Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Customer Service Fiasco at Seattle City Light

Remember Lily Tomlin from the days when there was a monopoly on phone service? "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company." Apparently, the same has been mostly true for at least one power company the past few days. The good news is that with a spotlight on the story, and enough public outrage, apparently Seattle City Light discovered they do have a heart after all - or at least found one they could borrow, under pressure from the mayor's office.

In what surely must have been a PR nightmare, a 13-yr-old boy who is well-known in his neighborhood for fundraising for good causes lost his cat up a 40-ft utility pole when it was chased by a dog. When KING aired the story in their news broadcast last night, I wasn't the only one shocked and bothered by the stupidity of SCL in claiming the cat could come down on its own from that high up a pole (as opposed to a tree), surrounded by buzzing electrical wires.

While plenty of trolls began advocating rocks and BB guns, there is something about the plight of an animal that finds itself in trouble through no fault of its own that tends to get people motivated to take action. Eventually SCL was talked down out of their own tree and apparently rescued Kitty from the pole. Hurray for angry customers.

Why do I bother to speak out about this in public? I regularly comment on customer service issues because it's not just about technology for me. It's technology AND interacting well with other human beings with an eye toward making the combination personally and professionally profitable whenever possible. In this instance, Seattle City Light shot themselves in the foot though with any luck, their efforts this morning may have redirected the shot so that they'll only have suffered a glancing blow.

Telling strangers motivated only by their own sense of justice to call in support of rescuing a cat on top of a utility pole that (as reported by one such caller) that the owner should have kept better watch on the cat is not good customer service. Some of these people were even in the neighborhood expected to be impacted by a brief power outage, were it to be necessary to rescue the cat and if they are willing to go dark for a bit, then that ought to have been a good indicator of public sentiment.

As a customer service agent with no power to actually change policy, what could these folks who were receiving phone calls have done? Tough call, but here's my best guess from the sidelines...

First, once you realize that you're dealing with more than one call, get more information and take the time to check out the story yourself. It should not be a surprise, even to people who don't care that much about cats, that this issue isn't going to just go away on its own.

Next, notify a supervisor immediately of the issue, just like you would report a power outage or any other big event that is likely to result in a lot of calls. Then begin collecting data on the calls and let each caller know that they are not alone in their outrage and that their comments are being collected and forwarded on for further review of the situation so that they truly feel heard and that some sort of action will result.

For those callers who tried to reach supervisors and were denied, my recommendation is the agents should have put them through. This is not the sort of thing you should try to deal with on your own. If the supervisor already on the line with another outraged caller, then say as much and ask if the individual would like to hold or to have their comments added to the others.

Ultimately, it may be necessary to point out that there is such an extensive response on the matter that supervisors can't talk to callers and take action but worded correctly, this should be taken as good news by the callers.

If they were really smart (and it's probably not too late for this), SCL would begin posting cat rescue updates on their website. I realize that might sound like poor resource management, but really it's not, when you consider the importance of call avoidance. Now that the cat is no longer up the pole without a way down, you don't really want to keep fielding more calls from irate pet lovers. Plus, if you have some good photos and a good story to talk about how you came to realize the situation was a much bigger deal than you originally figured it to be, yada yada yada, you might even be able to turn a PR nightmare into something else that makes you look a lot better.

Whether you're an employee (of any kind), a politician, or a power company, it's as much about perception as anything else. SCL has stopped the bleeding in that area but could really benefit from a blood transfusion now after the fact. Openly pointing out what they did right along with an appropriate amount of humility over what they did wrong will go a long way to improving their public image.

How do you recover from personal PR nightmares?

Before the Lay-off

My post about dealing with a lay-off seems to have struck a nerve with some, so I'm glad I put the information out there where it can be useful to people. It was very much written from the perspective of dealing with the shock of going home from work early one day and not going back for the rest of the week - or the week after that.

There is another perspective - when you know (or suspect) the shoe is about to drop - and my friend and colleague, Sylvia Taylor, has excellent suggestions for facing a lay-off. In five important points she details how to prepare for getting laid off and begin moving on from there.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sylvia's suggestions, believe they dovetail nicely with my own that apply a bit more after the fact, and I totally love her writing. Regardless of whether you might foresee a potential lay-off in your future, you should check it out. It's good information to keep in your back pocket, if nothing else, and chances are good that in this economy you will know someone who needs it, even if you don't need it for yourself.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to hang tough together and help each other out as best you can. That's what makes the ride worthwhile.

What moves now will prepare you for greater success later?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Some Off-the-Grid Internet Scenarios

A while back, I mentioned the possibility of a future where we might have internet off the grid. Based on comments I've received and ongoing search statistics, this seems to be a popular topic these days, so maybe it's time to elaborate further.

First, let me make extremely clear - while mostly knowledgeable in most of the areas I delve into here, I am far from expert. I would, however, love to get a dialogue going on the subject, as I believe it's a useful converation to have. At the very least, there are enough different implications here for multiple science fiction stories. There may be some business opportunities too.

