Monday, October 21, 2013

United Airlines On Twitter: My First Sighting of Actual Next Gen Customer Service

For several years now, we've heard the tales of companies monitoring social media so that they could respond quickly to customer issues as the blossomed on Twitter and Facebook. I remember reading stories about Comcast investing huge amounts on their social media customer service infrastructure. So it's always struck me as kind of funny when you're facing an issue or a complaint, then you post something on Twitter only to hear the sound of crickets. Nothing. Silence.

In some ways, I think of this more as the legend of social media customer service. Like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, you hear stories, but you never see any actual evidence of their existence.

I remember one time experiencing a very frustrating issue with Comcast, then attempting to use every outlet possible to contact their customer service. It turned out that the long wait on the phone was the fastest -- I never saw any response on Twitter.

So imagine my surprise the other night when I was sitting at SFO, wrestling with a flight delay for a red eye back east on my way to a technical conference the next day. Normally, I try to avoid red eye flights, but it was the best option for balancing my schedule requirements with the exhibitor set-up schedule. But, since the conference was in one of those not-an-airline-hub locations, my red eye was supposed to connect with a regional jet later that next morning. The flight delay was looking, increasingly, like that connection was not going to happen.

It's times like this that I miss the old days with my Red Carpet Club membership. The customer service people in the Red Carpet Club would always give you straight answers and they'd do everything that they could to help you out. So when I went to the customer service station inside the terminal to discuss what things looked like, I got some vague, disappointing news.

The best that she could tell me was that, not only was I likely to miss my connecting flight, but all of the flights leaving Newark that next day were full. They couldn't get me on another connecting flight until after 10pm the next night. Besides not really being thrilled about the idea of spending 24 hours with United just to make a west-to-east cross country flight, arriving at midnight would mean that my show set-up day would be lost.

Not satisfied with the answers that I was getting there, I decided to let the problem simmer for a bit and headed over to gate to chat with the workers at the gate desk. They took a look at my flight schedule and determined that I was indeed looking at problems. But, rather than settling for that, they dove in and found that they could put me on standby for a 12pm flight that was booked full but probably wouldn't wind up being full. While it wasn't a perfect answer, it struck me positively enough that I took to Twitter to comment, particularly since this wasn't the first time that the UA people at the gate were quite helpful to me. Twice this year flying out of New Orleans, the two guys at the gate have jumped through hoops to arrange or rearrange my schedule and and save me from a potential nightmare of flight delays and being stranded at various airports. Those guys were awesome and the two women at the counter this time also receive a ton of thanks.

Anyway, to wrap up this long story, I was surprised to receive a reply to my Twitter posts from @united. I happened to catch it just as we were finally boarding the delayed flight. I was so surprised, that my first thought was -- is this from a real person or an automated chat bot. When I arrived in Newark the next morning, they had replied again to tell me that they were real. And, @united, I would have replied with a DM if I get some time to sort through the stupid Twitter interface to figure out how that once easy-to-navigate function works in the current version of the app.

So, my take-aways from that trip:
  1. The weekend red eye may be a problematic flight. End of the day on a weekend seems like a good recipe for delayed flights. Yet another reason to avoid the evil red eye.
  2. Don't give up on customer service. Have patience and a positive attitude -- there are some of them out there who really will jump through hoops to help you if you give them your support.
  3. There may not be a Bigfoot or a Loch Ness Monster, but there is a social media customer service team at United Airlines and they do listen to Twitter.
By the way United, don't think that this makes us all squared up on everything that we've been through together -- we still have some pain points. But that being said, more than the customer service support, your little note made my day. Chappeau!

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Decline and Fall of Suburban Silicon Valley

One a recent Sunday, I found my way headed down to the Farmer's Market in downtown Mountain View. Once upon a time, this was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning, with a short drive through the neighborhoods to the quiet downtown. My most recent Sunday was spent battling traffic, fighting for parking, and dodging the dynamic obstacles created by people who seemed to have just managed to eek out passing grades on their driver's tests. In short, Sunday morning traffic is looking a lot like what traffic used to look like on a Friday evening.

