without losing the great functionality of the payments software and— perhaps more importantly — the expertise of engineers who actually specialize in payments.

INTERNATIONALIZATION

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The third area where Poe’s life and work proves illuminating is internationalization.

As I mentioned before, Poe’s work particularly The Gold Bug and later The Raven gained him popularity not just in the US but in Europe and even Asia. In fact, the great French poet Charles Baudelaire spent some seventeen years translating the works of Poe, often putting his own writing aside to do so.

Unfortunately all of this international fanfare proved of little monetary value to Poe. In Poe’s day there were no international copyright treaties. The absence of such treaties meant two notable things:

1) Instead of paying American writers to produce new content, American publishers often simply copied the work of British writers and issued it from their presses. There was no author to pay so all the profits could be pocketed.

2) Poe had no real way of brokering to get compensated if and when his work was issued across the pond. Though his work undoubtedly circulated around the world, as an American whose work had not gone through whatever arduous registration processes England or France or wherever required, he had no standing in court to make a claim on his works or their translations.

While I consider myself a copyright minimalist, I do sympathize with Poe as he was faced with a significant obstacle to getting paid. As we know, the primary convention for payment on SaaS software like Clubhouse is a major credit card, but that simply doesn’t work for everyone who would like to use our software and we also know that much of the rest of the free world has wisely rid themselves of checks.

According to a 2012 World Bank report, “at least 110 money mobile systems have been deployed, with more than 40 million users”. Some six years later, I can imagine it may likely be double that number.

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When credit cards don’t work but mobile payment systems are on the rise, payment system purveyors should more easily enable tech companies to hook into the ways people around the world can and do pay for things.

When our products have avid fans all across the world, we need payment system providers us help us find more ways to let them pay.

THE EFFECT

To close, I want to share one last nugget of wisdom from dear old Edgar Allan Poe.

In a piece called “The Philosophy of Composition”, Poe explained why he wrote The Raven backwards saying:

“There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story….I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect.”

My ask is that payments system providers work with a consideration of the effect on customer success and support people like me, on engineers who are not payment specialists, and most importantly on our end user.

Help us iterate on our ideas while keeping the payment experience easy and constant for the user, help us leverage innovation without losing functionality, and enable us to cultivate an international user base that pays us in the ways that work for them.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all get a little closer to our fortunes.

Some More Hands on Support

I am speaking about engineering – support collaboration this week at The Lead Developer conference. If the topic interests you and you wanna dig in further, here are a few handy links. US_Navy_030521-N-9109V-003_Sailors_and_embarked_Marines_flood_the_flight_deck_with_salt-water_solution,_scrub_brooms,_and_plenty_of_elbow_grease_in_a_mandatory_wash_down.jpg

(at Clubhouse) Eyes Wide Widened: My ‘Evolving View’ of Developers on Support

(at FullStory) How to avoid empathy fatigue on your support team

(at Big Cartel) Why All Hands Support Didn’t Work for Our Company

(at Statuspage.io) All-Hands Support: Why, No Exceptions, Everyone At Our Company Talks To Customers 

(at Wistia) All Hands Support

(at Automattic) 

 

 

My SupConf NYC Experience – Part II

You can read Part I of my SupConf NYC experience here
………….

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So after months of preparation and practice, SupConf arrived!  The day before the conference, we had a speakers and organizers dinner at the venue so we could familiarize ourselves with the space and also get to know each other. Aside from getting to meet so many of the fantastic people I chat and joke with on the Slack, the highlight of that night was insanely delicious cheesecake in a jar. I’d never had that before! It was dangerous! Stuffed and excited I headed home to rest up so I could come back energized fo the conference the next day.

——-

Day 1 of SupConf was a whirlwind of socializing and listening to wonderful talks. Every one had harrowing tales to tell and sage lessons to share.

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I loved Lance’s talk. We all need this skill in our back pocket.

Some of the people I admire most in the support field were in the room and it was hard not to vibrate from enthusiasm and sheer smitten-ness (is that a word?) as they spoke. I’d actually told Scott, the organizer/founder of Support Driven, a few weeks before that, “There will be so many people that I admire in that room, I wish I had some sort of SupConf yearbook, so I could go around and ask my favorite people to sign it!” And so it was!

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After the first few talks, the organizers came around and passed out the SupConf mini-yearbooks. They featured headshots of every attendee, their name, company, and Slack handle. It was so cool and also exceedingly handy since they didn’t do nametags or lanyards. It also included a headshot page of every speaker alongside a blank page where you could note Key Takeaways for their talk. More conferences should seriously consider doing this!

