Monthly Archives: August 2007

Friendship: The Next Generation

A quick “off-hand” post.

My Facebook network is giving me a lot of joy. Been reconnecting with some long-lost friends, meeting new and fascinating people, organising impromptu meetings with people at cafés and brewpubs…

Yes, I’m a social animal.

Advertisements

Customer Service on the Phone: Netflix

An interesting piece about the move, by Netflix, to phone-only customer service.
Victory for voices over keystrokes | CNET News.com

Much of it sounds very obvious. Customers tend to prefer phone support instead of email. Customer service representatives who take more time on the phone with customers are more likely to make people happy. Many customers dislike offshoring. Customer service can make or break some corporations. Customers often have outlandish requests. Hourly salaries in call centres will vary greatly from one place to the other, even within the same area.

In other words, Netflix has done what many people think a company should do. We’ll see how it all pans out in the end.

The main reason this piece caught my attention is that I have been doing surveys (over the phone) about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives over the phone. Not only am I working in a call centre myself (and can certainly relate with the job satisfaction which comes from empathy). But several of the surveys I do are precisely about the points made in this News.com piece. The majority of the surveys I do are about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives (CSRs) at incoming call centres for a big corporation. So I hear a lot about CSRs and what they do well. Or not so well. One answer I’ve been hearing on occasion was “I’d appreciate it if I could talk to people who are a bit less courteous but who know more about the services the company is providing.” After interactions with several CSRs and tech support people, I can relate with this experience on a personal level.

The general pattern is that people do prefer it if they can speak directly (over the phone) with a human being who speaks their native language very fluently and are able to spend as much time as it takes with them on the phone. Most people seem to believe that it is important to be able to speak to someone instead of dealing with the issue in an “impersonal” manner.

Sounds obvious. And it probably is obvious to many executives, when they talk about customer service. So email support, outsourcing, offshoring, time limits on customer service, and low wages given to customer service representatives are all perceived by customers as cost-cutting measures.

But there’s something else.

We need the “chunky spaghetti sauce” of customer service. Yes, this is also very obvious. But it seems that some people draw awkward conclusions from it. It’s not really about niche marketing. It’s not exactly about customer choice or even freedom. It’s about diversity.

As an anthropologist, I cherish human diversity. Think of the need for biological diversity on the level of species but through the cultural, linguistic, and biological dimensions of one subspecies (Homo sapiens sapiens).
Yes, we’re all the same. Yes, we’re all different. But looking at human diversity for a while, you begin to notice patterns. Some of these patterns can be described as “profiles.” Other patterns are more subtle, harder to describe. But really not that difficult to understand.

The relationships between age and technology use, for instance. The common idea is that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be “into technology.” “It’s a generation thing, you know. Kids these days, they’re into HyPods and MikeSpaces, and Nit’n’do-wee. I’m too old to know anything about these things.”

Yeah, right.

All the while, some children are struggling with different pieces of technology forced unto them and some retirees are sending each other elaborate PowerPoint files to younger people who are too busy to look at them.

To go back to customer service on the phone. Some people are quite vocal about their preference for interactions with “real human beings” who speak their native language and are able to understand them. Other people would actually prefer it if they could just fire off a message somewhere and not have to spend any time on the phone. On several occasions having to do with customer service, I do prefer email exchanges over phone interactions. But I realize that I’m probably in the minority.

Many people in fact deal with different situations in different ways.

One paragraph I personally find quite surprising in the News.com piece is about the decision to not only strengthen the phone-based support but to, in effect, abolish email support:

Netflix’s decision to eliminate the e-mail feature was made after a great deal of research, Osier said. He looked at two other companies with reputations for superb phone-based customer service, Southwest Airlines and American Express, and saw that customers preferred human interaction over e-mail messages.

Sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to me. (It’d be fun to read the research report!) I’m pretty sure that most business schools advise future executives against knee-jerk reactions.

One thing which surprises me about the Netflix move is that, contrary to Southwest Airlines and American Express, the Netflix business is primarily based on online communication and postal services. My hunch is that a significant number of Netflix users are people who enjoy the convenience of one-click movie rentals without any need to interact with a person. Not that Netflix users dislike other human beings but they may prefer dealing with other human beings on other levels. If my hunch is accurate to any degree, chances are that these same people also enjoy it when they can solve an issue with their account through a single email or, better yet, a single click. For instance, someone might like the option of simply clicking a button on the Netflix website to put their rental queue on hold. And it might be quite useful to receive an email confirmation of a “Damaged Disc Report” (SRC: DISCPROBLEM) instead of having to rely on a confirmation number given on the phone by a friendly CSR in Oregon or, say, Moncton.

Yes, I’m referring to the specific instances of my interactions with Netflix. While I’d certainly appreciate the opportunity to speak with friendly French-speaking CSRs when I have problems with plane tickets or credit cards, I like the fact that I can deal with Netflix online (and through free postal mail). Call me crazy all you want. I’m one of those Netflix customers who find it convenient to deal with the company through those means. After all, Netflix is unlikely to have such an influence on my life that I would enjoy spending as much as ten minutes on the phone with friendly Oregonians.

