Camera Lucida

March 26, 2006

Lessons from the field

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 8:26 am

The City of Tuttle, Oklahoma has a website, and its ISP uses CentOS, a free open-source version of Linux, as the operating system for its servers. The ISP made some configuration changes, and this resulted in a generic error page (a "no index" page) being displayed instead of the city's home page. Jerry Taylor, the city's manager, wrote a series of e-mail messages to CentOS, demanding that its "software" be removed from the city's servers, accusing it of hacking the city's system, and threatening to report CentOS to the FBI. The CentOS administrators responded by asking Taylor to contact his IT people, and trying to explain why this error page appeared.

CentOS has posted the entire exchange of e-mail messages on its web site, for the amusement of all. The lesson to be learned, however, comes from this perceptive comment posted by a visitor:

Yeah, this is a great idiot user story. I think it's also an excellent demonstration of a big reason why many businesses are nervous about using open-source software. Allow me to enumerate some differences between the response here and what a company or city would normally expect from its vendors.

1. A real business which cares about expanding its customer base does not post conversations with hapless users in order for the world to point and laugh. Not even if said user declares that he is unafraid of the conversation being publicized.

2. "I feel sorry for your city" is an understandable sentiment, but saying it is not going to help fix anything. Especially not if it's the *first* thing you say.

3. Consider the user's state of mind when he first comes to you. He thinks his city's site has been hacked. All the careful work put into building the site may be lost. Maybe the hackers are breaking into city records, too. This is bad! This needs to be fixed yesterday! He may not understand what's going on, but he does understand that powerful people are going to have his head on a platter if he doesn't demonstrate that he is doing everything he can to have this cleared up right this minute.

In this panic, a flat-out "this is not my problem" going to bounce right off the mental filter. You have to use small steps. Start with "Our product is completely legitimate, but perhaps it is causing an error which is blocking your site. Could you please tell me who operates that site…" This allows him to start seeing you as a partner in fixing the problem. As he calms down, you can lead him toward reason.

4. Pick up the phone. If your user thinks it's an emergency, you have to treat it as one to retain credibility in his eyes. Failing that, when he threatens to go to the FBI, consider the cost of a long-distance phone call vs. the potential cost and hassle if he hooks up with an equally clueless FBI agent.

5. Contact his ISP yourself. Okay, this one isn't something the typical tech-support operation would do, but I recommend it because it means you can make sure the problem is reported to them properly, and at the same time it gets you more points with the user for demonstrating that you care about his problem.

6. When he apologizes, don't be a sore winner.

I know a lot of you are exasperated at this point, thinking, "But it *wasn't* CentOS's problem, and the guy *is* an idiot." This is perfectly correct. It's also perfectly irrelevant to dealing with a human being in a state of panic. Saying it won't fix the problem, and it won't make him go away.

Finally, consider this: People who have a good experience with a business or organization can turn into loyal customers. But the *really* loyal customers are the ones who have had a problem and seen it resolved in an efficient and friendly manner. No, I understand the complainer in this case wasn't a CentOS customer. But someday someone is going to suggest that the city check out open-source software, maybe even your software, and this experience is going to be the first thing to come to mind.

This an excellent lesson in public relations.

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