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2010: Year of Trust Agents? Twitter Decline? What Else?

Posted on : 30-12-2009 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Brands, Business, Customer Service, Social Media

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Many of you do not know, but this year I started to write a book titled “A Social Media Fairy Tale.”  Of course I have not been back to writing for a number of months now, but that is because it is much harder than I ever thought, plus it is very weird to write about yourself.  The reason for the book is hopefully to help people learn about social media, and different ways to use the space.  I started in social media in 2000 with sharing my daughter Gia’s website when she was born prematurely.  I then used the website to educate people about Cystic Fibrosis, something Gia was diagnosed with early in life.  When she started her fight with cancer, we used the website to educate and follow her progress.  When Lily was born I added our family website, which Robyn joined in 2008.

I have always been an advocate for Customers, and I continued to do that when I joined Comcast in September, 2007.  I have always done this in a private manner and I planned the same at Comcast.  I never anticipated being in a public role that would not only change Comcast, but also change the way many companies think of social media and Customer Service.  If I would have made predictions at the end of 2008, I would have stated we would see many new companies enter social media, and service would be a key role.  We did see this, but not as much as I thought would happen.  I would have also predicted that I would have not been as public but my team would continue to see success.  This would not have been as accurate, since I have spoken at many events and continue to strive to change Customer Service, not only at Comcast but throughout the industry.  2009 had an amazing start with the Business Week story “Comcast Twitter Man.”  This is an article I am very proud of, but the highlights to me for 2009 were:

  1. The opportunity to continue to have conversations with Customers within social media and in person
  2. Success for my team as they have really taken the reigns within social media
  3. Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast stating that Twitter has changed the culture of Comcast
  4. Watching competitors trying to replicate the success my team has had in social media
  5. Completing a leadership program at Comcast in which only 45 people (out of close to 100,000 employees) are chosen for each year
  6. Finally taking a vacation with the family, even if it turned into the Griswold Disney Vacation

So now we look forward to 2010.  As we have seen every year, predictions for the year ahead are everywhere, and I will try the same.  I can guarantee that I have zero psychic abilities.  In fact I have no predictions regarding my life, but that is simply because I am not sure I could have predicted any events over the past 10 years.  I just hope 2010 is another good year for family and friends.  So here is what I see in 2010:

  • Customer Service – As the economy starts to improve, companies will strive to improve the experience for Customers.  The cost benefit will be retaining Customers.  The poor economy has taught companies that it is far cheaper to get it right the first time.  You will start to see Customer Service being the new marketing!
  • Economy – The economy will continue to improve over the first half of 2010, but the second half improvements will slow and may even take a few steps back.  This will be due to employee turn over that will impact production, as well as steps taken to help improve the economy will be pulled back and this will show the improvements are fragile, and the strain will cause some to break.  One of the factors will be yet another bubble bursting, specifically gold which will scare many.
  • Employees and Jobs – Hiring will start to pick up in the next 6 months.  This will cause pain for many companies where employees did not feel valued during this downturn.  Instead of hiring out of work people, there will be many that move from one company to another.  Like service, not every company has seen the asset that employees really are.  The employees will return this favor by leaving which will cause production decreases, increased labor costs and ultimately the trouble in the economy for the second half of the year.  There is a good note!  This will show companies the cost benefit of striving to be more employee centric.  I actually believe it may be the beginning stage of long term employment with companies and a new team environment that will lead businesses for a long time to come.
  • Social Media – I think video will continue to rise.  People will grow a little bit tired of Facebook but they will still use the space as a primary connection to friends and family.  I believe Twitter will see activity take a steady decline over the first 6 months.  In my opinion this is due to the amount of spam, which is causing frustration to users and the benefits early adopters saw, are not easily noted by new users.  Twitter will finally work to make changes, but I predict it will be later half of the year before dramatic change.  Unfortunately if it takes that long, many of the users will have already left.  This will have added importance as the company looks for more funding, but due to the declines there will be a reluctance, causing the need to sell Twitter to a third party (maybe a Google, or someone like that).  Any sale will not be at dollar amounts seen in the past for similar transactions.  This will cause business fundamentals, and profits to be important for future venture capital funding.  Unlike Twitter, Facebook will have success by going public, but the stock market returns may not be as exciting as people think.  The big news for social media will be the spread within the workplace and the support business leaders provide this initiative.
  • The Year of Trust Agents – We started to see Trust Agents, especially via Twitter but the coming year will be the year of the Trust Agent.  This may surprise you, but I predict this will not be on Twitter or even Facebook, at least at first.  Trust Agents will rise inside businesses as new social media tools are implemented.  This will also be a surprise to business leaders, and it will put a new face on the corporate leader.  Later in the year they will spread from these internal social networks to be in places like Facebook.

