What's wrong with online customer service: an example

It should not be difficult, slow or aggravating to use the website of a leading virtual fax service (eFax) to cancel a $16.95/month account. But it is all three.

For starters, you can't just fill out a form and cancel. Ugh! Anytime you enter a customer service web interface and find that canceling or downgrading an account requires either a phone call or an online chat session, beware. You are being “upsold” or “retention sold.” (Newspaper companies, my old stomping grounds, maddeningly do this all the time. Want to subscribe online? Sure. Want to put in a vacation hold? Sure. Change your address? Absolutely. Want to cancel? WTF?)

Lots of lessons about what not to do in my chat transcript with eFax, which follows. Note that this is not the entire conversation — I did not include two false starts with chat hosts who pointed me to a dead web page and then suddenly logged off. This is just the final attempt:

Please wait for a site operator to respond.

You are currently number 1 of 1 in the queue.

Thank you for your patience. You are now chatting with 'Lee'

Lee: Welcome to our sales chat. How may I help you?

Jay: I need to cancel my account, and no one seems to be able to do it for me. The site directed me here to sales chat, and I started with another rep. That rep pointed me to a Cancel page that is supposed to initiate a DIFFERENT chat, but the link to initiate that chat is broken. It does nothing. Please help me cancel my account!

Please wait while I transfer the chat to 'Craig H.'.

You are now chatting with 'Craig H.'

Craig H.: Hello, Jay. Welcome to eFax online support. I am Craig H., your online Live Support Representative. How may I assist you?

Jay: Your chat system is screwy, for starters. But let me explain: I need to cancel my account, and no one seems to be able to do it for me. The site directed me here to sales chat, and I started with another rep. That rep pointed me to a Cancel page that is supposed to initiate a DIFFERENT chat, but the link to initiate that chat is broken. It does nothing. So I logged back into sales chat and explained all this and that chatter transferred me to you, where I once again have to explain all this. Please help me cancel my account! I simply no longer need it!

Craig H.: I apologize for the inconvenience.

Craig H.: I will be glad to assist you with the cancellation request via this chat session.

Jay: My efax number is xxx-xxx-xxxx

Craig H.: Could you please provide me your registered email address and billing zip code for verification?

Jay: xxx@xxx.xxx, xxxxx

Craig H.: Thank you for providing your information.

Craig H.: Please give me a moment while I pull up your account.

Craig H.: In the meantime, please type the number corresponding to your reason for cancellation:

Craig H.: 1) Moving to another provider

Craig H.: 2) Bought a fax machine

Craig H.: 3) Business or role changed

Craig H.: 4) Short term project completed

Craig H.: 5) Financial reasons

Craig H.: 6) Problems with faxing or billing

Craig H.: 7) Dissatisfied with quality of service

Craig H.: 8) Too costly

Jay: 4

Craig H.: Jay, as we'd like to keep your business, I can offer you a discount and also waive your subscription fee for 2 months.

Craig H.: After the free period, pay just $12.95 per month. This plan includes 130 inbound pages monthly and extra pages are just 15 cents each.

Craig H.: There is no contract and you may cancel anytime. Shall I switch you to this savings plan?

Jay: No thank you. I don't need it anymore

Craig H.: OK, before I close your account, we now have an annual plan that will let you keep your eFax service for just 14 cents a day.

Craig H.: You make one annual payment of just $50 and pay nothing more unless you exceed 30 pages per month. Extra pages are just 15 cents.

Craig H.: This deal won't be available once your account is closed. Can I switch you to this savings plan which lets you keep your fax number for just 14 cents a day?

Jay: I DO NOT NEED THE SERVICE ANYMORE

Craig H.: OK, I will go ahead and cancel your account.

Craig H.: Is there anything else I may assist you with?

Jay: No, just please send me confirmation that the account is canceled.

Craig H.: Sure, an e-mail confirming that your account has been canceled will be sent to your registered e-mail address.

Jay: OK

Craig H.: Thank you for contacting eFax online support. I hope you found our session helpful. Goodbye and take care.

Why I still say 'interactive' instead of 'digital' et al

Sorry, nits. Meet your picker.

It bugs me (yes, puny play on words intended) to hear leaders of legacy media businesses refer to their “digital” strategies or products, meaning all their online/internet/web/social/mobile stuff.

