Author Archive

Please read carefully, here are your rules (I think):

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

1. You may check in online for your flight 24 hours in advance and print your boarding pass.

2. If your connecting flight is more than an undetermined length after your first flight, you will not be able to check in for your second flight prior to your first flight.

3. Even though you’ve taken your first flight and landed, you may not check in for your connecting flight at the airport unless it is within an undetermined length of your first flight.

4. However, once you’ve left home and boarded a plane, you can nonetheless check in online and print your boarding pass for your second flight. Of course, you are no longer at home, so you’ll need to find a printer to do this. Remember, you can’t use the check-in kiosk, though.

5. Of course, if your second flight was to take off within the undetermined length of your first flight, you’d have been able to check online at home.

6. The automated kiosk won’t tell you this information when you try to check in for your second flight. Instead it will ask you to stand in the mile long line at 3 AM to talk with the poor customer service representative who has to deal with all these angry customers who have no idea why they can’t check in.

7. None of these rules appear anywhere on your website, which, in fact, clearly states you can check-in online for any flight within 24 hours of its departure time.

8. There is no way the rules above can be understood and communicated by one person at the airline. You must interact with the company three different ways over the course of at minimum 24 hours, to get these answers.

9. At least one representative of the airline must get these rules wrong when you communicate with them. Especially when all you want to do is make sure you can finish the flight you started.

My local airline communicates to me a lot. It’s intentional that I wrote “to me” rather than “with me” because right now I really feel like this is a one-way street. Daily I received a plethora of offers to fly from Kansas City to Salt Lake City or Toledo to Jacksonville. Rarely do they send me offers from the Twin Cities to somewhere I’d want to go. To be completely honest though, a discounted flight offer has never compelled me to hop on a plane to a vacation destination. What would compel me to fly an airline, and *gasp* actually pay a little more for a ticket would be information. Real information about my flight! Over the last few years, airlines have received extensive amounts of negative publicity and quiet honestly a lot of it is deserved.

The Wife and I were lucky enough to spend some time in Hawaii a week ago (I know how many people were sad there was no blog post last week) and while I don’t have a legitimate horror story about being stuck on the tarmac for 18 hours while being fed a single cracker that’s been on the plane since 1982, I did manage to make it to Hawaii significantly more angry and frustrated than I should have been. And that had nothing to do with my right knee fusing with the seat in front of me on the flight to LAX. It all had to do with the appropriate flow of information and the airlines’ continued failure to understand what is really of value to their customers.

Twenty-four hours before our flight to Maui began we hopped online to check in and print off our boarding passes. Because we had a short overnight layover of about eight hours in LA before we completed our journey, the airline didn’t consider it a layover and we were unable to use online check in for our second flight. We were a little concerned, especially since this airline is notorious for overbooking, but we figured we’d make a call to make sure there wasn’t an issue with the tickets (I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel particularly comfortable hopping a flight across the country and expect the airline to actually put us on our next flight.) The Wife called and they told us we’d be able to check in at the airport when we landed. We take off, I cross my fingers for the whole four-hour flight (disrupting proper digital blood flow), and, once we land at LAX, we hustle to an automated kiosk: uh oh! No go.

We can’t check in for the flight and we get a “see attendant” error code. Nothing more than that. No, “you can only check in at a kiosk four or less hours before your flight.” Nothing told us this at 1 AM (3 AM our time). So we get into the line with dozens of other disheveled travelers. Fortunately, someone with a nametag walked by after a short time and my wife launched into the “will this line actually help us get what we need?” question. The answer was no. The service desk wouldn’t be able to help us for a couple of more hours, but if we wanted to we could check in online. After counting to ten, twice, I had to remind myself the situation wasn’t the fault of the individual that answered my question. Instead, it arose from the airline’s chosen customer-service structure, which fails to actually provide passengers access to helpful information to make travel easier, less stressful and an all around slightly more pleasant experience.

The Wife and I are diligent and experienced travelers. We are the people in line with our boarding pass and IDs out and our liquids, shoes and laptops at the ready to be binned. We aren’t the ones that hold up the security line as we dig through 180 days’ worth of stuff for an overnight trip just to get the ID we knew we had to have at the ready when we got into the line. So if we have a general issue and can’t get a real answer, I can say with complete confidence the problem rests with the airlines and not with us.

After our trip, I looked up the five most frequently asked travel questions on the airline’s website and shook my head. I understand this list isn’t actually compiled from real user questions, but a sense of reality would be nice.

1. How can I change my ticket? – Okay this one seems pretty reasonable. I bet this is a question that is actually asked by travelers fairly frequently.

