In Praise of Corporations and Other Leviathans

Recently, I’ve had a series of interactions with large organizations that have been shockingly…pleasant.

Some of you may wonder why this qualifies as news, but I suspect more share my sense of wonder that I could string together enough positive experiences to break through my day-to-day mindset that it’s a good day when I only get roughed up a little by the large institutions in my life.

“Wait,” you may be thinking, “isn’t this supposed to be the ‘Age of the Customer?’ Didn’t all that harping in business books and by consultants about being customer-focused, customer-centric, service-oriented make every consumer a member of royalty? All that data they collect, all that processing power, all that data mining and real-time CRM tools available to frontline employees; isn’t that supposed to make sure that every facet of every organization recognizes us and our preferences? Didn’t the rise of the global supply chain, the Internet and the long-tail theory make the phrase ‘mass customization’ a reality?”

Yeah, right. Press or say “1” to hear polite guffawing. Press or say “2” to hear outright braying.

The reality, as most of us know, is way short of the ideal. The reality is that, despite the lip-service about how important their customers are, most businesses are customer-focused in the same way that Willie Sutton was bank-focused; because that’s where the money is. The reality is that the technologies that were supposed to let businesses find new ways to please customers are more likely being used to analyze the potential profit-maximizing strategy for each consumer. The reality is that the global supply chain is a wonderful thing…until it breaks and the seven businesses that brought you your widget decide the problem isn’t theirs. The reality is that Amazon is a wonderful embodiment of long-tail theory, but God help you if you want to get someone on the phone.

From a day-to-day perspective, the trends of the last two decades mean that end consumers are doing more work for themselves – we make our own plane reservations, pump our own gas, check out our own groceries, perform “some assembly required” tasks – and that more customer services processes are automated – we check our bank balances on line or over the phone, get money from ATMs, check the status of a shipment, all without a human on the other end of the transaction.

When stuff works, these trends have been good for most consumers (though not all; good luck, for example, if you’re one of the cohort of senior citizens who don’t like to use computers). I like – for the most part – being able to book my own travel and such. I don’t miss having to race to the bank by 3:00 or wondering when the FedEx guy is coming.

The system breaks down, though, when your issue or need falls outside the parameters of the system. When that happens – because something is unclear to you, because something got lost, something broke, because your needs are unique or your request is unforeseen – you’re sunk. If there are ten options on the phone tree and your issue doesn’t fall into one of them, odds are good that there’s no help for you. Pressing “0” for a human might work, but you’re just as likely in my experience to get a person who is about as rigidly scripted as the automated system you just ran from.  If there’s a page in their manual or in their knowledge base that pertains to your issue, great.  If not, though, you can pretty much expect bupkus in terms of satisfaction.

But, I digress.  I really did start this post with the intent of praising a few organizations who have made a positive experience in my life recently:

  • Apple.  The company that Steve built (and saved) is far from perfect, but in the last two weeks Grace, a Genius in the company’s Uptown store, has given me two very positive experiences.  The first time I came in with two – that’s two – broken iPhones that I fully expected to have to replace because of the nature of the damage and the time left on the contracts.  Without being asked, Grace replaced them both…for free.  Yesterday, I brought my broken iPad into the store and received the same relaxed, positive “let’s just replace it” treatment.

Bless you Grace and kudos to Apple for giving frontline employees the latitude to make expensive decisions like that because they’re in the best interest of the customer.

  • Mozilla:  If you use Firefox, you are a Mozilla customer.  Yes, it’s free and your expectations have to be set accordingly, but even so, you have the right to a certain level of performance.  Thus, I was thrilled – thrilled I say again – to find that in the latest version of their software, the developers have fixed the memory leakage problems that used to drive me crazy.  Huzzah to all the unpaid developers out there who contributed to the improvements.
  • And, finally, to the Hennepin County Government Center in Edina for being a model of how local government can provide services efficiently and beneficially for their constituents.  I think the longest I’ve ever waited there is maybe 30 minutes and generally – like today – I’m in and out in 15 minutes or less.  Really, really excellent service.  Lest you Minnesotans take this for granted, please take it from someone who used to take a full day off from work to get his license renewed in DC that this is not the norm.

