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MasterCard? More like MasterFail.
January 27, 2014 8:45 PM | Posted in: ,

I defy you to find a more infuriatingly incompetent credit card website than the one Citi provides for those unfortunate souls who have a MasterCard issued by Sears. And by "unfortunate souls," I mean me, of course.

Here's what I get when I try to log in to our online account:

Screenshot of horribly uninformative error screen

You'd have to work pretty hard to come up with an error page that's less useful than this one. It doesn't explain the error. It doesn't suggest a solution. It doesn't provide a means to contact the company to get help. If I didn't know better, I'd think the federal government was involved with the design of this website, but that would be an insult to the federal government.

One might logically assume that getting this message after attempting to logon MIGHT mean that perhaps a new password is needed (yes, it's an assumption borne of desperation, but alternatives are limited). Guess what you get when you try to change your password?

Screenshot of horribly uninformative error screen

Oscar Wilde said that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, but if you substitute "pathetically incapable" for "unimaginative," the sentiment still works just fine.

If I can ever figure out how to get past this screen, I'm going to close the account and switch to Visa. At least they have better TV ads.

UPDATE (same night, one hour later): I took to Twitter to vent my frustration, and once again was gratified by the power of social media to get the attention of even large companies.
And while their suggestion wasn't all that helpful, I did appreciate their quick response (they followed with another tweet asking me to message my phone number to them if I continued to have a problem so we could work through it). But it did cause me to try a third browser - Firefox; I have already tried Google Chrome and Safari - and I was able to connect to the account and take care of business. So, perhaps I'll grant a reprieve...at least until I see how the site behaves in the future.
From today's Midland Reporter-Telegram, in a report on the City Council's recent goal-setting retreat:
Mayor Wes Perry brought one idea to the table that could provide a major thoroughfare from downtown to Loop 250. He said Midland Airpark could relocate so that "A" Street becomes a major north-to-south road, but it all depends on approval of the Federal Aviation Administration.
"We have to consider everything and look at all our options," Perry said regarding the limited discussion of the "A" Street expansion during the retreat. "If we can do it, great. If not, that's OK. We have to think outside the box, as though we are not limited."

I had to read it twice to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. Airpark, for you non-residents, is a municipal airport that at one time resided on the outskirts of Midland but which is now completely surrounded by businesses, housing, and a thriving community college. It's also the closest thing we have to a sacred cow, politically shielded from any suggestion that its location might be a detriment to the economic well-being of the city due to the money and power of the relative few who value the field due to its proximity to their offices, and the convenience of access to their private aircraft.

Shielded until now, that is. Mayor Perry is the first high-ranking city official (who also happens to be a prominent businessman) in my memory to come out on record as suggesting that we should seriously consider relocating the airport. It will be interesting to see if his observations gain any traction.

I've previously expressed my opinion on this website about the advantages of freeing up almost 400 acres of prime real estate for commercial, retail, and residential development (and without getting too deep into the public safety aspects of its location, despite a number of crash-related fatalities over the years). And I've gotten some negative response, primarily from those in the aviation community who seem to think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

But as the city continues to grow, the inaccessibility of the airport acreage looms larger. Hundreds of people - and perhaps thousands - are forced to drive four extra miles every day to get to and return from their offices on "A" Street south of Loop 250, as the east runway approach has removed the possibility of direct access. The mayor's suggestion that we look at extending "A" Street past the airport so that it connects with the Loop is commonsense, as well as an example of favoring the majority over the minority.

The numbers are interesting. For the 12-month period ending September 26, 2012, the FAA reports that the airport averaged 77 "aircraft operations" per day. One takeoff equals one operation, as does one landing, as does one touch-and-go or low altitude pass (such as common in flight lessons). For comparison, Midland International Airport averages about 200 operations per day. Airpark is a busy little airfield, but I suspect a lot of that activity is related to flight lessons.

