Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What Robocalling Means For Your Business

"Hi, I'm Steve Pagliuca. I'm sorry for this recorded call..."

Such were the words that greeted me from my answering machine upon arrival home. In my mind, the next best possible words that could have followed would have been, "but you'll be hearing from me less frequently in the future." That wasn't what followed. What followed was a thanks for all of my support over the past months in Pagliuca's Senate campaign, and a general holiday greeting.

If I know nothing else about Pagliuca's campaign, it's that he has a lot of money to make robocalls (note the Wikipedia section header "Heavy use of robo-calls"). His campaign has called my home number just about every day for the past few weeks. Robocalling can be an effective tool--but only when used properly. This often means sparingly.

Recorded voice calls are often the most infuriating kind of call, short of the pushy telemarketing type. I very rarely listen to one all of the way through, unless it's a dentist's office reminding me of an upcoming appointment and I've forgotten the exact time of it. Using robocalls for appointment reminders is a great use of automated telephony. It's a quick piece of information, low cost, and useful to both the dentist's office and the patient. The dentist's office gets chance to confirm the appointment, and the patient gets a reminder for an appointment likely made six months ago.

Other good uses of robocalling are followup calls from services. For example, the last time I called Verizon about line trouble, I got a robocall from the company a few days later telling me that my service ticket had been addressed, the resolution, and the exact number to call in case the problem was not resolved. I didn't have to stay home to find out if the repair person had been by; I got a notice via the phone. Once again, a low cost, automated piece of technology that gives the customer piece of mind, and saves the company time.

Stephen Pagliuca, on the other hand, isn't reminding me to get my teeth cleaned, or letting me know that my phone line has been repaired. He's calling to ask for my vote, and this is something that isn't best accomplished via the robocall. People vote based on party affiliation, the candidate's position on issues important to the voter, past performance, and often charisma. Pagliuca needs to create a story about how he will act in office if elected Senator, and as a Bain alumnus and Romney protege´, he's running his campaign like a businessman, not necessarily a politician.

For a business-minded person, robocalls represent a way to blanket people with a message in a quick, efficient way. Props to Pagliuca for investing in good sound equipment; he has a much better sound quality to his messages than most robocalls. But even though people are hearing his name, they aren't hearing from Pagliuca himself. Robocalls are canned, impersonal, and don't put people in touch with the sender. People vote for people they feel a connection to, not someone who exists as a disembodied voice on the answering machine.

So, after yet another robocall tonight, I decided to call Pagliuca to ask to have my name taken off his calling list. (I'm pretty sure I'm on that list because I'm a registered Democrat and of the proper target demographic.) Here's where I found some worst practices in his contact system:

1) No number on the caller ID.
My caller ID lists the robocall has having come from "Out of Area" with no traceable number to call back to. This is a big no-no. What if I wanted to call and send him a donation?

2) No one answers the phone.
I looked up his campaign website and called the number on the "Contact Us" page. No one picked up, just an impersonal robo-voicemail system asking me to dial a given extension or 0 for the operator. Since there are no specific people listed as contact points for the campaign, or any extensions given on the web page, I dialed 0.

3) Unprogrammed voice mail.
After pushing 0, I heard a click, several rings and then the robo-voice, "Mailbox for Reception Area doesn't answer. Please leave a message after the tone." If you're not going to answer the phone, it's always important to program a message to answer. I would suggest something along the lines of "Thank you for calling the campaign headquarters of Stephen Pagliuca for Senate. We're out of the office for the holiday, but will return on.... If you need immediate assistance, please call our Public Relations officer at..." etc.

