November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

So according to a friend, the opposite of thanks” is shanks.” Without further ado, here is my Shanks and Thanks list for 2016.

Shanks

Shanks for American cancelling round trip mistake fare from San Francisco to Rio de Jeanaro in First for <$600. Big shanks to the DOT who totally rolled over to their corporate lobbyists by suspending enforcement of their fare mistake guidelines. Shanks for protecting industry leaders and not your citizens.

Shanks for T-Mobile’s new user-hostile, anti-net neutrality data plans. Shanks for making Verizon and AT&T the good guys.

Shanks for the corporate funded, corrupted, unfair election process where my vote counted for a third of those in Wyoming.

Shanks for a poisonous 20+ months of campaigning that made me dislike John Oliver a little bit. How dare you? John is all I have on Sunday nights. Don’t do that to us.

Shanks for shitty wifi. It’s back and it’s worse than ever.

Shanks for Dropbox’s shitty service and for lying about being hacked for FOUR years. Shanks Apple, Google, Box, Microsoft and Dropbox making a solved problem unsolved again. You fixed something that was working just fine.

Shanks to Anthem healthcare plans that make Kevorkian say don’t put my name on that figuratively dumpster fire of a policy.”

Shanks to those who stole my personal devices and smashed my Zipcar window last week. You’re making me not want to go back to Target. I love Target. You should be ashamed. It’s not like we don’t know who you are. We have you on tape. What on earth are you going to do with aluminum bricks.

Shanks again to iCloud and Apple ID for continuing to prove that nearly anyone can pull off contacts syncing except Apple. Who thought a rotating cast of 200 external contracts would make such shitty software?

Shanks to Uber and Squarespace who thought that if they just sent back canned responses for each email I’d just give up. Good luck with that.

Shanks to Allegiant Airlines and the FAA who colluded to ensure that the airline could get away with 4x the in air emergencies and forced landings than any other airlines.

Shanks to those who mention how many illegal immigrants are in this country. Guess what?

Shanks to those who say my homosexuality is a lifestyle. Hot air ballooning is a lifestyle. Being really into jazz music is a lifestyle. Keeping your cell phone on silent is a lifestyle. Following the paleo diet is a lifestyle. I’m just gay. I like guys. It’s not a choice and it sure as shit isn’t a lifestyle.

Shanks to Apple Music who lost my music twice this year. Shanks to Spotify who still haven’t figured out how to even close to properly sync local music. Some of us like Taylor Swift for what it’s worth.

Shanks to politicians who think disenfranchising others is something that should be moral and legal to do. How do you sleep at night knowing that you are making it harder for others to access their rights as citizens?

Shanks to inarticulate people who think that living and breathing give them the right to hurt others and make people feel bad about themselves. Shanks you to hell.

Shanks to rolls of clear packing tape that can’t keep the end from getting impossibly reattached to the roll.

Shanks to drivers who don’t use turn signals. Still.

Shanks to people who choose to not empathize with others. Who never try to put themselves in another person’s situation.

Shanks to corporate heads who invent policies that push American Airlines employees to provide shitty service for the sake of quantified performance improvements.

Shanks to those who say that my free lunch at work is something I cannot complain about. This is literally part of my compensation plan. I get paid less to be given a mandatory thing.

Shanks to gate agents who don’t clear upgrade lists. Shanks to passengers who say Do you know who I am.”

Shanks to Florida for still being a state.

Shanks to those who take up the escalator step and get upset when you ask them to step to the side. Also shanks for the groups of people who walk 3+ people abreast on the sidewalks.

Last and probably worst: Shanks to Alaska Air Group for buying and trying to merge Virgin America into Alaska. No one wants this. Enjoy my constant emails, calls, and complaints to the DOJ and DOT.

Thanks

Despite being cathartic, it might have been a bit of a downer to read a bunch of complaints all in a row. I’ve complied a slightly less terrible list of things that I am grateful for, despite the current circumstances:

Thanks to my new team at Flexport for making me feel at home, making upward professional mobility feel real, and for letting my annoy you all with airline centric facts and stories.

Thanks to Quizlet for introducing me to many of my best friends.

Thanks to Webpass for 3 years of awesome service. Good luck as the new Google Fiber. I can’t wait for gigabit wireless internet everywhere.

Thanks to Homar at American Airlines’s Eagle Nest in LAX for coming onboard to process my upgrade. You’re the best of American.

