In the battle of streaming devices, the viewer wins

Through various deals I couldn’t refuse, I’ve ended up with three different streaming media players. A family member asked me to choose the “best one” and, honestly, I can’t really say for certain, but I’m leaning toward the Roku system. They all have pluses and minuses and it really comes down to what ecosystem you prefer to be in.

apple tvFirst, let me point out the one major player I don’t own is Apple TV, although I’ve been around when family members have used it. If you want something simple that you can hook up to a TV to sling the content from your iPhone or iPad to the big screen, it seems like a slick system. And, since Apple doesn’t play all that well with Google or Amazon, it may be your best choice for an iHousehold, although it is by far the most expensive option at around $100.

Second, let me note that I am probably biased in my criticism because as I mentioned, I landed all three devices with good deals that cut my final cost down. Certainly, if you pay the full price for anything you’re going to be a little more harsh in your analysis than if you find it at a great discount.

Now, for the reviews:

Roku LT ~ $55

Roku LTI’ve owned and used this Roku for several years now. It was the first streaming device I purchased and I’ve been happy with it since day one. It was the entry-level box but I’ve never found a reason to upgrade. It does what I want and the number of “channels” available is constantly increasing. I use it for a variety of streaming options, including: Amazon Prime Instant Video, Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, PBS, NASA TV, Google Play Movies and, finally HBO GO. (I say finally because for a long time, Comcast had its customer service head buried in the sand and wouldn’t let its paying subscribers use HBO GO.) There is now a stick version available and there are fancier models that do more, but for basic connect and go usability at a reasonable cost you can’t beat the Roku LT.

Google Chromecast ~ $35

Google ChromecastI purchased the Chromecast when I found it on sale, and recently bought a second one when I was able to get it for a significantly reduced price during a holiday promotion. Set up is reasonably simple, although it seems to be a little wonkier in finding and maintaining a wi-fi signal than the Roku. I use it for slinging stuff wirelessly from my phone and Chromebook up to the TV screen. That “stuff” generally involves HBO GO, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, YouTube and Google+ Photos. The ability to cast my Android phone’s screen up to a TV is a huge plus, as well. (That will come in handy when I want to screencast my Google Glass to my phone and then cast my phone screen to a larger monitor when doing demonstrations.) I also have found the screensaver you can post to your TV via the Chromecast when not streaming something is great.

Amazon fireTV Stick ~ $39

fireTV stickI wrote a blog post about the fireTV stick when I first bought it so you can read more details there. I’ve used it a lot for Amazon Prime Video and a weather app. We’ve used it to view pictures and it will even play some games that you can download. I suspect I would use if more if it was on our main TV in the house and not a secondary one. But it’s very handy having it in the family room where the workout bike sits. It seems to hold a wi-fi signal very well, although in all fairness to the Chromecast, the fireTV stick resides a lot closer to the router than the Google CC does. If you’re not an Amazon Prime subscriber, however, I see no point in owning this device. The majority of benefits come from its ability to stream Prime movies and music.

My Recommendations

As I wrote early on in this post, what ecosystem you live in is probably going to be the best determiner for you when considering whether to go with Amazon or Google for your streaming sticks. If you dabble in all of them, I’d recommend a Roku device. You can access nearly everything that the Amazon and Google sticks can — and certainly the bulk of what you would want to stream in terms of videos and music. (I will give the nod to the Google CC if you have all-access music on Google Play. Casting that to an Amazon stick isn’t possible and on Roku it requires a third-party app that isn’t great.)

If you’re heavily invested in the walled Apple garden, of course, then you’ll probably want to take a closer look at Apple TV. But for the rest of us “free-range streamers,” start with the Roku, then add a Google Chromecast or an Amazon fireTV stick depending on whether you’re a more frequent visitor to the Google or Amazon universe. I’d argue that with the costs ranging from only $35 to $55 — if you pay full price — you can’t really go all that wrong with any of them.

Or be like me — buy all three and establish a beachhead for the day when you finally convince your spouse you don’t need to pay for 500 cable channels when we only watch half a dozen of them. I’ve heard HBO is looking at offering a standalone subscription service, which means my wife and I could catch Game of Thrones without paying a monthly cable bill. I can’t wait…

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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!

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.