Lessons in Customer Service for Tech Startups and Empire Avenue Fail

Empire Avenue Fail 5 post overview: Over 5 posts on my blogs I documented issues with Empire Avenue, from their rogue volunteers, running a “wall of shame” on Brands, attacking Brands reputations online, not answering complaints, having a “goon squad” of endorsed volunteers attacking customers who complained, refusing to discipline internally thereby encouraging more attacks on Brands, etc. What I witnessed was the worst travesty in the annals of customer service I have ever seen. After a month of private discussions with EA to change things, I went public. Only then did they begin to change, but the attacks on me and others grew by their “goon squad.” In the end, I went to EA’s Angel Investor and EA had to shut down its Chat Room and Chat Mod “goons squad.” EA shamelessly has never apologized or produced it damning chat logs as promised by their CEO. This is one of those posts, you can read the rest by Search in the upper right for ‘Empire.’ Don’t play EA or if you do save your REAL money.

“Rule 1: The customer is always right. Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, re-read Rule 1.” Stew Leonard, CEO Stew Leonard’s.

“Right or wrong, the customer is always right.” Marshall Field.

“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else. The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best, but legendary.” Sam Walton, Founder of Wal-Mart.

“If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell 6 friends. If you make customers unhappy on the Internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.

The quotes about taking care of the customer and customer service can go on and on. The stories are legend of companies like Walmart and Nordstrom behind built on solid principals of extraordinary customer service.

A company that will sacrifice its customers for their own financial benefit is pitiful, despicable and morally reprehensible. The ethics and moral compass of any company is always set and presented by the leadership of an organization.

Tech companies need to work more to integrate customer service into their startups. Someone wrote me the other day begging me to help them somehow get their Facebook unhacked and never getting answers from Facebook. I’ve been through the same. Its time we start calling out tech companies to provide customer service from the start. There seems to be this startup idea that customer service is put in the back and “gotten around to” when the company makes bank a few years later. Someone said to me “well they are a small company.” I built or invested in over 20 companies, from the start day one, we adhered to the Sam Walton principals of customer service and no employee who crossed a customers was in-expendable.

In speaking with other Social and Tech leaders, there is a very clear pattern to Tech startups that they should be very aware of. The pattern we are seeing is that when a company is in beta it has a team of core committed users that help test and build the system. Those users become very controlling and proud of the system and many times help give it, its early definition to what it “might become” and its purpose. They become like demi-gods that lord over the small system. At some point, the startup releases to the public or suddenly becomes an instant popular hit. The startup is flooded with tons of people and in many cases those people bring new innovations or new uses as a mass, to the “how and why” of the system. Many times they redefine the startups purpose and usage.

Then the conflicts begin with the complaining “old guard” about how the new users are changing their blessed system. The “old guard” begins mobbing up, attacking the new customers trying to rewill their dominance of the system. The Demi-gods are angry over lost power to new power players that have redefined en mass the way people WANT the startup to be. The startups are overwhelmed by the complaining “old guard” and in an effort to protect their “loyals” they begin to implement communistic “make it fair” changes that sometimes doom the startup. I wrote about it in this post (Click here). The arguments and blog posts are fierce about which is the “right” or “wrong” way to use the system, with many people quitting the startup over the din.

I think its important that startups look at these disasters and try to head them off. The PR fallout of this is ugly. I dont know what the right answer is. If I was the CEO, I would mandate to the “old guard” that as the startup goes public, these are natural shifts that will take place. I would try to educate the “old guard” that future changes are to the benefit of the system. I would focus the “old guard” on being helpers and leaders but NOT trying to control the flow of what people want the startup to become for them. I would have a stern warning that “old guards” should NOT attack newbies and those found doing so will be jettisoned.