From an economic perspective, the question that needs to be answered is whether that land is worth more to the citizens of Midland as an airport or as developable real estate. The land is on the books with an appraisal of more than $17 million, but since it's owned by the city, there's no tax revenue. However, fees associated with the airport's operations generated 6% of the city's revenue in 2011 - about $9.6 million, according to the city's annual report. I don't have a rule-of-thumb to estimate what sort of tax revenues might be generated if the land was developed for private use; that would obviously depend on the types of development. And the calculus is complicated by the city's recent plans to offer the acreage for oil and gas leasing.

Nevertheless, the mayor's observation that extending "A" Street would be beneficial to a large number of citizens is indisputably accurate. I'm happy to see that the issue is being raised for discussion, and I hope it will generate some serious evaluation - the kind that involves an actual economic analysis rather than emotional and political posturing.

Praising Parrot
February 9, 2013 2:16 PM | Posted in: ,

So, this is what my Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 quadricopter looked like about a month ago following an apparent total electronics failure and subsequent crash.

Wrecked Parrot AR.Drone 2.0

That thing dangling in the lower left corner is what's left of one of the motors, and the propeller that you don't see is the one that snapped off when the bird impacted the ground.

At the time of the crash, the onboard camera was recording, but the device apparently has developed the human-like ability to blank out traumatic memories because the video ends a couple of seconds before the chopper dropped from the sky. However, below you'll see a faithful re-creation of the whole event, pretty much exactly as it happened. (Warning: Some scenes contain graphic violence and may be disturbing to some watchers. Viewer discretion is advised. However, artist discretion was also advised, and look where that got us.)

Animated GIF of quadricopter crash

Immediately after this tragic event, I found on the Parrot website a number of videos for self-repair of the device, as well as a section for ordering replacement parts. It appeared I could fix it myself for about $80 (and no telling how much mental anguish). But I decided to try one outrageous strategy before embarking on that perilous journey: I emailed the company and asked them what to do.

See, as far as I could tell, I didn't contribute to the crash. The weather was calm, I wasn't trying anything crazy, and the device just shut down in mid-air. So I attached screenshots of the error message on my phone, and of the settings in the app that controlled the flight parameters...that set limits on speed, altitude, angle. All of those settings were pretty conservative since I'm a new pilot.

The company's response was gratifying. "If you can provide proof of purchase, we'll fix it under warranty." So I asked my brother for a copy of the receipt (it was a Christmas gift - a very generous gift, I might add) and boxed up the remains and shipped it to Holland, Michigan.

Allowing for shipping time both ways, I estimate that it spent only two or three days in their possession and I had it back, good as new, much quicker than I expected. And we've been terrorizing neighborhood dogs ever since.

There are a lot of companies out there that do a great job of providing customer service and support, but too often the ones that don't get all the publicity. My feedback to Parrot after getting the repaired 'copter back was that I'd put in a good word for them on the blog and my Facebook page. They lived up to their commitment, and now I have, as well.

And if you have some spare shekels, buy yourself one of these things; they're fun as all get out.

Laws of Combat
November 12, 2011 7:09 AM | Posted in: ,

I'm going through my files - physical and computer - and deleting or archiving those that are likely beyond their useful life. This is one of the final steps in unwinding the website business.

In the process, I've run across a lot of things that I acquired and kept over the years for no apparent reason. Some of them are still interesting, if not relevant; many are simple puzzling in that I can't remember why I thought they were important.

I do remember the following list, though. I had it affixed to my wall when I was a dealmaker at ARCO. I can't remember the source, but there are dozens of similar lists all over the 'net. I've never been in combat, but I can assure you that some of the oil and gas negotiations I participated in often seemed like military conflicts. It's probably not surprising that many of the "Laws of Combat" apply to corporate battlefields.

Murphy's Laws of Combat

I've bolded those that have particular relevance to the corporate world.

