The Wayback Machine -

Monday, March 26, 2007

Customer Support, Take 2

by Ctein

What would you think if your film turned out looking like this?

As I said last time, customer support can be funny thing. Sometimes that's "funny" as in "weird and disturbing." As when customers' faith in the manufacturer's competence is misplaced.

This is a true story. Got it from the horse's mouth, one of the Big Four photographic manufacturers. But I'm not even going to give you a hint as to who.

Companies keep extensive quality control records to insure that their products performs just as they're supposed to. Nothing should leave the plant that isn't on spec. Unfortunately, humans are fallible creatures and sometimes the horse escapes before the barn door has been locked.

It was a simple product; standard B&W film developer. These mixes can tolerate pretty large deviations from the standard recipe and still perform well; they have to, considering the manufacturer has little control over exactly how they're used. But there are limits.

During a review of some QC logs, it was discovered that a batch of developer had been incorrectly prepared. One component had not merely been mismeasured but omitted entirely. As Murphy would have it, this was nothing trivial like a preservative. This developer was completely inactive; it was incapable of developing film.

It got worse. Photofinishing labs buy chemicals in large lots that are traceable. In case of a problem, the manufacture can determine who got the chemicals. This batch of developer, though, was packaged up into small units (e.g., 1 gal.) for the individual user market. Those couldn't be tracked.

The bum soup was long gone. It had been distributed and sold to individual B&W photographers all over. The Company was screwed.

These were honorable people; they knew they had screwed up and they weren't going to try to stonewall it. They put customer support on alert and prepared to fall on their swords and make as much nice as they could to the angry customers whose film had been ruined. Operators were standing by.

The phones never rang. No user contacted them to complain about bad developer—not one single unhappy photographer.

That's when the company became very, very worried.

A very weird and disturbing business, indeed.

Posted by: CTEIN


BrownTone said...

That's quite an amusing tale, but it fits the textbook definition of being apocryphal; i.e., of dubious authenticity. Please understand: I an NOT accusing Ctein of lying. All I'm saying is that without knowing who the manufacturer was, when it happened, where, etc., it's basically gossip. Still, if true, it does make one wonder why not even a single photographer called to complain. Perhaps the lack of even frame numbers after development made them think the film itself was at fault.

9:03 AM  
C. JoDI said...


A little heads up here for those of us who may be buying developer in the near future, please.

9:03 AM  
Mike Johnston said...

"That's quite an amusing tale, but it fits the textbook definition of being apocryphal; i.e., of dubious authenticity"

I disagree. If that were true, then the work of every journalist who declined to reveal a source would qualify as "apocryphal." Ctein is a seasoned journalist, book author, and researcher. The fact that he presents this story as true means that it meets journalistic standards for confirmed veracity. I don't require more.


9:27 AM  
Richard Sintchak said...

While I agree with Mike on Ctein's credentials this smacks unbelievably of the Urban Legend type of story and without revealing even one aspect be it manufacturer, time, place, source, etc., seems even more so.

10:00 AM  
Dibutil Ftalat said...

I would not call. In fact I never call.

In ten years being in "civilized" world with Customer Support I've tried to learn to use it.. but when I tell CSR: "My car CD player does not work in the following conditions.." and then two days later they return me a car saying: "CD player works fine" I know that they did not even turn it on to try. But they imply that I lie so I can to tell them that they are lying.

So, why bother? If film did not develop, it's either film or developer (chemical _and_ the person). Retry, switch, dispose.

The company should not even get concerned, film is not an instant process and they always can blame someone else, or just say to the customer: "This is not possible (you lie)"...

10:35 AM  
BrownTone said...

With all due respect, Mike, there's a difference between honest reporting and fact. The most extreme example is all the pre-war reporting about WMD. Respected journalists reported what their sources told them to be true. The more credulous among us took these reports with a grain of salt--not because we necessarily disbelieved the journalist but because they were reporting on rumors and suspicions. Even the "facts" presented at the time turned out to be either false or misinterpreted.

Anyway, what I find fascinating and most difficult to believe is the idea that not a single person would call to complain. If true it is exactly as Ctein described: weird.

11:17 AM  
Player said...

Okay, I give up. How come no one called? Seriously.

11:19 AM  
BrownTone said...

Ooops. I meant "incredulous" or "skeptical."

11:19 AM  
Ken Tanaka said...

Accurate or not, this story illustrates reason #1412 to bid farewell to chemical photography.

11:25 AM  
Martin Storz said...

This story tells the real roaring life!

11:30 AM  
Robert Roaldi said...

