THE NEW GLOBAL WE.

Bank of America Customer Service Tragedy

Posted in Big Thought, Business, People, Reviews by Harsha on August 27, 2008

I thought about writing this post for quite a while. The incident is still fresh in memory – it happened just last week. But I think the Bank has had an acceptable window of opportunity to respond and they still have not.

First up, as a generally creative but grounded-in-processes kinda fellow, I really appreciate how complicated it is for a large organizations to work well. I’ve never been in one, but as a pioneer in most of the stuff I’ve done at my current small business gig, I can imagine how much planning and management goes into developing a customer service process at a bank. Think about the meetings that managers would have had in the past and in the present as well, about what happens when a customer calls into the 800 line. Now that process must adhere to their internal Service Level Standards (SLA) where they might say that 98% of issues must be resolved in one call, or something to that effect.

They must also deal with a myriad of types of calls, all being funneled through the same system and routed accordingly. The complexity amazes me. So whenever I call into any such organization with an issue or complaint, I generally approach it with as much respect as I can. I am never that irate caller who will jump down the throat of a poor little representative. I adopt a much more consultative approach.

But all that got thrown out the window when I called into Bank of America last week.

Here is some history on the problem, without going into too much detail: I opened a 0% APR American Express card with Bank of America less than a year ago and transferred a large loan balance to it and have been paying it off $1000 a month. The statement closes every 22nd and the minimum is due by the following 11th. I’ve always made this payment well in advance of the 11th deadline. This time, I ended up making it even before the 22nd statement close so basically my payment got tagged to the previous month.

When I called to clarify this, I was rudely informed by the representative that it is my fault for ‘paying late’ and that I will lose the promotional 0% APR. Then I asked her to check with her supervisor and she came back a little while later saying that they have decided to reinstate the 0% APR as a courtesy. I was delighted and thanked her and realized after I hung up that I had not asked about the $39 late fee. To me, it makes sense to roll it back because they ‘forgave’ the ‘late payment’ by reinstating my 0% APR, so why should I pay the late fee? Mind you, I absolutely agree and understand a late fee for late payments – no argument there.

When I called back, I said that if the Bank has rolled back the 0% APR because I am forgiven for the ‘late’ payment, then why would I pay a late fee? The representative talking to me couldn’t for the life of her understand my logic. So we started arguing back and forth and she said the same thing repeatedly and so did I – classic stalemate situation. So I asked her to connect me to her supervisor. What she did next was appalling – she actually threw me off the line and I ended up at the beginning of the call where you give the machine your card details to find the best route for the call. You’d think I would have given up, but I did not.

When the next representative came on the line (now I’m angry and my voice is louder) I told him about the way in which I got bumped off the previous call and said that I realize none of this is his fault but, come on! getting kicked out is just unacceptable! Since I was angry, after hearing why I called, he offered to cut my fee down to half but no more because representatives are not authorized to do so. In fact, he said that he was not even supposed to offer me half off on the fee, but was doing it because I was upset. I was unable to wrap my head around the fact that half of the fee was being refunded as a ‘courtesy’ but the other half wouldn’t be. So I asked him if he was being half courteous and half rude. Of course, such rhetorical questions only incite the flames of anger, and it did. We started arguing and I said that if he could roll back half my fee while not technically supposed to, then why not roll back the entire fee? Why partially commit the crime? And so on and on we went… Finally I said to him that half off was not acceptable and asked him to connect me to his supervisor. Thankfully he did. I left a message, in a super angry mode, hoping to evoke a response, but I have none so far.

My issue is NOT with the $39 fee. My issue is with the LOGIC of this whole situation. First of all, I did not make a ‘late’ payment. I ended up making two payments in the same month, a day early. In this tough economic environment, I am making multi-thousand dollar payments on-time (except this once), have a checking and savings account with Bank of America and am poised to buy a home next year. Despite all this and the threat of me switching to Discover (which is flooding my mailbox with offers), I am unable to fathom why the fee and worse still, why half the fee? If there was ANY logic to this, and I was indeed a payment too late, then for sure, I will not argue if the Bank starts charging me a high APR and fine me $39.

