(Almost ) seeing a volcano with Google Glass

91933-004-DAEEF82AI (almost) got to see a volcano up close yesterday thanks to Google Glass. What I did get to see was a forward-thinking teacher connected to a lot of other forward-thinking teachers who are putting the latest high-tech gear to use as a way to help their students learn and connect with peers around the world.

We take so much technology for granted these days, that I really feel like I need to repeat that last part. “…with their peers around the world.” And it wasn’t just a written connection, or a voice connection — but a video connection. Students from around the world had the opportunity to watch as Brendan Brennan took his class to visit a volcano in Hawaii.

Under the moniker of “Project Open Glassroom,” Brendan found a way to connect students with his class by utilizing computers, portable WiFi and Google Glass in a way that allowed the classrooms to interact, ask questions and see what Brendan and others were seeing, live as it happened.

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A screen shot of Brendan wearing his Google Glass, shot with my Google Glass.

We have added 3 (count ‘em) Google Glass feeds via LiveStream for the field trip in addition to the Hangout On Air. One for a student, one for a teacher and one for a volcanologist.

I watched it off and on, streaming it to one of my computer screens while taking care of work on others. While it would have been fun to focus entirely on what Brendan was doing, this was a great type of broadcast for multitasking in the middle of the afternoon.

I’m sure it was a great experience for all the kids involved, even if they didn’t get to see the volcano in a live feed. Obviously, descending toward a volcano in Hawaii with no cellular towers nearby is not conducive to streaming video and the feed was lost before they got to their destination. But it was a valiant effort that really showcased the power of learning that Google is offering classrooms through Glass and Hangouts on Air. (Unfortunately, Google announced last night that the next Glass software update, due out this week, will be removing video calls as a native app. We can still opt to use Livestream, but I hope video calls return soon after Google takes on its challenge to “make them better.” Otherwise, we’ll lose opportunities like this one used by the Houston Zoo and a hospital.)

Besides showcasing the power of technology, this experimental trip to a volcano also was evidence of the power that teachers have to show students how much more there is to becoming educated than what they can see within their schoolroom walls or read about in textbooks.

You can see pictures that some of the classrooms posted at the Google Plus Event page.

Kudos to Brendan and everyone involved in yesterday’s excursion. It was a valiant effort.

Mahalo nui loa!

 

 

Dear Facebook, it’s not you, it’s me — well, maybe it’s you

mischief managedI finally made a leap that I’ve contemplated for a long time — I no longer use Facebook as part of my daily routine. I haven’t abandoned it and I’m not out talking trash about Facebook on Google Plus. I’m still on Facebook for work as I need to be. But something in my over-saturated social media existence had to give.

The three key outlets I’m active on personally and professionally are Google Plus, Twitter and Facebook. One thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that never in history have so many people had so many opportunities to express their opinions to so many others who don’t care to hear them.

I was really sick for about a week recently and my interaction on social media was quite limited, but I also found it liberating. I found that I was on Twitter periodically, Facebook next to never and Google Plus regularly, observing if not really feeling up to engaging.

I posted a “Gone for a Coke” profile picture at Facebook and probably won’t be there much at all anymore. Twitter has its usefulness, albeit limited due to its very nature. Twitter has always been more about shouting to be overheard at a party than having in-depth conversations.

I don’t have enough hours in the day to do it all, and if I need to focus my energy on some form of social media, it will be on Google Plus. I find that my Google Plus stream helps enrich my online experience and learning with more thoughtful posts and interesting links. Being fully integrated into the Google universe helps, too. I can do so much with Google, Google Docs, Google Drive, Gmail and Google Plus from within one environment while I’m online or on my Android mobile phone that it’s a very streamlined and comfortable experience.trek g+

Facebook has just become too filled with drama, religious rants and political stabs. I also found it becoming too routine to wish someone happy birthday because Facebook told me to. I didn’t really reach out as a friend, I just tagged them as “a friend.” Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter are what we make of it, I understand that. If I’m not happy with my news stream on Facebook, I suppose I could change it. But Facebook’s algorithms control what I see a lot more than I do anyway, and maybe Facebook has just been getting it more wrong than usual lately.

I hate epiphany posts. I’m not declaring Facebook dead and I’m not saying only people on Google Plus are worth following. I’m just saying I’m going to be a lot more discerning with what I do and where I do it. For me, that’s Google Plus. I still use Facebook to message people who are primarily there in terms of their social media presence. And I’m notified when something on Facebook involves me, whether it’s a mention, a picture or whatever. So I am periodically on Facebook for personal use, but more like a few times a week rather than continually.

