Customer Experiences

Since I’m new to Dallas, I really don’t know my way around yet. I can find the grocery stores, WalMart, Krogers, Central Market, Whole Foods, etc., and a few other places (like the Apple store and Barnes & Noble) by now without reverting to my GPS apps on my phone. Yay me.

However, I needed to take someone to catch a flight and I’d never been to Love Field, where Southwest takes off. So out came the gadgets beforehand so I could have an idea where I was headed. I tried both because a friend had similar problems a few weeks earlier and commented about it on Facebook. She had the issue with Google Maps.

What happened was that as I typed, it suggested things. Once I got as far as “Love Field” it suggested “Love Field” and Love Field Airport” as two separate results. Love Field (without the Airport part) was closest to the top, so I picked it. What it actually found were hotels near Love Field that also had Love Field as part of their description.

So what does this have to do with customer service if I just picked the wrong search suggestion in my maps application? Because it does not matter why it led me wrong, only that it did. If it had offered up everything with Love Field in it, it should have also dropped a pin on the airport property itself so I could pick the Love Field reference I wanted. Treating people right isn’t brain surgery.

So, on to the second customer experience, and once again, Apple is one of the companies involved. I have two laptops I use daily. One that is provided by the company I work for, it’s a nice HP running Windows 7, and one that I bought, a MacBook Pro. Lately I’ve been having lots of meetings with other team members, one in the Minneapolis area and one outside of Boston. The company uses IP phones (That means no actual phones, just a headset and microphone that plugs into the computer.

At work we use the headphones so people around us don’t have to listen to the conversation over my laptop’s speakers. Our tech support people had to come over and set some of the settings so the laptop would use the headset instead of broadcasting the call. The computer didn’t automatically switch off the speakers if the headset was plugged in. In fact, it loaded the driver and then promptly ignored the headset. Yesterday, I took my laptop home for a late call and I set it up ahead of time before the call started and then tried to dial into the call. It didn’t work.

The operating system is smart enough to know there was no headset plugged in, so it didn’t load the driver. But isn’t intelligent enough to realize that has an implication. With no headset, I need to use the built-in microphone and speaker. It didn’t turn them on. At all.

I needed to join the meeting, so I opened up my Mac, clicked the link, and the first prompt was to ask if I wanted to use my computer for the audio. As soon as I clicked “yes,’ it worked flawlessly. So I had another call this evening as well, so this time I brought home the headset, connected to the meeting, and it worked flawlessly again, because I was on my Mac. Then I plugged in the headset I brought home and the Mac automatically switched to the headset speakers and microphone and, as soon as I unplugged it, the sound came through clear as can be from the speakers. That’s how it should work, no hunting for settings to enable or disable one thing or the other, just intelligence and thinking applied to the experience. It is a damn thinking machine, after all. It’s the details of how things work, and work together smoothly, that makes the difference between a good customer experience and a bad one.

Dallas

We’re becoming settled in to Dallas, somewhat anyway. We’ve been to the grocery, furniture store, and Target without GPS by now (although that’s the extent of it) and found by accident some good restaurants. Dallas is a strange town, at least compared to Nashville. You’ll find old apartment buildings with rents in the $500-750 range a block from higher end homes.

East Dallas, where we are now, is somewhat like East Nashville, but there’s not a lot of urban living happening here unless you’re willing to pay upwards of $1,500 a month for rentals. There are so many rentals partly because nice homes seem far more expensive here. Most of the houses and apartment buildings seem to have the parking areas behind remote-controlled fences.

Since I am working on a six-month contract-to-hire situation, we’re not sure if we will stay or not so we didn’t move furniture. We’ve found some nice but reasonable things to furnish the apartment with, but delivery takes some time so we only have one chair for now, for example.

Ch-ch-changes

Well, I finally found a job. It’s with a company that makes software for schools to use – meeting the current learning mandates and tracking how students do, plus coursework for students themselves (or so I understand it at this time). It’s a good opportunity and the people who use the software, teachers and students, are really appreciative of the changes and improvements so it will be nice to have people appreciate what I do. (Yes, that’s a change as far as the leadership is concerned.)

The company leaders understand the value we will be contributing and the people I will be working for are some of the best people I know. It’s got a lot of awesome aspects to it. I had stayed longer at my last job than I should – long after I passed the point where it was a drudgery to go in each day and face the incessant politics and inefficiencies of a giant organization with thousands of employees. It became design based on one person’s opinion of what was good rather than what was in the best interest of the end users.

There’s always a lot of talk about how efficient businesses are (and correspondingly how inefficient government is). To an extent, that is correct. Smaller businesses (under a thousand people) are more efficient and every person has to make a difference daily. You can’t afford to have a group that doesn’t pull their weight day in and day out. However, after three decades working in aerospace, government (two different levels), and Fortune 500-level businesses, I can say that when it comes to big, efficiency flies out the window whether it is business or government. The bigger the organization, the more rules and policies you need to keep things from going astray. I saw millions wasted based on not much more than personal whim.

