Posts tagged ‘customer service’

Things They Don't Tell iPhone Owners

Well, I just switched from my old iPhone 4 to a Droid Turbo**, a Motorola phone that runs Android rather than iOS.

Here is what they never tell you -- Apple has devised a very clever way to make leaving the iOS world really, really painful.  Specifically, when you send a text message on an iPhone, unless you fiddled with the default settings, it gets sent through iMessage and the Apple servers.  If it is going to another iPhone, it can actually bypass the carrier text messaging system altogether, a nice perk back when texts were not unlimited but useful today mainly for international travel.

But here is the rub -- when you switch you phone line away from an iPhone to an Android device, the Apple servers refuse to recognize this.  They will think you still have an iPhone and will still try to send you messages via the iMessage servers.  What this means in practice is that you can send messages from the new phone to other iPhones, but their texts back to you will not reach you.  They just sort of disappear into the ether, and will try forever to be delivered to your now non-existent iPhone.

This is as good a guide as I can find for the problem, and better than what any Apple employee will tell you.  There are two solutions for this.  Apparently, you can go to every one of your friends and tell them to delete every text they ever sent you and delete you from their phone books and apparently new texts they send you will then skip the iMessage system and get to your phone.  The only problem is that I can't replicate this.  I spent hours with my family's iPhones today removing every text message from my number and every reference to me in their phone books.  But no dice.  Their texts still do not reach me.  Sigh.

The second solution is to call Apple and ask to have your number removed from the iMessage servers.  This was not possible even a few months ago, but there is a large class action lawsuit against Apple on this topic so they seem to at least have trained their customer service staff on this issue, finally.  I called and they readily removed me from the server, but with this caveat -- it wouldn't take effect for 30 days.  I told the rep that this was patently absurd, and she agreed.  But 30 days it will be.  So no matter what I do, every single person in my contact list who has ever texted me from an iPhone is going to think they are texting me but in fact have their texts fly off into the ether.  For 30 days.

This is clearly absurd, and folks thinking of switching to Apple should understand just how hard it is to reverse that decision.

PS-  I have always been amazed at all the goodwill Apple gets for being somehow friendlier and more open to creative individuals than Microsoft.  To me, Apple's philosophy is to host a closed totalitarian world, while Microsoft and Google (admittedly full of foibles and their own issues) have far more open platforms.  Linux guys will laugh at that, but compared to Apple, Microsoft is free love in the park.

 

** reasons why:  I live in the Google world of Google Drive and Apps, so the OS choice is a natural.  I have never figured out iCloud.  I don't care about design elegance, which is good because this phone is as elegant as a brick.  It has a stupid large battery (it may be a tad heavy but it is way lighter than with all you guys that have mophie battery cases on your iphones).  It has fast-charging as well as wireless charging, a good screen, a decent camera, and a fast processor.  It also has a light touch on OS add-ons so it is close to stock android without all the overhead of custom skins and it will be among the first phones to get Android updates (solving the #1 problem of Android over iOS, which is the proliferation of versions across handsets and carriers that slows upgrades).  The only thing it is missing is a memory expansion card port, though you can get it in 64GB which always has been plenty for me.  The only question left is why carriers have to design their phones, these $600 devices that can't be dropped, with super-slick back covers.  The new HTC One M8 is like holding a bar of wet soap.  They all do this, except the Moto X which has a bamboo back that is awesome to hold.

This is Why Running a Service Business is Hard

This Starbucks story illustrates the hardest part about running a service business

"Pregnant woman denied Starbucks bathroom useage"

Of course, Starbucks did not deny this woman access to the bathroom.  Had the board of directors, CEO, and most of the management been at the store, they would have happily helped the woman use the Starbucks bathroom.  This woman was actually denied access to the bathroom by some knucklehead employee of Starbucks, one of the tens of thousands they hire, who likely thought they were doing the right thing.

I am sure Starbucks has a policy that the bathrooms are for customers only, and honestly in a lot of urban areas that is an essential policy or else one finds themselves spending a lot of money cleaning the bathroom and providing the public facilities that the city or shopping center developer chose not to fund.

However, in a service business, one of the keys to providing good customer service and maintaining a good reputation is, ironically, having your employees know when the rules need to be bent.  This is the number 1 thing in every training session we have in our company -- when the rules have to be enforced (safety, fires, quiet time at night) and when to back off and not act like the campground nazi ruining everyone's visit.

I have thought about why this should be for quite a while.  If rules exist, shouldn't they be enforced for everyone?  And if not, shouldn't they just be eliminated?

First, there simply are exceptions.  This is the same reason that mandatory sentencing guidelines in criminal law and no tolerance rules in schools always run to grief.

Second, even if there are not exceptions, there are people who really, really, really, strongly, aggressively believe that they are indeed an exception.  Call this modern entitlement, but we get this all the time.  Dog owners are a great example.  Every single one of them understands perfectly why everyone else's dogs have to be on leash but no one believes their little darling is a problem.  Dogs are in fact the hardest issue we often have to manage.  Ask someone to put a dog on leash and we get vitriolic complaints sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.  Let them run around and we get vitriolic complaints sent other visitors who are bothered by dogs sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.

Finally, the marginal cost of serving one or two exceptions is really low, practically measurable, while the cost of allowing everyone to break the rule is high.  Take the case of bathrooms.  Letting one non-customer use the bathroom costs zero.  But once word gets out that you allow public use of your bathrooms, everyone in a half-mile radius is lined up at the door every day.

