Jun 222007

What An Ugly Way to Use Email

What An Ugly Way to Use Email

From our friend Andy Sernovitz comes this tale of horror about how Vonage is using viral email.  Talk about creating NEGATIVE word of mouth.  Yikes!  This qualifies Vonage for my customer service Hall of Shame with Verizon, United Airlines, WebEx, and FedEx/Kinko’s.

Thanks to my colleague Margaret Farmakis for the inspired headline.

May 012007

The Very Unfriendly Skies of United

The Very Unfriendly Skies of United

The 6 a.m. flight from LaGuardia to Denver is unpleasant to begin with, but the idiots who set customer-facing policies at United seem to have found a new way of making it even less pleasant.

I’ve long-hated United’s “Economy Plus” seating, which gives the first 5-10 rows of coach a huge amount of leg room at the expense of all the other rows in coach.  American, by contrast, has more leg room in all rows of coach, so I can actually work in any seat on an American plane, laptop and all.  On United, the seats in the majority of coach are almost unworkable.

United used to just automatically put you in Economy Plus if you were a frequent flier with status.  But now United is taking Economy Plus to a new level — they’re automatically NOT putting you in Economy Plus and then charging more for it on the spot.  You can move yourself into Economy Plus for free online ahead of time, assuming there are open seats in it.  So really, the new policy is just designed to hold a gun to customers’ heads at the airport.

This morning’s flight is a prime example of how not to treat your customers.  It’s 6 a.m., and coach is maybe — maybe — half full.  And the announcement comes on that United’s new policy is that you are forbidden to move seats into Economy Plus after takeoff, even if there are open seats (which there are).  You can only do that if you pay $44, and a United representative would be happy to take that money at any time.

My colleague Angela had the best line on this situation — it’s as if United has put up an invisible electric fence in the middle of coach.  Whether or not there’s a ringing and a shock, it certainly feels like United is treating its customers like dogs.  They now join my customer service Hall of Shame along with Verizon (the anchor tenant) and Fedex/Kinko’s.

Filed under: Business

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Mar 262007

Book Short: Crazy Eights

Book Short:  Crazy Eights

In honor of Return Path being in the midst of its eighth year, I recently read a pair of books with 8 in the title (ok, I would have read them anyway, but that made for a convenient criterion when selecting out of my very large “to read” pile).

Ram Charan’s latest, Know-How:  The 8 Skills That Separate People People Who Perform From Those Who Don’t, was pretty good and classic Charan.  Quick, easy to skim and still get the main points.  The book lost a little credibility with me when Charan lionized Verizon (perhaps he uses a different carrier himself) and Bob Nardelli (the book was published before Nardelli’s high profile dismissal), but makes good points nonetheless.  Some of the 8 Skills he talks about are what you’d expect on the soft side of leadership — building the team, understanding the social system, judging people — but his best examples were particularly actionable around positioning, goal setting, and setting priorities.  The book reminded me much more of Execution and much less of Confronting Reality (which is a good thing).

For years I’ve felt like the last person around to still not have read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, so I thought I’d skip straight to the punchline and read Stephen Covey’s newer book, The 8th Habit:  From Effectiveness to Greatness.  Fortunately, as I’d hoped, the new book summarizes the prior book several times over, so if you haven’t read the first, you could certainly just start with this one.  The book also comes with a DVD of 16 short films, some of which are great — both inspirational and poignant.  Unlike most business books, the 8th Habit is NOT skimmable.  It almost has too much material in it and could probably be read multiple times or at least in smaller pieces.  The actual 8th habit Covey talks about is what he calls Find Your Voice and Help Others Find Their Voices and is a great encapsulation of what leading a knowledge worker business is all about.  But the book is much deeper and richer than that in its many models and frameworks and examples/tie-ins to business and goes beyond the “touchy feely” into hard-nosed topics around execution and strategy.

Now I’m looking for the DVD of the first season of Eight is Enough!

Jan 072007

They’ve Destroyed Both Companies

They’ve Destroyed Both Companies

Just when you thought Verizon was in fact the worst company in the world to do business with (see my post here if for some reason you’re not on that page), along comes FedEx/Kinkos.

I used to be a huge fan of both companies.  I was even a fan of the merger and felt like it particularly made sense in light of UPS purchasing Mailboxes Etc.  And I don’t know if our experiences are representative, but Mariquita and I have had nothing but bad experiences with both FedEx and Kinkos for the past couple of years.