In a big business, there are lots of purchasing restrictions, for example, to keep someone from tossing major business to a family member or friend, and that’s fine, but the act of coming up with policies and procedures to keep that sort of thing and others from happening inbreeds restrictions and inflexibility into the systems. Once school systems faced real situations of principals and deans running teachers off because the principal didn’t like them for whatever reason. They may have wanted school supplies too often, wanted to try something different, they may have complained, or they may have resisted a pass, all real world situations, but it was just a matter of displeasing the local emperor. Tenure meant a principal couldn’t fire a teacher without good, documented reason, but it also provided safe havens for poor teachers who could play the system as a side effect. There are always side effects. (This sort of thing is a large measure of why teacher evaluations are ineffective. They allow for subjective and non-qualitative judgements to take precedence over quality.) [If I read that right, that's an aside comment on an aside comment about an aside comment on my last job. That's probably far enough off the track for now.]

The new company is small, less than 1,000, so the atmosphere and working environment should be significantly different. But the job is in Dallas, so I’ve moved there for a while. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll be back to Nashville. It’s home and has been for a long, long, long time. And I’ll keep track of what Tennessee is doing, both right and wrong. I have my eye on you. Take care.

The Keynesian, Trickle-Down, Free Market, Regulated Economics Principle

Economics is frequently called the “dismal science,” but that phrase dates from the times of Malthus and his theory that the world would starve itself to death once population outpaced the food sources. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a field full of theories (and data) but it generates more sound and fury than enlightenment. People from all sides can drag up data to show the value of supply-side economics and you’d be hard-pressed to find a supporter of Keynesian economics that didn’t use the New Deal to prove it’s value. So what’s the truth? Which one works?

Sadly, they all do. That’s what makes it so hard. The New Deal, from the standpoint of people who lived through it and who benefited from the jobs it provided, saved their families from starvation. My father-in-law worked on the WPA driving a road grader to make the road they lived on into a paved road. Tens of thousands of other people had similar experiences and in many of their cases, it was all the job they had available at the time. It put food on the table.

Economic policies only work for a while. The New Deal worked until the war came along and everyone who could walk and chew gum (and some who couldn’t) had a job, whether it was building war materials, selling war bonds, or getting shot at. When it was first tried in the Reagan administration, supply-side economics also worked as it was initially intended. But it wasn’t long before both stopped working. During the great depression, people weren’t buying things because they didn’t have the money or a job to bring in income. Companies weren’t buying machines and hiring people either because nobody was buying. The government was the only sector of the economy that pumped money into the economy. The government brought the country back from the brink of collapse.

Why did it stop working? Several reasons but the main one was that after the war, people believed in the redemptive power of the principles of Keynesian economics. The government could become that third leg of the economic stool, balancing out the people and businesses. But that stool had one leg that was a different length and it wobbled. Sure, we were borrowing money that was being passed on to generations of future citizens, but as long as the government refinanced the debt and jiggled the interest rates, people were convinced we could just keep rolling that debt forward for the rest of eternity. Congress aided and abetted in this by continuing to spend more and more. We made war on poverty and on drugs and on Vietnam (none of which we won, by the way) and we found convenient excuses like the cold war or the war on terror to continue spending and spending until we got to where we are now.

This year we will pay $359,796,008,919.49 in interest payments on the national debt in FY12. That’s $359 billion smackers and we owe $16,323,083,449,604.98 or $16 trillion. Every year it gets bigger and bigger. Have you ever tried to move a long ladder that’s laying on the ground by grabbing one end and trying to lift the far end? That’s what managing the national debt is like. It’ll throw your back out in a heartbeat.

Keynesian economics isn’t a long term strategy, nor is supply-side economics, no economic policy is. They’re strictly temporal in nature.

We’re going to have to pay off some of that debt and make the ladder shorter. Cutting the budget isn’t going to do it. I’ve worked enough budgets as a former budget director to know that. It’s going to require major changes in the tax code, major spending cuts, more revenue from just about everyone and it’s going to require that we (and congress) sit down and agree what we want the government to pay for and set aside those things we can’t agree on. It’s also going to require that Congress end lots of things all of us hold dear.

Like what? Let’s start with taxes. Just for starters, we probably need to say that if you’re above the poverty level, you’re going to pay some taxes. Let’s pick 5%. Every family who makes between $23,000 (poverty level for a family of 4) and $46,000 will pay 5% of their income in taxes. Nobody pays enough to drop themselves below the poverty level, but you can go to it. Yes, that will hurt them. But they benefit from society just as you and I do, so if they pay something it’s going to seem fairer.

The next level, say from $46,000 to $92,000 (Yes, I’m working in multiples of the poverty level. Glad you noticed.) gets to kick in 15%. From $92K to $184K, it’s 20%; $184K to $3 zillion, it’s 25%. Just because we’re making things up, let’s say we’ll tax companies in a similar way. If they make less than $460,000 in profit, they pay 2.5%; up to $920,000 in profits at 7.5%; up to $1,840K at 10%, and over that at 12.5%. No exemptions, period. Not for mortgages (no other country does it), charitable contributions, no special corporate treatments, period. And no farm price subsidies, either.