So I am left with the impression that Stephen Pagliuca can call me all he wants, but I can't call him. I heard on WBUR the other morning an interview with Pagliuca, and he was pushing a slogan of "Pags means jobs." I think it might be more appropriate to say, "Pags means robocalls." And if anyone does actually get through to Pagliuca, please send me his number. I have some advice for him.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Customer Service Gold Star: Citizens Bank

I switched my checking account to Citizens Bank from Bank of America almost 5 years ago, because I was sick of BofA's fees. I chose Citizens because there was a branch two blocks from my house, and I didn't think they were likely to be bought out. (This was after my BankBoston account became Fleet, which became Bank of America.) When I opened the checking account, I was offered a credit card with 0% interest for a year, and 12% after that. I was in the process of getting rid of my American Express Blue card (sky high interest rates after I was no longer a student), and went for it.

Over the five years I've been with them, I've never had a problem. I've done very well with them. When you ask to have your rate lowered, they always check to see if you qualify and never give you a hassle about doing it. When they recently upgraded their online banking system, they included this account in my visible accounts, so that I can simply transfer the funds from my checking to the credit card balance instead of having to mail a check or set up a check payment in the bill payment section of the site.

Earlier this year, I asked again for a rate lowering, which I qualified for, except that I was on a rewards point account, and there was a minimum rate for that kind of account. I spoke with a manager, used up the point balance and arranged to be taken out of the point system (which is never worth as much as you think) so I could have the lower rate. When I called back a few weeks later with my new card to activate it and confirm the rate increase, there was a slight obstacle in that they were no longer offering the 9% rate that I had been offered previously. A quick transfer to a manager, and explanation that the offer was made before they had changed their policy later, and I was given the lower rate.


Today, Citizens did something completely unexpected. They sent me a box of Godiva chocolates with a note:

To Our Valued Customer,

Please accent this tocken of our appreciation for your continued business. We know that you have many credit card options to choose from and we greatly appreciate that you have chosen ours.

As the New Year approaches, we look forward to serving all of your financial needs. Happy Holidays!

Peter Constant
Credit Card Services

Yes, I like chocolate, and I am a big Godiva fan, but really, this was more meaningful than gourmet treats. After being treated like a deadbeat from Banana Republic (or more specifically GE Banking) recently, and reading all the news about people being harassed by their banks, it is truly gratifying to be recognized as a good customer.

This week in Strategy class, we talked about the WorldCom accounting fraud, and in dissecting the company's strategy, we quickly identified that the company had no interest in its actual customers, just its stock price. At Simmons, the curriculum is focused on Principled Leadership, and part of that is caring about customers. Making customers feel appreciated, and helping them leads to a positive impact outside the company. Certainly, I'm here writing to you all and telling you how much I like Citizens Bank as a credit card company. But more importantly, I know that this credit card is part of my safety net, and represents for me purchasing power. To think about this more philosophically, it empowers me to do good with this money, such as my annual donation to the Boston Ballet when I purchase my subscription. (Certainly I could also be doing less good things with the money, but that's not the point.)

If I have learned nothing else in business school, and through my own experience, it's that customer service matters. When I think of the values I hold personally, and apply them to business, respect and service are at the top of the list. At work, when I think of how my communications impact other people, I know that I can't produce something that doesn't serve the customer's best interests, or isn't respectful. And it is service, and the respect with which I have always been treated at Citizens Bank, that earns this company a customer service gold star.

Mindy Grossman from HSN as a Boss Among Equals

I love the NY Times' column "Corner Office," and I particularly like the regularity with which they feature women executives. They cover a range of industries from military contracting (Linda Hudson) to academia (Drew Gilpin Faust) to e-commerce (Susan Lynne), and I always learn something new.

The most recent column features Mindy Grossman, CEO of Home Shopping Network or HSN. My favorite part of the interview was the leadoff:

Q. Tell me about your leadership style.

A. I believe in accessibility. I believe in honesty and a culture that supports that. And you can’t have that if you’re not open to receiving feedback. I find out as much from the guy in backstage TV as I do from my C.F.O. Anybody can e-mail me. I do town halls with employees at least once every eight weeks. I’m out there and it makes a huge difference.

