Sunday, June 17, 2007

Chocolate Chex

If you ever eat cereal for breakfast, and you like chocolate, you should definitely try Chocolate Chex. I was pretty doubtful about these, but I decided to give them a try - I like regular Chex, and I like chocolate. As soon as I poured them out, a delightful cocoa scent came from the bowl... not like the nasty chemical smells some of the choco-hybrid cereals produce. Add milk... delicious!

Will this upset my old standby favorite of Cocoa Puffs? Hard to say - they are definitely a bit lighter, and at the moment, I'd say Cocoa Puffs should be getting just a little bit scared.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Failing the Turing Test

The target of today's rant is Dish Network. Our satellite receiver is about six years old, having a variety of problems, including stuck buttons on the remote. A couple weeks ago it gave up the ghost altogether (yeah, we've been without TV for two weeks - I think only the kids noticed.) Time to upgrade to a HD DVR version anyways.

My wife makes the call, and ends going through hoops and hoops to get nowhere except frustrated. No problem, I say, I'll take care of it. How bad could it be?

Enter the typical phone maze. Yes, I'm a customer. Here's my phone number. Tech support, let's start there. Problems with the remote. Have I changed the batteries? I select "yes", and the computer helpfully says "we've logged in our database that you have checked the batteries". Nice... can I talk to a human please?

Eventually an Indian voice asks me to give them my phone number. I think this one is a real human, but it's hard to tell, because his intonation comes off exactly like the earlier recordings. Tell me again why I'm entering my phone number for the second time before even asking a question? Wasn't the point of the first one, to skip having to tell the human?

Never mind, on to the issue at hand. I'll try to explain it here - without verbalizing the discussion it's hard to get a feel for how robotic and programmed the responses were. If I didn't think the responses where a little bit too good for current voice recognition, I'd swear I was talking to an Eliza program.

Me: There is a stuck button on my remote.

He: Ok. I'm hearing that you have a stuck button, is that correct?

Me: Yeah, that's right.

He: Ok. When did this start happening?

Me: About four weeks ago.

He: Ok. You've been having this problem for four weeks. Has the behaviour changed since you first noticed it?

Me (getting frustrated): Nope, we don't use that remote anymore, the button's stuck.

He: Ok. The behaviour has not changed.

Me: Look, can't I just get an upgrade for the satellite box, and this whole problem will go away?

He: Ok. So you want to upgrade your satellite receiver. We can do that. What is the number of your receiver?

Me: I'm at work, how do I know. You have records, look it up.

He: Ok. I'm sorry, you're going to have to call back when you get home and you can check the number on your receiver.

Me: Geez. Ok, is there a more direct line I can call next time, to speed things up?

He: Ok. You can call the appropriate number and they will help you.

Me: Right. What's the number for getting an upgrade?

He: Ok. I didn't say "upgrade", I said "appropriate".

Me: Never mind. -click-

Yeah, every single time, he would say "Ok", intoned just like the phone maze. And parrot back whatever I asked. Maybe, just maybe, it's possible I was really talking to a machine.


Who Is Talking To Your Customers?

We all know the drill - talking to "customer support" is kind of like gambling, and hoping you get that one person who actually knows what they're talking about. I guess people who understand the product have better things to do, huh?

I've got three stories lined up, little lessons if you will, in how poor customer support can impact your customers.

For this story, we'll start with The Teaching Company. As a disclaimer, I love this company, and recommend them, without reservation. If you are at all interested in continuing education, go give them a try - they have a Lifetime Satisfaction Guarantee on everything they sell. In the past, every time I've talked to their support staff, I've found a real, helpful person, who listened to my problems and went the extra mile to take care of me (I'm sure it helps that I've bought a ton of stuff there, but the support person gets bonus points if they were able to figure that out).

Which makes this story all the more sad, because it's the first blight on a previously perfect record.

The Teaching Company sells lectures. Because I listen to them on the way to and from work, I can often clock 90 minutes of "learning" per day. That means I go through lots of courses when I'm in that mode. So, I'm always on the look out for something cheaper. When they started offering reduced cost (non-drm!) digital downloads, I jumped right in.

As it turns out, my particular iPod has some problems with some of their AAC files. They play fine under iTunes, and on different iPods, so it's hard to say what the problem is - but it's persistent, and only affects these files. Crazy things, like rebooting the iPod whenever one of the tracks plays. Since they also have MP3 downloads, I figure no big deal, I'll use those instead. You can login whenever you want to redownload the lectures (are you listening iTunes?).

Being a friendly sort of guy, I decided to pass on my testing info to my friends at the Teaching Company in case it might be helpful to them (I didn't bother trying to talk to Apple about it - I'd be shocked to find someone there who cared). So I wrote up a note, basically "Don't worry, I'm using the MP3's, but I thought you might want to know I had this weird behaviour with many of your files."

The response?

Thank you for your email! I apologize for the error you've been receiving when trying to download. For immediate assistance with all download issues, please contact our customer service department at 1800-832-2412.

If you've been following this story, I didn't have any problems trying to download, although kudos for making it easy to get to a real person. Sigh... I'm just not sure why I bothered to send the info in the first place.

Teaching Company, I forgive you - you do so many other things right. Just remember - who is talking to your customers?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

I really hope this is a joke...

Somebody please tell me this is a joke - something perpetrated by the "anti-patent" community to make a point...

A new company, Intellectual Weapons, is creating a business of patenting solutions to bugs in software programs. I'm not a fan of "offensive" patents in the first place - I think the current patent system is busted in many ways with respect to software patents.

But seriously... if there's a bug in a program, the odds that the "fix" are going to really satisfy the patent requirements of being non-obvious (in context)... gotta be close to zero, don't you think? After all, someone "skilled in the art" wouldn't have created the bug in the first place, right?

Just to make the point, I will briefly play devil's advocate - people who spend the time and energy to discover and find solutions for a defect should be entitled to fair compensation for their efforts, right?

Except patents aren't about "fair compensation" - they provide a monopoly on the patented idea, where the patent holder creates the terms of licensing. In the case of a software defect, particularly a security hole, you could potentially create a situation where the original company is both liable for the defect, and unable to fix it without extortionary licensing conditions. "Intellectual Weapons" isn't really concerned about compensating the people finding the defects, they are more concerned about how deep the pockets are of the company being targeted.

Come on - the splash image on their home page has a bullet! It's got to be a joke, right?