Scenario - Commercial power available but in limited quantities
If society has access to some but somewhat limited amounts of commercial power, then obviously there would have to be some kind of prioritization or auctioning to decide who has access to that power. Think television/radio spectrum frequency distribution. Under such a set of circumstances, I can imagine that at least some server farms might have access to at least some commercial power but it might not be 24x7. Average businesses and individuals would likely not have access to commercial power - if they did, we wouldn't need this conversation.

If this scenario were to come about, then much of the internet might look from the outside like it does today, except that businesses and individuals would need individual power supplies such as from solar, wind, or geothermal sources in order to connect to it. You'd have access to the internet pretty much as you're used to now, just not all the time like we have today.

Since others would be in similar circumstances, you might be able to access static data (such as website pages) right away but something like an email response to a question (especially involving other individuals and smaller businesses) would be somewhat delayed. Solar-powered wi-fi routers mentioned in my previous post would be an important element in keeping such a system working.

Scenario - Little or no commercial power available
In a more post-apocalyptic scenario, there might not even be enough commercially-available power to run server farms but that doesn't mean the internet has to go away altogether. We've gotten used to the near-instantaneous nature of data transmission across the internet but those of us who remember the days of Store and Forward know that data can still move even when it gets held up for a while.

In my imagination, it would look a lot like the ham radio National Traffic System which uses local traffic nets to help move information. Ad hoc peer-to-peer connections would come up and down according to each individual's access to power and like a bucket brigade, or BitTorrent sharing, we'd pass along each other's traffic while accessing what we want for ourselves the same way.

Quite possibly, the data requests we make ultimately will be delivered to servers that aren't themselves up 24x7. The result would be request, delay, fulfillment - or, a lot like how cross-oceanic calls used to be placed where the request would be made of an operator who would make the connection while you're off-line and then ring you back when it was available. If that's too challenging for modern minds to fathom, think instead of holding for a call from the President.

In such a situation where data must regularly travel multiple intermittently-available routes, it may be that some additional protocols must be developed to optimize transmission but it's surely possible, even if it means falling back to simpler data types. Error correction would be the biggest problem. If a packet gets dropped along the way, it could take days to put it all back together again, depending on the severity of power accessibility. We're definitely talking about a different sort of animal than what we've become used to.

The solar-powered wi-fi routers would be a virtual necessity to make such a system very workable and almost certainly some social engineering would be required too along the lines of scheduling uptime so that data requests could be made and forwarded in a "timely" fashion.

Each scenario would have its own impact on what everyday life might look like but some commonalities exist. With a shortage of fuel, it's likely we'd be living in smaller communities oriented around food production. But instead of the near-isolation of frontier towns or the relative lack of communication between older European villages, we could still communicate and share with one another digitally.

If there is enough commercially-available power, we may even be able to continue with much of what we've come to expect is normal in terms of information-age business and commerce except that working in remote virtualized groups would be more common than larger groups housed together in cities.

Of course, if cities get better about their own food production, that would be another game-changer and there are some interesting possibilities around that as well. For that one, you'd have to talk to my brother-in-law - he's got some great ideas. If it's something that interests you, let me know and I'll put you in touch.

How do you see the future?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What to Do When Your Job is Dead - Top Ten

Starbucks, Zillow, Redfin and now Insight and Circuit City - these are just a few of the organizations who have recently had tech-related layoffs and it wouldn't be surprising in the current economic climate to see continued impact on the technology sector. Most notably in Seattle, it's likely a number of Washington Mutual tech workers could be on the streets soon with the redundancies in operations expected with the JP Morgan acquisition. The question of what to do if you find yourself caught up in the midst of a lay-off comes up regularly, so here are the top ten tried and true tips that I've used myself and passed on to others with some success.

1) Take time to grieve - There's no way around it, losing your job sucks. If you see it coming, you've had plenty of time to get anxious over the possibility that you'll be involved and if you don't, you'll be blind-sided. Either way, you'll be feeling bad about it for a while, so give yourself some time to deal with the emotional fall-out. The key is to make it a planned, limited amount of time so that you can quickly get on with the business of the rest of your life.

2) Take stock - What areas of your life are in need of critical attention and what tangible and intangible assets do you have? Where are you ahead in the game and where do you need to begin playing catch-up sooner rather than later? Whether you've got some pleasant surprises or some serious concerns, it's always better to know exactly what you're dealing with.

3) Schedule your priorities - To avoid devolving into a total pity party, make yourself a schedule that moves you forward and stick to it like you would stick to a job schedule. I like to establish a healthy mix of job hunting, skills development, networking and some fun - approximately in that order, but you decide what's important for you. Presumably, job hunting is your top priority, so make sure your actions back that up. But that doesn't mean it should be your only priority to the exclusion of everything else. Remember to have fun along the way and nurture your other needs in addition to keeping up your efforts to track down another source of income.

Part of keeping it a healthy mix means making what time you do spend job-hunting really count. Target the job boards (are you more likely to find work on Dice or LinkedIn? Monster or Yahoo?) that are most likely to carry your kind of postings and stay current with them. And whatever you do, don't forget to target specific companies that are appealing to you.