 

The Regulation Singularity

Yesterday, I came home exhausted.  I have been working late nearly every night for weeks, at a time of year when most of my business is not even open yet (the business is seasonal).  I realized to my immense depression that I have been spending all my time on regulatory compliance.  I have not been pitching new clients or bidding on new prospects or making investments or improving our customer service processes -- though I have ideas for all of these.  I have been 100% dedicated through 14 hour days to just trying to keep up with and adapt to changing government rules.

Break rules, changing minimum wages, heat stress plans, mandatory sexual harassment training, OSHA reporting, EEO reporting, Census reporting, and most recently changing rules on salaried workers that Obama just waived his wand and imposed -- this is what has been consuming me.  I have been trying to roll out a new safety program to the field and can't do it because I keep having to train for one of these new requirements (one learns there is only a limited number of things one can simultaneously roll out to front-line staff).

At some point regulation will accrete so fast that it will be impossible to keep up.  I am going to call that the Regulation Singularity, and for businesses my size, we are fast approaching it.

Prominent libertarian think tanks often rank state business climate by their tax regimes.  I am all for low, sensibly-structured taxes.  But for most of my time, taxes are irrelevant.  We are shutting down businesses left and right in California and it has zero to do with taxes.

Administrative Bloat

Benjamin Ginsberg is discussing administrative bloat in academia:

Carlson confirms this sad tale by reporting that increases in administrative staffing drove a 28 percent expansion of the higher education work force from 2000 to 2012.  This period, of course, includes several years of severe recession when colleges saw their revenues decline and many found themselves forced to make hard choices about spending.  The character of these choices is evident from the data reported by Carlson.  Colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers.

Administrative bloat is a problem in every organization.  It would be nice to think that organizations can stay right-sized at all times, but the reality is that they bloat in good times, and have to have layoffs to trim the fat in bad times.

The difference between high and low-performing organizations, though, is often where they make their cuts.  It appears from this example that academia is protecting its administration staff at the expense of its front-line value delivery staff (ie the faculty).  This is a hallmark of failing organizations, and we find a lot of this behavior in public agencies.  For example, several years ago when Arizona State Parks had to have  a big layoff, they barely touched their enormous headquarters staff and laid off mostly field customer service and maintenance staff. (At the time, Arizona State Parks and my company, both of whom run public parks, served about the same number of visitors.  ASP had over 100 HQ staff, I had 1.5).

This tendency to protect administrative staff over value-delivery staff is not unique to public institutions - General Motors did the same thing for years in the 70's and 80's.  But it is more prevalent in the public realm because of lack of competition.  In the private world, companies that engage in such behaviors are eventually swept away (except if you are GM and get bailed out at every turn).  Public agencies persist on and on and on and never go away, no matter how much they screw up.  When was the last time you ever heard of even the smallest public agency getting shut down?

I would love to see more on the psychology of this tendency to protect administrative over line staff.   My presumption has always been that 1) those in charge of the layoffs know the administrative staff personally, and so it is harder to lay them off and 2) Administrative staff tend to offload work from the executives, so they have more immediate value to the executives running the layoffs.

Apparently, Rental Homes Are Not Like Bonds

It is always hard to tell if the media is really offering a balanced sample of customer experiences when they pile on some company, but the Huffpo makes a pretty good case that large Wall Street home rental companies are doing a terrible job at customer service.

If so, I am unsurprised for three reasons:

  • I run what is essentially a property management company.  One thing I have learned is that everyone outside of the business systematically underestimates basic maintenance and operating costs, and few if any ever factor in the costs of longer-term capital maintenance.  Further, and perhaps more critically, outsiders frequently underestimate the detailed, even minute focus on process and organization that is necessary to make sure everything is getting maintained satisfactorily  particularly when the portfolio gets larger than the executive group can personally oversee.
  • I have rented out a second home for a few years.  It is difficult and expensive to stay on top of basic maintenance, and this is with one property that one is intimately familiar with.  I challenge you to find many people who will say they made money renting their second homes, particularly given the high cost of property management.  They may have made money on the appreciation of the real estate value, or reduced the net costs of owning a vacation home, but I seldom run into anyone making money on a annual basis (as long as the real cost of capital is being considered in the equation).
  • Wall Street has a long history of treating operational assets as financial assets.  There is a huge mindset difference between the two.  The book Barbarians at the Gate included some early history of LBO firms like KKR, and it is interesting the culture clashes they faced as they tried to explain the need to be operationally involved in their investments to the financial guys who wanted to treat them as Deals.

Insulting Treatment by the US Forest Service

This was posted by the US Forest Service outside of a privately-funded, privately-operated campground:

White-Mountain-NF-Shut-Down

 

All the maintenance at this site, as well as all cleaning, utilities, security monitoring, staffing, customer service, etc. are provided and paid for by a private concessionaire that does not take one dime of government money.   The "our ability to perform maintenance" is incredibly disingenuous, because over the course of a year likely no US Forest Service maintenance person even steps on the property.   The last half of the message therefore has absolutely nothing to do with the first half.  The campground is closed and not being maintained because the US Forest Service has arbitrarily suspended the concessionaires contract in an apparent attempt to make the shutdown more painful for the public.

Don't Ever Have an Ear Emergency in Phoenix

A couple of weeks ago, I started losing hearing in one ear.  A bit later, it started to hurt.  Suspecting an infection, I called my ENT's office.  They said they couldn't see me for four weeks, and would not let me switch to see anyone else in their 10-person practice (against their practice rules, which raises the question of, from a customer point of view, why there is any benefit to a large practice at all -- the large pool of doctors provides the illusion of more customer service capability but in fact the sole logic of the practice is cost-sharing of overhead and support staff).  So eventually I just went to one of those walk-in urgent care clinics in a strip mall near me and had the GP there look at it.  I found that I did in fact have an infection and got an antibiotic scrip and some drops and was told if it did not get better in 7 days, go see a specialist.