Overall I think 2010 will be better than 2009, mainly due to the light at the end of the tunnel for economy and there will be less strain between employers and employees.  Social media will continue to grow, but at a much slower pace.  The biggest growth will be within internal networks, but that will help people learn to use the space in a more effective manner.  One final prediction:  I still will not finish the book!

Isn’t it fun to pull things out of a hat and talk like they will be reality?  Anyway, thank you again for a great 2009, and I want to wish all of you a happy New Year!  I hope that 2010 brings great success personally and in your business life!

Attention C-Suite: The Times They Are A-Changin’

Posted on : 29-12-2009 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Business, Customer Service, Social Media

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The C-Suite needs to hear some words from Bob Dylan:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

I have planned this post for a while.  In fact, it was planned to be the post to start the new year, but yesterday I read a Forbes article “Chief Reputation Office Whose Job is it Anyway.”  It’s a great start to the conversation that has been on everyone’s mind.  The business environment has dramatically changed, thanks to the economy, and the new found power that the Customer has in the social web.  These are not new thoughts, but change has been slow at the top for most companies.  The slow speed has nothing to do with not wanting to change (there may be some of that), but the business environment has been changing dramatically, with no clear idea of what the investment world will look like when the future normalcy returns.

When I started in social media I heard a lot about the convergence of marketing, PR and Customer Service.  I could not agree more that this has been happening for a long time, and social media is not the only driver.  When I have spoken to “marketing” experts, they have presented a view that marketing should be the one that leads the way.  In their mind PR and service are simply a form of marketing.  “PR” experts have made the case that marketing and service are part of reputation, which is a key function of PR.  When I have discussed this, I have always made the point that marketing’s goals have been centered around sales.  PR has concentrated on reputation.  Both are very important aspects to a social media plan.  Customer Service on the other hand, has no interest in taking on the additional responsibility of social media.  Ultimately most service departments have been stretched so thin, that they do not have the resources available.  The most interesting part to Customer Service is they are most qualified for having conversations with Customers.  It is what they do best.

Let’s face facts, social media is a very small part of the overall equation.  Over the past 25 years, at least until the economic meltdown, driving stock price was all about growth, growth growth.  Sales was the name of the game and the overall focus for most companies.  This is what lead to the position of Chief Marketing Officer.  Besides growth, the other key component to pleasing Wall Street was adding efficiencies to the organization. New technologies, gaining more work out of each employee have been key measures of success.  This led to the Chief Information Officer position.  It was a General Electric and Jack Welch world.  Companies did everything they could to meet these demands.

I wondered what the leadership teams of most companies looked like, so I took the time to visit the website for the top 50 companies in the Fortune 500.   Most of it was not surprising, I found Chief Executive Officer, President, Chief Financial Officer, General Counsel, Investor Relations.  You also found Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Information Officer, Human Resources, Public Relations, auditors, compliance and leaders for the most important products for the company.  For retail stores there were Chief Merchandising Officers, and representatives for store operations.  Some can make the case that many of these different positions can easily represent the Customer, but in my opinion they each have competing priorities.  Out of the 50 I reviewed, only 1 had a Chief Customer Officer.  This was Mark Rosenbaum from Cardinal Health.  The most amazing part of this role within Cardinal Health, is it did not start from a top down approach.  Instead a grass root effort to change the culture of the company.  Congrats to Cardinal Health for leading the way!

I completely understand the financial focus of executive leadership teams.  Ultimately companies are in business to make money and that is a key.  I also understand why all the other groups are represented.  What shocks me is the structure that companies have with their senior leadership team sends a message to Customers that they do not care about Customer interests.  I know this is not true, but when you look at these teams and you see many financial people. attorneys, marketing but when you put on your Customer hat, you do not feel your interests are being represented.  You can easily review it yourself by going to a company website, locate the leadership team and see the different positions listed.

I have spoken before about the power of the Customer story to senior leaders.  I have yet to meet a senior executive at any company that intended to create a poor experience for any Customer.  As companies grew, the executive leadership moved further and further from the Customer.  Unlike the days of smaller companies, the senior staff does not sit near the front lines.  In the spirit of cost and efficiency, today many of the front line employees do not work directly for the company (I am not against outsourcing, but I do believe you have to make sure a true connection exists between the front line and leadership).  Most changes within the company have been done in a manner that is like a pass it down the lane.  This caused many different interpretations and actions.  The other trouble is people typically did not share upward trouble that new changes caused.  It is about time that someone did just that.  Through social media, employees and Customers are starting to do that.  As we enter this new age where the cost of retaining Customers will be far cheaper than trying to gain new ones, it is time for the Chief Customer Officer.  In my opinion it represents the convergence of marketing, PR and Customer Service and the focus companies will need over the next 10 years and beyond.  This is how you build the right reputation, not PR or marketing.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