Kinkos is the worst — most of the people are surly, unhelpful, not smart, have massive attitude, and ignore you when you’re standing in front of them.  They never have packing materials, and when they do, they charge you for them and make you pack your own box in their store.  Their systems have no idea who you are.  We now walk out of our way to the UPS store, where you walk in, hand them a pile of stuff, give them your phone number, and walk out in 2 minutes while they pack your box up and bill it to the credit card on file for your phone number.

And FedEx, which used to be great at its core business, has slipped tremendously as well.  Its drivers and delivery guys are spotty; sometimes ok, but sometimes they don’t even try.  Their definition of going the extra mile stops at the first foot.  And its 800# operators are awful — they clearly went to the Kinkos school of customer service.  At least their packages generally get there on time.  But at work, we’ve turned increasingly to use Mimeo to both produce and ship high-quality documents without having to print and deal with the FedEx stuff ourselves.  A MUCH better alternative.

Again, I just say, why can’t they all be as great as Zappos?  It’s just not that hard.  And Starbucks has proven that a quick service retail operation can be as great at customer service as an Internet company.

Filed under: Business

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Jan 042007

Book (Not So) Short: Raise Your Hand If You’re Sure

Book (Not So) Short:  Raise Your Hand If You’re Sure

I couldn’t get the catchy jingle from the 80’s commercial for Sure deodorant (you remember, the one with the Statue of Liberty at the end of it – thanks, YouTube) out of my head while I was reading the relatively new book, Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.  Written by HBS professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor, Confidence is one of the few business books I’ve read that’s both long and worth reading in full.

The book has scores of examples of both winning and losing streaks, from sports, business, politics, and other walks of life, and it does a great job of breaking down the core elements that go into creating a winning streak or turnaround (Accountability, Collaboration, Innovation).  Kantor also puts a very fine point on the “doom loop” of losing streaks and just how hard it is to turn them around.  The book also has a good crisp definition of why winning streaks end — arrogange, anyone? — and has consistent, but not preachy recipes for avoiding pitfalls and driving success.  All in all, very inspirational, even if many of the roots of success lie in well-documented leadership qualities like those expressed in Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Good to Great.  The book is good enough that Kantor can even be forgiven for lauding Verizon, probably the most consistently awful customer service company I’ve ever dealt with.

But even more of the roots of success and disappointment around streaks are psychological, and these examples really rang true for me as I reflected back on our acquisition of the troubled NetCreations in 2004.  That company was in the midst of a serious slump, a losing streak dating back to 2000, at the peak of the original Internet boom.  Year over year, the company had lost revenues, profits, customers, and key personnel.  Its parent company saw poor results and set it into the doom loop of starving it for resources and alternating between ignoring it and micromanaging it, and when we acquired the business, we found great assets and some fantastic people (many of whom I’m proud to say are still with us today), but a dispirited, blame-oriented, passive culture that was poised to continue wallowing in decline.

I can hardly claim that we’ve turned the business around in full, or that I personally made happen whatever turnaround there has been, but I do think we did a few things right as far as Kantor and Confidence would see it.  Her formula for a turnaround (Espouse the new message, Exemplify it with leadership actions, Establish programs to systematically drive it home throughout the organization) is right in line with our philosophy here at Return Path.

First, we accelerated the separation and autonomy of a fledgeling NetCreations spin-off unit, now our Authentic Response market research group, and let a culture of collaboration and innovation flourish under an exceptionally talented leader, Jeff Mattes.

But that was the easy part (for me anyway), because that part of the business was actually working well, and we just let it do its thing, with more support from HQ.  The turnaround of the core list rental and lead generation business of NetCreations, the original Postmaster Direct, was much tougher and is still a work in progress.  In the last six months, we’ve finally turned the corner, but it hasn’t been easy.  Even though we knew lots of what had to be done early on, actually doing it is much harder than b-school platitudes or even the best-written books make it seem.

The one thing that Kantor probably gives short shrift to, although she does mention it in passing a couple times, is that frequently turnarounds require massive major amounts of purging of personnel (not just management) to take hold.  As one of my former colleagues from Mercer Management Consulting used to say, “sometimes the only way to effect Change Management is to change management.”  Sometimes even very talented people are just bogged down with baggage — the “ghost of quarters past” — and nothing you do or say can break that psychological barrier.

Boy, have we learned that lesson here at Return Path the hard way.  I’m extremely grateful to our team at Return Path, from the old RP people who’ve seen it all happen, to the old NetCreations people who are thriving in the new environment, to the new blood we’ve brought in to help effect the turnaround, for playing such important roles in our own Confidence-building exercises here.  And I’m super Confident that 2007 will be the year that we officially turn the old NetCreations/Postmaster losing streak into a big, multi-year winning streak.