But when they have reinstated the 0% as a courtesy, why should they charge me $39 or even half of that? A pissed off customer with options is the worst kind of customer. Or am I too small for a large Bank like Bank of America to give a rats ass about? To add insult to injury, they are yet to respond to me.

Check out Bank of America Sucks. I am not that mad at the Bank – all I want is my fee refunded because it is illogical to charge it in the first place. Will someone from the Bank PLEASE respond?

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Starbucks

Posted in Big Thought, Business, New by Harsha on August 19, 2008

Here is an article about the coffee giant’s latest investor-related woes. I had written about some ideas for ‘bucks here.

Innovation

Posted in Big Thought, Business, People, Questions by Harsha on April 22, 2008

Jeff Bezos was interviewed by BusinessWeek for their story on Innovation. I can’t be more of a fan of Jeff Bezos. I loved reading his story a few years ago, as having gone from a quirky hedge fund manager to being the founder of Amazon. He is truly one of the sharpest minds out there having lived through the dotcom bust riding a pure -to use outdated dotcom verbiage- “clicks and mortar” play.

BW asked a very poignant question and I quote “Q: Every company claims to be customer-focused. Why do you think so few are able to pull it off?”. Jeff’s answer just blew me away. He says “Companies get skills-focused, instead of customer-needs focused. When [companies] think about extending their business into some new area, the first question is “why should we do that—we don’t have any skills in that area.”

I thought about how it goes down at my place of work and how it probably is at your jobs as well. Or maybe at your own businesses. Almost everyone’s instinctive reaction to an innovative, out-of-the-box-idea is “But we can’t do that” or “It is not part of our model” or “You’re crazy!”. Recently, I had the honor of earning the indignation of my colleagues and a boss when I suggested tagging leads to a salesperson for life – i.e., if salesperson A uses salesperson B’s lead, then A should be given a (small) referral fee for the life of the deal that B put together with that lead. You should have seen the huffs and guffaws that went around the room and I was quickly pounced on by everyone. Needless to say, the internal confusion about compensation for sharing leads remains unresolved and is going to result in a lot of disastrous meetings and confusion with a last minute solution cobbled together and put in place. The idea was to move away from an ownership model, let salespersons relax about cross-sells and focus on increasing their business.

Jeff is not suggesting that if you run a painting company to start selling flowers. No way. The point of focus in his words are “A much more stable strategy is to start with “what do my customers need?”. He says Amazon’s Kindle is a great example. He doesn’t say what prompted him to develop this new gadget but one can imagine that it might have stemmed from delivery delays that buyers might have experienced on Amazon. If you were savvy enough to buy all your books from Amazon, then you probably want to get to the book faster. And so Kindle was born.

This was the most insightful questions for me from the interview… it clearly validated my way of thinking, thank God! One of the ideas I picked up from the jokers at SearchMyCampus.com is to offer a service if there is a critical mass of folks asking for it. By that I mean, if you’re in the painting business and a certain number of your clients (say 2 out of 10) ask for spackling services then that is something you might want to review. 1 out of 10 might be a random request but 2 out of 10 signals the start of a pattern. 3 out of 10 and you should start hiring the right folks and buying the equipment and by 4 out of 10, you should be ready to do your first spackle job.

This is great for me personally as well because I clearly recognize that I do not possess all types of skills. I am good in some and suck at others. But instead of being skill based (can you make presentations? Can you train your team? Can you manage people? etc.) Jeff now makes it easy for the million of us by suggesting retaining focus on needs. If you are not able to manage people, then you can find someone. Ditto for all other skills. Seems like the winner is the person who keeps his/her ears open to client needs and orchestrates the execution to provide solutions to them. Simple? 🙂

Applying American Ideas to Indian Situations Experiment

Posted in Business, New, People by Harsha on April 9, 2008

This is really simple. It just does not work.