Over the past couple of years, our quaint little downtown has been gradually transforming. Increasingly, downtown Mountain View has been getting more and more crowded. It used to be Friday and Saturday night were difficult. These days, it's hard to find a day or a time when you can just pop on over to downtown for a quick bite without running around, hunting for parking.

For those of you who are new to the area, downtown Mountain View has changed a lot over the past twenty years or so -- as with all of the downtown areas in the little cities throughout the bay area. Over the years, each city has taken their own different approach as toward managing their downtown, with a myriad of results. From the gentrified mall-on-a-street experience on Burlingame Avenue to the it's-always-changing-but-never-really-changes aspect of downtown Palo Alto, our towns always seem to be looking for the right formula to make their downtown area special.

Probably the best thing that Mountain View did for downtown was when they opened up the parking areas along Castro Street for restaurants to serve food outside. It made downtown Mountain View the land of the sidewalk cafe. This one small change quickly transformed the area from yet another little downtown to a go-to experience when the weather is nice.

The change was good for restaurant business downtown. Between open air dining and a host of start-ups that all took off back around 2006, weekends were often busy, weekday lunches were usually crowded, and there was a general excitement in the air. You could feel a real Silicon Valley vibe in the air.

Downtown Mountain View also plays as an interesting contrast to Murphy Street in downtown Sunnyvale. Over the years, Murphy Street has waxed and waned. There are times when it has been packed, crowded with bars and restaurants, full of people and activity. Then other times, you could go down there and it was like a ghost-town with empty buildings and a handful of people on the street. It's always a reminder of the contrast between there and Castro Street.

When Busy Becomes Too Crowded
It used to be that parking was easy in the lots just off of Castro. On a busy night or a weekend, you might have to park two blocks away, but it was seldom difficult. Then, on weekends you needed to hunt for a space, and even the multi-level garage filled up. Then Thursday nights got to be as bad as Friday. Now, it's common all week.

Coming home on Friday night, I couldn't help but notice the traffic. While it's not unusual to see traffic backed up on southbound 101, with crowds headed to south San Jose and points beyond, I rarely see southbound Central Expressway being equally backed up. Lawrence, San Tomas, Montague and eastbound 237 were all full of people headed from the places where there are offices to the places where there is housing. And by the time I got to Mountain View, I was blown away by the back up on southbound El Camino going into Sunnyvale -- gridlock from Bernardo back past 85. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think that they were all going to the same place, I was just struck by the volume of cars on roads that usually have much less. We appear to be in the process of a pivot from Silicon Valley to Silicon Parking Lot.

Increasing Population Density: The Beaver Dam of Silicon Valley
Anyone who lives here understands the challenge of housing in Silicon Valley. Rents are high and the cost of buying is always one exponential level higher than most salaries can afford. Our ranks our full of people who would love to own, but ownership tends to be the super-thrifty, the one-time windfall recipients, the speculators and the people who bring a fat wad of cash from somewhere else. With all of this pressure on the market, housing is scarce.

The solution to this used to be further and further out of the area. Development in Pleasanton and Livermore pushed out into the central valley, while south San Jose pushed into Morgan Hill and Gilroy. Locally, there has been an ongoing push to higher density housing and development in places that didn't have housing before. I remember a quote from one of the Mountain View city council members when they approved the first zero-lot homes between Dana and Villa, "I was skeptical that anyone would buy them, but then I was surprised how quickly they sold."

And with the success of Santana Row, cities and neighborhoods throughout the area keep building these types of developments, celebrating the idea of mixed use property and two-to-three story townhomes. In a few years, this style of building may be more common in the area than the iconic Eichler. In the downtown Mountain View area, we've seen the blocks that used to be the lumberyard or single story office buildings leveled and replaced with three-story residential buildings. In the area that I used to work in Milpitas near the Great Mall, they have dozed entire blocks of single story commercial properties and they're replacing them with three-story housing.

