October 27, 2004

WHY DON'T THEY JUST . . . Many people ask "Why can't they just . . . " followed by some eminently sensible solution to a common problem. The answer to most such questions is green, and folds. "Why can't they just give us more legroom (or derriere-room) on airlines?" Because it would make each ticket much more expensive. "Why don't they just make people cut down on the amount of energy they use?" Because Carbon = Energy = Economic activity. Why don't companies give me the lavish customer service, stellar product performance, and elegant design I want? Generally, because I'm only willing to pay $14.95 plus tax for whatever they're selling me. Americans pretty much shop on one thing, price, and then bitch like hell about what we get for our money.

(that said, American customer service is, in my experience, about the best in the world anyway. That competition stuff -- and the danger of actually getting fired -- is a wonderful motivator.)

A correspondant in the hardware industry emails to say that this is also the reason that companies don't want to ship CDs:

First off, the profit on a printer is very slim. The printer business is razor/razor blade. All the profit is made on consumables ( paper/ink) Since the profit is slim the product marketing folks will take every measure to lower unpredicatable costs.. costs like returns and tech support.

When a product first ships it might make sense to have driver CDs to ship customers.. the CD costs about 30-50cents and then you have the cost of the mailing, and the cost of holding the CDs and the cost of handling. For example, it might cost 5 bucks or so when you consider all the factors involved in doing a CD fulfillment.

That's why those of us in the industry like downloads... No mail room, no overstocking the wrong driver CDs etc etc. For example, if I ship 1 million printers a month how many spare CDs should I have in stock to ship to customers who call and ask for one? 5000? 10,000? and what happens to these excess CDs when the driver changes mid production? I have to grind them. Thats like shredding money. Pennies matter. Now, you may argue that pissing off customers costs too. It does. But it is not as trackable. Since most product marketing folks are judged on P&L issues any cost that is trackable needs to be controlled.

So the cost associated with shipping replacement CDs on out of warrenty products is tracked while the cost of losing customers who couldnt get a disk is not tracked.

This highlights another interesting problem for companies: how to get information. Costs can easily be tracked, in the modern world, but outside of mom-and-pop shops in small towns, customer satisfaction can't. It's natural to focus on what you can measure, over what you can't, which is why I think customer service is getting worse across the technology industry: computers are a mature product that customers don't need hand-holding to persuade them to buy, so it's natural to shift the focus from reassuring technophobes to controlling costs.

This problem is hardly limited to corporations; think about why your politicians spend so much time passing laws, even though things basically seem to be running okay already. Politicians can't just go back to the voters and say "We weren't attacked by terrorists or roving wolf packs, so re-elect me". They need the Trent Lott Memorial Hogback Research Project at the University of Mississippi to show their constituents that they're really working for their money. Needless to say, 50 states, each of which has two senators, each trying to increase their wealth through federal largesse, is like trying to get rich by picking your own pocket. But it goes on, because we don't measure good government; we measure results.

Incidentally, the people at HP have contacted me and been very helpful about fixing the problem. If only Chuck Schumer would get back to me so quickly about that idea I have for a solar-powered steamship to run up and down the Hudson . . .