OpenTable should share its list of no-shows

I've been using OpenTable for years now, and I love it. It's great to be able to make an online reservation without having to wait on the phone, say your name twice, hear that there are no reservations actually available.

Unfortunately, lately there's been a trend of restaurants calling to confirm when I make an online reservation. I get it. They don't want to be stood up. They've probably been burned multiple times before by people who make online reservations and then turn into no-shows.

The only problem here is that OpenTable is an online service with a database. They should be able to tell a restaurant how reliable a customer is (I've never missed a reservation before). If the customer has missed one or two reservations, sure, call that customer to confirm the reservation. If the customer has missed more than two, don't let her make online reservations any more.

With an online database, this shouldn't be too complicated.


The Macbook Pro Dead Video Card Saga

Back story
Those of you who have been following my blog know I recently switched my primary computer from a Ubuntu netbook to a Mac OS X laptop. I still have the Ubuntu netbook and use it from time to time (mainly to take out with me when I do laundry), but my wife’s old Macbook Pro is my main computer now.

About Apple Hardware
We bought this computer back in January 2008, less than 2.5 years ago. At the time, it was US$2000, quite a significant purchase price for a computer. Given some people’s much-vaunted claims about Apple computers’ “superior hardware,” the real truth is that Apple uses generic components. Nvidia graphics card. Fujitsu SATA hard drive. We’ve upgraded the RAM on two Apple laptops using generic RAM from NewEgg (much cheaper than the Apple Store RAM), and it works just as well as the Apple RAM. There is nothing special about the Apple internal hardware. The external hardware is a work of art—well-constructed and pleasant to look at. But an Nvidia card in an Apple laptop is about the same as an Nvidia card in a Windows or Linux laptop.

Graphics Card Failure
So last week, I was in the middle of using this laptop when the screen started rapidly flickering white like a strobe light while the mouse turned into the rainbow circle of death (also known as the beachball). I could move the mouse, but I couldn’t click on anything. Eventually, the only way I could get it to stop was a forced shutdown. After I rebooted, everything seemed fine for an hour or so. Then I got the crazy flickering again. I did a forced shutdown. This time, though, when I rebooted, I got a failure message saying that I had to reboot. I wasn’t happy about this. In between various successful reboots, failures, and flickerings, I did Google searches and tried every suggestion I could find. I reset the PRAM. I took out the RAM and put it back in. I tried using the laptop without the battery. I tried using a lower screen resolution. Nothing worked. After a certain point, the display just totally died. No flickering. Nothing. Dead.

At that point, both my wife and I had considered the laptop gone. $2000 down the drain, and after only two years and a bit. It was past the manufacturer’s warranty, and we didn’t have Apple Care (as a matter of policy, we do not buy service plans, because they are generally a waste of money, and if we added up all the money we would have wasted on all those service plans, we could easily just purchase a new whatever-electronics-device-is-broken). I decided, since we gave up on it anyway to do just a little bit more Google searching, and I came across this Apple support article: MacBook Pro: Distorted video or no video issues, which says:

In July 2008, NVIDIA publicly acknowledged a higher than normal failure rate for some of their graphics processors due to a packaging defect. At that same time, NVIDIA assured Apple that Mac computers with these graphics processors were not affected. However, after an Apple-led investigation, Apple has determined that some MacBook Pro computers with the NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor may be affected. If the NVIDIA graphics processor in your MacBook Pro has failed, or fails within three years of the original date of purchase, a repair will be done free of charge, even if your MacBook Pro is out of warranty.

I wasn’t too hopeful Apple would honor this, but I figured I had nothing to lose. It was a dead laptop. If Apple wouldn’t honor this article, I would still have a dead laptop. If they would honor it, though, I would have a resurrected laptop.

The Genius Bar
I went to the Apple website, created an Apple ID account, made an appointment at the Genius Bar for a couple of days later. Then my wife and I went to the Apple Store at the appointed time. I was perfectly ready to be condescended to. I was perfectly ready for them to treat me like an idiot. Fortunately, no such thing happened. The “genius” (I forget her name) was friendly and simply asked me what was wrong. I explained that the graphics card was dead because of this problem (I handed her a printout of that support article) and that I had already tried resetting the PRAM and was pretty confident it was the graphics card, since the laptop still made the bootup noise and the Caps Lock light could turn on and off. She seemed to believe me but just wanted to run one quick test. She plugged in a firewire external hard drive into the computer and booted up the laptop while holding down the S key, explaining to me that she was just running a graphics card test on it. She then plugged the external hard drive into another computer, opened up a log file, and confirmed that the graphics card was indeed dead. She asked if I had Apple Care. I explained nervously that I didn’t need it (according to the article, I shouldn’t). She said she knew I didn’t but just wanted to know if I had it. Odd.