For the Future of Retailing Look to the Past

Posted on : 28-12-2009 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Brands, Business, Customer Service, Retailing

Tags: , , , , , ,

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This weekend I watched Biography of Home Depot on CNBC. It was a fascinating look at a company and the founders that created a new concept that would become a category killer in the home improvement industry. What struck me was not the success of the brand, but really the founders that created the concept. The TV special concentrated on Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Pat Farrah, and investment banker Ken Langone. The story goes like this:

Bernie Marcus was born in Newark, New Jersey  who worked with his father to pay for college.  He received a degree in pharmaceutical studies.  He later worked in a pharmacy but found his true love to be in the store with the Customers (this is why I really connected to the Bernie).  Art Blank grew up in Flushing, New York and graduated from Babson college

Well once there was a retailer named Handy Dan, where Bernie Marcus was eventually hired as a senior executive.  Art Blank worked at the same retailer just outside of college, working his way up through the ranks.  Bernie promoted Art to his staff .  Later, after Daylin corporation, the owner of Handy Dan, filed for bankruptcy, Bernie and Art fought to maintain the success for Handy Dan.  They continued to grow the company, but a dislike grew between Bernie and Sandy Sigoloff, the CEO for Daylin.  One day Sandy brought Bernie into a conference room with many suits and a stenographer.  This was the end for Bernie, Art, and Ron Brill (the first Home Depot employee).  There were many accusations, but I think it is safe to say false ones.  Anyway, I am not judging that.  After this Bernie started making phone calls to contacts he made, one of them being Ken Langone.  Ken convinced him this was the best thing to happen and he should follow his dreams.  They found a strong merchandiser named Pat Farrah, and the group set their sights on Atlanta.  That is where Home Depot was born.

Many of you may not know, but my background when I was younger was in retail management.  I have always had love affair with the direct Customer contact environment that retailing has.  I have long watched what worked, and what was a failure.  In my lifetime I have seen this changing environment, great management choices, very poor ones and many going out of business.  I remember working in the home improvement business when Home Depot was entering the area I live.  You could easily see why it was a category killer.  The same was true regarding the expansion of Walmart.  I have seen many that simply could not keep up.  Of course through this expansion other companies built themselves up as strong competitors to both Walmart and Home Depot.  I also think the time will come where another company changes the game and places these companies at risk.  But who and how?

Many have said the future of retailing is Amazon.  I agree Amazon has been a killer of many products, especially books and DVD’s, but I think for many other products people want more.  This post was inspired by the Home Depot founders, but I know I will not have my Ken Langone to help secure the large amount of financing necessary to recreate the retail landscape, so I thought it might be fun to throw it out here.  As I have watched retailing for years, I know there are certain keys to success.  The first key is amazing Customer Service, which I am not too sure many retailers currently do well.  Second is convenience, which the web has made much easier.  Third is atmosphere, which some retailers do very well  by reducing clutter and making it easy to shop, but most fail here too.  Fourth is a strong dedicated team that understand the products and how best to utilize them.  The original Home Depot did all of these well, but as time went on some of these things drifted away for them.

So what can we learn from the past? Well the internet boom for online retailers is not as new as you think.  We have seen this before, but instead of the net, it was the catalog.  The internet may have killed off the paper catalog but it still created the same category, just instead of dominance by Sears or J.C. Penny, the dominating force is Amazon.  During the catalog boom, a new style of retailing emerged with names like Best, Basco, Service Merchandise and many others.  They were known as Catalog Showrooms.  In these stores you could see the merchandise, and if you wanted to buy you would fill out a slip (seems silly today) and it would magically come through the belt.  This allowed for Customers to touch and feel the merchandise prior to buying.  A key for many purchasing items, especially higher end merchandise.  I can easily make the case that Circuity City was also a catalog showroom, just without much of a catalog.  The original, successful Circuity City was a showroom with various merchandise with excellent sales people to help you out.  Customer Service was the name of their game and they did this very well in the early days.  Later, as they faltered in other areas, Circuit City also did this concept well with their web business and picking up your order within 30 minutes.  Unfortunately for Circuity City, and many of these other retailers they tried to shift there model to something they were not.  I saw the end when Circuit City left the appliance business and tried to build a self service area in their stores for software and other computer products.  This, just like similar changes made at other retailers, caused them to alienate employees and their own Customer base.  Questioning what you are as a business will alway set you up for failure.  As these companies made changes to their model, instead of setting themselves up for a boom during the early years of the internet retailing, they simply went bust.  Many of their names may still be around, but they were purchased by companies that simply wanted to build websites using the name, nothing more.

