Monthly Archives: April 2012

Maker to Maker Business: Customer Service

When you start making something, there are a million things on your mind – minute design details, which parts to use, how to operate the tools, what it will take to assemble. All these problems are vital to the success of your product, and to a maker, they are inherently exciting: each decision is another tiny love letter to the unique awesomeness of your project, each an opportunity for error and complexity, but also for wonder and satisfaction.

Something you are probably not thinking about is customer service.

Ugh, customer service…

Let’s be very clear about this: selling your product involves a great deal of customer service. This might come as a shock to you, since so far you’ve been engrossed in the process of actually making your product, and it’s only when you list your first item for sale will it hit home just how much other work there is to do.

This realization can be a bit demoralizing initially, because in a lot of ways customer service isn’t actually part of making anything. It’s just a peripheral aspect of the process of selling your product, and as a maker, chances are that it’s the making part that got you started in the first place. But customer service is a crucial part of your maker business, and not something you can ignore.

This rest of this post is devoted to some practical tips we’ve learned in the process of operating our business. A lot of these concepts apply specifically to the DIY/maker business, but some of them are applicable to businesses in general.

Customer service is a product, too

It’s important to consider your customer service a product of your business. When your customers speak about their dealings with you, whether it’s on a feedback form or face-to-face with their friends, they’ll be rating both your product and their experience with you. 
Think of all the customer service interactions you’ve ever had. Chances are most of them were “good enough.” But those aren’t the ones you remember. It’s the amazing ones and the awful ones that stick with you. Don’t settle for a “good enough” customer service experience. After all, would you ship a “good enough” product, or do you want your business to be known for offering the best there is? If you try to go the extra mile to make your customer service excellent, it will pay for itself in a boosted reputation, happy customers, and additional sales.

Love your customers

It can be difficult to approach customer service with the right attitude. Every email you have to respond to takes time away from actually building your product.

The easiest way to get your head straight is to remember one simple thing: you love your customers. After all, they have a nigh-unlimited set of options, yet they eagerly forked over their hard-earned money to buy something you designed and manufactured. How cool is that? 

Once you’ve decided to love your customers, a lot of things get easier. In every interaction, you should always make it clear to them that you genuinely appreciate their business. When your customers have issues, you should always start off by apologizing, regardless of whether the problem is your fault. From their perspective, every problem they have with your product will be your fault, no matter what it is. Starting with an empathetic statement puts you on the same team as the customer. And then even if you have to give bad news later, you’ll at least have started out on a good foot.

Respond promptly

Responding to your customer service emails quickly is really important. A lot of times, surprising your customer by getting back to them within a few hours will really impress them and help you to reduce their irritation. When someone takes the time to send you an email with a complaint or question, it’s because of something that’s on their mind, and that’s going to stay with them for a while. The more quickly you can address it, the less of a strain it is for them.
When possible, try to reply to emails as they come in. If that’s too difficult, then you should at least answer all new emails every day, even if just to tell them you got the message and are working on a solution.

Take complaints to heart, but don’t take them personally

There is a 100% chance that you will get an irate email from a customer at some point. Your product will break in shipping, or get shipped to the wrong address, or be the wrong color, or one of a thousand other problems. They will be angry, they will be demanding, and sometimes they’ll even be downright rude. All of this can make you feel terrible, especially if what they are complaining about is actually your fault.
Feeling terrible is the last thing you want to do, though. This is something I learned back when I played a lot of online poker: it’s OK to feel bad intellectually about making a mistake, but you need to keep a fair amount of emotional detachment so you can make good decisions. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself making knee-jerk reactions that lose you both your customers and your hair.

When dealing with complaints, the first thing you should do is apologize and offer a remedy. Next, you should analyze the mistake and change your process so it doesn’t happen again next time. And then you should move on.

Stand up to your customers

Once in a while, you’re going to be up against a customer who is just plain being unreasonable. Some examples we’ve seen are customers asking for massive customization or complaining about our posted return policy after the fact. In our experience, these customers are really few and far between, but when you do run into them, they add a lot of stress.

