Friday, February 3, 2012

Managing Expectation of Customers

Or, why I like John Ringo's Ghost, purple AR's, and how Oleg Volk gets so many women to do nude portraits.

One of the common and unfortunate threads of the aviation industry, publishing, and the firearm industry is people who love what they do, have a great passion for their work, and are fundamentally lacking in basic tenets of marketing. They manage to struggle along anyway at a cottage-industry level, despite great hurdles at startup. (In aviation and firearms, we start with three-letter agencies that are, by accretion and design, against growth or innovation. Publishing only has itself to blame.) Unfortunately, these initial trials are so fiery that they often blind the producers of good widgets and good books to the real trial at the basis of all commerce: customers.

In managing the flow of commerce, there are two critical directions: push and pull. Pull is what customers do - they want something, so they create a demand, and pull at the end of your supply chain, wanting more stuff to arrive. The length and complexity of your supply chain is ultimately irrelevant - customers want stuff, and you need to fulfill that demand in order to make money now, and keep happy customers so you can make money later.
Push is the opposite - it's when a content or part creator makes more than demand calls for, and tries to shove it down the supply chain toward customers. Push is bad, because if you don't have the pull, either the supply chain will choke and drop the price below cost to get rid of it, then never order it again - or the customers will choke on the force-feeding, and walk away with their wallets welded shut.

It's the difference, say, between the drive-through coffee stand in the morning pulling in people for a mug of go-juice, and the very pushy salesman who accosted me at a mall once, trying to force spa stuff on a gal whose idea of "mud pack" is the underside of the truck after a weekend off-roading.

Know your customers, both immediately downstream on the supply chain, and the people at its terminus. Ringo knows his customers, and so does Baen - despite making a name for himself writing good military scifi, when he had a crazy silly sex-filled wish-fulfillment military fantasy and people proved they really wanted it, he wrote several novels in the Paladin of Shadows series, and Baen bought and published them all. Is it a magnum opus? No. Do I like it? Mmm, Yes. Does it offend people? Oh, hell yes! Are those people his primary customer base and intended market, and does it affect their willingness to buy Oh John Ringo No's other books and series? Not at all, as far as I can tell. I actually don't really care for most of his books - I give them a good try, and laugh at the jokes, like the characters, and fail to care about the military battles at all. Given that he writes military scifi, this means as the plot gets to a fever pitch and my husband is really enjoying it, well, I have bread to bake, or a toilet to clean or something. Similarly, David Drake's Hammer's Slammers makes my eyes glaze faster than Federal Aviation Regulations, and while I love David Weber's characters, I've got the art of flipping past his infodumps and political parts down pat. Bujold, on the other hand, with her art of skimming past the military strategies and focusing on the people and the effect of technology on societies, has my attention and my wallet wide open.

Firearms and aviation manufacturers (and their modifications and parts manufacturers) are starting to notice that 50% of the population is female, and not necessarily opposed to guns or flying. Unfortunately, their response has been extremely shortsighted and shallow, and painfully pink. I hate pink. Not because pink itself is a bad color, but because it's a signal of an extremely knee-jerk reaction, summed up as "Oh, we want to market to women, too. Well, paint our normal thing pink and they'll like it." Pink works well with baby items because the end user looks like a wrinkled ball of pudgy dough, and the color of the accessory helps announce if it's male or female. For fully adult women, participating in things that take a reasoning, functioning mind that can understand responsibilities and consequences - I'll take your damned pink AR furniture when you replace all your earth, tan, green, and black furniture with baby blue for the men. Oh, wait, you already figured out your male customers have preferences besides the gender-signal color for infants? Then take the time to figure out what your female market may like before you start pushing pink down the supply chain at us, and wondering why the customer chokes, and the orders are not there (and never will be.)

Here's a hint: I like purple. Purple matches or at least doesn't clash with a lot of things, and if you noted all the things from lavender to indigo that end up in the bed and bath stores, you'd see that. Along with lots of greens. (Hey, you're appealing to adult women. Barbie isn't the right place to start your research, and neither is Playboy.) I'd buy a purple logbook for myself. Pink, with a little cartoon character of a plane on the front? Only for a six-year-old who adores pink that I've just given a ride.

All customers have expectations. Readers expect a story to be coherent, consistent, entertaining, and possibly challenging. Widget users expect the part to be usable, useful, and reliable (at least, when they pay cottage-industry pricing instead of cheap Chinese junk pricing.) In other news, the sky is grey on overcast days. Unfortunately, the more you learn, the more you will realize sure as the sun rises in the south in winter that your customers have many wants, needs, and desires, and most of them are contradictory.

Which brings us to managing your customer's expectations. If you know what I want, and you can tell me how you will deliver, and which certain specific wants of mine it will fulfill, then I will be happy to pay for your product, and delighted if it exceeds the promises you made. (Note for emphasis: the promises you made, not the wants I have). There are many signals beyond whether or not your product is pink. Price is a signal, but so is character and presentation of the producer. A Boberg pistol is better than a Hi-Point, but a commercial jeweler may charge $400 per ring for worthless DeBeers diamond chips and cheap gold, while a work of art in silver and semiprecious stone, custom-made, from a seller on Etsy may only be $200. (I highly recommend ArtByCaron - good work, beautiful taste, awesome customer service. ) Reviews are a strong signal of how well you fulfilled other customer's expectations in the past - and I am still very happy!