As an ethnographer, I have not, in fact, observed Netflix to any significant extent. I’m just a random customer and, as it so happens, my wife is the one who is getting rentals from them. What little I know about the Netflix business model is limited to discussions about it on tech-related podcasts. And I do understand that Blockbuster is their direct target.

Yet it seems to me that one of the main reasons Netflix has/had been succeeding is that they went into relatively uncharted territory and tapped into a specific market (mixed analogies are fun). Even now, Netflix has advantages over “traditional” DVD rental companies including Blockbuster the same way that Amazon has advantages over Barnes and Noble. It seems to me that Amazon is not actively trying to become the next Barnes and Noble. AFAIK, Amazon is not even trying to become the next Wal-Mart (although it has partnered with Target).

Why should Netflix try to beat Blockbusters?

What does this all mean for corporate America?


Skype and Relief

Glad to know the Skype team is working on this issue.

Problems with Skype login – Heartbeat

As always, responsiveness is key. In the ‘Net age, we expect to be advised of any issue which comes up. Instant PSA.

Not only is there a problem when we try to log in but the client doesn’t stay logged in.


Facebook Platform: Post-Game Analysis

Just read Marc Andreessen’s very insightful analysis of what happened with the Facebook Platform (the development of new applications) during the first three weeks after its launch.

blog.pmarca.com: Analyzing the Facebook Platform, three weeks in

Andreessen’s entry was written in June and provides an appropriate snapshot of what people must have been thinking at the point.

What now?

Well… My perceptions are only as a lowly user of Facebook, not as a developer. And though I’m fairly active on Facebook, I can’t claim to be a Facebook “Power User.” Yet, as an ethnographer, I can’t help but notice something going on.

The Facebook Platform was an important event in Facebook’s history but many things have happened since Facebook started out, a few years ago. I only joined during the Fall semester, 2005 and I wasn’t very active on it until February, 2007. But I now use Facebook rather extensively and end up talking about it on several occasions. I’m really not sure about the timeframe and I’m too lazy to look things up but I’m hoping to find out at some point. Comments are obviously welcome.

One of the most important things in Facebook’s history was when they opened registration to the wider world of (English-speaking) Internet users as a whole. Prior to this, Facebook was restricted to university, college, and school campuses. For a little while, some businesses could have their own networks. But a real shift happened when Fb opened the gates and let everyone in. There were some discontentment on the part of long-time users but, on the whole, it was a rather smooth transition. At about the same time, the “Mini-Feed” feature was set up. With it, users can see pretty much everything their friends are doing, from status updates and friend adds to wall posts and pokes. This feature also occasioned some controversy but the Fb team reacted promptly and rather openly. On the whole, this was handled rather well.

I think one of the first killer apps, before the release of the actual semi-open platform, was Facebook Mobile, which lets users interact with Fb through SMS. The reason I think this was an important application is that the Canadian Fb community seems to have at the same time Fb Mobile became available on Canadian providers. Oh, sure, it might be pure coincidence. But the feature probably made me more active on Fb and chances are that it happened with other users.

Over the past year, there has been a fair deal of coverage of Fb in both tech and general media. Much of it has been rather critical if not outright alarming or inflammatory. But the end-result was increased exposure to Facebook. For instance, the first time I heard about Facebook was in a podcast version of a talk at Indiana University about online privacy (still a very important issue). The presenter had analysed some trends in what information students were willing to share on Facebook. Being interested in online networks, I decided to join Fb out of mere curiosity and, right away, some of my students added me as a friend. Concepts like “network effect” and “viral marketing” apply too obviously to such cases to be worth explaining.

The launch of the Facebook Platform happened in this context. As a non-coder, I was personally impressed by the rapidity with which developers were able to release Facebook applications. It felt as if new applications sprung up within hours of the platform release. It probably took longer but it really looked like an almost-synchronised release for the platform and new apps.

Andreessen talks about the platform launch from the point of view of application developers. As a non-coding Fb user, I think the apps were quite important in intensifying the buzz about Fb but I don’t think applications themselves have changed Fb that much. Yes, people are much more active on Fb thanks to cool apps. And some of these apps are actually very useful. But, to me, there’s a clear continuity between Fb groups and apps (even though they are completely different in other ways). In fact, an important similarity between apps and groups is summarized in the name for a Facebook group: “I read the group name, I laugh, I join, I never look at it again.” Andreessen alluded to this, in a way, but the important point is that both group memberships and application additions are more toward the “passive” than the “active” part of the online behaviour continuum. In all the discussions about online “bubbles” and “busts,” such issues should be kept in mind.

Many application developers seem not to understand this. They create apps which create very little value to users and try to monetize by forcing application users to invite friends or to click on some irrelevant links. Bad form, IMHO. Like most other Fb users, I add apps when I see friends adding them. But I’m increasingly weary of the adding apps which seem too eager to disseminate quickly. IOW: please, pretty please, stop the “application invite” madness!

