The Cheap and the Fast

Each day I speak with people looking for a new computer. They tend to fall into two camps:

  • Those searching for the cheapest
  • Those looking for the fastest (and usually most expensive)

Both groups eventually find what they’re after. But I’m left to wonder if either group is happy with their purchase.

For example, tell a group of coworkers you purchased a new car and wait for the stories to roll in. Someone has a friend who would have found it cheaper. Why didn’t you use Craigslist, eBay, Cheapcarsforsuckers.com? Man, I hope you checked Consumer Reports!  If you didn’t see the invoice, you paid too much.

It’s a race to the bottom. No matter what you paid, someone paid less. Or bargained harder for or had a secret offer code.

But buying the fastest or most expensive isn’t much better. I speak with people who want the most expensive processor or video card. Surely the most expensive golf clubs, vacuum or iPhone case is the best, right?

These people are happy, but only until a newer model arrives. If you equate “best” with “most expensive” any positive feelings towards the product comes with an expiration date.

Today, I spoke with a woman who took an entirely different approach. She explained how she plans to use her computer before asking,  “Can you help me select a model that fits my needs?”

How often do we search for the cheapest? Or the best reviewed? Or the one with the most Amazon comments?

Maybe we should be asking ourselves, “What do I need?” instead.

Doing Business In Person

With all the reports of Black Friday and Cyber Monday settings online sales records it’s easy to forgot what it’s like to do business in person.

Last week I had the chance to assist someone in selecting a new computer. She already had a good idea of what she wanted. I made a couple of suggestions that saved her a few bucks. Working for a company that’s entirely customer focused is something I haven’t done for a while.

We finished benchmarking and testing her system on Friday. I called to let her know it was ready for pickup. That evening, just before I went home for the weekend, I walked her through the basics of her new system.

That was the best part because I could see she was excited about what she’d purchased and could appreciate the workmanship that had gone into assembly of her system. That’s not something I’ve experienced when I purchased Kim’s computer from Dell because her case was never meant to be removed by someone who isn’t an electrical engineer.

I told her thank you and shook her hand before saying goodbye.

That evening I returned home to finish up my Christmas shopping at Amazon. But it wasn’t the same nor should I expect it to be.

Is meeting with customers only something the owner or senior management does at your company?

Face to face communication with customers can be time consuming and costly. There are many reasons why it won’t work for many businesses.

But when it does, it’s worth the effort. 

Indirect TV

I’ve avoided upgrading to an HDTV for a number of reasons. For one, I’d have to give up my wonderful DirecTivo receiver for someone else’s craptastic DVR.

Once you’ve used Tivo’s elegant interface, the though of using another receiver made by Dish, DirecTV or Comcast is almost too much to stomach. It would be equivalent to using Apple’s OS X operating system for eight years until you’re told the only way to get on the internet is to move to a netbook running Windows 3.1.

 madmen

But the idea of watching Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones in HD has begun to trump the idea of taking a major step back in usability. I tell myself that if I can setup a Season Pass for my favorite shows, I’ll be OK. Or is Season Pass only available on Tivo? I’ll Google for it.

Since I’ve been a DirectTV customer since 1997, I decided to call them first to see what they could do for me. I told the rep I needed to swap out my DirecTivo for an HD DVR and add another HD receiver upstairs on the small TV.

The process was fairly painless. The rep told me on three occasions that I was already receiving their best deal. Translation: don’t ask for any discounts.

She walked through my programming selections. I told her I did not want to upgrade to more premium channels nor did I want to change my programming package.

“But I can offer you Showtime at a discounted rate for six months.”

No thank you. We only watch HBO.”

"Are you sure? I could add it now.”

“No, I’m happy with my current programming.”

“But…”

And so it went for the next few minutes. She wasn’t getting off the phone till I added Showtime. I have no need for Showtime and wasn’t budging. I can only imagine that Showtime is running a spiff and she’s making a run up the leaderboard. It was evident in her voice that she was unhappy I wasn’t willing to accept her offer.

But I’ve played this game before where a company makes it easy to add a service, but nearly impossible to quit. Welcome to the Hotel California where you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.

I’m sure DirecTV has a metric based on extensive research that shows “for every person offered Showtime, you will close “X” number of sales”. 

What that metric doesn’t calculate is how many customers you anger in the process.

The customer becomes merely a number to bombard with “special offers”. Some customers will hold firm. But many will accept the “free” programming with every intention to call back and cancel. Good luck with that.

The problem with this is that it leaves the customer feeling like a punching bag. Navigating the phone tree is tiresome enough without having to continually rebuff offers that have nothing to do with the reason I called.  Why would any business want their customers to get off the phone feeling harangued?

