Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Uber, Lyft, and Various Customer Experience Frustrations

So I've been busy with a lot of business travel and this week found me in downtown Miami. Over the week, I've had several experiences with both Uber and Lyft, including some bad ones that you'll see on my Twitter feed, but I thought it was a good time to share a few observations.

First, on Uber versus Lyft -- this has been mixed. Over the past several months, we've tried to use Lyft more. For one reason, when we spoke to the drivers, most -- particularly those that drive for both services -- tell us that Lyft is better for them. They say that the company is nicer and that Lyft pays them better. However, there is not always as many opportunities on Lyft, so many drivers find themselves drawn to the Uber side for that reason.

Similarly, we were told that here in Miami, Uber had recently run something like a week of a "$3.05" special, where all rides under a certain distance were only $3.05 -- great for riders but terrible for drivers.

Then earlier today I had my bigger mess. First, I tried to order a Lyft ride and the driver came close to where I was, apparently clicked the indicator that he was here, then proceeded to drive to the destination that I had entered into the app. In the process of watching this and trying to figure out what was going on, I tried texting the driver, to no avail, and then calling. The person who answered acted spoke with a heavy Latin accent and almost seemed to act as though I had called the wrong number. One important observation on this experience -- if you're in the theoretical ride, there is no cancellation button. I would have liked a WTF button myself. What happens if something is going wrong with the ride? Wouldn't it be good to have some way of alerting the ridesharing service?

Eventually, my not-ride ended and freed up the app, but not before I'd switched over and requested a ride from Uber. This one drove up, but also seemed to have the wrong pick-up location. When I called the driver to let them know where we were, again, "no speak Spanish" was repeated several times followed with nothing audibly coherent beyond that. Since this driver hadn't "picked me up", I cancelled. The next thing I know, I received a receipt from Uber for a $5.00 cancellation fee.

Each company's customer service practices differed as well. With Lyft, my Twitter posts (and perhaps my accessing the help function in their app), triggered them to look at the charge, refund it, and even offer me a credit on a future ride. In contrast, Uber hardly responded to my Twitter complaints and, when they did, suggested that I go through their site to question the charge. Too busy I suppose.

Don't get me wrong, since most of these Lyft rides are business related items that will just go on my expense report, credits and discounted rides are not really a big incentive to continue to use the service, but I understand what they're trying to do and, practically there's a limit on what tools are available to a business in customer service issues like this.

Overall, while I've mostly been happy with my Lyft experiences, I've hit several times when Lyft has popped a warning screen that higher rates were in effect -- something that usually deters me from requesting a ride with them -- only for me to switch to the Uber app and see no rate increase in effect. Don't get me wrong, if I get an alert from Uber that there is surge pricing in effect, I refuse to use the service. I am very much against these rate multipliers. Given a rate multiplier, I will quickly switch to a cab, period, end of story.

Perhaps the worst thing was, after you've had a bad experience with both the rideshare companies, you start to wonder what will the result be if you book your return trip from the destination with them. In several locations I've gotten the same driver before, what happens if it's the same driver or drivers again? This is the kind of thing that nags at you and, frankly, I'm not sure that credits really answer.

Monday, May 9, 2016

When Southwest Airlines Queueing System Fails

About a year ago, I wrote another blog post about Southwest Airlines and some of their frustrating business practices. As I mentioned in the post, "Southwest Airlines is a great example of one of those love-hate relationships that just make you crazy." This morning found me on the hate end of the spectrum once again.

As you might have seen from my Twitter feed, I'm gearing up for about two weeks of travel. My trip includes about five cities and some cross country travel. Normally, for cross-country travel, I've found that I prefer JetBlue as their planes provide a human amount of leg room, but unfortunately, several of the cities that I need to visit aren't served by JetBlue. What's more, to book a trip like this on United or American would have been difficult -- and priced out at a couple thousand dollars, more than double the cost of Southwest. While I usually try to avoid Southwest Airlines for cross country flights, this trip was pretty much impossible without choosing them.

In fact, my trip was so complicated that our existing corporate travel software couldn't book it. I have so many legs on this trip, I needed to contact our travel agent and have them book it. And this is what kicked off my latest frustration with Southwest Airlines.