How did “interactive,” as the adjective of choice for such stuff, lose favor? It is both more accurate and more aspirational.

I run the interactive business for a group of local television stations. TV, in case you have been off the grid for the past decade or so, is now almost fully a digital business.

Before this job, I helped run the interactive team for a chain of newspapers. By the way, they, too, are almost purely digital businesses right up to the point where plates go on a press and ink meets paper.

If I say, “I run digital businesses for my company,” that should thus mean, “I run my company.” And that's not true.

If I say, “I run interactive businesses for my company,” you might reply, “But your [sites|apps|pages] really aren't all that interactive.”

That's the aspirational part.

Being digital just means you use 1s and 0s instead of hand tools, chemicals or mechanical devices. Once you convert to digital technologies in every key element of your business, you check off that box and move on to something else.

Being interactive means growing one-way mass-media communications forms into multidirectional, multithreaded, continuously evolving conversations. Interactivity comes in infinite degrees, so you never get to check off the box that says it's done.

So don't talk to me about your “digital strategies” unless you include things like exciters for digital TV transmission or kerning pairs in Adobe InDesign for digital construction of newspaper pages. If you want to talk about interactive strategy, I'm all ears.

If 'Do Not Track' happens, what's Plan B for targeting?

Despite plenty of conversation and posturing, we're a long way from regulations or even standards for a “Do Not Track” registry as pushed by the Federal Trade Commission.

If “Do Not Track” were to come about, would that be the end of many of the ad targeting forms we have seen evolve on the web, in email marketing and elsewhere on the Internet?

I doubt it.

Geographic targeting gets better with each new consumer conversion from proxied dial-up accounts to broadband. If you visit a site using home DSL, cable or fiber access, or use the mobile web via a 3G or 4G connection, chances are the broadband Internet provider sends along a host name that at least reveals what town you're in, if not what part of town. This targetable — though not personally identifiable — bit of information goes to the site even if you use a browser that successfully anonymizes you and your computer.

What about interest targeting? Before a site knows to serve you ads based on expressed interests, you have to express those interests to the site. On purpose. That by its nature circumvents “Do Not Track,” much the way businesses can still solicit their current and even former customers by phone even if they are on “Do Not Call” lists.

Behavior targeting — serving you a message based on your recent online behaviors, such as sites visited and search keywords — might seem most vulnerable to a “Do Not Track” system. I think, however, it would find serious trouble only in the unlikely event DNT were to gain near 100 percent adoption.

Otherwise, what would stop developers of ad serving software or ad networks from employing statistical sampling methods? Using sampling on a large enough volume of inventory, shouldn't an ad net be able to extrapolate big-enough behavior segments from the observed behavior of even a small percentage of people who do not opt out using DNT?

I leave it to others to debate the ethical, business or technical implications. I'm only saying “Do Not Track,” for whatever comforts it may provide people who sign up, doesn't seem likely to end any of these major forms of online ad targeting. What am I missing?

In news production, a return of the hunter and packer

TVNewsCheck looks into Deseret Media's news production approach and finds a model it implies is novel — but that, in fact, we in the industry have tried before, though we might have widely spread opinions about that memory.

Deseret's news organization pumps content into a Salt Lake City newspaper, television station, radio station and affiliated websites. Deseret CEO Clark Gilbert, not long ago from the Clayton Christensen-bred consulting stable, won raves for his keynote presentation, a stark problem exposition, at the recent Borrell Associates conference on mobile strategies for media. He certainly appears willing to shake the company's structure to its core, including its journalistic workflows.

The news approach attempts to separate newsgathering — the inputs — from news preparation and distribution — the outputs. The role most closely related to a traditional reporter's job description now focuses on gathering all the components of a story. The role most closely related to a traditional editor (newspaper) or producer (broadcast) now focuses on processing the components into a story for each use case: print, broadcast, interactive.

Newsroom leaders, in richer days, experimented with this separation of the “hunter-gatherer” from the “packer-distributor” tasks. And one form of news organization lived almost entirely by it in the 1970s and 1980s: news magazines such as Time and Newsweek. But you don't see the characteristic gang-bylines on very many newsmagazine spreads anymore.

I always understood that the news magazines shifted away from this model because of its expense and inefficiency. But I never worked for one so I'm hoping some of my media pals will read this and either confirm or set me straight.