So it has been a week and the pain is mostly gone but I still have lost most of my hearing in the ear.  So I tried to make an appointment at my ENT again -- 4 weeks.  I described my situation, and said something seemed wrong.  4 weeks.

So I talked to two friends who are both semi-retired ENT's.  They said to get my butt to a doctor ASAP because it could be nothing or it could be something really bad that needs immediate intervention.  But no ENT would see me for weeks.  So one of my friends said they would help me, but they needed audiology tests.  Turns out, those are being scheduled 3 weeks out.  I finally called in a favor with a friend of a friend and found someone to test me next Monday, just four days from now.  Four days seems a long wait for something that could be an emergency, but it beats the hell out of 4 weeks.

This is what we have done to the practice of medicine.  With a myriad of professional licensing requirements and regulatory burdens that raise the fixed cost of opening a practice, we have managed to simultaneously raise prices while limiting supply.

Customer Service Fail

I called Bank of America to stop payment on a check -- for some reason this seems to be one function that cannot be performed online.  I got right through to their business banking number.  However, they told me my account actually qualified for their special preferred, presumably premium, customer service number.  So they transferred me.  And I am still on hold, having waited now for over 10 minutes.  I have no idea why they couldn't solve my simple problem at the regular number without a transfer and long hold.

Discrimination: The All-Purpose Accusation

Today I got three letters with a subject line and/or opening sentence accusing me of discrimination.  Here are the three complaints:

  1. A camper did not get the $8 senior discount to which he was entitled, in large part because my new employee did not recognize his very old-style government recreation access card (I processed a refund immediately).
  2. A 20-year-old accused me of age discrimination when we told her she was too young to work in a store, despite the fact our manager explained patiently several times that we are prevented by law from hiring minors to sell alcoholic beverages
  3. A camper accused me of discrimination because we would not let him occupy a site clearly marked as having been reserved by another camper (who had not yet arrived).  This obviously is odd -- I am discriminating against people without reservations for reserved sites?

None of these folks appear to be a part of a legally protected group, nor did they site any treatment they received that was different from similarly situated people at the same location.  They just didn't like a particular policy and wanted to complain, but have been taught by society that the best way to get attention is to claim DISCRIMINATION -- sort of like a witchcraft accusation in the 17th century.

All of this is to answer the question of why someone like myself who has vocally supported gays and gay marriage for decades would oppose legislation naming homosexuals as another government-protected class.  I have defended openly gay employees of mine against ignorant accusations that their homosexuality somehow posed dangers to the kids camping at the park they helped to maintain.   But discrimination law makes me crazy.   Think of it this way -- bad things happen to everyone from time to time.  I am a white male, but despite this status I have gotten turned down for jobs, have been laid off from jobs, and frequently have received bad, even rude customer service.  Everybody does.     Discrimination law often takes these typical day-to-day indignities we all face and converts them, literally, into a Federal case.

Never Miss A Good Opportunity to Shut Up

It strikes me that a service business model that relies on frequently suing your customers is not really sustainable.

My folks out in the field operating campground face far greater problems with customers than any of these petty complaints that Suburban Express is taking to court.  My folks have drunks in their face almost every weekend screaming obscenities at them.  We have people do crazy things to avoid paying small entry fees.  We get mostly positive reviews online but from time to time we inevitably get a negative review with which we disagree (e.g. from the aforementioned drunk who was ticked off we made him stop driving).

And you know how many of these folks we have taken to court in 10 years?  Zero.  Because unless your customer is reneging on some contractual obligation that amounts to a measurable percentage of your net worth, you don't take them to court.

Yes, it is satisfying from an ego perspective to contemplate taking action against some of them.  There are always "bad customers" who don't act in civilized and honorable ways.   But I  tell my folks that 1)  You are never going to teach a bad customer a lesson, because by definition these same folks totally lack self-awareness or else they would not have reached the age of fifty and still been such assholes.  And 2) you are just risking escalating the situation into something we don't want.  As did Suburban Express in the linked article.

The first thing one has to do in the customer service business is check one's ego at the door.  I have front-line employees that simply refuse to defuse things with customers (such as apologize for the customer's bad experience even if we were not reasonably the cause).  They will tell me that they refuse to apologize, that it was a "bad customer".   This is all ego.  I tell them, "you know what happens if you don't apologize and calm the customer down?  The customer calls me and I apologize, and probably give him a free night of camping to boot."  In the future, if this dispute goes public, no one is going to know how much of a jerk that customer was at the time.  Just as no one knows about these students in the Suburban Express example - some may have been  (likely were) drunken assholes.  But now the company looks like a dick for not just moving on.

This is all not to say I am perfect.  It is freaking amazingly easy to forget my own rule about checking one's ego at the door.  I sometimes forget it when dealing with some of the public agencies with which I am under contract.  One of the things you learn early about government agencies is that long-time government employees have never been inculcated with a respect for contract we might have in the private world.  If internal budget or rules changes make adhering to our contract terms difficult, they will sometimes ignore or unilaterally change the terms of our written contract.

