Breaking up with Amazon…

I’ve always wanted to like Amazon. A million years ago they were a place where you could find all sorts of reading material that your small local bookshop didn’t carry or that they didn’t have much interest in getting for you. Time passes. Things evolve. Amazon is now all things to all people – literally where you can go to but everything including the kitchen sink, listen to streaming radio, or find a bit of in-house produced “prestige television.”

The more Amazon has grown, the larger their catalog of merchandise has become, the worse the overall experience of dealing with them is. Over the last 12 months I’ve received more damaged items and made more returns to them than I have in my entire time as an Amazon customer up to this point. It’s a pity, because Amazon is just so damned convenient. 

I won’t go so far as to say I’m parting company with Amazon – but I can go out of my way to make them a vendor of last resort. Even if that means a bit more inconvenience and expense for me, I’m just petty enough to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve cancelled my subscriptions and know that means spending extra time to find books coming from Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, or searched out from individual used book shops. It means either shlepping out to the local Petco for dog and cat food or finding more consistent online sellers. It means getting use to paying for 2-day shipping in some cases. 

Sure Amazon’s customer service is always quick with a refund or offering up a replacement, but being johnny on the spot with those things shouldn’t be the norm. If they’re not interested in delivering a product not beat to shit or spewed open inside the carton during shipment, they’re not interested in hanging on to at least this one customer. Sure, losing a couple thousand dollars a year in revenue isn’t going to break Amazon, but it’s the one voice I know capitalism understands when echoed by enough mouths… and all because the world’s greatest retailer can’t be bothered by a bit of proper product packaging.

Faith in the cloud…

Storing data “in the cloud” is not exactly new. It’s the modern version of mainframes with dumb terminals repackaged to sound somehow more futuristic. For data intensive activities – lets say storing a master backup of my hard drive – having it reside in the cloud (i.e. renting space in someone else’s server farm) works well enough for most purposes.  It just hums along in the background making a faithful copy of everything I have stored on my home computer. The chances of that service and my computer both crapping out at the exact same time are remote enough to not cause a moment’s active worry.

With something like a password manager, though, you end up with a bit of a different story. For five hours today Lastpass, one of a handful of large and popular password managers, was offline. It’s probably not a crisis if you use relatively simple passwords, like 1-2-3-4-A-B-C-D. If you use this kind of service to manage a hundred or more passwords and each of those passwords is a unique 16+ character string, however, life is going to get inconvenient in a hurry if there happen to be sites you actively need to log in to on a daily basis. 

For five hours today Lastpass failed me and I was effectively locked out of sites I use regularly, but that require a daily log in. Some passwords I had to reset manually (while taking note of the new password to sync later with the application that’s nominally in charge of managing my passwords). Others I was locked out of completely while waiting for the systems people to bring their website back online.

No online service will ever have a 100% availability. That goes with the territory. As a paying customer, though, I do expect some basic communication from the company about what’s happening and what is being done to restore services, and more specifically an ETA on when we can expect the repair to be completed. Today, unless you went digging on Twitter, it was a resounding silence from Lastpass. Not an impressive bit of performance… and something that’s got me reevaluating the balance between the security of a paid professional management site versus just keeping everything on a damned spreadsheet so I can use it when I need it. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Oat meal. I’ll admit it. I’m a fan of hot breakfast cereals as a group. Oatmeal, cream of wheat, grits, corn meal are all perfectly pleasing breakfast foods in my kitchen. Running unnaturally late one morning this week, I opted to try breakfast in the little coffee shop / doughnut place in the office. That was a mistake. I saw oatmeal on their menu and thought to myself “self, how badly could a place screw up oatmeal?” The answer to that was a watery mess that had far more in common with the average soup than any kind of oatmeal one might expect to be served. That’s going to be a hard no from me, thanks. When the response from the manager is “yeah, that’s the new recipe we’re supposed to use. Nobody likes it,” I feel like you could have warned a guy ahead of time. Personally I’m 100% open to employee recommendations that warn me not to order something on the menu because it sucks. Not great business perhaps, but it would have been top notch customer service.

2. Telling me to smile more. Mostly I smile when I’m happy… not when I’m focusing in on the 13th revision of a PowerPoint slide or enduring the 3rd hour of a meeting that should have been an email. The fact that my face tends to go rather blank and the corners of my mouth draw towards a scowl in front of my computer terminal aren’t necessarily a commentary on anyone… Though I suppose it could be if it’s someone who tells me to “just smile” one more time. I’ll reserve those clear eyed, happy looks for times that don’t involve spending eight hour clips tethered to a cubicle. Otherwise I just end up walking around with a fake smile plastered right below my dead eyes like so many other drones who don’t seem to know what a smile is actually meant to convey.

