Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Mourning Media: Welcome to the New Pando Paywall

Earlier this week I clicked over to the Pando site to discover that the graphics that I'd become familiar with were gone. The site had gone through a redesign. Whenever a site that you visit frequently goes through a redesign, you have to step back and take some time to digest it. It's easy to get caught up in the changes and respond negatively, but the designer in me knows that it's better to understand the framework before you lash out about disrupting the familiar. But when I popped into my first read, I quickly came across this message below the opening paragraph or so.
Want to read the whole article?
Pando members get full access to every article published on Pando, including our full archive. You’ll also get free access to Pando Monthly events, each event’s live video stream and our full video archive. 
A quick search through the front page brought me to Welcome to a new Pando, a post from Sarah and Paul regarding the changes to the site and the business model. Going forward, they will operate Pando on a subscription basis. You can read their post to see their breakdown of the strategy and the business decision.

When it comes to operating a modern media business, the landscape is harsh and lined with the remains of the many who have fallen over time. In that kind of environment, it's a little difficult to criticize business decisions made in an effort to adapt to the times -- it's not like there is an obvious winning strategy. That being said, for me, this marks the end of my regular visits to the site.

I understand the argument behind the subscription and paywall model, but the reality is that I'm not a subscriber. Ten bucks a month isn't a huge expense, but the mere element of transaction crosses a threshold that a deeper part of me can't buy into. It's like Gandalf standing at the bridge of my wallet, "you shall not pass."

I like the content on the Pando site. They do good work. I've bought tickets and been to several Pando Monthly events -- even gone through the effort to travel to the city on a weeknight for them. But for all of the ones that I've been to, there have probably been two or three times that many that I haven't been to. Events that didn't connect with me or where the effort to get to the city seemed greater than the value of attending the event. Buried in that equation is probably a greater multiplier on the site content. I like some, but they majority doesn't cross that pay/cost threshold. It's not an uncommon problem. Fundamentally, it's the problem facing media and content in this era. 

Personally, I like the model that Talking Points Memo uses. They have a subscription basis for certain premium content along with discussion and comments. At the same time, they publish a certain amount of basic content that tends to cover news and other issues. There is value in visiting the Talking Points Memo site, even if you are not a subscriber. And, although I am not a subscriber, there is something in my brain that connects with the framework of the relationship -- being a subscriber gets you to a deeper, more connected relationship.

As I say, I can't fault the team at Pando, but I will mourn their passing from my regularly visited sites. In this case, I don't find myself moving away with the same sense of frustration that I had when Techcrunch began it's collapse. In that case, the changing AOL-inspired editorial voice, the erosion of talent, and ultimately the terrible 8-bit site redesign made the site virtually unreadable for me. In that same way, call me old school, but I also liked the old PandoDaily. This was the site design that featured the Pando Ticker on the side, providing curated links and news that seemed interesting but not worthy of repackaging, and a central section of original, significant content.

Perhaps it's just me, but I think news has a different voice than magazine. Part of that may reside in that subscription and price barrier. Consider, it's one thing to say, "dude, there's some crazy stuff happening and here's my interpretation of it." It's entirely something else when you're saying, "dude, give me a dollar and I'll tell you about some crazy stuff and what I think about it." With the Talking Points Memo subscription, it feels more like an additional layer, frosting, or investing into a deeper research arm of their business. With Pando, I'm sure that their magazine style content will be great, but I will miss their voice in news coverage.

Friday, June 19, 2015 This is Enterprise Software Support?

I'm currently "on hold" waiting for customer support to get back to me. You'll note that on hold is in quotes because I'm not actually waiting on a telephone line. Rather, I'm waiting for a call back following the customer support agent's attempt to telephone me from a number that I don't recognize to a desk phone that I almost never answer. So here I am, sitting in limbo with a problem that I would characterize as urgent. Like waiting for the cable guy to show up. And thinking to myself, so this is "Enterprise Software Support".

I think I've written about this topic before, but as it's timely, it deserves repeating. Several years ago, restructured their customer support offering. If you wanted to pay several thousand dollars a year, you could get premier support. Premier support is pretty nice. If you have 50 seats or more, you get a dedicated person who, supposedly, acts almost like another system admin for your company. But the main thing you got from Salesforce was a phone number -- you could call them if you had a problem. 

For the rest of us, the rule is pretty much, "don't call us unless your business can't connect." Got a problem? You should start by asking somebody else. Ask a friend, ask a neighbor, ask someone in our community. That doesn't help? Well, you can always submit a form on the help and training site. In which case, our typical response time is 2 business days.