Montana now fully tuned up

With today's launches of Operation Tune-Up on KPAX.com in Missoula and KAJ18.com in Kalispell, Cordillera Interactive finished its rollout of new site architectures to all seven station.com sites Cordillera runs in Montana.

We will pause and sigh, relieved, before moving on to more site launches the first weeks of October, November and December.

We stepped up our game nicely in Big Sky Country, and that's just for starters. Op Tune-Up sits very early in a long cycle of new product development and enhancements.

Cordillera is not a big company, and we do not operate in top-25 markets — but the work our corporate and local teams do, on projects like Tune-Up and everyday operations, stacks up against anything I've seen in the big towns. Makes my job a lot of fun!

More Cordillera Tune-Up sites

Cordillera Interactive launched two more Montana site rebuilds this week in its Operation Tune-Up project: KTVQ.com in Billings and KXLH.com in Helena. Here's the before (left) and after.

The changes under the hood matter most in this project, as I described last week: lighter page weights and scripts mean faster load times and fewer nagging browser incompatibilities. Visually, we cleaned a lot of things up, but the differences should not be jarring or confusing to an occasional visitor.

We'll finish Montana sites quickly then move on to a series of launches in early October. As always, I welcome comments from my friends in the user experience and Web programming fields.

A big week for Cordillera Interactive

I have not shared much here about my new role leading Cordillera Interactive. I have wanted to, but had very little time to share stories of our rapid progress on this blog.

This week, we have something I'll pause to shout about.

Back in spring, we started a project to update the designs and underlying HTML/CSS architectures of our TV station.com sites. We named the project Operation Tune-Up.

Starting yesterday, we moved Operation Tune-Up out of the lab and onto its first site: KRTV.com in Great Falls, Montana. We still face a couple more days of inevitable debugging and clean-up work. But you can see the effects of Tune-Up on the KRTV.com home page, story pages and most index pages.

Thanks to Joey Martin, CI's senior director of operations, and his folks nationwide (with a special hat-tip to Neil Wagner in Billings, who also provided the terrific graphic design) for a successful launch!

We wanted big improvements in three key elements of the site user experience, and we think we got 'em:

  • Site pages, especially the home page, load much faster. That, alone, justifies the project.
  • Site content is easier to find.
  • Stories are easier to read.

KTVQ.com in Billings is on deck for Tune-Up, and we'll start that launch process as soon as we winnow down the clean-up list for Great Falls. All Cordillera station.com sites get their own Tune-Ups before the end of the year.

Would I invest our limited resources in a Web tune-up if I felt the Web were dead? Maybe not, but I don't think it matters. My objectives in any interactive redesign project roll up into two main principles:

  1. A redesign should make the next redesign faster and easier to execute. At some point, the pace of user interface innovation on the mainstream/consumer Web may begin to slow, but for now, the end of one design project still seems to signal the beginning of the next. So we have to cut the time and resource requirements to keep up.
  2. A redesign should make it easier to collect, store and distribute all kinds of content assets using today's, and tomorrow's, communications forms. Get it from anywhere, anyone, anytime. Put it anywhere, with anyone, anytime. Seems simple, really isn't, but we should push to make it simpler with every project.

If we succeed at both of those, and the Web does die, we're still OK — ready for smartphones, tablets, car-dash systems, home media centers or virtual carrier pigeons. Whatever we learn along the way, we can and should share with our paying customers — advertising clients.

Hope you like the new KRTV.com!

'Too critical' makes an odd criticism

Terry Heaton posted a gem about how his sometimes-brutal advice for media can be perceived as “too critical”:

One of the first essays I wrote on this journey was called “Is TV News Giving Away the Future?” I published it in May of 2003 and got a lot of heat for criticism of third-party ad networks running TV station websites. When I look at the “false assumptions” published then, most are still in play today, and there’s even a new wrinkle in the concept: Most media company groups now function themselves as third-party ad networks, so a central thesis in my overall philosophy — that third-party ad networks work for the good of the network but not necessarily for the good of the properties on the network — has been ignored completely.

Heh. Terry, they may say you're too critical. We certainly do not agree on everything (disclosure: Heaton works for AR&D, which counts my company as a long-time client, so we've had our share of give-and-take). But I'd say the “too-critical” tag reflects an industry that has embraced too much political correctness about its current and future state. Sometimes street fights settle more than leather-chair exchanges of P.R.-speak. I'm certainly tired of companies trumpeting “slowing declines in advertising revenue” as if they'd found a cure for the common cold.