  • If it's stupid but works, it isn't stupid.
  • If the enemy is in range - so are you!
  • Incoming fire has the right of way.
  • Don't look conspicuous - it draws fire.
  • The easy way is always mined.
  • Try to look unimportant - they might be low on ammo.
  • Professionals are predictable; it's the amateurs that are dangerous.
  • The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions: 
    • When you're ready for them. 
    • When you're not ready for them.
  • Teamwork is essential, it gives them someone else to shoot at.
  • A "sucking chest wound" is natures way of telling you to slow down.
  • If your attack is going well; you have walked into an ambush.
  • Never draw fire, it irritates everyone around you.
  • Anything you do can get you shot, including nothing.
  • Make it too tough for the enemy to get in, and you won't be able to get out.
  • Never share a fighting hole with anyone braver than yourself.
  • If you are short of everything but the enemy, you are in a combat zone.
  • When you have secured an area, don't forget to tell the enemy.
  • No combat ready unit ever passed an inspection.
  • No inspection ready unit ever passed combat.
  • Fortify your front and you'll get your rear shot up.
  • If you can't remember, the claymore is pointed towards you.
  • All five second grenade fuses are three seconds, or all five second fuses will burn out in three.
  • It's not the one with your name on it - it's the round addressed "to whom it may concern" you have to think about.
  • If you can keep your head while those around you are losing theirs, you may have misjudged the situation.
  • If two things are required to make something work, they will never be shipped together.
  • Whenever you lose contact with the enemy, look behind you.
  • The most dangerous thing in the combat zone is an officer with a map.
  • The quartermaster has only two sizes, too large and too small.
  • If you really need an officer in a hurry, take a nap.
  • If your sergeant can see you, so can the enemy.
  • When in doubt, empty your magazine.
  • The important things are always simple.
  • The simple things are always hard.
  • If you take more than your fair share of objectives, you will have more than your fair share of objectives to take.

Is that post title cryptic enough for you? Tell you what...jump over to this page for a minute, take a quick look around, then come back and let's talk about it. I'll wait here for you.

*idle whistling*

*annoying fingertapping*

*impatient watch glancing*

Photo of braceletSo, is that cool or what? By the way, if I've coined a new term - causelet, a combination of "cause" and "bracelet" - feel free to use it without paying me royalties unless they begin to run into the six or seven figure range. Generosity would be my middle name if it wasn't something else.

And speaking of generosity, that's what Brandon Hawkins, the brains behind Chi-Rho Knots, is all about. Brandon graciously agreed to a quick mini-interview via email in which he shared some of the background behind Chi-Rho and the awesome handmade paracord bracelets. I think you'll be hearing more about Brandon, but here's quick intro, lightly edited, from his own keyboard.

Gazette: How did you come up with the idea of the shock-cord "causelets"?

Brandon: The paracord bracelet is not a new idea. In fact, I first heard about them over a year ago when I received an issue of BackPacker Magazine that ran a story about making your own "survival bracelet." Long story short, I bought the paracord to make a couple, did just that, then tucked everything away in a closet for a little more than a year. Then, about mid-September of this year for reasons unknown, I dragged it all back out and made a couple more. This time, my wife suggested that I attempt to add a breast cancer ribbon to one. Since Jess [ed.-Jess is Brandon's lovely wife] and I participate in raising funds for a few favorite causes each year (Breast Cancer Awareness, First Candle, March of Dimes, and the American Heart Association), she was thinking that I could sell a few as a type of "bake-sale,"and donate the funds. I reluctantly said yes (while thinking in the back of my mind...these won't sell), and proceeded to tinker. I finally found a way to make it happen in a practical manner, and off I went. Eventually, people started requesting them for other causes than breast cancer research. The rest has been a blur of a constant orders!

G - The bracelets look somewhat time-consuming to create. How many can you create in a day/week/month? Is this a full-time job for you.

B - Right now, I can make about 50 bracelets a day if I need to. It has taken more than full-time attention to make all this happen, but it's not all that I do. I'm currently tutoring nurses that are returning to school to obtain Bachelors and Masters degrees. It has definitely been a challenge to balance the two. As business grows, I can see this becoming my full time job.

G - Your website mentions that Chi-Rho Knots is a family business. What family members are involved?