Unfortunately, we’ll also have to tie this to government expenditures because our goal is to pay off that $16 trillion in loans. So we make Congress decide how quickly we need to pay down the debt. Ten years? OK. So whatever it takes of the tax revenues to pay it down over 10 years gets fixed as a mandatory expense. Whatever is left after that, the government can use for programs. All of them. Yes, a balanced budget. Oh, and Congress can’t change the tax code until the debt is paid off. (Hell, if I’m making this up, why not?)

Entitlements, next. If we want to eliminate people defrauding the government, that’s OK. I’m not sure how effective or valuable it will be, but it gives people a warm fuzzy over their tax dollars being spent well. But it’s got to be done on a cost plus basis. The savings in recouped medicare (substitute your favorite Federal program here) fraud dollars must exceed the cost of adequate enforcement personnel, all court costs, plus the costs of incarcerating all the crooks, and building new prisons, if we need them, each and every year or it ends, period. Want welfare recipients tested for drugs? OK, if the amount saved is greater than the cost of drug testing. That’s cost plus.

It’s great that Donald Trump (I’m just picking on him at random) is contributing to Social Security, but he makes way more than whatever the cutoff is for social security taxes and we need the money, so we’re ending the cutoff permanently. Oh, and thanks for supporting the program, Donald, but you’re richer than sin and you don’t need Social Security (or Medicare) to keep from having to eat nothing but cat food, so you won’t be getting checks once you hit 70. (Snuck that one in, didn’t I?) Nobody that has a combined income from any sources of over $184,000 will get social security. It was created to help old people without adequate income in their elder years, not people with yachts and BMWs. Sorry.

What about defense, you ask? Well, if we need to go to war for some reason or other, Congress has to fund it by taxing the people dollar for dollar, period. Other than that, we need to decide if we go back to what we did after World War 1 and reduce the size of the armed forces until we need them. It worked for World War 2, after all. That’s one of those balancing acts we’ll have to decide. How much military hardware do we need to build?

You want Big Bird? Contribute to your local station (I do – every year). You want to visit the Grand Canyon or the Smokies? It’s going to cost you, more than it does now. There’s a fee. Need a passport – you’ll pay a fee. There’s no such thing as a free lunch any more (and there never was).

What about Medicare and Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act? If we want healthcare for everyone, it’s got to be done so it’s cost effective and it’s got to be done so we can control the spiraling costs we have now. Other countries do it somehow or other, so it is possible. If you need it, it should be covered. If it’s a drug, it ought to be generic if it can be and at a cost comparable to what someone pays in other countries, like Canada.

Yeah, I’ve heard all the horror stories about people who got their drugs from Canada and they turned out to be sugar pills or some such. I’ve also heard of druggists making mistakes here in the US. I’ve also had lots of doctors suggest specific Canadian pharmacies when the cost of drugs is too high here in the US. We can’t, as a government, be in the business of propping up the pharmaceutical industry’s big profits. Yes, they run risks. That’s why they call it a business. Trust me, they’ll figure out how to make it profitable.

If it’s cosmetic in nature, that’s your problem. And what about abortion? Personally, I’d rather the government stay out from between a woman’s legs and leave it up to the woman and her doctor, but that’s just me. I’d also rather that a woman only got pregnant if they wanted the child. That would be nice, but it’s not all that realistic. Bad things happen and bad people make them happen. I understand other people have objections rooted in their deepest faith. It’s a divisive issue. We’ll probably have to let people vote on it once and for all. Once that’s done, we’ll move on.

That’s a simple outline of how we could solve a lot of issues (and create more). Lots of sacred cows sacrificed on the altar of debt reduction. In the long run, it will be good for us. In the short run, everybody will bitch like crazy. That’s probably the best indicator that it’s more equitable if everyone complains. But it will strengthen the economy just like you’d get stronger if you got up every morning and did 100 sit-ups and push ups. We’d be the envy of the world. Oh, yeah, we already are. Yay us.

Cliff Notes

It was a strained election, from my point of view. I never really thought it would go other than it did, but neither side is doing much to create new coalitions. In fact, if someone had come out as a splinter party candidate and called themselves the Purple Party, favoring conservative fiscal policies and liberal social ones, they might have one the day.

People always want things and they always will, but these days the people also have the perception that there’s too much debt. As I’ve said before and will again, there are times when the perceptions matter more than the reality. Whether John Maynard Keynes was right that the amount of debt a government shoulders is not important, or whether he simply failed to properly estimate the propensity of Congress go go hog wild with this new freedom, isn’t important. What is important is that a huge number of people think it is important and needs to be corrected.

No matter how rational we expect things to work, the financial markets are not a rational system. In general terms, our financial system is like a bunch of craps games taking place all over the country. What? You don’t believe it? Listen to the financial news on a day when the stock market has gone up or down or when the price of some important commodity, like oil, has gone up or down. “The market went down over fears of instability in the Middle East.” That’s one of my favorites and it implies huge things about the economic system. FIrst and foremost, I’ve only been around for six decades, but every damn minute of those decades there has been uncertainty in the MIddle East, without exception. Instability there should be normal, not a cause for alarm. But it jiggles our financial markets?