And then I will get really pissed off.  Sometimes, I have to -- the changes are substantial and costly enough to matter.  But a lot of the time it is just ego.  The changes are small and de minimis from our financial point of view but I get all worked up, writing strings of eloquent and argumentative emails and letters, to show those guys at the agency just how wrong they are.  And you know what?  Just like I tell my folks, the guys on the other end are not going to change.  They are not bad people, but they have grown up all their lives in government work and have been taught to believe that contract language is secondary to complying with their internal bureaucratic rules.  They are never going to change.  All I am doing is ticking them off with my letters that are trying to count intellectual coup on them.

To this end, I think I am going to tape these two lines from Ken White's post on the wall in front of my desk

  • First, never miss a good opportunity to shut up.
  • Second, take some time to get a grip. You will not encounter a situation where waiting 48 hours to open your mouth will destroy your brand.

Zombie Earthlink Accounts

I am left to wonder today how much of Earthlink's remaining income is from zombie accounts.  I generally hate the hassle of dealing with a changed credit card number, but one advantage is that I discover some zombie accounts that I have forgotten about and keep charging my card every month.

Today I had an amazing one -- from my old Earthlink dial-up account.  I had thought I cancelled Earthlink something like 8 years ago (I certainly have not used it since about 2003).  That is several credit cards ago and so I have absolutely no idea how they were able to continue to bill me, but they were, right up to this month when my corporate card number changed due to a fraud alert.  It is kind of depressing that I spent well north of a thousand dollars over the years on a service that I would never even consider using again, but that is the danger that comes as a company gets larger and one can't personally inspect every bill that gets paid.

Of course, despite evidence that I never used the account, they would not waive the final month's billing and threatened collections, etc.  They wanted my credit card for one last charge, and then they would cancel.  Which made me suspicious that this is how they got my credit card for the last five years - by asking for it for one last charge and then continuing to bill for 5 years.  So I told them I did not trust them with my new credit card number and to send me a paper bill that I would pay by check.  As a final insult, they said they had to charge me an extra dollar for the paper bill.

If I had time, I would challenge them and give them grief, but sometimes one has to put one's ego away and just move on with the loss.

During the call, it was very, very clear that trying to collect money on zombie accounts that people had forgotten about was very, very typical for their customer service folks.  Leading me to wonder just how much of Earthlink's revenue comes from such zombie accounts.  As a funny side note, they were perfectly fine taking money from me without any identification, but would not cancel the account without an extensive account verification, a verification that is rather hard if one has not used the account in about 8 years.

Unlike All Those Passive People, I Am Waiting to Be Handed My Big Break

This is an amazing and self-refuting cry for help by Kate MacKay (via Maggies Farm)

By and large, my friends and my friends’ friends are all intelligent, educated, gregarious, and creative. They’re insightful and thoughtful. They’re critical and ambitious. So why do so many employers put them in positions that don’t take full advantage of what they’ve got to offer?...

But this is really bad talent management on the part of our employers. If you have ambitious, smart young people who actually want to do more work and use their talents to the maximum – so that they can grow as people and employees – then you’re an idiot as an employer to not take advantage of this....

The places that we work for are chock-a-block with people who are contented in their positions; they’re sitting low in their saddles, riding out the last miles toward the sunset of retirement. They’re not interested in changing horses any more, the way we are, and so those saddles that we want to have remain full, often by people who have lost more than just their ambitions for new jobs. They’ve lost the drive to get things done quickly, they’ve lost creativity, and they’ve especially lost the outsider’s perspective on the job they do and the company they work for. They’re entrenched in the corporate culture of the place, and nothing kills innovation or ambition faster than people dedicated to the status quo....

This is where I am, and many of my friends are in this position too, just hoping and waiting for either the next better job outside, or some radical shift inside. I’ve thought seriously about changing my LinkedIn profile blurb to something like, “My career goal is to gain a position that energizes, excites, challenges, and values me, so that I can continue to develop my skills and talents, and grow as a person.” I wonder if that would catch anyone’s eye?...

OK, stay with me, I am saving the good part for last, but it is important to get this background.  This person is seriously confused.  Companies do not exist to give one jobs that match one's skills.  In fact, they do not exist to provide jobs at all.  They exist to serve customers and thereby generate surpluses for the owners.  They hire people to do specific jobs that are part of a process to serve these customers and owners.

I am sympathetic to the notion that there is lost value in my employees, that they can do things that might be useful to me that I do not tap.  But I have 500 employees.  I have time to customize like maybe two of those jobs to the talents of individuals, and these are high level jobs where the benefit of that time commitment on my part is worth it.  For the rest of the employees, I have to be satisfied I am missing some value, because at best I don't have the time or resources to customize jobs to every employee's unique snowflakeness.  And at worst, such customization would mess up our customer service process.  At some level, I don't want every front line employee inventing his or her own imagined customer contact or cash management process.

But I promised you the best is yet to come. and here it is:

All of them wonder when their break is going to come, when the thing they’re doing will finally spill over from ‘just making it work’ to ‘making it.’ And I wonder that too, because this risk-taking group of determined individuals should be rewarded by the universe, I think, for their innovation and dedication. The other group, sitting undervalued at their desks, should be likewise rewarded for their abilities and ambitions.

My overall sense is that we’re all in the same place, sitting together in a kind of employment purgatory, waiting for something to happen. We keep working – we’re not sitting idle. We apply for jobs, we network, push for promotions or projects, advertise ourselves, and keep our eyes on the horizon. We are striving, ever striving, for the thing that we want that we know we can do. Economists be damned, we’re all just waiting for our big break, and we won’t be satisfied with a comfy saddle riding toward the sunset.

Did you get that?  This risk-taking and proactive group is determined to sit on their ass and wait for someone in the universe to appreciate them, for some organization to create a perfect job that gives each employee snowflake his or her perfect work experience.