On managing inherent contradictions - choose what you will emphasize, and what you leave out. I want to finish my dinner out with a delicious, tasty lavender creme brulee and a glass of ice wine to complement - but I also don't want any calories, and I want to be perfectly sober to drive home. If we're dining at a Turkish restaurant, there's no creme brulee or ice wine on the menu. However, they'll write loving descriptions of the desserts, and have the waiter enthusiastically recommend two or thee, and we'll be happy. If you do have creme brulee and ice wine, by all that's sane, don't put caloric information on the menu, serve the ice wine in a small glass with water on the side that you keep refilled, and don't rush the customer out the door to their car.

Oleg Volk, I have noticed, does an excellent job of working with his models because he manages their expectations very well. He doesn't choose models for nude photography: he chooses models he wants to work with, and knows he can do great work regardless of their state of dress. He tries to make the models comfortable, checks if they want anything, if the buddy/bodyguard they brought wants anything, and makes sure that they're on the same page on who wants what out of the photo shoot. Communication, isn't it awesome? Then he sets to work with the focus and intensity seen in Gremlin stalking in the high grass - hunting the Perfect Image. He'll work with you clothed in reenactment gear, steampunk, streetwear, cocktail dress, half-clothed, nude, in body paint and feathers, it doesn't matter. And because it doesn't matter, models feel comfortable, unpressured, and willing to explore with him on many different ways to create beautiful art, happily holding guns that two hours before they thought might leap out of the gun case and shoot people randomly, never mind trivialities like posing nude.

By contrast, I recently picked up a self-pubbed first book on Sarah Hoyt's recommendation: Temporary Duty, by Ric Locke. The one-line description on Amazon billed it as two enlisted navy guys who shanghaied themselves into TDY with first contact aliens. Great buddy military comedy, right? And it was, for the first third of the book. But one character kept getting awesomer in the Honor Harrington style, and the other started dropping out for scenes, then chapters, until when he was killed, it was entirely without emotional impact on the reader, almost a passing mention. Well, as a Harrington-style character, it was a pretty good book, too, even though it wasn't what I'd expected when I started. But then we hit the last two planets, and it spins out into wish-fulfillment crazy fun, like John Ringo's Ghost but without the kinky sex, and needing a good editor. Any one of these three stories would have been awesome fun, but every style change after the first broke the promise to the reader of what type of story I was reading, and the expectations set. I was reduced to skimming through the last few chapters, having lost track of people because I no longer cared.

One expectation he did absolutely right: the price. If I'd bought this book as an $8.99 paperback or ebook, I'd have been pissed at the author for breaking promises, and the publisher for bad editing. But I didn't - I bought a self-published first novel on the recommendation that it was fun, for $2.99, and it entertained me longer than a similarly-priced mocha. My final verdict was to recommend it to Calmer Half for reading, noting there were some side-splittingly hilarious scenes of enlisted men learning to order beer in the alien's trade tongue at their shore leave. (Because seriously, what's important in life? Beer.) And to stop reading about two-thirds of the way through, because if you do, it ends pretty nicely. Or keep reading, but know that you get a completely different story for the last third.

I look forward to Locke's next book, to see how well he's improved, since he already has made me laugh. Despite a dislike for cameras in general, I neither fear nor even really mind Oleg and his camera, and when I finally get an AR, it'll be purple, low-recoil, and ergonomic. Since a purple logbook looks unlikely, I think I'll likely get a handmade leather-bound steampunk-design journal for my next Airship Captain's Log (just because I can.)

And somewhere, well-intentioned but thoughtless gentlemen will be wondering why women don't like flying or shooting, because we're not buying their pink desert eagle clone or incredibly uncomfortable and unflattering male-fitted mossy-oak gear. If one ever sincerely asks you why, and is ready to listen, well, I've said my piece.


  1. I like your taste in jewelry :)

    When we were looking for wedding bands I wanted something that was neither massively expensive, or traditional. We ended up spending less than $200, including shipping, on the two rings, and they're plain and simple and very not traditional!

  2. And I totally agree, why pink? If you're going to do pink, do purple, and green, and other colors too cause theres alot of us women who aren't big on pink!

  3. I agree re: Temporary Duty on how good it was at the beginning, and how unrealistic at the end. The first third appealed to me as an old Navy man, and the middle as exposition of the aliens; not so much the rest.

    Regarding marketing to women, my elder daughter bought a Marlin .22 rifle the same day that I did, last year. I bought the wood stock, because it appeals to me, and she bought the eeeeeevil black composite stock, because it appealed to her. I teased her about getting a pink camo stock ... she shuddered. 'Nuff said.

  4. and you said it well too.

    I also hate the "pink" approach to women (purple is so much nicer).

  5. Good morning...I received your nice comment on my Blackberry, but for some reason it didn't post on my blog...weird. Anyway, just wanted you to know I didn't overlook you. Thank you for the kind comment. You have a nice blog, btw.

  6. Well said, and pink is a marketing problem... It goes back to blue for boys, pink for girls...sigh

  7. There's a couple of issues with pink. First, if the color didn't sell, they wouldn't use it.

    But some of us have an almost knee-jerk reaction against the color.

    That said, the reaction is not an unthinking or unthoughtful one, but is based on experience.

    If we show up at the range with a pink gun, we automatically lose cred points and have to work harder to prove ourselves (it's kind of like having a southern accent in the north-east--you lose 20 IQ points and have to overcome an inherent prejudice).

    I have one fluffy pink sweater that allows me to almost run in stealth mode--I call it my 'mostly harmless' sweater.

    If I'm going somewhere where I want to be underestimated, it's the perfect look.

    As an aside, I checked out the jewelry site--some very nice pieces!