3. Responsibility. I want another dog. I also want another cat. I also want to go to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer convention in London this fall. I want a new truck and maybe a plunge pool in the back yard. I want a remodeled master bathroom and new kitchen countertops too. I am, however, not currently getting any of these things because I’m making at least a passing effort at behaving responsibly and in a mostly adult manner. This leads me to believe that responsibility and behaving in an adult manner is stupid, largely unfulfilling, and generally annoying. In a world where the penalty for behaving utterly irresponsibly seems fairly low, I feel like I’m getting the worst end of this bargain.

Two out of three…

I have a standing order with Amazon to deliver dog food, cat food, and litter on a monthly basis. It hasn’t been an altogether satisfying relationship thus far. Two out of the last three orders have been what I’ll just call “defective.” Today’s order included a bag of cat food in fine shape, a box of cat litter in fine condition, and a bag of dog food with a blown out corner that emptied half the bag’s contents out into the shipping box.

Look, the dogs loved the fact that I schlepped this 50 pound box through the middle of the house trailing kibble behind me, but it wasn’t the kind of experience I’d have paid for if given the opportunity. I’m a simple guy who just wants things to arrive undamaged. I don’t feel like that’s really an unreasonable position on my part as the consumer.

I dutifully fired up Amazon’s customer service chat and to their credit they immediately offered to ship out another bag of food or give me a refund. The Amazon business model is a real wonder of the modern – as it seems it’s cheaper for them to replace every fourth or fifth thing I buy than it is to spend a few extra cents on proper packaging for their products.

Amazon isn’t the only game in town, but they are generally the most convenient for setting up recurring orders so I’ll keep using them. They’ll keep sending out items in piss poor packaging. I’ll keep sending for replacements. And the whole machine will keep on working. Somehow, though, it feels like there could be a better way.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Good ideas. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with good ideas. There is, however, a point in every project when your thoughts need to turn away from adding bells and whistles and focus in on executing the damned mission. Some guy with a bunch of stars on his collar and a shit ton of fruit salad on his chest once said “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Words that we’d be well served to keep in mind.

2. Voicemail. Calling a designated customer service number and having to wait a few minutes is standard operating procedure. I got it. Calling the customer service line for a major business and then getting shunted to voicemail isn’t going to get the job done. I’m trying to give your company a not insufficient amount of money. I’m calling you at a time that is convenient for me to talk. Chances are you’ll return my call at a time that is not convenient. Then I’ll call you and leave a message. Then you’ll call me and leave a message and so on. Instead of that, I’ll just go ahead and call the next closest registered dealer that handles the same product and spend my money at their location. Thanks for playing, though.

3. Confusion. Job: “a paid position of regular employment.” Holy Quest: “a chivalric journey undertaken by a knight in order to procure or achieve a particular object or end.” More people should know the difference.

Almost a fiasco…

Saturday morning I discovered that my local Apple Store had in stock availability of their new flagship, iPhone X. I wouldn’t usually venture anywhere near a mall two days after Thanksgiving, but the desire for new and shiny tech got the better of me. Stunningly, I arrived five minutes after the mall opened and parked within 20 yards of the door. It seems that their “holiday hours” are poorly advertised and almost no one realized they were opening an hour early. Fine by me.

I was an AT&T cellular customer since back in the mists of time when they were known as Cingular. I was generally a satisfied customer, too – until I moved to Fortress Jeff, which is located in a black hole of their coverage map. I could make and receive calls over wifi, but when wifi was down, my cell was pretty much an expensive paperweight. Unacceptable. With this change of phone, I wanted to make the jump to Verizon, who neighbors promised had at least a bar or two of coverage even the local power and cable is out. It happens more often than you’d imagine out here at the end of the transmission line.

Without going into details, I’ll just say that AT&T, Verizon, and Apple corporate policies all threw up roadblocks to converting from the Apple Upgrade Program under AT&T to the same program under Verizon. The guy I was working with, though, was an absolute bulldog and took the problems first to the floor manager, who was as confounded as we were. The floor manager then elevated the issues through two layers of management “in the back.” Finally they decided there was actually no way to get from Point A to Point B using existing policy and procedures. That’s they point where one of them decided “we’re going to break the rules” to make the sale.

I can’t say for sure if any rules were broken, but if the number of Apple employees standing around looking concerned while they fiddled with various entries on their tablet is any sign, they were certainly doing something unusual. In the end it took six people and almost an hour to make the sale.

It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t seamless, but in the end I walked away with exactly what I wanted. I appreciate that level of tenacity when the easy answer was “we can’t.” I appreciate it even more when I’ve got two bars of service when the wifi’s off. Well done, Apple. It’s a wonderful lesson for other business out there that customer services really, truly doesn’t have to suck.

How to get a tip…

It’s a weekday. The regularly scheduled shuttle between the hotel where I’m staying and the concert venue I’ll be at tonight stops running at 9:00. No good for my plan. A quick trip to the concierge, a few mumbled words, a bit of special paper changing hands and within two minutes, it’s “No problem, Mr. Tharp. Call my cell when you’re ready to leave and I’ll send down one of the hotel drivers.” Motel 6 would have been cheaper, but it’s hard to beat the overall value I’m feeling just now.