I also notice that several Facebook users are sorting out their applications and groups. Part of it is pure information overload (many people left a local group after being sent daily updates of blog posts in their Fb mailboxes). But part of it is simply about finding what place Fb plays in our lives. Sure, many of us were excited about the possibilities and most of us are increasingly active on Fb. But after the initial excitement, we go into a phase during which Fb is just a tool.

And that might be a Good Thing(tm).


Tagged Again?

I seem to be one of few bloggers fellow anthroblogger Nancy Leclerc (aka Gary Dickinson) wishes to tag:

Music, Books and Spirit: 8 things . . .

So, even though I’ve been tagged very recently,  I’ll play along. But just because I’m lazy and reveal a lot about myself anyway, I’ll just say eight random things about myself, regardless of how well-known they may be. What’s funny is that Nancy and I have never met IRL.

Anyhoo…

  1.  I’ve had a crush on a number of women when I was a kid, including some fictional characters. One crush I had as a teenager was with Simone Foster from Head of the Class. I still love humanists.
  2. Not only did I have imaginary friends when I was a kid but I kept imagining all sorts of things throughout my childhood, some of which were just too extreme in terms of megalomania. I still have a very active “internal life.”
  3. I don’t really have an alter ego but people are telling me that I act very different whether I speak English or French. Does that count?
  4. I decided to go into anthropology when I was 13 and never really deviated. Between ages 8 and 11, I wanted to become a lawyer (to defend innocent people). I eventually decided (at age 11) that law had too much to do with personal profit for my tastes.
  5. Despite being a single-parent household, my family (my mother, my brothers, and myself) has mostly been quite unified. Actually, I revealed quite a bit about this in a blog post in French.
  6. I’m not shy at all and I probably appear to be overly eager, assertive, extrovert, or friendly to a number of people. Though I’m sorry if I rub people the wrong way, I probably won’t change on this point.
  7. I’m in love with someone who lives 460km away from here. For the past 10 years, we spent about half of our time away from one another. The cool thing is, we’re going to settle down in Austin together, come December.
  8. I love teaching so much that I’m not sure how I can envision my life without teaching opportunities. Oh, I may get other jobs and I may spend some time without any formal teaching duties. But I’ll still get withdrawal symptoms.

Oh, kay… This was, erm, different. Whom should I tag?

Let’s go semi-random, this time.

Andi, SteveAnne-José, Gary Lee, Vanou, Kevin, Debbie, Sarah


Montreal Coffee Renaissance?

Just posted a message about my Caffè in Gamba, a new café in Montreal.

CoffeeGeek – Regional: Eastern Canada, Caffè in Gamba (Montreal Intelligentsia)

Because this café’s website isn’t online yet, I would need to repeat the info. The café is located in a new building at 5263 Park Ave., between Fairmount and Bernard. It’s first claim for fame is that it’s the first place in Montreal to have Intelligentsia coffee on its regular coffee menu. But I think it’ll become much more than this.

Owner J.F. Leduc is surprisingly soft-spoken for a passionate coffee lover. But I think he prefers it if the coffee “can speak for itself” instead of him having to hype coffee enjoyment out of existence. In fact, he has a bit of the same humble attitude you would notice in an actual barista in Northern Italy. They know what they like but they remember that they’re in the service industry! 🙂

I think Leduc can become a key player in the broader movement to make Montreal a real coffee destination.

Granted, I tend to be overly enthusiastic about such things. And I’ve been disappointed in the past. But I have a good vibe, especially after I got a chance to chat it up with Leduc.

I also notice something bigger, happening in town. There’s a number of Montrealers who really care about coffee. And Montreal’s ready for a new phase in its coffee history.

Veritas, in Old Montreal, is home to Anthony Benda, whom I consider the best barista in Montreal. They sell the Epic blend from Vancouver roaster 49th Parallel. My hope is that Veritas can help people understand the beauty that is West Coast style espresso in a culinary context.

Gamba has a different role, in my opinion. It may become a local hangout and certainly has the potential to educate people about the pleasures of espresso drinking. But my feeling is that it may spread other aspects of café culture and/or be part of something more specific to Montreal.

I’ll certainly go back to Caffè in Gamba in the near future and, as soon as they have their site up, I’ll link to it from this blog as well as other online venues.

In the meantime, maybe somebody can help J.F. set up his wireless router? 😉


Free, Open, Online: Rethinking Learning Materials Online (Slidecast)

Now that Slideshare has a “slidecast” feature, we can synchronise slides with audio to create audiovisual presentation

Case in point, here is the “slidecast” of a presentation I gave during a session at the Spirit of Inquiry conference, in May.

The audio is available here:

Free, Open, Online: Rethinking Learning Materials Online (Audio) « Disparate

The presentation file is available here:

Free, Open, Online: Rethinking Learning Materials Online (Files) « Disparate

Slidecasting could become quite interesting and it could go really well with the approach I was discussing during that session.