2. How can I get my electronic ticket receipt e-mailed to me? – Really? It’s emailed to you with your confirmation. This just seems to me that very few people actually ask this. (Perhaps travelers used to ask this question, but e-tickets have been the norm for more than a decade.) Time to update the FAQs with actual real-world questions.

3. What do I do if I need help with ***.com? – That’s not really a travel FAQ, nor is it relevant since there’s a huge “CONTACT US” link at the top of the page

4. Can I get information about special fares and discounts at ***.com by sending an e-mail? – I get this one from the airline’s perspective, but again it really isn’t a travel tip. This is simply an attempt to hawk marketing e-mails rather than actually provide answers to real questions.

5. Can I get a copy of my itinerary by e-mail? – Again that is already emailed to you when you book and I would hope that the average person would know their itinerary because they PICKED IT WHEN THEY PAID FOR IT. Sorry, didn’t mean to get worked up there.

Since I am getting fired up let’s link this back to your business. One of the really nifty things about the interwebs is that people will actually look on your website for answers before calling. *Gasp* So if you understand what your customers are actually asking, you can help them help themselves. As I said to a coworker recently, “it is cheaper to make a small change to the website than to take twenty help desk calls,” and I firmly believe that’s true. Some people are always going to call, just like some people are not going to take their boarding pass out from the depths of their bag before getting to the TSA agent—despite watching two thousand people in front of them doing it. But for those customers that just want a simple answer, make it easy for them to find it. Your FAQs are an opportunity to improve customer service for folks that can generally help themselves. Make those frequently asked questions real questions and update them often. If you are struggling with effective customer service, here’s an easy way to reduce workload and increase customer satisfaction. Let your customer service agents focus on the folks that really need assistance, and I can go to my hotel near LAX. Excuse me while I go stretch my legs back into their natural shape.


Will You Be Fired For Commenting On This At Work?

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

I’ve been an active member of various internet communities dating back to the fall of 2000. In full disclosure, when I had a lot more anonymity on the web, I posted a lot of things that might fall into a grey area in terms of appropriate communication for 2010 where social media has blurred the lines between private and work life. Fortunately, my internet handle back then was pretty general, and, given the volume of internet chatter, it would be exceedingly hard and time consuming to attribute that “bad” stuff to me. While my membership and participation in multiple social media sites has increased dramatically since 2008, my internet presence has been consolidated. With one quick search, you can find me at Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, this work blog, and hopefully in the near future, my personal blog with The Wife. It’s a far cry from posting on forums where the only thing to narrow me down was my self-listed location the “the best location in the nation.”

I know that part of the hiring process at Lorton Data involved a general search of my internet presence and what type of image my digital self portrays to the world. Today, beyond a few pictures of me at Halloween playing Rock Band with my hair dyed green, I can’t think of anything too questionable. Maybe there’s a political rant on Facebook, or a photo of me enjoying a tasty adult beverage in a legally approved setting. However, if Skynet is watching closely, I could be one ill-advised tweet away from employment oblivion (queue dramatic music). Each time I post to Twitter or Facebook I have to be aware that there could be business ramifications to what I have to say. While I highly doubt I’ll do anything to jeopardize my career, I need to be cognizant of my words before I click send.

Do a quick search on Google for the words ‘Facebook” and “Fired.” It’s okay, I’ll wait. You’ll see at least 16,000,000 hits. That’s a lot of words dedicated to the topic. You can read everything from posts about people being fired for using Facebook at work, to employers screening job applicants on social media sites, to advice on whether to add your boss as a friend. On a side note, I did friend my boss on Facebook and the only problem I have is the application keeps suggesting I reconnect with him. No offense Ray, but the 8-9 hours a day I spend with you is ample! Regardless, there’s a significant gap between the expectations of businesses and individuals when it comes to social media and how people interact outside of work.

I’ve dropped over 400 words without discussing anything really useful or new to the conversation, so it’s time to switch gears. We have three conflicting issues that need to be addressed as businesses and individuals adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the internet and social media applications.

1. Anonymity

We are no longer talking about issues of privacy in the new digital landscape. We gave that up when we agreed to the terms of Facebook, Twitter and Linked In. Maybe we didn’t with Google Buzz, but I’ve addressed that already. Instead, most people are looking for internet anonymity. We want to be able to communicate with our friends, family and a limited number co-workers without being noticed by the outside world. Based on the volume of ones and zeros dedicated to this topic, anonymity isn’t necessarily working out as we might have assumed.