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Breakout session after Laura Marciano’s excellent talk on troubleshooting your  team

 

A slightly racy “GIF battle” (Support Driven folks LOVE their GIFs) officially closed out a full day of talks and discussion, after which I wandered off to take a little time to myself (and get an impromptu manicure).  That evening, one of the conference sponsors hosted a smaller group of us for lovely drinks and dinner. This was a good opportunity to get to know more folks and also calm my nerves a bit before Day 2, when I had to give my own talk. Shout out to Caitlin and Carin, my new support pals in Bozeman, Montana (the Brooklyn of the Northern Rockies!) and Rex (my UK-based Ghanaian brother from another mother) who gave me a big boost of confidence ahead of my talk. I left that night knowing that when I spoke the next day, I would be amongst friends.

 ——-

On Day 2,  I got up early and dressed in the way Lara Hogan prescribes when she says (in Demystifying Public Speaking)

 “Wear whatever makes you feel like a super hero.” 

I was a ball of nerves as I dropped my kid off to school and then rushed over to the venue. I avoided any coffee fearing it would make me too jittery, and I did my best to engage with the other attendees and the other talks. However, as time grew nearer I could feel my stomach knotting up, so I went off into a quiet corner and listened to one of my favorite songs (Akosua by Georgia Anne Muldrow and then did a quick guided meditation). I wasn’t speaking until a bit after lunch and I considered skipping eating so I wouldn’t have anything weird in my teeth, but I couldn’t hold out and ending up grabbing a small bite and rushing up front so that the day’s MC (shout out to the amazing Michelle Bearheart from Trello! ) could get me wired up for the mic. I had to go to the bathroom to clip the lav mic pack up under my dress and on to the waist of my tights. I knew this was going to be the deal, but

I was committed to dressing like my own version of a superhero. And that superhero wore a dress, not a skirt or pants.

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That’s me there talking to my seatmates during another breakout session. Wearing red makes it easy to spot yourself in pics later on.

After sitting on the side of the screen through Emily’s great talk on setting career goals, I quickly reached into my dress and clicked the mic pack on. Unfortunately that was a few beats to early and shrieking feedback echo’d throughout the room. I clicked it back off for a second while Michelle announced me and then clicked it back on and walked up to the front. It turns out it was *still* too early to have it on and the first few beats of my talk were feedbacky and weird. I rolled with it and continued on.

I had great time up there, spotting faces I recognized in the crowd, hearing people laugh at funny bits, and watching nods of understanding and agreement.

At one point, I felt my throat dry up and  realized I had no water but I powered through it, mentally noting that I should have that next time (or ask the organizer to provide it/remind me). At another point, I  forgot my next point and had to grab my notes, but even then I felt like everyone was with me cheering me on. When I was done, I got great applause and lots of enthusiastic feedback and tons of high-fives (which I normally hate but relished on that occasion).

Watching the talk now I see where I can improve in the future, but I am genuinely proud of myself.

I think I am an engaging new speaker, and I will definitely grow and improve over time. I thank all the organizers of Support Driven for this incredible opportunity, and I am excited for my future speaking engagements as well as the growth and ongoing success of the truly nurturing SupConf community.

And without further ado, here’s the talk!

SupConf NYC 2016 – Camille Acey Where To Next? Evaluating Opportunities For Growth-HD from Camille Acey on Vimeo.

My SupConf Experience – Part I

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I joined the Support Driven community last year after searching around for groups and newsletters catering to people working in tech support. In the time since I initially signed up, the amazing newsletter and Slack group have come to be an invaluable part of my life and professional development. When I am confused or need a guidance I drop a note in to my peers, who are ever at the ready to answer questions. When I am frustrated, they commiserate with me and drop in appropriately empathetic emojis and GIFS. When I have a big win, they whoop and drop celebratory GIFS.

So last year, when  founder/community manager Scott Tran and his team announced that they were pulling together a new Support Driven conference to be called SupConf, I bravely put together my first ever conference CFP and shipped it off. While I was unfortunately not selected and was ultimately unable to attend, my proposal got me seriously thinking about starting to try and speak at conferences, and after I saw the pictures and read the Slack chatter post-SupConf SF I was resolved to make it to the next one. I think I remarked in the Slack chat that if felt like every one had gone to band camp but me.

So when it was announced that the next SupConf was to be right here in NYC, I got back on the horse, pulled together some better proposals (with the help of some amazing women in tech!) and resubmitted……This time I got in!