So what would the future of retailing look like?  The concept would not be very different than what you see at Amazon.com for the web.  The only major differences would be the showrooms.  These would be placed at strategic population centers, similar to the placement of Ikea stores.  These centers would have showrooms to play with the merchandise, high tech transmitters for purchasing and service personnel to truly help those that want it, when they wanted it.  While in the store you would have full access to reviews of Customers from the website, as well as competitive information.  These centers would have easy pick up of merchandise for those that order over the web and would like quick gratification.  Merchandise ordered in the store would be delivered in the same manner.  These facilities would also serve as the mail distribution centers for items purchased on the net to be shipped.  To maintain lower shipping costs, items would ship from the nearest facility to the Customer.   A key learning from successful online retailers, like Zappos, they must offer an easy to understand and fair return policy.  Thanks to companies like Amazon, there is amazing technology for picking merchandise in a fast and efficient manner.  This structure also helps reduce shortages and theft, creating a better retail investemnt.  The showroom would be a clean, very friendly place to browse.  It would not have the typical brick and mortar retailer mentality of ‘pile it high and let it fly.’  This would be a place Customers would love to shop.  Sales people when requested, but not the car shopping experience of running over the moment the prospective Customer is in your sight.

This is not a revolutionary idea, in fact you do not need to look far to find similar concepts.  The Apple Stores have revolutionized retailing for Apple products.  Apple had a problem, no retailer sold their merchandise well.  They also did not wield the power to change the model at existing retailers, so they went one step further, they build a model that would work.  They utilize high tech equipment to make the experience great for everyone that visits, yet they do not try to oversell the Customer.  You know if you visit, help is there if you need it, but if you just want to play with the computers you can do that.  Of course I know when I play with the latest and greatest Macs, I almost always want to leave with one.

For those that believe internet shopping is the future, I agree, but it is only part of the equation.  Many brick and mortar retailers have tried to incorporate web sales into their existing business , but, in my opinion, not very successfully.  Best Buy offers it, but someone has to go out on the floor to try to pick the items.  Walmart will ship items to the store, but you have to wait for them to get there.

Retailing is not very difficult, as the founders for Home Depot proved.  Find out what people want, and deliver it in the way they would like to receive it.  Retailing is just like social media for business, there is no reason to over think it.

It is time for someone to build the new way of shopping from the ground up, but, even before looking at the present, review what you can learn from the history of retailers long gone!

Does Customer Service Influence Customer Service Ratings?

Posted on : 23-12-2009 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Business, Comcast, Customer Service

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This is probably way too deep of a post leading into the holidays, but it is on my mind, so here it goes.  I have been thinking about my own perceptions of service at various companies, and it has caused me to wonder what causes me to think that way and do others with these similar thoughts cause ratings to be high or low for other organizations?

This time of year is filled with shopping, and I have always had an interest in the Customer experience for retailers.  One of the places I like to shop is Target.  I like the assortment of products and the atmosphere.  If someone were to ask me I would rate Target service on the higher end.  But as I think about the Target experience, I do not like their restrictive return policies and I have never had a “wow” type of experience.  I compare this to Walmart, which I do not shop at as much.  I have never had a problem, I like the prices I have received (I have even saved over Target), yet I would rate them lower than Target.  Why would that be?  The experience is not much different and I would save money.

The same holds true when I compare Lowes to Home Depot.  Both have similar policies, I do prefer Lowes store layout and the brightness of the stores, but I have found I have had to wait longer at Lowes, because at Home Depot I can do self checkout which I like.  I have never had trouble with Home Depot, but I have with Lowes (which was fairly handled but should not have happened).  Yet with all of this I would rate Lowes higher than I would Home Depot.

Costco is typically seen as a leader in service in the club warehouse space, and it is a place I love to shop.  It is funny, but a few years ago we switched to BJ’s due to a membership offer we received.  Within a few weeks we shifted back to Costco because we missed the product assortment and the “wow” items they have in the store.  I will say Costco is great with returns, but I have seen the same handling at Sam’s and BJ’s.  I find the lines longer at Costco, which can be annoying.  I also have to show my receipt as I am leaving, which is another annoyance to me.  It would not be as much of an annoyance if they actually reviewed what I purchased by I find they just put a line on the receipt and I walk out the door.  I remember when I first joined Costco they had a sign that said “Why do we check the receipt.”  The answer was to ensure you received everything you paid for.  I would laugh every time I saw it, but they eventually took it down.  I understand the benefit of checking at the door, which is to reduce and discourage theft, which ultimately helps keep costs low.  If I were asked which store had the best service I would say Costco, yet is it really that much different?