I remember joining Twitter with the mass of newbies, when was going big in late 2008. The fights and attacks where awful. We excitedly started using this new system and suddenly were attacked by the “old guard” telling us that in order to play with the new toys, we had to play with them “their” way. Twitter responded by implementing rules and limits that in the end have made Facebook more popular and left only a core group of 30% of their users, mostly from 2009, their key constituents.

Quora did this to Robert Scoble and people like me as documented here (Click Here) I went through it with Empire Avenue, almost immediately running aground of the “old guard.” As I continued to excel, they assembled and continued to attack me. The more successful I got, the worse it got. I fought back as a _CUSTOMER_ complaining. The more I complained to the company the more they protected their “old guard.” As in all these cases it didnt happen to just myself, it happened to MANY people. Just like other startups discussed here, EA has responded by dumbing down the system and making it less interesting and fun.

I think its super important that Tech startups find ways to pre-plan for these issues and make sure their customer service doesnt cow tow to the “old guard.” The health and success of the startup depends on the mass users really defining what it is and how it will be used. Its so important that startups remove the power of the “old guard” so the system can grow organically and democratically. Many of the companies I’ve started we changed their models and directions many times. If we had not done so we would have gone out of business down the road. Numerous startups that have been successful have been redefined by it users from its original purpose. Facebook was just supposed to be a simple thing for students at a single college.

As you know over 5 posts about Empire Avenue I’ve been calling them out to treat me and others as customers for over a month. Month long private discussions broke down. Saving money with volunteer chat moderators was more important to EA than my complaints. Here is the breakdown that led to Empire Avenue closing their main Chat area hosted by volunteer Chat Mods as of yesterday.

– On Thursday Empire Avenue promised to control their “old guard” Chat Mods. That night I was once again attacked online by EA’s Chat Mod “goon squad” abusing their power to intimidate and besmirch a customers reputation. Its disturbing that a company would allow this to happen but as I said ethics are internal and after a month I cannot believe it is by accident. The question you have to keep asking is why wouldnt EA dump bad volunteers over a customer? There in lies what in law is called “willful intent.”

– On Friday, after discussions with EA, their “goon squad” was out openly mocking me again over the companies obvious refusal to protect its customers. Click Here for blog post

– Sunday, a letter is sent to the Angel Investor for Empire Avenue. Everyone has a boss.

– Monday, The aforementioned post is amended with a link to send EA complaints directly to the Angel Investors email and company.
– A well known powerful Social Media friend of mine, contacts EA. EA responds with a spin lie to him about me and is embarrassingly exposed as I forward him the company emails showing otherwise.
– EA’s discussions over email takes a noticeable tone change as they suddenly discover I’ve been cc’ing their Angel Investor in our ongoing emails late Monday. I have not heard from EA since and they have NOT responded to my customer requests further.

– Tuesday, EA announces that they will close the main chat area and volunteer chat mods.

My demand for over a month has been for EA to recognize its customers and apologize. I sent them a statement to do so and say they will defend and protect their customers. Empire Avenue has not done so and wont because they would have to admit to some embarrassing issues like their “wall of shame” customer postings I called them out on. Because of this I am still warning people and their money away from Empire Avenue. A simple apology is what any smart company would do a thousand times over.

In discussions with other Social Media Leaders we are disturbed that this appears to be the new Tech Startup behavior. Are Tech companies going to have “goon squads” out intimidating any negative bloggers? I stood up for this fight taking the risk of losing my account on EA. The fight over ethics and morals was more important. Some of the SM Leaders I spoke with were surprised that some social media people appeared to be bought off by their EA money interests, rather than standing up with me for principal and ethics. I would hope that as many read this, you will demand a new set of ethics from your social media companies. You can Tweet your opinion to the CEO of Empire Avenue clicking here. I wont be posting the Angel Investors Twitter account as it seems they got EA to comply and will be removing links to their email off my posts.

I would hope that the future will hold a change for a better world but its up to all of us to stand up for good, otherwise some companies will continue to trample on individuals in the name of profit. Speak up and demand customer service.