Thanks to my mentors and friends outside work, you make me feel capable and remind me that I have worth. Thank you Meg and Fang and Christy.

Thanks to Virgin America for being one of the best flight experiences in the industry, and always giving me an invisible microphone to lip-sing your safety dance video. I’m sorry to see you fly into the sunset (not if I and my letters to the DOT/DOJ have anything to do with it!).

Thanks to those who were there to lift me up last week when I went through the election, a breakup, a break-in, and other terribleness.

Thanks to Twitter account bots that post photos of dogs. You have made Twitter tolerable for me.

Thanks to Vice News Tonight, John Oliver, and Gale King for making me want to be part an informed part of this country’s future.

Thanks to Jason Levine for giving us the best designer moment in a long time. (Gather the crowd! Shout it aloud! Creative Cloud!)[]

Thanks to Iliza Shlesinger for making me laugh uncontrollably in the darkness.

Thanks to McMansion Hell for make me laugh uncontrollably in public.

Thanks to Hillary Duff and the Lizzie McGuire Movie for the trip down memory lane.

Thanks to friends who like to build products and dream up companies with me.

Thanks to Zipcar for giving me that suburban fix I need each week — Cheesecake Factory, Target, Panera, small town mainstreams, large malls, dog parks, and airfield overlooks here I come.

Thanks to Justin Trudeau for being a symbol of greatness. I’m so glad Canada is providing a guiding light to where we will be in 5-7 years.

Thanks to Final Cut Pro X for bringing back to my TV Production roots in a flash.

Thanks for the extended family members that moved to San Francisco and for my sister for providing some sanity on the east coast.

Thanks to everyone for living through my terrible airline anecdotes and nonsense.

Thanks to my favorite authors, podcast makers, and artists who bring beautiful light into world on a regular basis.

Thanks to my grandmother who has brought me so much joy. You are the heart of our family.

Thanks to American, Virgin America, JetBlue, and Delta for helping me experience the miracle of flight this year.

Lastly, but certainly not least, thanks my new housemates for helping me build a home here in San Francisco.

In Conclusion

I’m (kinda) bitter. I’m (mostly) exhausted. I’m (entirely) ready for 2017.

November 10, 2016

I Believe in Us

As much as we reject the rhetoric that has poisoned our political environment these past 20 months, we cannot simply blacklist those who supported Trump. There were clearly many, many people who quietly (or loudly) supported Trump. They have opinions, feelings, and perspectives that we have negated. Continuing to ignore the voices that dissent from our own views will not haste long term progress.

You might ask why we have to acknowledge their feelings — after all, they are the ones who are supported a candidate who crosses our personal bright lines regrinding our belief in the basics of what the United States stands for? It’s because we have more to give. We have more empathy to give to those who feel like the world is changing too fast, those who cannot empathize with being different, or those who feel (probably for the very first time) that they are the outsiders in their own country.

We can open our hearts a bit more. We can take a deep breath before shutting someone down. We can listen, empathetically, and provide safe spaces to openly talk about these dissenting — to us — views.

When they go low, you go high.” — Our fearless leader, Michelle Obama.

When they insult us, discriminate against us, hate us, we can open our hearts, arms, and welcome them to our America. Together. Moving forward.

We’ve got this. We can do this. I believe in us.

When in doubt, find GIFs of Leslie Knope.When in doubt, find GIFs of Leslie Knope.

October 31, 2016

I’m Sure You Can Relate

You are not the user. The user is not you.

April 9, 2016

Customer Service Beats Damage Control Every Time

Stripe is an online financial services company, focused on providing startups and growing companies with an easy-to-use merchant API. I have previously recommended and used Stripe for professional, client, and personal projects of various shapes and sizes. It is not a revolutionary company, there have been other online gateways and similar solutions available for years before Stripe became popular. It is, however, radically easier to use than the alternatives and it is an impressively polished developer tool. Everything from the marketing pages to the dashboard is painstaking considered.

While Stripe’s dashboards, and websites, and Dribbble pages are filled with pixel-perfect screenshots, design can’t stop there. Most companies these days are service companies, which means that you’re not just selling a product — your income is based on continued usage where churn is your enemy. While providing a more steady stream of income, services companies need customer support and service become much more important. With services companies, support is something that needs to be designed, just as much as their marketing site does.