Generally, I would say that you should go to lengths to provide a good customer experience, but sometimes that can go too far. In practice, only you will know the difference between making an exception to give someone a great experience and compromising your prior business decisions. But whatever you do decide, deliver the news clearly and calmly, and don’t let any irritation color your communication.

Laser cut hinge system – progress!

I wrote previously about the idea I had to make my wife Genevieve a jewelry box with the laser cutter at TechShop. In the last post, I showed a little physical mockup I made of the kind of hinges I wanted to use.  That proved it would work, but an hour with a pad an pencil and I still hadn’t unwound the math I needed to predict exactly where it would end up when it opened.

Luckily, the helpful commenters funneled through from the post on the Adafruit blog quickly answered my question. It’s called a four-bar linkage, and it’s pretty well studied in mechanical engineering. Still, I found the diagrams pretty baffling (lots of greek letters…), but ultimately I figured it out.

With the equations in hand, I used OpenSCAD to produce a set of drawings.

Clown colors for contrast only. 

I’m pretty pleased with the fidelity of the four-bar calculations. Once I became friends with the Law of Cosines (and corrected all my mistakes), the numbers started working out like I expected them to, and I had good positions for my pieces. I have an angle variable that I can tweak to see where the lid would be at various places in the full motion. And it proved valuable, too: after I saw the lid angle produced by my first random set of parameters, it was clear it would have to be adjusted.

The next step is to take the panelized version to TechShop and cut out a cardboard prototype. Here’s hoping my hinging system works out!

The Roominator – What I Learned

I’ve previously written about the Roominator, my project for combating conference room hijacking. In the end, it didn’t work 100%, which was disappointing. However, I learned a lot in the process, both about how to architect a system like this and about doing design projects like this one in general. I think that this project deserves a proper post-mortem so I can share some of the insights I gained.

What went well

Dumb displays, smart application server

Right from the start, we decided we were going to put most of the actual logic in an application server written in a high-level language like Java or Ruby. Even so, it took us a while to embrace this concept fully. As developers who mostly work in high-level languages, we went down the road of making lots of little classes and interfaces in the display code that proved to be distracting overkill.

Once we got past that problem, though, we ended up with our displays doing basically nothing but showing exactly what the app server told them to. This freed us from writing complicated Arduino code for things like what to print on the display and instead focus on the crucial components – communicating with the app server and making it easy to configure the display on startup.

DIY Power over Ethernet

Of all the things that could have gone wrong with this project, our power distribution strategy turned out not to be one of them. Admittedly, it’s a bit basic, but it turns out that sending 12V out over the unused pairs in an Ethernet cable and then knocking it down to 5V in the display unit worked fine. I would however probably add some fuses and protection diodes to each port so that it’s harder to accidentally fry some part of the system.

Professionally produced PCBs are a huge productivity booster

During the first week we worked on the Roominator, I spent at least 20 painstaking hours  hand-soldering the circuitry of two display units. Only two! There were just too many connections – and opportunities to make mistakes – for it to be sane to do any more like that.

Before the second hack week, I had the sense to order some professionally-produced PCBs of our circuit, and the difference in productivity was unbelievable. Two of us assembled the remaining 10 displays in one day! And only one or two of them required any rework.

Getting PCBs made can seem kind of daunting when you are starting out, but once you learn your way around Eagle, you can easily get boards produced by BatchPCB or Seeed Studio. Particularly with Seeed Studio’s pricing, I think the threshold of when you should opt for professional boards is pretty low.

What went poorly

I2C over long range

Early on in the planning for the project, I decided to use I2C for the communication between the display units and the central master. Despite the fact that this protocol is built into Arduino devices, this proved to be a bad choice for a number of reasons.