Keep in mind that, for my seat alone, our business pays close to $1500 per year. And we have a number of seats. Also keep in mind that we've been customers since the mid-2000s. I mention that because I think it's important to contrast the support that I've received from with the support that I received from the team at AgileBits (Heroes of Customer Service) last year. This is the company that makes 1Password. Keep in mind that the entire amount of money that I spent on 1Password probably doesn't amount to 10% of the cost of on year's seat license for

Monetizable Tiers or Table Stakes?
As a consumer, you're often sold on two tiers of service -- a business level and an everybody else level. Businesses have expectations and needs. If a business has problems with certain types of services, it starts a chain reaction. As a consumer, we know that we can't really call Google for help with Gmail, but the amount that we pay for customer support feels reasonable when measured against what we pay.

But for a business selling software services to other businesses -- and a service that many price at the upper end of software in it's category -- you expect a better baseline level up customer support. Whereas once I considered it a strength, I now consider is a rather significant question mark on the platform. Consider, in nearly ten years as a Salesforce customer, I've probably needed Salesforce customer support a total of four times. I'm at about once every three years or so. Does that justify a premier support charge?

EOL: Oakley Killed My Sunglasses

When a product is something that you wear or you use daily, it can be a bit distressing to suddenly discover that it's no longer viable. Imagine finding out your car was on it's last legs because they didn't make tires for it any longer. This is kind of what happened to me recently when I wandered into the Oakley store expecting to replace the scratched up lenses in my Half-Jacket sunglasses only to learn that the product that I had was no longer supported. The store didn't have any lenses left for them, nor did they have any at the outlet store in Milpitas. In a moment, I felt that deep sense of loyalty to Oakley eroding and yet another frustrated product blog post coming to the surface.

I have been a loyal Oakley customer since 1985. My first pair of Oakley glasses were Factory Pilots. You may not remember them and if you saw them today, you would probably never consider wearing anything like them -- they were closer to ski goggles than sunglasses. The reality is that Oakley made the first true cycling sunglasses. Anyone who remembers Bernard Hinault's crash wearing Vuarnet sunglasses in the 1985 tour knows, glass lenses were bad if you were a cyclist. Here's a nice related blog post highlighting how Greg Lemond changed the face of cycling wearing Oakley sunglasses. Oakley became synonymous not just with cycling, but with sports-active fashion.

Over the years, their product line-up has bounced around a bit. Factory Pilots were made obsolete by Blades which became M-frames. For about 20 years the basic M-frame design has been pretty much the same. The lenses connect in the same way. If I were to get out on the bike today, my M-Frames are my windshield.

But their fashion-focused glasses, they've been all over the place. Weird goggle-glasses and bug-eyed futuristic looking designs -- take the Sub Zero glasses -- every couple of years Oakley did something new. Or at least it seemed that way. Reality may be a bit more conservative.

Brand Predictability
As a consumer, on a certain level you could count on a couple of aspects of the brand. If you selected a product that was more classically activity focused, you could expect to count on a certain level of consistency in the product line. Over the years, I've replaced lenses, nose bridges, and the little rubber pieces that go on the ends of the ear pieces. To a certain extent, this is what you expect from performance products. While it's possible that I may not find the same food products at Trader Joe's next week or that Target will stop carrying the flavor of Softsoap that we like to use, I fully expect that I could take my bicycle to the "right" shop and get replacement parts for my Campagnolo components. Sure they are nearly 15 years old, but Campy designs their components to be serviceable. The same is true with my Silca pump.

This is why there is a little part of you that just falls through the floor when your at the Oakley Store and they tell you that replacement lenses for your glasses are no longer available. Sure, there are the promotional elements of the brand, but your common sense brain is telling you -- they're just plastic lenses. And what's more, moving to Half Jacket 2.0 as an upgrade seems like it's all about forcing you to buy a new plastic frame even though the frame you have is perfectly fine and would have worked perfectly well except that Oakley decided that it wouldn't. Because, hey... Fashion.

You know, once upon a time, I think that they actually had a lifetime warranty on their frames.

It's at this moment when the equation changes. In your mind, your asking the question, "are you telling me that you can't provide a channel to make and purchase old replacement lenses? It's just a piece of plastic." At this moment, there is so much marketing that's been undone. You're not thinking about Plutonite, Iridium, HD Optics or any other branded aspect -- the magically elevated relationship has just been undercut. Your brand girlfriend has just told you, "I love you but, when are you going to stop hanging out with all of those losers you call your friends." But Baby, we've been together since 1985!

