Did you know the federal government pays an average of $5,300 for a non-human primate intended for medical research? That’s a monkey to you and me. But agencies are buying fewer monkeys and, instead, breeding more of them in-house. Which means the federal government represents a small but steady market for goods and services related to primate animal husbandry, if that’s your thing.
How do I know this? Eric Gillespie told me by way of introducing the fine-grained government market intelligence his new company, Govini, is capable of producing.
Gillespie, who was a founder of recovery.org back in the early days of the multi-hundred-billion dollar American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (the stimulus bill that didn’t), and a major promise of the Obama administration (a promise kept) was that the spending patterns would be transparently available to the public. Gillespie said Govini seeks to bring to the market strengths he thinks are lacking in the two major competitors — Deltek and Bloomberg Government. If Bloomberg brings rich policy understanding and an “editorial overlay,” and Deltek brings a strong orientation towards IT sales leads, Gillespie said Govini will bring deep data analytics and market intelligence.
Three converging technologies made Govini possible, Gillespie says. First is big data plumbing, the infrastructure of bandwidth and cloud-based data indexing and related services. Second is analytic tools capable of “reading” unstructured data. And, he noted, a lot of government data exists in PDF and spreadsheets, despite OMB’s years of efforts to get agencies to put everything in machine-readable formats. The third technology, PDFs not withstanding, is the large number of data sets available from sources such as data.gov.
Govini search results, refined using standard Boolean logic, show purchase history and current opportunities over a selectable timeline. They show who has purchased what and from whom, sortable by company, location including congressional district, buying entity and a bunch of other properties. You can also find results by likely contractor industrial category. For example, various categories of health care products and services spending might fall under construction for a VA clinic or distribution for supplies.
My cursory, initial look in Govini data seemed to show considerable depth. Its most potent selling point may be the amount of state and local market data. Its web interface takes on the dashboard style, not unlike that of the federal recovery.gov, where each element is a link to deeper data.
Although the White House fervently wants publicly posted data sets to attract app and game developers, professional markets such as federal sales and marketing will always be willing to pay for value-added. Witness the durability of Deltek’s antecedents FedSources and Input. Govini is priced at $3,600 per seat annually, roughly half the price of a Bgov seat. The full boat federal, state and local is priced at $13,000.
The government market, like all others, is a relationship one. Experience, gumshoe business development, proposal skill and a host of other human factor ultimately make success. You can’t run any business totally by the numbers. But the competing data services can certainly make all of the other activities more efficient, all for about the cost of a summer intern.
They’ve all come a long way since the early Fed Sources pioneering days, when the trick was to track the big federal hardware IDIQs and the items pulled along by the big systems integration contracts. Now the opportunities are as likely to be services as hardware. What’s more, even the biggest prime contractors can hardly keep up with the dozens of niche vendors that keep joining the market. For that matter, without a data service to aid them, neither can contracting officers and other source selection people.
A footnote: Govini is based in San Francisco, in the hotbed “SoMa” district a stone’s throw from offices of Google, Zynga, and Twitter. Deltek is in the contractor heartland of northern Virginia, while Bloomberg occupies space in the district’s policy-legal-lobby zone. Gillespie says the long term plan is to launch *inis in other vertical markets beyond government.
I’m about to give grandma the pill, as President Obama would say. In the case “grandma” is my piano. My parents first purchased this piano 51 years ago from Gimble’s department store in Pittsburgh. Department stores sold pianos in those days, usually from an upper floor. My grandfather gave them the down payment for it. I was 7 at the time, and had for some time been picking out tunes on any piano I happened by. Within a year I started lessons. Alas, I wasn’t destined to be Van Kliburn or Rudoph Serkin, but I still play and, basically because I show up and am not shy, I am in a band and have accompanied several amateur shows over the years. As Liberace used to say, I ain’t good, but I got guts.