Jeez, I have had a series of sucky jobs over time.  So as advice to those that think a proactive job search encompasses seriously considering a new Linked-in profile blurb, I did two things:

  • I changed jobs, and eventually went to work for myself.
  • I stopped defining my total-life fulfillment by what I do for a paycheck, and took on other tasks outside of work (blogging, writing, building) that brought me satisfaction but for which people have been as-yet unwilling to pay me.

More Arizona DMV Madness

My daughter is ready for her final (in-car) driving test to try to get her driver's license.  But it turns out that the AZ DMV only gives driving tests before 3PM each day.

This is yet another policy designed for the pleasure of government workers (who want to get home nice and early) and not customer-citizens.  Ask yourself:  Who are 99% of the people who take the in-car driving test.  Answer:  16-year-olds, also known as high school sophomores.  And what are they doing up until 3PM weekdays?  Why, they are going to school!

So I have to pull my daughter out of school to take the driving test.  But it is worse than that, because we can't just show up at 2:30, missing perhaps her last class.  The AZ DMV has this insane process that is essentially a series of chained queues.  One waits in line for the receptionist, who gives the "customer" a number based on what task they want to complete (license, tags, etc).  One then waits endlessly for this first number to come up, only to find that the person who calls you up can only complete half the task (at best), so you then have to wait in line for the next person to complete the next task, etc.

Well, reports from all the other parents tell us that if you show up two hours early (e.g. at 1PM), there is a very good chance you will not get the driving test.  If all the prior queues one must work through cause one to show up at the driving test queue even at 3:01 -- Sorry!  You have to come back another day and start all over.

This is obviously insane.  The chained queue process is nuts.  The fact that the one portion school age kids must complete ends before school is out is nuts.  The fact that the person who performs the last step in the chained process goes home first is nuts.

Until last year, and with my previous kid, we did not have to do this.  AZ had a very sensible law that allowed private licensed driving schools to give the driving test.  You could still go through the DMV, but for a $100 or so one could get this done via a high service, no-queue, work-on-the-weekend private company.  But of course our legislature ended this sensible service last year, ostensibly over concerns about quality, but likely because the DMV folks didn't like competition from outsiders who actually gave a sh*t about customer service.

Punished for Speech

I have debated a while whether to run this personal experience, and in the end have reached a (perhaps wimpy) compromise with myself to run it but disguise the agency involved.  

As most of your know, I run a company that helps keep public parks open by privately operating them.  As part of that business, it is unsurprising that I would run a specialized blog on such public-private recreation partnerships.  Most of the blog is dedicated not to selling my company per se, since there are not many who do what we do, but advancing the concept.  In particular, I spend a lot of time responding to objections from folks who are concerned that private operators will not serve the public well or care for public lands as well as civil servants do.

One such objection is around law enforcement -- parks agencies who oppose this model argue that my company cannot possibly replace them because all their rangers are law enforcement officials and mine, a certification my private employees can't match.  So a while back I wrote an article discussing this issue.

I argued that parks were not some lawless Road Warrior-style criminal anarchy and simply did not need the level of law enforcement concentration they have.   We run nearly 175 public parks and do so just fine relying on support from the sheriff's office, as does every other recreation business.

I argued that so many rangers were law enforcement officials because they have a financial incentive to get such certification (e.g. more pay and much better pension, plus the psychic benefits of carrying a gun and a badge) and not because of any particular demand for such services.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I argued that providing customer service with law enforcement officials can cause problems -- after all, McDonald's does not issue citations to their customers for parking incorrectly.  To back up the last point, I linked to an article in the Frisky (of all places) and a Yelp review of a park where customers bombarded the site with one star reviews complaining about the rangers harassing them with citations and ruining their visit.

Well, one day I got a letter via email from a regional manager of the state parks agency whose park was the subject of that Yelp review I linked.  I was notified that I had 48 hours to remove that blog post or I would lose all my contracts with that state.  In particular, they did not like a) the fact that I linked to a negative Yelp review of one of their parks and b) that I impugned the incredibly noble idea that state parks are all operated by law enforcement officials.  I found out only later that there is a very extreme law enforcement culture in this agency -- that in fact you historically could not even be promoted to higher management positions without the law enforcement badge, truly making this an agency of police officers who happen to run parks.  I would normally quote the letter's text here, but it is impossible to do so and keep the agency's name confidential.

Fortunately, I was able to write the acting General Counsel of the agency that afternoon.  Rather than sending something fiery as the first salvo, I sent a coy letter observing innocently that her agency seemed to believe that my contracts with the state imposed a prior restraint on my speech and I asked her to clarify the boundaries of that prior restraint so I would know what speech I was to be allowed.  To her credit, she called me back about 6 minutes after having received the letter and told me that it was void and asking me to please, please pretend I had never received it.  So I did, and I reward her personally for her quick and intelligent response by not naming her agency in the story.

I am reminded of all this and write it in response to this story passed on by Ken at Popehat.  It is a story of free speech and petty government retribution for it.  I will let you read the article to get the details, but I will repost the original speech that earned Rick Horowitz a good dollop of government harassment.  As an aside, I realize in posting this how far from the law and order conservative I have come since my early twenties.

Your approach should be to try to live your life, as much as possible, without giving them one minute of your time. If they want to talk to you, you should ask, “Am I being detained, or arrested?” If they say “no,” then you walk away. If they tell you that you cannot leave, then you stay put, but don’t talk to them. Because they aren’t following the law when they detain you for no reason.