The first and perhaps most significant is that I2C is only designed to operate over a range of about one meter. Sure, there are extender and buffer ICs out there (which I ended up using), but this lead to the creation of an extremely complex master unit. And even with the extender ICs, there were some cable runs in our building that were too long. (My suspicion is that when cabling companies come in to wire up a building, they pre-cut lengths of Cat5 to the max ethernet spec and don’t trim the excess, since it doesn’t affect the performance of actual ethernet devices. But it does muck up funky extended I2C communication.)

The other problem with using I2C in this fashion is that it’s a truly shared bus, and if one of the nodes had weird behavior, it ends up blocking the whole bus. In practice this meant that the whole system kept working great until I plugged in the one unit that was too far away from the rest and the whole system crashed to a halt. For projects where all the parts connected by I2C are really one logical device, this is OK, since you can tightly control for issues like cable length. But for systems that are distributed over a wide physical range, there are much better tools for the job.

Focusing on the wrong costs

Aside from purely technical mistakes, the overall biggest mistake I made in developing the Roominator was being too focused on the wrong costs in the project. From the get-go, I was very interested in keeping the cost of parts for each individual display unit down as low as possible, since we were eventually planning to multiply the whole thing by 12. I gave myself a target price of $50 each, which I thought was achievable. And my initial design and research led me to believe this was possible.

But in reality, this whole line of thought was wrong. I thought I was designing an end-user system. In actuality, I was designing a one-off prototype system. What this means is that instead of being focused on how much it would cost to “manufacture”, I should have been focused on how much it would cost to develop
This change in mindset makes all the difference in the world. Yes, using Ethernet to connect the displays to the app server would have cost an additional $20-$50 per display. But if I hadn’t needed to spend so much time developing my super-complicated I2C hub, I would have saved hours and hours of development and fabrication time – time which could have been spent actually building the functionality of the system instead. And even if circumstances had lead to a desire to redesign the whole system for lower costs, I still would have had a fully functional prototype to work from.

This reasoning can be extended to a lot of the decisions in this project. I was concerned that display unit PCBs were too expensive (at around $25 for the two prototypes) and so I only bought them after I made the first two by hand. In retrospect, I could have ordered them early, learned firsthand whether they were flawed, and then ordered more, saving me hours and hours of work. Another thing I could have done would have been to use plain old 5-12V wall warts to power the display units instead of doing pseudo-PoE, obviating the master unit altogether.

As dismayed as I am that the system wasn’t a complete success at the end of the project, I am pretty pleased that there was such a general lesson to be learned from it. To restate it another way, when designing products at this stage, you should make design decisions that allow you to focus on the important parts first, and the unimportant parts later, if at all.

The Roominator

There are a lot of little things that can cause friction in an office, but one of my personal pet peeves is conference room hijacking. We have twelve conference rooms in our office these days, and even though we use Google Calendar to schedule access, we still struggle with rooms being hijacked.

It’s almost always an accident – two people start chatting, one inevitably says “Let’s grab a room,” and then they just walk around the office until they happen upon an unoccupied room. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that while the room is currently unoccupied, another meeting is scheduled there in the near future. In a few minutes, the rightful occupants show up and discover that someone is already using their room! If the squatters are just using the whiteboard, it’s easy to boot them out, but if they’re taking a phone call, the people who actually reserved the room have to find a new one. The ability to do ad-hoc meetings is something we want to keep. We just want to help room-grabbers know when it is OK to grab and when it isn’t.

To try and ameliorate this problem, I spent a few of my company’s hack weeks last year working on a system I decided to call The Roominator. I originally announced it over on our dev blog, but since then I’ve been pretty sparse on the updates. I wanted to summarize the design and status of the project here for posterity. (The actual code and schematics can be found on my GitHub account.)

The Design

The arrangement that I came up with involves three key components: a display unit, to be posted outside each conference room; a “master” unit, to be stashed in our wiring closet, that distributes power and data to the displays; and an application server, hosted wherever, that does all the heavy lifting as far as the Google Calendar things go. Let’s take a look at each component in more detail.