4) Learn something - Time spent unemployed is great for brushing up on your technical skills and these days, there are lots of low- (and even no-) cost options for doing so. I have spent time between jobs teaching myself skills such as JavaScript and XML. Back when I was working in television, I'd turn the sound down on the weather reports and practice the sort of on-air patter common for broadcast meteorologists. Make updating your marketable skills a priority - it will improve your resume and you'll have something to show for the time.

5) Stay positive - This one's a two-fer. Staying positive means avoiding both cynicism and pessimism. The best antidote for cynicism is to develop a philosophical attitutude. It may be someone else's fault you are where you are, or it may be your own but in the end, it doesn't really matter a whole heckuva lot. Blaming yourself or others won't help you find another job and in fact, could cost you opportunities if you come across in interviews as too negative. What you don't want to is to get stuck in the past and that's all that cynicism or dwelling on problems will do for you. Work hard at finding what's good in the situation and use that to propel you forward.

Pessimism is best dealt with by focusing on the possibilities, however unlikely they may seem at first. You may have legitimate reasons to be concerned about finding work or making ends meet in the meantime but it just keeps you stuck to spend your time thinking about it. Instead, keep your eye on what might be possible and do whatever you can to increase your chances that you'll be one of the few to buck the odds. Somebody out there is still hiring geeks and someone will get those jobs, even if they're far and few between. Do what you can to be one of them. For some geeks, that learning time mentioned in #4 might be better spent on developing soft skills like those used to develop good working interpersonal relationships than on learning Ruby on Rails.

6) Keep (or start) networking - Keep in touch with people you know from past jobs and other aspects of your life. If several of you find yourselves out of work at once, consider meeting for coffee on occasion to help each other through this tough time. You can look over each others' resumes, offer job hunting tips, and practice interview skills. Lunch 2.0 events help reduce your grocery bill and increase your networking opportunities; take advantage of them. If getting together in person doesn't work for you (and even if it does), you can and should also keep in touch electronically. Email and social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook can be great tools for staying in contact with people who might be able to help you land your next position.

7) Set goals - Whether it's networking contacts or job applications, make sure you identify interim objectives and track your progress. Not only will it keep you motivated to keep going, it will also keep you pointed in the right direction and you'll feel a sense of accomplishment along the way, even before all your shots on goal land you a new job.

8) Get involved - Use the skills you would bring to a job to help out some charitable organization. They benefit from your expertise, you stay current in your skills and have something worthwhile to show for the time you spend unemployed, and everyone wins. Or participate in events like Startup Weekend or 6-hour Startup as an alternative to drive-by carding-type networking events. Online, you can build credibility by offering your expertise on sites such as LinkedIn and Experts Exchange and other forums.Who knows, in getting involved, you may even meet and impress someone influential in your job search.

9) Reinvent yourself - Sometimes lay-offs are an opportunity to look at things from a new perspective and start fresh. If you're thinking that could be true for you, you owe it to yourself to set aside any fears you have and look at the situation with an objective eye. Do I really want to go in a new direction? What would it take to improve my chances of success? Books can be a huge help in figuring out your position on the matter. What Color Is Your Parachute is a perennial favorite of mine and if you like a bit more structure, you may appreciate my other favorite, Now What - 90 Days to a New Life Direction.

If you're thinking of starting a new business, know that it is likely to be tough but doesn't have to be impossible. Sometimes it's no more risky to go into business for yourself than it is to wait around for the next paycheck, especially if you've had some money set aside. If you're smart about budgeting and business plans, you may be able to turn chaos into opportunity. For those of you not in Boulder tomorrow, be on the watch for notes from the panel discussion, Crash Course - Growing a Startup Amid Uncertain Economic Times as a step toward being better prepared.

10) Get help - Geeks tend to operate in a meritocracy, which is all well and good until we get to the point where we think that means having to be able to do everything ourselves. Sometimes getting help is the best thing you can do for yourself. Another perspective on matters is often very beneficial and don't forget the additional value of making yourself more available for other pursuits more worthy of your direct involvement; sometimes you just can't know and do everything. Help can come in the form of a self-organized support group or an informal buddy system just as readily as from a coach. If what you really want is to work with a career transition coach though, find out about coaching rates and don't assume that it's out of your price range just because you're out of work. Perhaps you know others who are looking for similar services making it possible to band together for group coaching and share the costs.

You can also consider asking the coach to negotiate rates. I've found a lot of coaches and prospective clients really like the formula F = 0.1*(V-A) + A , where the coaching Fee is calculated using V for the Value of the engagement and A for the amount deemed by the client to be Affordable, as a way of preserving value in the coaching relationship while making the coaching services workable for the client.

The upshot is that we all know there are fluctuations in the tech sector - there have been for a lot of years now and some would argue that we never did fully recover from the bursting of the dot com bubble. Still, my sense is that technology is here to stay in one form or another, and that means there will always be tech jobs out there somewhere. If the work isn't going away entirely, it means that we have only to figure out how we fit into the new paradigm and do our best to adapt.

What adaptations will help you survive the downturn?