And if the government will not follow the law, there is no reason why anyone else should.

Let me repeat that:

If the government will not follow the law, there is no reason why anyone else should.

So this is the proposal I set forth:

To the government, you can start following the law, or none of us will.

To everyone else, if the government will not follow the law, you should stop pretending law means anything.

It’s time to step away from the wrong.

Start fighting over everything!

 

 

SimCity 5 Now Has 1402 1-Star Reviews on Amazon

As of tonight, the new SimCitygame is still unplayable due to overloaded servers and numerous bugs even when one is on the server.  Today, the manufacturer purposely defeatured the product in a patch to try to get it to work.  As I predicted the other day, this product was not ready for market.

Update:  Via Game Skinny, this may be an example of some of the worst customer service I have ever seen.  The makers of SimCity in a press release tells users they may request a refund.  When a customer requests the refund, he is told that he can request it, so the press release is not lying, but they are not going to process it.  Unbelievable.  Extra credit for the fact that those who bought from Amazon can get a prompt and immediate refund, but those who bought directly from the manufacturer, like me, are stuck.

click to enlargeFurther, it is becoming increasingly clear that the multiplayer capabilities that supposedly require the server login are a sham - a very very thin shell of functionality that adds almost nothing to the game but provides the excuse for always-online DRM.

 

People Constantly Amaze Me

My company has an email list folks can join to get emails if we have jobs available.  We have about 15,000 people on the list and get hundreds of applications whenever there is a new job, even though we probably have fewer than 20 openings a year.   I got this email today from someone I suppose must have added his name to the list:

Do you know that since I signed up with youI have not recieved ONE e-mail from you about jobs ???  Are you holding out jobs for friends ? Do you just get people to sign up then forget them for fun ??  Or is it that you have no job leads ???
Why did I waste my time signing up with you ????????????

Certainly this man's willingness to turn the smallest frustration into an enormous imagined slight with hints of conspiracy is EXACTLY what we are looking for in our customer service staff.

Great Moments In Lawsuits

I have mixed feelings about Groupon.  Having been an executive at Mercata 10+ years ago, I recognize that they have gotten further than we did with the group buying model by a) waiting for there to actually be social media and b) delivering electronic goods (coupons) rather than hard goods.  As a customer, I have satisfactorily participated in several groupons and as a business we have used it a couple of times as a promotional program.  As an investor, I was short Groupon for quite a while, convinced that they had no particular barrier to entry for competitors like Amazon who could grab the market if there was enough money at stake.

So, all that aside, I was fascinated by the recent settlement of a class action lawsuit.  Prior to the lawsuit, all customers could get a full refund of their Groupon through a simple contact with Groupon customer service.  After the lawsuit, customers during the class action period can only get a partial refund and then only by going to a separate class website and hassling with forms and doing a lot of waiting.  The plaintiffs will actually get less than they would have had the lawsuit not gone forward, the difference being the millions required to pay off the tort lawyers to go away.

Having just had to pay the fees of a tort lawyer who brought a frivolous suit against our company just to make him go away, I am sympathetic.  Had the plaintiff approached me directly, I might have given her a few bucks just to settle and avoid getting lawyers involved.  But instead the lawyer got part of his fees paid in the settlement and the plaintiff got zip.  Basically just legal blackmail, with the plaintiff as unpaid pawn.

Interesting Analysis of Trayvon Martin Probably Cause Affidavit

I have not really posted on Trayvon Martin (except to comment on NBC's corrupt editing of the 911 tape) because a) high-profile criminal cases don't really have the hold on me they seem to have for many other Americans**; b) I have nothing to add; c) I have a bias that would make my commentary suspect.

But since I am about to post on the case, and may in the future, I should explain the bias.  We have a problem from time to time with campground workers we call the "badge-heavy" syndrome.  They get obsessive about rooting our rules violations.  They stalk campers.  They follow people around.  The spy on campers, looking for violations or crimes to report.  The folks they pick out for such treatment are often chosen because they are somehow different from the employee.

This is just awful for customer service.   It drives me crazy.  It is the absolute first thing we discuss at every training session.  Employees who demonstrate that they have this mentality are generally shown the door as fast as possible.  Government-run recreation facilities actually have this problem much worse, because 1) they give all their park staff a law enforcement title, a badge, and a gun, which tends to just encourage this kind of over-zealous harassment and 2) it is almost impossible for them to fire someone for this type of thing (because in the government employee heirarchy of values, enforcement of and consistency with rules is far more important than customer service or visitor satisfaction).

So this is a hot button issue for me.  And my first thought in this case was that Zimmerman's actions seemed just like those of my badge-heavy employees that I frequently have to fire.  So I am not very predisposed to by sympathetic to him, so thus my bias.

Anyway, keeping with my habit in this case of commenting more on issues at the periphery rather than of the case itself, this post from Ken at Popehat (I believe a former US attorney and current defense lawyer) is quite interesting.  Here is the bottom line:

I'm in a rush, but I can't avoid commenting on the affidavit of probable cause submitted in the matter of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin.

It's a piece of crap....

This is not the worst affidavit I've ever seen — but it's damn close, and the decision to proceed based on it in such a high-profile case is stunning. Cynics may say that I've been spoiled by federal practice, where affidavits are on average considerably more careful and well-drafted, particularly in some districts. But if it takes a high-profile case to highlight shoddy practices in everyday cases, so be it. An affidavit like this makes a mockery of the probable cause process. There's no way that a judge reading this affidavit can make an intelligent or informed decision about the sufficiency of the evidence — even for the low hurdle of probable cause.