Cycle of Life
As marketing pros seeing this from a product life cycle standpoint, we all understand certain aspects of the cycle of life. Not all products can run indefinitely. As tome point, sometimes you try to make changes to "energize" your customer base. From an Oakley product manager's perspective, when was the last time that I actually purchased lenses? Perhaps with a change like this might spark a new wave of transactions. Or it may change my behavior in a different way -- opening me to consider competitive products. As it was, that is exactly what happened -- my replacement lenses are not from Oakley; rather, they are from Maui Jim. Ah well. As for Oakley product management, I completely understand, cycle of life and all.

You brought me "new" options for sunglasses and all you got was this blog post.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Linked In's Crappy Streamlined Interface

Is it just me, or do you also think that Linked In's interface kind of sucks. I know that it's been a year or more since they made this revision, streamlining most of the content into more of a Facebook-like interface. And there's the thing that used to appear either in the mainstream or on the right sidebar -- some interesting things about people you may know or something. Now they've buried it in sort of a click-down list near the top right. Starting at number five, somebody you know has a work anniversary. Curious about more, you're gonna have to click. With the faded teaser of more to come, it almost looks like an element you could easily mouse-over/scroll through. I've not clicked chunk of info since the redesign. Never.

No, these days, the "feed" seems like an endless series of ads and sponsored posts. Where I once found myself checking the site at least once a day, now I'd be surprised if I go there twice in a month. After all, how many times to you need to see other work people posting word or math puzzles.

Congratulations LinkedIn, you've just about streamlined me out of your user base.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Southwest Airlines: Monetizing Imaginary Money

Southwest Airlines is a great example of one of those love-hate relationships that just make you crazy. On the one hand, with their unique approach to service, Southwest Airlines revolutionized our expectations of low cost airfare. So often, when you see some of the financial results come out for the various airlines and Southwest is profitable while other airlines struggle, you can't help but cheer. In part it's like, "see, you can be a nice, fun environment with low cost airfares and still be profitable." But regardless of however many quarters Southwest outperforms them financially, they never seem to learn the good lessons and the airline industry as a whole seems to strive for the gold-standard in sucktastic customer experience, the cable company.

But yes, in the midst of all of that, there are aspects of Southwest Airline's service that you want to love. Price is one. Once upon a time, you could hop on a plane to LA and return for under $100. These days, that number looks closer to $200, but it increasingly comes with caveats.

Over the years I've spent many hours in airplanes on many carriers. There have been a few years where my percentage of travel was close to 50% -- not as great as some, but not insignificant. It used to be that there was a certain amount of credit given to seasoned travelers. For most of us that traveled on business, your main goal was a streamlined trip through the airport travel experience. That meant a carry-on because you didn't have time to waste with checked baggage. It also meant your were flexible with your routes; changing flights was no big deal. But when most of the airlines started charging for carry-on baggage, suddenly the overhead space became crowded with Aunt Susie and Uncle Pete's luggage. They didn't care about efficiency, they just wanted to save money -- or they were afraid of losing their luggage.

For business travelers and premier flyers, "perks" like boarding early weren't about anything but getting in front of the chaos that comes with boarding. Aunt Susie and Uncle Pete, meandering down the aisle, trying to find their seat. Putting their bag in sideways because the "carry-on" didn't seem like it would fit. Filling the overhead bin space with bags of snacks and souvenirs that they didn't have room for in their big checked luggage.

Southwest gets lots of these travelers who don't travel frequently. Families. People on vacation. People who may rarely fly. Their system is great if you're one of these travelers, but the chaos sucks for experienced business travelers that benefit from efficiency. No assigned seats means if you arrive for boarding at the last minute, you'll be lucky to find a middle seat in the back of the plane and your bag is probably getting checked -- no waiting around sending those last minute emails before you board. Probably the worst part of that is that you could have probably squeezed your bag in somewhere, but those people filled the bin with sideways bags have taken that space and often the Southwest flight attendants just let the chaos happen.

These are just a few of the reasons why, for business travel, Southwest kind of sucks. If you add in that, in the old days, their was no in-flight entertainment system (admittedly now an extinct feature), as a business traveler I never chose Southwest for long duration business flights. It's one thing to put up with the chaos for a 1 hour flight, it's another thing entirely to deal with that for four hours or more.

