Archive for March, 2010

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.