Anyhow, the last time my highly capable tuner/technician stopped by, he cast a gimlet eye over the beloved old piano. “You know,” he said, “You’re better than this piano.” That is, the mechanism has worn quite a bit in a half century of use, so it’s not nearly as responsive as it could be. He pointed out how the keys had become uneven. Ever look at yourself in fluorescent light and suddenly every imperfection stands out? The tuner said he could get it in shape all right, but strongly implied it may not be worth the cost given that it was, after all, a 51-year-old department store piano. Hardly a vintage Bosendorfer.
Fast forward to last week, and my sister offered to give me her piano. They’re ready to start downsizing. It’s only 10 years old with very little playing mileage. It’s a Yamaha, a better instrument to begin with, and it just sits there. Soon in it will be on a truck from Massachusetts. That means the old one has got to go.
But still, it feels like casting out an elderly member of the family. You don’t sit and interact with a mechanical thing for 50 years without partially merging with it. Dogs use their noses to sniff out the emotional state of other dogs and people. So doesn’t it stand to reason that in 50 years of hard work at that piano, the wood might have absorbed the emotional emanations or pheromones I’ve produced sitting at it in times of joy and sorrow, triumph and frustration?
Lots of mechanical machines acquire personalities and become like partners. Like cars. C’mon, you know it’s true. Computers don’t. It has to have moving parts. Motorcycles do. Go to one of those tourist antique railroads, watch the steam engine and tell me it’s not living.
Look at these louts, the internet is full of videos like this, people having fun wrecking pianos that someone once purchased, full of promise and potential. Then there is the annual Baker Piano Drop, something they do at MIT. Shouldn’t a piano at least be disassembled peacefully, the metal parts melted down and the wood burned respectfully?
My mother is not quite as sentimental about the piano as I am. She told me, “Oh, it’s just an old piece of furniture.” My wife sides with her on this one.
And so the old Schroeder is about to go ignominiously on Craig’s List, unless you know someone who wants to give it a good home. “Console upright piano, 51 years old, lovingly maintained….Bach, Beethoven and Chopin don’t convey”
Not sure when it happened, but I’ve reached the point in life where I realize I’d better start getting rid of the clutter of decades of accumulating stuff. George Carlin’s stuff routine got it exactly right. I wander around my nine-room colonial and wonder, how do we end up collecting so much? My wife never fails to point out, it’s mostly my stuff. I say the difference between normal people and those horders on TV is a matter of degree.
My stuff is like an archaeological tel of my life’s successive passions. I was an audiophile, with a big LP collection. LP, you know, 33s. I still have the turntable, receiver, tape deck, and hardwood speakers from the 1970s. Today a vintage electronics scavenger came by, responding to our Craig’s List ad for the two speakers. Most of the drivers have rotted out, but they can be repaired or replaced, and he’ll probably resell them for hundreds. I took $50 cash. But it was a great stab against the clutter, getting rid of two boxes the size of small refrigerators. Still, I had a pang of regret. I still remember the moment I plugged all this stereo gear together and played a record on it. I can never return to that sound.
Photography and darkroom gear is another matter. That passion reined for 30 years. All of my gear is totally obsolete, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. It’s not the stuff, necessarily, so much as the time, effort and joy it represented. Maybe when (if) I retire I’ll take up wet, silver-halide photography again. I don’t even have to expose another piece of film — I’ve got 15 notebooks filled with thousands upon thousands of negatives.
I still have three manual typewriters. If the grid fails, I can still write. I’ve got news for you — they still make carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. Fishing rods? A half dozen and two tackle boxes.
The Swiss Army Knife and pocket AM radio I got for my bar mitzvah? Oh yeah, still got ‘em. They’re like new. So were the speakers. So is the receiver, except the capacitors are starting to break down. All technology eventually de-orbits into entropy.
Lately I’ve noticed a new form of clutter gliding into life. Digital clutter.
Here’s an example. I play keyboards in a geezer rock ‘n’ roll band. In fact, that’s another clutter story. Someone gave me a used keyboard 10 years ago, and now I’ve got a collection of five keyboards, plus stands, amplifiers and a big duffel bag full of cables, pedals, tambourines, lamps for dark venues, Lord knows what else. It weighs 50 pounds. Anyhow, to practice the old songs, we play along to YouTube videos. I never wanted or needed a YouTube account. But I have one anyhow, so I can have a favorites list and keep together the Tom Petty, Grateful Dead, Doors and Eric Clapton clips we try to emulate. It comes with a Google+ account. What is that? Another digital entity, something else to manage and take up solid-state hard drive space.