I think that this is part of the reason Southwest tried to create a "business class" boarding process and associated fare. Unfortunately, it doesn't really address the issues with late boarding and last minute, it just puts you at the front of the line when they open it up. For most Southwest flights that I've been on since they added it, it's not a time when people are actually getting seats, it's just one more thing that the gate attendant has to say before they begin letting everyone else on board.
Where Southwest Outperforms the Other Airlines
As noted, Southwest Airlines sucks for business travel on so many levels, but they actually do offer certain advantages when it comes to the number of flights. While the traditional carriers like United, American and Delta may offer only two or three flights per day to primary travel destinations, Southwest often runs six to eight flights. Don't want to catch the 6:00 am flight to LAX, take the 8:00am or the 10:00am. You can get Southwest flights throughout the day. When you're planning your departure from your home airport, it's usually easy to predict your schedule, so lots of flights may not seem like a big advantage. But where it is helpful is -- if you know you need to arrive in LA by 5:00pm, you select an early flight, say 12:00pm, and if something happens to delay that flight (incoming flight problems for example), you probably have two or three options for later flights that will still get you to LA in time.

Historically, this has also been true with return flights. If something happens and your on Southwest, there are probably several more flights that day that could get you there -- you probably won't be stuck overnight. As I mentioned in my Twitter posts related to this, in the past, I've also happened to show up at the airport early and been able to get on an earlier flight just because it wasn't crowded and they let me go as standby.

Unfortunately, twice in the last year, I've booked flights on Southwest specifically because of the multiple flight advantage, then managed to wrap up my business and get to the airport early, hoping that I might be able to get on an earlier flight. Both times, the Southwest customer service rep informed me that I couldn't change my flight without paying more than $100. When I wrote about this on Twitter, here's what Southwest Airlines customer service had to say:
and this was their comment on me noting the "no change fees" promotion in the jetway boarding my flight.

With nothing to do in the airport on Wednesday afternoon, I had lots of time for Twitter.

Technically speaking, Southwest is correct. If you're changing the ticket and there is a new corresponding fare and you're not charging something extra to make that change, it's not really a change fee. But while legally your statement may be accurate, as a customer, it feels a lot like a "fee" to change. Put a different way, if you have to argue the nuance of language with your customer as though you are a lawyer, you've already lost a marketing battle, particularly when the nuance involves just how much it's going to cost the customer.

Still, when you drill down into it, the tone underlying this debate is essentially something like this, "you're trying to get over on us." You selected one of our "loss leader" low cost fares, and now you expect to be entitled to all of the 'privileges' associated with our airline. By "switching" from one flight to another "not full" flight, you cost us. Parenthetically speaking, what does this change cost? It costs the potential to charge the increased far that you would have paid if you planned to make that change. In other words, it costs imaginary money.

On Wednesday, when Southwest didn't want to change my flight and put me on standby on one of two earlier flights, they saved themselves $200 of imaginary money. $200 that I didn't spend, $200 that they didn't make, and $200 that they didn't lose by just making the change for free.

But if that's not bad enough, here's why Southwest sucks for business travel. Here's an example snapshot from my corporate travel engine. I picked a Tuesday in June for an example "trip" to LAX. As you can see from the screenshot, I have a couple of options (I limited them to Southwest between 10:00am and 1:00pm for simplicity).
If you were booking through the Southwest Airlines web site, you'd see this fare as a Wanna Get Away fare -- the fare with no changes available. But, from the corporate travel engine, it's just another flight. You can dive into the terms, but there's another factor here -- the corporate travel engine just looks at the price, $148, and bases policy calculations on that number. Want flexibility? That fare isn't shown and, if it was, it would be out of policy because this fare has set the baseline.

Then again, we should be happy that Southwest fares are even displayed. For years, if you wanted to book Southwest, you had to go outside of this system and jump through corporate hoops just to select them.

So congratulations Southwest Airlines. You're watchful management of my airfare has saved you hundreds of imaginary dollars over the past year and all you really lost was the "happy" that used to be connected with the "customer" when you described me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

FedEx Flounder: A Tale/Fail of Two Shipments

So the latest company to seriously piss me off is FedEx. While to a certain extent, shippers are like airlines -- it's all good until the screw up, but they all screw up one time or another -- what distinguishes a shipper (or should) is how they handle their screw up. Fed Ex choked this one pretty hard, but UPS failed so bad the last time, that I still haven't intentionally shipped anything with them since. For me, this is probably the only thing driving any loyalty to Fed Ex.

