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AskTog, November 2004

The High Price of Not Listening

Ever visited the website of a company with a glaring error either on the site or in their product, only to discover that they have successfully sealed themselves off from the world, so you can't report it? Sure you have, and it's not only causing you frustration, it's costing that company real money.

The web offers the perfect way for companies to gather feedback from the public. If carefully designed, a feedback system can short-circuit emerging disasters and soothe the ruffled feathers of the customers. It can accomplish this at sharply reduced costs vs. conventional feedback mechanisms such as phone or snail mail.

The penalty for not gathering such feedback is severe:

1) Angry customers.

In the days of letter-writing, each letter received represented 50 unhappy people, with the other 49 not bothering to write. I haven't seen stats for email writing. Writing an email is easier to do, so the ratio may be lower than 1:50, perhaps even as low as 1:10, the ratio of visible-to-invisible portions of icebergs—you know, those things that sink unwary ships?

The reason companies block email reports is so they don't have to bother reading them. They wouldn't do that if they were receiving 10 complaints per week. They do it to block hundreds or thousands of complaints, which means tens or hundreds of thousands of unhappy customers. This seems like a bad business practice to me. It would perhaps be better to reduce the number of people writing by actually reading the mail and addressing the problems.

2) Lost Business

Companies that embrace ignorance can lose millions of dollars in business, suddenly awakening one day when it is too late, wondering why there's a 200 foot gash in the side of their corporate ship and they're taking on water.

Quite often, they've depended on Sales Reps to report back up the chain, but Reps don't like to report bad news, even if they learn it, and quite often they don't learn it, because the retailers assume, often based on past history, that complaining will do no good.

Such haphazard informal reporting structures are like a game of "telephone" where not only is the communication prone to error, but one or more transmitters may have motive to purposefully alter the message.

3) Damaged Reputation

Even when companies finally address ignored problems, sales don't suddenly return to normal. The loss in reputation and "good will" can continue to dog a company for years or even decades.

American car companies turned out junk from around 1950 to 1975, steadfastly ignoring the complaints of both their customers and dealers. They now enjoy a repair record almost equal to Japanese cars and significantly better than many European cars, but many people still assume they must buy Japanese or European cars to get a reliable "ride," even 30 years after the turn-around began.


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Open Letter to Apple

Before getting into the Feedback Guidelines, below, let's take a look at exactly how frustrated people become.

I receive a lot of emails complaining about companies that have isolated themselves. Sometimes, the writer just wants to vent. Other times, he or she is begging me to intercede, hoping I have the contacts to do so. A favorite target for the latter is Apple, not because Apple is worse than many other companies, but because people assume that, since I worked there from 1978 to 1992, I must still have a lot of contacts. Sadly, I don't.

Below is the latest missive I've received from a reader who did his level best to get through directly. I'm publishing it in its entirety for two reasons. First, I hope that someone will pass it along to Apple and the problem will be addressed. Second, it is illustrative, both in subject and tone, of a lot of the letters companies are avoiding at their peril.

Hi Tog,

If you happen to have an email address for Steve Jobs, or somebody at Apple who could pass it on, maybe you could forward this to him (assuming you agree with it, of course). is a dead end.




Subject: A few necessary 10.3 Fixes for Canada.

Dear Steve,

You will probably never receive this, of course, but maybe somebody at Apple will, and can pass it on to you, if is not a dead end mailbox. I can’t find any proper email or reporting link on the Apple website for suggesting simple fixes for pointless ongoing problems that are really ticking off Apple customers.

Lets get these simple to fix, but infuriating, ongoing problems fixed. Happy Mac customers recommend Mac computers to their friends; unhappy customers warn their friends about all the problems they are having, costing us sales and market share.

Copied below is the text I entered into one of the Apple Support feedback links, NONE OF WHICH are really proper options for feedback on the Mac experience, or for reporting problems or suggesting fixes. FIX THAT TOO.

Thanks, Terry

Dear Apple/Steve,

A few necessary Mac OS X fixes for Canada.

You urgently need to fix a couple of problems with the OS 10 registration process on computers shipped to Canada. First, the population of Canada, except for one province, DOES NOT SPEAK FRENCH!!! Repeat, we do not speak French. Why do all Macintosh computers shipped to Canada, year after year after year, default to French? FIX THIS!!!

Stop shipping computers to Canada which default to a French keyboard layout, and GIVE NO HINT that selecting Canadian CSA (whatever that is) instead of US, will permanently lock you into a French keyboard layout.

If you can’t or won’t fix this problem, at least correctly label the option “French Canadian” instead of “Canadian CSA”. Nobody in Canada has a clue what Canadian CSA means (assuming it means anything at all), in relation to keyboard layouts. There is a Canadian Standards Association (CSA) that tests hot water tanks and toasters to see if they are going to electrocute their customers, somewhat like the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) in the US, but that has nothing to do with languages.