I’ve got so many online accounts for shopping, travel, social media, music, municipal parking, sports and applications I have a special app — no doubt linked directly to Russian cyber thieves — just to manage all of the account names, logons and passwords.
Among the three e-mail accounts I use daily, there is a total of 40,000 messages. Email is like a yard that never gets raked. I should bulk erase 99 percent of it, but what if I need some tidbit of information there some time? I’ve heard of people declaring “bankruptcy” and just deleting everything.
My contacts list is a big clutter. Because sync software doesn’t really work very well, contacts sort of self-multiply. People start appearing twice, three times, or just as an e-mail entry. There’s not enough time in a life to keep your contacts list scrupulously clean. I have probably a dozen deceased people in my contacts whom I can’t bring myself to delete.
Thinking about stuff, I realize it’s not the external value that makes us cling to it. Rather, it’s the associations, the history, the evidence it provides that we were here and we did this and that. Erase the past, and we erase ourselves. What more concrete manifestations of our egos and ids are here besides the items we once valued?
I’ll tell you what: It’s the good works we do with and for other people, and the relationships we establish and nuture. Ultimately, the stuff is just stuff, but because of the tactile history and the associations that go with it, we can’t seem to toss it. Ever notice how mentally easy it is to de-clutter someone else’s house?
Happy New Year!
So I’m in one of those tiny, big-practice medical examining rooms, waiting for the doctor. They used to keep copies of the Physicians Desk Reference in these rooms, which were fun to read, but I imagine that’s gone all digital. So I scan e-mail on my BlackBerry, get bored with that, then pick up and examine the football-sized model of the human digestive system. In real life, it covers a lot of yardage, if not exactly a straight line.
Result of the visit is, I have to take a pill every day. No biggie, I’ll add it to the statutory Lipitor. And the fish oil. And baby aspirin. And multi-vitamim. I’m no spring chicken.
For most of the world, there is no electronic medical record. This particular specialist has an iPhone and a notebook PC on a rollabout stand. The laptop seems to be connected to a WiFi network, but the doctor has several pages of written notes. Regardless, whatever he knows is unknown to my primary care physician P.C.P.). That practice, in yet another fancy building in Bethesda, Maryland is something like Jiffy Lube — it simulates personal care. But they know your body in the same way the grease monkey at Jiffy Lube knows your car. He’s seeing 50 cars on his shift. Not like the mechanic you grew up with who, when you were filling up, would call out, “Hey, let me know when you want to bring it in for those ball joints.” Heck, a checkup today, they don’t even unbutton your shirt to listen to your heart. You could be speckled with melanoma and your P.C.P. would never know.
Anyhow, basically sound as I am, it occurs to me that the P.C.P. ought to be aware that I have acquired a new pill habit that won’t otherwise show up on his records. The two practices don’t communicate. They would if some sort of EMR infrastructure existed in a meaningful way. But automated medical offices are stovepipes, lacking automated cross communication. The specialist wants two or three tests added to the next time the P.C.P. does my semi-annual blood workup. So I have a scribbled-on piece of paper to carry in the next time they draw blood. How’s that for sneakerware? This isn’t rural West Virginia, but a hub in one of the densest, most affluent suburbs in the hemisphere. The three miles between the two practices are clotted with doctors and facilities including the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and a big hospital with a helipad on the roof.
When I call the primary care place, I finally reach a somebody who agrees to take a message for the P.C.P. Yet I sense a blend of irritation and puzzlement in her voice. Like, “Why is this turkey calling us to tell us about a prescription from some other place?” The next time I go I’m going to test to see whether he is aware of the information. The incident brought out in sharp relieve, if only in a routine situation, the efficiency and better quality that and electronic medical records infrastructure could bring.
Yet I can see why — despite a two and a half year program of the federal government trying to bribe medical practices into adopting EMRs for “meaningful use”– so few practices have it. It’s mainly that they are too busy.
