The Sweetwater Model: How to Actually Win On Expertise and Friendliness

An Interesting marketing insight backed by a real investment in customer service

No one, incredibly, seems to have written the Harvard Business Review (HBR) case study on Sweetwater and their business model. I’ll just have to do a poor man’s version here, because I think something’s going on at Sweetwater, one of the internet’s largest online music retailers. Something that seems to be working very well.

The Challenge

Every online retailer tries to focus on customer service. They have to. In an online shopping world, especially one dominated by Amazon, you need to differentiate your service from the myriad others that carry the same products. You may try to differentiate on price, but retailers like Amazon and walmart.com have such massive economies of scale that you will be racing to the bottom with an expert free diver.

So you differentiate on “heart” or on personality or especially-good customer service. And these are already tough enough to win in the click economy, where shoppers are simply putting the objects of their desire into the giant search bar and combing results for the best prices, the fastest most frictionless transactions (a giant search bar where Google can privilege its own offerings and those of its affiliates!). But they get even tougher when they’re the only differentiations left to the thousands of retailers who aren’t giant, who aren’t striking deals with the postal service or launching space programs: Everyone is doing customer service! Everyone is doing long, risk-free trials and free fast returns! There are tons of now-familiar service-first plays in online. So how do you differentiate in customer service if everyone is doing it?

The Insight

This is where Sweetwater is winning. For one thing, you need to actually have excellent customer service, and Sweetwater does. In my limited actual direct experience, the Sweetwater sales technicians really know what they’re doing, are musicians, have real advice. And their sales process also makes it easy and natural to chat with or in some other way get advice from these technicians. This is already quite a lot.

Still, in the new normal of giant e-tailers and buy-now buttons, you simply can’t show enough prospective customers that you mean it unless you market this successfully And this is where Sweetwater seems to have thought of something unique that gets their service noticed:

Product reviews that come from the Sweetwater almost invariably praise not only the product but also the Sweetwater technician, usually by name, who made the process so easy and the product so perfect. Product reviews! The following is completely typical:

review of a pedal

This is genius. Someone, maybe the founder Chuck Serack, must have decided that the virtuous circle in all this is:

  • Customers like me are searching as often as not for product reviews before we actually go to buy.
  • Search engines are syndicating more product content into the search results, including reviews, where other characteristics of the buying experience are fungible–similar price, similar one-clicks, simple galleries, similar shipping.
  • Customers come to identify Sweetwater as a site where technicians are particularly helpful, actual, praised. This is the differentiation.

I’m not sure how they actually encouraged this behavior among product reviewers. Maybe it was primed; maybe it’s self-reinforcing; maybe they paid or discounted. But the content and tone of reviews at Sweetwater–about the products–are markedly different, like the sales technician is your new best friend of a guy you’ll jam with next week. Take a look.

The Walk

You couldn’t fake the friendliness and expertise for long and have this work, of course; reviewers are ruthless. But as part of a larger, authentic dedication to customer service (“The Sweetwater Difference“) this is a great move into a novel pre-sales area, online customers reviews, that has given them a marketing edge over other music retailers online.

Isaiah Berlin’s “Crooked Timber” and the “Bent Twig” of Nationalism

Obviously, there’s a ton of new writing on politics. Thoughtful, anxious books and longform essays about the right wing, especially, about nationalism, authoritarianism. I’m just beginning Kurt Anderson’s Evil Geniuses, as one example, which documents the Right’s efforts, since the late 70s, to dismantle the New Deal and create distracting culture wars as cover. Robert Reich, whose books The Work of Nations, Reason, and others were formative parts of my reading education, has now written a book called The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. And of course Jane Meyer’s amazing Dark Money was, a few years ago, the new standard in impeccably-researched, dark and incontrovertibly real accounts of Plutocratic moves to undermine American democracy and fairness. 

These books look into America’s recent political past for explicit beginnings and sharp turns. Policies, manifestos. Think tanks. Secret meetings. They’re all there! Despite Anderson’s professed disinclination toward conspiracies, Evil Geniuses is absolutely persuasive about an organized, well-funded, secretive, bait-and-switch to lock in the power of corporations and the rich in the wake of late-60s progressivism and the schisms of the “Me” generation, bad wars, and bad actors in government. 

What is happening? is the question we’re asking over and over now. This is not normal. Is it a Trumpocalypse, as David Frum has it in his book by that name? Is it something that’s always been here, for which Trump is just the most cartoonishly vivid and corrupt avatar, as Kurt Anderson seems to say in his earlier book Fantasyland? Is it something more fundamental, the ugly form of decadence that was predicted of late capitalism, like the critic Terry Eagleton describes in his book Materialism?

These were not the questions I had in mind when I went to re-read Isaiah Berlin’s book The Crooked Timber: Chapters in the History of Ideas. It had been so long since I’d read it, in fact, that I was taking it off the shelf as an escape, as one of those confident, anodyne syntheses of philosophy that would take my mind off the present, reconnect Aquinas with Aristotle or something like that.  

I could not have been more wrong, and The Crooked Timber could not be a more eerily incisive analysis of the current situation. Though it was published as a collection more than 30 years ago, and though it focuses on what may seem like minor historical figures, like Joseph de Maistre (“Joseph de Maistre and the Origin of Fascism”), the clarity of Berlin’s analysis, the specificity of his historical subjects, and his analytical synthesis of rationalism, the romantic, belief and esteem bring this book right to the doorstep of our current crises.

