Tuesday, September 29, 2009

He was making a reasonable argument, for a while.

Toben F. Nelson and Traci L. Toomey, along with their co-authors (listed at the end of the original article) start off making some good points with respect to how the drinking age impacts binge drinking and injury statistics in other countries.  Then they fall off the deep end as they wrap up the article and revert to scare tactics by making absolute statements such as;
“College student drinking is a serious problem. Each year more young people are injured, sexually assaulted and die as the result of drinking. These statistics would be even worse without the age-21 law.”
Where is the proof behind that hypothesis?  While I agree that it is certainly POSSIBLE they haven’t provided any indication of how PROBABLE it is.  They might as well say that lowering the drinking age will result in global warming and cause a decline in the Dow.  They go on to say;
“Lowering the drinking age will not save lives or make our campuses and communities better places to live. It will increase heavy drinking and the problems that accompany it in college communities and push the problem back into high schools.”
Again, certainly possible, but please provide a foundation before building the house.
I think everyone is overlooking the fact that we have some of the least restrictive laws in western society with respect to obtaining a driver license.  Furthermore, once you have your license – barring any egregious infractions – all you have to do is renew it periodically to keep it for the rest of your life.  No additional testing to speak of (NC requires vision and sign tests at renewal.)  Let’s take the lousy drivers off the road if we’re really concerned with automotive fatalities!  (While we’re at it I think an ignition interlock should be mandatory for anyone convicted of driving while impaired.)
Now that we’ve handled the drinking and driving aspect of the argument, how about some compromise?  In the cruise ship industry there was a policy that allowed guests between 18-21 to consume beer and wine with parental consent while in international waters.  Let’s take that model and allow young adults to consume beer and wine while under the direct supervision of their parents.  No loopholes, no exceptions, they must be with a parent.  This way we’re not sending young adults  the message “you’re old enough to vote, marry and be drafted, but don’t ask about drinking!” and society looks less like a bunch of hypocrites.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Fine Print

The fine print is the root of all evil.  Today’s example of corporate absurdity comes to you courtesy of Best Buy.  A year ago we purchased a new laptop for my son to use for school.  Being prudent parents, with full knowledge of the various situations that can arise with teenagers, laptops and schools we opted for the extended warranty coverage.  It wasn’t horribly overpriced, making it at least digestible when viewed as an insurance policy.
Fast forward to today, almost a year to the day after the original purchase:  The laptop (running that fantastic operating system from Microsoft known as ‘Vista’) is being its usual, less than agreeable, self and I learn that this has been the normal condition since it was purchased. (Thanks, Microsoft!)  I suggest that he check microsoft.com for a service pack that might address these performance issues.  He does, there is – and the wheels proceed to come off.  After installing the service pack the laptop devolves into a useless pile of components, taking an hour to fully boot and equally as long for a browser window to appear.  Ugh!  Time to call Best Buy to see about getting the Operating System reinstalled.
Or so I thought.
After calling the local store and spending over 30 minutes total listening to a phone ring in my ear through several failed transfers (nothing like a technology store that hasn’t figured out a 19th century invention…) I’m informed that the extended warranty only covers damage – “software issues” are not covered, and an operating system [sic] reload will cost you a cool $130.00 (well over 10% of the cost of the laptop when it was new!)  In this day of manufacturers shipping computers without media it’s more than a little underhanded to slap that kind of fee on a clean O/S reload that requires neither diagnostics nor backup – nothing more than a few keystrokes.  Keep in mind that if a drink were spilled into the keyboard or it were dropped it would be replaced, free of charge (but, according to the customer disservice goon at 888-BESTBUY, once you make a claim the warranty disappears…) The goon was quick enough to notice from my Best Buy Reward Zone profile that I am (was) an “excellent customer” – but guess what?  I’ll no longer patronize Best Buy as I have in the past.  They have proven to be nothing more than a corporate behemoth that only gives lip-service to customer service and chooses to gouge their customers at every opportunity.  I’ve got a bit of experience loading operating systems on computers, so I’m well aware of the effort involved.  Mr. Goon insisted that $130 was an industry standard fee for this service.  When I asked him to name a competitor that charged this fee he gave me Circuit City (umm, they’re bankrupt – I don’t think you want to compare Best Buy to them, do you?  Thanks for playing….) His next comparable company was CompUSA – hmm, 25 stores in 4 states plus Puerto Rico.  Again, not a flattering comparison for Best Buy.
So, we’re hunting up those media discs and embarking on a reloading session.  Thanks for nothing, Best Buy, we won’t be seeing you later.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Corporate Websites Suck