From the basement to the bedrooms, a house full of obsolete things.
A Bose clock radio bought on a special discount a decade or more ago at the now-defunct Comdex trade show. (It used to draw 100,000 people.) The radio has a built-in CD player. But it cannot read the MP3 format. Functional still for other CDs, but obsolete. On the wall opposite the bed, a 19″ tube TV with a semi-zapped-out sound circuit. Mounted on a state-of-the-art 1990 bracket that now looks like something in an old hospital room. Just haven’t gotten around to replacing with a flatscreen.
First floor, let’s start with the stereo. In 1978 I purchased a sweet Harmon Karden receiver, 40 watts RMS per channel, pure analog. Also a belt-driven turntable with a tone arm that moves in a straight line, to match the way vinyl records are cut. Cat’s meow. All the better to play the latest direct-to-disk recordings of the pre-CD, apex years of LPs. Plus two AR speakers in hand-rubbed walnut cabinets. When my son was small he put a tiny fistule through one of the woofers and I could still find a replacement. Now one of the midrange drivers has rotted away, and I’m wondering if the parts dealer still exists. My wife says, can’t we just toss out all of this crap?
In the closet: A collection of old film cameras. The mechanical shutters have grown sluggish as the grease congeals with age. Foam panels are drying to dust. It’s all basically worthless. I looked into a digital back for the 4 x 5 view camera. They make ‘em, but you could by a new Beetle for about the same money.
In the basement, wet-photography gear — tanks, trays, washing devices, a motorized enlarger disassembled for 20 years. I was going to get around to building a new darkroom when we moved here, but kids, career…So all sits moldering, still in the United Van Lines boxes. In the meantime, wet photography went the way of oil painting and engraving.
I even have three manual typewriters gathering cobwebs. I may go back to writing letters on them. Ding—zzzzzzzip! On my desk, next to the Lava Lamp, sits my Western Electric black rotary phone.
The thing about old stuff is that, when it was current, it gave a generation, sometimes two or three, of service. The Nikon F first came out around 1959 and stayed in production until the 1970s, when the F2 came out. But mechanical things are different from electronic ones, where the technology is still doubling capacity every 18 months. I used the Nikon F for 20 years after the F2 came out. But I’m on my third Mac computer in five years.
People have gotten so used to awesomely faster and better every year, that Apple’s stock fell because it called the new iPhone the 4S, instead of giving the “5″ designation. It’s 33 percent faster at this, 50 percent better at that, processes the other at twice the speed, and has umpteen new features. At which all of the analysts yawned.
Electronics also throws off junk. I’ve got baskets of leftover detritus from years gone by. A zombie’s spaghetti dinner of old USB cables, telephone cords, power supplies with every odd voltage and terminator, stands from long-ago monitors, serial and parallel cables, backup CDs from trashed computers, old hard drives. All mixed in with assorted knobs, button batteries, Velcro tidbits, stick-on rubber feet, assorted strain reliefs, cable ties, fasteners, clips, connectors, allen wrenches, 9V battery sockets, and a few guitar picks that got in there somehow. But it’s easy to throw out old electronics. Who gets sentimental about a Dell computer?
I’m not sure why I can’t get myself to sell or give away my mechanical and analog items. Sometimes I think I’ll just put it all in a big box and drop it off somewhere. I know I won’t. Probably because, like the played-to-death Meet The Beatles album in the dog-eared cover, their dust-gathering presence maintain a physical connection to when I was young. Plus, the stuff technically still works. The Nikon F and Mamiya C330 were built like brick shithouses. And I really miss the grip and mechanical interaction of typewriters and spring-powered cameras.
I can do the basics in Photoshop, but it’s doesn’t match the dark mustard-colored seclusion of a darkroom and the smell of hypo. Getting your hands in the chemicals and the washing trays. The magic of seeing a white sheet morph into a brilliant print. As long as the materials are still available, I still harbor the hope I’ll build that darkroom. And man, it will have the best sound system ever.
Sprint and Verizon are in a pitched battle to sign up people for their fourth generation, or 4G, mobile wireless networks. AT&T seems behind the 8-ball on this, which may be why the next iPhone will still be a 3G phone.
