A customer complaint is a genuine opportunity for a company, because it offers the chance to improve service or eliminate a deficiency. Gigantti, the Finnish electronics company, clearly has room for improving how it handles complaints like the one I sent to their customer support people. I had ordered a computer by phone for pickup at a store. Although my order was confirmed during the call and by email , when I drove the 20 kilometers to the store, I discovered they didn’t have the computer. Another store did have it, but the salesman said that only the department manager could arrange for transfer to this store—and he was on vacation. In my complaint, I asked whether in the online age Gigantti truly needed the manager’s involvement, with its one-week delay, in order to complete a sale. In their reply, they said they would…pass my complaint along. When I checked again two weeks later, their email reply said that they regretted the delay—and told me that my complaint had again been forwarded to someone. Then I got an e-mail from yet another Gigantti person, who was clearly starting from square one. I sent him the entire correspondence. Yesterday, 23 days after I placed the order, I got a message that the computer was available at the store. “We hope this will satisfy you.” Alas, this hope is in vain. To seize the opportunity that a complaint offers, you need to act quickly, respond coherently, and address the customer’s concerns. And you need to cut out slow, unhelpful processes.
Last week there was a fierce online discussion about publishing open textbooks. Why is the topic so emotional? Open-access publishing can be viewed from at least two perspectives; having written both commercial and open-learning material, I’m familiar with both. As an active member in the association of Finnish nonfiction writers, I know that many of our members earn their living by writing, and some teachers have become full-time textbook writers. Nonfiction writing is a profession just like journalism, and the work should support the worker. On the other hand writers and teachers are free to do volunteer work, and even donate their royalties to charity. My experience is that commercial textbooks are more polished than open materials composed by teams of volunteers because traditional publishers can help with layout, editing, and similar tasks. Even so, the open-produced material can be good enough for the user’s needs in the same way as Wikipedia or online dictionaries. An elegant example of the new approach is the recent campaign in which researchers freely publish their scientific articles online in honor of the late open access activist Aaron Swartz.
This week I’ve started teaching an interesting new course: language criticism for journalism students. Students edit a weekly magazine, Utain, and receive critiques of their stories. Often in other courses people like to harshly criticize the language used by journalists. I regularly defend the language of newspaper journalists as well as radio and TV broadcasters, because I think their language is surprisingly well-controlled considering how much they write and speak. The first batch of stories I reviewed confirmed my positive view, because the examples were well thought out and almost error-free. The pattern of the errors also highlights the good language skills of these writers: compound words and capitalization, zero errors; pronouns, 2; numbers, 2; punctuation errors, 6. Most of my critiques dealt with word choice and with verbosity, and these are topics for discussion rather than actual mistakes.
My latest book manuscript is just about ready, and I’ve been pondering the publishing options. There are three alternatives: use a commercial publisher, sell the manuscript to a training organization, or publish it through my own company. Using a commercial publisher, revenues would be at best about five thousand euros. If I sell the manuscript outright to the training organization, I get a little bit less, but the income is not contingent upon the sale. Yet if I publish it myself, I’d incur the printing cost of six thousand euros, and I would have to lay out the book as well as handle the sales myself. On the other hand, I would get all the income. On Friday, I met an author friend who provided some interesting figures about the book he published last year. He produced 2000 copies. Printing and layout costs were 7000 euros; the year-end sales were 44 000 euros. One reason for this excellent result is that he found organizations which bought hundreds of copies, much more efficient for him than single-copy sales. No matter which route you take, it’s difficult to earn a reasonable salary by writing. A fiction writer’s median income in Finland is 2000 euros per year, and non-fiction authors presumably don’t do much better.