Anyway, I realize this may redefine the “short” in book short, but Confidence is without question a good general management and leadership read.

Oct 042006

It’s a Little Weird When Your Best Customer Experience of the Week is with the Government

It’s a Little Weird When Your Best Customer Experience of the Week is with the Government

Mariquita has been doing a lot of personal admin lately for us.  This week had a little surprise in it.

Verizon continues to be one of the most awful, painful vendors in the history of the universe.
At least their phone network is solid, since any interaction with the people at the company is so bad.  We came to the conclusion this week that they actually do some things which aren’t just the usual bad customer service or outrageous pricing — they have some policies in place that are literally designed to systematically rip off their customers.  The one we ran into was (after 45 minutes on and off hold, of course) that the data plans for Treos are prepaid for a month, but when you go to cancel your data plan, they tell you they HAVE TO cancel it the day you call, even if you have days or weeks left on your plan, and they CAN’T issue a refund for unused days.  But if you complain loudly enough, a supervisor can keep your service active through the end of your pre-pay, or can issue you a refund.  So in fact, they are telling their customer service reps to lie to their customers in the hope that their customers don’t push back so they can keep your money while not delivering your service.

She had a similarly bad experience dealing with our insurance company about car insurance.  State Farm just has a ridiculous set of procedures in place around changing car insurance that cause their customers to jump through hoops several times over for no apparent reason at all.  There have been several stupid things, but this week was needing to take a brand new car to get inspected before insuring it within three days of buying it.  But we had to take it to a specific mechanic on the “approved list” to get it inspected.  That place required an appointment (which meant two trips).  It couldn’t be done at the dealer.  Then the actual inspection lasted about 30 seconds.  Maybe they were just making sure there was an actual car, not a pretend car.  Harry Potter, beware.

And then came the surprise — Mariquita’s trip to the DMV to trade in our old license plates.  She was in and out in under 5 minutes with a prompt, efficient, friendly person handling the transaction with a smile.  Wonders never cease.

It doesn’t take a lot to be great at customer service, just the right mindset and culture.  It’s amazing that Albany (or at least a small pocket therein) seems to have figured that out before some of the biggest companies around.

Filed under: Business

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May 162006

Sticking it to United, Just a Little Bit

Sticking it to United, Just a Little Bit

I am sitting in the Red Carpet Club waiting for yet another delayed United flight, and there’s a small thing bringing me a little extra joy. I recently started using Verizon’s Broadband Wireless service, which is expensive at $60/month, but awesome since it basically works anywhere and eliminates the need for hotel, Starbucks, and other Wi Fi hot spot fees (and for a great tutorial on how to use the service to power two computers at once, read Brad’s post here).

I’ve long been annoyed at United — and American as well — for both charging a pretty sizeable annual fee to belong to their airport clubs and then soaking me for another $10 every time I’m in one just to use their T-Mobile hot spot.  Many people, including Fred here, believe that Wi Fi should be free everywhere.  While I think that’s a great idea, I don’t think it’s a god-given right.  And I don’t mind that Starbucks charges me to use their hot spots, since I may only be spending a couple dollars with them.  However, airline clubs that charge a lot of money for membership should definitely include WI Fi as part of the deal.

So my great joy today was *not* giving yet another $10 to United for the privilege of using the Internet. Thank you, Verizon (not that I don’t also have various complaints about Verizon, but that’s for another day).

It truly is the little things…

Filed under: Email

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Apr 052006

At What Price False Positives?

At What Price False Positives?

As has been covered in many places, including Direct and The Wall Street Journal, Verizon settled a lawsuit yesterday over “too aggressive” spam filtering, or what we in the business call false positives — filtering out legitimate, non-spam emails as spam.  This is a huge problem that part of our business at Return Path, our Delivery Assurance Solutions group, has been fighting for years.

The gist of the settlement is that Verizon is changing the way it filters spam to make sure more legitimate mail gets through, and that it is refunding various small amounts of money or free months of service to customers who complained about the problem.

I am NOT a believer in lawsuits like this at all.  Also, I think the act of filtering aggressively enough to catch the spam but not so aggressively as to cause false positives is a very difficult balancing act that most ISPs actively struggle with every day.

So the outcome here is that a bunch of consumers will receive money or refunds or free service ranging from a few dollars up to potentially $100.  The seven class plaintiffs are going to receive $1000 each for their troubles.  Oh and for good measure, the lawyers are asking for $1.4 million in expenses.  Don’t even get me started on that one.

All that said, though, it’s interesting that there’s now some kind of economic cost to false positives on the books.