I’ve been using Verizon’s 4G for data for several months. As I’ve written, it’s demonstrably faster than the company’s 3G data network, but it doesn’t work as fast as the 802.11G wireless network in my house that connects to a FIOS fiber connection. I can tell when I upload or download multi-megabit MP3 sound files to and from Federal News Radio using a PC in my house. Sometimes I can’t get more then two bars to show for reception strength, which may be why the 4G feels slightly sluggish in some applications. I haven’t tried Sprint 4G.
Recently I found one application where 4G makes a definitive difference. Comrex Corp. makes a funny-looking gadget that is a stable of radio stations, including my own, Federal News Radio, and our sister station, WTOP. The Comrex is basically a Linux computer with a coding-decoding circuit for transmitting analog voice by digital means. When we do live remote broadcasts, it connects the remote person — often me — with the mixer in the studio operated by the anchor. With the Comrex, you get the good sound that comes with high bandwidth. That is, it sounds as if the remote person is in the studio, as opposed to that over-the-telephone sound.Until this year, we’ve been using the Comrex with a 3G access card. It works, but there’s a noticeable delay, often one second or longer. This has made it difficult to carry on natural-sounding conversations between the field and the anchor in the studio. We’ve designed our remote broadcasts around this limitation. We conduct interviews entirely between the on-location subject and the on-location host (me). The studio anchor is just monitoring until the remote person signs off. It’s how we avoid the listener hearing the awkward pauses or two-at-once talking caused by the delay.
But using a Comrex equipped with 4G, it was possible to have a delay-free conversation with my co-host, Amy Morris, when I was at a remote location in the Washington, D.C. area. Nearly delay-free; there is still a very slight delay. But we overcame it with a couple of moments’ practice.
Now we’re equipping our Comrex units with 4G Verizon cards. Brian Oliger is one of WTOP’s top technical guys. He keeps tons of radio equipment running, from microphones to antennae high up on towers. He told me two kinds of delay occur when using the Comrex. The coding-decoding process can introduce delays of fractions of a second. But network delays can induce delays of up to 6 seconds. With the 4G, Oliger says, the network-induced delays have all but disappeared. WTOP/WFED owns 14 Comrex portables, all of which will be equipped with 4G by the end of the summer. (An additional three rack-mound Comrexes reside within the studios. A couple more exist at the stations’ transmitters, which are remote from the studios.) New Comrex portable models lack PCMCIA card slots, but instead have USB 2.0 ports to accommodate the new way carriers are delivering their networks to computers.
Oliger, an old hand at new technology, is reserving final judgement on the 4G until it becomes popular and there is competition for the bandwidth. Dropped iPhone calls on 3G networks are maddening. But in broadcasting they’re an application-killer.
I’ve always wondered why technology refreshes and upgrades in federal agencies take so much time and money. I shouldn’t have wondered, though.
Here’s my one-user tale. I tugged on a thread that started with my BlackBerry. By the time I was done I’d lifted my own wallet.
It all started because the BlackBerry refused to sync on my Mac using BlackBerry Desktop 2.0. Hours and hours with Research in Motion tech support. Vows to get an iPhone. E-mailing log file after log file. Forced to enter all my data in two places, machine and handheld, I was ready to go back to my old Palm Centro. Then I took the Mac itself, a Mini just three months beyond the extended warranty, to the local reseller. Turns out, a balky motherboard that had the habit of disowning its own USB connections. Apple hardware may look great, but it’s still hardware, assembled in the same Chinese factories as everybody else’s gear.
For me, a computer is an economic tool. I can earn more money using it than I save by not replacing it and fiddling endlessly with the old one. Anyhow, a new main board is about half the cost of new machine. So I bought a whole new Mini. By the time I was done adding the 3-year extended warranty, doubling the memory and having them load the 2011 version of Microsoft Office, the $699 Mini bulked up to a $1,200 purchase.
Of course, I had to buy a new backup drive. You can get a T-byte drive for a hundred bucks. Ka-ching.
