The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Monday, March 26, 2007

'How Come No One Called? Seriously'

In response to Ctein's post, "Customer Support, Take 2," below, Player commented "Okay, I give up. How come no one called? Seriously."

This is pure speculation, but over the years I've noticed that people have a tendency to blame themselves when something goes wrong with products. I've said before that I think that's how personal computers have made it this far as consumer products...for most of their history, computers have been very balky, buggy, complicated products, and very unreliable. The only reason people put up with them was a persistent tendency for each customer to place the primary blame for problems not on the product, not on the manufacturer, but on him- or herself. The reaction is easy to understand from a psycho-perceptual standpoint—nobody is perfectly expert in the use of personal computers—even computer professionals. And since we know we're not experts, ergo it's easy to blame problems on our own lack of expertise. Something is wrong = we must have screwed up, somehow.

There's got to be a name for this in marketing theory, but I wouldn't know what it is.

Over the years I've encountered many situations in photography in which relatively simple claims went unchallenged. In many of those cases it took an experienced researcher to simply say, "wait a minute, is this true?" and design an experiment to find out. I'll give you one example. For many years, Zone VI studios touted its print washers as being superior to others because they drained from the bottom, and "fixer is heavier than water, so it sinks to the bottom of the tank." This was repeated as "conventional wisdom" so frequently, and in so many places, that I asked PHOTO Techniques magazine's resident photochemistry expert, Bob Chapman, to put the silly myth to rest. Among Bob's array of commonsense proofs of the nonsense of the proposition was simply that if you put half fixer and half water in a jar and shook it up, then let it sit on a shelf for a year, the fixer would not come out of solution with the water and "sink to the bottom." So I promptly did just as he suggested. As luck would have it, our company had a chemistry lab as one of its divisions. After the jar had sat on the shelf for a year, more or less, I asked one of the chemists to sample the solution at the top of the jar and at the bottom. The concentration of fixer was the same in both places. Obviously, if fixer can't "sink to the bottom" of a still jar in a year's time, it's not going to "sink to the bottom" in a turbulent print washer. (A coda to this story is the amusing—and maddening—fact that some of our readers still refused to believe that fixer doesn't sink in the print washer. One photographer told me he still thought the old myth had to be true because he had just "read it in too many places" for it not to be. Argh! If you want to read more about our innate tendencies to error, I can recommend two excellent and very readable layman's books on the topic—Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking, by Thomas E. Kida, and A Mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, by Cordelia Fine. Both recommendations satisfy the Pinker Rule.*)

But who, exactly, is most likely to test such a claim? Probably not casual home darkroom workers. I'm assuming that most photographers, if a particular batch of developer wasn't working, would simply presume it was operator error somehow and throw the batch out. It would take a relatively confident, informed individual to test the hypothesis that the developer was bad as it came packaged from the factory. To name one trivial experimental difficulty, the individual would need to have a second packet of the same batch of developer on hand, so they could mix it up again and insure that no stupid mistakes had been made in mixing up the first batch.

Absent such careful testing for confirmation, I can understand that people would be reluctant to complain—they just didn't think that manufacturer error was a viable explanation, let alone the most likely one.


*My brother and I have a rule between ourselves, named for author Stephen Pinker, that we're not allowed to recommend a book until we've actually finished reading it.


Blogger Dave M said...

I think you might be on to something Mike. Years ago I lead a small software development team, and we had to support the systems we created. I noticed that at least half of the calls that I took started with a variation of, "I know it's probably something that I did, but..." Even though I'd experiened it many times, that opening always surprised me as these were professional men and women of high intelligence, and they were usually not prone to making foolish mistakes.

(Of course, I could regale you with the tale of a multi-hour support call that ended when, after having assured me they'd traced the cables six different times, the end users discovered that they'd plugged a power strip into itself. Maybe they weren't as smart as I thought.)

7:29 PM  
Blogger Player said...

Thanks Mike, that makes a lot of sense. It would be a daunting challenge for a photographer to prove that his developer was faulty, let alone to even suppose that in the first place.

It seems that it comes down to "variables." Metering, exposure, loading the film reel, has to go off without a hitch before even mixing the chemicals. I don't thnk any photographer, especially in the film era, is shocked when something goes wrong.

I think you nailed this mystery!

7:38 PM  
Blogger adamei said...