B - My grandparents have agreed to sign on to my "little" project. My grandfather is a retired veterinarian, and my grandmother is a retired office manager. With their help, I've been able to keep up with the influx of orders.

G - What are your goals for Chi-Rho Knots? How do you feel about the response to it?

B - I've always had a giving heart, and I think that must fit into God's plan for me. I am humbled by the response! My goals for the company as of now are to continue to grow and expand responsibly, while raising as much money for research and assistance as possible, for the variety of medical conditions we are all dealing with in some form or another. This isn't my doing. It must be God's idea. That's really the only explanation for the insane success Chi-Rho Knots has experienced thus far. So, even though I like more than my fair share of the spotlight, the Glory goes to Him on this one, and I'm forever grateful. This endeavor has been a blessing in so many ways, to so many people. I'm honored to be a part of it.

Chi-Rho Knots is the kind of homegrown, passion-driven success story that people love to hear about. I've had the privilege to work briefly with Brandon on a web design project, and he strikes me as a guy with boundless energy and enviable creativity, and yet he's obviously strongly grounded in faith. I predict great things for Chi-Rho...especially if he can figure out how to incorporate a Fire Ant logo into a bracelet.

Borders Ruins
July 26, 2011 7:45 AM | Posted in: ,

On July 18th, Borders Group, Inc. announced that it was closing 400 bookstores and liquidating its inventory, having failed to find a rescuer after it declared bankruptcy. The company is another victim of technology, having missed the boat, the train, and even the bus that runs to the online hubs for selling books and music.

You might think that an ancient city like Santa Fe, New Mexico, would be slow to embrace change, but in this case, it seemed to be ahead of the curve, because here's what we encountered at the former location of its Borders store in the Sanbusco Center on the 17th, just a day before the aforelinked announcement. 

In reality, the Santa Fe store knew its fate back in February, soon after Borders announced its bankruptcy.
 
Photo of an empty Borders bookstore
Photo of an empty Borders bookstore

This is downright spooky - 25,000 square feet of mostly empty space previously crammed full of books and music, although as you can see in the first photo, someone is trying to keep the coffee shop alive - it's now called the Lucky Bean Café - which actually makes the place even weirder. I assume that the café is the only reason this space is still open to the public. It's interesting to note that the store's website was active at the time of this writing and even listed events scheduled for later this summer.

This was one of our favorite places to visit in Santa Fe. Its collection of technology-related books was probably the best I've ever seen, ironic given the fact that technology proved to be the company's downfall.
Some random thoughts about some puzzling and odd - OK, let's be honest: they're annoying - business practices that have caught my attention:

  • Budget asked me to complete an online questionnaire about a recent car rental. I found it odd that the survey offered only check boxes and radio buttons, and provided no option for submitting feedback via text boxes. I think companies that craft surveys like this are fooling themselves into thinking they're really getting into the minds of their customers. Those companies may believe they're asking all the right questions, but invariably, they don't. Allowing for some freeform feedback should enhance the value of the process, but perhaps it's too much work for them to process. Why even bother, if that's the case?

  • Then there's the US Postal Service, who also asked me to submit feedback. They sent a printed questionnaire (I guess they get special postage rates) and provided an option to complete an online survey. A week later, I got a reminder postcard providing the URL for the online survey. Here's the odd thing: the survey requires a username and password to access, and I assume that combination is tied back to my identity. OK, I can live with that. But they also included that login information on the postcard. Now, I know my letter carrier and have no doubt it would never enter her mind to fill out that survey herself, but when you're asking for feedback about an individual's performance, this doesn't seem to be a very secure way to ensure that such feedback is coming from the right source.

  • My and Debbie's alma mater, Texas A&M, is updating its Former Students Directory, and has hired a company to compile that information. Said company, instead of providing a convenient online process for doing so, is requiring us to make a phone call to update/confirm our information. And they're sending each of us a weekly reminder postcard. We've gotten about ten of them between us, all of which have gone straight to the trash. Sorry, folks; we live in the Internet Age, and if it requires a phone call, it ain't happenin'. This is especially odd considering that the university does provide an online method of updating your contact information for ongoing purposes (like donation requests).