By the way, if you’re looking for any ideas with serious dotbomb potential, look at SearchMyCampus.com. How would I know? Well, I’ve had a dotbomb of my own back in the day, albeit wiping only a small portion of my family’s savings. Here are some snippets that might help:

Hello world! Our First Attempt at Blogging
Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

Brief recap: SearchMyCampus as you can see in the About Us section, is an online campus noticeboard for students across various campuses. The idea for this just happened to hit Peyush (founder and CEO) while he was wandering the streets of Montreal, Canada looking for a place to stay during his time at university (a couple of nights sleeping on a park bench with only some stray dogs for company does that to a guy).

We’re getting good feedback (coz, well, all said and done, it is a pretty brilliant idea) and some criticism too which we’re trying to incorporate in our future development

The Program Manager/CEO’s first post is just precious, as is the title for his post – “Share it and I bet you will find it!”.

Here is another quote:

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. (Wasn’t there a Backstreet Boys song that went something like that? Hmm) We’re pretty flexible about timings and hours too. What we’re looking for are people who are just as passionate about the site as we are, and committed to taking it to the next level.

The ultimate objective of SearchMyCampus.com is to enable students in colleges to mutually fulfill their needs, without the need for intermediaries.

(well, isn’t the site an intermediary in itself? And is this a business or a charity for local students, who live with their parents – yes, that’s how it is in India)

Despite your growing cynicism from reading this post, you should know that the intentions of the CEO are pure. However, just because one slept on a parkbench in cold Canada because one couldn’t quickly find a place to live (this is rhetoric because NO Canadian university worth its salt would allow an international student in harm’s way), it does not mean that the same problem exists in India.

One problem that is directly, immediately and financially worth addressing for students in India, is test preparation. Competition is rife in this space but therein lies the opportunity, right? If so many players are in the market, then it could mean that the opportunity is huge. It could also mean, and this is especially true of India where customer service concepts don’t exist (at least for Indians serving Indians) that customer needs are not being met satisfactorily, and hence you can set out to develop a better service. Think about it Peyush. “Build it and they will come” is a fool’s dream. Of course, I have been dead wrong in the past.

Quotes taken from these posts.

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Blue Ocean Strategy Update

Posted in Business, New, People by Harsha on April 8, 2008

A lot of you have been searching for Blue Ocean, so I wanted to publish an update to my previous post. I came across this interesting link of another blogger who has made a career out of this, a la “Balanced Scorecard”.

Enjoy.

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City Level Experiment

Posted in Business, New by Harsha on April 7, 2008

One-hit wonder Bhatia is also on the board of Nanocity and is a founder of this idea. It is set near Delhi (a la Gurgaon). From http://www.nanocity.in/

Nanocity spans 11138 acres of flatland located just beyond
the foothills of the Himalayas. It is less than 25 kms east of
Chandigarh and just over 200 kms north of Delhi. Two
seasonal rivers form the eastern and western borders of the
city and two streams trickle within its boundaries. It is well
connected by National highway- 73 ( NH-73 ) and State
highway-1 ( SW-1). It is a public/private partnership between
Sabeer Bhatia Group and the Haryana State Government.

Does Bhatia really think that KP Singh of DLF is going to let him get away with this ambitious project? More importantly, with the millions of square feet in today’s burgeoning “Software IT Parks” business in India, is there not enough space that we now need a whole CITY?

What do you think?

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The Worst Manager

Posted in Big Thought, Business, People by Harsha on March 31, 2008

I closely identify the “Worst Manager” with the “Worst Person” because they share this particular trait in common. Every other “bad trait” is forgivable, except this one.

While I try not to judge people, I believe that this old trait dating back to the creation of modern civilization, is sinister and has no place in today’s world. It probably was born out of the necessity of grabbing neighboring lands and ruling the country.