It turns out that, unbeknownst to me, the travel agent didn't put my birth date into one of the reservations. This is required information for you to obtain a boarding pass. Now, in a world of reserved seats, leaving out information like this is not the biggest problem -- you most likely have a specific seat booked. However, Southwest Airlines with it's "check-in 24 hours before your flight to obtain your place in line for boarding", errors and delays with check-ins can be a significantly greater problem. In my case, it turned into errors trying to check-in on both the Southwest App and their web site, followed by a call to their customer service (and a long hold time), all the while "critical" seconds were ticking away, moving me farther and farther back in the check in line. And at the end of the experience, what did I get? Essentially, the equivalent of Southwest Airlines saying, "Bummer man, I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip."

Set Up For Customer Service Failure: The Southwest Queuing System
In the old days, Southwest Airlines numbered boarding line made sense. You'd arrive at the airport, check-in, and they'd give you a little plastic boarding tag. If you wanted a low A boarding number, you showed up to the airport early. It also meant that usually the first people on the plane were those skittish travelers who arrived at the airport two hours early for a domestic flight. Of course, it sucked for business because if you arrived at the airport at the last minute, you were trying to cram your carry-on in around Aunt Susie and Uncle Pete's haphazardly placed bags in the overhead. It sucked so bad that Southwest created their Business Select that automatically gave you an A1-15 boarding pass -- for a premium "business" price.

With the advent of online check-ins, Southwest set up a system where you could check in and get your number 24 hours in advance of your flight. At times, I've wondered why it seems like many of the same "traveling on vacation" people are ahead of me in the line. I suspect that the same thing that made Aunt Susie and Uncle Pete show up two hours in advance for that flight is the same thing that has them sitting around by the computer on the weekend waiting for the time to tick over -- for them, it's a big vacation, but for me it's the Sunday before a business trip.

The other irony is that several people have built apps to automatically check you into your Southwest flight, although Southwest has apparently been very aggressive at sending cease and desist orders to stop web sites that enabled you to automatically check you in. Why? Southwest charges $15 to let you automatically check-in as soon as you can. You can still find some coding tools to automate your browser - let's be honest, scripting an activity like this to take place isn't that hard - but Southwest is bound and determined to monetize this part of the transaction.

So let's talk about all the failure points that happened during my transaction and how Southwest could have improved the process.

1. Travel agent books the flight. Provides incomplete information. Shouldn't the system validate the information and determine if all information was provided? Shouldn't it prevent saving a record if essential information is missing? This is like web application 101.

2. Once the flight was booked (a couple of weeks ago), there was no follow up. Nowhere in the flight information does it indicate that incomplete information was provided. Considering that I'm signed up on their RapidRewards program and my flights were linked to my RapidRewards account, you'd think that they could have sent an automated email saying "complete your flight information in order to streamline your check-in process." As it turns out, there was other information missing from my reservation as well. Why can't you see this information in the Southwest App?

3. Checking In. When I tried to check in, the error message in the app said, "Parameter value is missing. Error 400500134 (Flvu9-BDQFi1L9WKitm9Vw-API)". In hindsight, I can kind of put together something about what the error means, but at the time it was unclear what the problem was. Even better was when I tried to check in through the Southwest Airlines web site. Here's the screen:
Gotta love "Reference Code: 999999999".

So yes, these error messages suck. But what sucks worse is that they potentially leave you with the impression that there is some larger system error at play and to simply keep trying. Keep trying while the sand ticks out of the hour glass and more and more people check in ahead of you.

4. I call Southwest. Automated phone navigation system. Long wait times. These are things I would expect. The Southwest customer service agent was friendly and helpful. She updated my information and checked me in. When all is said and done, I wound up with a number in the upper B boarding.

But here's the problem. Through no fault of mine, I've had a frustrating customer experience with you, Southwest Airlines, driven entirely by your "check-in for your place in line" business practice. You have created a situation where you're managing customer experience on a resource that potentially diminishes in value as time goes on. It's similar to the customer service issue with Stubhub -- if they cancel a transaction, that ticket you ordered is possibly gone and your opportunity may be gone. Whatever number I could have had if your check-in process had worked correctly is gone.
Now, as a customer service organization and a business, what are you going to do about that? As an example, Stubhub waived their transaction fees for our transaction. While that might not have helped if the tickets had been particularly limited, it was at least a gesture on their part to make things better within the scope of things that they could do. Stubhub did good customer service to address a frustrating customer experience.

What did Southwest Airlines do? Essentially said, "bummer man". Did they offer a number from the high A-list usually blocked out for business travel? No. Did they offer me some sort of credit (essentially meaningless on a business fare)? No. Did they even offer me drink tickets or something like that? No. Bummer man.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

My Customer Experience with Stubhub

If you've seen my Twitter feed, then you probably saw me expressing frustration with Stubhub last week. Essentially, we were in Montreal last week and thought it would be fun to go see the hockey game. After comparing ticket options both locally and online, it looked like our best option might be through Stubhub. In order to purchase tickets through Stubhub, you need to have an account, so I created an account and purchased a pair of tickets.

