Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I Love Pandora: (even when they're wrong)

I've been listening to Pandora for almost 2 years now (I don't know exactly how long, but I remember finding holiday music last year, and had the feeling that I'd already been listening for a while.

I've built, managed and run several web companies in the past, and have certainly spent my fair share of time working with creative types and programmers. One of the biggest challenges is to meld in the users perspective (the person who ultimately is going to use the website you are building). This isn't as easy as it seems, as you have to contend with the opinions of the artist designing the site, the programmer who has to build from the artwork and specifications given, and then the opinions of the customer who is paying you to build the website (and many times the 'owner' is not within the demographic of the final user) all of whom have very differing opinions on how different elements come together.

This isn't more apparent anywhere on the site than in the 'error checking'. It's a very small detail in the big scheme of all the tasks that you have to do in order to design, build and ultimately launch as website; but I think it's THE most critical piece. I truly believe that most of our success in business comes from how we handle mistakes, not in our overall day to day operations. Generally, we are in business each day, because our basic business premise is sound, or at least we are part of an industry that is. I have heard numerous times since I started my first company in early 2001 that most small businesses fail in their first 1 year, and then again at 3, 5 and 7 years (I really should look that up - maybe it's urban legend). What I think gets us through those critical moments in business that determines whether we survive to the next anniversay, is how we handle those adverse moments, and in the web industry (or on a website in general) this is when the website fails. Something goes wrong, the server goes down, your connection to the network fails, or there is just a failure in the programming logic. What your website does at a moment like this determines whether the customers that are on the site or trying to get to the site decide whether you are a flake, or that an honest mistake happened and you deserve the benefit of the doubt. You see this come to the forefront with the really useful message (on a poorly thought out site) or something like "A 404 error hass occurred, please contact the system administrator" or something even worse that is just a bunch of code that means nothing without a PhD in Computer Science from CalTech. This can also come through a poorly thought out piece of creative, as we saw with Motrin recently. The great companies anticipate the fact that things happen and put forethought on how to handle these situations. Pandora is definitely my favorite champion of this well thought out strategy. You can see from the image on the right that even when something goes wrong, they have a well thought out appology for the inconvenience, and throw in a bit of humor. I really appreciate that. It makes me even more loyal than I already am (as long as it doesn't happen too often), and when I talk about it online within my Social Media communities (like twitter) - I immediately get contacted by someone at Pandora that is paying attention and they check in with me to make sure everything is ok.. amazing.

There are definitely some other companies that I'm starting to see this happen with, and it seems to be a strategy, because it's showing up in more than one area, so it's not just one rogue employee who gets it. Twitter themselves do a nice job. Many folks are familiar with the 'fail whale' when something goes down at twitter, and they are very active in responding. The folks at Social media aggregator Ping.fm have had their share of problems, and have backup communications (other than twitter) to try and get the word out when something goes wrong. Traditioanlly I'm not a big fan of the Cable industry, but I'm hearing good things about @comcastcares on Twitter that they are really reaching out and trying to differentiate themselves and find new ways to handle customer service.

Pandora is definitely my high marker, and I judge the others on my experience there, as they've really worked to have a multichannel approach to both the proactive and reactive. I hope more folks from my industry take notice of this trend, and take it to heart as a way to conduct business.

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