  • Ever notice how some companies are quick to charge your credit card, but slow to credit it if you return a product or cancel a service? We recently made a reservation at a hotel, then canceled it the next day due to a change in plans. The charge hit our account the same day we made the online reservation; the credit arrived two weeks after we canceled online. The result of those two weeks was that we'll have to pay the credit card bill this month, and wait until next month to get a credit, instead of getting offset transactions in the same month. Yeah, it's a valid business practice, but it doesn't build any goodwill with your customers.
I posted brief rants about the Texas Get Your Business Online (TGYBO) initiative yesterday on Facebook and Twitter, but that wasn't particularly satisfying, so I want to continue the rant here. After all, anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

Here's a quick refresher. TGYBO provides free websites and hosting (for a year) to small businesses in Texas. It's a joint initiative spearheaded by Google and software company Intuit, and a number of national and state business advocacy groups. The FAQ on the above-linked website includes this blurb about why this is happening:
Small businesses are vital to America's economic future; the nation's 27.5M small businesses comprise half the US GDP and create two-thirds of all new jobs. Although 97% of consumers look online for local products and services, 51% of Texan small businesses do not have a website or online presence. This makes them invisible to many potential customers.
Sounds like a commendable program, doesn't it? And it probably is, unless you're a small business that's trying to generate income by building websites for paying customers, in which case this initiative has the potential to, well, put you out of business.

The reality is that small businesses and nonprofit organizations are the bread-and-butter of most web designers. I've never had a Fortune 500 client and never will. That's not all bad, but it does mean that I generate income via volume: creating a lot of small websites that individually don't amount to much money, but with luck might add up to a living wage (and even that goal remains elusive). So you can see why an initiative like this by a gazillion-dollar company like Google might cause a disturbance in the Web Design Force.

I have a couple of suggestions for Google. If you're so dead set on helping small businesses, why not just give each qualifying business a $300 (or $500 or whatever amount) voucher to be used to hire a local web designer to help get the business online? Not only do you not put a market segment out of business, but you also connect the client with someone local who understands and actually cares about the client's business. What a concept!

Or, Google, how about giving small businesses free advertising via your AdWords program for a year? Yeah, that's what I thought. Doesn't feel so good, does it?

I have no idea whether this program will actually affect my business. It's not as if there aren't a hundred different do-it-yourself website programs out there now; every large hosting company offers them. I still believe that most small businesses want to work with someone local, and also subscribe to the theory that you get what you pay for.

If nothing else, this demonstrates that there are unintended consequences to almost any program that's designed to give something for nothing. This one just hits a little closer to home than most.
We wrote about this last year when the IRS first announced the list of nonprofit organizations who were in danger of losing their tax-exempt status due to failure to file some required paperwork. At that time, the list contained about 150 organizations that had listed Midland as their headquarters. 

This is a potentially big deal for such organizations because it means that donations are not tax deductible, which in turn could affect their income if their donors find out, and could affect their donors if they don't (those IRS tax audits are probably not much fun).

The IRS has now published its "Automatic Revocation of Exemption List" and it still has 108 Midland organizations. You can either go to the IRS website and download the two big spreadsheets for Texas, and do a sort to find the Midland-based groups, or you can just scroll down this post. Personally, the latter seems to be an easier path.

I suspect many of these organizations are defunct so this won't matter one whit. I know some aren't, because we're members of at least one of them. Can you guess which one?

Note: I realize that some of the following organization names are incomplete, but that's how they appear on the IRS spreadsheets. The spreadsheets have EINs so if you're really curious and diligent, you can search for a cross-reference to identify the organization.