Think about the worst boss you’ve had. While many people have different reasons why a person is a bad boss, the common denominational trait you’ll find in this group is their desire for your back to bend and remain bent. Straightening it out is a threat of sorts.

This is more prevalent in small owner-managed firms. The owner-boss thinks “just do the damn job, will ya?” and expects no creativity or strategic inputs from you, because the time you spent “thinking” could have been spent doing your job. They may say that they foster freedom of thought, but the opposite is true.

Worst Manager = Worst Person = Expects underlings to have a bent back.

Recognize this trait as the bad boss and as the employee that has to deal with this situation. Invaders broke the backs of their victims and thus were able to rule over them – plenty of examples are available in history. You need to recognize this possibility when considering a job with a startup or small family run firm. Your back must be bent if you want to survive and keep your job.

Do you know someone who qualifies?

Disclaimer: All the above is true ONLY in firms run by owner-bosses who want your back bent and is definitely not the case in every small family-owned or owner-managed business.

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Paperless World

Posted in Big Thought, Business, New by Harsha on March 23, 2008

“Paperless office” if I recall correctly, was the buzzword in the very early 90s. Later Adobe was heralded for Acrobat and paper was declared irrelevant. That was then, this is now. I just saw Mojo HD’s “Start-up Junkies” and their first season is focused on Earth Class Mail Inc.

I realized just how paperless I have gone since 2002/2003. For instance, I no longer receive paper statements for my credit cards or checking account. Checks that are deposited in the ATM now appear as images thanks to Check21. 100% of all faxes that come into my office are all “efax” – and as long as we’re not mandated to send back hard copies of signed contracts, we just fax the printed copy to our eFax number, which comes to us as an email. Invoices for services delivered are also now almost 100% paperless. And of course, greeting cards have been electronic since 1997.

Similarly, while in the MBA program, I wrote all my papers in MS Word and some were even uploaded to Blackboard that is prevalent in US educational institutions, but not exploited to its full potential by all professors (some disliked it even!). For some I had to submit print copies. Many tech-savvy professors reviewed the papers online and submitted grades in the system as well.

In a flat world, being paperless is the only way things can work and have been working since outsourcing began 12+ years ago. The other day I was emailing chatting with my friend Subbu who lives in Bangalore and works for Ernst & Young doing taxes for it’s American clients. How do you think he is exchanging information with the US office? I am pretty sure he gets all his work electronically, he works on his computer and then sends it back electronically. Paper is analog and obviously, email is digital. And it looks like you can take any existing system and re-imagine it digitally and almost automatically you can create a product and start a business.

Subbu also talked about microfinance. In traditionally poor countries, paper receipts are prevalent. So many of these entrepreneurs borrowing micro loans, are quite electronically adept. Many even have hand held computers. So going paperless can solve a small problem of avoiding missed micro loan receipts all the way to processing tax returns globally.

So when I saw and learned about Earth Class Mail, I was blown away in some respects and skeptical in others. Obviously I am not an immediate potential customer because I don’t own a PO Box, but the solution is brilliant. If I review all the mail I get electronically, trash all the direct marketing pieces of crap and have them recycle it (which is a service they offer for free) and electronically store anything else that is of value, then I think it is a brilliant piece of personal management. Owning a PO box now immediately looks like something my grandfather would have liked using, enjoying a leisurely walk down the street to meet his post office friends and have a chat

Of course, the coverage on Mojo HD (which is on cable) is something I absolutely love because it tells a story neatly edited yet with the fervor and excitement in a startup on small victories (I work in one). One of the episodes shows Ron Wiener who has just started blogging, talking to the Post Master General of India Post and was able to get him and PM Generals from many other nations to agree to run pilot programs. So even these bureaucratic government run organizations are looking to go paperless. That too all at once, globally.

So looks like paperless has finally arrived. I would be delighted if Ron Wiener would be interested in a discussion on this interesting topic.