While I was beyond excited to get the acceptance email. I was also a bit nervous. This was going to be a room full of hundreds of my peers — people I admired and looked up to. People I really liked in the virtual space and was hoping to connect with IRL.  What could I say? How could I remember it all? And most importantly, how could I avoid being boring or outright embarrassing?

Luckily, Scott and the rest of Support Driven team were already on the case. They had pulled together a speaker development program that set out clear deadlines and concrete requirements, and they gave every speaker an experienced mentor who would hold their hand through the process. I was partnered with the wonderful Pat East (now of GitHub) who was a constant source of encouragement, challenging questions, and (of course) support. I was also able to draw on the expertise of people in the community like Automattic Happiness Engineer Andrew Spittle as well as public speaking expert (and Andrew’s fellow Automattician) Luca Sartoni. My fellow SupConf NYC speakers also shared numerous helpful talks, blogposts, and book titles.

I ended up spending hours upon hours learning as much as I could about the art and science of public speaking (see my resource list at the end of this post), as well as practicing every chance I got. As I went along I began to be so grateful to have been selected to speak not only because I was able to begin to develop myself as a public speaker but also because this time-boxed assignment gave me an opportunity to think and write (and corner unwitting friends and family into conversations) about the topic I’d chosen: responsible time management. I’d long wanted to write a blog post about this topic (as a follow-up to my blogpost on how to quit) and now here I was writing a talk! And being so richly assisted in the process!

So how’d it turn out? Well, in the next post, I am going to tell you about the conference and the actual speaking experience, but for now, here is my list of helpful new speaker resources:

Blogposts/series

Books

Conference Talks/Videos

An Ode to The Mall or Towards A Customer Experience for Humans

My name is Camille and I am the world’s most reluctant online shopper. I am a working wife and mom and time to shop can run short, so I Amazon when I must… and I must much of the time. However, whenever I find myself with more than a few minutes on my hands, I love to steal away and browse in a boutique or better yet walk the floors of a big box store. And though I live in New York and have been deprived of the privilege for many a year, no digital experience will ever in a million years match the pure (OK mostly guilty) pleasure of going to the mall.

Yes, I know that malls can be huge and unsightly corporate behemoths that tend to decimate smaller, local businesses and negatively impact the environment with their sprawling parking lots and bulky footprints, but on the other hand the modern mall is a pristine palace of convenience and an egalitarian urban bazaar for our times. It has food and clothes and appliances and sometimes even entertainment. The mall is for young and old. The monied and the poor. The left and the right. Yes, there is truly something — at least one thing — for everyone at the mall! Oh shopping mall, why do I love thee? Let me count the reasons!

Discoverability

How many times have you gone into a mall or big box store for one thing and come out with multiple bags? Sale signs beckon from the window, you need shoes to go with that skirt you just bought, you just want to peek in and check one other little thing….and you’re hooked. Even the best online shops with the fancy schmanciest algorithms cannot do that. While suggestions are fun, they don’t come close to stumbling upon something amazing and being able to get it now.

Instant gratification

If I see something I like at the mall, I can take it and buy it today. No waiting around for some delivery person or dealing with piles of cardboard boxes. The thing you want is in your hand moments after you decided you wanted it. While large online retailers have the benefit of being able to hold a lot more stock than a brick and mortar store, they also have to deal with processing returns because the tiny 350 X 350 image of those jeans didn’t accurately represent what they looked like in person or searching for missing items OR something was lost or damaged in shipping.

Accessibility

A ramp in a mall in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

For better or worse, the mall is for everybody. Unlike fancy Manhattan boutiques where shop assistants size you up for purchasing power the moment you walk in the door, mall shops invite. If you have the ability to move your body across the threshold, then you are their ideal shopper. Malls are also in many cases shiny new buildings that are required to adhere to accessibility guidelines. While malls are equipped with ramps and lifts, many online retailers still fail to meet even basic levels of site accessibility like clear text and headers.

Localisation

A recent display in the Flatbush Avenue — Brooklyn College Target store

If you visit your local mall you are certain to be served by a clerk who speaks the local language and dialect and is familiar with the area. While the hugest of the online retailers can certainly provide language localised sites, many smaller web shops struggle to offer their shops in more than one language and can rarely provide customer support in every customer’s timezone. If we don’t speak the languages that the site is offered in, we can see the merchandise and likely even purchase but we are uninformed and underserved, 2nd class shoppers.