  • 710 A A GROUP
  • 951ST FIELD ARTILLERY BATTALION
  • AMATEUR ATHLETIC UNION OF THE
  • AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS
  • AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF BANKING-
  • AMERICAN PRAISE INC
  • AMERICAN REVOLUTION BICENTENNIAL
  • ARTWALK MIDLAND INC
  • AUXILIARY TO THE NURSING HOME
  • BALLET MIDLAND
  • BASIN FILM SOCIETY INC
  • CHARLES TOLBERT MINISTRIES INC
  • CHARM BEST KAZSUK MEMORIAL
  • CHILDRENS ACHIEVEMENT CENTER
  • CHINA FOUNDATION INC
  • CHOICES FOR CHILDREN INC
  • CHRISTIAN OILMANS ASSOCIATION
  • CIRCLE S RODEO MINISTRIES INC
  • COMMITTEE OF TEXAS INDEPENDENTS INC
  • CREAGER FAMILY FOUNDATION
  • CRITICAL INCIDENT STRESS MANAGEMENT
  • CROWN ROYAL HISPANIC SOCIETY
  • D L CRADDOCK EVANGELISTIC
  • FREEWILL FOSTER HOME INC
  • GREATER MIDLAND FOOTBALL LEAGUE
  • HIS HANDS EXTENDED
  • HISPANICS FOR OPPORTUNITY PROGRESS
  • HOPE FOR GIRLS GROUP HOME INC
  • ISA-THE INSTRUMENTATION SYSTEMS AND
  • JUST DANCE COUNTRY CLUB
  • KEY ENERGY SERVICES INC VACATION PL
  • LIFE CHANGE ASSOCIATES INC
  • LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL INC
  • MARINE CORPS LEAGUE
  • MIDLAND ALLIANCE FOR THE MENTALLY
  • MIDLAND APARTMENT ASSOCIATION INC
  • MIDLAND AREA EXXON ANNUITANTS CLUB
  • MIDLAND AREA FOUNDATION INC
  • MIDLAND BLAST SOCCER CLUB
  • MIDLAND CHAPTER OF AMEICAN BUSINESS
  • MIDLAND COIN CLUB
  • MIDLAND COMMUNITY DAY NURSERY
  • MIDLAND COUNTY FAMILIES-IN-ACTION
  • MIDLAND COUNTY YOUNG LAWYERS
  • MIDLAND EXXON CLUB
  • MIDLAND FOUNDATION INC-TEXAS
  • MIDLAND INDEPENDENT ADULT SOCCER
  • MIDLAND LEE YOUTH CENTER INC
  • MIDLAND MUNICIPAL POLICE OFFICERS
  • MIDLAND TEXAS ALUMNAE CHAPTER OF
  • MIDLAND VOLUNTEER AUXILIARY TO THE
  • MIDLAND WIRRAL SISTER CITY ASSOC
  • MIDLAND YOUNG LIFE BUILDING
  • MIDLAND-ODESSA TRANSPLANT EDUCATION
  • MM CYBERTECH GROUP
  • MUSEUM HELPING HANDS INCORPORATED
  • NATURAL GAS PRODUCERS ASSOCIATION
  • NEWCORP RESOURCES ELECTRIC
  • NOAHS ARK ANIMAL RESCUE & REFUGE OF
  • PALMER DRUG ABUSE PROGRAM-TRAINING
  • PATHWAYS TO A BETTER LIFE INC
  • PEGASUS CLUB OF MIDLAND
  • PERMIAM BASIN CELTIC HERITAGE
  • PERMIAN BASIN AIDS COALITION
  • PERMIAN BASIN AUTO CLUB
  • PERMIAN BASIN CHAPTER OF THE
  • PERMIAN BASIN CHAPTER OF THE
  • PERMIAN BASIN CHAPTER OF THE
  • PERMIAN BASIN COOK-OFF INC
  • PERMIAN BASIN COUNCIL FOR THE
  • PERMIAN BASIN CRITICAL INCIDENT
  • PERMIAN BASIN MEASUREMENT SOCIETY
  • PERMIAN BASIN MEISTERSINGERS
  • PERMIAN BASIN OILMANS BASS
  • PERMIAN BASIN OPEN ASSOCIATION
  • PERMIAN BASIN PAWN BROKERS
  • PERMIAN BASIN WOMENS GOLF
  • PERMIAN CHAPTER OF CREDIT UNIONS
  • PRAIRIE HAVEN INC
  • PROMOTING HOPE INC
  • RADIO MINISTRIES
  • RANCHLAND HILLS WOMENS GOLF
  • RENWOOD PRODUCTIONS INC
  • SERENITY GROUP
  • SOCIETY OF ST VINCENT DE PAUL
  • SOUTH EAST NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION
  • SOUTHWEST LYNX SYSTEM INC
  • SPINA BIFIDA ASSOCITION OF TEXAS
  • SPIRIT OF SALVATION MINISTRIES INC
  • TALL CITY BASEBALL ASSOCIATION INC
  • TALL CITY ROAD RIDERS
  • TEXAS AND SOUTHWESTERN COLLECTORS
  • TEXAS EXTENSION EDUCATION
  • TEXAS FAITH-BASED CENTERS FOR
  • TEXAS FEDERATION OF WOMENS CLUBS
  • THE MISSY RASNICK MEMORIAL
  • UPTOWN BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONAL
  • VANCE MCDONALD EVANGELISTIC ASSN
  • VISUAL IMPROVEMENT PROJECT INC
  • WEST TEXAS CRIME PREVENTION
  • WEST TEXAS EARTH RESOURCES
  • WEST TEXAS EPILEPSY ASSOCIATION INC
  • WEST TEXAS FREEDOM CORPORATION
  • WEST TEXAS OLD FIGHTER PILOTS FOR
  • WEST TEXAS WRITERS INCORPORATED
  • YDF
  • YOUTH CRISIS CENTER INC
  • ZETA PHI BETA SORORITY INC