UPDATE: On further research, I ran across this really nice blog about a Chiropractor in San Diego, CA trying to and then running a paperless office. Here are all the paperless posts, and here is an interesting post in particular.

Futility of polls

Posted in Big Thought, Business by Harsha on March 18, 2008

If you have been living in a bubble or on Mars, you will find the CNN article as a very interesting read. I chanced on it because I was surprised to read the headline “Inflation is top economic worry”. I thought we were in a recession, but apparently it is some form of stagflation (inflation with prices going up while having jobs and economic growth in recession).

This survey of 1000+ American adults reveals some really invaluable quotes:

“86% said they are worried about jobs”

“65% said they are “very concerned” about inflation”

“unemployment concerns loom large, with 59% saying they are “very concerned””

“76% of Americans are concerned about the recent drop in the stock market”

“77% are worried about the drop in the amount off money homeowners get when they sell their houses”

BW’s Christopher Farrell has this article about how we might be talking ourselves into a recession. Really?

Oil

Posted in Big Thought, Business by Harsha on March 13, 2008

Update: CNN.com has a good article on the subject. Note the comments about traders making money only when the prices change. So keeping in mind the comments below, if I were a trader, it only helps me if I bet higher because that is the natural trend in oil prices given the world situation today. Only an uneducated person will bet on it going lower. The only reason I can think of oil futures trading lower in the distant future is if it’s demand is stabilized due to other competing sources of energy.

The Times of India has an article about oil prices and the consternation over the inability to accurately predict the future and to manage the rising price of oil.

The article says “Goldman now sees average selling prices of $95 a barrel for 2008, $105 a barrel for 2009 and $110 a barrel for 2010 and that was before this weeks spike according to Dow Jones wire service”

So the star analysts and brainiacs over at Goldman get it wrong because this is something that is larger than all of us. We may like to think that we can neatly chop world events into number arrays and review them, but that is very far from the truth.

To sum it up, more cars = more expensive crude. Unless you change the left side of the equation (not factoring in oil-based or oil-dependent products), you are not going to see the price of crude drop. From the 70s crisis till now, America was able to keep the price down but at some point price has to catch up with the rest of the world. We may see another drop in prices for political reasons (not for the election this time around) but reality is something else altogether. Mind you, crude has not become more expensive to produce but the futures on a barrel of oil determining what prices a buyer will be expected to pay next year and the years after that, is what is driving up this number. The irrational traders believe that demand will eventually outstrip supply (and even bring it down to 0) and want to make the most of it before that happens. Pure and simple economics.

Any economically sound individual with a long term view will realize that oil-based products are going to get phenomenally expensive, until it’s price drops to zero when there is nothing left to consume. It is going to be inflated so to counter it, you’re going to have to earn more by being productive. At some point, oil will become nationalized – owned and run by governments, who will ration it like chocolate during the world wars of past. That will create a universe of its own problems, but much smaller in magnitude.

Oil is a “key industry” as socialist India would say. We know what business leaders are capable of when such key industries are made private (Enron). In India power generation is still with the government, which has it’s follies. But never will the price of a unit of power exceed what the peoples of that nation can afford to pay. That is when you get politics to finally work for the masses. Similarly, oil is meant to be owned and controlled by the government, which will always have the power to keep prices low.

I believe the privatization of an economy is the best way to let a nation prosper; look at India since 2003. However, there needs to be a meeting point between economic growth and economic stability. That is exactly where the government needs to fit in. While it is staffed with ‘human beings’ who permit inefficiencies to thrive, I’m willing to bet that the price-to-be-paid for those infarctions will be far less than the irrationalities of today’s oil merchants. If we can all mutely agree to let our present rest on the shoulders of nervous futures traders, then why can we not let it lie with government bodies that will be SO slow to move that the price of oil may artificially remain lower than it’s true cost?

Wouldn’t that be refreshing!

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