What I find baffling is that DirecTV is regularly rated at the top of Consumer Reports based on their high customer service marks.

In the meantime, give me Don and Joan in HD for Christmas and I’ll forget it happened.

Black Friday Collides With Thanksgiving

A few years back, I spent Thanksgiving with my in-laws in St. George, Utah. Although I prefer smaller gatherings around the holidays, I enjoyed visiting with relatives, many of which I’d never met before.

After the feast a group of men retreated to the living room to open their laptops and search for Black Friday deals. The women (at least most of them) remained together to discuss their plan of attack for hitting the stores early the next morning. I know this is a generalization, but it seems like men search the internet for bargains while the women prefer to visit the local stores.

And that’s, more or less, how each subsequent Thanksgiving has played out.

The last few years the gathering of friends and family has felt more like a formality that precedes the preparation for Black Friday. I’ve been right there with the rest of them, searching for deals I can’t possibly pass up. One year I was obsessed with finding a Nintendo Wii. I spent hours driving from one Target to another around the Seattle area until I gave up and bought one off Craigslist.

I sold the Wii on Craigslist a few weeks later when my kids decided they liked their old GameCube and N64 better.

While spending Thanksgiving at my brother-in-law’s home this year, I decided to focus my attention on my relative instead of my laptop full of Black Friday deals. I’d say I was 85% successful. I pulled out my iPad to check my email and view a few pictures of my parents who held Thanksgiving at their new home in North Ogden. So I have room to improve, but I did much better than in previous years.

With my kids sequestered downstairs with their cousins, I had the opportunity to speak with my brother-in-law and my in-laws without any distractions. I don’t recall anyone pulling out a laptop or checking their phones for bargains. It was as if I’d stepped back to 1992 when stores opened at 6 am the next morning instead of midnight.

Leading up to Thanksgiving it was impossible to turn on the TV or radio without hearing about the latest door-buster deals some retail store was advertising. This year I finally got tired of it all. The thought of adding more shiny things we don’t need and can’t afford makes me ill. The kids have so many games it would take them a few lifetimes to finish them all. I look out past my two large monitors and see three printers, a new router, and my iPad and iPhone and wonder how many gadgets I really need?

I’m not worried about the producers of Hoarders showing up at my door, but I feel like our home is shrinking in size due to all the unused junk piling up around me. All these machines, appliances, and gadgets that are supposed to make our lives easier actually make our lives a lot more cluttered. I often want to open the doors to our garage and toss everything we own into the street and start over. My mother is a minimalist and I must have inherited that gene because I can’t stand clutter around me. It makes me irritable.

So this year maybe I turned a corner. And I did so without getting trampled, pepper sprayed or tossed to the ground by cops.

The Apple Experience

I haven’t been shy about telling anyone who will listen how much I enjoy my iPhone and iPad. They aren’t the first Apple products I’ve owned, but they are the two that have fundamentally changed what I expect from products going forward.

Like most people, I carried a number of bland, soap-shaped feature phones from Nokia, Samsung, and Sanyo. Each model had a few more features than the previous one that I seldom had the patience to fiddle with. Even something as simple as sending a text message was a pain.

In 2005, I purchased my first smartphone, the Palm Treo 600. I assumed I’d become a texting, emailing and web surfing maniac. But that never materialized because there wasn’t a single intuitive operation on that phone. Something as simple as input became an exercise in frustration. Do I press the keys on the tiny physical keyboard, or press the digits on the screen or, heaven forbid, retrieve the stylus from its cave and tap the screen with it?

It was a horrible little device that I eventually sold on eBay. If you bought my Treo and are reading this, I sincerely apologize. I should have never passed on that turd of a phone.

But things would get worse before they’d improve when I decided to purchase my first Windows Mobile phone. My review of this phone can be summed up with the following statement: I spent more time killing background processes than I did using the phone. I know new Windows Phones are a massive improvement, but the bad taste of that Windows Mobile phone still lingers.

But everything changed when I bought my first iPhone in 2008. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was buying a mini computer that happened to make calls. I began consuming all my RSS feeds from my phone. I could deposit checks, transfer money, and pay bills from my phone. I could watch movies on Netflix, play games, track scores and listen to my favorite podcasts.

I was addicted. It just worked. And not only did it work, but it was fun to use.

I don’t believe I’ve heard a single friend describe the underlying technical specs of his iPhone. Instead they focus on what they do with their phone. When I hear someone talking about screen size, processor speed, and memory allocation I know there is a good chance they own a phone running Android. Google is one release away from getting it right. Yep, sure they are.

