Posts about customer service

Friendly skies

I was five hours late returning from San Francisco to home yesterday but I was remarkably calm and sanguine about the delay. Why? Because I was well-informed and well-cared-for. And that was the case because this year I joined the secret society of most-frequent travelers and ticket buyers on United: Global Services.

sfo screenshotWe were taxiing out to the runway at SFO for our agonizingly early 6:45 a.m. flight when the pilot said a gauge wasn’t acting properly. Back to the gate we went (and I was amused that my United app showed us arriving before we’d taken off). Much testing and back-and-forthing by mechanics ensued. It didn’t work. The plane was taken out of service. We were told to leave. Shit happens.

Then could have begun the customary hell of wrenches — literal and figurative — thrown into travel plans and planes. That was nearly the case. The entire planeload ran to a customer-service line seeking rescue. The person behind the counter said she couldn’t rebook us because our tickets were “used.” We were told United was, and I quote, “looking for” a plane. Pesky critters go hiding, apparently. Grumbling started to rumble.

But then two nice things happened. First, the lady behind the counter, named Rita, scolded operations at the airline for not giving passengers complete and accurate information. How nice — how rare — it was to have an ally fighting for us, the customers. That also preempted our need to fight for ourselves.

Then I got a phone call from Global Services. This, I quickly learned, is the real perk of being in the club (not just being the obnoxious guy who gets to get on the plane first). A very nice woman named Terry Norris told me that she had already rebooked me on three — yes, three — flights to afford choices based on time, airport, and seat assignment. Wow. I wasn’t sure what to do so I held onto one choice and Terry let me wait to decide while the airline went looking for its pesky plane. (Of course, when found, I imagine an employee shouting this:)

About an hour later, Terry called me back and informed me that a plane coming in from Raleigh-Durham had been assigned to us (which, of course, is what they mean then they say they “found” a plane). It would be arriving at 10:05 a.m. I’d still have my beloved first-class, aisle, bulkhead seat (I’d bought an upgrade with my miles). It so happens that I knew about the found plane before the gate agent did and filled him in.

I took to Twitter to thank and publicly praise these good people.

And then @ahalam had a suggestion:

Right. Why shouldn’t everyone get the kind of service I got yesterday? Well, the answer at first is obvious: It would be prohibitively expensive for airlines to have lots of Terrys to personally take care of and inform every customer. I get that service now because the airline made a lot of money off me last year, when I flew more than 100,000 miles. But if every customer could, indeed, get that level of service, wouldn’t the airline make even more money from even more satisfied and loyal customers? Call me an cockeyed optimist, but isn’t that a service ideal?

Well, @ahalam is right: A software agent could take personal care of customers. The new United Android app is good and it keeps me better-informed than I used to be because now I can look up where the plane I’m waiting to board is coming from and when it will arrive as well as the status of wait lists for seats and upgrades. That’s quite an advance.

Imagine if when I arrive at the airport neurotically early, as I tend to do (thanks, Mom), United would ping me and ask whether I wanted that empty seat on an earlier flight. Imagine if when there are problems, United’s software agent keeps me personally informed and, like Terry, gives me other options to get to my destination. Imagine if this automated agent knew I liked going to on pleasure rather than business and sent me a tempting deal to fill up a plane. Imagine if, knowing my preferences in hotels and local transit — Über? rental car? train? — the agent booked and billed me from door to door, giving me choices but not requiring me to go through scores of pages to get the job done. Imagine if the computer agent knew me so well it could preload my own shows on the entertainment system (you left off at episode 23 of House of Cards, Mr. Jarvis) and order me the food and wine I like and seat me next to interesting people who like to talk or people like me who prefer the silence? Imagine, as I suggested a few years ago, if the airline could gather the collective wisdom of its passengers about their favorite destinations or hometowns and share that with other passengers. Imagine if just one airline did all that for us instead of making its money by nickel-and-diming us charging for bags of nuts or bags on the plane.

All that is possible. It would mean that an airline would have to respect customers as individuals rather than as anonymous butts in seats, building trusted and rich relationships with each one of us and rewarding us with tangible benefits.