How not to manage customer relations
April 8, 2011 7:51 AM | Posted in:

I've noticed a couple of recent examples of inexpert customer relations from companies large enough to know better.

One arrived in via email yesterday afternoon, from my insurance company (Farmers Insurance). It touted its "Go Paperless" program, in which its customers could elect to receive policy-related documents electronically (gee...what a cutting edge idea!). Sounds innocuous, right? But here's where the wheels come off:
Signing up is easy.2 Just log into "My Farmers" and the "Go Paperless" banner will display if you qualify.  Also, if you are eligible you can sign up for e-Billing or you can continue to receive your bills in the mail. It's all up to you and it's all right at your fingertips on Farmers.com.
The footnote reiterates: Not all policies qualify at this time. The Go Paperless banner will only display if you qualify for the paperless option.

So, they want me to go to the trouble of logging into their website in order to find out if I qualify? If they know my status already, why didn't they take that into account before sending the email?

To add insult to injury, I inexplicably don't qualify, even though I pay all my premiums (three policies worth) online. But - and here's the other flaw in this approach - how can I be sure that there isn't just a glitch in their system, or in my browser settings, or in my internet connection, that temporarily disabled or otherwise prevented that banner from displaying? This is a poor way to roll out a new feature, from several perspectives.

Then there's my cable/internet provider, Suddenlink. They went to the expense of mailing a letter that contains this ominous paragraph (emphasis mine):
Since early in 2007, Suddenlink has been providing high value bundled pricing for our multiple product customers. On next month's bill, you will see a price adjustment. The new rates of our bundled packages still represent a value savings over 30% off our a la carte pricing. [...] We apologize for any inconvenience these changes may cause you.
Is it obvious that Suddenlink is announcing they're raising their rates? (And, indeed, the bill that arrived this morning via email* reflects a 5% increase.) They're making their customers work to figure that out. And the "insult to injury" factor in this case is the apology for the implied burden "these changes" (whatever they might be).

These are both examples of how companies do a disservice to their customers, the first by taking technological shortcuts and the second by generating disingenuous and ambiguous communication.

