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Sanya Weathers's MMO Underbelly: Inside The Pit

This week's column looks at MMO customer service, which Sanya considers the true underbelly of the genre.

The customer service pit is the true underbelly of the MMORPG world.

The nature of the job is slightly dehumanizing, as all shift work tends to be. A CSR doesn’t have his own space until he’s fairly senior. His desk is not his own, his computer is shared with at least one other person, and his every action is logged and reviewed. That’s for security reasons, and for the benefit of the customers, but psychologically speaking? Being treated like you’re going to be guilty of something at any moment is like acid on the human soul. But ideally he doesn’t have a soul. He is a machine, with quotas to hit, and he has to be as polite at the end of a shift as he was at the beginning of the day.

He is the lowest paid person at the company, and while he almost certainly took the job because it represented a foot in the door at a real live video game company, he is not usually allowed to talk to developers at all, thanks to that one dillweed back when the company was first in business who used to leave the CS area, perch on a developer’s desk, and ignore all the social cues in the world… for three hours.


The pit never looks like this

Those providing customer service expect to be working weekends, holidays, and the wee hours of the morning. Just as our CSR’s body gets used to one shift, he’ll be reassigned, and try to learn to eat breakfast at 4 PM.

Like police officers and EMTs, your basic CSR does not see human nature at its best or even its average. No one sends in tickets because they’re happy, having a good day, or in the 98%... or less… of the game that is totally bug free and fully play tested. The CSR’s personality can either help or hurt when it comes to dealing with people who are in a bad mood. As a senior customer service manager told me, “The better the outlook, on average, the better the CSR. The ones that can endure the stress, confrontation, and the usual disappointment of players (or better yet, turn those interactions in positive directions) are the ones that can show others how to do so. Not everyone has this [ability] to start with. Everyone has the capacity to change their outlook, though not always the desire.”

The CSRs work in teams, and that helps with the isolation and the frustration, but those teams are constantly shifting. Between people leaving for the development team, and people leaving because if they take one more ticket they’re going to climb a tower and start shooting, the time a single team configuration stays the same is measured in days. By the way, I’m told that when a lot of people have been leaving for the development team, the number of people who quit drops, because the incentive to stick it out and get a shot at the brass ring becomes a lot more real.

The volume of the incoming tickets means that many responses are cut and pasted. Even the most enthusiastic CSR who starts with a sincere intention to never touch the CTRL-C/CTRL-V combination is broken within a week. There’s no way to answer all the calls without shortcuts, there just isn’t. (More on that in a second.) Of course, players can smell a cut and paste, and often demand a personal answer – even when the cut and pasted answer was the right one.

Finally, the few CSRs who got into the field because they love helping people (as opposed to because they wanted to work for a game company) find out that for a distressingly high percentage of tickets, they can’t help people. Not right away, anyway – a lot of problems in MMOs require pulling logs, checking with developers, or sending the customer up the chain to a supervisor. Solving problems delivers a lot more emotional satisfaction than “I am sorry, I cannot help you with that.”

But for all that gloom, a CS pit is… fun. Black humor and black coffee are staples, as are cigarettes and beer. Drinking booze on the clock is never really okay, but you’ll probably find a few drawers with a secret stash for the purpose of “one minute after shift’s end” shots. (If there are HR watchdogs nearby, the booze is probably stashed in the trunk of someone’s car instead. There’s no point in losing your job over a tablespoon of hooch.) Caffeine is the primary drug of choice, though you’ll find wide disagreement on the topic of the most efficient means of delivery. Of course, any answer that is not Diet Mountain Dew is wrong.


It does often look like this

The pit itself is a shrine to all things bright and nerdy. The posters, the action figures, the toys, and the conversation are all things you probably love, if you were willing to work for hourly wages doing game CS in the first place. No matter what the season is, it’s warm from all the CPUs working overtime. The light level has more to do with the philosophy of the manager than anything else – both troglodyte dark and operating room bright have their points.

Admittedly, there is kind of a weird smell. Stereotypes aside, it’s got less to do with hygiene and more to do with people eating their meals at their desks, in a crowded room. And thanks to modern office design, the call center is either in a room with no windows, or in a room with windows that can’t be opened. If you worked in a small windowless room for low wages, forcing you to bring your lunch rather than leave the building for it, you might find that room taking on a certain aroma. In fact, you might find yourself ready to kill the guy who brings in leftover fish and broccoli for lunch.

Most of the time, the room is very quiet. The purpose of the pit is to answer customer tickets accurately and fast. Neither is really possible in a chaotic environment. Remember how I said before that a CSR’s every move is logged, reviewed, and judged? Any CSR racking up customer complaints is on a fast track out of a job. There’s no room in the pit for a slow worker, or a slacker that leaves a massive backlog for the next shift.

But this isn’t a morgue, and it won’t stay quiet for long. This is a room filled with bright people who love games and storytelling. And they want to be there at that company, or else they’d be making more money doing CS in the “real world.” You know you’ve landed in a good pit when there are lots of jokes and group events. You know you’re in a great one when the training is consistent and constant, when the staff changes but management doesn’t, and where joking about customers doesn’t become contempt for customers.

What kind of skills do typical CSRs come in with, and what training do they get before being inflicted on helpless customers? A customer service background is the first thing the hiring manager is going to look for. Six weeks taking abuse at the Mickey D’s counter doesn’t count – but six months does. Can you keep your cool and your job when people are flinging abuse your way, and can you keep it up for months.

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