So what does influence Customer Service ratings?  I think it is a multitude of things, and it varies by industry and even company.  Here are a few thoughts:

Brand Perception – This is a huge influencer in many Customer Service surveys.  Apple is a great example.  They are always highest ranked in service, and I would rate them high too.  Yet I have had many computers and the only time I ever had to call the manufacturer was for the first computer I purchased.  It was an IBM and they were great but they could not help fix it, so I had to return it to the store.  I have had many manufacturers, including Sony, HP, Toshiba, Apple and IBM.  I would rate Apple number 1, yet for really no reason from a Customer Service viewpoint.

Long Memories – As consumers we do have long memories and at times this will influence how we rate a company.  Using the computers listed above, I would rate HP and Toshiba very low, even though I have not had recent interactions.  Toshiba simply because I owned 2 laptops and both went right after the warranty expired (one was a 1 year warranty and the other was a 3 year extended warranty).  HP I have had a great experiences with my recent netbook and as well as the many HP printers I have owned, yet I would go back to trouble with a Compaq Pocket PC device that had a screen broken.  After numerous calls, I had to go to the executive office, and the person helped rectify but they were very rude in the process.

Customer Passions – Certain products create passion within the Customer base.  Apple can be a good example, but you can look at other products, such as TV, Internet or Cell Phone.  All of which we have learned that it would be difficult to live without.  What is interesting is this can create very divergent view based on the brand or the product.  TV and internet service providers typically rank very low is satisfaction, but I believe this is because we love to watch TV and we feel the need to be connected to the internet at all times.  In some cases we feel we do not have a choice and the costs keep going up.  Sometimes when people find an alternative there is excitement and they switch for that reason.  They then rank the others higher.  For me, I have had every provider across the board over the past 10 years, and with each I had good experiences, and some very bad ones.  In fact one popular highly ranked provider, I had some very bad experiences, and so have many others I know, yet they still rank high.  I think it is due to the passion for the product offering, and the fact that people feel they have a choice.  I also believe in many cases it is more of Customers trying to demand companies do better.  As an example, I have and love the iPhone.  I have never had a poor experience with AT&T, yet people sometime rank them lower in service.  A lot has been made recently about their network and maps.  This is a 2 sided issue that I do not want to get in the middle of, but I have never really had trouble. In fact I think the one time I did it was more associated with the operating system then the network.  It was later fixed with an update.  I do think people simply want AT&T to do better and are cheering them on to do just that.  I think the same can be said about the company I work for, and we are trying to do that.

Marketing – We like to think that marketing does not have an influence on us, but in many cases it does.  Verizon as an example spends something close to $3 billion a year to share their message.  As we saw with the map example, it has been highly effective.  We have also seen it with other products they have, yet if you dig into some of the experiences you will find just as negative example as any of their competitors, and in many cases more.  Of course some will say I am bias here, but I have had both good and bad experiences with this company, like so many others.  I would have their wireless service and AT&T through work.  I have not had a bad experience with either, but I would rank Verizon higher, is that due to their marketing efforts?  Another interesting example from a marketing side is Southwest airlines.  They have ranked high in Customer Service rankings, and I know many people that rave about their experience.  Is it really that much different?  I have found a few cool employees but I have had other flights where they were not that great.  For me I tend to rank them 4, behind Jet Blue, Air Tran (I love wifi on planes), and Continental.  Out of all each of these the only ones I have would say were influenced by actual Customer Service interactions are Jet Blue and Continental, but even with both of them, I loved live TV on the planes.

Price – This is part of the equation but probably not as large as we think.  Just using a few examples from above, my Walmart example it was not.  Apple is many times the highest price, yet people love them.

Company Culture and Employees – I think this is a very important aspect that is often overlooked.  I mentioned Southwest above, they have personalized their brand in many advertisement and the way they interact.  This culture has a high influence on Customer Service scores.  It is hard for me to rate a company low after I just got to know one of their employees.  The best example of this is of course Zappos and how open they are in sharing the spirit of their employees.  This personalization by the brand is extremely influential.  The same holds true on the other end of the spectrum.  General Electric is a company that has many influences on our lives.  I am not sure how there Customer Service ratings would be, but I would bet there is an influence in the rating due to the cold nature Jack Welch, former CEO, sometimes created or the amount of layoffs they have had in the past.  I like the company a lot as an investor and I think Jeff Immelt has tried to change some of those perception, but that is something that has impacted many families and will influence the brand for years, even though they do bring “Good things to life!”

In the spirit of this post, I would like to share this Comcast Customer Guarantee ad.  The reason is how it fits into the conversation.  All of the Comcast people you see in this ad are actual employees who were recognized for providing outstanding service.