The Crooked Timber is a collection of essays spanning Isaiah Berlin’s career starting in the late 50s, and connecting the themes of his political philosophy: History is concerned with the development of our faculties, of science and rationalism, of human as opposed to absolute truths (“Giambattista Vico and Cultural History”). Progress, moving in fits and starts, crests in the Renaissance, again in the Age of Reason and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. But reason has so many psychological pitfalls and frankly vengeful enemies that history is deranged by the emergence of good ideas at key points, like the French Revolution. New ideas arise and change culture; they are attacked. There are reactions, counter-reactions. Berlin says almost wistfully that “these collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are,” and yet the results of the collisions can be brutal, catastrophic. The Reformation, the Terror, the Counter-reformation. History simply is the expression of human progress, its angry suppression, its eventual reappearance.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Kant says in the quote from which the book takes its name. It’s clear that for Berlin absolutism, such as arises against ordinary human progress, is a real enemy—and a form that fear and suppression often take. Berlin deploys the Kant epigram not to criticize the idea of progress per se but to show how skeptical we should be of “straight things” like the religious orthodoxies, political utopias, and totalizing principles that are the bad guys in his writing.

Even worse and more deranging than absolutes, however, are the ideas that come out of the Romantic movement, which he sees as a “deep and radical revolt against the central tradition of western thought” that peaks in the second half of the 18th century as Germany’s Sturm und Drang (“The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will: The Revolt against the Myth of an Ideal World”). For Berlin, the Romantic is the dethronement of reason by the will, whose poet is Friedrich “high demonic freedom” Schiller and whose philosopher is Fichte, the “true father of romanticism.” It is the replacement of shared truths with personal truths, the elevation of the artist over the thinker, and the irrational, emotional, and violent over the reasoned and hammered out.  One’s own truth is something to be insisted upon, even if it’s wrong. This is the truly massive shift in western culture, and a bad one: the Germans, as Berlin has it, couldn’t keep up with their Enlightened French showboat Encyclopedist neighbors in the sixteenth century and so basically invented Romanticism, and with it the aggrieved blood-and-soil ideologies that became National Socialism and the new American authoritarianism 300 years later in a crooked but unbroken line.

Nationalism and populism come directly out of the Romantic, in other words, out of the particular and personal against the general. This is where Berlin’s writing is so prescient. As he says, “Nationalism is an inflamed condition of national consciousness which can be, and on occasion has been, tolerant and peaceful. [But] it usually seems to be caused by wounds, some form of collective humiliation.” As Berlin says, “to be the object of contempt or patronizing tolerance on the part of proud neighbors in one of the most traumatic experiences that individuals or societies can suffer.” In Berlin’s example, the Germans, lagging behind their European and especially their French counterparts during the Renaissance “discover in themselves qualities superior” to their neighbors, qualities based on “unexhausted vital powers”, deliberate provincialism and the rejection of learning and sophistication. Berlin describes this as a “pathological exaggeration of one’s real or imaginary virtues, and resent and hostility toward the proud, the happy, the successful” (Italics mine). For me this is the beating heart of the book and the thing that makes it so extraordinary—and so timely: Aggrievement and shame are the real engines here! Fuck ideas, fuck fellow-feeling! Fuck level playing fields and “what relations between men have been, are, might be and should be.”

The uncanny relevance of this was really brought home to me as I listened to a recent “Trumpcast” episode with Virginia Heffernan and Ben Rhodes, writer and former White House staffer. Rhodes said the animating force of the far right in America this last decade has been disgrace. The hallmarks of the conservative agenda were so thoroughly repudiated by the spectacular failures of the financial crisis (deregulation) and the Iraq War that true believers were left with nothing but shame, resentment and vengefulness. Which puts us in one of Berlin’s convolutions right now, actually, one of those moments like the French Revolution that pit the rational against the aggrieved irrational in ways that almost can’t help but go crooked.   

Summon: A Short Essay on Making Music

Making music is, in one sense at least, really hard. I mean that it’s elusive. You can play an instrument by yourself for thousands of hours, as I have, often in a not very productive way, and you can play with others for hundreds of hours, and get hardly any music out of it. Even if you know the chords and you know the lyrics and you know the song form and the audience is clapping and you have the technique, usually something hasn’t quite happened. What isn’t happening all that time? What is music that is so elusive? 

There’s a trend now in discussions of “practice”, both in the strictly musical sense, like how to make your half-hour piano practice more efficient, what techniques to practice. But also in the more general and maybe more Eastern sense of “your practice”, the set of activities you do routinely and with intention to improve your skills and your self. In both these senses I myself am deficient, and am most often noodling mindlessly on my guitar or not being intentional enough about my actions in any sphere, let alone the musical one. 

On those rare moments when music happens, however, you really feel it. You can be playing something solo or, even better, suddenly find that you and the rest of the band are making something, holy shit!, making music! It’s there!

The way I think of it is like a seance. Playing summons music, though not often. The deepest feeling I have about music is that it’s its own thing, a rare presence in the room, a creation that sits apart from its participants. And isn’t this what art is, after all, what creation is: You made it and now it’s there.

As at a seance (I imagine), you can be “doing” the seance and not quite feeling it. Maybe the table shakes a little bit, maybe someone thinks the air has gotten colder in the corner. But then: the seance works and there is a real manifestation. And everybody knows it. A being has been summoned into this room with us. This is music. We are a string quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello—but there are five…entities in this room.

Time is one for the main mediums (ha) of this summoning, too: The music has its tempo, and when it’s there you don’t feel like you’re having to keep time for the music. You just feel the music’s time, just as you feel the harmonies. They are there. Present. When the bridge of the jazz standard comes you all drop into it, relaxed in spacious time divisions and fooling with them because the music is with you, non-contingent, not fragile, it’s keeping things going, at the tempo, in that key.

And to summon music, you must of course listen. Even as you are playing. To listen and perform at the same time, even just by yourself, is rare! As rare as music is.