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Free Realms Interviews: Customer Service: Kids vs. Adults

By Carolyn Koh on April 23, 2010

Sharon Morris is a Senior Customer Service Manager with Sony Online Entertainment and has been with the company for eight years, spending time in the past, with Matrix Online, Planetside, Star Wars Galaxies and Vanguard.  Currently, she manages the customer service on Free Realms and has several teams under her, setting up policies and procedures with different departments and teams when there are content updates coming.

“Working with the development and the QA teams allows us to understand what’s coming up in terms of content,” said Sharon, “and we prepare for the things that might come up.” 

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These “things” are situations that will likely turn into a customer service ticket, such as a quest that has a little twist to it, something that might surprise and delight a player, or in turn, something the player might not be so delighted about.

Previously, Sharon was a player volunteer in the original EverQuest, starting as a guide and then going on to be a Senior Guide.

“Customer Service and game expectations have changed greatly since EverQuest was launched,” said Sharon, “Developers in general, and SOE specifically, are much more open with information, and player expectations have changed because of that.”

Older EverQuest players and even Ultima Online and Meridien 59 players may remember those old days. The message then was “You’re in our world now” and they weren’t kidding. The attitude in those days was all about protecting the integrity of the game, of keeping things secret. These days, there is a lot more information available to the player not only via fansites, but the games themselves provide more information such as quest helpers and the focus is on a better gaming experience. There’s a fine balance between making it easy enough that players don’t get frustrated and keeping some mystery and anticipation in a quest. A large number of tickets in both Free Realms and the other SOE games are about quests.  For example, players who get stuck on a particular portion will often ask if the quest is broken.

When asked about the “harassment” or “kill-stealing” type tickets/petitions, Sharon was quick to point out that it is less frustrating dealing with the kids than the adults.  In the first place, being built for kids, Free Realms has many tools and features in place that makes it harder for these types of issues to arise. In adult games, a “Black” filter is in place, which means that players cannot type or say certain words or phrases. In kids games, however, a “White” filter is in place, meaning that players can only type or say the words and phrases that are on that white list.

“We do get the kid version of “He called me a noob” in Free Realms,” Sharon admitted with a laugh, “but there’s much less of that.”

There are mining nodes in Free Realms, so there are kill-stealing tickets and the “He’s looking at me!” type of complaints. However, in Free Realms, players can also move from server to server simply by logging out and selecting another, preventing the type of harassment that can happen in other games.

In game Customer Service reps in Free Realms are Referees and Enforcers.  This concept was actually developed by the early Customer Service Team. The team works across all servers and are “color coordinated” – such as Referee Ruby, Referee Blue, Heliotrope, Tangerine or Charcoal, each developing a role-play persona, and interacting with the players in that manner, whether it’s in response to a Customer Service issue or simply chatting with players. They all wear the black and white striped tunic of sports referees while Enforcers look somewhat like stern Canadian Mounties.  Referees and Enforcers basically play good cop / bad cop. When an Enforcer shows up in game, kids know that the boom is being lowered on someone.

Referees are always seen in game, in fact they are on 24/7 I was told. You’ll often find them at the game’s natural gathering places to interact with players, to answer questions and to throw down a boom box for dance parties.  Referees also show kids how to put in a Customer Service Ticket so that the issue they are having can be properly taken care of and tracked.  Many tickets that come through the system often are requests for a Referee to bring a boom box or to come chat or basically, “come play with me.”

“Of course, it doesn’t mean that if Referees see a situation that needs intervention, that they wait for an Enforcer to log in,” said Sharon. “They will address it immediately. The Enforcer just represents a higher level of authority; the principal as opposed to the teacher, and sometimes all it takes to get kids to calm down is the threat of an Enforcer showing up.”

The difference and challenges in customer service for kids is in the communication. It’s easier for adults to communicate with adults.

“It is helpful if you have had a lot of interaction with kids,” said Sharon, “we are customer service professionals, not teachers! The most successful are able to get into the kids mindset and simply talk to them on their terms.”

Kids are also less likely to “tell tales” – or that was the euphemism Sharon used. When asked if they did something, they are likely to fess up that they did it, but they will also tell you why they did it in the first place, usually because the other party started it first. “Yes, I took a node from Johnny, but he was following me around, making fun of my new pet! So I wanted to teach him a lesson.” Adults will stick to their guns. “Wasn’t me. I didn’t train anyone. I was dead at the zone.” Even if customer service has the log in records, the IP addresses, the logs, etc.

In Free Realms, much of the interaction takes place with the parents of the kids, especially if the player is under 13. This can sometimes be long and involved, as some parents are not gamers. It is oftentimes more efficient to call the parent to explain the matter and impart what little Johnny had said.  These occasions are rare, and interestingly enough, happen more in other games than in Free Realms, probably because of the many tools that are in place in Free Realms to prevent the situation from happening. An often quoted story involves SOE President and CEO John Smedley taking a call from a parent that insisted his son would not swear and curse online.  John of course emailed the log to the parent.  The white filter in Free Realms would prevent those words or variations thereof from being used in the first place.

The greatest differentiating factor in Customer Service for Kids vs. Adults is the feedback petitions. The feedback petitions from kids are voluminous compared to adult players.

“Customer Service in Free Realms is much more enjoyable,” said Sharon, “kids will tell you whether they like or dislike a quest, how they love or hate an event and write us letters and entire stories in feedback tickets, and some of them are absolutely delightful.”

All in all, customer service has come a long way at SOE since the early days of EverQuest. “It’s really about service now,” said Sharon, “it’s all about creating a better gaming experience for the players. Come talk with me. You’ll find me in game as Chief Referee Scarlet and I love to hang out at Shrouded Glade.”

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