I don’t think I’ve really been missed on Facebook. Maybe that’s a function of my connections on there. It would be interesting to have an analysis done of my connections on Facebook vs. Google Plus vs. Twitter.

Recently, a company called Demographics Pro sent me a link to a free analysis of my Twitter account. They did it so I would blog about it or talk about their company on social media and get them some free publicity. (You’re welcome DP, I hope this helps.) According to their analysis:

@aribadler’s followers are comparatively mature (in their mid thirties), typically white/caucasians married with children and with very high income. The account has a notable audience concentration in Lansing, MI.

  • Professionally, @aribadler’s followers are employed as senior managers, journalists, authors/writers, consultants and teachers. The account ranks within the top 10% of all Twitter accounts in terms of density of sales/marketing managers.
  • In their spare time they particularly enjoy keeping pets, technology news, going to the theatre, comedy/humor and reading. @aribadler followers are charitably generous and particularly health conscious. Sports that stand out for this audience include hockey, baseball and cycling.
  • As consumers they are affluent and fashion conscious, with spending focused most strongly on home/family, hobbies and technology. 
  • On Twitter they tweet infrequently yet are relatively influential. 

I guess it’s interesting to see those stats, although I don’t really know what I can or should do about them, if anything.

What about you? Do you ever wonder about your connections? Do you care which ones might come or go? Do you think they would care if you left?

The Seven Ages of Man by William Mulready, 1838, illustrating the speech (via Wikipedia).

What’s the point of all of this anyway? Is social media just a modern-day version of a famous Shakespeare poem?

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

If you figure it out, send me a note — preferably on Google Plus.

Google Glass shortcoming: Not all heads are created equal

SNP_233490CC72CA4D5E0DE3E119EE660F64BB9E_3284798_en_v0My wife, Jessi, and I got together with a group of friends last night to celebrate some accomplishments and a birthday and just have fun hanging out. It’s the first time we’ve gotten together at our house since I became a Google Glass Explorer, so the environment lent itself well to most everyone passing Glass around to try them out.

Overall, the reaction was quite positive, with one of the best comments being, “Those are a lot cooler than I expected.” I think most people would realize that there is a tremendous amount of potential within this new tech if they just gave it a chance.

Because of the various shapes and sizes of the people in our group, it also was a good opportunity to see how Glass’ one-size-fits-most approach is going to work (or not) if Google goes mainstream with them. The Glass team did a good job creating a device that is quite bendable and adjustable. Most anyone can find a way to tweak the nose pads and frame to fit their head. And the hinged feature of the viewscreen means you can adjust it so the entire screen is within your field of vision. I never thought about it, but several of us in our group discovered that we see things at very different angles based on our individual facial structures. I must have the viewscreen tipped in nearly 100 percent, while Jessi tips it out a lot further and another friend of ours had it resting somewhere between.

Of course, the viewscreen is only on the right side, and I’ve had people ask about a left-eyed Glass being available since the vision is negatively affected in their right eye for some reason and they would find Glass easier to use if it could be over their left eye. I don’t know if Google intends on making right-eye and left-eye versions, but I can definitely see that as a major marketing issue at some point.

One of the biggest Google Glass shortcomings I’ve discovered has to do with sound, because not all heads are created equal. We’ve known this to be true for some time, particularly when my wife was trying them out and wanted to learn more about using them. She’s supportive of my being an Explorer, although she has remarked that I talk to myself a lot more than I used to. Unfortunately, because my wife is petite, she is unable to hear things the way she’s supposed to through the Bone Conduction Transducer built into Glass.

When she puts Glass on her head, which is very small, the Bone Conduction Transducer (a.k.a., the speaker) ends up behind her skull. She said that what she hears sounds like it’s coming out of a speaker being held behind her head. Granted, she could use the earbud, but I think one of the cool things about Glass is the ability to listen through the BCT – it is certainly a bonus for someone like me who has reduced hearing in one ear. When I listen to music through Glass, the music is throughout my head and I don’t have the usual sensation of it being louder on the right like I do when using earbuds.

