During a recent interview with Valve business authority Erik Johnson, I asked why people still have to put up with unanswered support tickets and, sometimes, months of radio silence when dealing with Steam support. He did not disagree with most people's assessment of the situation: it's gotten ugly with a capital "ugh."
"I think it's technically gotten a little worse on the user side of things [since the last time we talked] -- at least, overall in terms of current ticket times," he said. "That peaked a few weeks ago, and it's starting to get better now."
He told me that progress is being made on Valve's side of things; it's just not all visible progress. Even recent support-focused features like Steam refunds, he claimed, only represent the beginning of a much larger initiative.
"We started by realising we had a lot of software to write to build a new support system," Johnson explained. "The first feature that came of that was the ability to get refunds of purchases made on Steam. That made the most sense to start with. If a customer buys something they don't like, they can get their money back in a pretty transparent way. We think that's a good feature, but we don't think it was the fix for support. It had a lot more work behind it that was long-term thinking than just refunds."
"The second software problem that we're getting through now is how to deal with account security and account theft," he said. "So we've been updating the mobile apps and dealing with two-factor authentication. It's a surprisingly complicated and prevalent issue inside of Steam, and we have some unique challenges in there. A lot of the load of customer support is a function of the number of transactions you make. Our own games like DOTA and Counter-Strike and TF2 have a lot more transactions than a typical game, so that's created a lot of load on the system. The ability to trade items and sell items directly on the marketplace, that creates more support load. So all of those are kind of self-inflicted things."
But that still doesn't get to the heart of why Steam support, specifically, has more than it should in common with a backed-up toilet. On the upside, Valve has been working with third-party companies to establish a more efficient, effective support queue. Problem is, some of those companies weren't really interested in solving support problems.
"We've hired a couple different companies [to help with support]," said Johnson. "The thing that's interesting is, you go out to third-party support providers, and -- at least in our experience -- most of them wanted to sell you ways to reduce the number of people currently waiting in support, but they weren't very good at selling you ways to solve customer support issues. I think we've all had that experience of, 'I get it. You're trying to get me off the line.' We're not super interested in providing crappy support in volume."
So Valve's taken to training people, but training takes time.
"It's meant that training people in third-party has taken longer than we expected," explained Johnson. "It bugs us, but it is what it is. We think we'll have the support wait time down to an acceptable point by Christmas time. That's our goal. It's a function of training up more and more people answer customer issues. We're not there yet. It's getting better internally; it's just that it hasn't yet translated to great support for users. We're gonna get there, though."
If Johnson's timeline proves accurate, it will certainly be a nice Christmas present -- except, perhaps, for the new support trainees, who won't get a trial by fire so much as a holiday getaway to an erupting volcano. Ah, Steam sales.
Still, fingers crossed. Steam is one of the biggest video game platforms on Earth. Customer support capable of picking up the slack is long overdue.
Top image credit: MyGameplaying.