More important, it would mean that an airline would have to become a technology company (which just happens to own metal tubes that fly). Such an airline’s core competence would be in building systems to super-serve customers with information and solutions and relevant suggestions based on rich data.

As we landed in Newark more than four hours late, I was starting to think this could happen if just one brave airline invested in such a future.

Four hours late? Didn’t I say above we were five hours late? Well that’s because the airline’s computer system had broken down and so none of the flights getting ready to leave were allowed to depart their gates and thus no gates were free for us and so we sat on the runway and — “the hits just keep coming,” said the pilot — then there was no one to drive the jetway to us. Oh, well. And I was imagining the new airline as technology company.

Well, a passenger can dream, can’t he?

In any case, given how much abuse airlines take on Twitter, I thought I’d say thanks to United for making a bad day as bearable as it could be for me. And I’m glad I wasn’t traveling with the passenger whose plane always flies under a dark cloud. See…

Buttry’s travels

And a postscript from Mr. Buttry:

Verizon, caught red-handed

nexus7slide2
Verizon has now on multiple occasions refused to connect my Google Nexus 7 LTE tablet, though the device was publicized widely as working on Verizon and though I know from other users that it will work on its network. On Twitter, its support spokesman said in response to my repeated inquiries over four days:

Verizon is thus clearly violating FCC regulations governing its acquisition of the spectrum that enables its LTE service, which require it to open to *all* devices. To quote from the regulations (my emphasis):

(b) Use of devices and applications. Licensees offering service on spectrum subject to this section shall not deny, limit, or restrict the ability of their customers to use the devices and applications of their choice on the licensee’s C Block network, except:
(1) Insofar as such use would not be compliant with published technical standards reasonably necessary for the management or protection of the licensee’s network, or
(2) As required to comply with statute or applicable government regulation.

Verizon also violates its promise not to violate that requirement. On May 7, 2008, Ars Technica quotes Verizon VP Jim Gerace saying on the company’s public policy blog:

“Verizon Wireless—and all the other participants in the recent 700 MHz spectrum auction—understood the FCC’s rules for using that spectrum in advance of the auction. Of course we’ll abide by those rules.”

I attempted to read the rest of Gerace’s blog post but Verizon has erased years of its posts there and the Wayback Machine does not have a cache from that date.

This promise came in response to a tough letter from Google at the time demanding that Verizon abide by the rule. Said Google: “The Commission must ensure that Verizon understands that this license obligation means what it says: Any Apps, Any Devices.”

And no wonder, for Google anticipated precisely this situation when it entered the spectrum auction Verizon won and insisted then on open access as an FCC condition of the sale: Google ended up marketing an unlocked device made to run on Verizon’s LTE network and now Verizon refuses to honor its promise to abide by the rules of its auction to do so.

On Twitter and Google+, many have asked why I bother, why I don’t just install the T-Mobile SIM and month’s free access that came with the Nexus 7 LTE. A few reasons: First, I am stuck with a shared-data plan on Verizon thanks to my locked (how could you, Google?!) Chromebook Pixel with LTE and my family’s Verizon iPads. Second, adding the Nexus 7 to my shared-data plan will cost me only $10 more a month, less than I’ll play if I support it solo on another carrier’s network. Third, this is a matter of principle. I will bring my Dell Hell experience to bear and fight for what is right.

Some also caution that on the Verizon network, my Nexus 7 will connect only if LTE is available; it will not be able to fail down to slower speeds as it could on other networks. True; that is how my Chromebook Pixel works and I am willing to live with the limitation for the price.

It has also been pointed out to me across social media that one can take a Verizon SIM from another LTE device, put it in the Nexus 7, and it will work. Only problems are, I don’t have such a SIM and if I did I’d need to use it in that other device. But this does prove — as others have done it — that the Nexus 7 *does* work on Verizon’s network.

So this is not a matter of anything Verizon cannot do. This is a matter of what Verizon will not do. And that is what makes this a violation of FCC regulations and Verizon’s assurances.

I have frequently asked Verizon for its help on Twitter and Google+ and in its store and via phone to Verizon Wireless via a representative in that store; you see the net of that above: a smart-assed refusal to take my money. I tried many avenues before writing this post.

