ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Maximalized Pandas —

I recently got a phone call from Vistaprint.

I use Vistaprint for my business cards and other occasional printing jobs, mostly because they have an excellent web interface for uploading art, previewing it, and indicating what features you want in your printed works. I don’t have to deal with a person, and the prices are very cheap. I’ve used them for a few years. The super-rush-it-like-crazy options are especially helpful to a person like myself. This was how we had a stack of Blockparty postcards at the ANSI Art Event in January. (Write me if you want a few to pass around.)

A phone call from Vistaprint could have meant anything; I was in arrears, they wanted feedback on the products, or they sold me down the river. This one was kind of the last acting like the second. The nice lady on the phone said hello, and said she was from Vistaprint, and what did I think of the company. I told her it was great because they do what they say and the stuff gets to me on time and I don’t have to talk to people. She didn’t take that hint, or ignored it.

She then explained to me that Vistaprint had a whole new range of products, services and brand identity work they could do for my company, mostly centered around design and using their in-house group to give me the power of a team of dope-smoking art-school kids at a fraction of the cost. She didn’t say “dope-smoking art-school kids”, or really anything about the team, just that they’d do right by my brand. I think she mentioned in some way that my brand could use a little polishing up. And that they’d do it.

So I let her blow out the gas bag, her part of the game, and then said thanks, but I like what I got and if I need more, I’ll certainly go to the site and use the other services. What I didn’t mention is that Vistaprint‘s automated software interface hard-sells you on a dozen (a dozen!) add-ons, like “want to put this on notepads? want to put this on magnets? want to put this on letterhead?” and you have to keep clicking “fuck no” “fuck no”, “goddamn it no” and then it tries to give you a free magazine subscription. I’d kind of forgotten that aspect of things but now I was being delightfully reminded of it.

And I was definitely being reminded of it because she clicked further into a phone tree. “Before you go, sir, I’d like to also talk about..” See, that’s a sure sign of two very specific vector points: she didn’t take any notes on my positive feedback (or clicked a simple radial button on a screen to indicate “satisfied” or other completely generic feedback), and she wasn’t really there to see what I thought of the company, but to be a human version of the stupid cascading pile of add-ons that Vistaprint puts on their site, with the additional weight of a real person in a friendly voice doing it instead of a machine.

Somewhere in Vistaprint’s offices is some gal or dude who, sitting at their little modern desk, got the great idea to outsource customer satisfaction. Oh, they thought they were adding value by increasing customer feedback through the third-party group that effectively sold them on this idea that the way to keep customers was to badger them endlessly about how much Vistaprint ruled. Seeing the goose’s golden eggs needed a little extra shine, they threw the goose into a washing machine.

It’s all about maximalizing, the idea that you haven’t hit the “plus plus” top level of flowthrough on your profits and customer base, and doing what you can to ensure every last goddamn cent you could potentially wrench out of your customers. All of the greedpigs remember that from business school, but they always seem to forget the laws of diminishing returns and of perceived value-add. If you hit everybody who comes into your shop with a hammer and take their wallet, then the people who DO keep coming in will ensure greater income for you as they keep giving you wallets, but the remainder of the people will avoid the hammer-hitting shop and go to the just-gives-you-product shop. Which has a “We don’t hit you with a hammer” sign in the window. And gives you cheaper prices on Sunday.

When I bought a digital recorder, I bought it from Sweetwater, a music retailer out of Indiana. This digital recorder was about seven hundred bucks, so it was something vaguely expensive, although nothing like outfitting a new studio or buying a really nice guitar or anything. I wanted to record my talks, so I got this nice thing and still use it frequently.

Sweetwater called me at some point afterwards, to make sure that I got what I wanted, that I was happy, and that they appreciated me using them for business. I was my usual curmudgeonly self, and said something on the order of “You’re doing quite a bit for a guy who just bought a single piece of equipment; you’re pretty snuggly little pandas over there.” The fellow on the phone laughed and said he didn’t want to be a bother or anything. He didn’t upsell, and he didn’t tell me how to increase my brand awareness or that they had a music school or in-house songwriting teams to help me fill out my album and he certainly didn’t keep going along a phone tree when I said I was all set. He just wished me well and told me to call if I needed anything.

8-9 months later, I wanted to get a better battery for the recorder. It turned out to be somewhat expensive, because the charger was a custom one and the battery was custom too. I did, however, order it through Sweetwater.

On the way back from an interview I’d conducted a state away, I was taking a short nap in my (parked) car, when I got a call. It was Sweetwater. The call was specific: they would have to third-party order the charger (the battery could come immediately) and this would take a few weeks but go right to me when it showed up. I said that was all a-ok with me, because I’d gone without this thing for months and so another month wouldn’t make a difference.

He thanked me, and he said “Glad we could be of help, and we’ve hopefully done our best not to be too snuggly a set of pandas.

Just like the Vistaprint clicking into the rails of a phone tree when I wasn’t interested in her maximalized profits, the implications of his statement hit me. Not only had they listened to the content of my request, that I not be bothered unless absolutely necessary, the previous caller (who was not the current one) had marked down in my account information the exact words I used. I actually verified this on the spot that this was the case. And I was very impressed. And the item I asked for came as I requested it, a few weeks later, covered in candy. (This is something Sweetwater does, in case you need music equipment and you’re hungry.)

Both are attempts to maximalize. One is good at it. One isn’t.

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  1. Rick Almeida says:

    That little story should be required reading in every Management 101 textbook.

  2. Jim Leonard says:

    Wow. That’s amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that level of attention before.

  3. Flack says:

    A year or so ago, I was forced to call my company’s national helpdesk to get my password reset. After being transferred a few times between analysts I was eventually informed that not only could they not locate my account, but that they really had no idea where I worked, who I worked for, or that they even had employees working in my state. Funny how a bad tech support call can make or break your day.

  4. My experience with Vistaprint is that after doing business with them, we were signed up for 3 ridiculous services each costing 14.95 a month. I say ridiculous because they were for stupid crap like “protecting your online purchases from services like ours”. Mastercard told us that they deal with Vistaprint constantly to revoke transactions that Vistaprint.


  5. My experience with Vistaprint is that after doing business with them, we were signed up for 3 ridiculous services each costing 14.95 a month. I say ridiculous because they were for stupid crap like “protecting your online purchases from services like ours”. Mastercard told us that they deal with Vistaprint constantly to revoke spin-off transactions from businesses to which Vistaprint hands off customers.