While you might think that all of this housing would relieve some of the pressure on the housing market here, it hasn't. There are bidding wars on houses, lotteries to get into some of these developments, and demand to consume the growing supply.

What it all adds up to is a lot more people in the area. More people, more cars, more traffic. And at the same time, we're not really adding any infrastructure. No new lanes on the freeway, no wider roads, no new trains or subways, no new bus routes. In some cases, we're adding more parking, but that doesn't really count. And while it's true that we probably have more people driving electric and hybrid cars in our area than other parts of the country, they are all still cars.

We are drowning in traffic. The flood of vehicles on the roads, of people in lines at stores and restaurants. And it's not something that can really be managed on the local level. Here in Mountain View, we can't keep them from zoning more high-density housing in Milpitas. And while we're happy to see a healthy Google bringing jobs and supporting the local economy, the idyllic park-like setting around Shoreline is looking more and more like urban rush-hour all the time.

The Relationship Between People and Infrastructure
While I would love for this to be a "You Kids Get off My Lawn" post, that sort of assumes that we have lawns. But seriously, there is a real world relationship between the infrastructure and the number of people it can support. Imagine if Silicon Valley was a stadium. There are only so many seats in the stadium. You get to a point where, it doesn't matter how many people want to come inside, you can't sell more tickets than the stadium can support, because there are real world limits -- bathrooms, seats, exits. Right now, we're in a situation where people just keep printing and selling tickets into the area.

Is it reasonable to accept a future where all of our roads are crowded like the Bay Bridge at rush hour? Can we find some place to put a "lot full" sign on the area?

Realistically, I don't think we're going to be able to manage or limit the number of people coming into the area. Instead, I think we need to come to terms with what this increasing density means on our transportation infrastructure. Otherwise, we can look forward to the day when VTA Slow-Rail -- the light rail train from Mountain View to San Jose takes about an hour -- seems like Elon Musk's Hyperloop. That is, assuming that you can get a seat.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How Macys Lost Our Dollars: Store Credit vs Customer Service

We've been customers of Macy's for a long time. A long time. For many things, Macy's is an ideal shopping solution:
  • They have lots of brick and mortar locations, making it easy to browse, to make returns, and to buy gifts for people that they can easily exchange in their area.
  • They do a good job with their online shopping experience. The interface is reasonably intelligent, you can return stuff to the brick and mortar stores, and the pricing is usually consistent between online and the store.
  • They have periodic sales and competitive pricing.
  • Most of the merchandise that they stock is typically above-average quality compared to most discount retailers.
These are the kinds of things that we look for in a modern retailer, the benchmark for being able to make a purchase without worrying too much about the caveats and and considerations that might make you look carefully for alternative vendors before you buy.

And, like most department stores these days, Macy's has their own store credit card.

Store credit cards have historically been a way for retailers to make some money on finance charges and entice you to buy in their store. Historically, it's been sort of a win-win for retailers as it increases the likelihood that you'll an active customer while they make money selling their stuff and on finance charges. It's typically such a good business that store workers are given bonuses on the number of credit cards they open up.

In the past, these store credit cards were reasonably tolerant of consumer behavior. It reminds me of the old days when my cell phone bill could be fall a couple of months in arrears, then the phone company would remind me to pay it -- which I always did -- and we would repeat the cycle. Then suddenly, out of the blue, the phone company would freak out if the bill was three or four days past due and threaten to cut off your service. Sometimes you just want to say, "hello, this is the real world calling -- where am I going to go? I've been a customer for six years on the same expensive plan and you have me under contract." But this is the disconnect between the modern science of Accounts Receivable and our traditional understanding of customer service.

