Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The self service Internet

There is no doubt that we have become accustomed to less customer service and more self-service these days. Maybe it is because the general bar for customer service keeps getting lower and the actual service itself surlier. Maybe it is a cost-cutting measure as more retail establishments cut back on their staffs. Maybe it is a general increase in rudeness, or because of more violence or reality shows on TV. I don't know. Whatever the reason, self-service is here to stay, and we might as well get used to it.

The inspiration for this missive came from a blog entry on the New York Times Web site, entitled the Self-Service City. Timothy Egan talks about the various cutbacks in municipal services that have him growing his own food, hauling his own trash, and other activities:

As he recounts, self-service doesn't always work out as well as we'd like, though. Remember how the Internets was supposed to empower everyone?

We buy our movie tickets on Ticketmaster/Fandango, so we don't have to wait in lines at the box office. We can examine online seat maps to find the perfect seat to watch our shows. Yet we pay "convenience fees" and surcharges that sometimes add $15 or more to the purchase. Convenient for whom, exactly?

We book our own flights online, because travel agents weren't as good as search engines in finding the best fares or flights. Now I have a Twitter account that notifies when fares drop from major St. Louis-based routes. (Go to farecomparelabs.com and enter your city for more info.) But I really don't need a search engine to find these fares, mainly because there are so few non-stop flights out of STL served by our one and a half major carriers (and American is dropping more nonstops, making Southwest our largest airline here now). Southwest has some amazing customer service initiatives, including calling you back when you dial their 800 number, rather than being on hold.

We bank online so we never have to enter our branch and deal with snarly bank employees or get stuck behind a first-time customer unfamiliar with general banking principles. And companies like USAA and ING have made this into a calling card, offering branchless banking for years with various online tools – USAA even allows you to scan your checks to deposit them instantly to your account. That is the ultimate in self-service banking, without the heinous float times that the ordinary banks like to lay on top of you for their deposits. And yes, some banks are getting it totally online: after Twittering Bank of America a few months ago, I managed to save $140 in overdraft fees. Not bad for a buck a character transmitted, surely the best rate that I have ever been paid as a writer.

Many of you use Web sites like FreshDirect.com to order and deliver your groceries, which seems like the ultimate in self-service time savers. I know several of you that are very happy with this service, but you have to be more organized than I. Like Ticketmaster, there are delivery fees that are added on to your purchases.

There are companies like RightNow Technologies that build self-service web sites that have frequently asked questions and answers. And there are numerous developments on social networks, such as Answers for LinkedIn, Vark.com and Mahalo.com where people can ask and get answers to their questions no matter how arcane. There are some people that spend significant portions of their day answering questions for people they don't know and have never met: isn't the Internet a wonderful place?

So what does all this mean? As we do more Internet-based disintermediation, the companies that can provide face-to-face contact and initiate customer problem resolution will win over loyalty and retain their customers. The best companies will combine great service by humans with electronic initiatives such as USAA's scanned deposits and Southwest's call-backs. Those that have the right attitude and understand how important customer satisfaction is will need to do both online and human-powered things together. The others will go the way of Worldcom, GM, and AIG.

Do share your own customer service success stories if you don't mind on my strominator.com blog.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Four useful tools for social networkers

What do the services Pixelpipe.com, Etherpad.com, Tr.im and namechk.com have in common? All four are tools that I can't live without these days and didn't even know existed a few months ago. That is how fast the Internets are changing. I suggest you give each of the four a quick try out and see if you agree that you can save yourself a lot of time with each of them.

Pixelpipe is a service much like Ping.fm. It allows you to post the same piece of content to multiple sites. Whether it is a status update (which is just what Ping does), a blog entry, a video, or a series of photos, it is a very useful service and handles more than 80 different sites. Look for a review to come soon in Computerworld next month. The downside is that you have to store your authentication credentials with the service for each site, which may make you nervous if you care. And if you mess up, your typos will be immediately sent out to the world for many of your correspondents to see, because there is no easy way to recall the messages without visiting each site individually. I like it mainly because I post my blog entries to multiple platforms, part for redundancy's sake, part because I don't trust Wordpress to be the sole repository of my work product.

Next is Etherpad, a service that allows multiple people to concurrently edit a document using just a Web browser. You create an unique URL and then send that to your collaborators via email. Once someone knows the URL, they can make changes to your document, and each author's changes can be tracked with different colored highlights. I used this today with a client – even though we were sitting around a conference table in the same room, we were able to agree on the edits of a document within a few minutes, it was incredibly productive.

Tr.im is a URL shortening service with a twist: you can post the shortened link directly to your Twitter account. And while that is convenient, wait there is something that I really like. It will track all the people who have clicked on the shortened link and show you which client (browser, Twitter third party app, or service) was used in the process, along with time-series data on the clicks. You can really see the immediacy of Twitter, but you can also use it to track referrals on other services too.

Namechk is a very simple service that will lookup a particular username on more than 120 different social networking, blog and video sharing sites. It will see if it is taken or available. This is a very useful tool that you can show your clients how tuned in you are to that scene.

Let me know what you think about each of these services, and if you have others that you have recently found that could be useful.

Friday, June 19, 2009

If I want a link to be clickable, all I have to do is compose it in this window like this:
http://strominator.com and Ping.fm will do the rest
This is an embedded link to http://strominator.com

David Strom pic

David Strom

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Learning about proxies in the news, see post on http://strominator.com

The Power of the Proxy

Proxy servers have been in the news as of late, both as a result of the Iran putative election and a new legal case where Microsoft is suing purveyors of advertising click fraud. I thought I would take you through what proxies are, how they can be used for both good and evil, and what all the fuss is about.

