Batkid, San Francisco and my brother’s experience with the Make-A-Wish foundation

Neptune pool at Hearst Castle

Neptune pool at Hearst Castle

It is so heartwarming to see all the pictures and video from Batkid saving Gotham City (er, San Francisco). For those who missed it, a California kindergartner with leukemia wanted to be Batkid and the Make-A-Wish foundation made it happen. San Franciscans lined up to cheer him on. San Francisco’s police chief and even President Obama got involved to show their support. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/11/15/police-chief-greg-suhr-on-how-batkid-saved-san-francisco/

I missed the event in person because I was at the ostentatious Hearst Castle in San Simeon. As part of the castle, they have two oversized swimming pools, including an indoor one. The castle is now a California State Park. I asked one of the docents if anyone is allowed to swim in the pools. She said that occasionally the Hearst family uses it and they never say no to the Make-A-Wish foundation. (They also auction off four pool parties a year to help pay for restorations.)

My family had our own experience with the Make-A-Wish foundation. My brother had been sick pretty much since birth. Early on, he had a kidney transplant. In his high school years, that one went bad and he had a simultaneous heart and kidney transplant. The Make-A-Wish foundation sent our family on a trip to Washington, D.C.

That was more than 20 years ago and my brother is now doing fine.

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Why I’m joining OLO’s advisory board

I’m pleased to announce that I’m joining the advisory board of OLO. You can see the press release here. Forbes recently had a great write up of OLO.

OLO provides online ordering for companies such as Five Guys, Noodles & Co. and Cold Stone Creamery. Guests can order from their smartphones and pick up their order in store without waiting in line.

I met founder Noah Glass earlier this year and was very impressed by his commitment to helping restaurants incorporate mobile technologies.

Mobile has changed a lot of spaces already; I think there’s a lot of potential to improve the restaurant experience for both consumers and operators:

  • A better consumer experience. We’ve all experienced the lunch rush. Your stomach is grumbling and you just want to eat. With order ahead, you can bypass the line and get straight to your food. Mobile ordering also increases order accuracy because you can see what you’re ordering. I was recently at a bar in Utah and ordered a Hop Notch IPA. The bartender thought I said half nachos. Oops.
  • Increased throughput for restaurants. People who know what they want aren’t turned off by a long line and go elsewhere.
  • Reduced operational costs for restaurants. Miscommunication in ordering and unclaimed orders cost restaurants money.

As I’ve noted repeatedly in my writings, local is a hard slog and OLO has shown the dedication and perseverance necessary to succeed in local. The company started off with mobile ordering by text message in 2005. It is also well financed, having recently received a strategic investment from PayPal as part of a $5 million round.

Noah and team are off to a great start and I look forward to working with them to help restaurants take advantage of mobile.

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A few thoughts on customer service

As a product guy, I’m always looking to improve products and experiences. Much of my thinking is driven based on more than a decade of creating online products and focusing on the integrated product experience. This includes brand, marketing, sales, product and customer service. But some of my thinking is driven by my own experiences using other people’s products. A few from the last two weeks stood out.

Quirkiness and Virgin America

I was flying home from Las Vegas on Wednesday night. After we boarded, the pilots came out and introduced themselves as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The captain even did a Bush accent (including pronouncing America the way W does.) He encouraged everyone to vote Republican. I like Virgin America a lot, but this was just a bizarre experience. (It wasn’t even funny.) If that’s where it was left, I’d chalk it up to quirkiness gone bad.

But our flight was delayed on the ground and the pilot came back in his Bush-like drawl and explained that we were being held on the ground because the guy who beat him out was on Air Force One near SFO, and we had to wait for ATC to give the go-ahead. As far as I can tell, Air Force One wasn’t near SFO. (I check the White House’s published schedule for that day.) That, in my mind, is not acceptable. If the reason for the delay is known, passengers should be told it honestly.

Disclosure: This flight was part of a trip to interview Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Virgin America covered travel for part of the trip.