2. Social Media Policies for Businesses and Organizations

Let’s not talk about usage at work, but rather what the business feels is appropriate for promoting their image. The rules don’t have to be Draconian, but if you want to give a pink slip to someone for inappropriate online behavior, don’t play “guess what’s behind my back.” It shouldn’t be a moving target. I understand it isn’t necessarily obvious what rules need to be in place, but build a framework. That way everyone is on the same page and there are no surprises when a policy is violated. If an organization doesn’t have a social media policy in place, they should be hands off on what people do on the web when they aren’t at work. That seems pretty reasonable to me.

3. Monitoring Employee Twitter, Facebook, Linked In and Blogs

Monitoring these social marketing tools that people use outside of work brings up a myriad of philosophical and ethical questions. While someone blowing off steam about work on Facebook might not be appropriate, does it really warrant a discussion or an immediate axing? The Philadelphia Eagles fired a stadium gate employee for using Facebook to complain about letting a player go to another team. Based the Eagles’ response, clearly this guy was an important media influencer. Maybe a short discussion would have been more appropriate? Of course it depends on the situation, but employers having carte blanche over an employee’s personal life really reeks of a Big Brother mentality.

Many organizations are making the rules up as they go along, and that is okay. A little ambiguity doesn’t hurt. Just make sure to have some type of policy in place and that it is clearly communicated to your teams. If you are an employee wondering about something you want to share on Facebook, Linked In or Twitter—think about whether the end result would likely be a call from your mother guilting you for your behavior. If it would, don’t do it. A little common sense by individuals, and appropriate organization guidelines can function cohesively to reduce problems while standards and norms develop in regard to social media in a corporate context.

I won’t let you friend me on Facebook if I don’t know you, but you can connect to me on Linked In. If you aren’t into the whole professional thing, follow me on Twitter @ FlyoverJoel where I assure you I won’t be talking about work.


Take My Wife Money. Please!

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

It’s a simple premise. You are doing something good and I want to give you money or time to help your cause. Make it easy for me to do so. Since the Wife and I can’t afford to be professional philanthropists, we donate time or money when we can to help worthwhile causes. We’ve found several in the last year that we wanted to help, but our offers seemed to have fallen into the giant black hole of the internet.

I talk quite a bit about finding customers on this blog, but I haven’t spent much time discussing what to do when you find them. Getting the worm on the hook is actually the hard part. Don’t stare blankly at the fish when you get it out of the water.

At Christmas time every year, one of the Twin Cities emergency response groups takes underprivileged children to the local Target stores for some holiday shopping and cheer. The Wife and I believe this is a good cause for two reasons. First, it helps children that might not have a holiday to experience the joys of giving. Second, it gets those workers into the community and interacting with their constituents in a positive situation. Community interaction and good PR can’t hurt any group in their position.

Two years ago we donated directly to the fund, when we were at Target. It was easy to hand over some money and get our names added to their mailing list with the thought that we could annually contribute to these activities. Next holiday season no mailing came to us. There was no information on the web about it. We still wanted to help, so I did the next best thing. I sent an email to their general inquiry email address asking to be directed to an appropriate resource so I could find out more information. Since this address isn’t used to report fires or muggings, I assumed, incorrectly it turned out, that someone would take the time to help get me to where I need. I expected it might take a few days to get response, but I was sure we would get some type of reply – after all we were going to give them money. A year later I am still waiting to hear back.

Another example is a little more current. Recently, one of my favorite professors from my undergraduate institution passed away. The alumni office set up a memorial fund in his honor, and since I hadn’t really been able to donate to my college in the past, I figured this would be a good time to start. I sent a quick email on 2/11/2010 to alumni relations asking on how I could give to the memorial fund. Over two weeks later I am still waiting on a response. As most of us can agree, an Alumni office at every institution in the country is looking for more ways to increase donations, why won’t they tell me how they can take my money?

Take a quick mental inventory of your company. What procedures do you have in place to take care of general inquires? What importance do you place on your info@, sales@ or support@ email addresses? Or your feedback and contact forms? Do you get so few emails to those addresses that no one remembers to check them? Are you so focused on outbound marketing that you forget to collect the communications reaching out to you, seeking your services, your products?

When you institute an email policy for general mailboxes keep the following things in mind:
1. Are you forwarding those notes to a group of people, or are you relying on one individual to monitor those communications? If they take a vacation do they have a backup?
2. Do the individuals responding to those emails have a stake in the questions being asked? Are they willing to route communications to the appropriate resources?
3. Is the in-box so inundated with spam that legitimate requests are missed?

I could probably ask a hundred more questions, but I implore you to think about how your organization has implemented general inquiry email addresses. Taking the time to implement a smart system for inbound inquiries makes good business sense. A potential customer that declines to do business when you first reach out to them may nonetheless do business with you in the future. If you fail to respond to a potential customer, when they reach out to you – that customer is likely lost forever.

