TypePad & SixApart: Tom Wolfe’s phrase fits – They Screwed The Pooch

In “The Right Stuff”, Tom Wolfe uses the phrase “screw the pooch” to describe how test pilots died while testing new aircraft technology. They crashed. At least they were testing new innovations. The ones we are discussing here are hardly new. Yet, SixApart isn’t getting it – yet.

It seems that SixApart is flying by the seat of their pants – or without instruments – while dealing with a major customer service issue. The instruments they are missing? Sound customer service practices. A knowledge of CRM.

SixApart is most definitely “screwing the pooch” as they first failed to alert their users to problems, then posted the information in rather buried weblogs but did not post it to their firm’s support page – and posted it all much later than they should have.

Other companies have suffered severely from lapses in customer service. Too often, relatively new companies fail to grasp the true importance of first informing their customers and secondly responding in a sincere manner to their complaints.

Fraser Seitel wrote about this at O’Dwyer’s PR/Marcom (subscription required):

Different organizations respond differently to consumer complaints.

Some, regrettably, treat them perfunctorily, noting that research indicates that only a handful of dissatisfied customers — four percent — will ever complain.

What they forget, of course, is that there are many others with the same complaint who never say anything.

And the vast majority of dissatisfied customers won’t repurchase from the offending company.

SixApart has some good blogging options, to be sure. A lot of people think Typepad, MovableType and LiveJournal is “The Right Stuff.” But the SixApart founders, CEO and employees don’t seem to have it. But, they are learning it the hard way. I doubt they will forget these lessons. This provides us all with a good learning experience to watch out in public view.

What SixApart does not have is CRM savvy. CRM being all aspects of interaction a company has with its customer. SixApart is to customer service what most relatively new tech companies are …. clueless. They have the resources but don’t seem to know how to use them. This is particularly confusing since their CEO has a wealth of experience “uniting the Web properties of Infoseek.Com, Disney, ABC, ESPN and many others.” You’d think that he would have seen this coming. Perhaps internal communications at SixApart also need a good looking over.

Still, Mena and Ben Trott have the responsibility for day-to-day activities. They dropped the ball. Probably because they are not seasoned business people. They are still in a rather steep learning curve. Well, right now they are in fire fighting mode. An opportunity missed. How nice would it have been if the company got this (perhaps first major) CRM crisis covered before it went wide throughout blogland.

And, they do write about customer service, so they must have given it consideration. But, they do not seem to be reading their own posts.

They have a database of email addresses for their Typepad customers. Why didn’t they email them when they realized that problems might occur? Why didn’t they email them when they began seeing the problems happening right before their eyes?

Does this remind anyone of the fiasco that is PRSA and dealing with cancellation of their annual conference? All that was needed in each instance was fast and sincere communication. In each instance, I have students that can recognize the need for proactive management of the problems. Why can’t the ‘pros’ get it?

A perfect example. Anil Dash responds directly to a customer’s post about the problems. That is good. But, he writes that “we’re going to make it right for all of our customers.” There is no such statement like that in the SixApart pages, that I can find. And I read a lot of pages before deciding on this post and take on the situation.

Dash’s statement seems to imply that affected customers will receive refunds, or reduced charges, for their limited and/or disrupted service. Neither Trott makes that claim. Nor does the SixApart CEO. And, Dash is responsible for Business Development. Is he really the one to make that promise? Shouldn’t it be coming from one of the Trott’s? Don’t hold your breath on that promise being fulfilled, just yet.

Read this post in Mena Trott’s blog and you see that the problems have been looming for quite some time. Then, read their Typepad Status Weblog. You see that between 9/23/2005 and 10/23/2005 there was not one mention of the pending problems. Nor was their one mention of the problems when they occured. They began posting information ‘after’ people started complaining. This, despite the fact that their posts show it was a known issue for weeks. It wasn’t until October 26th and October 28th that SixApart posted some form of detailed explanation.

SixApart obviously knows how to launch CMS and blogs. They just don’t know how to use them in business. There are numerous examples of SixApart touting the use of blogs in business for a variety of uses. They just don’t seem to practice what they preach. Perhaps their launch of an enterprise blogging solution was distracting them from their existing customer base. I have no way of knowing if that is the case, but often new businesses spend more time building the customer base than they do maintaining it. Could be a part of their problem.

This post provides insight into how SixApart has really just been a company of significance for a little over one year. “Company of significance” might be contested by some, but it was only one year ago when SixApart was still grappling with moving into paid services beyond their initial opensource platform – MovableType. This History page post at SixApart shows that the initial influx of VC came in 2002. Since then, the company has still been growing – and apparently growing fast. Maybe too fast for their limited staff to manage. That is another problem new companies often experience.

Look at their management team. Barak Berkowitz certainly seems to have the experience to know better. He, of all the company management, should know that response should come quickly. Be proactive. Avoid fighting fires.

One of the saddest aspects of this story is how SixApart only saw fit to personally contact a select few of their customers. They didn’t bother to contact everyone. Just their ‘circle’ of friends. But even sadder? Steve Rubel calls SixApart’s version of customer service the “model” for all others. How this guy gets clients, I’ll never understand. Mainstream media beats a path to his door (or blog) for quotes, but if you read his blog it is one mis-adventure in PR prowess. Such is the nature of the blogosphere. The Peter Principle and “Chance the Gardner” can all have a happy successful home here. And people say the blogosphere has no heirarchy. Feh!