AGDC08: Lane Merrifield, At Their Service

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Sep 152008

At Their Service: Making a Difference by Putting Players First
Lane Merrifield, Club Penguin


Thank you for allowing me to be here, a huge honor. It wasn’t to omany years ago that I was just an avid fan dreaming of attending this conference. Going to try to keep it brief so we can have time for questions.

I had a few plane issues last night, landed at 4:30am, if i am slow, it’s not because I am Canadian.

Why would I fly to Austin to listen to someone talk about serving others? If we can truly learn how to put the player first, we will have better customer support, and we will build better games, stornger teams, and better businesses.

“In order to make good in your chosen task, it’s important to have someone to do it for. The greatest moments in life are not concerned with selfish achievements, but rather with the things we do for the people we love and esteem, and whose respect we need. ” – Walt Disney.

My first job was actually with Disney. I was 16, this is my company badge. I did several things while there, my first gig was in the Lion King parade. I would jump on the back of a float and spend 20 minutes trying to keep this remote controlled crocodile from running into people.

I don’t know how mnay of you have been to these… I remember watching in awe how quickly trash was picked up and how quickly a spilled drink was cleaned. The craziest thing about working there was not just the great attitude of service, but they take care of each other behind the scenes. This was formative to me, because it was an environment about taking care of each other. Revolutionary for someone who grew up as a cynic.

My dad used to say “that’s the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back.” I asked when I was six, what does that mean? And he said “if you and them were stuck in a snowstorm, he would help you, give you his shirt so you would be  bit warmer… ” — Canadian by birth, everything was about snowstorms. And he said “this type of service is a sign of true character.” We come across people all the time who are not this genuine.

I love Starbucks, am there alomst daily, huge fan of their customer service, our dir of CS came from there. They strive to greet you by name. At my local Starbucks my name is Jason. I always change up my order. As I kept going there, this guy who was always there at the till, always called me jason. I would correct my name, but he kept saying it that way, every time I was there. He tried so hard, I don’t know if I have a doppelganger or what… I gave up correcting him.

This worked fine for two years, until friends and family were going there with me. I would try to give my order ignoring the fact that he called the wrong name. Family and friends would look at me funny, and I would say “I will explain later.” Eventually my wife went in with me, and she said you gotta tell this guy. But eventually we hired someone who worked there, who said “why are you calling him jason?” in front of everyone, and I felt awful.

He meant well by memorizing my name, it just wasn’t my name.

Now great service must come from the core of a person wanting the best for you. Here’s a pic of a costume contest we had for the 1 year anniv of joining Disney. There’s the Jonas Bros costumes on the left… if we are trying to create a warm friendly caring atmosphere online, they we must reflect it in our office, or we are being hypocritical.

Here’s a note I sent just after we launched, support people exhausted, servers crashing… and I had this epiphany.

“I just wanted to pass along a music I had this morning, battling through the snow on the way to work. I passed some kids on their way to the library, looking like penguins. I was put at ease when I saw four or five teachers and parents keeping them safe, holding hands, stopping cars. The whole group of cars were heading somewhere important, but they were all brought to a halt. I was reminded of what we did every day. When the internet launched, the unregulated nature helped it grow fast but did no help the innocent among us. Some companies thought crosswalks would be the answer. Others designed elaborate stoplights and held bug press conferences. More attention was paid to the lights than to the kids crossing. A crosswalk is helpful and the lights do make a difference, but in the end the kids need advocates who can stop the traffic, hold their hand, and make sure every child makes it across safe and sound. We are not perfect, but we should work without compromise to pick up the hand and cross the street together.”

For those of you who are in leadership; we must lead by example, serving must come from the top down. The heart of serving came directly from Walt in Disney. Who did Walt build Disneyland for? For his kids, they had been to carnivals, and he wanted something less scary and grungy.

For Lance & I creating Club Penguin came from this same place. We wanted to build a place online for our 4 year old kids. As dad our greatest joy was to serve them. Lance is one of the strongest purveyors of this idea around our office. He coined the phrase “crush the joy” — he’s a bit more blunt than I am.

Before anyone can be an effective member of the dev team, they need their ego crushed a bit, thus “crush the joy.” He wqas an artist who did a lot of the early art and also some of the early code. His idea was we need to work together and serve our audience and get rid of the ego that gets in the way. We have this image of a penguin with an anvil on its back that we have in the office… it says “crush the joy.” There is no room for that ego around our offices, and that includes the leadership.

I am not saying that people shouldn’t be proud of or take joy in our work. too often we developers end up front and center, and too often we forget to serve the player. If you’re like me you know of of these people and wish you couldcrush more than just the joy…

How do we get there? For us it was all about the people. There we originally only 2 or 3 of us. But we worked tirelessly to find people with a passion for serving kids, regardless of their field of discipline or talents. This is a testament to how important HR people can be. Our friends at Pixar have a saying, “we put people through a gauntlet to get in here, but once they get in, they never want to leave.”

We were actually fired as a very young company by a staffing firm, they kept sending us really qualified people, superstars. We would say no, not the right person… we would typically hire people out of service centered places. One of the reasons we custom build our CS software is to make it easy — we hire people out of boys and girls camps, who know how to talk to kids, who see a silly name and know it represents a child on the other end. Most of our moderators have rarely done much more than email and browsing with a computer before they join.

So we do not use automated responses other than lost password. We answer 5000 to 7000 emails a day, A typical email is like

Dear Club Penguin, yesterday I couldn’t log into the Blizzard server, and I have a blue poffle named Stinky and he says Hello.

they get back

Dear CoolKid 402, sorry you couldn’t log in, it should be back now, by the way Stinky sounds really cool, I have a green one named Sparky.

We will measure things like mouse travel and move a button to make the respnses faster to send, to allow them to truly take care of the kids.

It takes a lot of work, and sometimes we get a day or two behind, but it has always been imperative. We WANT them to send more emails, because typically there are things like “this part is too hard” and a week later when we adjust it, they feel heard. We’ll add white fur, and there’s no white penguins, so there is this whole mystery. We get email ssaying “I hope you do THIS with the white fur…”

We’re pretty smart… what we did is nor do what the kids said would lame, and we DID do what they said would be cool, Brilliant, huh?

All of that comes from listening, the email, the feedback, which we love.

I want to close with a phrase we came up with when first starting out. We’re noticing it continue to expand within the organization.

“If it doesn’t matter to a kid, it doesn’t matter.”

It is so easy to get distracted, focused on ourselves, and we get caught up in creating what we think is cool rather than what really matters: what the players want. And this is true in life. as a husband I should strive to serve my wife, as a parent, serve my kids. And as a game developer, we should strive to serve our players, because it leads to better games, working environments, and better businesses.

There are already so many amazing companies, and the industry is making such great stuff. I hope that when we talk about a server in our offices, they are talking first about the person serving our audience, not the box in the rack.

Thanks for listening.

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