The point is simple. Any avenue of communication your potential customers or donors have to reach you is important. Let me give you my money. Seriously. All you have to do is hit reply.


A Bark Worse Than the Bite?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Or should I say the Buzz is worse than the Sting? Sorry for the bad pun. On the drive in this morning it was the snappiest lead-in I could conjure other than FizzyFuzzy Big & Buzzy. And I know the reference to a one-hit-wonder band from 1996 would probably be lost on nearly everyone.

If you’ve spent any time on the interwebs in the last week you have to be aware of the controversy surrounding Google Buzz and the serious complaints regarding the privacy violations of Gmail users. This includes a class action lawsuit filed on Wednesday. If you have been under a rock, or only get your news from the Lorton Data Blog (unlikely) here is a quick summary. Google released a product called Google Buzz to directly compete with social media products like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace (okay, there really isn’t a need to compete with MySpace). Since social media products only look snazzy when you have lots of interaction, Google automatically opted in every single Gmail account and made their contact lists public! That’s 31.2 million users. To put this in perspective, it’s as if Google released the names and contact information for every single person in Canada over the age of five and to whom they communicate. That’s family, friends, business associates, current and former significant others, association members, your kid’s hockey team, curling buddies, attorneys and everyone else you can think of. It’s an understatement to say that those are pretty serious privacy and security principles to overlook. Normally, I’d make a reference to SkyNet here, but The Consumerist beat me to the punch.

Here’s what I don’t get. At Lorton Data, I get worried if I go fifteen minutes without hearing the words: ‘security,’ ‘privacy,’ ‘coffee’ and ‘more.’ As an organization, we are trusted with private and confidential information all day long, and often late into the night. With our recently completed SAS 70 process, security and privacy discussions have become even more focused. If you have private information on a population the size of Canada, how do you overlook the basic idea that it would be nice to allow people to consent before their private communication lists are nakedly exposed to the rest of the country? If I get itchy running National Change of Address on a mailing list for the International Red Swingline Enthusiasts of Walla Walla, Washington, how come no one at Google thought this might be a bad idea?

With Facebook, I don’t always appreciate, but I do understand their attitude toward privacy. Notions of privacy have changed and what was once considered strictly private is now welcome in the public sphere. We’ve opted in to Facebook with the understanding that we can share information with others in our network, and with their ever-evolving privacy policy we’ll continue to share more than we may have anticipated originally. That’s an inherent risk we have to accept to play Bejeweled Blitz and look at photos of our friends’ new babies.

Google and Gmail are a different entity entirely. While Facebook tightropes the line between private and public spaces, we have an assumed anonymity and privacy with email. We expect our communication to go from the sender to the receiver without anyone else peeking in to that communication. We also expect that when we click send, no one else knows who we are writing to unless we choose to tell someone about it. That’s normally over a beer at the bar, not shared with enough people to replace nearly everyone up north. While I love my soccer, kickball and broomball teammates, the people the wife and I invited to our wedding, my Brown’s Backers Club, my city, state and county government contacts and the myriad of attorneys I know; you don’t need to know that I am emailing them. If you want to know who I am connected to, friend me on Facebook or on LinkedIn. At least then, I’ll know and understand the social contract we are entering.

I am happy to use Gmail for my email. Google is really good at that. But given what’s happened with their first foray into competitive social media, I’d say they aren’t very good at understanding that there are still expected limits on privacy and confidentiality in these digital times.


All Things Trivial Are Not What They Seem

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

5:45 AM 1/27/2010

The Wife says, “Are you awake?”
My reply was a relatively unintelligible, “mmmhrmph.”
“Ed Begley Jr.,” she forces out with a tired sigh.
I reply with a surprised, “Oh!”
The Wife then says, “zzzzzzz.”
And I offer back, “zzzzzz.”

For most people this conversation wouldn’t occur, or would be so out of context that one would assume it’s a bizarre dream that shouldn’t be discussed with the world. But for us, it is Trivia Week and something as simple as “who the heck was the guy from that commercial Monday night?” takes on significant meaning. This Friday, The Wife and I will pack our bags and head down to sunny Kaukauna, WI (it would be warmer if that was an HI) for Lawrence University’s Great Midwest Trivia Contest, where we, along with hundreds of other fools, will attempt to correctly answer a question every three minutes for fifty straight hours. If I’ve learned anything from the Googlefest that is Trivia, no matter how you attempt to present your information on the Wide Wide World of Web, people aren’t going to find you if you haven’t made an effort to be found. In other words, it isn’t just a matter of differentiating your web presence from your competition: you need to make yourself available to be found.