T-Mobile

I ordered a new iPhone. When I ordered it, I was told that it would be delivered on April 12, the date of the launch. Because I was traveling, I had it sent to where I was staying that day. For whatever reason, it didn’t arrive. I was able to get UPS to re-direct it to my apartment, where I finally received it on April 25. I received my first bill before I received the phone — and the billing began on April 14.

T-Mobile knows when I first used the phone. I couldn’t possibly have used it from April 14-April 24, because I didn’t have it. That’s more than $20 worth of service. They know I didn’t have my phone because 1) they monitor the UPS tracking information and sent me an email when it was finally delivered 2) they know when my phone first connected to the network.

Shouldn’t they be able to automatically start billing when I have the phone? Yes, they can get an extra $20 out of me. But it’s not the right way to start off what could be a multi-thousand dollar relationship. I called customer service and the agent, while friendly and nice, took a long time to understand the issue.

Having worked with wireless carriers in the past, I know that part of the reason is likely that their billing systems are ridiculously complicated. But that doesn’t change my expectation as a consumer to be treated fairly and not to pay for service I didn’t receive.

Update: T-Mobile did post a $20 credit to my account. But they didn’t credit the corresponding taxes. On my most recent bill, the taxes and fees tacked on 27% to my base bill. Such things should be automatic; if you’re refunding monthly billing, you should automatically refund corresponding taxes.

This isn’t to blame the CSRs. It’s about poorly designed systems (best case) or systems designed to maximize revenue (worst case) by skimming undeserved revenue around the edges. If we make it enough of a hassle, people won’t complain about really small dollar amounts and we can boost margins.

My next task with T-Mobile is to get them to unlock my iPhone, which I paid upfront for, so I can use it on my trip to Turkey with a local SIM. The original CSR promised it would be taken care of, but I got a rejection notice from T-Mobile’s SIM Unlock deparment. And every CSR since has refused. As part of T-Mobile’s new “uncarrier” strategy they have claimed that they will immediately unlock phones that have been paid for; somehow that hasn’t percolated through their organization.

Starwood

I arrived at my hotel in New York and found that the Starwood social media team had left a gift for me. It turned out that it was a guidebook for Kauai — the destination of my next Starwood hotel stay.

That’s using data (my upcoming reservations) to deliver a personalized experience. Well done, Starwood.

There was a fire alarm at 2:30 a.m. during my stay. The next morning, I woke to find an apology letter from management explaining the situation and offering free breakfast. Because I already had breakfast plans, I asked if they could credit my Starwood account with a few bonus points instead. No problem.

American Express

I’m going to be traveling to Europe in a few weeks and I’d heard that AmEx now issues Chip-and-Signature versions of the Platinum Card.

I called them up and asked for a new card with the EMV chip. The CSR knew exactly what I was talking about. Immediately, she asked me when my trip was, just in case they needed to overnight the card. I said to go ahead and send it standard mail.

I immediately received an email saying that a card replacement had been initiated. (Important fraud prevention technique.) The next day, I received an email that my replacement card had been mailed. (No need to call back to check.) Proactive notifications are one way that companies can deliver better customer service and reduce operational expenses.

When I received the card, I was a bit concerned because I didn’t see the EMV chip. (When I previously requested a replacement card from Citi for the same purpose, they sent me another card without a chip.) But I peeled off the activation sticker and sure enough the chip was there. I activated the card online (more convenient for me than a phone call, less cost for AmEx). I received an email confirming the activation as soon as it occurred. (Security.)

My only persistent complaint about AmEx is that they still require cardholders to deal with their annoying IVR — even those who pay $450 a year for the Platinum Card. Chase and Discover have products that are cheaper that allow you to talk to a human immediately. This is especially annoying because I do everything online — e-statements, online bill pay, etc. I even have AmEx connected to my iPhone’s Passbook. If the task were automatable, I wouldn’t be calling.

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My bet with Ryan Kim on Yahoo!