Why? The analysts are saying that what could happen is that X country would cut back on oil production and that would ripple through the system. Stop and think about that for a second. Nothing has happened at all. Some people are worried that something could happen. Not that it did, but that it could. They are worrying about possibilities that may or may not happen and it causes a notable percentage drop in our financial stock exchange system. It’s like your worst nightmare. Our financial system is based on the fears and worries of brilliant financial analysts paid two or ten times what most of us do and they’re acting like little old ladies afraid of their shadows.

Our entire financial system is based on these sorts of perceptions. That’s where the fiscal cliff comes in. The financial markets think that if we hit the cliff we’l have a recession (again). Guess what will happen if we hit the cliff? Yep. The perceptions will bring it on. So we’ve got to do something.

Personally, I’d like to see less debt because we have to make those interest payments and that’s taking away from other things we could do with that money. Things to rebuild infrastructure, which needs it desperately. Have you been on an interstate that doesn’t need work? Does your state have bridges that need repairs? But, doing the things that are necessary to get to the point where we spend less than we take in will be very hard. There are lots of things we treasure that will meet the axe. (Yes, probably even Big Bird, but hopefully the people will step up to take over the small portion the government covers.)

Can we afford and do we really need more multi-billion dollar aircraft and ships simply because huge sections of the country depends on the jobs those projects help pay for? Do we need as significant a military presence as we have now or can we go back to something similar to what we had before World War II? (We met the challenge of rebuilding the military for that war. can we do that again?) Can we continue to let people who have been fortunate enough that they have a decent retirement ahead of them also draw Social Security? (It was designed to keep the retired from starving and eating dog food out of desperation.) Can we afford the mortgage deduction or the charitable giving deductions for people? (Other countries don’t have them.)

And the countless deductions the business community gets for oil drilling or some other favored tax break? Can we afford for Congress to walk away with the pensions they enjoy for life or the health care coverages they have that none of the rest of us enjoy? Despite the poverty that still exists here, can we reduce food stamps, AFDC, Head Start, and dozens of other programs they depend upon?

All of these and more will be necessary. If we can’t stop them all, how do we pay for it other than by more taxes? And how many politicians would vote for more taxes? When I was young, the highest (marginal) tax rate was 92%. Out of every additional $10,000 a business owner took as income, they got $800 after taxes. That was an incentive of sorts. It was an incentive to leave the money in the company rather than take it out. It was an incentive to invest in the future instead of make a quick profit this quarter. It was the period of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. It was a period of economic stability, but, even so, moving to that wouldn’t have that effect now due to the perceptions thing again. It would be perceived as draconian and extreme.

So what’s the answer? Sorry, if you came her for answers, you’re out of luck. Fortunately though, if you’re an American, you’re not out of turkey. Go grab a sandwich and think about it. And have a happy thanksgiving.

The Strategic Customer Experience

My profession is in the user experience field. It’s fairly new and it is really divided up into several subsets of work titles, but it involves the design of websites and computer-based applications. Given that computers can be carried in your pocket these days, it includes all sorts of mobile platforms too. What user experience people do is try to ensure that the application or site is straight-forward in its organization and that it’s easy to find things you’re looking for. Companies like Best Buy, Apple, Home Depot, Dyson, Amazon, Zappos, Lowes, Kohl’s, and hundreds more, all have teams of user experience people finding easier ways to make life simple for you.

But there’s also an emerging segment of what we do that’s strategic in nature and it uses some somewhat vague sounding words and expressions, like holistic and working across teams. Sounds hard to pin down, but it’s not, really. It’s an expansion of the same sorts of activities and point of view that other companies have used in the past, such as Saturn Corporation. It’s approaching the customer as a person and seeing how every nook and cranny of what the company does touches on that customer when they’re dealing with the company. If they call to order something over the phone, is it easy to navigate the phone system? How do we keep them up to date on their order? Do we make everything that customer experiences reflect the best of what we are and do?

This is a tale of two experiences. Both involve buying a product, in this case, a laptop computer. One was bought from Apple and one from Dell. One is a lesson in how the purchase process is supposed to work. The other is an object lesson in what not to do.

First, because I’m doing it chronologically, is the Apple experience. I decided I needed a more up to date home laptop. Since we prefer to use Macs at home, that’s what I looked at. I checked out the Apple site and looked at the various size screens and decided on what I wanted. I thought I could live with a 13″ screen instead of a larger one, but I wanted more memory. I also wanted expansion ports for an external backup drive and that meant a Mac Book Pro. So I clicked on the 13″ version and it allowed me right then and there to configure the amount of memory and the hard drive size and type (solid-state drives are really, really fast, but expensive, by the way) and add it to my cart. There were other things I could add to it, pre-installed software, an care plan, extra gadgets and cables and printers, but everything was right there and i just had to click a button to select it or leave it alone if I didn’t want it. Then I clicked the buy button, filled in my credit card info and bought it. It was literally that straight-forward and simple. I got a confirmation email almost immediately and within a few hours they sent a follow-on email with my ship date. Slick and easy.

