The Customer Is Always Right

When I think of Magic’s customers, I think about players like you and me, who purchase this beloved cardboard crack made by Wizards of the Coast – and in terms of product, they’ve been knocking the ball out the park. But there’s more to the health of Magic than decisions made by R&D in designing and developing good sets; the way Wizards treats the distributors and game shops that sell Magic is important, too. And according to our game shop owner and some recent events I’ve been involved with, Wizards is the hands-down worst gaming company to deal with, period.

A coworker who sits near me has a sign hanging in his cube displaying Three Rules for Business Success:

Rule #1, Take Care of Your Customer. Rule #2, Take Care of Your Customer. Rule #3, Take Care of Your Customer.

I think we can all agree that this sentiment is the fundamental driving force of good business, right?

So how do you take care of the Customer in Magic? I guess that we need to define our customer first.

I spent seven years working in the corporate offices of Circuit City – and to me, a”customer” was the person who walked into our store and bought our product. When thinking about Magic, I’m often in a similar state of mind. When I think of Magic’s customers, I think about players like you and me, who purchase this beloved cardboard crack made by Wizards of the Coast. When dwelling on the health of our game, I often think about just how well Wizards of the Coast is serving people like you and me – and in terms of product, they’ve been knocking the ball out the park a lot in the past two years. I’ve been very happy with the cards.

Two years ago, I ended up at Hamilton Beach/Proctor-Silex, a manufacturer of small home appliances. Chances are you have one of our coffee makers, blenders, toasters, or irons in your house. One of the subtle differences I noticed about working for a manufacturer is that there was a difference between your Customer and the Consumer. Our Customer is the retailer, who purchases our products to sell to the consumer. Now, not only do you need to make a good product that the Consumer will want to purchase, but you also need to take care of your Customer base to make sure they’re willing to get your product out to the Consumer. You can make a damn fine product – but if you’ve pissed off and alienated your Customers, it’s gonna be tough to get that product into the hands and wallets of the Consumer.

Wizards of the Coast is a manufacturer. They produce the cards that ultimately we the Consumer buy and play with. But first the cards go through distributors and game shops to get to us. Those guys are Wizards’ true Customers.

The reason I mention all this is to point out there’s more to the health of Magic than decisions made by R&D in designing and developing good sets, and more than decisions made by the DCI and Organized Play about how our tournaments are run. The way Wizards treats their Customers – the distributors and game shops – is important, too. Maybe even more important.

Case in point: The owner of the local game shop I frequent is extremely frustrated with Wizards of the Coast Customer Service. They are difficult to reach on the phone and slow in responding to voice messages. When there’s a problem or goof-up on their part, there are a few hollow apologies, but no real effort to smooth things over or make amends. The most recent failing of Customer Service involves the upcoming 10th Anniversary Celebration with the 8th Edition promotion.

Last fall, we stopped having sanctioned tournaments at the shop due to the DCI deciding to revoke the three-Judge system that enabled so many game shops with small player bases to hold sanctioned events. We had no Magic Tournament Organizer who would give up playing the game in order to just run the tournament; we all wanted to play! So the solution appeared to be just to not bother with sanctioned tournaments.

The trouble with this approach is that Wizards really encourages players to seek out sanctioned events. High on the list of player encouragements is the Magic Player Rewards, where you get token cards and other premium stuff sent to you based on the number of sanctioned events you play in a given time.

Eventually, we came up with a solution: One of the shop’s employees, who was familiar with Magic but really didn’t play, would apply as a T.O. and set up the tournaments without playing in them. So he studied the rules and plowed through the onerous online testing, finally passing and getting an email that said his T.O. materials would be mailed to him, along with a password to access the online sanctioning.

A month passed and nothing appeared. A few email queries sent in were ignored. The store’s service rep asked for patience that sometimes it takes a while to get that stuff out. So more time passed – three months now. Some more emails were sent in with no reply. Frustration set in and the game shop gave up.

Now, let’s jump to GAMA – a trade show our game shop owner went to where he found out about the big Magic ten-year anniversary promotion. Everyone was assured that all Magic Premier Stores (our shop is one) would be in on this promotion. When he checked with his Customer Service rep afterwards, he was assured that he’d be on board. But when the list of stores was posted online, I noticed our game shop was not listed. Of course, I bugged the shop owner about it, and he left several messages with the Customer Service rep before finally getting through last week.

The news was not good. Wizards had evidently decided to only allow stores that met a certain minimal sanctioned tournament quantity over a period of time to participate in the event; everyone else would be shut out. That stipulation, along with the quantity and time period thresholds, was a secret that was not told to the stores at GAMA or afterwards.”It was an internal decision,” the rep told our storeowner.

Needless to say, he hit the roof and detailed to the rep the unending troubles he’d had trying to bring sanctioned tournaments back to the shop. The rep got someone from Organized Play on the phone who was downright hostile and accusatory, strongly implying that our game shop owner had screwed everything up. In other words, their Customer was wrong – and other than terse I’m sorrys, they offered no consolation or explanation for their incompetence in handling this situation, outside of making sure they’d mail out the T.O. information that afternoon.

The information arrived a few days later. Sans the password for the T.O. online registration. So we still can’t sanction tournaments yet!

As someone who loves the game of Magic and puts a lot of effort into encouraging players locally, this sequence of events deeply disturbs me. According to our game shop owner, Wizards is the hands-down worst gaming company to deal with, period. When he mentions talking with AEG and Decipher, his grin is infectious -“They care about me and treat me like a valued customer.” Conversely, when he talks with Wizards Customer Service, he’s treated as a nuisance and a bother.

Let me clue you into something: The health of a game locally depends heavily on the local stores’ support of the game. For instance, AEG’s Warlord is huge in our game shop, primarily due to the enthusiasm our game shop owner has for both the game and the company that makes it. It’s hard for a game shop owner to push and promote a game made by a company that treats them like crap. And if a game shop owner stops pushing a game, its popularity will inevitably die down there.

Can Wizards of the Coast afford to lose the support of the local game shops? I think the answer is obvious to anyone who’s paid attention to the rise of Magic over the years – NO! Local game shops are the lifeblood of Magic, it’s where most people play, trade, and compete.

Our game shop owner and a few others I know have had other horror stories dealing with Wizards. My goal in writing this column is two-fold:

First, if you own a game shop or work for one and have had similar problems and issues in dealing with Wizards, please talk about it in the forums.

Second, if you play in game shops and are concerned about their treatment by Wizards, sound off and make yourself heard. We are constantly told Wizards reads the online websites to keep in touch with the Magic community, so hopefully this will have a positive impact.

If you love the game and want to make sure it’s around for the long haul, let Wizards know that they need to take care of – not just us the Consumer, but their Customers the game shops, too.