I have a bet with Ryan Kim on Yahoo’s mobile site, specifically Yahoo! Finance.

I discovered an important flaw in the Yahoo! experience. It’s something that most people would immediately acknowledge is problematic.

It should be a high priority issue and should be relatively easy to resolve.

My bet is that Yahoo! will not resolve this issue in the next six months. If they do, Ryan wins.

Given Marissa’s emphasis on mobile and the importance of Yahoo! Finance to Yahoo!, I should lose this bet.

The loser buys lunch or dinner at a Mexican place next time we’re in the same city.

Disclosure of the specific issue by Ryan means I win by default.

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Putting my money where my mouth is

With Mike Dudas: Foursquare will have a Slide-like exit. Winner gets dinner at the place of his choosing. Slide was purchased by Google for $182 million, a come down from the $500 million valuation at the last round. Because we don’t know full cap table with preferences, we’re ignoring those. If Foursquare does worse than Slide, I win. If Foursquare does better than Slide, Mike wins. (No expiration, bet continues until Foursquare has an exit.)

With Alex Lawrence: Foursquare will exit for $1 billion or more by March 23, 2015. If Foursquare hits that target, Alex wins. If Foursquare sells for less, folds before that date or doesn’t exit by that date, I win. Winner gets a donation of $500 to the charity of his choice.

Think I’m wrong about a company? Suggest a bet on Twitter.

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How I choose what I write about

I’ve done a lot of writing over the last two years and it has spanned quite a few topics. Some of it may seem kind of random; that reflects my diverse interests.

But there are a few themes that I’m trying to focus on:

  • Analysis that can help entrepreneurs build better products.
  • Companies whose business models are largely exploitative. This includes Groupon and Yelp.
  • Companies whose businesses can put consumers at risk.
  • Companies that violate consumer protection laws and regulations. Yes, there are some laws that are outdated and don’t recognize advances in technology. But many laws were put in place to help protect consumers from cheating by merchants. Too often, companies are looking for a free pass around these and gain an unfair competitive advantage.
  • Tech companies that are about to go public.
  • Travel and travel technologies.
  • Technologies that can create a more efficient or environmentally sound world. This includes things like car2go.
  • Technologies connected to the digital living room and connected devices.

I generally avoid writing about criticizing small projects or entrepreneurs who are just getting started. It’s unfair to criticize ideas before they’re reasonably baked. (The exception to this would be if they’re doing something dangerous or illegal.) I will write positive stories about companies that are starting up if the company is worthy of attention. Once a company reaches around $500 million in valuation, I think criticism is fair game.

I also don’t write about vanity metrics. That’s one of the scourges of the tech press. They’re lazy and easy stories to write; they drive page views; they let reporters suck up to PR people and CEOs they want access to. But ultimately, vanity metrics stories do a disservice to entrepreneurs because they de-focus from what really matters.

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How customer service should be done

Live from St. Regis Deer Valley

Last week I was skiing in Deer Valley when Groupon’s terrible earnings came out. While I was skiing, I got an email from CNBC asking if I could come on air to talk about them. We tried to get me into a studio in nearby Park City, but for logistical reasons, it wouldn’t work.

I knew there was a hotel at the bottom of the hill. I wasn’t staying there, but I thought I gave them a call.

I called the concierge at the St. Regis from the slopes and asked if there was a space where I could do a Skype call for a TV interview. Jeanine said she would have to check with the manager. While I skied down, she checked. By the time I was on the lift back up, she’d called and texted me. She found a quiet space.

When I arrived, she guided me to the location. She volunteered water, note paper and a pen. She also noticed that there was music playing in the background in the room and turned it off.

That’s incredible service, especially for someone who isn’t a paying guest. I never mentioned that I’m a Starwood Lifetime Gold member. I’ll be back in Deer Valley — and next time, I plan to stay at the St. Regis.

You can watch that CNBC segment here.

Posted in customer service, travel