On to the story...
On Friday, we ran by the Fed Ex office in Sunnyvale to drop off a couple of shipments. It was after lunch, but early enough to avoid the shipping cut-off rush. We had two shipments going out, one box of samples bound for Atlanta and being sent cheap shipping, and four boxes of items that needed to be delivered on Monday for a conference / tradeshow. This would be our booth, brochures, equipment, the usual stuff. Normally, for this type of thing, the event often starts on Tuesday, but this is one of those events with a reception on Monday night.

I arrived in the afternoon on Monday, planning to set things up before the 6:00pm start of the reception. My booth and such hadn't arrived. After checking with the hotel bell desk and trying to track things down, I eventually looked up the tracking info. It looked like it was scheduled to be delivered by 4:30. The status confirmed that it had already arrived at the airport. I went back to my room to deal with email and wait for 4:30.

As I got close to 4:30, I began checking the FedEx site to see if delivery had been confirmed, but nothing. I went to the bell desk to check again. Nothing. Finally, I called FedEx (it seems like it's become more difficult to find a phone number for them these days). When I finally got them on the phone, it became clear that it would be delivered by 4:30... on Wednesday. WTF?!?

I got through to a customer service person. I explained the problem. Her answer -- sorry, we can't do anything. It shipped on Express Saver and it's not scheduled to deliver until Wednesday. She said that they couldn't do anything to expedite it or deliver it sooner because it was already at the airport in a large container and that nobody knew where it was. I tried again to explain the urgency and request alternative solutions. No answers. I was hosed and she didn't want to offer me any alternatives.

It took me a couple of minutes to calm down. I won't share with you the words I used to describe FedEx at that time, but let's just say they had me channeling my driving in traffic with idiots vocabulary. Thinking quickly, I contacted my Fiance and my office. My fiance offered to help get stuff together and run it to FedEx if I thought it would help. I asked her to head over to my office, then contacted my office to let them know she was on the way. Then I spoke to one of my colleagues -- a sales guy for a different business unit than the one on display at the conference. Thanks to a Facetime video call, I was able to talk him through collecting up materials from old versions of the tradeshow booth so that I could build "Frankenbooth". He packed it up and then he and my Fiance raced it over to the local Santa Clara FedEx office to drop it off for First AM shipment before the cut-off.

Frankenbooth arrived early this morning. I still didn't have my brochures or product samples, but at least I was able to build a backdrop. I still had a problem though. FedEx wasn't planning to deliver my shipment until Wednesday by 4:30, but the show was over Wednesday morning and I was scheduled to leave before they ever delivered the booth. I decided to take one more shot at getting help from FedEx customer service.

With my second call, tracking informed me that my packages had been delivered to the local substation and were scheduled for deliver tomorrow by 4:30. I explained to the customer service agent that I wouldn't be here and needed them to send my packages elsewhere. He informed me that if they rejected the shipment, it would be sent to New Hampshire, the address listed on our account. Ultimately, we decided to reroute the shipment back to our offices in Santa Clara. He also mentioned that additional charges may apply.

Now here's the thing. I'm pretty sure that the reason why everything arrived late is that the clerk at the FedEx office entered the wrong class of service because she was confused by the first box she processed. And I understand that they are unwilling to do anything to "speed up" the shipment -- even though they clearly had enough info to move my packages closer today. But considering that I just paid a premium to ship a replacement here First Overnight, the idea that you want to charge me, the customer, for returning the original packages since you couldn't do anything about getting them to me when I told you that I needed them by.

At the end of the day, the reason why I use FedEx is because, when we had a similar situation with UPS, they had no idea where the package even was. It was somewhere between here and there, even though it went here and back to there while it's other buddy-packages were delivered. In this case, FedEx knew where the packages were and the packages were all together, but armed with that knowledge, they didn't want to do anything. Overall, I would rate this as their infrastructure working, but a customer service FAIL.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Big Star Documentary:Journey to a Place You Probably Won't Understand

Netflix streaming service is a funny place. There are a ton of things to watch, but at the same time, it's kind of like watching last year's cable TV -- lots of channels really equates to a ton of things that you don't want to watch; but they are playing all of the episodes of that WB show that you never considered watching when it was on.

Having just finished binge-watching whatever show it was, I was browsing through the Netflix muck looking for something to watch when I happened upon this documentary about the band Big Star.

For me, it was one of those awesome trips down memory lane. It's loaded with interviews with key figures in the Memphis music scene -- not the Sam Phillips / Sun Records / Elvis scene, more the It Came From Memphis scene. Without specifically saying it, this movie connects to the difference between what rock and roll was and what it has become. You can learn a lot about music in between the lines in this movie.