There IS a marketing rule at work here. Here's a variant of the "it must be my fault" rule: When banks first introduced ATMs one of the unexpected benefits was that customers waiting behind other customers to use an ATM blamed their fellow customers for the wait - not the ATM, something they never did when waiting behind other customers for a teller

7:39 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

Some years ago, Bill Gates made the incredible assertation that there "had never been a serious error in Windows".

The interviewer said he'd had lots of problems. So even more incredibly, but I guess in line with his personality, Gates said: "Maybe you're doing something wrong. Have you thought about that?"

7:40 PM  
Blogger stanco said...

Wonder how many assistants took the fall?

7:42 PM  
Blogger Interface said...

A long time ago when I was a learning amateur photographer with a cheap SLR, I put a roll of B&W film through the camera and when I developed it, the whole roll had several scratches running the length of it. I went back the place I bought the film and complained. They said, it happened in the camera or it happened in the loading of the film reel.

It was only when I showed them that the scratches continued under the tape that held the film to the spool that they replaced the film.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

I called (or rather emailed). I doubt this has anything to do with the incident Ctein wrote about, but my very first attempt at developing film at home resulted in negatives that, while not completely clear, were extremely thin. The developer was Paterson FX-50 bought from B&H. After several tests and some research, I concluded that it wasn't my fault, but that solution A had been bad right out of the box, and I emailed both Paterson and B&H. B&H asked for more details, and about four days after the initial complaint refunded my money. I never heard back from Paterson.

8:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another possible explanation is that so few people were affected. After all, how many people processed their own film, even before the reign of digital? Even among those who did, how many purchased that particular batch of developer? This wasn't necessarily a batch of Kodak D-76. It could have been something more exotic, such as Tetenol Blue, Diafine or Edwal FG-7--something that pro labs with rigorous quality control processes would be unlikely to use.

Add all these factors together and it could be a wonder that anyone bought this particular developer at all, much less complained about it.

9:44 PM  
Blogger thedoctah said...

Perhaps some of the unlucky users decided that the cost of the chemicals wasn't high enough to deal with the inevitable phone maze and run-around from customer "support" to be worth expending any energy pursuing. Companies make it such an ordeal to actually get to a human being who can trivially fix a problem that they (intentionally) dissuade people from seeking deserved remedies. Not to say that they don't have their share of dopes calling, but there ought to be a different number where we non-dopes can call. :)

9:58 PM  
Blogger doonster said...

The question that came to my mind wasn't why no one called, but why was the company was so worried about this?

2:23 AM  
Blogger christer3805 said...

When I was a first year student of economics in Sweden in the 1960s this book was part of the compulsory reading. I only parted with it when I gave it to my son when he started university ten years ago.

Thouless, Robert H. - Straight and crooked thinking.

2:34 AM  
Blogger christer3805 said...

Mike said "My brother and I have a rule between ourselves, named for author Stephen Pinker, that we're not allowed to recommend a book until we've actually finished reading it."

I have a similar rule: "never judge a negative until you have printed it".

2:37 AM  
Blogger Ade said...

Actually, the thought that I could take the utmost care over my developing and still lose due to bad developer, a completely random and unusual occurrence (one hopes) that is wholly outside our control, is too horrifying to contemplate. One needs to have faith that at least the basic ingredients are reliable, and admitting this is not the case would destroy that faith; you might never develop another roll again.

3:56 AM  
Blogger ostman said...

I was recently reading a forum item regarding a printer problem someone was having on a fairly expensive, relatively new printer.

Posters were helpfully offering various possible fixes, and debating possible reasons for the problem. Obviously, the owner of the printer was expressing frustration.

This poster noted he had it for a relatively short time, and it was obviously still under warranty. I posted my positive experience with the company when calling for a warranty exchange on the same product, and suggested they make a call.

No response to my post, and they continued debating the problem, and noted continued frustration. Why would they pay big bucks, and not take the obvious step of getting the company to resolve it?

6:37 AM  
Blogger Peter Hovmand said...

More than 10 years ago I worked in a cinema, and everytime some guests found themselves watching the wrong movie, they would always blame the staff. And that in a very blaming, almost hateful way! No doubts in their minds at all. But very often it was their own mistake. Guess that is the difference between being Bill Gates and a simple service worker :)

Funny thing is that Windows was full of big mistakes for more than 10 years. And that made Gates the richest man in the world!

6:46 AM  
Blogger paul said...

The launch campaign for Windows XP said everything that needs to be said about the incredible gullibility of the public in the face of high technology: "Hey! This version of Windows actually WORKS!"


2:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home