Making your own bed: are there limits to professional responsibility?

True story: a friend told me how she invested a large amount of money in order to advertise her product on a fairly central website. The campaign bombed and my friend queried the veracity of the site owner’s claim that his site is a popular place of convergence: “you cannot tell me that your site is popular and charge for advertising, when in fact all that you have is a large number of visitors. This is disingenuous!” she fumed.  The publisher argued that he charges for the opportunity my friend’s had to expose her product to the many visitors who frequent his site, not for an actual sale. The length and extent of service-providers’ responsibility for the success of the service on offer is an old issue – as can be seen in “The Lawyer’s Paradox”, which comes from Ancient Greece:  

A lawyer agreed to teach law to a poor student without charging a fee on condition that the student will pay him when he qualifies and wins his first case. However, when the student qualified, he took up another profession. The lawyer sued him for his fees, on the grounds that if he wins, the pupil must pay and if he loses, the student has won and so must pay – according to the agreement between them.  The student, then, argued that he does not have to pay a cent, because if he wins he need not pay the fees, and if he loses he does not owe any fees – according to the agreement between them. 

The publisher, above, told my friend that all he is responsible for is the initial act of introducing her product to his visitors. He could not claim – or guarantee – success. My friend argued that his claim that he offers advertising on a “successful site” is false because success, in relation to an advertising campaign, is not measured by how many people were exposed to the advert – but by how many of these visitors followed the ‘call-to-action’ – in this case, clicking over to her website. Some publishers, who maybe have better access to their visitors’ choice-criteria, are happy to charge per click-through (when the visitor clicks on the banner), and even per conversion (when visitors, having gone through to the advertiser’s website, participate in transactions that generate income for the advertiser) – the publisher charged my friend “per exposure” – that is, each time her advert was shown on the website. 

Recently, the BBC carried the story of Trina Thompson, a 27 years old graduate who sued the college where she got her BA in information technology because she was unable to find work, based on her qualifications. Arguing that the degree she obtained at New York’s Monroe College is useless, she demands to be refunded the $70,000 tuition fees she paid.  Thompson’s definition of a successful outcome of her studies is a successful job application, while Monroe College’s successful outcome was achieved when she’s graduated with a Bachelor’s degree.

In another, more bizarre but not less emotive case, James Hattefield – a man recovering from a temporary memory loss – sued the Pittsburgh Pirates – his favourite baseball team,  because, said Hattefield, this isn’t the team that he paid to see: “I paid thousands of dollars for these seats at a beautiful ballpark and now I get to watch some Pop Warner ballclub throw a group of 20-year olds onto the field each week.”  Last el-bizarro example deals with a high-school student who sued because books he was reviewing for a school assignment (namely George Orwell’s “1984? and “Animal Farm” who were removed because they were not unauthorized for distribution), got deleted off Kindle. The pupil argued that the removal of the book obliterates any value in his school report – and he holds solely responsible for the damage caused to his academic standing – and school marks.  

The main thrust of the examples, above, is in the rebelliousness shown by unsatisfied customers, who were not afraid to plea, remonstrate, demand – and sue, if they felt that court action was needed.  These legal challenges are not, as lawyers for the defence often argue, without merit.  Each challenge is a way of testing an area of contention in the relationships between buyer and seller. Harvard Business School professor Narakesari Narayandas lists five qualities that products should have in order to “get a foot in the door”, as he sees it:: Modularity – offering a natural progression (or at least some connection) from one part to another, Healing power – offering a clear and present solution to customer pain.  High quality – the supplier must be confident of the product’s capabilities “[f]irst impressions are the last impressions if they’re not good ones”, Ease of use, customer should be able to evaluate the product easily, and lastly – Fair price – it must not be too expensive for the customer. It is interesting to note that all the cases above (chosen at random) emanate from the second quality – the ability of the product to offer a clear remedy to customer pain. In fact, it appears that the products above created, rather then eased, customer pain. 

A good way to sum up a piece on (questionable) service delivery is the old stand-up routine (not sure whose) about a guest who arrives late one night to a fully packed hotel – “you can stay the night in our hotel, but I’m afraid you’ll have to make your own bed”, says the hotel manager, “Oh, that’s all right, I don’t mind at all,” says the guest. “Good,” says the manager, “here’s a hammer, a saw, and some nails. The wood’s in the garage.”  

Contribute to ToingToing!