Yes, plain and simple, no two ways about it.  More often than not – in an attempt to appear fresh, new and pertinent – large corporations invest countless hours in a “redesign” of  their web portal.  Of course, when all they have done is move content around (randomly for the most part) and maintained the same look & feel all they manage to do is frustrate their existing customer base.  Imagine going to the neighborhood grocery this week only to discover that all the aisles have been shifted around and rearranged.  That’s exactly what most web site redesigns amount to.  When everything appears the same you shouldn’t have to spend time learning the new location of the information that you are accustomed to accessing.  Among the sites I frequent on a regular basis Verizon Wireless is the king of this methodology.
The next type of corporate site re-design appears to be for the sole purpose of obfuscating pertinent data.  Take the previous example and layer on new graphics and navigation along with the data shuffle.  For some reason there is a school of thought that says you must roll out a new website on a regular schedule in order to maintain shareholder value.  I’ve got an IBM ThinkPad that I purchased in late 2004 that is reliable and still covered by an extended warranty.  A few months after I purchased it the “red pixel disease” infected it – no problem, a couple of clicks on the website and I had an RMA number and a call tag was issued.  A few weeks ago the DVD drive went south.  “No Problem” says I – a few clicks and all will be taken care of – NOT!  After following multiple circular links I FINALLY discover a phone number.  When I convince the person on the other end of the line (thankfully a language barrier was not involved) that my degree in Computer Science makes me a reasonably qualified troubleshooter he manages to click here and there a few times and get a replacement on the way.  Note that a repair valued at hundreds of dollars was easier to handle than a repair valued at less than one hundred dollars, and the customer was frustrated in the process.
Freshen products, don’t frustrate customers – that should be the new mantra for all corporate sites.  People like comfort, and if your site changes on a regular basis just because your web team needs to look like they’re doing something then you have a dysfunction within your organization that demands attention.   Web teams should strive to perfect the web site they have – not strive to constantly reinvent and introduce a new set of problems that need fixing.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Dear NetZero

Why do you suck so bad?  Two years ago I received multiple welcome kits in the mail – all from fraudulent activity.  Today I received a collection notice from your pathetic Collections Division (that can’t be contacted via phone, despite the toll-free number listed on the top of the page – who was the Einstein who came up with that?)   So I call your billing department (in Bangalore or some other similarly unhelpful location where English is somewhat close to intelligible, but just far enough off that it’s just annoying when you deal with the compression introduced by the echo-cancellation hardware on the phone lines) Lo and behold, my phone number isn’t in your system and I don’t have a clue which maiden name you have on file since Gomer from Sheboygan was the one who set up the fraudulent account.  The unhelpful billing disservice representative tells me I can send a letter to your collections goons and all will be right with the world.  Well, I’m not inclined to do that.  Instead, I think I’ll just post this little diatribe on every venue I can so that the world can see what a pathetic shell of a company you are.  Pass this along to your pretty boy CEO so he can think about this the next time he’s prancing in front of the cameras shooting a television commercial.  Obviously whatever you have in place for “security” during your online subscription process isn’t working.  Pull your heads out, get some oxygen, fix the problems and quit abusing innocent bystanders who get caught between you and your fraudulent customer base.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Exceptional Customer Service (NOT!)

So, for my wife’s birthday I gave her a gift certificate to a local spa for a massage and facial.  We’ve been going to this spa off-and-on for almost ten years, the frequency fluctuating with where we happened to be living and our travel schedules.  However, any way you slice it, we’re fairly established customers.
She went in a few weeks ago to redeem part of her gift and while she was there she scheduled a massage to consume the remainder of her certificate.  Since we were driving from Oklahoma City to Wilmington (1300+ miles) she thought it would be a good idea to have a massage the day after our return.
Much to her surprise, the day she was scheduled to fly to Oklahoma City to meet me, she recieved a call from the spa to reconfirm her appointment that afternoon.  Obviously the person making the appointment made a simple mistake – why on earth would she schedule a massage for 2:00 when she had to be at the airport at 3:00?  The spa nazi was insistent that the computer was never wrong and informed my wife that if she cancelled there would be a penalty fee of 50% of the service.  After much debate (spa nazi was sorry my wife was upset…) she offered to only charge half of the normal penalty.  When my wife requested to speak to the manager or owner she was rebuffed; spa nazi insisted that this was her job and she could take care of it.
I haven’t called them yet; rest assured that when I do the spa nazi will regret not handling things properly with my wife in the first place.  Regardless of the outcome we will never spend another penny at Ki Spa & Salon (Wilmington, NC) and I suggest that you do the same – unless you happen to derive pleasure from abusive customer service policies.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It Makes You Wonder