Recently we had a friend whose computer died. For various reasons we decided we wanted to give her a new computer. She’s used to Windows, so we asked around and several people told us they were happy with their Dell laptops, so that’s what we wanted for her. So, I go online to the Dell website to buy her a computer. They had a special on a 15″ screen one so we decided that would be what we would get but I thought she might need more than the standard memory so I wanted to raise it a bit. I clicked on the laptop configure button and went through the options on the first tab, selecting what I wanted or didn’t, then the second and third and fourth tabs and I was getting near the end. I hadn’t seen anywhere I could add more memory. So I figured I must have missed it and went back through each of the configuration tabs – it was nowhere to be found. I went back to the home page and did more searching. It seems you have to scroll down and down looking at the different laptop configurations to find the one that’s pre-configured with the amount of memory and the hard drive size you want, then you can”configure” the laptop. At that point, though, you’re not configuring the laptop, you’re buying other stuff for the laptop.

That’s the first of several learning points here. (They are customer experience pain points. These cause you to lose customers.) First, never, ever cause your customers to have to start over from scratch, which is what I had to do. Your buying process online is a live or die process. Usually, making them start over encourages them to start it all over somewhere else. Second, if you don’t let them actually configure a computer after they click Configure, you’re leading them astray. Words actually mean something to your customers. If what those words mean to you and what they mean to your customers is different, you cause a problem. You’re misdirecting them.

So, anyway, I finally got the right computer picked and added the options we wanted to the computer. So I clicked buy, entered my credit card information, entered the shipping and billing addresses (which were different) and clicked buy. Almost immediately, I got an acknowledgement of my order, including all the specifications. I thought great, she’ll get it soon, probably. No problem.

Three days later I got a second email from Dell. I was thinking that must be the shipping information. Nope. All the email said was that my order had been canceled. No explanation why, no contact information, Nothing.

Next learning point: Never leave your customer hanging. If something happens, tell them why it happened and what they can do to remedy it. Don’t throw their money back in their faces and not tell them why.

Since I had no idea what happened or why, I went to the website to see if that could help me. Fortunately, there’s an Order Status link near the top of the page. Great, we’re making progress. So I click that and it takes me to a page giving me all sorts of different ways to check on order status. In the text on that page it tells me that the best thing to to is Click Order Status and that phrase is a link. I’m thinking we’re gold now – at least in terms of giving me a hint as to what happened. So I click that link and it’s a link to the page I’m on – it goes nowhere. Eventually I see the same phrase somewhere else on the page and click it. Finally, I see the order is cancelled. Plus there’s another link that leads to a page of phone numbers I can call. It’s Saturday, but they are a major sales organization. People are there.

Sure, the whole point of the site is so people don’t need to call but never hide how to contact you when they have a problem. They’re people – they will have problems. Deal with it.

I called that number and it’s one of those voice mail jungles. You know the type. “Just tell me what you want and I’ll try to direct your call.” Well, so what do I say? I have a problem with my order? Why was my order cancelled? Sorry, the system interprets that as “You want to place an order. Is that correct?” GAAAHHHHH!! No, I need to speak to someone. After several tries, it asks if I want to “speak to a rep”.

Don’t make your voice mail system a living hell for your customers. Always tell them how to get to a person. Don’t make them use your jargon for a person.

Once the nice person gets on the phone I tell them my problem. My order was cancelled for some reason and I don’t know why or what I need to do. She looks the information up and says “The Verification Team cancelled your order. That usually happens when your credit card company refuses to honor the charge. You should call your bank to see what happened.” And she also tells me that once I clear things with the bank, the Verification Team can bring my order up out of cancelled status a resurrect it. She gives me the number of the Verification Team, which is an entirely different number.

So I hang up and call my credit card company to see why they refused this charge when they didn’t refuse the bigger Mac Book Pro purchase. The bank checks its records and says Dell never contacted us at all. Ever.

Never lie to your customer. If you don’t know what happened, say “I don’t know what happened.”

So I immediately pick up the phone to dial the Verification Team. “I’m sorry, our normal office hours are from x to y Monday through Friday.” (Remember, this is Saturday when I called.)

People that fix screw-ups should work the same hours as your sales people. Sales people should be able to get the screw-up fixers on the phone FOR you. You shouldn’t have to call a separate number for this. One contact who brings the right people into the situation.

Well, by this time, I’m one unhappy customer. It’s a good thing Michael Dell doesn’t have his phone number on the site. I would have called him right up and started bitching up one side and down another. I’m not interested in waiting two days more to deal with this. I decide what if I just go back to the site and try a second order. Maybe it will go through. This was some kind of fluke, probably. So I do it all over again, specifying what I want a third time to generate a new order.

Yep. That one got cancelled again. Now you’re talking red hot pissed customer. When I call back to see what’s going on again, this time I eventually reach a guy who seems to understand what happened. The Verification Team seems to have put some sort of block on my account. This new guy starts telling me how I need to fool the system into processing my order by creating a brand, new customer number. At this point, all my IT experience is screaming NOOOOOOO at the top of my lungs.

If you make it hard to buy your stuff, people will stop buying it.

Finally I tell him I don’t understand how that will help and I ask to speak to a supervisor. I’m still being polite, but it’s hard. The next thing I know, I’m back in the voice mail jungle and it’s telling me to say what I want.  I ask to speak to a living sales person. Clarice (that was her name) is very nice. I tell her my problem, tell her what I want in terms of hardware and then she walks me through every option of the online process over the phone (I’ve been on the phone for over an hour by now.) and despite my specifying exactly what I wanted, she tries at every opportunity to up sell every possible option.