My trivia team is ready to go. We have enough technology to make Skynet jealous. Our team includes lawyers, professors, and technical folks that have spent years working with or for Apple, Microsoft and IBM. Our 40 person team comes from all over the country and all over the globe. We could actually make a pretty cool deck of cards from all the different driver’s licenses! We eat better than at Thanksgiving or Christmas. We have a bank of phones that would make a call center jealous. We will be blogging and tweeting throughout. And we will win. Again. Our team captain John Brogan described us as the New York Yankees of trivia. While I bristled at that description, he’s right. We are going for 10 straight years of winning the off-campus division.

I was roped into this study in sleep deprivation four years ago by The Wife. My addition to the team has been described (to stick with the baseball metaphor) like picking up a veteran left-handed bat for the pennant run – the type of player described as a “professional hitter.” Sure my knees are shot and I can’t run anymore, but I keep focused and provide some important hits in the clutch. For example, in the final stages of the contest two years ago, I managed to find Jim Morrison’s passport number.

What I’ve learned over the last four years is that one can’t possibly anticipate all the different methods people will use to try and find something on the internet. I am not a Search Engine Optimization expert, nor will I pretend to be. But when you put an American, a Brit, a Canadian and a Texan next to each other and have them search for the same information—they are all going to go about it in a different way. Any business needs to keep this in mind when developing a web presence. It isn’t just about throwing up some XHTML, pretty pictures and a description of what you do. You need to think about how you reach your customers and how they can find you. While it might seem to be a lot easier than hoping someone’s fingers walk to you in the Yellow Pages, it is actually a lot more challenging. It’s not just about differentiating yourself; it’s about developing a strategy to help people find you. I’ve thought for several years now that Google, Yahoo or Bing could learn a lot about their search engines by analyzing the search data from the Great Midwest Trivia Contest.

If you are curious, or just a masochist, you can follow all fifty hours of the Great Midwest Trivia Contest and listen online at WLFM Radio. Just make sure to root for the Bank of Kaukauna as we go for ten titles in a row!


On Demand Pineapple

Monday, January 18th, 2010

We’ve been throwing out lots of words around the office lately: Distributed Computing, Software as a Service (SaaS), Pineapple, Cloud Computing, On Demand. To many people, those are just words. They float around with little bits of meaning, but they are not really concrete ideas associated with a current technology environment. Most people want to turn on their computer, generate emails and spreadsheets, check Facebook and have everything work. We don’t really want to think about what’s behind the scenes. So when a company like mine releases an on demand direct mail solution called A-Qua Mailer, many people are just hearing words and not getting the point of how cool this A-Qua Mailer “thingy” really is.

Let’s try to demystify the concept of cloud computing. If I suggested that you close your eyes and imagine for a second, it probably won’t be good for productivity, so keep them open and pretend that you run a small business. We will call it I Need Pants, Inc. and you provide Pant Solutions to a myriad of verticals in the bodily attire market (wait a minute, I think I just delved too heavily into marketing speak). So you make pants and every time a customer orders pants you put them in a box, and send them off for delivery. It doesn’t matter if your customer is down the road or across the country. Maybe you have ten deliveries a day, maybe a hundred, but you have a fleet of drivers to deliver each package. That seems pretty silly, doesn’t it? A driver and a vehicle for each package? Do you have any idea how much it costs to park a car in downtown Minneapolis? In reality you’d call UPS and a dude in brown shorts and socks (even in winter, this is Minnesota) will come pick up all your packages, and your products will “automagically” arrive at your customer’s location. Pretty cool, right?

Scenario one is a simplistic explanation of what actually happens in a typical IT infrastructure. At the enterprise level, a different server controls each function of the business. Maybe one runs your CRM, another controls your invoicing system, a third ensures you have email, a fourth gives you access to the interwebs, and server five controls inventory, and so on and so forth. It’s like having a fleet of cars and a bunch of grizzled mechanics trying to keep them on the highway so you can deliver each box of pants separately. It’s not efficient and it’s not cheap. And if you’ve ever been in an overcrowded data center, you know it is hot enough to bake fresh cookies.

Internally we use a UPS driver to power our CRM. Actually, we use a pretty cool SaaS solution called SugarCRM. SugarCRM gives us all the flexibility of having an in-house CRM tool, without having to pay for all the equipment and maintenance needed to implement and run it ourselves. Our IT team is busy enough and this keeps them from getting too cranky. The best part for us, is that we actually only pay for what we use. We don’t have to pay for software to maintain, and we don’t pay a king’s ransom for an enterprise license. Instead, every time we add a sales rep we add an additional user (or seat) license to access the application. We don’t have those large infrastructure and deployment costs associated with housing the application in our datacenter. To use the metaphor, I want to pay to ship each box of pants, instead of paying for the potential need to ship pants. Having our CRM application in the cloud and hosted by the vendor and available on demand allows us to do just that.

