Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Intelligent Design

Nope, not what you were thinking I might be writing about.

Some of you know I was the telecommunications manager for a large company in Fairbanks. While we had many departments, we went from needing 3-4 operators to an automated attendant system incorporated into the phone system. With over 700 extensions

Any system has to have a goal of getting people through their system to where they need to go as quickly as possible as often, it is through an 800 number and more importantly, because it is good for the customer. Yet many systems seem designed to wear out the caller until they give up.

The University of Alaska Anchorage Computer Support Department auto-attendant, which gets funding to provide students, staff, and faculty with support, manages to violate several of the common rules. First, it takes one over a minute before they give you the choices. Even in November, they tell you in advance about their summer hours. Secondly, once they get to the options, you have to wait until all the options are listed before hearing the option to speak to a representative. Once you select that option, you then go into a queue that tell you which caller in line you are. When I called, I started out as caller #6 and eventually ended up as THE caller. The final coup was to then send me to voice mail to leave a message.

When I mentioned this poor design to the Chief Information Officer, he cc'd an email to the manager in charge, saying I had a bad experience and told him to get in touch with me. Not exactly what I'd call a single bad experience, just poor design. Of course, I never heard from that manager, despite his boss' direction.

I also submitted a customer service report through their website, but never heard back. The whole reason I called them was to get a contact in their networking group, because there was no directory listing for that individual that worked. Interesting when the department responsible for creating that directory doesn't even have a functional directory for its own staff.

Another example might be hiding behind FAQ's and not allowing even direct emails to request customer assistance. I was investigating Google Checkout, their competitive effort to eBay. Google, one of the richest companies on the internet, practices this customer obfucation pretty thoroughly. They won't reply to direct emails to support@google.com or customersupport@google.com (or any variety of these). They send you a reply to go to their "contact us" on their website. Nothing one can easily find allows you to get anything other than a canned answer to your problem. If you can find a way to submit a problem to them, the reply tells you how much they value your opinion, but because they get so much correspondence, they probably won't reply. They say they design their system or make changes based upon customer input. Who are they talking to? Any customer who would trust their credit card and bank account number to a company with whom one has absolutely no ability to contact in case of a problem would be nuts. I'm not the only one to notice this as in this
Infoworld article or in this blog. There is an irony in rightfully slagging Google Checkout, when they are now the owners of my blog hosting site AND I used google.com to find sources for this section of my blog.

Amazon merely hides behind email, though does have a toll free number for customer support that is advertised by common folks on non-Amazon sites.

In a voice mail system, the first rule is to always allow a 0 to get to a live human being. Keep your message short. It is a waste of everyone's time to say "please listen carefully as our options have changed to improve service". And, as UAA violates, don't put your troubleshooting tips in the body of the main greeting. Also, don't bury your options more than 3 deep.

There are more obvious design rules, but this is for starters.

It seems as companies use technology to hide behind when dealing with customers. Some probably figure if they can wear a customer down, the customer will give up. That may appear to be a less costly option, but keep it up and that company will lose its customers. Dell found that out when outsourcing the help desk to India. While they might speak perfect English, I could only understand every 5th word and I consider myself very sensitive to accents. The Indian call centers also had a way of very courteously telling you only their canned responses, not actually in solving the particular problem. As a result of lots of negative attention to crappy customer service, some of their call centers were brought back to the U.S.

Of course, if there are so many problems with a company's service that they can't afford to hire enough live operators, they probably are doing something wrong in the quality of their product or core service they are marketing.

Sometimes what it takes to get attention of a company is to search the web for the corporate officers, try to figure out their emails if not obvious and email them. I've been successful with Fedex, Alaska Communications Systems, and Earthlink doing this. Dell was a total waste of my time, though I got a call from a corporate flack who refused to put anything in writing or get back to me on a problem. Even his recommendation for a certified letter to their legal office resulted in no response.

I'm sure others have had experienced similar experiences, but when the CEO actually notices, then it might make some difference. Are there any companies that DO a good job at customer service with technology? I'd like to hear.

Tuna in a Can

Has anyone wondered why a can of tuna is more like a half-can of water or oil and a half-can of tuna mush? The can still advertises tuna IN water or oil. I can't even count on making two sandwiches with a single can, even if I add lots of extra stuff, like mayo, onions, relish, celery, etc.

Of course, you can buy solid albacore for 3x times the price, but you give yourself 3 times the mercury as well. Such a deal.