In a truck stop on the way home from Oklahoma City the other day I noticed a sign over the beverage station.
Coffees from Around the World – grown in East Asia
You’re kidding, right?  You would expect “Coffees from Around the World” to include a variety such as Kenyan, Columbian, Kona, Blue Mountain, etc.   You know, from places “around the world” – not just a single place (Sumatra) from the other side of the world.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Celebrity Death

My son showed me a text a couple of days ago which is a bit irreverent, but it is so very fitting.  I’m not sure that this is the exact verbiage, but it was along the lines of;
Celebrity deaths always come in threes, leave it to Billy Mays to throw in a fourth for free.
Of the four public figures we lost this week two were tragic and unexpected, the others were at least anticipated, if not expected.  All will be missed.
Fortunately I was at a horse show last week and managed to avoid most of the hype concerning the death of Michael Jackson.  I know where I was when I heard the news and yes, I was saddened.  Despite his ongoing battle with social awkwardness and general irresponsible and irrational behaviour the man was a musical genius.  I saw the Victory Tour in Jacksonville FL (I’m pretty sure the cheesy “silk” jacket is still around here somewhere…) and the original video tapes of his ill-fated Pepsi commercial are not beyond reach.  There’s even a copy of “Thriller” on a VHS tape stuck in the cabinet.  Michael the musician was a rare talent and will be missed.  Michael the person had some issues that I’ll choose to avoid.
I grew up with Farrah Fawcett; had the poster; saw the movies; “read” the Playboy.  She was one of the beautiful people that managed to maintain a sense of graciousness and humility.  When she was diagnosed with cancer she fought it with determination and documented the struggle on her own terms.  I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of anal cancer before Farrah’s case (colorectal cancer, certainly.)  She took it upon herself to help educate the world while continuing to maintain her beauty and graciousness, even in the face of death.
Ed McMahon; what can I say?  He was a fixture for years and years in late-night and managed to reinvent himself time after time for our entertainment pleasure.  I guess we’ll have to wait to see who Publisher’s Clearing House replaces him with to see how we need to re-write all those “check from Ed McMahon” one-liners.
Then we have Billy Mays.  I must admit I used to find him incredibly annoying.  Then I saw a couple of  episodes of “Pitch Men” last week, which showed the difference between his personna and his personality.  Billy was the consummate salesman; he could sell ice to an eskimo or the proverbial used paint.  But what you didn’t see was the careful consideration he gave to the products he pitched and the strong loyalty and sense of family he had.  One of the episodes was Billy and his son shooting a commercial for his brother-in-law’s restaurant, gratis.  Hopefully his tragic death will bring heightened attention to hypertensive heart disease and save lives in the future.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Citigroup is Pathetic