What are some other influencers to Customer Service ratings?  What do companies need to do to win over the hearts and minds of Customers?  This will lead to an upcoming post on the Customer joining the C-Suite.

I hope everyone is have a great holiday season!

A Griswold Disney Vacation

Posted on : 20-12-2009 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Holiday, Personal

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During the past 2 years I have not taken a true vacation with my family.  During that time our daughter Robyn was born, and I have been busy with work.  Most vacation days were spent at home with sick children and in many cases working too.  I have realized that it is important for all of us to take breaks at times and re-energize ourselves.  We have good friends from England vacationing in Florida during the month of December.  We couldn’t wait to see them!  A car trip to Florida, seemed like an excellent alternative to traveling to Europe.  Hey, we could even visit Disney!  This was a last minute trip, but the stars seemed to align for a great vacation.  I needed a break and with all the travel recently it was good to spend time with the family.

Like a good father, I prepared for the vacation.  Since we were driving down, I picked up a DVD player for the car.  I also purchased a new GPS map system as ours was stolen from my car in a Philadelphia parking garage not long ago.  For my sanity, I also invested in satellite radio.  Unlike the movie Vacation, I did not pick up a new car, but our Volvo wagon, which we affectionately call the Family Truckster, seemed to be in good shape.  On Friday evening I took the dog to my parents and started to pack the car.  This was not our first drive to Florida, so we knew what we needed.  Early Saturday morning we finished packing the car and loaded the kids.  Now it was time for a nice relaxing 1024 mile journey to Orlando.  Our first stop was to the Christiana Mall Disney store to purchase tickets (we were told purchasing tickets at the Disney store was best approach and this store was in Delaware so it would be tax free).  This first leg of the trip was smooth as can be.  We went into the Disney store and found that we could only purchase tickets for 3 days or more.  We only planned on spending 2 days in the parks since we have a 1 year old (almost 2) and a 3 year old.  If they were older we may have planned more.  So that was a waste of a trip, but it was a quick bathroom break and a snack.  The journey continued!

Driving with a potty trained 3 year old is so much fun!  At first she did not want to use potties on the road, but as the drive continued she started a quest to visit every McDonald’s bathroom along the east coast.  Every 50 miles or less I would hear “I HAVE TO GO POTTY!”  This was getting old really fast.  I could not wait for everyone to fall asleep.  We stopped at a Cracker Barrel along the way for dinner, then they started to sleep.  Actually it was funny Lily yelled the infamous “I have to go potty,” and by the time I turned around she was asleep.  I was not waking a 3 year old, so the trip continued.

I drove through Georgia, with everyone asleep most of the time.  At one point I had to pull over to give my eyes a rest.  There is a large construction zone on interstate 95 that has a lot of these yellow squares lining the way.  They should have chosen another color, because after driving since 8:30 in the morning (now it was around 11:00 PM), it was very psychedelic.  I felt like I was in a weird late 60′s movie.  I finally made it through that, and began looking for a place to spend the night.  It was at that time it started to pour rain.  So instead I kept driving until it slowed down a bit and I would not have to carry the girls in the rain.  Finally, just over the Florida border, I pulled over to a hotel.  At this time it was around 1:00 AM and kids were sleeping for about 4 hours.  In retrospect, it was probably not the best idea to stop at a hotel and wake them.  This was their first stay in a hotel.  It was also late so I did not ask for a crib for the 1 year old.  We decided it was best to separate them and have Carolyn sleep with Lily and I slept with Robyn.  Neither of them were tired anymore.  In fact they were wide awake and kept each other energized.  I did not get much sleep that night.  The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then we were off to Jacksonville Beach to visit Carolyn’s sister.

We had a nice visit with Carolyn’s sister and seeing her new house.  It was great because it was 2 blocks from the beach and the work they have done was starting to show.  We walked down to the beach, which the kid’s loved.  Lily was having fun digging in the sand.  At one point she dug up a dead bird that was buried in the sand.  It was at that point we realized it was time to continue our journey to Orlando.  After a piece of homemade cake and a drink of Gatorade we were on the road again!

The trip to Orlando was uneventful.  We stopped for a much needed Starbucks fix for me and everyone else napped the whole way.  We arrived at our hotel, which was a Marriott Springhill Suites.  I was not expecting much, but it was free stay using the Marriott rewards I have earned over the years.  It turns out it was the perfect place for us.  They had a crib for Robyn, Lily was able to stay on the sofa that pulled out to a bed, and there was a king size bed for us.  The best part for traveling with a family is the room had a kitchenette, which was very useful.  The people were great too, but more on that later.  After we were settled in, we went to visit our friends from England.  They had a house nearby so we decided to get “Takeaway” (that is the term for takeout in England).   Steve and I went to search out a place to get takeout.  This required some driving around, but we found Outback Steakhouse, a place they liked when they visited us a few years ago.  While we were driving around the engine light came on.