Criticizing Stripe publicly

My usage of Stripe was pretty basic. Using the Stripe integration on Memberful, I set up a subscription payment option on a blog for a client. With $3.99/monthly payments, she was able to start receiving small subscription fees for her posts from her intensely engaged readers. Payments were working, depositing a moderate amount of money each week until I got a text from her a few weeks back. She noted that she hadn’t seen any Stripe deposits in a long time. Months.

When I logged into her Stripe dashboard, I saw that that thousands of dollars had failed to transfer dozens and dozens of times. Stripe would attempt to transfer the funds, it would fail, and while they have email notifications for transfers, they don’t for failed deposits, weird. It failed over and over, trying in vain every two days.

Initially, I assumed it was a bank account error, and I went ahead and reverified and re-entered my client’s bank account and rounding numbers. Stripe requires 7 days to verify new bank account information. Their deposit schedule reflected this and we waited. After 7 days, the scheduled deposit failed, again.

I reached out to their support team, which was only available via email. In the two weeks since the first message was sent, the only responses I received were seemingly non-canned emails saying they were looking into it”, and Stripe would follow up as soon as possible…” which never happened. I sent many unanswered, one-way emails before I started to get really frustrated. (What’s truly strange is that follow-up messages went unanswered, but sending two additional distinct emails to Stripe’s support@stripe.com account returned separate agents mentioning there was no record of my previous emails…)

Despite being a financial services company, dealing with real money, Stripe lacked non-email support channels. When Stripe refused to respond to my questions or handle this situation within a generous timeframe, I decided to go public, on Designer News.

I don’t like sounding like a demanding prick. I have worked in the customer service industry (as an IT professional) and respond to support tickets at my current job quite regularly. I know that it can be hard to manage an onslaught of email based support requests in a timely manner. However, for a company valued at over $5 billion, I think having basic customer service phone or chat support isn’t too much to ask.

My post landed on the homepage of Designer News in a matter of hours and quickly rose to the top of the DN homepage. Stripe responded very quickly, both publically and privately once this happened. In fact, they solved the error/bug that was causing the problems and the funds were deposited the next day. Ignoring that Stripe appears to be a premier engineering institution which lacked basic error logging, I’m most frustrated on why it took so long for them to resolve this case, why they ignored me in the first place, and why it took a public confrontation for them to follow up with a resolution. (Which apparently was not difficult… As it only required 2 hours from Stripe’s initial comment on DN until they added that the bug was resolved.)

Stripe is not alone

Going to Twitter’s Search page, one can see all of the shitty experiences people have with United Airlines, Comcast, and Verizon play out online. This is in part due to social media making it easier and easier to voice your frustrations in a wildly public arena. I don’t think people would voice their hatred and frustration online as often and with such vitriol as they do if these companies designed their support channels in a customer-focused manner.

Businesses often treat customer service as a cost, not an investment. It’s one thing to have poor service options for your customers, but it’s another thing entirely to have no customer service, forcing customers to reach out to public. So many companies see customer service as a department to make as efficient and low-cost as possible. Often executives can’t see how it can make them money. Comcast tries to make their service department up-sell customers, which is not only poorly timed and frustrating, but distracts from the entire purpose of restoring a relationship with a company.

Customer service departments provide a way to invest in your business and customers and reap massive rewards in future sales and customer loyalty. It’s quite short-sighted to focus on customer acquisition without adequate ways to support and ensure success in your customer base! This is why I’m often not that frustrated about wait lists for services. (Though that’s for another time…) Cutting support department budgets will lead to increased churn and dissatisfaction with the product, service, or platform.

One comment I see on support pages that frustrates me: We’re a small team and can’t offer support by phone/chat/anything but 2-week delayed email at this time.”

When I was at PayTango — an invoicing and automated accounts receivable company — the founder and I had in depth conversations about how important it was for us to have above-and-beyond” service. When were just an invoicing platform, it was easy for us to convince ourselves that we weren’t mission critical. Meaning, if we went down for a few hours or half a day here and there, it wouldn’t bring any business to its knees. This isn’t a great mindset to being with. It’s a worse mindset, if your product is in fact, critical to a business’s operations.

While building out the product, we launched a new level of service that had our customers to hand-off their accounts receivables tasks to our team. We’d hunt down their unpaid invoices and handling the billing relationship with our customers’ customers. This decision had the side effect of us needing to implement lighting fast support, including a 24/7 toll-free phone number. Our company consisted of only two full-time employees and a few contracts. It was, however, blatantly clear that because of the industry we had entered (financial services) we had to be nearly always reachable. We were handling people’s money. We were depositing checks, handling wire transfers, credit card, and ACH payments as well. Not to mention following up with customers, via email and phone calls on behalf of our clients.