In many ways, the iPhone has set the usability standard so high that poor usability now anger me when I encounter it. Here is the first screen I see when accessing the admin area of my cable modem/wireless gateway. This is actually one of the cleaner screens I could find. Many screens include buttons aligned across the top and sides of the page. But to save settings, I must scroll down a table until I locate the “Save” button which is located inside a small windows that’s inside a larger window. And even then, I’m not certain if I did it properly because there’s no feedback whatsoever.

This is the area users need to access to change the default password to their wireless router which has become a mainstream product. Geeks love to mock those who don’t change the admin password to their router. But I don’t see it that way. The failure isn’t with the users, but with the company who believes a product marketed to consumers can navigate pages of unintuitive settings with no explanation to be found.

I assume Motorola allowed only engineers to take part in usability tests for this product, if they were conducted at all. All I can come up with is that Motorola intentionally made these screens scary to anyone who isn’t an engineer because they assume the rest of us will muck with the settings which lead to support calls.

router

Now I understand that this screen represents a page from an area many users never see. But until the iPhone came along, I wouldn’t have given it much thought. But today it annoys me, and it drives me to search for products from companies that care about the user experience as much as Apple does.

A few companies do understand how to design products that are intuitive. Navigating around the settings of my Xbox and Nintendo Wii is a cinch. I know exactly where I am and what I’m doing on each screen. Dropbox, Flipboard and Reeder also come to mind as products where great care was taken to make sure every part of the product was easy to navigate and understand.

I hope that Apple’s success will influence more companies to focus on the user experience of their products, and not merely on the feature list and technical specs.

Maybe one day we’ll hear, “You’re such a Motorola fanboy.”

Fred Meyer Sold Us Moldy Food

Since we moved to Auburn six years ago, we’ve spent more money at Fred Meyer than anywhere else. More than Trader Joes and Costco combined. I estimate we spend about $800/month at Fred Meyer. I continue to shop there although there are an Albertsons and Safeway close by.

But over the past few months Fred Meyer has been under construction. That means products have been moved around to make room fixtures. A shopping trip that took 30 minutes can now take twice as long. Last week a construction worker was using the sledge hammer just feet away from the entrance while the store was still open. My ears were ringing so much that I cut my trip short and told Kim was getting close to trying another store.

I’ve remained loyal to Fred Meyer because I knew the construction would eventually end, and I’ve been treated well over the years. My only real complaint up until now has been the gauntlet of employees on break who smoke too close to the entrance. I’m certain I’m not alone when I say I don’t appreciate walking through a cloud of cigarette smoke as I enter the store.

Kim recently purchased a couple of small containers of spreadable butter and some whole grain bread. When Kim opened the butter yesterday it was moldy. In fact, both containers were moldy. And today, we realized the bread had mold spots all over it. We tossed all it in the garbage. The three items total about $10.

When I went shopping tonight, I decided to stop by customer service because I knew they could look up our purchases by our Fred Meyer rewards card. I explained the situation to Jacqueline who began by searching for the items on my rewards card. I explained the items were on Kim’s card and gave her our phone number to begin the search.

There didn’t seem to be a problem until Bobby stepped to the counter and began spouting off how “we aren’t a data center” and that I needed to bring the moldy food to the store for him to see. I told him there’s no way I’m bringing moldy food the store. He reiterated that his store isn’t a data center and finally said, “this discussion is over.”

My days of shopping at Fred Meyer are over too.

I never once raised my voice or was aggressive towards Bobby or his colleague. I asked to speak with the manager on duty and Bobby said, “That’s me.”

I decided it was time to walk away.

I understand that corporations have policies. Jacqueline and Bobby don’t set those policies. They are merely trained to carry them out. What disappointed me most about the encounter tonight isn’t that I’m out ten bucks worth of food, but that my six years of business with Fred Meyer apparently means nothing to them.

I left the store and drove to Safeway where I purchased the $50 worth of items I’d put back at Fred Meyer. A few items were more expensive, but I didn’t mind because I didn’t smell like an ashtray as I rolled my cart up and down the aisles.

Update #1: I received an email this morning from @Fred_Meyer on Twitter asking for my contact information. I was told the store director would contact me.

Also, the manager of the Auburn Fred Meyer sent me an email. He apologized and asked when we could speak.

Update #2:  I met with the manager. He apologized and took the time to listen to my concerns. He was professional and sympathetic. He walked with me around the store to gather the items that went bad. He placed them in a bag, along with a gift card, and told me that hoped I’d return some day.

I was also contacted by Bobby who apologized and also sent me a gift card. I’ve been impressed with the fact that Fred Meyer contacted me the day after I first posted my experience. They went well above what I expected.

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Dell Discovers Metro

I’m a couple of days into running Windows 8 developer preview now, and the Metro UI is growing on me. The tiles are interesting. I see them as an extension to the current desktop gadgets only smarter. The ability to pull down live weather reports, Facebook status updates, and sports scores is useful.