Monday, December 11, 2006

GVEA vote results

It seems like a long effort on my part, but it is time to re-evaluate and move forward.

Here are the vote results for the two ballot issues submitted to members:

* * * * * * * *

For transferring assets to the GVEA G&T
Yes 2653 41%
No 3878 59%

Vote fails. GVEA G&T assets remain with GVEA.

* * * * * * * *

For allowing all but board member and spouses to participate in GVEA alternative energy programs (e.g. SNAP)

Yes 4304 66.4%
No 2180 33.6%

Vote passes. All but board members and spouses may now participate.

* * * * * * * *
Check out the more detailed vote tally

See http://gvea.blogspot.com for comment on this or further GVEA issues.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

GVEA second to last posting

The GVEA website now includes links to the GVEA G&T, under board of directors. We'll see how long it stays there.

After announcing results of the vote Mon. night of the G&T proposal vote, I would like to move GVEA discussions over to a separate blog http://gvea.blogspot.com so we can work to get two way communications between the GVEA organization, board and membership.

It will also allow this blog to get back to other things without being buried in GVEA issues. There is life after GVEA (:-).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

GVEA G&T Articles of Incorporation and the smell test

Listening in on KFAR radio today to board members Dan Osborne and Tom Delong discuss the G&T proposal, one caller requested GVEA to post the G&T Articles of Incorporation. I had already done so, extracted from GVEA G&T's larger RCA filing back in June 2006. A list of documentation was also posted. Sorry they didn't mention it on the radio show as I think I've presented a pretty complete picture of the proposal with links to all sides of the issue.

As far as the radio show, it went on for 1.5 hours. Everyone appeared to have their chance to present their points more than once and got a number of callers to prompt the occasional spirited exchange.

I did hear an official word that 5369 ballots had been turned in as of Wed. 5 pm. Anybody wanting to come down and observe the ballot counting process should know it will be started next Mon. Dec 11, 2006 6 pm in either the GVEA Board Room (space willing) or the Training Room on the 2nd floor of the Operations Bldg. behind the administrative bldg. at GVEA offices on Illinois St. My understanding is that MAC members will be doing the counting.

I've learned a lot during this G&T affair, but one easy recommendation to GVEA is to separate the ballot collectors from the staff who are charged with advocating on one side of the issue, in this case the P.R. folks. Not that I believe any ballot stuffing is going on, but, as Government Affairs Director Tom Irwin might say, "It doesn't meet the smell test".

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Turn in those ballots

I went down to GVEA to turn in my ballot in person a couple days ago. Jokingly I was asked if I wanted to share how I voted. Let them guess.

Besides the full page Newsminer ads, GVEA also produced 15 second radio and TV spots. Very basic, just the big $30 million figure flying across the screen, with any of 4 board members telling you to vote so they could save you money. Kind of reminds me of sale advertisements, where you have to spend to save. Pretty dishonest presentation IMHO, even given the limitation of 15 seconds.

So I hope everyone that will has turned in a ballot. The last time they can be turned in (received by GVEA) is 5 pm next Monday, Dec. 11, 2006.

Friday, December 01, 2006

In Your Face

GVEA has taken out 3 days of a full page ad to promo the G&T. I've posted it here, but have done a bit of editorial corrections, as I see it. GVEA spent $5,000 of the members' money on this ad.

While missing board member Delong declined to be in the ad due to the advocating for the G&T, perhaps it would have been better to have him included with a caveat that he has concerns about the G&T proposal. It appears kind of one sided as is.

That being said, the ad is pretty much in your face, overkill, far more than one would expect for something that only saves the members' some of their capital credits in advance. I was told by GVEA executive management that, if the members reject this, the issue will be dropped. Others have expressed conspiracy theories, which I would like to reject, but it makes me wonder why not just let the members vote? Is it just the ego of potentially not getting their way?

I do worry that GVEA will fail to meet their financial target in 2006, which will put them in default for the second year in a row, causing them to have to increase their margins. I certainly hope this is not the case, but they've been on a big spending spree the past few years and don't show signs of tightening their belts in a number of areas. I don't mean those that would create safety or service issues for consumers.

I think that there ought to be deeper scrutiny of the budget beyond that of staff and the board, if they can't seem to do it themselves. There was just a several hour 2007 budget workshop with the board, but the board appeared to approve it with only minor modifications. I'm not a big fan of wholesale budget cutting, but we the consumers pay for those who won't strategically conserve during lean times. If it is our utility, as the ad indicates, how about making the budget easily available for members to critique?