I’m not sure that there’s much of an answer to this unless Google is going to start making multiple sizes of frames to help people adjust to Glass — not just from side to side but from front to back. You can tweak Glass now to fit just about any width of head. But for folks like Jessi, they need to consider a shorter temple on the right. That may be difficult given the size of the battery pack required right now, but hopefully they’re working on a way to make that section of Glass smaller for all of us, and especially the smaller folks who want to enjoy this tech, too.

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The large block behind my ear is the Glass battery and toward the front of that block is the Bone Conduction Transducer, a.k.a. the speaker. It rests comfortably against my skull, allowing me to hear sounds from Glass well without the need for the optional earbud.

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Here, you can see how much further back the battery block sits on Jessi’s head, which is why the BCT isn’t touching her skull and sounds from Glass are very different for her.

Your best efforts are pointless if your customers don’t know about them

customer-service.0822.12I never intended to start a string of posts about customer service but it seems the more I write about it the more things happen that make me think about another customer service post.

This time, it’s about a business doing something right, but missing out on a huge opportunity to make customers happy because some of us don’t know about this business’ initiative.

One of the vehicles in my stable is a Volkswagen and I have it serviced and maintained at the local dealership where I bought it, Williams Autoworld. Volkswagen service is known for being expensive but detailed, and I’ve found the service department to be very customer friendly, so the cost is a little more palatable. One of the nice things this dealership has always done is wash your car when they finish working on it.

Unfortunately, there are several months here in Michigan when that service simply isn’t available. They have a rule about not washing your car if the temperature is below 29 degrees, because they are concerned about frozen rubber gaskets and more that can be caused by mixing water with crappy Michigan winter weather.

It’s a bummer but understandable. Recently I was in for service and when I received my receipt, there was an ink stamp on it that read:

Sorry, due to the cold weather, we are unable to wash your vehicle. Please return in above-freezing temps and we will wash it free of charge.

The thoughtful gesture impressed me and when I filled out my dealership survey, I took the time to add a note giving them kudos for the car wash offer.

I received an email within 24 hours from an executive at the dealership, noting that he reads all the surveys and pays particular attention to notes included by customers. He was glad that I was pleased by the car wash offer but seemed surprised I didn’t know about it since they had offered that service for some time. He also attached a the text of a sign he was thinking about posting in their waiting room that would alert customers to this offer in case others also weren’t aware of it.

 A shot of my car when it was much happier visiting Florida than it is suffering through Michigan winters.

A shot of my car when it was much happier visiting Florida than it is suffering through Michigan winters.

After offering my opinion on the wording of the sign, I also told him doing so was a great idea, because I have been a customer for about seven years now and I never knew they offered the “come back for a car wash” service until I saw the stamp on my receipt.

The point is that here was a business doing the right thing by offering a an extra free service to customers, and following through by offering it free at another time if they couldn’t complete it at the day and time of your visit. But they were failing in a big way because your best efforts are pointless if your customers don’t know about them.

So if you’re involved with a company or business that goes that extra mile for customers, don’t assume your customers know about it and don’t say anything because they’re ungrateful. It could turn out that they simply are unaware. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. After all, if you won’t, how can your customers?

The customer service war is won on the front lines

tobruk02In any battle, the generals in charge of the plan are important and the front-line officers are the ones who execute that plan successfully or not — but when it comes right down to it, the front-line grunts are the ones who actually get the job done.

It’s time the business world learned that it’s the front line that matters, too. I’ve had three recent customer-service experiences that help highlight what I’m getting at.

First, I had an interaction with Amazon after I found out my Amazon Prime membership was increasing by $20 when it renews later this year. I’m not revolting against the change. I’m not a big fan of higher prices, of course, but I understand that after several years, a company may need to adjust them. But I did look online to see if I could take advantage of renewing my subscription early or possibly buying multiple years to lock in a lower price. Unfortunately, there were no such options online so I decided to write to Amazon.com. I asked them about early renewals and suggested they offer multi-year discount packages because they would probably sell a lot of them to people like me. In no time at all, I had an email from an employee telling me that they completely understand what I want to do but neither option is available through their customer service system. They did offer to refund me $20 if I write back to them after my renewal date finally comes up, to help me out for one year, at least. That’s awesome and I greatly appreciate it. But why isn’t something like that available online, since Amazon is an entirely online company, or at least available to their front-line troops to help boost customer satisfaction?