** footnote:  I lived in Boulder through the whole Jon Benet Ramsey case.  I believe this was like aversion therapy, the equivalent of your dad forcing you to sit in a closet and smoke three cigars to put you off smoking, which has turned me off high profile criminal cases forever.

Contempt of TSA

I have written frequently of the non-crime called "contempt of cop" which seems to be at the heart of so many bad arrests and harassment incidents.  Well, you will be happy to know that the helpful folks at the TSA want the same power, to be able to arrest anyone who does not show them proper respect and deference.

Postscript:  Thinking about this more, I have to add a personal angle.  As my company privately operates public parks, our employees are often taking over from state park rangers who have law enforcement credentials.  When we propose our services, we often get pushback on this issue -- how are we going to live without all these law enforcement officers with arrest powers and guns and badges in the parks?

The answer I give is:  Things will be better.  It is an enormous mistake to handle customer service problems with a badge and gun and hard-ass attitude, but that is often what happens in parks.  You don't see McDonald's issuing citations to their customers, but state parks organizations do it all the time.

It turns out that the reason there are so many law enforcement officers in parks has nothing to do with demand -- with very few exceptions, the parks we operate all require fractions of an FTE of law enforcement.  Maybe 20 hours a year per park.  But there are huge incentives for state workers to get a law enforcement license.  Beyond the psychic advantages of having a gun and badge, they typically qualify for a much richer law enforcement pension plan.   Park supervisors don't care -- the extra benefits don't come out of their budgets.

My Most Difficult Customer Service Problem

The most frequent customer service fail we have in our company is when an employee, thinking they are doing me some kind of favor, go nuts on a customer trying to enforce some trivial rule or trying to collect the last $5 our company might be owed.

It is astronomically hard to train people to use their judgement the same way I would in a customer situation.  This is particularly true when ego gets involved, when the employee feels like they have somehow taken a ego hit, with the customer "winning" and them "losing."  I once had an employee drive out of the park we were operating and chase a woman down the road over a misunderstanding about whether $5 had been paid correctly.  Incredible.  Unfortunately,  I have found no amount of training can fix judgement this bad, and the only thing I know how to do is fire them as fast as possible so they can't do any more harm.

I have always supposed this over-zealousness was a general human train, but in certain am-I-crazy moments, I wonder if somehow I am preferentially selecting for this kind of nuttiness.  Apparently not:

A Hawaii couple’s 3-year-old daughter was taken away from them for 18 hours after they were arrested for forgetting to a pay for two $5 sandwiches.

“This is unreal this could happen to a family like ours,” Nicole Leszczynski told Hawaii’s KHON.

The outing-turned-nightmare happened Wednesday while the family was shopping at a local Safeway.

“We walked a long way to the grocery store and I was feeling faint, dizzy, like I needed to eat something so we decided to pick up some sandwiches and eat them while we were shopping,” Leszczynski told the news station.

Leszczynski, who is 30-weeks pregnant, her husband, Marcin, and daughter Zophia bought $50 worth of groceries — but forgot about their two chicken salad sandwiches.

“It was a complete distraction, distracted parent moment,” Leszczynski told KHON.

As the family left, they were stopped by store security, who asked for their receipt.

“I offered to pay, we had the cash. We just bought the groceries,” Leszczynski told the station.

Instead, the expectant mother told KHON that the Safeway manager called police. They were taken to the main Honolulu police station where they were booked for fourth degree theft. Then Zophia was taken into custody by Child Protective Services.

I will say that I think the public agencies we replace in operating these parks are generally worse at this than we are, simply because so many of their employees have law enforcement certifications.  Dealing with customer service issues using law enforcement officers is often a recipe for bad outcomes.

New Study on Private Management of Public Parks

Holly Fretwell of PERC has completed a great new study of how use of private companies to handle park operations can help keep parks open and well-maintained.  The introduction to the study is here and the study itself is here.

Some state park systems rely on tax dollars provided through state general funds. When state budgets are tight, park funding is a lower priority than projects such as schools and hospitals. Hence park budgets are quick to hit the chopping block, leading to threats of park closures or reduced services.

Rather than ride the roller coaster of state budgets, some parks have leased their operational activities to private managers. These private entities have proven they can operate the parks more efficiently, and sites that were once a drain on agency funds are now generating revenue.

Private management can provide consistent, quality stewardship as well as more customer service.

She also gives a nice plug for our upcoming national conference on November 2 in Scottsdale.

Contempt of Cop

The point of this story seems to be to criticize cops for tasering, beating, pepper-spraying, and incarcerating a handicapped boy who apparently did nothing wrong.

Dayton police "mistook" a mentally handicapped teenager's speech impediment for "disrespect," so they Tasered, pepper-sprayed and beat him and called for backup from "upward of 20 police officers" after the boy rode his bicycle home to ask his mother for help, the boy's mom says.

But the larger issue is the culture that seems to exist among many police that disrespecting them is somehow a crime.   Sorry, but it is not, anywhere in this country, a crime to disrespect a cop.

As an aside, the three words that are always a big flashing warming light for me are "he disrespected me."  I am amazed when I hear this on the news all the time as if it justified whatever bad behavior that was to follow.  In investigating customer service problems in our company, any employee of mine whose explanation of an incident with a customer that includes the line "he disrespected me" is not going to be an employee very long.  Nothing gets in the way of good customer service faster than an employee trying to save face or protect his or her ego.

via Mike Riggs

Weird Interview Questions

Via Tyler Cowen, here are some odd questions with snarky answers.