*Suddenlink's website is the online equivalent of a funhouse...you never really know where you'll end up when you click a link. I've yet to figure out the logic behind its structure, and it sometimes seems that the same link leads to different places.
I've heard a few complaints over the years about Best Buy's onerous restocking fee for product returns, but at least there's a bit of logic to the company trying to recoup the overhead of putting inventory back in stock. This evening, however, we experienced a new, illogical, and highly annoying aspect to their policy.

I bought Debbie an iPod nano at Best Buy for Valentine's Day (I know; I'm an incurable romantic) and it took us a while to figure out that it was defective. It wouldn't hold a charge, and finally stopped displaying anything at all when it was connected to a computer. Fortunately, I kept the receipt and we were still within the 30 day time period for returns/exchanges. So we took it back to the store where we bought it and asked for an exchange.

The exchange itself was fairly painless (although they were out of the graphite model I had originally purchased and she had to settle for a more plebeian chrome trim), but when it came time to finalize the exchange, the customer service rep asked me if I had received a gift card with the original purchase.

I had, indeed, received a $10 Best Buy gift card, as a result of a promotion the company was running. But, apparently, the promotion had ended, and Best Buy wanted its $10 back as a part of the exchange. That's right; we had to give them $10 in order to complete the exchange. We were too flabbergasted to even protest.

Let's recap: because we returned a defective product, through no fault of our own, we had to pay back the face value of a gift card that Best Buy had voluntarily given as a part of the original purchase. I'm at a complete loss to understand the logic or justification for this requirement.

It's funny how one slip up like this can undo years of goodwill with a customer. We won't stop doing business with Best Buy, but we will be more skeptical in future transaction.
You may have seen reports about an October 15th deadline for US nonprofit organizations to get their acts together or risk losing their tax-exempt status. According to this website, 320,000+ organizations are at risk of losing that status, primarily because they have failed to submit annual tax returns (also known as Form 990s).

The afore-linked 501exempt.com website provides a means of geographically searching the database, and a look at Midland/Odessa organizations on the list yields some interesting results. According to the database, the following are in jeopardy (among about 150 total organizations listed for Midland and about 100 for Odessa):

Midland

  • Permian Basin Chapter of the American Petroleum Institute
  • ARCO Permian Retiree Club (Debbie's and my former employer)
  • Christian Oilmans Association
  • Daughters of the Republic of Texas
  • Greater Midland Football League
  • Historical Society of Midland County
  • Natural Gas Producers Association
  • West Texas Epilepsy Association
  • Just Dance Country Club (we're members of this group)
  • League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
  • Legal Assistants Association of the Permian Basin (a former client)
  • Midland County Young Lawyers Association (another former client; not sure this group is still active)
  • Midland Exxon Club
  • Noah's Ark Animal Rescue & Refuge of Midland
  • Permian Basin Auto Club (yet another former client)
  • Permian Basin Bridal Association
  • Toastmasters International
  • Permian Basin AIDS Coalition
  • Artwalk Midland, Inc.
Odessa

  • American Postal Workers Union
  • National Association of Letter Carriers
  • Fraternal Order of the Eagles
  • Girl Scout Permian Basin Council Trust Fund
  • League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
  • Odessa Petroleum Club
  • Permian Basin Dance Club (I'm not familiar with this one)
  • Permian Basin PC User Group (Windows, of course ;-)
  • Permian Basin Pool Players League
  • West Texas Gem and Mineral Society
  • Permian Basin Citizens for Decency
  • Permian Basin Motorcycle Association, Inc.
  • Toastmasters International
The implications are serious for those organizations and their supporters, should their tax-exempt status be revoked. Charitable deductions for individuals making donations could be disallowed, resulting in additional taxes (and, perhaps, penalties and interest). And the organizations could be required to pay delinquent taxes, which might be a significant burden for many of them, although I also suspect that most generate little to no profit anyway. At the very least, if tax-exempt status is disallowed, the organization will have to jump through some hoops to regain it. The website mentions IRS filing fees of "up to $850."

This situation reinforces the importance of having a competent treasurer, or at least a trusted financial/accounting adviser or provider.

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