There are three Canadian options in the International System Preference: Canadian CSA, Canadian ISO, and French Canadian. All three are French. Why is there no Canadian English option? Why are there three French options? HELLO!!! Over 90 percent of the Population of Canada speaks English as their first language.

HELLO!!! Only 10 percent of the population of Canada speaks French. [Actually 22%, per 2001 census -tog] It is like having all US Macintoshes default to Spanish because 10 percent of the US population speaks Spanish.

Virtually every new Mac user in Canada chooses the Canadian CSA option (the preselected default option with the Canadian flag) on their first startup in OS 10, unaware that this is French Canadian. How much effort would it take to change the text from “Canadian CSA” to “French Canadian”, so people would at least know what they are selecting? FIX THIS!!!

While you are at it, fix the problem in the International System Preferences so that after deselecting the Canadian CSA option, the change will stick through a restart, instead of defaulting back to Canadian CSA. Yeah, yeah, I know about the supposed “fix” of shuffling the language list options after deselecting Canadian CSA to reset the preference and make it stick. It doesn’t work. I have done it a hundred times, maybe more, on various client’s computers, and the next time they restart, they are back in a French keyboard layout. This is pointlessly infuriating every non-French Mac user in Canada, which is to say, 90 percent of your customers, and giving Apple computers a bad name for no reason at all, except that somebody at Apple is too lazy to FIX THIS!!!

While I am writing anyway, why is the “short name” on the home folder unchangeable? Do you have any idea how many people type in Robert Henry William Smith as their user name, and get an idiotic, unchangeable  ”short name” of roberthenrywilliamsmith on their user folder? FIX THIS!!!

If you can’t make the “short name” resetable in the Users System Preference, at least put a warning in big red letters on the registration window that if you want to change your idiotic computer assigned “short name” of roberthenrywilliamsmith to Bob, you must do it right now, BEFORE clicking on the Next button, or it will be permanently locked in. Why is there no warning? FIX THIS!!!

Finally, what have you done with the Internet System Preference in OS 10.3x (Panther)? Every version of OS 8, 9, and 10 up to Panther had an option to select the default email and internet application. For some inexplicable reason, the Internet System Preference was renamed in 10.3 to iDisk System Preference, and the option to set or change the default email and internet application was removed. Why???  FIX THIS!!!

I could go on and on about the one button (Mickey Mouse) mouse with no strain relief, and a hundred and one other irritants, but lets see if we can fix the four key above listed problems first.

Thanks, Terry

Feedback Guidelines

Companies need to establish direct feedback from their customers all the way back to their development teams.

Several components are necessary for such a loop:

  1. Give users an open and obvious way to offer complaints/suggestions.

  2. Keep the form short: Just ensure you have their name and email address. You don't need their snail mail address and the name of their 2nd spouse's 3rd dog before allowing them to start writing.

  3. Give them some room to write. The little postage-stamp-sized input box is just simply insulting. They are already unhappy; you don't need to pour gasoline on the fire.

  4. Train human readers in Customer Service how to differentiate between suggestions and requests for help and how to respond appropriately.

    I often write to suggest corrections to obvious design errors. I'll explain that I eventually found a path, but that they might want to correct the problem for the next guy. I'll receive in return a detailed explanation of how to step around the problem, with no indication that the design error was seen as a concern, nor that my suggestion would be sent on.

    This feedback problem does not usually seem to arise from use of "form letters." In most of these cases, the content and tenor of the letter proved it was custom-written just for me. The non-responsive responses were careful and complete, just lacking anything to do with what I had originally written.

  5. Give people responses that mirror the user's complaint, so they know they've been heard.

    Apple may have heard Terry's complaints. They may even be frantically making the changes necessary to staunch the loss of Canadian sales. However, they haven't bothered to tell Terry, or, presumably, any of the other people that must have been banging on the door over the last few years.

  6. Then, tell them what you're going to do about it, explicitly. This may be a form reply, but state you are passing it on to the [insert project/product name] development team, not that it will be "routed to areas within the corporation" or some other meaningless phrases.

  7. Finally, actually do pass the complaints/suggestions on to the development team. They want to see them!

    I know the teams want feedback because I've worked on those teams and have had to drag information out of the groups that received the complaints. They were terrified to bother us with it, not realizing how valuable—and valued—this information actually is.

Reader Response

Dear Tog,

i have been in IS/IT/DP (can’t we just pick one acronym?) for 30 years now. Back then, i worked at a mill that made carpet for mobile homes.