Listen to what your customers are telling you they want. Don’t up sell every little thing.

We get through the whole process and she tells me I should get a confirmation email in the next two hours and I can make sure the order is right and modify it online if I need to (fat chance) before it goes to shipping.

It’s like success, finally. The order confirmation comes through just as she said and it’s exactly as we wanted. Huzzah! So now I’m thinking the next step will be the shipping confirmation. Wrong. There’s still that Verification Team out there waiting for my name to come by their eyes. Sure enough, they call around 8 p.m. It’s apparently their job to make sure that I am who I say I am. They verify I am the authorized card holder. They do this by asking all the arcane secrets of my life. What was my mother’s maiden name? Date of birth? Current billing address? For most companies, that would be enough,but not for Dell, apparently. What was my previous address? What apartment number did I live in 35 years ago? What was the post office box number of our old address 27 years ago? No, seriously. They expected me to remember addresses, street numbers, and apartment numbers from three decades ago. At that point, I told them I was done. They needed to do whatever they felt was the right thing to do, but we were done and I hung up.

Don’t treat your customers like thieves.

It’s not brain surgery, just common sense. Make your customer have an experience just like the one you’d like to have when you buy something.

Just to be absolutely clear, if our friend had not needed extended technical support as an option, I would have never made the second, or any further attempt, at buying a Dell. Nor will I ever buy one if I end up needing a PC for some reason. I will spend any amount of money I have to in order to avoid buying a Dell. Forever. I will never recommend a Dell to anyone. Forever. That is the cost of bad user experience.

Taxes

Back in the 1940s after the war and into the 1950s, the income tax rate for the richest Americans was 90%. Everyone will admit that’s pretty high. In the 1960s it was reduced to 70%, where it stayed for two decades before dropping to 50% in the 80s. It has been less than 40% ever since.

One of the primary proposals of the Republican party has been that keeping the tax rates low on the wealthiest will encourage them to put that money back in their companies, hiring people and investing in America. It should be fairly simple, then, to look back at what happened in the past and see the quantitative impact these drops in the highest tax rates made on the economy. We should be able to look at the historical numbers to verify this.

THe Congressional Research Service is an organization of researchers and mathematicians and economists that does just that sort of thing for Congress. They look at the hard data to see the correlations between olicy and real world results. They are nonpartisan. They just report the data and the results. On September 14, they published a report entitled “Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of Top Tax Rates Since 1945.” Their reports and studies are not released to the public, they’re just done for the benefit of Congress, but when they’re released, there’s usually someone who leaks the results. Let me quote Bruce Bartlett, a policy advisor to Presidents Bush and Reagan (I added bolding):

In essence, the report, written by the economist Thomas L. Hungerford, who has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan, concluded that changes in the top statutory tax rate and the rate on capital gains had no discernible effect on economic growth in the period since 1945. It noted that the top rate was over 90 percent in the 1940s and 1950s, 70 percent in the 1960s and 1970s, 50 percent during most of the 1980s and has been below 40 percent ever since.

These changes were correlated with various measures of saving, investment, productivity and gross domestic product growth. No relationship could be found.

The Heritage Foundation and the Tax Foundation (both conservative think tanks) criticized the report in short posts but offered no criticism of the methodology, nor did they point out any errors, they just dismissed the results. Remember, this is just prior to the election. However, since the results disagreed with Republican policy, according to the New York Times, several Republican Senate offices called the head of the C.R.S. and complained loudly about the report, forcing the C.R.S. to remove the report from it’s website, only visible to members of Congress. Since they couldn’t refute the report, they censored it.

Government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. There’s even more information on this from Bruce Bartlett in a Times Economix blog post here.

Governance and Accountability

Well, it’s all over and it seems that when it comes to voting Democratic or Republican, we’re pretty much split right down the middle with slightly more than half the people voting for the president. As House Speaker Boehner said, it’s not a mandate, but it is a win. I think, unless one party or the other ends up picking someone who is truly far right or far left of center, it will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future.

So what does that mean for us, the people of middle America? Cynically speaking, I don’t expect huge amounts of change. The house is still strongly Republican, with a super majority. That doesn’t mean they can ramrod things through, but they can keep anything from getting done. The Senate is still controlled by the Democrats, for now at least, and they’ll continue to waver and vacillate and fill the air with pomposity and opposition to whatever gets sent their way by the House.

Sadly, that’s not governing and that’s not leading. There’s too much that needs to be done; too many things that need changing in the country. We’re pretty much out of Iraq now and the troops are declining in Afghanistan. Once we’re not actively fighting somewhere, that could stop some of the costs for war materials, but it won’t stop the Pentagon from requesting Humvees that cost several million apiece and planes at a trillion a pop and ships and God knows how much each.

Aside: I remember when we sent troops to Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, it was reported that Islamic extremists were upset we had our soldiers on what they considered their holy ground, no matter the reason. If we leave, will they still try to attack us?