A clerk in a mall shop can not only welcome you, chat with you, guide you in and through the store, but can also help you locate other local goods and services. They know the area and can refer you to related shops.

In addition, one branch of an international store has the unique opportunity to provide location specific items. At a recent visit to a Brooklyn Target, I found a large display of New York specific swag. Special limited edition and geographically significant merchandise can be a draw to an otherwise subpar shop or restaurant.

Concessions

Big greasy pretzels, gooey cinnamon buns that beckon to me from the parking lot, and hot dogs….on sticks! Boy, do you know how to treat a lady, shopping mall. You understand that all that deal hunting means that I am probably going to get a little peckish and want food that isn’t entirely fit for human consumption.

While I don’t (necessarily) believe that online retailers should offer fast food, understanding shoppers as humans is so important. So many times, I’ve been multitasking and online shopping and had a transaction time out because I wandered off or had to go to the restroom. Most mall shops will hold things for you until you get back. Heck, many big box stores even have a layaway policy so you can put an item to the side and come back when you get your money right. A quick Google revealed that even Amazon didn’t have a layaway program.

I understand there are myriad security and business concerns with how long we let sessions run and actually holding physical items for users, but retailers will only benefit by figuring it out. Shopping in the real world is not a straight line, and retailers win when online shopping encourages the same sort of access, speed, courtesy, and service that physical shopping engenders.

So with all that physical shops have going for themselves, what’s an online retailer to do? Just give up and shut down? Of course not, we need them too. However, I would suggest the following:

  • Embrace/ create accessible online shops and platforms
    If you are a smaller online retailer, look into what it will take to make your website more accessible and localised. More on web accessibility standards here (http://www.chainstoreage.com/article/web-accessibility-why-it-matters-all-retailers). If you cannot afford the investment, look into sellers’ platforms that can do the work for you but let you maintain your branding. If you are a platform builder, offer accessible platforms that allow sellers to offer unique and localised experiences to potential customers.
  • Build (better) retail into places where people are already browsing
    I spend far too much of my time on Pinterest pinning clothes that and outfits that I like but the path from finding something I want to actually trying to get it has been thus far unsuccessful. Social platforms are certainly trying to hack retail as it is crucial to their revenue strategy, but for some reason they can’t get it right. Liketoknow.it tries to implement this for Instagram but it is too confusing and high friction.
  • Do brick and mortar whenever you can (but call in the experts!)
    I recently read that Amazon will be opening a few physical locations soon; even the web’s Everything Store has realized that there is value in meeting shoppers where they are. As a retailer, whenever possible, try to position your merchandise where people can touch, try, and buy it. Keep a list of physical retailers on your site and up to date. Do pop-ups until you can afford a physical location. And have excellent customer service and unique offerings that make the in-person experience something truly special and worth seeking out.

So We Quit Blue Apron (Again)

Image from here

My journey with Blue Apron started like that of so many other people: with a free box of food from friends. We liked it immediately for many reasons:

  1. The recipes were creative and introduced us to techniques and dishes we’d never prepared before.
  2. The ingredients were very fresh and interesting. While we live in a city with many exotic options, our neighborhood has exceedingly slim pickings in the grocery stores outside of basics and ingredients to make Caribbean food.
    I unpacked my freekeh and scallops and black rice with utter glee.
  3. Less time spent shopping.
  4. Less emotional labour spent trying to figure out what in the world to cook. We don’t ever order food in and very rarely go to restaurants so every day requires that we cook something or have something cooked that we can warm up. When I first started with Blue Apron, I was a fairly new mom and so I was pretty exhausted with work and baby care, so being able to have everything I needed to make a meal was a real convenience.

Why We Quit The First Time

The first time I cancelled with Blue Apron, I didn’t really want to quit. My family had a change in our financial situation and Blue Apron felt a luxury we could no longer afford. It was with a heavy heart that I pressed the Cancel button and said goodbye to those handy little boxes. However, when our tides began to rise again I quickly and excitedly resumed our service, but things were not to be the same….

Why We Quit The Second Time

A lot seemed to have changed from my first excursion on the SS Blue Apron. The recipes started to feel repetitive and not worth the price. The packaging seemed to have ballooned (I don’t need a two sheeter about the history of lemons! Nor do I need a letter from the company every week or even a physical recipe printout. Just email it!) with so much of it being so incredibly not recyclable (despite their claims to the contrary). Meat packages arrived leaking blood all through the box and ingredients were curiously mislabelled or missing. My kitchen was scattered an increasingly overwhelming amount of tiny portions of basic ingredients that I actually already had on stock (vinegars, onions, garlic, soy sauce). But the worst part was that it seemed impossible to figure out how to give feedback on any of this.