While everything seemed fine initially, when the confirmation email still hadn't come through, I started to worry. When I logged back into my new Stubhub account, I was informed that there was a problem with my account and the transaction was cancelled. Annoyed, I tried contacting Stubhub through their online chat feature. If it wasn't ugly before, here's where it gets ugly. (I've deleted the customer service rep's name and replaced it with "Guy". Since we were in Montreal, you should pronounce it "Gee").
 Me: Hi Guy. I just received an email now that says that my order was cancelled?
 Guy: I see you are concerned about an email for your order
 Guy: Let me take a look for you
 Guy: Yes, I see the situation. Our system thought there was an error with this account. It has been deactivated for your protection. Our Trust and Safety team is currently reviewing the issue and will contact you in 48 hours or less. What is your best contact method?
 Me: probably by my cell phone, (provided)
 Guy: Thanks 
 Guy: Is there anything else I can help you with?
In short, no tickets for you, your account in on a 48 hour hold, for your protection(!) and, uh, is there anything else I can help you with. Oh, and no, reactivating your account is not one of the things that I can help with. After a few lines of chat after this, Guy hung up on me. He was done. End of story. And since my account was locked, I couldn't re-access the chat feature.

So My Complaints Moved to Twitter
Many customer service organizations monitor Twitter these days, and surprisingly enough, complaining on Twitter can actually get you a customer service response faster than most other platforms. Why? Well, as far as Guy was concerned, he answered my question, completed a customer service inquiry, and that was that. I was a success metric. However, on Twitter, I'm in the middle of a global town square yelling to everyone about bad business practices and frustrating experiences.

Within probably 10 minutes, I received a response from Stubhub's customer service on Twitter. Mind you, I've triggered customer service responses from Airlines and everyone's favorite cable provider that's not a monopoly, but most of the customer service responses that I've received through their Twitter communications were along the lines of, "bummer man, I'm sorry our product isn't working for you," end-of-story. To the credit of the Stubhub Twitter support, they actually responded with action.

Stubhub's Twitter team explained why their fraud engine kicked in, then informed me that they would work with their fraud group to get an accelerated solution. Within about 10 minutes, they contacted me again to let me know that the account had been unlocked. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my Twitter feed, they can't do anything to replace the transaction that their system interrupted. Had the event tickets been in even higher demand, I might have been unable to attend the event. As it was, we were able to obtain a similar set of tickets.

Overall, I would say that there were some winners and losers throughout the experience:
  • Stubhub's online chat guy -  FAIL. All you had to do was stay on the line and keep answering my questions until we were done, but you didn't.
  • Stubhub's Twitter Team - Good Job! I was pretty frustrated with Stubhub's business. You did a great job of engaging me and, while I didn't come away from the experience singing the praises of Stubhub nor was I "amazed" by my customer experience, you left me with a feeling that I was treated fairly within the constraints of your system.
  • Stubhub's fraud engine and it's potential impact on your access to "limited resources" - Needs Work. There are a lot of ways that this could have gone less wrong or that it could have been worse. If they locked up and just cancelled a transaction -- just because -- and tickets were limited, I would have left with an extremely frustrated experience.

Friday, March 4, 2016

FAIL: Convention Data Services and Xpress Connect Lead Capture Software

Happy New Year. It's been quite a while since my last post, not for a lack of things to write about, more just the result of a busy schedule. However, today's post is one that pushed me over the edge and really required a full retelling.

Tradeshow Lead Tracking Software. It's been around for a long time. There are a handful of companies that do it. Scan badge. Connect to database. Provide registration info from database to exhibitor. Over the years, I've seen many versions and even heard varying rounds of complaints (e.g. "we need paper to write notes on".

A couple of years ago, the companies that provide lead scanning services decided that it would be a whole lot more efficient for them if the got out of the hardware business (remember those scanners with the rolls of printer paper?) and just started selling licensing codes for their own app. After all, most people already had iPhones or iPads, with an app, the company could charge the exact same amount that they did for the base system without having the costs associated with their hardware. For the companies doing the lead scanning, it was WINNING in all caps. After all, software is easy, right?

Well, shitty software is easy.