Governance will involve trying to come to grips with lots of issues. Reducing the budget in order to avoid sequestration, figuring out what to do to Social Security and Medicare, the list goes on and on. Sadly, Congress will probably still be full of people unwilling to move from their positions, no matter what the reason.

Although it will personally hurt me (and my retirement plans), I think one option we need to seriously consider is moving the retirement age up even farther, to 67 or 70. I also think we should take the limits off the income that gets taxed (this one doesn’t affect me). As of 2010, every person who makes less than $106,800 a year pays social security taxes on all of it. People who make more than that stop paying any social security taxes once their income for the year hits that magic number. Let’s do away with that magic number and collect it on all income. That won’t make Social Security self-supporting for the millennial generation, but it will take care of way more people than it’s projected to now.

Accountability needs to be built into more of our government systems. Yes, I realize when people usually say that what they’re trying to say is we’ve got too many poor black people on welfare – and they don’t want to pay for them. (I assume these people believe people on welfare should just go out and get a job because there are so many jobs out there. As if there actually were jobs out there. They just want to stop paying them, but that doesn’t solve any underlying issues. Not even Lyndon Johnson, with a majority in the House and the Senate could end poverty. All he was able to do was reduce the numbers of young black unemployed people by sending them off to visit beautiful Vietnam.)

But it’s a perception thing. I learned long ago from a smart woman that there are times when perceptions are more important than the reality, and the perception is that government programs are inefficient and people are scamming them like crazy. Fine. So, even though it costs more money to do it, once we start drug testing people who get welfare, then what? Even at a rough order of magnitude, that probably won’t reduce the number of people getting assistance by more than 2% or so, if that much. Sadly, the costs of drug testing is higher than the savings.

Next we beef up the compliance sections to go after people committing fraud. (That means hiring more federal or state employees who will want benefits packages and pensions. Bigger government.) There are probably more people defrauding Medicare than welfare, but we’ll go after both. How much will that save us? Well, the actual estimates for welfare fraud are around 1%. That’s actual people getting it and telling lies to do so or hiding that part-time job while they’re drawing UI. So how much money is that? The Cato Institute says we spend around a trillion dollars on welfare but that’s way overblown. They include things like federal employee pensions, pell grants, SSI disability payments, tax rebates for low income people, unemployment, etc. Actual welfare expenditures were around $18,000,000,000 ($18 billion). Pulling 1% off that could reduce the budget by $180,000,000. That seems like quite a bit, but all it would take is about 3,000 more compliance people nationwide and we’ve spent more than we’ve saved (assumption of salary + fringe benefits totals to no more than $65,000 per person).

In 2010 the Medicare Fraud task Force accused 94 people of defrauding the government out of $251 million. The numbers for 2011 were similar. Putting those 185 people in jail will cost about $100,000,000 for a ten-year stretch but because our current prisons are overcrowded we’ll have to build new prisons to hold these people. Given how few of us want a prison in our neighborhood, by the time it’s all said and done, we aren’t going to save much, if anything.

Most of the federal budget works like that. So do state budgets. Yes, there’s inefficiencies built in. They’re big organizations. To prevent problems, big organizations put policies into place. The policies help prevent those problems (like bid rigging) but at the same time they create others. Everything takes far longer to do and uses more people to do it. Everything the government buys is, for most government workers, crappy quality or replaced far, far less often than in the private sector. At my old job, I got a new laptop on lease every two years like clockwork. In government, not so much. Maybe every four to six years if you can justify it thoroughly enough.

What we have to do is agree on things. What should the government do? And how much are we as a people willing to spend to get that sort of government? Once we know how much we’re willing to spend, how far does that cover what we agreed we wanted to do? I guarantee it won’t match. It won’t match by a lot. So what do we cut then? I’d love to have government supported health insurance. But if we can’t pay for it because Congress refuses to look the special interests in the eye and not blink, we still can’t pay for it. Health insurance plans in the private sector practically require generic drugs for everything unless it’s unavoidable but Medicare can’t do that by law. Congress blinked when the pharmaceutical industry complained. We’ve got to have a Congress that doesn’t blink. We don’t have that. They blink a lot.

Honda Sees It My Way

Doing things my way is the right thing to do. The world would be so much simpler for everyone if it went that same way, but Honda has finally seen the error of its ways and has changed in response to my complaining (and others as well, I imagine). What was the problem? It boils down to a fundamentally simple thing. They didm’t take the time to understand their user base at all. They invented this wonderful system to make life easier for people without actually considering the actual people. In the user experience and interface design world, this is what we harp about constantly – KNOW YOUR USERS. And it’s a better way to design computer interfaces and a better way to design everything, including customer service initiatives.

Honda developed this wonderful simple maintenance minder system whereby the car gives you a telltale message when the car is scheduled for repairs. Now you don’t need to think about what service needs to be performed when you hit 60,00o or 90,000 miles. The car will tell you. Wonderful idea, except for one thing,, they neglected to take people into account.