To bring this to a desktop comparison, Gmail and other email applications are the perfect examples of services that replace desktop software much like Lorton Data’s A-Qua Mailer does for mailing applications. Outlook is a great email client for work, especially when you have someone else in charge of making it work for you. If you used it at home for personal email, it would be a pain to get it initially set up and then you’d only be able to check it on that machine. Unless you wanted to install Outlook on other computers, or constantly change settings when you are on a new PC, Outlook isn’t really convenient for personal e-mail. It is much easier to start up Firefox or Internet Explorer, head to the website of your email service and log in. No additional software required. No obnoxious updates that try to reboot your system when you are in the middle of something. All the maintenance is done for you by the service provider. Using a third-party provider like Gmail (or UPS in my earlier example) allows for both increased efficiency and ease of access.

Our A-Qua Mailer provides the same ease of use. As long as you have a formatted file and a web browser, you can get your mailing list processed for the deepest levels of USPS discounting available to you. Without having to buy software, or update it, or make sure you have the latest and greatest USPS requirements up to date on the system or pay for modules you don’t use because some day you might. Instead we take care of all that for you. All you do is pay for your processing. And that is pretty cool.


Merry Snowpocolypse

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

As we look forward to a potential snowpocolypse or snowmageddon here in the Twin Cities, or what I like to call as a Clevelander “rush hour flurries,” the wife and I have split last-minute holiday duties. I’ll be going from store to store completing our final gift purchases while she’ll be stocking up on food and, more importantly, beer, in case we are snowed in over the holiday weekend. We will be snuggled up playing Rock Band, enjoying the snow and not sliding down the highway in our Jeep. While we will be comfortably enjoying the weather, one man in a red suit will be out in the storm heading from rooftop to chimney to make sure all those well behaved children have a wonderful December 25th. The wife assures me that any stop at our house will not be on my behalf.

How are we to know where Santa is on his annual journey? I need to know when to put down the beer and fake plastic guitar and go to bed. The solution is NORAD. They have been helping to track old Saint Nick since 1955 and all because of an error in an advertisement. The short story is Sears published an advertisement with a promise to let kids speak to Santa by calling a specific number, but the published phone number was actually a secured military line. Oops! Rather than dash the dreams of the kids that were calling, the airmen pretended they were Santa and gave the callers info on Santa’s progress from the North Pole. The story is especially sweet because we normally only hear about incorrectly published phone numbers when they’d get someone put on the naughty list and not when it develops into something nice. I encourage everyone to read the article from CNET on how this volunteer program has blossomed into this large undertaking. It just helps to prove you never know what great things can come from seemingly small mistakes.

Lorton Data will be closed December 24 and 25 and January 1.

Happy Holidays!


Data Story Time

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Every Wednesday night for the last fourteen weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting through the academic equivalent of a giant bowl of beets. Before going after a Master’s degree in MIS, I needed to take a prerequisite course in financial accounting. The class has been fantastic for fleshing out my deep transactional understating of business. Financial accounting brings to mind old-time images of guys with adding machines and visors; the reality is this course should have been called “Storytelling from an Economic Perspective.” That’s all numbers really do, provide information to help tell a story. I think we get too caught up in presenting the numbers and forget to talk about what the numbers really mean.

While I am not going to present myself as a business intelligence expert, I did spend two years doing sales operations data analysis and translating between the sales organization, finance and IT departments to get projects completed reasonably on time. This means taking data that has no context and making it actionable. It means geeking out by using the same application I use to make grocery lists. It means being mocked by my family and friends. It means Excel.

I’d like to offer some key points about data analysis and presentation from my experiences that might be useful. As always, your mileage may vary.

1. Numbers tell a story, they aren’t the story.
Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight is a fantastic illustration on how to tell a story from the numbers. Nate is a stat-head, but he’s able to translate that information into a story or argument which makes sense for anyone, regardless of their background. The primary purpose of generating data in a number format is to help provide evidence for an opinion. Think back to the last time you had a writing or speech assignment in school and they talked about supporting evidence. Keep that in mind any time you are presenting information that involves numbers.

2. GED – Good Enough Data
This is a concept people have a difficult time getting their arms around, but I found it has been very important for getting things done.  Your information doesn’t have to be 100% accurate all the time.  For example, if you are trying to illustrate to a team of sales reps that gross margin is low and they need to be negotiating better, you don’t have to pull every transaction for the last six years and spend hours slicing and dicing it.  Get close to the pin to illustrate your point.  You aren’t preparing a report for the SEC, so don’t spend more time creating a report than time your audience spends using it.  It doesn’t make sense.