In principle, badge scanning software should be easy too. Scan a bar code or a QR code using the built in camera, access the registration database, then log that scan / visitor. The reality is not quite so straightforward. The old hardware units didn't connect to the registration database until after you turned the device in, so they didn't need network connections. As anyone who's been doing events for a long time knows, most event spaces are not very network friendly. At conferences and events where they provide wifi, it's often over-subscribed, not secure, and ultimately unreliable. If you bring a device with cellular access, like a smart-phone or a mifi, you may have connectivity, but there are lots of event spaces with big cellular dead spots -- convention centers and hotels buried under lots of steel and concrete. What this means is that depending upon network access and a cloud database is nice in theory, but not so solid in practice.

So, imagine you're designing software for event spaces. Would you really want to write software that requires network access to validate and log-in? Well, possibly, as you probably want to validate that access code that you've just charged somebody one badge scanner for. But, once you've validated and logged in, should you make it default to automatically sync on each scan? That sounds like software that is expecting a reliable network connection. And yet, CDS Xpress Connect software does just that. It even generates errors if automatically sync is selected but there's a problem with the network. How do I know this? Because one of my iPad devices had some occasional problems with the wifi network from the mifi we were using at Photonics West.

But as I said, this is not the first. When they first rolled the software out, I had multiple iPads assigned for badge scanning. Now, as it happens, I set up those iPads with the same user ID. As the show got underway, we began experiencing issues with the iPads. I set them up and both seemed to be working, but then one would stop working. I visited the desk at the show. They talked me through a couple of steps and it seemed like everything was working again. So back to my booth. In short order, it turned out that the other device wasn't working. After my second trip to the support desk, it became clear that you couldn't have two devices registered under the same Apple ID running the software.

For Photonics West, I was prepared for the hassle. Rather than using "identically" configured iPads, I wiped one of the iPads and reformatted it with a different Apple ID. On launching the software at the show, I still had problems with the Xpress Connect software. It didn't just want a unique Apple ID, I needed a separate "Log in" for their software. Once again, I had to create another login before I could get devices to work.

It was early in the first day, one of our first visitors to the booth, and the sales guy went to scan their badges. Instead of scanning the badge, the Xpress Connect software began issuing error messages. "Unregistered badge" or some sort of similar nonsense. Sure enough, not only did it error on the visitors, it was erroring on our own booth staff. Off to the support desk again, a wait in line, and a test. "It seems to be working okay." And back to the booth. One guess as to root cause was that the sales guys might have tried using an app from a different show and a different lead system. We tested on the booth staff and everything seemed to be working. As the show went on that day, the same thing happened. Finally, I identified the active sync feature and disabled that -- assuming some network issues causing problems -- and that seemed to eliminate the errors.

Bad Software Meets Lame Customer Support
So collecting your leads after the show is over usually runs the same way. You go to the site provided by the software company, use a code or a link that they've given you, and you can access your leads. But this time, things didn't work out that way. First, I did a final sync on one of the iPads, a niche business with a limited number of badge scans. Next, I went to do a final sync on the main iPad, the one with nearly 100 badge scans. When I accessed the site to download my leads, all of the niche business leads were there, but none of the active business leads were there. I went back to look at the iPad and try resyncing with the Xpress Connect software. But the situation went from bad to worse. Now the iPad was not showing any leads. I couldn't seem to even access the information in order to resync it or, if I had to, manually enter those leads.

So I called Convention Data Services help line. After navigating their phone menu -- a not particularly straightforward one at that, given that it seemed more focused on sales than support -- I got to a "customer support" person who attempted to walk me through the steps of syncing the iPad. They then went on tell me that, oh yes, they could see my data was there -- the data from the niche business iPad. That's it. As I tried to explain to them about the second iPad, they informed me that they couldn't help me and that I'd need to talk to "Tech Support". They gave me the guy's name and number, said to call, leave a voice mail, and that he would call me back before the end of the day. This was Monday morning California time and Convention Data Services is located on the east coast, so that meant I could expect a call back by 2:00pm. Meanwhile, I was left to sit and stew, reflecting on the possible impact of having spent a week's worth of time and effort at Photonics West only to have it evaporate.

As with many customer support issues, the longer I sat with no feedback indicating that Convention Data Services recognized my problem and would actually be able to help me, the more anxious I became. Shortly after lunch, I called customer support back and got a different person who basically gave me the same answer. I asked if I could create a ticket or something -- something that might register that they were actually aware of my issue. "No, I can't do that. Tech support would need to do that." And away they went.