Second, I had a run-in with Apple over their iMessage system, which I tolerated as an iPhone user and now despise as an Android convert. Apparently, when you migrate your number from an iPhone to a Droid, Apple’s system has difficulty breaking up with you and glitches abound. Anyone with an iPhone who tries texting your number will see that an iMessage was sent, but it never actually gets delivered. (iMessage, apparently, is much like the Eagle’s Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!)hotel calif

After completing my online research to find I’m far from alone with this nuisance and attempting a few fixes myself without getting anywhere, I entered into an online chat with an Apple Care employee. They were very friendly, understanding and as helpful as they were allowed to be. Apparently, they did all they could at their level, and suspected something else needed to be done, but it wasn’t a task they were allowed to complete. So they had to “elevate” my problem and arrange a time for another customer service representative to call me. This second employee and I connected by phone the next morning and they took about 5 minutes to run a system check on their end and do a forced cleaning to try to break my phone number away from their system. I’m not sure it’s worked 100 percent, but things do seem better overall. The problem is, why couldn’t that front-line employee push a couple of buttons and wait a few minutes with me while their system processed the cleaning? They knew what I needed and probably how to do it, but instead they had to “elevate” my problem. What too many companies don’t understand is that elevating a customer problem generally just elevates a customer’s frustration, as well.

My third customer-service runaround in the past week has been with SiriusXM Radio. Their online administration system was so screwy that I finally sent them an email complaining about it and noting that they’re worse than Comcast – and that’s a pretty harsh statement! I finally ended up on the phone with one of their employees, as well. The only good news in this case is that although the front-line access via the Internet was useless, the front-line person on the phone was able to do everything I needed. In a nutshell, I was looking at canceling a couple of subscriptions and changing the terms of another. After listening to why I was making the changes to my account, the customer service rep made some suggestions on how I could cancel just one subscription, keep the second one active and change the third. It all ended with me feeling that I got a deal that was good enough to keep me satisfied and keep Sirius from losing more than one annual subscription. I initially wished I could have just dealt with it all online, but the woman on the phone did such a good job that it made me realize there is value in human interaction when it comes to customer service.

I always do my best to never take out my frustrations on customer service representatives, whether in an online chat or on a phone call. These are people trying to do their jobs and often when they can’t it’s because of some policy their company has in place to contain their employees rather than empower them.

But the customer service war — just like any other battle — is won on the front lines. So if you have an opportunity in business to empower those grunts then please do so, even if it means telling a few generals that they just aren’t as important as they might like to believe.

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A device is worth more than the sum of its apps

hatersI generally don’t give haters my attention, because you can’t help someone who refuses to learn and relies on knee-jerk emotional reactions to things instead of becoming educated and reaching an informed conclusion. But sometimes I’m reminded of a phrase I heard once and latched onto:

“I blog because not only do I have an opinion, I cannot keep it to myself.”

The haters and beraters attacking Google Glass and its users seem to be growing in number and intensity, at least according to the sensationalistic press that can’t wait to breathlessly tear down that which they don’t understand.

But the same media that is looking to report on the problems associated with Glass also tend stick with the notion that Google’s wearable computer is defined by its apps, which isn’t something they do with other tech devices.

Headline after headline will tout that “Google Glass allows wearers to X…” or “Google Glass does Y.” The thing is, often the most sensationalistic headlines are grossly inaccurate because the feature they are reporting on isn’t inherent to Glass but rather is provided by an app created by a third-party developer.

I don’t recall seeing any headlines about iPhones doing something or the Samsung Galaxy Gear watch doing something else based solely on a third-party app that was written by someone not associated with or approved by the manufacturer. galaxy-gear--samsung-smartwatch-review-camera-picture-540x334In fact, they even tend to ignore facts about the devices themselves, such as the Gear having a camera. (That means people can clandestinely shoot pictures while appearing to check the time on their wrist. How many bars and restaurants have you heard about banning Gear?)

Google Glass is a platform with amazing potential. It is exciting to watch the Google Glass community discussions on Google Plus as people chat about what they envision wearable technology like Glass being able to help us do in the future, and sometimes in the very near future. Entrepreneurial app developers are finding new ways to entertain, aid and support Glass owners. Sometimes they hit the mark, sometimes they come up with something silly, and sometimes they create an app that is just pointless. It’s the same thing that happens with Android developers and iOS developers, although that tends to happen less with iOS due to Apple’s near-maniacal control over their universe.