So she printed up a work order for $0.00, and I signed it. She said the part wasn’t in but would be in a few business days, and that the store would call me when the repair was done. That was Saturday.

Today, the store called and said the laptop was fixed. I picked it up. Painless process. It’s working fine now. That’s how customer service should be. I had a very pleasant experience with the Apple Store Genius Bar. I don’t know if they’re actually geniuses, but they sure are friendly. That said, I am disappointed that Apple appears to blame Nvidia for providing a bad video card, and then when Apple replaces the dead video card, guess what they replace it with—exactly the same video card. So the offending graphics card is the Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT. And after the Macbook Pro was fixed, the new graphics card is also the Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out if you replace a faulty model with the same model, it’s likely to be faulty again. Hopefully, we can get at least another two years out of this thing…


Good support is in the timing and quality, not the medium

In “Complaints greet Google Nexus One phone,” the BBC says “Many people are unhappy with Google only responding to questions by e-mail and are calling for it to set up phone-based support.”

I’ve been the victim of bad customer service and the beneficiary of excellent customer service. I also happen to do customer service for a living (not for a corporation but for a school). Whether I’m getting customer support or giving it, I know good customer service isn’t any better on the phone. In fact, most of the bad customer service I’ve gotten has been over the phone. You know why? Because, although “your call may be recorded for quality control purposes,” it’s recorded by the company giving the support, not by you. You don’t have access to that recording. And chances are, unless you’re extremely diligent, you’ve totally forgotten the name of the customer service representative who “helped” you.

Many times I’ve received “help” over the phone and nothing was actually done. Something was supposed to be fixed, canceled, or sent, and it never was. The phone call leaves no accountability.

Phone support may seem immediate and “better” because you’re talking to a “live” person. Ultimately, though, I don’t want to be put on hold for a half hour or 45 minutes and be constantly told that my call is important to this company putting me on hold. I want answers, and I want them now.

You know the best customer service I’ve gotten? ICDSoft, my web host. Answers within minutes… usually one minute. And by email. It doesn’t matter what kind of silly question I ask, the expert support staff at ICDSoft gets back to me within minutes.

So don’t tell me customer service is better over the phone. Customer service is better—phone or email—when your question or problem gets answered or solved quickly. That’s the bottom line. The bonus with email is that you have a written record of the exchange.

Google, if you want to make your customers happy, give timely and effective support. Call centers have nothing to do with it.


Thank me for bagging?

When I was growing up, I was used to (being an American) having cashiers bag groceries for me. I wait in line, wait for the cashier to scan my groceries, and then wait for the cashier to bag my groceries, and then pay for my groceries.

Then I studied a semester in England and found none of the grocery stores had cashiers who bagged groceries for customers (at least not on a regular basis—there were some exceptions). At first, I thought this was outrageous. I want customer service. I’m paying for these groceries. You bag them for me.

Now I don’t know if things are different in England now (it’s been a few years since the last time I was there), but recently I’ve been bagging my own groceries and the cashiers all thank me (“Thanks for bagging”). They always act surprised and a little relieved. The line moves faster. They have a little less stress, and it didn’t really take that much effort on my part.

Now, I guess, I have a little different perspective. Instead of feeling entitled to having people bag my groceries for me, I think it’s ridiculous when I see people stand around doing nothing while their groceries are being rung up and then standing around even longer while their groceries are being bagged. I always appreciate a good thank-you, naturally, but they are my groceries, after all. If anything, I should be thanking them when they bag my groceries for me.


The nice folks at West Elm

Even though I have my fair share of bad customer service stories (the latest being from Infinisource and Cowon—but I won’t share those now as I’m trying to stay positive), every now and then I’m impressed with how some employees will go out of their way to help you out.

For the longest time, my wife and I were stuck with a stupid futon in our apartment, because we were too cheap to shell out for a real couch. We shopped around quite a bit and settled for a great, modular, two-part couch at West Elm. When we finally decided to buy it, the West Elm employees were wonderful (except the one who kept trying to push the West Elm credit card on us). They didn’t just leave us with the couch boxes. They sat there and troubleshooted with us how best to fit the boxes in our rented pickup truck and helped place the boxes in for us. When we needed it secured, they gave us rope and helped us tie it down properly.

They were so great my wife tried to tip them, but they refused the tip (it was one of those situations where you’re not quite sure if it’s a tipping job or not… I know some non-tipping job people can get insulted if you try to tip them).

Well, to West Elm in Corte Madera, since you won’t accept our monetary tips, I tip my figurative hat to you. I would certainly recommend you to any potential customers.