We ate our meal and enjoyed conversation while the kids ran around.  Then one of the English boys came running out from the bedroom yelling that Robyn did a pooh in his bed.  We all looked a little stunned, then the other kids yelled “not pooh, sick!”  Well this was a way to close out the night.  Thankfully they had a washer and dryer in the home, so easily dealt with.  We then went back to our hotel.  The entire ride back was a discussion about the engine light, and if we should delay plans for the Disney park and have it fixed, or let it go until we went home.  The car seemed to be running fine.  We decided that I would take the family truckster to the nearest Volvo dealer in the morning to have them check it out.

I woke up on Monday morning and went to a Volvo dealer about 5 miles away.  They were accommodating and were willing to check it out.  Of course there is $100 fee just to check out the service engine light.  They did it while I waited, so I asked them to also do a oil, lube and filter, since it was due anyway.  It is boring waiting for a car to be done, so I was checking out new and used Volvo wagons.  I could not believe the cost, but we do like the safety.  In fact our truckster was hit when it was new, and it held up like no other car.  I debated the cost of buying a used one if the cost of repair was to much, but I can not seeing paying that much for a car, and now was not the time.  Anyway it turns out the light came on because the gas cap went bad.  Total bill $182, for oil change and gas cap.  So much for the cheap vacation.

After that we went to Magic Kingdom for a fun filled day.  We pulled up to the booth to pay for parking.  The booth was on the passenger side, so Carolyn lowered her window.  This is when we saw the strangest thing!  The window flipped side ways and went down on the right side with the left side sticking straight up in the air.  Ugh!  A car with a lot of electronics, we had to decide what to do.  I decided to park and see what can be done.  With the help of another visitor to Disney, we were able to get the window back up.  It was cracked in 6 places but did not appear to be all the way through.  So we carefully shut the door and went into the park for the day.

This was my second time to Disney, but nothing could compare to the trip we had with our Angel Gia (more about that here).  I did not realize how hard it was to see some of the characters.  Everyone we went up to was closed.  The worst was when we went to see Princess Tiana, the handler said nothing that she was going in (he was busy chatting with a girl) and the line area was not gated off.  We were waiting for a number of minutes with another family.  He then asked if we were together, and when we said no, he then said she is done.  It was very odd, and probably would have been better to ask us to be quick or start off with she was done (of course doing that after waiting about 10 minutes was wrong).  It is hard to explain to a 3 year old that the characters have to go in.  Lily was not bad, she was just sad.  Anyway it still turned out to be an a good day in the park.  The kids really enjoyed the rides (although we did get stuck due to mechanical difficulties on “It’s a Small World” – the song is still stuck in my head).  The best part for Lily was the parades.  It was her chance to see the characters.  We learned that she really liked the Princesses and not so much the ones with masks.

The next day we woke up and I immediately started my phone calls to Safelite auto glass to try to get the next repair done.  It turns out the Volvo has “special” glass and has to be special ordered through the dealer.  I called the dealer we were at the day before, but they did not have the part in stock.  So I decided we would drive home with the cracks and I contacted our local dealer to order the part and schedule an appointment for later in the week when we returned.  Of course the jingling of the glass made for an interesting ride, but the reason it was a special order part is because it is laminated, similar to the windshield, so the glass stayed together.  Now to the parks for day 2.

This time we went to Disney Studios.  The kids had a fun day.  They really liked the Ariel show as well as Beauty and the Beast.  In fact up until then, neither loved Beauty and the Beast, which was Gia’s favorite.  After that show I think it is theirs too.  The parade in Disney Studios was more of a block party and with the exception of Potato Head coming up too close to Lily they had a phenomenal time.  Lily and Robyn even went into the street to dance with the performers!  After the block party we headed over to Epcot.  This turned out to be a great decision.  There was no wait for any of the rides for the kids, so they enjoyed Figment, Nemo and a few others.  We enjoyed walking through the international pavilions.  We did continue to have trouble seeing the characters, but they did get to see Pooh and Tigger.  They were still scared of the big characters!  And thanks to the handler for a Princess Jasmine, who did say she was going in, but if you hurry you can catch Snow White.  We hurried and did just catch her.  Now it was 7:30 and we had 2 hungry and tired kids.  We decided to try to find a place in the park to eat.  As we reviewed the brochure we found a place in Norway where they had a Princess story time.  We went over to see if they had space.  The woman was nice and said if you come back at 8:35 they can see if they can fit us in.  At this point I really felt like Clark W. Griswold, and I was going to do whatever I could to get them in.  I went back at 8:10 and was told we would have to check in at 8:35.  This time I decided to campout and wait for the time to get it.