Heaton's post recounts his argument that “the flexibility for revenue growth is at the property (local) level.” It would seem to favor high local autonomy for interactive product roadmaps within media conglomerates.

I'm not sure I would say it's the flexibility as much as the touchpoint opportunities that matter locally.

Much of the flexibility to win at street level comes from focus, from strong signal with low noise. I believe that means using the power of a larger company to consolidate strategic, tactical and operational responsibilities for product lines where they have common threads across many local deployments. You know, economies of scale.

Let local teams adapt product lines to meet local needs, sure, but not just for the sake of being different. Oh, if only I had back every dollar the companies I have worked for have wasted the past 15 years allowing local Webmasters to write bespoke content systems, or commerce systems, or cute-baby-photo-rating systems, in miserably unsustainable isolation. And the multiples of those dollars spent to migrate, convert or wind down the inevitably disappointing results.

Meanwhile, the iPhone looks and works much the same everywhere it is sold (subject to quality of AT&T's service, natch). So does Microsoft Word. So does Google. Local variations in these technology products almost surely represent far less than 10 percent of the overall user experience. Last I heard, the companies that provide those products are doing OK in all our communities.

In short, the more efficiently a conglomerate uses its product resources, the more it can spare for customer relationships, those touchpoint opportunities.

Incumbent local media do have the advantage of local direct sales relationships, as Heaton and Gordon Borrell have discussed, but they are based on the shorthand dialects of legacy media advertising. The keepers of those relationships — sales account executives — often recoil from introducing new products, a new dialect, into them. That's human nature. The legacy products remain easier to sell to existing customers, at higher gross dollar amounts and much higher margins than anything the “interactive department” can show.

All stipulated. We're great at problem exposition, right? So what's the answer?

Where many observers might argue the incumbent media entities need to fire up R&D arms that invent new products in all the current and emerging interactive categories — and fast! — I have long maintained our industry will lose if its bias is to build solutions internally (and lose faster if every local property tries to build “the next Google”). Instead, I believe we need to adapt our business development practices to a world full of partnership opportunities.

If pure-plays can invent and deploy the right product to meet a given marketing need of small/medium businesses, why must we insist we could build a “me-too” product better, or blind ourselves to the threat entirely until another chunk of market share goes away?

Almost every company that represents the pure-play revenue in Borrell's data will, or would, entertain reseller partnerships with incumbent local media, as an alternative to building its own sales forces especially in markets smaller than the top 25. Incumbent media can resell best-of-breed interactive and mobile marketing solutions profitably. Plus, the incumbents do still have significant distribution clout via their legacy, offline operations, and will for many years to come.

The sum remains greater than the parts — as long as we don't stupidly expect things to stay that way without changing some of our behaviors.

If a local media operator can claim to sell products on par with best-of-breed marketing platforms, online and offline, then we shift the game back to differentiators that actually matter: our people, our relationships, our client service, our commitments to the communities in which we operate.

I wish I could say we have big leads in all those “human-touch” areas. We don't. Anyone who has ever tried to change frequency on a newspaper home delivery subscription, or called in to place a private-party classified ad, knows we do not exactly shine at customer service. But we have a more realistic chance of becoming the best on the human side once we equalize the technology race via partnerships. We have little or no chance if we choose to fight our battles on the technology front itself.

Is the business model for, or just to sustain, journalism?

Jack Lail expands on Janet Coats' essay which asks the perennial question: as old business models erode, how do we pay for the craft of journalism? A key point:

“For journalism to work, it has to prove its value to the community it serves, and proving that value means attracting business revenue – whether through advertising, subscription, or underwriting by an audience committed to the coverage your provide. Likely, it will be a combination of all those things, and more.”

No one talks much about what I call the “Girl Scout cookies” model.

Every year, seemingly everywhere, Girl Scouts sell cookies. They don't bake the cookies. They buy them wholesale and resell them at substantially marked-up prices, keeping the difference to pay for their activities. Everyone understands this.

Some Girl Scout troop activities might help the scouts learn how to bake — thus, their activities have some tertiary relationship to the products. Still, no one expects the scouts to supply the cookies they sell, and most buyers rely on the consistent quality and selections offered by the institutional bakers who supply the scouts' fare. A new box of Thin Mints? Mmm. Overbrowned sugar cookies produced by Troop 43, offered in a Ziploc? Uh, not so much.