3. Customize for your audience
Seriously, one spreadsheet does not fit all. The chart you make for sales should be different than the one for operations or finance. It’s just like public speaking; extract the data that illustrates your point and makes sense for your audience. Kick out the extraneous stuff that you’ll want to explain, but won’t make sense for your crowd. It is just boring and will confuse your point.

4. Make the information actionable
Summary information should also contain (on another tab) the line item detail that proves your point. Do this not so you can win an argument, even though that is fun, but so that after the presentation people can take your data and do something with it. I know that sounds like crazy talk, but the point of this stuff is to reach a goal. Most meetings aren’t FYI–although one might argue that a lot of them feel that way—they are to get a team together to go somewhere. Make it easy for them.

5. Bite sized chunks
If your data fields stretch out to column AA, it might be just a hair too much. If it stretches to column AZ – delete it. Immediately. It isn’t useful to me, you, or anyone who looks at it. Information overload makes it really easy to be dismissed. If it’s dismissed due to complexity, you’ve killed the whole actionable idea. If it takes hours to figure out what you’ve done, then you are wasting people’s time.

6. Data expires quickly
Any data extract is a point in time. This is especially important to remember for transactional or customer information. Tell your audience what that point in time is and try to keep it reasonably close to the point of presentation. If it takes weeks to massage and tweak your data, it’s probably going to be too old to still be reasonably actionable.


There is a Direct Marketing hook to this piece…

Friday, November 20th, 2009

… I promise. Just hang with me.

No matter what deity you subscribe to, we can probably agree that I’ve been dealt a raw hand being born into the Cleveland sports family.  Since moving to the Twin Cities, the average Minnesotan loves to recite the litany of Cleveland sports tragedies with glee on their lips and a mischievous sparkle in their eyes – there is little empathy in sports.  Generally, this elicits an angry retort, although on a few occasions I wander away from the conversation like a sad dejected Charlie Brown.  The Indians, Cavs and Browns have all caused me heartache and pain in my thirty-five years.

The mind-numbing futility of the Browns offense this year has really sapped any enjoyment I get on Sunday.  As the president of the Twin Cities Browns Backers, I take my lifeless, dull eyes and crushed soul down to the local watering hole dutifully every week to spend three hours of ineffective therapy with other displaced Clevelanders. It’s become a chore to watch football.  This morning however, I awoke with a spring in my step and a small flash of light in my darkened heart. Today, I was reborn like a character from a television show that just won’t die.

So get to the point already!

Growing up in Cleveland also trains you to root for THE Ohio State University Buckeyes, and it is Michigan week.  As I write this post, it is 7:46 in the morning and Michigan still stinks.  But you already knew that!  In full disclosure, I went to a small Ohio College known for its football failures and I also attended UMaine.  Go Black Bear Hockey!  But my college football loyalties will always be attached to OSU.  I’ve often referred to them as the best professional football team in Ohio. I hold dear more jokes bashing Michigan than any other comedy.  I brought my Buckeye Gnome with me to work today.  On Saturday, if you cut me open, I’ll bleed scarlet.  Wait!  I don’t think that metaphor works very well.  I think you get the point.

True story. A few years back the wife was attending law school at Iowa and she scored tickets to the Buckeye game in Iowa City.  Our seats were in the end zone area and located in a section populated with crusty, old, weathered codgers. The type which comes to mind when you think retired farmer. I’ll wait while you create that image in your head because it adds to the flavor. One of those respected gentleman asked me through gritted teeth (gritted because of the piece of straw in his mouth – stay with the image people), “why do you guys want to fire John Cooper so bad?  He wins ten games every year.”

My response was surprisingly brief.  “Because he doesn’t beat Michigan.”

A quick Cleveland/UMaine tale of woe before I call it quits today – just to make my office mates happy.  The year I moved back to Cleveland, I might have been the only person in Northeast Ohio to care about the Frozen Four.  After, I was able to convince my regular Irish Pub in Cleveland Heights to show the game for me, I threw on my Black Bear hockey jersey, drew myself up to the bar alone, and grabbed a Guinness.  The bar was reasonably packed and my solitary screaming at the TV received snickers and laughter from the other patrons. With minutes left in the game, it looked like UMaine was going to bring home another title. I was elated. My bartender bought me a beer and I was all smiles. Who doesn’t like free beer?  In seconds that changed. The Minnesota Gophers scored with seconds left and an empty net to tie the game and scratched out an overtime victory. I was devastated. I realized after a few seconds that crickets were chirping in the bar and everyone was staring at me. I took a deep breath, looked around and with a smirk I said, “Its okay everyone, I’m from Cleveland. I am used to this.” My new friends laughed knowingly, but seconds later reflectively looked at their drinks like a sad adult Charlie Brown.