First, here is a little background. When you bring up your Web browser, you are asked how you want it to connect to the Internet. Most of us that have home PCs don't use any proxy, and go out to the raw Internet without any fuss or bother. But enterprises that want to cut down on their bandwidth usage, improve performance and security, and have control over what their users see use them all the time. Each browser first checks and sees if the Web page that is being requested is on the proxy's cache, or memory, and if so, it saves a few milliseconds or more by grabbing the page directly, without having to traverse the Internet at all. So proxies are often combined with caching servers to deliver the best combination of features and management. As far as the browsing user is concerned, all this happens without any notification, other than the pages seem to load quicker on their PCs. About the only configuration option is the IP address of the server, which is placed inside the browser options or network settings. And proxies are available for more than just Web protocols, although that is their most popular use case.

That is the good side of proxies. What about the evil side? Proxies are supposed to be for internal users of an enterprise, but if a hacker can find out the IP address of an internal proxy, they can gain access to lots of network resources. This was a common MO for the hacker Adrian Lamo, among others, and you still find corporations that haven't locked their proxies down with the appropriate security. It is also possible for proxies to operate on a user's PC without their knowledge, which is a common way botnets are created.

There are also proxies that are used to make your browsing history anonymous, which can be used for both good and evil; depending on what information you are trying to hide.

Now to the news. Microsoft filed suit in federal court yesterday against three people it claims were defrauding Internet advertisers by having automated programs mimic users clickstreams. They found the fraudulent activities by tracing the actions to two proxy servers. And once they blocked the particular IP addresses of the proxies, the fraudsters would simply alter them in a continual game of cat and mouse. The fraud involved is significant, and ClickForensics estimates that 14% of the total ad clickstream is faked.

When the Iranian government wanted to block Internet access, several private individuals from around the globe took it upon themselves to set up the open source proxy Squid (squid-cache.org) and other tools on their own networks to get around these blocks. They then publicized (via Twitter) the IP address of their Squid PCs so that anyone could connect to the open Internet, rather than be blocked. Of course, as the government learns of these addresses, they add them to their block list, so another cat and mouse game ensues.

(small self-promotion here) The news is very timely, indeed. I am off next week to work with Blue Coat on producing another of my screencast product review videos on their proxy and caching server line for my WebInformant.tv site. Let me know if you'd like me to do one of these for your product, they are a unique way to promote and explain a product.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Faster response times and Google's Wave

For those of you that feel good about yourselves because you are IM'ing and Tweeting, your online life is about to get a whole more complicated thanks to Google. More on that in a moment, first let me set the stage.

I remember back in the day when many of us first got on email and we tried to do everything in it. When we tried to completely replace real-time phone calls and in-person meetings, it was an abject failure: you still needed that give-and-take. And many corporations that put up email support or customer response inboxes quickly found out that they needed to do more than just assign the inbound messages to a staffer: they actually had to respond with a meaningful answer. I remember an article that I wrote back in 2000 where I sent out a test email inquiry to 13 financial services firms and timed how long it took before I got a response. Some sent out automated responses quickly and followed with a more meaningful reply within an hour, some did worse. Ironically, one site where it was hard to find an email address now has one of the currently best self-service Web sites, USAA.com.

Then came the era of Instant Messaging, and suddenly we didn't have to worry about email response times because we could connect with someone in real time. Some firms got into IM in a big way, particularly to connect remote work teams. And parents found out that IM was another tool in their arsenal of trying to track down their teens' whereabouts in those dicey after-school hours.

Lately everyone is talking Twitter, and that makes IM seem slow. Twitter and I are still getting used to each other, and I am still not sure that it will be tremendously useful to me in the long run. But it is sure fun to experiment with, and thanks to Bank of America being on it, I managed to save myself a bundle in overdraft fees about a month ago. But that is a story for another time. What I have found is that I am sending and receiving fewer IMs these days.

Some of the more interesting experiments in the Twittersphere have to do with aggregating Tweets from a variety of different sources. Take a look at scienceinthetriangle.org, a news site that reports on tech events in the Raleigh-Durham area that is the labor of love of a bunch of volunteers but is probably the best place to go to get up-to-the-minute news and blog posts in the area.

And then there is a new protocol and product coming from Google by way of Sydney Australia called Wave. It was announced a few weeks ago, and while I am still analyzing it, I can tell you that the near-instant response times that we get from our IMs isn't going to be fast enough. What Wave does is similar to a product called Etherpad.com that allows for real-time collaborative composition of documents, but oh so much more. You can thread your conversations, add wiki-like tools to do joint editing, and add email notification and Twitter-like status streams all in a neat bundle. The 80-minute demo video is definitely worth watching, at least the first third, here:

But before you abandon all hope of every staying current with the latest Internet fad, let's just go back to first principles for a moment and think about what your expectations of customer response times should be these days, and whether your company is coming anywhere close to fulfilling these expectations. With some people (such as my condo board), I have no expectations that I will get a timely response – that is just the type of folks that they are or they just aren't that service-oriented. With others, such as my Tweets to Bank of America, a few hours to reply was better than anything that I have gotten from them. Previously, I had to wait on hold or in line down at my very busy local branch for at least 30 minutes. For other businesses, overnight is still a reasonable expectation.

What I am saying here is that before you scrap yet another response system, take a few days to conduct a census of your customer-facing staff and see exactly what they are delivering now. And maybe try to improve the human side of your response systems that have nothing to do with any underlying technology.

I have no doubt that Wave represents a new way of thinking about how to interact with each other and work together. And while it might be a while before we can actually touch the technology, in the meantime let's not lose sight of how we work with our customers and give them the best possible service.

About Me

My photo
David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.