This same this-is-the bill-payment-rule-and-we-swear-we're-not-being-dicks-even-though-we-are approach to accounts receivable seems to be expanding to all ends of the business world. In the B2B world, you find yourself rolling your eyes when you hear about your several hundred thousand dollar a year in revenue customer who can't get the $5K replacement part shipped out because they're on credit hold. You get nicknames for the accounting department like, "the sales prevention department". And you wonder -- in all of those accounting classes, do they just not teach the importance of the customer? Do they not teach about how essential the customer is to the balance of the whole business equation and about how so much of our marketing dollars are spent on getting the customer excited and making them happy so that they keep giving us money?

So here's our story of how Macy's finance group sucks and why they cost the company business
We buy a lot of stuff at Macy's -- not just at holdays, but throughout the year. Our charge card and our credit line go back all the way to the 1990s. Within the household, several of us love shopping on line, so it's not uncommon to wind up purchasing things every week or two. A lot of times, it's just clearance items. Sometimes it fits, and sometimes it doesn't, which means a trip to the local store for a return. We've bought luggage there, small appliances, even my mattress.

Since multiple people sometimes shop using the same charge number, it's not unusual for charges on the card to be different than you'd expected. And on several occasions while we've been in the store shopping or returning stuff and shopping some more, we found out that we still had an outstanding balance on the card. Typically, this is easily remedied because you can pay on the account at any of the cash registers. Sometimes, after becoming concerned about how the account got behind, not only did we pay the balance, we payed extra in order to maintain a surplus balance. All well and good. Until recently, when we wound up pulling a credit report and discovered that Macy's had reported several delinquencies.

The Definition of a Clerical Error
Imagine a scenario when you are at a cashier you ask the cashier for your balance so that you can pay it. What happens if the cashier tells you the wrong number? Under some circumstances, that might be difficult to prove, but it doesn't take a detective to understand what happened when the difference on the amount paid is under the balance by less than one dollar and is, essentially, a transposition of numbers in the amount. That, my friends, is what they call a clerical error. Whether that's the clerk telling the wrong number or entering the wrong number, it's a pretty understandable wrong number.

When that small difference unknowingly hangs in the balance for over 60 days, it raises a flag with Macy's accounting software. And that became a hit on the credit report.

So after we learned about the credit report issues, we spent some time with Macy's financial services customer service to clear everything up. For the most part, they were reasonably nice and understanding. They said that they would clear the issues off of the credit report and everything sounded okay.

The Last Nail
Fast forward a couple of months. It looks like the credit report has been cleared up and everything is good. We're sitting around one evening doing some online shopping, and they have a nice clearance sale on coats. We find several that we like, but they don't have stock in any of the stores within 100 miles, so we can't go and try them on. We decide to order all three, expecting to return at least one. But instead of selling us three coats, Macy's sold us zero coats that night. The transaction was rejected.

Alarmed that the balance issues had returned, we were sent into a panic. However, the balance on the account was paid and everything was in good standing. After digging into the cause, we learned that the crew at Macy's finance had reduced the credit limit on the charge account from $2000 to $100. The transaction wouldn't go through because the cost of the three coats was over they limit. Apparently, this kind of thing is not uncommon. In researching this, we even found the story of an employee who got a $50 limit card along with a coupon for a discount on the first $100 worth of stuff that they purchased on the card.

Boycotting Macy's
I'd like to tell you that we're absolutely not going to buy anything from Macy's going forward. But the reality is that, we're not that absolute. But Macy's is now on our avoid list. Shopping and buying habits are hard to change, but Macy's card services is pushing us to change ours. Given a choice, we will probably opt for shopping elsewhere.

Thanks to their card services team, Macy's marketing group has just been handed a tremendous weight. a giant turd that they have to overcome to win our business. As a professional marketer, you feel for them -- perhaps because you've felt their pain and the sense of sabotage courtesy of the accounting group.