So the next time you see a story lambasting Google and its Glass users for doing something outrageous or creepy, consider whether it’s the device, the user or the app that should be the focus of the article. Two of the apps that have received a lot of over-the-top news coverage include the ones that let users record their sexual encounters and another that provides information to the wearer based on facial recognition. (Having just typed those two descriptions in the same sentence makes me wonder if a new app – Google Beer Goggles – might help avoid some awkward morning-after guessing games with the person you met at the bar last night and suddenly found yourself waking up next to this morning. But I digress.)

Is the sex video app pointless and stupid? Sure. Is it Google Glass’ fault? No, because it’s a third-party app that has to be side-loaded to Glass, something many users don’t even have the knowledge or guts to do with their very expensive new tech device. So, the headlines really should have been, “Black market app for Google Glass lets you record sexual encounters.” Or, regarding the facial recognition app, we should have seen “Google Glass hackers create app to capitalize on facial recognition.”

After all, I don’t recall seeing news alerts about “Motorola phones have a porn problem.” But that’s because the media correctly reported, “Does Twitter’s Vine have a porn problem?”

illegals appAnd I don’t remember seeing headlines that read, “Want to practice your illegal alien smuggling skills? Get an iPhone.” That’s because the media correctly reported it as, “Want to practice your illegal alien smuggling skills? There’s an app for that.” 

Google Glass is a piece of hardware with built-in software and the ability to add new functionality through applications. The services those applications provide can change the use, but they do not change the nature of Glass being nothing more than a machine.

How we as humans adapt and use that machine is important, but it often can be the fault of the user practicing poor judgment or tapping into a third-party app if something goes awry. A device is worth more than the sum of its apps and should not be judged by them, no matter how stellar or stupid they might be.

It’s not about you screwing up, it’s about how you handle it that matters

I’m a big fan of technology and gadgets, so my house is filled with them. One of my favorites is my Roku streaming player.roku lt

A few months ago, Roku started offering movies directly through a product called M-Go. When M-GO first launched, they offered a couple of free movies via a credit on all new accounts. I took advantage of the promotion and found  the system to work well. That means I’ll consider streaming movies that way again, which I assume was the point of the promotion.

OK, so far, so good, right? Well, then last week, M-GO sent out an email saying, “Hey, go use your $5 credit!” I, and many others I’m sure, took that to mean that M-GO was offering another credit to Roku customers because they really want us to learn to like the service.

But, wait, that’s not it at all! Apparently, they screwed up and the email was supposed to go out as a reminder to customers who had not yet used up their initial $5 credit. That’s why they sent a follow-up email telling us all too bad, so sad, no free movies for you!

mgoWe’re Sorry! Earlier today, you received an email about a $5 promotional credit on M-GO. This message was sent to you in error. It was intended as a reminder for a small group of Roku users who still have a credit waiting on their accounts. We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused. Thank you for your understanding. We value you as a customer and look forward to offering other great movie and TV promotions in the future.

Oh well, I figured, at least I’ll get a blog post out of a customer service screw up and the poor handling of it afterward.

But, wait, that’s not it at all! A day later, those of us whose hopes of a free movie were dashed suddenly were more important to M-GO than they first let on. It seems we are, indeed, valued customers whom they want to share a long, happy relationship with.

And, so, we received another email.

We made a mistake and frankly, we feel awful about it. Did you ever hit the send button too soon? You scramble to hit undo, but it’s too late. A courtesy email intended for a small group of customers reminding them of a credit in their account inadvertently went to you. We sent an apology email but feel it wasn’t enough. Creating a premium experience for you is our number one priority. So please accept our sincere apologies and our offer of one complimentary movie rental This credit has already been added to your account and expires in 7 days. If you have any questions, we’ve set up a special email for you to reach our customer care team. We look forward to continuing our journey together to bring you the world’s greatest movies and TV anytime, anyplace. Humbly, Traci Lamm Head of Customer Care

Granted, the movie credit is only valid for one week, which means I have to use it up by the end of this weekend. But it was refreshing to see a company say, “Hey, we screwed up. We’re sorry. And here’s something to try to make it right.”

M-GO might actually have a future, Mistakes happen; we’ve all made them and anyone who says they haven’t is making a mistake, because they’re lying to you about their past. More companies need to learn what M-GO just learned: it’s not about you screwing up, it’s about how you handle it that matters.

