Customer service is a big part of judging, some might say the biggest part, but what does it really mean to give good customer service? I think most people see judging and customer service as a reactive thing. We don't get involved in a match until the players call us over. Once they do, the customer service kicks in, but how? Get the ruling right, do it quickly, and do it with a smile. Is that all we can do?
Obviously I say no. As a judge, part of good customer service is recognizing when players are having a bad experience and taking the time to talk to them about it. My first example of this is from the Round 1 feature match between Chris Van Meter and Gregg Diekhaus. Chris wrote about his account of that game in his article here and you can watch the video here. The short version is that Gregg was a very new (or old and returning) player who got thrown into a feature match because he was paired against a name player. This wasn't an ideal situation, as his lack of experience combined with the bright lights led to him play slowly. These things can happen, especially in Round 1. I want to point out that players do have the option of declining a feature, whether it is to hide their tech or because they just aren't comfortable playing under the lights.
I arrived at the match during extra turns and watched Gregg play through some turns slowly enough that I checked the match result slip for a Slow Play Warning. When I didn't see one, I asked Matt, one of the judges in the feature match area, if it had been that way all match, and he indicated that it had. After the match, I also spoke with Nicolette, the spotter judge, about Slow Play. She said that it had been an issue and that she had said something to Gregg several times because Chris had brought it up. No, we shouldn't necessarily cater to one player's opinion of what the pace of play should be, but it can be a good sign that the pace isn't sufficient to finish the match, which is indeed what happened here.
Based on the testimony of the two judges who had been there, it seemed likely to me that Gregg should have gotten a Slow Play Warning at some point during the course of the match and didn't. I told Nicolette as much, and she agreed that she should have pulled the trigger. It's a definite growth area for many judges, and it is even harder when you are working as the coverage spotter, a role that we are trying very hard to divorce from "actual judging" due to the heavy constraints it puts on being able to actually pay attention to the board while you talk back and forth with the coverage director.
If you watched the match, it's plain to see that Chris was quite frustrated to walk away from the match with a draw. Even though he was behind on the board at the conclusion of the match, in an 11-round tournament, a draw in round 1 is pretty close to a loss, and more to the point, it was about how the match played out, with Chris having to play the "bad guy" by prompting Gregg to play faster, and pointing out things like missed triggers on Bident of Thassa. In hindsight, with the ability to watch the replay, Chris does a lot of talking in these situations, where I would prefer a judge to explain the tournament rules at Comp REL and take that "bad guy" burden off of a player's plate.
When Chris sat down for round 2, I sought him out to have a quick chat about the situation. I apologized to him because based on the talks I had with the judges it seemed like a Slow Play Warning was warranted and was not given. This didn't change anything tangible for Chris. He still started off the day with a draw. And looked at objectively, had the Warning been given and Gregg sped up his play, Chris might have lost the match instead.
But feelings matter. By Chris's own admission from his article, he was on tilt after the match, and my main goal was to provide Chris some relief from that. "Sorry" can be a meaningless word when used excessively, but it can be one of the most powerful words when used sparingly in times like this.
My primary regret in exploring this axis of customer service is that I also did not speak with Gregg. He too was likely under some amount of emotional distress after his match. I should have done more to alleviate his tilt as well. I will admit that the reason I didn't think to talk to Gregg was based on my bias of knowing Chris for a couple of years, and seeing and understanding his situation as a competitive player better. It's a flimsy reason upon reflection, but I'm happy that at least my follow up conversation with Chris on the topic yielded good thoughts on being an ambassador to newer players, and Chris's excellent article on the topic.
The issue of potential bias is something that has followed me since my early days as a Judge/Writer when I wrote about my friendship with Luis Scott-Vargas. After getting advice from Seamus Campbell and Sheldon Menery, two senior judges who also had Internet-writing careers at the time, I settled on a philosophy to deal with this. Since it was impossible for me to stop being friends with players (and my circle of friendship among players has grown considerably since then, especially thanks to the SCG Open Series), I would set out to treat all players like my friends.
This philosophy is in action in the other big customer service interaction I want to write about, which happened with a complete stranger. In consecutive rounds, I took complex appeals that took some time to unravel and get the stories straight, and I ultimately upheld rulings that essentially lost the match for one of the players in the match, the same player in both cases. After the second time, I sat down with the player while he de-sideboarded and offered him a handshake. "Hey, I'm sorry that we keep meeting under these circumstances. I'm Riki."
There's that word again, "sorry." Note that I wasn't apologizing for the rulings. In our conversation, I stood by the rulings. It's important not to apologize for things that you aren't sorry about, because that's disingenuous. The player, Kevin, expressed his obvious frustration, and I let him vent that a little, but also told him that I was just trying to do my best to make the correct call based on the information provided to me. In the end, I don't think we were ever going to agree on the ruling itself, but we reached a good point where again, my hope was that Kevin would be able to play on without tilt, and perhaps with some restored faith in judges.
As it turned out, there was another appeal on Kevin's match later in the tournament that went, if not in is favor, at least neutral, and after the match we exchanged a "Hey, that wasn't that bad." We also crossed paths again on Sunday and exchanged pleasantries.
This isn't exactly proactive customer service. It's still in reaction to situations that occur. But it's the type of customer service that many judges don't even think of delivering because it is beyond the scope of a normal ruling. It's important to think about the impact we have on a tournament and on the feelings of players, who are our customers. Even when we do everything by the book, there's always the potential feel-bads, and how we react to, and try to mitigate those feel-bads can make or break someone's tournament experience.