But like the t-shirt says, “Cleveland, You Gotta Be Tough.”

So here’s the Direct Marketing hook. I think this is a great example of how to use a blog to connect with your customers on a level deeper than just pushing product.  So if any of you folks live in the Twin Cities, and are long-suffering fans of the Cleveland Browns, you can meet us at Mackenzie’s in downtown Minneapolis. If you want to watch OSU beat up Michigan with fellow Buckeyes you can head to Majors Sports Cafe in Bloomington.

Have a great rivalry weekend no matter the team you root for, but if you hear Hang On Sloopy let out a little O-H-I-O for me.


A Clean Database is a Happy Customer

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Regardless of how you are contacting your customers, you have to have a clean database!  Huzzah!  It feels good to get that off my chest.  Today, a lot of legacy systems (and their legacy data) are interconnected in a loosely fit collective of databases and the customer/donor /constituent/friend information is probably incomplete or out of date.  I want to share a story that illustrates the importance of updating your customer information.

My large car insurance company scared the absolute dickens out of me about a month ago.  You see I had a three month period, after the (now) wife got me to capitulate and move from the “Best Location in the Nation”* to the Twin Cities, where I didn’t have a real home.  My apartment lease was up, but it wasn’t time to flee the Cleve.  I crashed with some friends, and changed my billing address to my parent’s house before I forwarded it to Minnesota.  Since I pay my bills online, this seemed like the easiest solution while I was living a Boxcar Willie lifestyle.

How did they scare me?  I received a call from my dad, “your insurance company just sent you some mail to our house with a time sensitive stamp on the front, and we’ll send it out to you now.”  I handle everything on line, so I was a little concerned.  I have a squeaky clean driving record, until this post goes live and that is jinxed, so I wondered what in the world they wanted and why it didn’t come to my current address.

Two days later, I opened the letter.  “WHY DID YOU CANCEL YOUR POLICY, YOU ARE AN IGNORANT FOOL TO GO TO ANOTHER INSURANCE COMPANY!”  Okay, that’s probably not what was written, but it is what I read.  I thought, “Holy Crow! They canceled my policy, or I forgot to pay my bill, or someone used my personal information in an accident and I am being booted and may have to defend myself from a life in jail when the police catch me.”  I was just a hair frantic.  I ran to my computer, which was off because I just got home from work.  Fifteen minutes later, after every company who had a hand in making a component to my PC and some companies who even just thought about it, had announced they were in working order, I launched Firefox and logged into my account.  Everything was fine.  My policy had not been canceled.  Whew!

After my outrage had subsided, I thought about what just happened.  Clearly my insurance friends had a database of lapsed customers that did not properly communicate with their current policy holders list.  Apparently, my few months of getting mail at the parent’s house ended up getting me on the lapse list and nearly put me on another lapsed list again when I expired from the stress.  This company has my name, date of birth, vehicle registration number, knows if my eyes change color on a Thursday, my social security number, what pants I am wearing and a myriad of other personal information that would allow them to match my Cleveland residence with my Minnesota residence.  But they could not pull that off.  My guess is they have multiple databases but no way to tie the pertinent information together to really know and understand who their customers are.

It is rare that I am going to directly hustle our services on the Lorton Data Blog.  The Social [Media] contract tells us it isn’t really appropriate, but in this instance to disguise my pitch as a marketing help or discussion would feel a tad false.  So here it goes:

While, this was specifically a direct mail experience, the problem isn’t unique to direct mail.  If you want to contact your customers in any way, it is essential to have a clean list before you contact them.  Phone, email, address, really anything you want to use when you talk to them should be scrubbed.  Be prepared to know your customers.  They like that kind of thing.  This doesn’t just mean bouncing your file against the National Change of Address Database.  This means pulling the data from your CRM, and your invoicing tool, your leads spreadsheet that is still in Excel 95 and getting them matched, consolidated and processed for updated information.  I can absolutely help you with that.  In full disclosure, it won’t be me personally, but we have some people that are absolute experts at this stuff.  Email me and we’ll get you sorted out before you begin your campaign.  You can save money, increase revenue, or if you play your cards right, you’ll do both!

I’ve run a little long today, so in the near future I’ll talk about another campaign where marketing from a transaction database gave up the ghost and how the program failed to generate the level of revenue expected.

*Cleveland, Ohio!