The I discovered my Matrox DualHead2Go Digital monitor doubler wasn’t compatible with the new Mini, which has a mini DP monitor port, instead of a DVI port like the old Mini. Ooooookay. So back to CDW for the DP edition of the DualHead2Go. That set me back another $231 plus shipping. Plus another $150 or so for a 22″ LG monitor for the old Mini, since it otherwise still works fine.
Dumb me, when the Matrox device arrived, I realized all I have are two VGA cables for my twin monitors. The new DualHead has only DP ports, no VGA. And why convert only to get a lower resolution?
Matrox said get male DVI-to-female DP converters, then buy two regular DP cables. But they were out of stock on the converters. (Luckily my monitors have both VGA and DVI ports.) Then I figured, why not simply get male-DVI-to-male-DP cables and skip the converters. So back again to CDW for another $100 for two cables plus shipping. I’m waiting for them to arrive to I can test the new set-up.
So what started as an irritating sync issue and a radio shift’s worth of time on the phone with RIM turned into a $1,700 spending spree that left me with a near-perfect surplus computer.
One piece of good news is that OS-X Snow Leopard likes my five-year-old Dell color laser printer, with drivers that not only recognizes it but also supports duplex printing.
Few federal agencies can match the National Security Agency for technology requirements. Insiders describe the NSA has totally cyber. Insiders such as the deputy director, John Inglis. Staff there basically lives in cyberspace, he said the other night at the FedSMC conference in Cambridge, Md. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, he couldn’t say much about about what the NSA actually does with all that technology. But I’ll wager there is a lot of digital data mining and analysis, much as the agency does signal analysis on analog traffic.
Every year the NSA spends billions — although here again the exact amount is classified. But NSA people aren’t shy about describing what it takes to do business with the agency. One of them is Mark Barnett, the director of NSA’s small business programs. He is regularly on the circuit. He boasts about NSA’s record of small business utilization. And in the same breath he describes how difficult it is to become an NSA contractor.
Part of the challenge is that contractors need top security clearance to work on a contract, but they can’t get a clearance without a contract. To overcome this catch 22, the agency runs a program called Provisional Industrial Security Approval, or PISA, under which up to five people in a small or disadvantaged business can obtain clearances for the purposes of business development. But there is only one chance for all the people to get their clearances. If one individual doesn’t pass, that’s the end of the road for the company. And no substitutions allowed, Barnett explained. Plus, NSA won’t accept a security clearance granted by another agency. If that’s not tough enough, Barnett said that clearances from NSA can’t be used to gain business development access at another agency unless meetings are attended by an NSA representative.
“We’re not all classified, just 98 percent,” Barnett quipped.
But, clearance aside, you can’t just walk up to the agency with a suitcase full of technology, according to Barnett. You have to be preapproved or recommended by someone pretty high up in the agency — program manager level or higher.
After clearing these hurtles, it can still be a long time — up to several years — before your company can expect to see anything resembling an order.
Yet for all that, Barnett said NSA awards 18 percent of contracts directly to small businesses. Adding in set-aside requirements for awards to large businesses, he said NSA would rank at the top of federal agencies for the number and percentage of acquisition dollars.
Occasionally, the NSA will reach out to a business with a particularly promising technology. Barnett said that poke won’t come from his office but from another group that scours the technology field literature looking for clues to real innovation.
Creation of new federal web sites under the Obama administration has reached warp speed. So much so that even the main federal portal, usa.gov, can’t keep up with them. For the most part, the new sites are of interest mainly to the hordes of interest groups that already keep tabs on this or that agency.
Two sites in the news recently got me to thinking. When it comes to one branch of federal online service, I would like to make the case for a single portal. If you go to USA.gov, within a couple of clicks you get to all of the consumer guides and protective links. There are 101 of them.
Last week, the Federal Trade Commission came out with its annual report on the complaints it received. Its collection site, Consumer Sentinel, logged more than 1.3 million complaints year about financial products and services.