Q. How do you make sure you’re getting honest feedback?

A. I think the way you start sets the tone for your leadership style. For example, my first day, I went through orientation just like everyone else, because I wanted to see what everybody else feels when they come into this company for the first time. There were 15 people — a guy who is in backstage TV, somebody in production, somebody in planning, and I just came in and sat down.

Everybody had to go around the room and say what their job was, including me. There were a couple of abrupt reactions, with people saying, “Really?” But the impact that had, and how viral it was throughout the organization, made a huge difference, because it was a signal of a new management philosophy. When I came into the company, honestly, it was an unhealthy environment. I had worked in unhealthy environments, so I know what it feels like.


I admire Grossman for going through new employee orientation. This part of the job process is very important, it sets the cultural tone for the company. Not only is it important to make sure your company's culture is well presented in orientation, it is even more important to know that your company practices what it preaches. I can't think of many high level executives that do this, and this is something I am going to make sure that I do when I finally reach the C-level.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Wall Street Meets Main Street

I'm currently in the process of buying a house, and I happen to know I have great credit and a spotless credit record. (Quick hit: for a government guaranteed credit report, visit annualcreditreport.com. Don't be scammed by pirate-suited waiter schilling for freecreditreport.com.)

And yet, despite my ability to pay all my bills on time (even through most of 2008 when I didn't have a job and didn't collect unemployment), I am still very suspect to Wall Street. Why? Because the big banking firms made some stupid mistakes betting on the housing bubble and bad mortgages. All of this means that even if I pay a bill on time for more than the minimum, on the day that the bill is due, I get a call asking me to make a payment by phone on that bill.

Really?

The bank in question is GE Moneybank, the backer of my Banana Republic card. I carry a small balance on it, and don't use it that frequently, and I've never not paid the bill. My bill was due today for a minimum payment of $23, and I had already scheduled that bill to be paid, the second I got my statement, from my online banking account. I sent them $75, and I checked this morning, and the check cleared. So GE Moneybank got their money probably at 8:00 am this morning. And yet, when I got home, I got a call from them.

"We just want to know if you're having trouble making this payment, and we'd like you to pay this bill by debit card over the phone."

Really?

This payment isn't late. I have NEVER been late with a payment. And yet, the very day it's due, I get a call. And when I told the woman on the phone that the payment was made and it cleared, she still treated me like a deadbeat, saying that she'd have to make a notation on the account, that probably the system wouldn't register the electronic payment until tomorrow.

GE Moneybank is so hard up that they couldn't wait 24 hours for their system to catch up?

I have considered getting rid of this card before, because I don't shop at Banana Republic as much as I used to. And I don't really need another credit card. In fact, the thing that's really stopping me here is that if I close the account, it takes down my credit score for six months, and I don't want to jeopardize my mortgage application in any way.

Why is it, that someone who works hard and takes care of her bills like me gets a phone call like this? Because we live in a recession created by Wall Street. I am furious that the heads of Goldman Sachs are collecting bonuses still and I with my lower middle class lifestyle have to justify my bill payments over the phone to someone probably not paid enough by yet another big conglomerate.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Making Green by Investing in Green

During the 2nd Bush administration, the oil companies profited from government policies hand over fist. Bush, an oil man himself, made a mint on sky-high gas prices and by squashing legislation that would have reigned in oil companies. And no one on the right said anything against this.

But let Al Gore make a few bucks betting on green energy, and the right goes nuts with accusations about ill gotten gains.

Critics, mostly on the political right and among global warming skeptics, say Mr. Gore is poised to become the world’s first “carbon billionaire,” profiteering from government policies he supports that would direct billions of dollars to the business ventures he has invested in.

Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, asserted at a hearing this year that Mr. Gore stood to benefit personally from the energy and climate policies he was urging Congress to adopt.

Is there really anything wrong with this? Americans follow the money. If we can start convincing the country that there's money to be made in green energy, maybe then we can finally get the oil money off our national back.