As you may already be aware if you follow my Twitter account, 2:00pm came and went with no response from Convention Data Services. I spent the evening thoroughly pissed and ranting on Twitter.

The next morning at 6:30am California time, my phone rang, followed by an email from the Tech support guy. While I missed the initial call, the email was essentially an echo of the basic steps to sync an Android tablet. The Tech Support guy, however, at least knew that I had two devices running and only one of them had synced. In going through the steps to force a sync, it didn't work. The Tech Support guy also provided me with an admin password to access restricted parts of the software. This would enable me to email the database to the Tech Support guy. Unfortunately, when I tried to do that, the database email attachment was empty. Eventually, the Tech Support guy had me export the log files and email them to him. As it turned out, the log files contained all of the badge scans -- even the ones that produced the error messages. Using the log file, he was able to upload the data to their online system.

The FAIL Take-away
There are a host of FAILs in this story. First, there's the software design fail. The active sync feature actually caused more problems than it seemed to solve. Considering that the software is coming from a business that's supposed be very familiar with the limitations of the tradeshow environment, this design decision seems questionable.

Next, there's the basic support FAIL. When you look at the challenges that I've gone through trying to get two devices to run, it looks a lot like a documentation and product information problem. Add to this that at Photonics West, whenever somebody came up to ask for their codes, the people behind the desk needed to "have them scan their screen" because apparently, the Convention Data Services team didn't bring along a printer.

Next, there's the customer support FAIL. When you're customer is having issues, you need to provide them with something that says, I recognize that you have a problem and I am working with you to fix it. While I recognize that Convention Data Services probably deals with many technologically-challenged people and that many issues are probably more customer error than problem, for someone selling software at $400 per use, there's no excuse for not having modern customer support tools. Convention Data Services, let me introduce you to Zendesk. Or, Something?

Finally, there's this FAIL with the sync process. First, consider the irony -- if I hadn't had trouble syncing, I never would have gotten the information from the badge scan errors, because they didn't show up in the regular list. At the same time, consider what the impact would be if your lead scanning software failed completely. All of that time, all of the expense of your show, all gone. Not only is there the loss of potential business, there's also the loss of goodwill for the customers that you spoke to expecting calls back. If your business doesn't call them, what's their take-away?

With this in mind, the lack of concern from Convention Data Services as I moved through the process was quite troubling. Sure, it's easy for us to take lowly badge scanning software for granted, but in a way, it holds some critical business data. Your trust in it's reliability is actually pretty important. In the old days of paper print outs, you had a fall-back, insurance against the failure of the third party system. With their new system, you can get print-outs, but those print-outs still get all of their info from the cloud.

All in all, I wish I had a some sort of positive take-away for you, but at this point, this is what I've got.

Friday, November 20, 2015

One Feature I Could Use

You know what would be a great feature? If you could test and evaluate different licenses. Sure, you can get a free 30-day trial if you're not a customer. But what happens if you want to evaluate a "Chatter Plus" seat, or an "Unlimited Edition Seat"? How can you tell if the seat will meet your requirements and work within your existing environment?

Me, I want to be able to implement a test -- to see what seat would look like -- before I commit to changing my contract. Is it too much to ask?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Wired Looks at iTunes Alienation of Music Lovers

I've written about it a number of times before, Apple has taken a design and product strategy that is alienating and abandoning many of their most passionate users. In Apple’s iTunes Is Alienating Its Most Music-Obsessed Users, Jesse Jarnow explores how iTunes has evolved into a platform that sucks for people with giant music libraries. Earlier this year, I'd come across an article with related complaints held by classical music fans.

Essentially, all of the crap that they've added into iTunes, plus this overwhelming requirement for iTunes to phone home to Apple, really sucks if you've built a music library. In that way, the core functionality of iTunes has been superseded by stuff that doesn't really relate to music library at all.

If you think about that on an abstract level, this product that used to cater to a very specific set of requirements -- typically the most demanding, passionate users of an application -- has evolved into a giant business engine shaped around promoting selling you crap that they want to sell you. This is less aligned with Steve Jobs, the guy that took days and weeks to decide on the right washing machine, and more aligned with the fluff and seasonality of the fashion industry.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A nice post on the lack of Age Diversity in Silicon Valley

Here's a nice post on age diversity that I came across this morning. One thing that struck me as funny though. For all of the lack of age diversity in Silicon Valley, if you look at the companies that actually make silicon and the semiconductor manufacturing industry, you'll see a different landscape.

How Can We Achieve Age Diversity in Silicon Valley?