Monday, November 03, 2003

Superb Customer Service  

A little off-topic today, but I have to say this, and it's probably more fun for readers than the more serious things I write about

I have a pile of things I need to write about, but I'm driven to write about the amazing crew that runs and publishes Baseball Reference, a beacon of good sense and 99th percentile customer service. A quick aside...this massive undertaking, a baseball encyclopedia non pariel that leverages everything that's good about hypertext and much of what's truly utilitarian within Sabermetrics for a wider audience...is a wonderful labor of love. Baseball Reference has two lessons for managers.

When I think of Baseball Reference, I know there's a whole team of high-torque, dedicated folk who make it possible. But, personally, I always think of humble genius Sean Forman. Forman is that rare diamond -- a super-smart, non-egotist with energy who delivers useable stuff regularly.

Anyway, Baseball Reference announced today they've updated the encyclopedia to include most 2003 stats. Teams, players, records, whatever you're looking for, the site has sensibly-arranged, accessible, informative info. The event that is likely to be the most-remembered about the 2003 season five or six years down the road is actually a negative, the crater that was the Detroit Tigers and their 119 loss season, which you can get to from here. (Aside: what most people don't tell you about the Tigers is they weren't trying to have a winning season, they were trying to have a good season...in this case, that meant building skills for the future. Much of the season they had five Rule V guys on the team. Teams that are trying to win it all frequently don't even have one Rule V guy using up oxygen in the dugout, and never have as many as two).

One lesson Baseball Reference provides for managers is about getting resources, and I think this is a fine example when you think about getting contributions from staff. Commercial websites look for one, or a few big advertisers to float lots of money to fuel the site's needs. The challenge is this model undermines the site's vision, which must now be shaped to the whims and prejudices of a big partner (think Enron Field). Moreover, it makes for a monocultural (fragile) survival strategy. Yes, it's convenient -- there are only a small handful of relationships to manage, checks to cash, egos to be abused by. Convenient and survival are frequently opposites.

Baseball Reference has individual page-sponsors. This blog sponsors a pair of pages for $20. Anyone who goes to one of those pages gets a pitch and a link to this blog. There are hundreds of page sponsors, and the last time I asked, it covered the operating expenses for storage and the many page hits this tasty resource gets every day. My primary motivation is not the ad...I happen to use Reference enough that I know I owe them and I'm not a Commons-ist. We both come out ahead in the deal.

It's always tempting to try to ride a few high performers to success at work. It is true that in most organizations, most of the contributions come from a small elite, but that, in part, is a function of random hiring and of poor coaching and mentoring...that is the high-percentage-of-torque-from-a-small-elite, it's an artifact of inadequate management. Helping more people become contributors delivers higher output (and usually better morale which usually enhances long-term productivity, that is, outside of sweatshops and the Red Chinese prison factories used by firms like G.E. & most athletic-shoe manufacturers).

The second lesson from BR is ego-dampened responsiveness. Forman shaped the site with a lot of input from other sabermetricians and involved people. I've had several e-mail dialogues with him about features to include and interface design issues and they're always constructive, with Sean always maintaining an interested, engaged tone. In one case, I found he'd implemented an idea we talked about within a day of when we spoke of it.

In your own shop, taking suggestions with an engaged attitude, not presuming suggestions-are-criticism, and being able to implement some quickly so people get immediate feedback for having offered an idea...these are serious productivity-boosters.

If you haven't been to Baseball Reference much, nose around or marinate yourself in the 2003 data. If you don't recognize some of the sabermetric numbers, you can dip into it a little, get up to speed a nibble at a time. Try this page for Shane "A Boy Named" Loux, this one for the incredible shrinking John Olerud and his 105 OPS+, or all the transactions for the 1930 Pittsburgh Pirates.

It's great to see 2003 stats so quickly and in such a digestible form. Baseball Reference all by itself makes the www worthwhile.

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