UPDATED on 3/15/14:

I sent a link of my blog post to M-GO, letting them know how they’re handling of the situation resulted in a blog post that gave them a nod of my head instead of a smack to theirs. They responded within an hour:

M-GO really appreciates your kind words to this sensitive matter. We pride ourselves on customer satisfaction and we are very pleased to hear that you recognize are (sic) efforts. We look forward to providing you with all your entertainment needs and that long lasting relationship you mentioned in your blog. We appreciate your business and thank you for choosing M-GO!

What if my device can’t hear me now?

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Many of us have joked around with the “Can you hear me now?” line that Verizon Wireless used for its advertising campaign for years. It generally refers to whether someone on the other end of your mobile call can hear you rather than static. As technology has advanced, however, we’ve started talking to our devices almost as much as we talk through them.

Thanks to Siri on Apple devices, Google Now on Android devices and, of course, Google Glass, voice commands are becoming more commonplace.

But what happens if your device can’t hear you?

I discovered this problem recently when I lost my voice while fighting off a bad cold, the flu or the plague — I’m not really sure what hit me. Whatever it was, it silenced me into using gestures and note pads with my family. The biggest discoveries from that experience were that my family is really bad at charades and my handwriting is still the best indicator that I should have been a doctor.

But another discovery was that wild hand gestures and notepads were of no use when communicating with my phone and Glass, so when I was completely without a voice, I was incommunicado with my tech.

For the phones and tablets in my life, that wasn’t really a big deal because I still do 80 percent of my interaction with those via keyboard and screen swipes. But one of Glass’ strengths is its ability to be controlled by voice.

Yes, you can tap and swipe your way through menu commands and activities on the right temple, but you will eventually run into something that requires you to talk to Glass. I’m not sure Google is working on a way to connect Glass with a keyboard for the Explorers who have it now, but it certainly would expand its horizons when they go for the consumer release. I don’t see much point in having a constant keyboard connection because Glass honestly doesn’t need that kind of bulk. Nevertheless, having an option, perhaps with something as rudimentary as a keyboard option available via the My Glass app, might do the trick.

I have been very impressed with the voice recognition programs available now. Siri on my iPhone was the weakest but if I slowed down a little she could understand me a lot better. The Droid Maxx seems to work very well and Glass has been even better. Not everyone has the same results on any of those devices, so your individual experiences may very.

One thing I’ve noticed about Glass is that the device does a great job of hearing me while ignoring others who are speaking around me. I’ve used it to add captions to pictures before sending them from the floor of the noisy North American International Auto Show in Detroit. I’ve also used Glass outside when it’s a little windy and in my Jeep Wrangler where road noise is higher than in most other vehicles. The vast majority of the time, Glass understands my commands and can translate my voice into text accurately. I have noticed that a low battery and a low cellular signal can both decrease the accuracy, but that’s not surprising.

The other good thing for Glass’ functionality is that the microphone works well even if you speak quietly. I’ve actually found that speaking in a normal tone or less works better for it than raising my voice, thinking it would hear me better.

That has been great news these past 10 days or so when my voice was weakening, nonexistent and now, finally, on the mend when I can say, “OK, Glass…Google…elixirs for layrngitis.” 20140304-172449.jpg

“Sorry” customer service responses vary greatly

puppy_im_sorry

Adorable puppy courtesy of http://www.theclaimsspot.com.

When you complain to or about a company or brand on social media, sometimes you’re just venting and sometimes you are expecting a legitimate response because for some reason we think that’s an acceptable method of communicating our grievances now. Sometimes you want to offer unsolicited advice, which if reacted to makes you feel good but if ignored shouldn’t make you feel bad. After all, it was unsolicited and no one is obliged to listen to your advice if they didn’t ask for it.

In any case, most of the time what customers are seeking when they complain, and especially if they’re just venting, is to hear “We’re sorry.” Maybe the company can’t fix your problem and sometimes all they can do is acknowledge your frustration. Who knows, that may be all you were looking for. Humanizing that response is far superior to offering a form letter reply, because form letters don’t help anyone believe that you really care about their issues. Note that a form letter style of reply is different from a template. Often, the same information should be conveyed as part of your organization’s response, so having similar paragraphs within personalized letters or emails is understandable and acceptable.

I am writing this post as a follow-up to my post about customer service and marketing miscues. I thought it might be of interest to see what reactions I received to my initial customer service complaints and the resulting post about them.

