One Step Ahead of the Shoeshine . . .

Nov 14, 2006

There’s a store called Stew Leonard’s near where I live. When you walk in, you can see the customer service rules hanging above the entrance. It’s simple—there are only two: Rule one: The customer is always right; Rule two: When in doubt, see rule one. About a third of the way through Citizen Kane, Kane publishes his declaration of principles on the front page of his newspaper, only to have it come back to haunt him years later. Ryan Air, an up-and-coming European airline, provides almost no customer service, happily standing behind its slogan: “You get what you pay for” (very little). So, what’s the right approach for Criterion?

I’ve always been the marketing partner, but as I wrote last time, Peter thinks a lot about marketing too, and we spend a lot of time talking about our customers. For years now, we’ve always been one step or more removed from them. We’d sell Criterion DVDs to wholesalers, who would in turn sell them to retail outlets, who would finally sell them to the Criterion viewer. Our contact was limited. In the early days, Jon Mulvaney would get mail with suggestions about titles and the occasional problem. More often than not, the mail went unanswered. Email changed all that. When Jon started getting mail online, we wanted him to answer every letter he got. This turned out not to be an easy task, as hundreds of letters would come in each week. Customer service took on a whole new meaning at Criterion. The instructions were to answer every email, except for the abusive ones. Problems with broken discs and missing inserts had to be answered quickly and with replacements. Criticism was to be shared with many people in the office in the hope of learning and doing better. Title suggestions, whether sent to Criterion under that heading or in a standard email, are all read, but maybe the least responded to. There’s not much to say to those except thank you. We look at all the suggestions and keep them all on file and go back to them. An interesting note: when we were trying to license Le samourai, the price for the film started to climb to a level at which we were not all that comfortable. We went back to the suggestions and searched for the title. We took some comfort in how many people had requested the title and finally upped our offer. I’m glad we did.

This past year with the launch of the Criterion Store, we’ve had more contact with you than ever. Hats and T-shirts have been a lot of fun, and we’ve still got an office pool going to see who’s going to run into someone unknown to the company wearing Criterion branded apparel. Also, the Janus fiftieth anniversary box set has been a wonderful project and has introduced a whole new set of customers to us. We hope they will become devoted Criterion fans as well.

We’re trying to bring our customer service up to the next level as well. In the past, Jon’s answers were a bit generic, and in an age where answers are so easy to come by on the Internet, we wanted to—and felt we needed to—do better. If you’ve written to us lately, you know that we’ve now got a team answering questions. I’m answering some, and others in Criterion who know a lot more than Jon does about specific subjects are trying to give definite answers to your questions. We try to get it right, and hopefully we succeed more often than not, but when we don’t, we’re trying to make it better. Sony left out the booklets from the first pressing of Clean, Shaven. We caught it before most left the warehouse, but we sent out hundreds of replacement books. We used the wrong die (it was 1/8th of an inch too large) for the Rohmer slipcase. We corrected it for the second printing and repackaged everything in the warehouse. Still a lot went out, so we’ve sent out hundreds of replacements for those as well.

What to look for in the future? Well, we’re certainly not Ryan Air. We do ask you to pay a lot for our discs, and you should expect top service. We try to deliver it, and if you’ve got suggestions on how to make it better, please e-mail me. We have a basic set of principles, but it has more to do with what and how we publish. It would be nice to say that the customer is always right, but in a very subjective medium there has to be room for more than one opinion. In the meantime, we’ll continue to do our best.

I’ll be back soon with some thoughts about growing up with a projector in my attic.