So why do business-model builders always seem to expect the products of journalism to be so intimately tied to business activities that support its practice? At this stage of the game, must we force people to pay directly for a journalistic product or adjacency to it?

No. Here's why:

  • High-quality practice of journalism can create new brands or sustain old ones. (Note I do not say all high-quality journalism is practiced by the current crop of news media, nor will it be. Debate among yourselves.)
  • Those brands can carry enough weight with institutional leaders and business proprietors to get them to hear a sales pitch, at least. From established brands, they might expect to hear a pitch encouraging them to buy an ad adjacent to news product.
  • What is that ad if not a marketing service? And what are news media operators in the business community if not providers of marketing services? So why would we ever limit ourselves to selling marketing services in the form of adjacency to our news products? We can and should offer all the clever interactive tools and methods for business proprietors to get their messages of the moment in front of current and prospective customers.
  • We do not have to build marketing products or services ourselves, nor do we have to find audience for every client's message next to our content. Like the scouts, we can acquire and resell these things. In the interactive universe, media companies with a “build-it-ourselves” mentality fall behind, and remain behind, the best innovators in any category. Meanwhile, companies willing to form reseller relationships can gain leverage from the best-of-breed in every category.
  • Reseller relationships mean revenue shares, but in my experience, do not have to be loss leaders. Adding resale marketing services (low margin) to traditional ad adjacencies (higher margin) can yield a sum greater than the parts.
  • Such a marketing business can grow to help pay for journalism without relying solely on the ad inventory surrounding news product.

Let's see if I can close this loop in one sentence.

High-quality journalism creates credible brands that can open doors for us to sell, or resell, robust marketing solutions to business proprietors, at enough volume and profit over time to sustain the practice of journalism as old models erode.

I never said it would be a great sentence.

I'm also not yet ready to guarantee this will work, but I'd rather try it than continue depending solely on the value of news adjacency, or before even considering consumer-paid news content.

Netscape vs. IE was easier than this…

I have owned and used Apple products in one form or another almost continuously since 1986.

Love the products, especially (still) Macs. Starting to hate the company. It seems bent on forcing site proprietors back into a barbed-wire nest of incompatible platforms and user experiences. Cases in point:

  • Steve Jobs' well-publicized dismissal of Flash on the iPad and iPhone. Sure, HTML5 comes with boatloads of promise as an alternative, but the promise isn't reality just yet for anyone who would prefer to develop once for use everywhere.
  • The new Safari 5 includes a “Reader” utility that takes content such as a news article and strips all but the core content (text, headings, related images) off the display. No page headers, no banner ads, no unrelated objects — all to recast the user experience to Apple's specifications instead of the site designer's. Sure, I know people hate banners, mostly, but they still pay the freight for a lot of content sites. How quickly will someone invent a workaround?
  • Apple's protectionist policy regarding mobile advertising, which will exclude some major mobile ad nets such as Google's AdMob, also crimps the revenue-share potential for publishers who rely on those nets to help cover costs of mobile deployments.

Now anyone running a network of content sites has to build them one way for the “open” Web, another for Apple platforms, variants for mobile form factors, and then style and script one-offs or variations for all the incompatibilities that have existed since the dawn of the Web. Meanwhile, the rules of engagement in each of those instances keep changing. John Battelle, in that last linked post, has choice words on that:

I think this is shortsighted and wrong. I also think it's classic Apple. It's a rerun of the Us vs. The World mentality that forced the Mac into a corner back in the late 1980s. This time, Google plays the role of Microsoft, but it really doesn't matter. Apple won't let anyone play in their iWorld who might pose a competitive threat.

This is all we need now – a major platform war, with marketers and developers having to pick sides, cost of development, ad serving, analytics, and marketing services at least tripled (one process for Android, one for iPhone/Pad/Touch, one for Microsoft or Palm/HP or…. ). That's not what the web is about. It's disheartening.

And it will be expensive for site proprietors. Just what we need.

Update (11:15 a.m. EDT, 6/10/2010): Robert Andrews has a great post somewhat related to this: The Anti-Web Movement Is Gathering Pace. Also, Mathew Ingram, over at GigaOm, explores the Safari Reader feature further: Let's Get Serious: Safari Reader Is Not The Death Of Media.