Citicorp Blows ChunksWhere to begin?  Let’s start with Citi taking over SearsCard.    My wife and I have held a Sears card since 1989 (our first “real” credit card together.)  As a young couple we had the usual ups-and-downs, but did a reasonable job of being responsible with the account, as is evidenced by our eventual upgrade to “Gold” status and a credit line increase to ten-fold the original amount.  Not a huge credit line, but the fact that it grew organically over the years was noteworthy – we never requested an increase.  When the service was offered I signed up for online payments and electronic billing notices.  We continued to tread lightly with the account, only hitting snags when extended travel caused things to get off-kilter from time to time.
Then Citigroup hit the scene.
First, the online notices disappeared (no one has ever been able to tell me why, but they did, and of course this came back to bite me – I need reminders to get bills paid and if you don’t send me one I’m not going to sit there and wonder about it.)  After things got in arrears they called and asked me why I was late – then the Citi rep and I discovered that the email notifications for my account were somehow turned off.  No problem, we got things sorted out and back on track.
Fast forward a few months.  After sailing along smoothly for some time I notice that one of my online payments was “returned” – so I made a payment in the store.  Then another online payment was “returned” so I called the fine folks at Citigroup and spent nearly 2 hours on the phone with them.  They tell me that ANOTHER payment, made months previous, had been “returned” – which flagged the account as “Bad” and led to the eventual closure (all without notification to me.)  When asked how the payments were “returned” they had no answer.  There was lots of finger pointing at me, my bank, data input errors (on my part, of course!) and just about anything other than a Citigroup error.  They went on to explain that they had different online payment systems, depending upon if your account was “Good” or “Bad” and that I had incorrect information in my “Bad” account screen (even though I didn’t even know it existed, apparently I was logging in to it to make payments that weren’t being accepted.)
They tried to tell me my recent payment was processed over the phone by their collections department (it wasn’t – I’ll take a polygraph and wager any amount of money on that fact!) as was the previous “returned” payment (it wasn’t, either.)
I’ve seen stories about credit card companies tossing payments in the garbage to run up fees – it’s obvious to me that I’m the victim of an electronic version of the same scam.  If this is how Citigroup treats someone who has held an account for just short of 20 years then I sincerely hope they crumble from the weight of their collective egos if not from the consequences of the current financial crisis.
After spending 2 hours on the phone with no less than six of their employees (usually two at a time, with someone running off to check with their manager) it is no shock to me that they are loosing money like crazy.  It’s not bad debt that’s killing them, it’s bad management and abusive policy towards their customers.
Suffice it to say I now place Citigroup on the same pedestal as AT&T/Cingular for abusive customer service policies and wish a plague of locusts upon them.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Wine Update

I’ve had several excellent wines in the past few weeks but haven’t had time to write about any of them.  Here are the highlights;
  • Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir
  • Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet
  • Rubicon Estate Rutherford Cabernet
  • Don Maximiano Errazuriz Founder’s Reserve Cabernet
  • Caymus Special Selection Cabernet
  • Estancia Pinot Noir – Monterrey

These wines run the gambit from $11 per bottle to well over $100 per bottle, but they are all delightful drinkers.  I’ve been told that Sequoia Grove Rutherford Bench Reserve Cabernet is drinking as good as the Caymus Special Selection at a fraction of the price and I’m working on tracking down a bottle to try.  If it’s as good as I’ve heard I’ll pick up a couple more bottles to have around.  You’ll notice a dearth of whites in the above list – I just haven’t found any recently that flip my trigger.  I dearly love an elegant bottle for under $15, the kind of wine you can enjoy with good pizza or a well-made hamburger, then I keep a selection of $20-$50 bottles in the cooler for really nice meals and holidays.  For special occasions there are a few bottles in the over $75 range, but there aren’t many of those and I like to have them with a meal that deserves such a bottle.  Wines and teas are a passion; they provide many of the same experiences, benefits and both offer an almost endless number of variations to investigate.