What's so apocryphal? Sounds completely plausible, even when not considering the source. Take the look at the stats of how many people die every year because of medical mistakes. I don't mean errors in judgement regarding obscure disease diagnosis. I mean mis-reading the number on the bottle and giving the person a dosage that's off by an order of magnitude. There's nothing more commonplace than errors.

11:51 AM  
Adagios said...

It's not comparable to a journalist not revealing a source. In this case not only the source but the actors are not revealed.

Not that I distrust ctein.

And I always find this sort of thing funny.

12:10 PM  
Bryce said...

What would you think?
Me? Figure I the photographer
screwed up, or didn't follow the directions correctly.

Never, ever assumed the chemicals would be wrong.

Never in a million years.

Assume it is the fate of doing your own processing, you screwed up, just get on with it and put it down to stupidity.

Why call the maker of the chemical? "You screwed up," not the chemical.

Beside who even bothers to call big business anymore, ten times out nine,
they're just full of sh*t and could care less about you the little person anyway.

Besides if you're "still" using film well then you're not at the
forefront of technology and therefore don't know a whole lot anyway, or so it would seem.

However in looking at the blank
film as the header thought..."geee that's a nice clear exposure!"

I have had only one roll of film messed by my home developing methods, and that was my fault, old developer not discarded and re-used in a mad fit of panic when somebody "just" had to have the pictures;
and wouldn't wait until fresh chemical was mixed.
I lost the job, and subsequent contracts and eventually the friend
and the company. Time passes, he's now long gone, I am still here, however remember the incident to this day. Do everything in the correct order, don't rush things
and then if something really goes wrong, it can always be held up
as good example of things gone bad.

12:12 PM  
Jon Bloom said...

Somehow, the funniest part of this blog posting to me is that the lead image links to a larger copy....

2:21 PM  
Image said...

Aha, so this explains the legendary Xtol sudden failure (*) and Kodak decision to only release 5 gallon size.

(*) I have one spectacular failure that is probably due to my own failing, but now I am a 777 man all the way.

2:31 PM  
Mike Johnston said...

"A little heads up here for those of us who may be buying developer in the near future, please."

No heads-up needed. This happened decades ago.


3:55 PM  
Mike Johnston said...

BTW Ctein has confirmed his sources for me privately, as his "publisher."


4:00 PM  
Rob said...

Without knowing more detail, and being in a similar type of manufacturing environment myself, my guess would be that the QA logs were to blame; someone did add the correct component, but forgot to sign off.

On the other hand it's probably possible that they didn't get any calls because nobody bothered. A few people might have taken the jug back to the store where they purchased it, which just gave them a new one, and the rest of the people just wrote it off, or assumed they had screwed up something themselves.

4:12 PM  
Calum said...

I saw that film and a small shudder ran down my back, recalling a time many years ago when a new start in the photolab I ran fed an Ilford HP5 through our C41 process. The results? Translucent joy, the film completely stripped and left looking like cellophane. And when I showed the customer (a student type) he automatically blamed his camera. I 'fesed up of course, but still makes me chuckle to this day...

4:45 PM  
stanco said...

I don't find it all that hard to believe that no one complained- people who develop their own film are used to taking responsibility all down the line of the photographic process. The gods of photographic industry with their legendary reputations and stringent quality control procedures couldn't possibly mess up that bad- to the point where absolutely nothing would show up! Verily, the heavens would surely part. That leaves one, and only one, obvious variable to ponder- the person developing the film. Those someone(s) were not paying proper attention, not following proper SOP, and therefore paid dearly. Surely they all learned from "their" most unfortunate and embarrassing mistake...

4:56 PM  
eolake said...

"That's when the company became very, very worried."

Why would they worry more when nobody complained?

7:45 PM  
David A. Goldfarb said...

I suspect this happened pre-internet, or there would be some discussion on the forums that would lead to customer service calls.

I remember a few years ago there were some mislabeled packets of Dektol out there. The front of the packet was correct, but the instructions on the back were for a different sized package. If you were a regular purchaser of Dektol, you probably didn't even bother to look at the amounts on the front or the back, as I hadn't, because you would know what a 1 gal., 1/2 gal., or 1 qt. envelope of Dektol was supposed to look like and how much water to add to the package. If you actually needed to read the instructions, you would be confused, so people started asking on and such places questions like, "how much does a 1 gal. package of Dektol weigh?"

9:27 PM  
Ctein said...

Regarding Rob's suggestion that it as the logs to blame...

... y'know what? I and my source never discussed that possibility! You could very well be right!

I've got another QC story about the reverse-- a clearcut, obvious, and fatal manufacturing error that wasn't entered into the logs. But that gets saved for another column (and for that one I can reveals authoritative sources).

pax / Ctein

2:02 PM