As I know all too well from my work designing user interfaces, people don’t necessarily react like you want to things the way you want. Honda’s system was predicated on people, all people, ignoring the maintenance of their cars until the car itself told them to do something. Every so often, the car dashboard would put up a wrench and a letter designator. The wench meant you needed service and the letter told you which one. “A” was go change the oil and get a basic $99 inspection of stuff. “B” was do that plus balance and align the tires and check the hepa filter; “C” added check the transmission and inspect the drive belts. And so on down the list. You never had to worry about what to do at which miles ever again. Except you did because the system failed its users.

And why didn’t it work? People like me seem to think that cars are expensive (probably because they cost tens of thousands of dollars) and should be maintained to a higher than minimal standard. They’ve improved the efficiency of their engines to get nearly 40 miles a gallon and they’ve improved the reliability of modern cars to the point that the need for repairs is getting less and less. Cars are more reliable than they were when I got behind the wheel of that ’65 289 Mustang for the first time. Back then you had to do regular maintenance or you’d ruin the engine.

I’m not waiting to change my oil every 10,000 miles. My experience says that if I change my oil more frequently than required (I.e., take better care of my car than they recommend) it will last much, much longer. When you add my care to the higher levels of quality found in cars, it usually means I’ll grow tired of a car long before it wears out. When I had cars that recommended a change every 5,000 miles, I did mine at 3,500. So when I got the Fit even though it said I could go 10,000 miles between changes, I changed the oil every 7,500 miles like clockwork. And that’s what I’ve continued to do every 7,500 miles.

Unfortunately, it’s a pretty simple maintenance minder system and it’s in general keyed to two cyclical patterns – the oil changes at 10,000 mile intervals and and aligning and balancing the tires at a 15,000 mile intervals. When they change my oil, they reset that little idiot light mechanism so it doesn’t come on soon after I change the oil. Unfortunately, that’s also the triggering mechanism for telling people like me about the other maintenance things. You’d think that if they think I need to have the belts checked at 60,000 and 90,000 miles they would just create an indicator that tells me that (or put the information in the manual where it used to be) but they didn’t.

If I just ignored preventative maintenance I would have gotten the message when they wanted me to have it.

If they understood their users a little better they wouldn’t have had to create a paper chart of when my car needs what. It wouldn’t have been at all difficult to create an indicator that came on for oil changes at regular intervals and other maintenance issues, it’s just a matter of timing. Why they would tie it to the same reset mechanism is poor engineering and poor customer service. I now know my car will need around $1,800 in repairs over the next 40,000 miles, though, now that they created that little paper chart for me today. If they hadn’t created it, I’d still be in the dark. There’s a hepa filter in the heating and air conditioning system that should have been changed five times before this – it’s still untouched wherever it is.

A Bit More on Social Media

This is from a Facebook post relative to Publix:

Went into Publix recently alone with my 17 month old daughter. Don’t know why but she hates the store and had a break down in the cart. I picked her up and calmed her down and continued my shopping my carrying my 25 lb child and pulling my 50 lbs cart. Next thing I know someone is pushing my cart. I turned around and it was the manager. He smiled and said “looks like you need a hand.” he pushed my cart for me the whole time and made sure I got to my car. Would never find service like this anywhere else. (: Employees of other stores are more concerned with me hushing my child up. Thanks Publix !!

Over 78,000 people have read this post and clicked like. It’s not a lot of work to do that, but it does show that positive comments on social media has a wide spread impact.

Here’s another, this time it’s Panera Bread:

Brandon Cook visits his grandmother in the hospital. She is dying of cancer. She’s craving soup, but doesn’t like the hospital food. She wants clam chowder from Panera Bread.

Panera Bread sells clam chowder on Fridays – it’s not a daily offering. Although it isn’t Friday, brandon calls up the local Panera and asks for the manager, explains what’s going on and asks if they can help. The manager listens actively and simply tells Brandon when he can come get the chowder.

When Brandon gets there, not only is the clam chowder is waiting for him, but they’ve thrown in a box of cookies as well. Unasked for, but a compassionate touch.

Brandon is so thankful to Panera for helping him deliver clam chowder to his dying grandma. Not only did the manager go out of her way to make the soup for only one customer, she also gave him a box of cookies for free. Brandon imagines that it must have been an inconvenience to make a whole batch of soup on a day they hadn’t planned to. He also imagines that giving away free cookies isn’t commonplace at Panera. He recognizes that the manager understood his situation and felt his pain. She not only wanted to fulfill his wish, but surprise him as well. She must have really cared about him and about his grandma.

Brandon felt so moved by the kindness the Panera manager showed him and his family that he wanted to repay the favor. He wanted others to know what had transpired so that they could feel amazed and happy too. Brandon posted the Panera story on his Facebook wall for his friends to see. It was the best way he knew how to tell the story to as many of his friends as possible.

As it happened, Brandon’s mom, Gail Cook saw his wall post. She admired her son’s initiative and deep care for his grandma (her mother-in-law), and was so impressed by the kindness and generosity of the manager at her local Panera. She imagined that both Panera fans and its employees nationwide would be delighted to hear this uplifting story. Gail reposted Brandon’s wall post onto Panera Bread’s fan page.

The story spread like wildfire. Less than two weeks later, Brandon’s wall post has been liked almost 750,000 times and has received nearly 32,000 comments.