I have twice asked Verizon Wireless’ director of PR for devices, Albert Aydin (@VZWalbert) for a company statement on why it refuses to connect the Nexus 7 and I have heard nothing. I do so as a journalist and also as a member of the public (I take the title “public relations” literally). I will email this post to him once more asking for the company’s statement.

I will also ask Google PR for its stand regarding Verizon’s violation of its assurances to the FCC and Google. Back in 2008, Verizon said: “As we work to put the spectrum we won to good use, if Google or anybody else has evidence that we aren’t playing by the rules, there are legitimate and expedited ways to address that.” Yes, like blogs, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, This Week in Google, Reddit, and angry customers everywhere.

: LATER: Verizon digs its hole deeper, with the @VZWSupport Twitter account sending me this:

To which I replied: “Cannot” is a lie. “Will not” is truthful — and the violation of the FCC regulations.

: LATER: Here is the *proof* that Verizon’s network *can* connect to the Nexus 7 but that Verizon *refuses* to do so, *violating* the FCC regulations. I took the SIM out of my Chromebook Pixel, put it in the Nexus 7 LTE, and it worked — note the “VERIZON WIRELESS” at the bottom of the screen and the bars at the top.

nexus7capture

: LATER: Android Central got this from Verizon: “This is not yet a device that is Verizon 4G LTE certified. We’ll let folks know when its certified.”

Hmmm. This device was announced two months ago. They are just getting around to thinking about this now? Or they are succumbing to pressure and the requirements of the FCC’s regulations? I report, you decide.

Funny thing is, Verizon apparently responded to CNET and Android Central but not to me. All they tell me is that they won’t/can’t do it.

: THE NEXT DAY: Torod B. Neptune, VP of Corporate Communications for Verizon Wireless, just sent me this email: “I apologize for the delay in getting back to you. The Nexus 7 is not yet a Verizon 4G LTE certified device. As background, below is the link to information on our certification process, which you’ll find under the ‘Get Your Device Certified’ tab: www.opennetwork.verizonwireless.com.” [The link doesn't work; take out the www and it will]

I’m asking questions elsewhere to interpret this. The device already works on Verizon’s network. The issue is that Verizon won’t give me a sim and add it to my account. Again we come to the “can” vs. “will” conundrum. More later.

: LATER: I have just filed this complaint with the Enforcement Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission:

I am a Verizon Wireless customer registering a complaint regarding Verizon’s refusal to connect my Verizon 7 LTE tablet via its C Block LTE spectrum, in violation of:

* 47 CFR 27.16 – Network access requirements for Block C, paragraph (b), reading in part: “Licensees offering service on spectrum subject to this section shall not deny, limit, or restrict the ability of their customers to use the devices and applications of their choices on the licensee’s C Block network…”

* Also the FCC’s July 2012 consent decree with Verizon underlining the requirement for open access to the C Block network. Chairman Genachowski said at the time, “[C]ompliance with FCC obligations is not optional. The open device and application obligations were core conditions when Verizon purchased the C-block spectrum.”

Google announced its Nexus 7 LTE tablet earlier this year and promoted the fact that the device would operate on the LTE services of T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless. On that promise, I bought a Nexus 7 LTE from Google — waiting weeks for it to be offered in addition to wifi-only devices. I received it last Friday.

On Saturday, September 15, I went to the Verizon Wireless store on Route 206 in Bridgewater, NJ, and attempted to add the device to my shared data plan. I was told that it could not be added because Verizon had not yet added the IMEI numbers to its system. The clerk called Verizon himself and could not solve the problem at the time. I’d had a similar problem when I attempted to activate my Google Chromebook Pixel with LTE service sometime before and that was solved eventually by adding the SKU to the company’s system. So I thought this would be solved with help and I reached out to Verizon support on Twitter and Google+.

On Monday, September 17, I received this message in response from the official Verizon Wireless support Twitter account (my emphasis): “@jeffjarvis I’m excited you got your Nexus 7 but not all LTE tablets are created equal. It’s not part of our line up & can’t be activated^JH.” Later that day, I received another tweet from that account reading (my emphasis): “@jeffjarvis We apologize for any inconvenience; however, it can not be activated. Go to http://vzw.com/products to view compatible tablets^LA.”