Financial services are incredibly mission critical. You can’t fuck it up.

Our two person company gave all of our customers the option to call us 24/7, which simultaneously rung all of us, and if it fails sends texts of the voicemails transcripts to our entire team. While it isn’t always an option to provide 24/7 service, email only support wasn’t on the table. Luckily for companies today, Twilio and Grasshopper and Phone.com provide wonderful, easy-to-implement phone and texting support channels. For us, it wasn’t acceptable to have limited support options. While I am aware this is one anecdotal, personal choice, I truly believe that no matter what scale you are at, you have the choice to invest in customer service.

Customer Service vs. Damage Control

There is a huge difference between Customer Service and Damage Control. What happened on my Designer News story was clearly Damage Control. Designer News is a somewhat influential news site and community of designers who can impact a business’s decision on which merchant service to choose.

dn_quote.pngdn_quote.png

This is just one of a few similar comments. Stripe most definitely lost customers who felt that this example of poor support meant Stripe would provide a similar level of support to them. It would have cost significantly less money to have just handled or escalated this issue.

Customer Service is often most successful when it’s not done in public. (Notice how most companies push for users tweeting angrily at them to follow / DM the customer service account. It’s not just for account security, it’s often to help let customers be heard and vent in a private space.) I’ve had so many bad experiences with customer service representatives. Even at companies which are known for their incredibly effective support systems, like Amazon and Apple, there are always bad apples.

I find the best setup for customer service success is when an agent can take the time to listen empathetically, and are personally empowered to solve problems without heavy management oversight or escalate without repercussions.

Be Human

Customer Service isn’t an exact science. There isn’t one motto that works for every company and every situation. A lot of what needs to go into customer service is a combination of long-term thinking and empathy.

Your employees and business must have empathy for your customers. Your customers aren’t calling to just chat or listen to your hold music (except if it’s this song). They are frustrated and probably quite irate. Even the best frontline agents’ can’t solve the clusterfuck when systemic problems, a nerve-wracking situation, some external/personal drama, difficult to reach representatives, long hold times, lack of updated documentation, and annoying ever-present marketing stack on top of one another.

If you’re a support, success, or operations team member, there’s a lot you can take from bad Customer Service horror” stories. The solutions are not simple but require nuanced and a good deal of deep thinking and validation.

Customer Service Beats Damage Control Every Time

Can you give your agents the autonomy to make judgment calls on small stakes problems without management repercussions? Do your frontline people have the ability to escalate situations in a framework. A framework that is clearly explained to them? Can you make it easier for customers to not have to deal with complex IVR (interactive voice response — a.k.a. phone tree) systems? Can you back the thinking all the way up to make policies that can prevent the need for customers to call in the first place? Spending a significant effort on testing your current system, new support options and looping in feedback is a great way to improve the status quo.

In Stripe’s case, the fault didn’t lie entirely with the engineering teams or QA people. I bet it had a lot to do with policy. When I reached out the first time, a clear outline of what Stripe was going to do should have been laid out (not just I’ll look into it”). Sure, they responded initially in 24-hours, but the response was just as meaningless as their canned support case created” email. Stripe could have easily provided users who email in with an escalation path in their initial automated response. For instance, they could have included a phone number or non-technical chat option that is staffed during business hours for these type of situations. I didn’t need technical support– I needed someone who had empathy and power to not just file a bug report, but immediately find a way to rectify the situation. Could the agent have asked for Stripe to wire the pending funds immediately? Could one of the agents

Design isn’t just pixels. It’s mostly empathy.

Remembering that no matter how well a product is designed, it matters more how it works that how it looks. How it works isn’t skin deep. It goes all the way to business policies and company culture. Design isn’t just interfaces, animations, and pixels. It’s also policies, support interactions, and how services are designed for how they work when everything is perfect and how they work when the service falls short.

April 9, 2016

Say You’ll Remember Me

October 17, 2015, marked the day of the last US Airways operated flight. US Airways flight 1939 departed from San Francisco International Airport (KSFO) at 10:07pm, arriving in Philadelphia International Airport (KPHL) the following morning at 5:52am.