OK, enough about me.  What’s been your experience – good or bad – with large institutions lately?

– Austin

The Earth Shifts Orbit, the Sun Dims, Water Runs Uphill

No, these are not the end times.  And, no, this is not a wrap-up on yesterday’s Vikings’ performance (we should have just sent a letter that said, “Here, you take it, we don’t want it.”)

It’s something more important, more super-duper, more bigger than that. Apple is getting ready to make a new product announcement.

Unless every pundit on the tech beat is wrong, on Wednesday, Mr. Jobs will unveil a tablet device, something he’s apparently called, “The most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Unless you live in a totally tech-free environment, chances are you’ve heard something about this already.  The pre-announcement publicity on this device has been nothing short of amazing within the technology space.  The build-up has been coming on for months – way back to August at least – and hit the afterburners about two weeks ago when the Consumer Electronics Show ended.  Since then, this one announcement of this one device from one company has eclipsed pretty much the entire CES buzz (3D TV, in case you’ve forgotten).

All without uttering a word.  The entire media plan, including key messages, Q&A, FAQs, etc. leading up to Wednesday is contained in, “We don’t comment on rumors and speculation.”

Period.  And, if David Carr, writing in the New York Times, is right, there’s no nudge-nudge, wink-wink backchanneling going on either.  His column yesterday pretty much captured the magic that is an Apple announcement.

I guess the lesson for those of us who are occasionally called upon to capture a tiny bit of this lightning in a bottle for our clients is, “Work for a company that inspires a cult-like following, produces great products, is led by a messianic-type CEO and that cultivates an air of mystery about how it does what it does.”

The danger with this sort of strategy is that reality doesn’t live up to the hype.  Apple experienced some of this with the introduction of the iPhone, but in general their products mostly live up to expectations.  And, in the tightly connected world in which we live in, the obsessives following every tick and tock of Apple’s product development process generally winkle out a pretty close picture of what’s coming by assembling little bits of information from all over the world.  The latest t0day, for example, is from a company that has picked up evidence of its apps – originally written for the iPhone – being run on an unidentified device in and around Apple’s headquarters.  This little tidbit strongly suggests that the new device will be running an updated version of the iPhone operating system (versus the Mac operating system) and will be able to run applications much like the iPhone.

I personally am expected to be let down by the announcement if the rumors are directionally right.  I want a full-fledged computing device, not a scaled-up iPhone, one that runs lots of apps simulataneously and something that’s priced at the mid-point between the $200 iPhone and the $1000 iBook.  It doesn’t look like I’ll be getting what I want, but I’m prepared to be convinced.

And, probably, to stand in line to buy one (iPhone) or at least play with it (Mac Air).

– Austinnon profit grants nice

Yada-yada-yada…

OK, communications mavens, let’s all pull up from our suicide plunge into politics long enough to look at the much hyped new ad from Microsoft.

Supposedly, this is the Gang of Redmond’s response to the long-running Apple commercials featuring Justin Long (the Mac) and John Hodgman (the PC).  Apparently, after three years of letting Apple poke fun at them (and revitalize Apple’s computer sales), the Microsofties think it’s time to respond.

I’m underwhelmed.  In fact, other than generate buzz about how bad the ad is (Google “Microsoft” and “Seinfeld in the news section for a smattering of opinion on that question), I’m not sure what it accomplishes.  Generating headlines that read, “Microsoft’s new Seinfeld and Gates ad is beyond bad” or “Is Microsoft’s Seinfeld spot the worst TV ad ever?” can’t be good, can it?

Not that I’m an ad person at all.  I’m sure there’s a whole document that lays out the goals for this advertising – first in a series – and the big tactical and strategic objectives for the campaign overall.  The agency responsible – Crispin Porter + Bogusky – is widely credited with helping revitalize the Burger King brand among others.  Supposedly they’re a hot shop and presumably knows what it’s doing.

Or do they?

I dunno, but I found the ad to be incredibly dumb.  If they are truly meant to be responsive to the Apple commercials, they miss on the level of being instantly understandable and focused that the Apple ads address. That can’t be a good place to start.

What do you think?

– Austin payroll software fine