There Verizon is refusing to connect my tablet though it has been approved by the FCC and is compliant with standards such that it is also being offered and being activated on AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s LTE networks. Further, Verizon is instead attempting to require that I buy a tablet from them. This is a clear violation of the letter and intent of the openness requirement on Block C.

I later tested Verizon’s claim that the device could not be connected. I took the SIM from my Chromebook Pixel, placed it in the Nexus 7 LTE table, and it connected to the Verizon network just fine. So the issue is not that the device cannot be connected but that Verizon will not connect it.

Thus it is clear that Verizon is violating the terms of the Block C spectrum auction and of its consent decree with the Enforcement Bureau of the Commission.

I will also note that on May 7, 2008, the technology news service Ars Technica quoted Verizon Wireless vice president and spokesman Jim Gerace saying, in response to a Google complaint regarding Verizon’s compliance with Block C requirements: “Verizon Wireless — and all the other participants in the recent 700 MHz spectrum auction — understood the FCC’s rules for using that spectrum in advance of the auction. Of course we’ll abide by those rules.”

But Verizon Wireless is not doing so. I contacted public relations executives at Verizon Wireless via Twitter and email and on the third attempt received communication directing me to its certification process. Yet in a November 27, 2007 press release the company said that “Any device that meets the minimum technical standard will be activated on the network.” Clearly, the device meets the standards for it has been approved by the FCC; it works on T-Mobile’s and AT&T’s networks; and it demonstrated that it works on Verizon’s network.

This is a matter of Verizon subverting the Commission’s rules related to the requirement of openness on Block C. It is also a matter of consumer fraud.

I ask that you forward this complaint to the appropriate authorities at the Commission and I ask that you inform me of the progress of your investigation.

Thanks

I’m pretty darned good at complaining about bad service or products. That means I’d better praise great service as well. So I want to thank some folks for helping my family through the storm. We have power back today. Thousands more still do not have power and, worse, do not have homes. Once again, we are most lucky.

The staff at the Bridgewater Marriott has been exemplary. As Sandy threatened New Jersey, I made a two-day reservation for last Monday night. When it was clear we couldn’t even get out of our street, I managed to shift it a night. The front-desk staff fixed a problem with the reservation (whew) and managed to extend our stay through this morning (whew x 10). The first night, the hotel was overwhelmed. Even the front-desk staff helped serve in the restaurant. Absolutely every member of the staff we dealt with that harried night and on for the rest of our stay was incredibly helfpul, friendly, and empathetic — all the while many of them were worried about their own homes and families. Their generosity of spirit was most impressive. I told the wonderful Grace Lizardo, manager of the front desk, that we were so grateful to have an advocate and a friend there to help us.

I’m grateful for the power crews from Texas, Virginia, and Indiana who came to our street yesterday and restored our power — exhausted, far from home, doing dangerous work in hard conditions, but cheerful nonetheless. No matter what you may think of the utility companies, these guys are the heroes. As Bert Williams said in Twitter: “Utility line crews are the unsung heroes of any disaster recovery effort. Tough job in harsh conditions.” Amen to that.

Countless more staffers in restaurants and stores and gas stations and on the phone from Verizon, too, were helpful even as they were suffering through their own trials. Last night, my wife and I had a great dinner at a Greek restaurant in Somerville, NJ, (highly recommended) and the young waiter working a second job said his power came back on, then all the transformers in the neighborhood blew, and he’ll be without for another two weeks. We’ve come across so many folks like that.

As I said in my last post about the storm, I’m also grateful that I live in a neighborhood where folks banded together to help each other.

We are lucky and I just want to say thank you.

* * *

While I’m thanking, I’m overdue expressing my gratitude to @ahugo68, aka Alex Hugo, who a few weeks ago saw on Twitter that I was having a problem with my AT&T account (holding onto my precious unlimited data plan). Out of nowhere, he appeared and said that he was an AT&T store staffer and that he’d fix it. Little did I know how far he would go to help. I didn’t realize that he went into the store on a day off and got a flat tire on the way, to boot. But he said he couldn’t stand to see his company make a mistake. I thanked him and his boss on the phone but I also want to thank them publicly and say to every company that the key to success is not obvious: You need thousands of Alexes and Graces.