The Display

The display component of the Roominator is actually very simple. From a UI perspective, it’s nothing more than a 20×4 character LCD, a pair of big, arcade-style pushbuttons, and three status LEDs. (And a handsome laser-cut acrylic enclosure!) The LCD displays details about who has booked a room and until when, while the LEDs give you a quick way to tell if a room is available when you’re standing at the end of a hallway. 
The two buttons allow you to make and modify ad-hoc reservations. When there is no existing reservation, the left-hand button lets you make one, with a default duration of 15 minutes. If there is an existing reservation, then the left-hand button becomes an “extend” function, allowing you to add 15 minutes at a time, while the right-hand button offers you the ability to cancel the reservation. 
Basically, the workflow I imagined is the following. You are walking around the office looking for somewhere to have a quick ad-hoc meeting. You look down the hallway and see a room with a Roominator that’s illuminating it’s green LED, meaning it’s open for at least the next 15 minutes. You walk up to the room for more information, and see that the next reservation isn’t for an hour, so you press the “Reserve” button once to get the room, then again to reserve it for a total of 30 minutes. You get done with your meeting early, so on your way out of the room, you press the “Cancel” button, which frees up the room for someone else.

The Master

The Master unit is a back-office component that serves as a go-between for the displays and the application server. The Master has a little bit of smarts in it, but not too much. It has an Ethernet jack on it which it uses to communicate with the application server over standard HTTP. Every second or so, the Master pings the app server to see what each display should display and to report in about button presses gathered from the displays. 
To communicate with the individual displays, the Master has an array of RJ45 jacks. They look just like Ethernet, but actually carry a protocol called I2C. It’s a very low-level serial protocol that doesn’t require all that much in the way of microcontroller smarts, but nonetheless supports master/multi-slave architecture, which is just what we need. Plus, it has built-in support on Arduino!
In addition to a network connection, the Master also provides power to the displays. Each of the jacks on the Master has a 12V pin and a ground pin. This allows the displays to have exactly one plug and work 100% with existing wiring. This prototype is built out of the remains of an old Ethernet switch, which we gutted for the case and the power supply, and a pair of lovingly hand-soldered port arrays.

The Application Server

Rather than work hard to write all the Google Calendar interaction code on an Arduino, we chose to put all of our complex logic in a Ruby on Rails application that we would run on a spare computer in our office. (We already have other random applications running on the same computer, so it’s not really am additional cost.) The HTTP web interface of this Rails app serves a two-fold purpose: first, a particular URL that the Master will ping constantly, and second, a place for us to configure and monitor the system as a whole.
Since this app doesn’t involve very much data, we used the default SQLite database to hold a few simple tables for mapping displays to room names and Google Calendar IDs. The calendar integration did turn out to be a bit dicey, though – the APIs have strange behavior, particularly surrounding recurrent events and deleted events, and they can be REALLY slow to return. To work around the slowness issue, we do all the calendar API stuff in a separate thread, sharing a lot of state between the calendar thread and the update requests via the database.

But… does it work?

The answer is: kinda. 
We fought through lots of problems and got as far as installing all 12 displays outside the conference rooms in our office, and while we did a pretty decent demo, we aren’t using it today. It came down to two key problems. The first problem was I2C. I2C is limited by the total amount of wiring in the network, and a few of the cable runs in our office were much longer than I expected. This meant that some of our conference rooms just couldn’t be served by the system. Additionally, the protocol proved fragile – if any one display had an issue, it would cause the entire I2C bus to freeze up, which could only be fixed by restarting all the units. 
The other problem was in the application server. As I previously mentioned, the Google Calendar API didn’t prove easy to work with. There were edge cases we discovered that caused certain events to be displayed incorrectly through the system. And if our users couldn’t trust what the displays had to say, then the whole system would be useless.
Both of these problems are, of course, surmountable with more effort. However, the amount of effort required to redesign around a new communication protocol and to fight against an external API is pretty monumental in comparison to the actual value of the project. As much as it pains me to quit after so much effort, for now, this idea is going to be relegated to the back burner. I’d love to work with others who are interested in the concept to develop it into something everyone can use!