Also last week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission proceeded with somewhat controversial plans for an online system for consumers to send in complaints about products under the CPSC’s jurisdiction, Safer Products.org. Commission chairwoman Inez Tannenbaum told me and Amy on The Federal Drive that she has sufficient staff to filter out complaints that will inevitably come in that don’t come under CPSP. She said they’ll redirect those posts to the agencies that to have sway.
Not that the CPSC didn’t anticipate this problem. The drop-down menu of product categories ensures that people don’t report something wrong with, say, chicken. Another drop-down tells consumers what is outside CPSC, with links to those agencies.
The president and the Government Accountability Office have recently pointed out that the multiplicity of agencies each having something to say about food safety is another area ripe for reform and consolidation.
It all gave me an idea. How about one big site called “Tell The Government” or “Federal Complaint Central.” It would have these characteristics:
- Simple online form with field for the product name, what it is generically, who the manufacturer is, name and type of store from which it was purchased, zip code, and a text field for the specific problem.
- A software analysis engine that, knowing what agencies oversee what, and backed by a database of retailers and manufacturers, could quickly sort and forward to the appropriate agency. It would be able to spot and block instances of repeat complaints or postings with identical wording coming from various URLs.
- The complaints would be forwarded to the manufacturer and retailer so they could investigate (as the CPSC does).
No longer would consumers have to wade through 101 or more web sites just to figure out where to complain. It would be up to each agency to decide how to handle the complaint according to its standard procedures.
Maybe it’s the lousy economy. Maybe it’s because automation in call-center, inbound situations is finally making a real difference. Or maybe it’s because the connectedness of the social media world has such an artificial feel to it. But I’m feeling an upturn in human contact — enabled by, but not because of, electronic communication.
Three recent examples:
Gum. I’ve chewed gum all my life. I know it’s not a lovely habit, but, like tattoos (I’ve got one of those, too) it’s become mainstream. In the past few years, the gum-making industry has put forth a burst of innovation in both gum flavors and packaging. We no longer live in our grandfather’s world of five-stick packs of Beeman’s or Juicy Fruit. So on a lark, I sent an e-mail to the Wrigley division that makes the sugarless Extra brand of gum. I wanted to tell them how much I like their mint chocolate chip flavor. Plus it has Sorbitol, which my dentist approves of. Within an hour I got a personally composed reply from Tosha M., a consumer care representative. No freebies, but they were glad I liked their gum.
Blackberry. Hoo, boy. A total of nine hours on the phone with three level 2 tech support reps. One call lasted through dinner. I put the phone on speaker, so when the tech put me on hold to read log files I’d zipped and e-mailed, we had dinner music. There is a subtle, intractable, and horrible flaw in the complex of software required to do a simple task–sync my Blackberry with my Mac. Lack of sync is one problem. That something, some bit of code somewhere actually causes the USB ports on the Mac to die, forcing a power-switch reboot, now that’s really an issue. One rep was in Canada, one in Texas, the third in Nova Scotia. The case tracking and history technology Research in Motion really works. And when you’re on the phone with a stranger for three hours, he or she becomes not such a stranger. We exchanged family stories. I accompanied a musical show on the piano over the weekend. J.C. at Blackberry sings in his church choir. We complained about the Dallas Cowboys. The Nova Scotia rep, in hour nine, had a shrewd insight. He had me install Blackberry Desktop on my wife’s Mac. Worked perfectly.
Uh oh. This is a “your hardware problem,” isn’t it, I asked tentatively. ‘fraid so, came the answer. Bummer. Luckily I have a nearby Mac dealer that’s not an annoying Apple Store with annoying “geniuses.” They can fix anything Macish.
Carrying cases. I have several electronic keyboards. I’m partial to Korg and Kurzweil. (I’m in the market for a used Farfisa.) I am buying nice, uniform cases for them. Handles, metal corners, foam lining. I found a place in New York that keeps a database on the exact dimensions of hundreds of instruments and other pieces of equipment. Even Sousaphones, which I don’t play. But they make each case on demand. Tom answers the phone and it’s like we’re old friends. One case ships without the wheels. One call and the wheels kit comes the next day — with a deduction off my bill for the wheels option because I have to install them myself. That requires an electric drill.
Three industries, and customer service with a personal touch is alive and well.