What if Microsoft made it simple for me to create my own tiles? Maybe they will.  

But then I began thinking that if this real estate is valuable to users, imagine how valuable it must be to Microsoft’s real Windows 8 customers: the OEMs like Dell, Samsung, Toshiba and Sony.

This is how I imagine the Start screen from Dell’s first batch of Windows 8 PCs will look like.

Yep, it’s more crapware, but its dynamic and smart crapware.

delwin8

That’s One Way To Ask

onegift

Assume I make a small donation. What are the chances that six months from now another envelope shows up with this promise: “Mr. Nordquist, make just one more, hopefully larger gift, and we’ll never ask for another donation again”?

Who’s smiling now? Glide on the Peace Train.

Polo Impossible

I had two experiences at Nordstrom today.

First, I took the escalator to the third floor to the children’s clothing area to pickup a pair of jeans for my daughter. We purchased them last week, but returned them to be hemmed. I gave the woman my name,and she quickly retrieved them from the back. The transaction took less than three minutes.

Then, I visited the men’s department looking for a simple dark-colored polo shirt. I found one I liked and took it off the rack. As I was holding it up to myself, a woman approached me and asked if she could help.

“I’m fine. I’m just sizing this shirt”, I told her.

I assumed she returned to the register while I continued looking at shirts deciding between black and navy. But no, she had an armful of shirts and was coming towards me. I thought she might be trying to bury me in short-sleeved dress shirts that look great on J. Crew models, but make me look like high school math teacher.

“Here’s what you want. These don’t need ironing and will look GREAT with a blazer. I’m sure you have several navy blazers.”

I do own one navy blazer but haven’t worn it since my wedding.

“I found what I need”, I told her.

But she wasn’t listening to me because she had already pulled a navy blazer off the rack and tucked the shirt into it. “Doesn’t that look great?” she asked.

It did look great. And it should have because the shirt was $125 and the blazer was $450, or just about what we spend at Costco on diapers and toilet paper each month.

I turned around and started back towards the register.

I was annoyed. All I wanted was a black shirt.

I was less than ten feet from the register when this woman practically ran up next to me. What is going on here, I wondered. Why should it be this difficult to purchase a solid color polo shirt?

“That shirt you have would go GREAT with our no-iron khakis. They come with or without pleats.”

Really?

But the worst part of the experience was driving home, knowing that she earned a commission on the forty dollar shirt I purchased.

Here’s a picture of the shirt being modeled by someone who looks like Jim Carey sporting the no-pleat khakis I left for men who model for a living.

The AT&T Microcell

For the past two years I’ve been taking calls on my iPhone from the deck off the back of our home or in the middle of our backyard or from our driveway. Pretty much anywhere around our home but never inside our home.

And it’s not just a problem with AT&T’s coverage. I had Verizon and Sprint service before that and their phones were even worse. Calls to my mobile number went to voicemail. It wasn’t worth trying to find a spot in the yard with coverage. Not to mention that Seattle doesn’t have the ideal weather to be making a lot of outdoor calls during much of the year.

But this week a letter from AT&T arrived in the mail. I assumed it was another “you can talk and browse the web simultaneously so please don’t leave us for Verizon” plea and nearly ran it through the shredder. The letter detailed how I could pickup a Microcell for free at the nearest AT&T Store.

microcell
The Microcell dwarfs my black Motorola Cable Modem/Wireless Gateway

In short, a Microcell is a signal booster that plugs into my broadband connection. AT&T says it’s like having a cell tower at your home. It does a bunch of other stuff too, but what I care about is this: it gives me five signal bars from anywhere inside my home.

It almost sounded too good to be true. But two friends have the same device and swear by them. As much as I wanted one before, I didn’t feel like I should have to pay $200 for a device in order to make calls from home on top the thousands of dollars I’ve already given and continue to give for my service.

As instructed, I took the letter to the AT&T Store and left with a new Microcell in under 10 minutes. There were no hidden fees or slimy upsells. They didn’t even make me sign anything. The device looks like a large cable modem (If that model were made by Fisher Price) that I plugged into my Netgear gigabit switch.

Once I had the Microcell installed, I activated it at the AT&T website and added the phone numbers that are allowed to access it. I can currently add ten numbers but only four can access the Microcell at one time. We have two iPhones so that won’t be a problem. When friends and family visit, or at least those with phones on the AT&T network, I can give them access as well.

Last night I made a 90 minute phone call on my iPhone from my computer in the basement. Two days ago that wasn’t possible. I’ll hold off before I dropkick my old-school Panasonic land phones across the yard. But that day is coming based on how well the Microcell has worked this week.

Engadget provides more details on the AT&T offer here.