So, in the order established in that other post, here are the reactions:

  • After my post mentioned Walmart and it’s pro-American worker commercial with a theme song by a Canadian band, nothing official happened, although a couple of days after the post ran, I heard from a local lobbyist who works for them. He said “my post did not go unnoticed” and he was sharing it with HQ in Bentonville. That’s actually more than I expected.
  • The credit card company got back to me within a few days of my email complaining to them, noting that the offer indeed was legitimate but that they couldn’t do more for me without having me log in to their secure server. At least there wasn’t a link for me to follow or be concerned about. This was one of those cases where they included a template of security tips gobbledygook in the reply, but I understand why.
  • I’ve heard nothing from the local newspaper, and I rarely hear anything from the media when I complain as a routine member of the public instead of as a press secretary. Granted, the Lansing State Journal was in my post but I did not contact them directly. I suppose maybe no one in that organization is monitoring Google for mentions. It’s a position they should seriously consider adding if they want to truly be a part of the entire local community, both offline and on.
  • comcast googleBelieve it or not, one of the better responses came from Comcast, which I complained about the loudest. The main corporate account didn’t respond, but within minutes of tagging Comcast Cares on Google+, I had a very human response from an employee that said they don’t have an ETA on when the feature I’m looking for would be available. She even added a frowny face emoticon. Nothing says a human replied like an emoticon; it’s better than a bot or a customer service person ordered to use standard company language.
  • I already posted in my earlier blog entry about how the Lansing Board of Water and Light is embroiled in a PR crisis and unlikely to exit unscathed anytime soon. I haven’t heard from them but I didn’t expect a response because, quite honestly, they have much bigger things to worry about than my rantings.
  • And the Meijer store manager responded to my original complaint with a lackluster answer that only made me more frustrated, which is how they ended up in my other blog post originally.

So, a few observations:

  1. If customers contact you directly, respond! It’s fine for an automated response to acknowledge receipt of an email, that way someone isn’t waiting and wondering. But the real reply needs to be sincere and from a real human, not a bot or an automaton spouting propaganda.
  2. Monitor pings of your brand or organization online. It’s not that hard and, if you use a service like Google Alerts, it’s free! Just because they don’t contact you directly doesn’t mean people aren’t complaining about you. In fact, it may be worse because instead of a private outreach, they are publicly saying things that you should respond to but probably aren’t.
  3. In whatever response you offer, send along an “I’m sorry.” It may not seem like much but it can go a long way. If nothing else, you should at least be sorry that the customer had to make an extra effort to reach out to you because of a problem. That’s time they could have spent saying nice things about you, or nothing at all, which is preferable to a few choice words surrounding your brand name.

Customer service and marketing: You Can’t Fix Stupid

ron whiteI am quite certain I’m not alone when shaking my head periodically over stupid marketing mistakes or frustrating customer service travails. Over the past few weeks, I have shaken my head so much though that I’m growing concerned about the impact on my brain from all that jarring movement.

The missteps have involved utility and cable companies, retail stores, a major bank, and a daily newspaper. And there isn’t any social media outreach or clever slogan that can replace simple research or focusing on good customer service instead of focusing on how to address complaints. In other words, stop staring so much at the trees and take a broader look at the forest you’re creating from time to time.

First, let’s talk about marketing miscues.

While watching the Olympics on TV the other night, an ad came on for WalMart, not a bastion of union love and Made in the USA pride for sure. The ad was about how much WalMart is pledging to support U.S-made products and the workers who manufacture them. Unfortunately, the marketing department at WalMart apparently doesn’t have too many classic rock fans on staff. If it did, they would have caught that the theme song they decided to run at full volume during the commercial was Working Man by Rush, which is an iconic Canadian band.

credit offerThen, just this weekend, I received an unsolicited email from one of my credit card companies offering a hassle-free, credit-check free increase in my credit line. I just needed to click the button linked in the email and I would be on my way. Spam! you say? Actually, I think it’s legitimate, but there’s no way to prove it. The most ridiculous part is that the bank has a Secure Messaging Center that allows you to correspond with the bank (and vice-versa) within their system once you’ve securely logged into your account. I have forwarded the email to the address the bank uses for customers to report phishing attempts so that they can either start working on this fraudulent scam or walk down to the marketing department and smack someone upside the head.

I also noticed this weekend that my local daily newspaper, the Lansing State Journal, ran yet another letter to the editor that was factually inaccurate. As a media relations professional, it has always frustrated me how much newspapers claim to pride themselves on truth and accuracy, and then fill their opinion pages with rubbish. I’m not lamenting opinion columns by newspaper staff or the public that might have a different take on an issue than I do. I’m talking about people printing absolute falsehoods because the newspaper fact-checks their news but lets opinion trample the truth. It makes it tough to believe the marketing pitches from a newspaper about how they can be a trusted source when they are printing things that can’t be trusted.