With each roll of carpet shipped, they also sent a stack of end-user survey cards. These were placed in the trailers, where the final owner could respond regarding the quality, etc., of the carpet.

One of my first projects was to define, and with luck reduce, paper flow within the company. i eventually got around to these cards, and began investigating the flow of the cards.

What i found was:

  1. The cards were rec’d by the mail room and routed in batches to customer service.
  2. During off-hours in cust serv, the cards would be sorted by zip codes into national regions, and rubber-banded together into stacks of 50.
  3. These stacks were sent to Sales, where the cards were accumulated, and quarterly (still sorted by region), were passed to DP.
  4. DP placed the cards into paper boxes, and stack them on pallets, still by region, in the paper store room.
  5. Annually, at year-end, right before the physical inventory, facility services would take the pallets and sell the cards for recycling.

I guess the point of this is, even with a well-defined plan, you still need to do SOMETHING to get results.

thanks for the newsletter.

Chuck M.

Reader Response

Dear Tog,

Thanks!!! I have been shouting this into rooms of the unpleasantly surprised for a long time.

This is what I get back usually: "But we'd have to assign a full time person just to categorize our incoming mail!" or "But we don't want the engineers to be distracted or tempted to reply to customers," or "What are we going to do with it, file bugs?" or "If we receive mail, customers will expect us to do something about their mail, or reply even."

In the future I can pass out your column and explain that they have to do it now, before they can't afford one more full time person anymore.


That Canadian bug list is a screamer. Pity that your column is at present the de facto most effective way to get a UI message over the transom.

Jerome D.

Response from French Canadian Reader

Dear Tog,


I think know why your English-speaking Canadian's first complaint was not read/corrected by Apple support....

First, He is saying that the “Canadian CSA” keyboard is a french keyboard. Which is totaly wrong. It is the Canadian CSA keyboard specification from the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) for the English and French Languages: “The purpose of this standard is to accommodate the needs of all keyboard users in the Canadian federal government and to support the Official Languages Act and related policies.”

He is saying that the keyboard layout used for the Mac OS X is not good for him while it’s designed especially for ALL Canadian citizens. It’s the “bilingual” keyboard in Windows....

So by reading his very first complaint, the support [person apparently] simply deleted the email since [the writer] was against a standard and doesn’t even try to find out at what CSA means. So why a support guy should answer him anything since he doesn’t want to know why he is having [a] problem.

He is arguing against a standards for 7 paragraphs, and about 3 good point in 3 paragraphs.

He is right about the 3 other points, and support should have answer to him rapidly.

Apple is not at a good “commercial” company. Some people are waiting for long time for the new MacMini, 5, 6 weeks and more. some people received MacMini within a week which is frustating for people who are still waiting.

He is right, there’s no English Canadian layout. But if he simply put US keyboard, all problem should have been fixed right away,

Robert L.

Tog's Response

Terry couldn't select US keyboard, because the system seduced him into choosing the wrong option. By the time he found out, it was too late.

Compromise standards like this cause just the worst sort of mischief. It reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live commercial for Shimmer, which it declared both a dessert topping and a floor wax.

The CSA standard is perfectly fine for displaced technology like typewriters, where one cannot easily switch keyboards. It even makes sense for key cap printing. It will also serve the needs of a minority of people who are typing in multiple languages simultaneously, such as someone quoting large passages of the alternate language.

A single-language user, be she French- or English-speaking, should be able to choose a single-language keyboard. Canadian French has a wide variety of special characters, far more than French French. It may make political sense to deny that's a problem, but it makes no practical sense.

The committee instead should have developed a trio of layouts—French, English, and bilingual—along with a universal key cap labelling system. Apple, in the absence of their help, should do so on their own.

At least Microsoft had the common sense to rename the layout, "bilingual," so people would know what they are letting themselves in for. Apple should do the same, starting yesterday.

Robots At Work?

I’ve got a classic tale of a company that lost my business by not listening.

Some years ago, I bought Sierra Online’s product “Hellfire,” an add-on for Blizzard’s game “Diablo.” It worked fine for a while, but then developed a weird bug that completely blocked gameplay. I promptly looked up their game website, downloaded the Hellfire-specific FAQ, and went down the list of 20-odd fixes and suggestions, ranging up to a full purge and reinstall of both programs. Nothing helped, so I sent an E-mail describing my efforts, to the customer-support address listed on the website.

I got back a form letter consisting of the first paragraph (introduction) of the FAQ. I sent back another letter emphasizing that I’d already been through the FAQ. They sent back... the second paragraph (first Q/A) of the FAQ, with no indication of having read my letter. I tried once more, just to confirm the pattern, and indeed I got the third paragraph. They might as well rename the product Hellfrost, because that’s what it’ll take before I buy another Sierra game....

Dave Harmon

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