Dog Food

imgproplangivelogo.gifSo I’ve been feeding my critters Purina Pro Plan Chicken & Rice for many years and things have been well and good.
Until a couple months ago.
I went to pick up a bag of food (down to 37.5 lbs from 40 lbs over the years) and discovered that all they had was this stuff called “Pro Plan Chicken & Rice Shredded Blend” (now 35 lbs and a couple dollars more expensive than the 37.5 lb bag I last purchased!)  So I grabbed a bag of Beef & Rice to feed the dogs while I weighed my options.
I sent a note to Purina outlining my concerns and got this response.  While it is a nice and proper response it is heavy on marketing-speak;
Thank you for contacting Nestlé Purina PetCare Company.
We appreciate you contacting us, and expressing your feelings regarding the 35 pound bags of Purina(r) Pro Plan(r) brand Dog Food – Shredded Blend.  Please know that they are important to us.  We would like to assure you that your comments will be noted, and reported to the appropriate individuals in our Company.  We feel certain that careful consideration will be given to them and any others we might receive.Please know that the bag sizes have changed to accommodate the lighter density of the product.  The new shredded kibble in Purina(r) Pro Plan(r) brand Dog Food – Shredded Blend is a lighter/less dense kibble, which makes the whole formula less dense.  Because it is less dense, it would take less food, by weight, to fill the same size bag.Many food companies, including pet food manufacturers, have experienced significant increases in recent months in commodity and ingredient costs.   These companies are often faced with the choice of raising prices or reducing the net weight of selected items.  Purina is taking this action to remain competitively priced and to continue to offer value to the consumer.Purina(r) Pro Plan(r) brand Dog Food – Shredded Blend formulas still help reduce accumulation of plaque and tartar for overall dental health.  Calcium, phosphorus and other minerals help support strong teeth and bones.  The formulation is approximately 85% regular kibble and 15% shredded kibble.For over 75 years, the scientists and nutritionists at Purina have been working to develop the best pet foods possible.  Even though we have been studying dogs and cats for a long time, we learn something new nearly every day.  Changes are part of an ongoing process of continuous improvement to provide better products to our consumers.Because we value you as a loyal consumer, we are mailing a complimentary coupon along with some discount coupons to use towards your next purchase of any NestlĂ© Purina PetCare product.  Please allow 7-10 business days for delivery.Again, thank you for contacting us.
Now, this morning here is what I sent to them:
I’m now on the last half of my third bag of free/discounted shredded blend and offer the
following commentary;
All four dogs (Lab, Sheltie, Cavalier and Pembroke Corgi) are losing weight on the same ration.  They were all maintaining (or in the corgi’s case, as he is younger – gaining a bit - on the old Pro Plan formula. As they had been on Pro Plan for several years without noticeable change this leads me to the logical conclusion that the shredded formula lacks the nutritional density of the old Pro Plan formulation.
The corgi used to scarf down his food, now he picks at it
Both the corgi and the sheltie have now begun regurgitating on a reasonably regular basis 30-45 minutes after a meal
I appreciate your gesture of customer service but it is obvious to me that I have no choice but to switch to another dog food for the health of my animals.  Don’t feel bad. Remember “New Coke?” - it didn’t work out, either.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Favorite Gift

As anyone in my family will tell you, if I ever find the person responsible for packinging things in those awful plastic blister packs I’m likely to become homicidal.  At the very least I’ll certainly smack them around (anyone that sadistic is certainly in need of punishment.)  One of the best presents I received this past Christmas cured all of my package opening woes (the kids have come to call it “Dad’s favorite plastic” over the years after hearing my less-than-kind words as I struggled with the various packaging combinations that these sick people have come up with)  Everyone needs a set of these:

They are offset, so you can cut the edge of the packaging without cutting your hands, and you don’t have to worry about injuring yourself hacking through the plastic with a pocketknife. If I find the person who invented these little jewels I’ll shake their hand and buy them a beverage.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bait and Switch

I just completed an order for Dave Mattews Band tickets for my sons with LiveNation.
In a direct statement, their marketing sucks.
When you browse for tickets they bait you with “ticket prices” of $60.50.  Much better than I expected to pay.  Then, when you get to the check out page you find that fees have bumped the price to $85.25 each.  Here are the verbose explanations offered on the site;
  • Ticket $60.50
  • Ticket fee $15.25
  • Parking fee $7.50
  • Charity fee $2
Total cost, $85.25 per seat.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think $85.25 is particularly unreasonable for a band with such a rabid fan base and high demand for seats in their concerts.  However, I do think that it’s outrageous that you offer something to your customers at one price and then jack it up an additional 40% before allowing them to purchase the item.  Apparently they see this as “saving me money” and “letting me know exactly what I’m paying for”  Well, I don’t ask Dave to break down the $60.50 so I know how much the guy who loads the drum kit is taking home, so why do I care how much the venue gets (that’s the $7.50 “parking fee” – nevermind that we’ve only got one car making the trip, perhaps we should drive three to get better value for our money?) or how much LiveNation gets (that’s the $15.25 “ticket fee” – which the pixie on the phone explained was used to keep the website running and provide me with “customer service” (cough.)  I think I’ll spend a good bit of time calling  (888) 598-4299 and (800) 431-3462 over the coming months so I can get my $45.75 worth of customer service from them. 
If it’s going to cost me $85.25 to see the concert then don’t tell me that seats are $60.50, because they are most definitely NOT going to let me in the gate for $60.50.  Tell me UP FRONT (and by that I mean in the seat selection process, not the checkout process) what the bottom line is going to be and I’ll make my decision accordingly.  Giving me one price only to tell me I have to pay something drastically different to see the show is outrageous.