There are some themes here.  Several are sort algorithms (the horses and the balls) and a number are probability and distribution questions (e.g. the stairs and the stools). Several are clearly sales and customer service situations (e.g. the invisible pen).

And several are estimation problems (e.g. how many airplanes are in the air right now).  The latter type question was very popular when I was at McKinsey & Co.  Many interviews actually gave the victim interviewee some kind of business case.  The point was to see how well the person broke down the problem, considered facts they would need to obtain, etc.

A subset of these was the ever-popular market estimation game, such as "how many home windows are bought each year in Mexico?"  As an interviewer, one wants to see the person think "OK, there is new construction and replacement.  For the new construction market, we need the size of the home construction market, number of windows per home...."  That sort of thing.

We would also generally ask them to guess at numbers for all these and actually come up with a number.  This is not some test of trivia -- being able to look at numbers and reality check them is an important skill, so having a reasonable intuition about the proper scale of business and economic statistics is useful.  In fact, if there was one skill as a consulting manager I was constantly trying to hammer into younger consultants it was to look at the numbers coming out of their spreadsheets and ask them if they really make sense.

Arming Government Agencies

The PJ Tatler has this bit on the arming of government bureaucrats:

Quin Hillyer discusses the increasing armed firepower of the federal government.  Most people expect agencies like the FBI to be well armed for law enforcement purposes.  But the Railroad Retirement Board?  He reports that federal agencies far and wide now have armed agents, including the Small Business Administration.  For what?  To scare away phony 8(a) applications??  The United States Department of Education bought 27 Remington Model 870 12-gauge shotguns last year

I have no insight into what is going on in these particular agencies.  But I can comment on another agency.  Nearly every state parks organization has seen a proliferation of law enforcement titles among its employees.  Seemingly every field employee nowadays needs to have a gun and a badge.  Why?

Well, there are those who say that this arms race is necessary to keep the parks safe against some mythical crime wave.  But I can say with some authority, since our company runs over 150 public parks across the country, that with very, very few exceptions, parks don't need this kind of on-site law enforcement support.  Most problems can be handled with on-site customer service employees, with the occasional call the the sheriff if things get rough.  In fact, customer service is actually improved without all the badges around.  Rangers with law enforcement credentials tend to solve issues with their visitors by issuing citations.  This is awful customer service -- I am sure McDonald's doesn't like it if someone messes up the bathroom or parks across two parking spaces, but you won't see them issuing citations to their customers.

The reason for this proliferation of law enforcement titles in parks is not demand for order, but incentives among employees.  In most states, getting a law enforcement title in a parks organization gives one an automatic raise, participation in the far-more-lucrative state law enforcement pension plan, and training that can be valuable when one leaves the parks organization.  Also, for some, it carries non-monetary benefits -- some folks think its cool to wield a gun and a badge.

Public Employee Compensation Packages

I am with Megan McArdle in confirming that the non-pay portions of the typical public employee compensation package is at least as important, and as potentially expensive, as the money itself.  In particular, two aspects of many public employee compensation packages would be intolerable in my service business:

  • Inability to fire anyone in any reasonable amount of time
  • Work rules and job classifications

From time to time I hire seemingly qualified people who are awful with customers.  They yell at customers, or are surly and impatient with them, or ruin their camping stay with nit-picky nagging on minor campground rules issues.  In my company, these people quickly become non-employees.  In the public sector they become... 30 year DMV veterans.  Only in a world of government monopoly services can bad performance or low productivity be tolerated, mainly because the customer has no other option.  In my world, the customer has near-infinite other options.  And don't even get me started on liability -- when liability laws have been restructured so that I am nearly infinitely liable for the actions of my least responsible employee, I have to be ruthless about culling bad performance.

The same is true of work rules.  Forget productivity for a moment.  Just in terms of customer service, every one of my employees has to be able to solve customer problems.  I can't automatically assume customers will approach the firewood-seller employee for firewood.  All my employees need to be able to sell firewood, or empty a trash can when it needs emptying, or clean a bathroom if the regular cleaner is sick, or whatever.

For those who really believe state workers in Wisconsin are underpaid, I would ask this question:  Which of you business people out there would hire the average Wisconsin state worker for their current salary, benefits package, lifetime employment, work rules, grievance process, etc?  If they are so underpaid, I would assume they would get snapped up, right?  Sure.

Bonus advice to young people:  Think long and hard before you take that government job right out of college.  It may offer lifetime employment, but the flip side is that you may need it.  Here is what I mean:

When people leave college, they generally don't have a very good idea how to work in an organization, how to work under authority, how to manage people, how to achieve goals in the context of an organization's goals, etc.   You may think you understand these things from group projects at school or internships, but you don't.  I certainly didn't.

The public and private sector have organizations that work very differently, with different kinds of goals and performance expectations.  Decision-making processes are also very different, as are criteria for individual success within the organization.  Attitudes about risk, an in particular the adherence to process vs. getting results, are entirely different.

I am trying hard to be as non-judgmental in these comparisons as I can for this particular post.  I know good people in government service, and have hired a few good people out of government.  But the culture and incentives they work within are foreign to those of us who work in the private world, and many of the things we might ascribe to bad people in government are really due to those bad incentives.

It is a fact you should understand that many private employers consider a prospective employee to have been "ruined" by years of government work, particularly in their formative years.  This is simply a fact you will need to deal with (it could well be the reverse is true of government hiring, but I have no experience with it).  That is why, for the question I asked above about hiring Wisconsin government workers, the answer for many employers would be "no" irregardless of pay.