Well, like in the movie Vacation, we did get in.  The meal was simply magical and it made the trip.  Lily had a number of pictures with the Princesses and they experienced the similar Disney magic that Angel Gia had years before.

The next day we met our friends for lunch and then we began the trek home.  We drove the 17 hours straight, arriving the next morning by 8:00 AM.  In the end it was a great trip with a few unexpected car expenses.  The car went in on Friday and it needed the $500 window, another $500 part for the window, and while it was there it was inspected.  Add on brakes and routers, gas door hinge, wiper for one of the lights (not sure why they even have that) and the total bill was about $1800.  Add the $182 gas cap and we could have had a good down payment on a new or used Volvo.  But now we can plan on keeping our family truckster for a few more years.

Today is the end of our vacation and I had to dig out from the snowstorm, much different than the 80 degree weather in Florida.  The plan is a quiet day and maybe watching the Vacation movies.

Next up will be the Christmas Vacation!  Actually no more vacation time, and I do not see myself trying to track down a bonus, when my company does not do that this time of year.  So maybe instead we can enjoy a quiet holiday with no more unexpected expenses.  Happy holidays everyone!

Twitter is not for everyone!

Posted on : 19-12-2009 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Comcast, Customer Service, Social Media

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There has always been a lot of conversation about  Comcast and Twitter, including varying opinions of what we do right and what some perceive as wrong.  While I was on vacation there was a blog post by Ari Herzog comparing Comcast social media efforts with Walmart, LA Times and Whole Foods.   Overall it was a fair comparison, although for some reason no one realizes how active my team is within blogs, Facebook, forums, You Tube, and other social spaces.  That is a post for another day!  One of the comments is something I am very passionate about and I thought is would be helpful to share my thoughts here for some discussion.  At the end of the case study on Comcast it states “good luck finding Twitter link or icon” on Comcast.com.  Fair point and true, but lets get into why.

Not only has this discussion happened within social media, we have the discussion at work all the time.  There are many who have suggested we add a Twitter link as another method to contact us.  Believe it or not, I am the one that is resistant to this.  Let’s start with our goal within social media: “To meet Customer’s where they already are, listen and help when we can.”  I have always been passionate that the key to social media for businesses is listening first.  An area that I think companies can continually work on.

Many companies have used Twitter and other social media spaces very successfully to market products.  When you are doing this, placing a link on your website can work well.  Dell is the perfect example of this:

We have never sought to publicize our efforts or seek recognition for listening and helping, but needless to say it has happened.  I still find a lot of that discussion to be weird, because all we have ever done is what I refer to as Customer Service 101.  One of the things I realized is that publicity causes is many people that have never been on Twitter stop by.  I love Twitter, and I am excited when new people find it, but it is not always the right experience if you do not know how to use it.  One story occurred after I appeared on NPR Marketplace.  A woman needed assistance and went to Twitter for help.  It was her first time to Twitter.  She signed up and tweeted a few times.  She then when back to the the show and stated she never heard from Comcast.  We did reply to each of her tweets, but, as it turns out, she did not know to go to the “replies” tab to see responses.  This did not meet her expectations or ours, but that is what can happen when someone goes to a new space and does not fully understand how it works.  This takes me back to our overall goal, “Meet Customer’s where they already are, listen and help when we can.”  I do not see a need to generate business for Twitter but make it one of many places we listen.

Of course this would lead to the argument that we are not providing the same efforts to Customers not in social media.  Well, that is not true either.  Even before we were active in social media, my team developed a process for Customers to share feedback with Rick Germano, Senior VP of Customer Service for Comcast.  This is another process I have managed over the past few years.  This is prominently displayed on our website, and all feedback is reviewed and we assist Customers in the same manner.  We listen to every piece of feedback they provide, and help when we can.  I think in this age of Customer Service, providing as many means for Customers to share feedback is extremely important.  We also provide links throughout our website to our help forums, which are also managed by my team.  This does not mean we do not share links to our efforts on Twitter, but we do so in places where we find Customers that are already on Twitter tend to be, such as Comcast Voices blog.

I love the evolution Twitter has brought to companies, especially related to Customer Service and support.  I am proud to have played a small part, but this will continually evolve and time will create new best practices that all companies can share to create the best possible experience for Customers and prospective Customers.  The moral of this story is Twitter is great for those that fully understand it and like to be in the space.  Places like Facebook are better for others, and some individuals will prefer not to be a part of any of these social spaces, and there is nothing wrong with that.