US Airways was my original favorite airline, and also the first airline I ever remember flying. It was a flight from Jacksonville, FL to Philadelphia, PA. I was visiting my cousins, and it was the first time that I ever saw snow falling. It just started sprinkling as soon as our flight landed. I remember being so excited to see the first snowflakes fall onto the airplane window. For the weeks that followed, I would force all of my friends to sit in two columns of 3 seats each, while I dictated what I remember from the US Airways safety demonstration.

Years later, after arriving on an extremely long Lufthansa flight from Munich to Washington DC — Dulles — I was greeted on my regional US Airways Express flight with bountiful cups of ice and soda. (Ice and Coca Cola are always in limited quantities in Europe.)

US Airways always had a certain charm for me, it was the legacy carrier in my mind. Their livery was old fashioned, as was their seats, and their logo was distinctly minimal and restrained. While they did not keep up with the industry’s hard product enhancements (in-cabin seats and amenities), first class seats were easy for elite members to get as complimentary upgrades.

US Airways previously was an amalgamation of Allegheny Air, Piedmont Air, Pacific Southwest Air, and several others. They had been fraught for years operating (essentially) as two airlines: US Airways and America West Airlines after America West completed a reverse merger with US Air in 2005.

Though their history was fraught with difficulties, they remained a steadfast legacy carrier in the market for years. However, after today, all flights will operate as American Airlines’ branded flights, under the American Airlines operating certificate. US Airways has ceased operations. Completing another reverse-merger with the bankrupt American Airlines.

I attended the final send-off of the last US Airways flight, number 1939 (the date of the first US Airways flight) from San Francisco to Philadelphia. The flight had originally started in Charlotte and had stopped in Phoenix (the primary hubs for US Air and America West, respectively) prior to arriving here. There were balloons, buffets of food and cake, and many of the airline’s previous management. Reporters and fans lined up to get trinkets (including an inflatable hat that was designed to look like a US Air A319) and board the very last flight Cactus’ flight.

There is always a distinct sadness when something ends. Whether that is the last time you’ll be a teenager, the last time you’ll eat at your favorite local restaurant, or the last time a TV show airs. The last of anything brings about feelings of remorse, regret, and a form of nostalgia. You block out all the difficult movements in a fleeting attempt to leave your last touch with something pure and untarnished.

Sitting there at the departure gate, with my back to the Delta Airlines gates, another part of my past, I stared at the flight attendants and people who made up US Airways and the new American Airlines. In a feet of incredible coincidence, I ran into an old acquaintance waiting to board a Delta red-eye, bound for Atlanta.

I smiled and chatted about shallow things: what was happening around us, airline loyalty, things we’d been working on, why I was there and details of his upcoming vacation. We sat there, him eating a cupcake and pasta from the buffet, and me with my Admirals Club drink in hand, staring at the festivities from a distance.

Back at gate 48B, half of me still felt like I should try to impress him, as you often feel with old acquaintances, show him that I was a worthwhile person that he could wish he stayed in touch with.

He wasn’t the only person that had shown that there was the world outside the darkness that I had lived in for so long. Others would come and go. Attempting to help and wake me up, show me the world outside the dark corner I inhabited. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to understand or appreciate what they were giving me. I couldn’t accept the help. I pushed everyone away.

I couldn’t accept the help from the man sitting next to me at gate 48B, the man in the Mustang, the archivist, Ms. Shakespeare, the principal, or the director. No one could even tell me I was important and worthwhile enough for me to believe it. They all had worked so hard to help, but it wasn’t their job to keep trying to persuade me. They couldn’t keep pulling themselves down to my level, trying to help me up.

As I sit here, coming up on a year of picking up the broken pieces of who I was and trying to make something whole again, I can’t keep blaming myself. I have to forgive myself. For missing those guideposts: these real people who cared enough to try to help. For they saw something worthwhile in me, when I couldn’t. I am thankful to have a small number of real people standing around me now.

I have worked hard to break my habits formed and crystallized during my first 24 years. In a twist of an ending, I’m sad to see these traits fade away. I’m sad about the series finale. Most of all, I’m scared about what is happening next: what fills their void? There’s this whole new world around me that is starting to form.

So, as I said goodbye to the man at gate 48B, and said goodbye to US Airways flight 1939, I walked away thinking about the future: when the flight lands, at six-in-the-morning, everything around them changed.

Stay tuned next for the sound of future becoming the present — becoming the past — in no time at all.” — Welcome to Night

US Airways flight 1939US Airways flight 1939