Perhaps all marketing departments should hang a poster in their offices of comedian Ron White and his great line, “You can’t fix stupid.”

Customer service is becoming a bit of an oxymoron in many companies, too, with a focus on outreach through social media to address concerns people have. Here’s a concern I have: your customer service is horrible and whitewashing it with public relations outreach after the fact isn’t going to save you.

A classic example of this is the cable company Comcast. For years now, @ComcastCares on Twitter and other outlets has been touted as a great example of social media customer service that is responsive and well-liked. Unfortunately, Comcast as a company is considered vile by many of its customers. Just say something on Facebook or Google Plus about Comcast and watch the hate mail pour in on your comment stream.

comcast googleI discovered HBO GO is available as a channel on my Roku streaming device. I was excited because it meant I could stop using Comcast’s menu system that is as complicated as the family trees on Game of Thrones. In a strange twist, I actually started watching Game of Thrones after receiving a free subscription to HBO from Comcast because they were trying to make up for a massive billing mistake on their part. Unfortunately, Comcast isn’t one of the cable companies that allows you to log in to HBO GO on Roku. When I lamented about this on Google Plus, I tagged Comcast and ComcastCares. Of course the main account ignored me but ComcastCares responded within minutes. It wasn’t a particularly good or useful response, but at least I knew someone had heard me.

A local municipal utility company in Lansing, Michigan also suffered a massive credibility crisis back in December when ice storms wiped out power lines and the electricity they provide to area residents, in some cases for more than a week. Information was hard to come by and what was being delivered was questionable in terms of accuracy. After a public outcry over the Lansing Board of Water and Light needing to do a better job, the utility’s response was to post an opening for a social media coordinator. Of course! That makes perfect sense. After all, when I’m frustrated with a utility because my pipes are about to burst and food is rotting in my refrigerator, what I really wish I had was some great outreach via Twitter. Or, maybe, I’d rather have my electricity restored. And perhaps the money spent on social media whitewash might be better spent on restoring power and making sure it stays on.

Some days, I don’t think some places even care enough to try anymore.

Take a local store in my town called Meijer. It’s a Michigan-based company so many friends and I have tried to look past problems it has because we want to support the home team. The biggest issue people complain about is growing frustration with a reliance on self-checkout lanes that have lackluster scanners and a cumbersome layout. Most people who lament about not shopping there anymore seem to cite that as reason number one for their decision. I have learned to shop there at night since their checkout system is a bit more tolerable with fewer customers trying to use it.

However, a recent trip there and responses to complaints I filed about my experience have forced me to join the flock of those seeking my groceries and home supplies elsewhere. It was shortly after 10 p.m. when I stopped in to buy a few things, the bulk of which were in the toiletries section. Ten o’clock in the evening is late but not very late and considering the store is open 24 hours, it seemed too early for entire sections to be shut down for cleaning. But, alas, I left empty-handed with not a single toiletry item in my bag. When I inquired at the “customer service” counter about that section of the store being entirely closed off to customers, they shrugged and told me sorry, there was nothing they could do. I reported my frustration with the situation and the response to corporate headquarters. They forwarded it to the store manager who emailed me to say he was sorry, but cleaning was necessary and had to be done some time. I agree, but as I mentioned the store is open 24 hours, so how about cleaning at 2 a.m., or only cleaning certain aisles at a time instead of shutting down an entire corner of your store!?

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Frank Eliason, the founder of ComcastCares and now Director of Global Social Media at Citi, recently wrote about social media and customer service on a LinkedIn post. It’s a great read and I recommend taking a look, but here’s the line that really stood out to me:

I have yet to find a more important job than Customer Service. It is sad that people feel it is beneath them, because some day businesses will realize how important it is to their own success (or failure).

Well said. After all, no matter how good your PR and marketing teams are, they will never overcome horrible customer service. Fix the customer service first instead of whitewashing it with cool tech tools. And take the fun stuff away from the marketing teams for a while so they can spend time on the front lines dealing with customers and their personal frustrations. Maybe then you’ll be able to market your product without it resulting in a violent shaking of heads.

UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post about replies I received from the various organizations.