Whereas in the past, I’d emailed customer service and received cheery answers, now I could not quite figure out how to reach anyone at all. I tweeted at them a few times and received no response. So I figured it was time to call it a day. But even canceling proved to be an ordeal. I had to click a button and then….WAIT for this.

I had sincerely hoped that I’d receive an email from someone on their customer success team asking me to give them another try or see if there was any issue I could resolve. Instead I received this ugly, generic email basically saying “Bye, Felicia”, as though I hadn’t spent thousands of dollars and referred countless friends to them. If there is a lesson in how NOT to treat customers, Blue Apron has aptly taught it to me. As a Customer Success Lead, I can at least be grateful to them for that.

I’m never going back.

Gonna miss that freekeh though.

More Will Be Revealed OR Thoughts On Engaging the Less-Engaging Customer

More Will Be Revealed OR Thoughts On Engaging the Less-Engaging Customer

From this XKCD comic

I recently received a very blunt and critical email from a customer. He was unhappy about a marketing email we sent out and critical of the company in general. Now, as Customer Success Lead, I work at the intersection of customer support, user experience, and customer development with some sales and marketing responsibilities rolled up there too (because hey we’re a startup!), but despite my many hats, I’ve become much more accustomed to dealing with feature requests and suggestions (thoughts on that here ) and not as adept at taking outright criticism. Fortunately, I’m familiar enough with customer development methodology at this point to know that there is often more beneath the surface of a simple user comment or request. So in this case, I responded to the customer by:

1) Showing appreciation for the feedback
2) Revealing the assumptions that were at play internally when we created the marketing email (e.g. People hate receiving “salesy” marketing emails and would prefer informative ones instead)
3) Conveying what response we’d hoped to receive with the email (e.g. We were looking to start a larger a dialogue about the business/process of software development)
4) Asking what sort of emails/communication the user *does* like to receive from a company like ours.

Much to my surprise, the user responded rather quickly and with a markedly changed tone, offering considerably more constructive feedback. Despite the fact that he claimed to hate the email, I ultimately got the dialogue I was looking for!

As I settle into my position, I am experiencing ever more of these sorts of exchanges — ones with biting and “off the cuff” beginnings that eventually finish as thoughtful conversations, full of great and useful ideas. While certain customers can come off as blunt, cynical, or entitled upon first contact, those same customers can also (with further engagement) prove to be highly intelligent, creative, and thoughtful. Even after several years of working alongside software developers, project managers, and tech leads, I am still learning valuable lessons about how to engage and turn an unpleasant exchange if not into something pleasant than at least into something productive. Recent lessons include:

Meet Users Where They Are
Whenever possible, it is useful to thank the person for taking the time out of their day to reach out you. They could have kept their opinion to themselves and honestly many users do. So this could be the viewpoint of scores more who just couldn’t be bothered to write you.

Affirm the person’s opinion. That is what they think and they have a right to think that way. You just want to know, “OK. So, what else?”

Customer Success Not “Happiness”
As I mentioned in a previous post, while we are working to build solutions that serve an ever growing number of users, we don’t need to blindly accommodate or people-please. We will never make all the users happy and that shouldn’t be our goal.

Be Introspective
What is your company doing? Are you accomplishing what you set out to accomplish or is this critique hitting a sore spot and reminding you of something you realize you need to fix/do/be? I find it is crucial to internally be honest about your company and your competitors, especially those who might be doing a better job than you at providing the same sort of product or service. It can also sometimes be beneficial to remind customers that you are aware of your competitors and know that Brand X does this better than we do at the moment.

Customer Success is not just about fixing the brokenness, it’s about learning what is still/already working…even if it is a competitor’s product or service or even a user’s hack.

It’s Not Me, It’s You
Sometimes people are grumpy or don’t know what they want or just want to vent. Listen politely, ask questions as you can, but don’t feel that you need to do or fix anything right away. While you are not there to be anyone’s therapist, if you *can* connect to the person and their frustrations you will gain valuable insight into the work and personal challenges some users may be facing.

Zero Tolerance For Abuse
All this having been said, it is important that your company not tolerate abuse. If a person is being offensive, hurtful, or threatening, you should have every right to walk away. While engaging the less-engaging among your user base can be useful it is not always useful.