Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Rare Diversion from Tech...

If you know me, you know how big of a baseball fan I am. Baseball's pace allows for some of the most reflection this side of cricket and curling. While lots of folks believe that a ballgame is three hours of boredom, I believe it's seven minutes of frantic execution wedged into a mere three-hour timeslot. The ratio of strategic thought to actual execution is extremely high, maybe the highest in North American sport.

Not coincidentally, U.S. sports literature is dominated by baseball; while you might believe that's because all the time between pitches allows ample opportunity to muse, I'd like to believe it's the intellectual nature of baseball that lends itself to such a trove of writing.

Baseball's pace also allows for a significant amount of in-game teaching--on-the-job training, if you will. I was fortunate to spend four years playing for and learning from disciples of Gordie Gillespie, one of college baseball's most important (and least widely-known) coaches. EVER. Gordie is best-known as the architect of Joliet Catholic's football program, consistenly one of the strongest in Illinois, often nationally ranked. However, few people realize that Gordie is also the all-time winningest coach in college baseball history, having recently won his 1,800 game.

Note that's not *coached* his 1,800th game. *Won* his 1,800th game. Granted, you coach baseball for 57 years, you're gonna win your fair share of games. But Gordie's won more than his fair share--nearly 2/3s of the more than 2,700 games he's coached, he's won. Gordie's an awesome motivator, but as important of a motivator and innovator as he's been in six decades of coaching, I believe his greatest legacy may be as an educator. Similar to how Bill Walsh's disciples have made and continue to make their mark at all levels of football, so too have Gordie's scholar-athletes at all levels of baseball and football. Whether or not you played directly for Gordie, or played for one of the hundreds, maybe thousands of guys he coached who went on to become coaches themselves, you learned how to approach the game--how to conduct yourself as a young man, how to prepare, how to execute.

And, most importantly, how to think.

Which brings me to my point, which is not to pay homage to Gordie Gillespie, although he certainly deserves any and all adulation which comes his way.

Every time I go to a college baseball game, I expect to see the head coach calling every pitch from the dugout--which pains me to no end. Guys like Gordie, Mark Marquess (Stanford's skipper), and John Savage (UCLA's skipper) have forgotten more baseball than I'll likely ever know, but that certainly doesn't diminish my quest and thirst for baseball wisdom.

So, seeing what I'm seeing here today not only pains me, it pisses me off.

Before every pitch, UCLA catcher Gino Aielli looks over to the dugout for a series of signs, as does his Stanford counterpart. However, upon receiving the sequence, Aielli looks at a plastic-covered chart on his arm--much as a quarterback does, translating the complex series of signs into something that's likely a 1 for heat, 2 for a deuce, wiggle for a change-up,

C'mon, Coach Savage, you're killing me here. In addition to destroying the pace of the game (which the home plate umpire continues to try to accelerate by clapping while Aielli looks to the bench), I seriously, *seriously* question how this educates your catcher. NOBODY better understands what's working for a pitcher on a given day than the guy behind the dish, the one wearing the tools of intelligence. The catcher is (or should be) the guy who looks at the batter's stance before every pitch, saw exactly what happened on the previous pitch(es) from the best seat in the house, and is generally the best-equipped guy wearing a cup to determine what the sequence of the next 1-3 pitches should be.

No, I'm not going to argue with the fact that the coaching staff has decades of experience under their belts, nor will I argue with the fact that The Book is now a laptop showing the tendencies of every hitter's every at bat, how he reacted to a given pitch, in a given location, on a given count. But I'll vehemently oppose the notion that the catcher is learning how to call a game in best possible fashion. Aielli isn't learning much if anything today on the field. Sure, during film review, assuming he has a chance to look at the tape before his next game, he might have a chance to pick up a few things. But, by not getting the chance to call his own game, Aielli's losing the chance to make ~120-140 decisions per game, to receive instantaneous feedback on a decision *he* made (or at least suggested, assuming a pitcher was ever allowed to shake off a sign), to take responsibility for the number of fingers he put down.

In short, he's being less than fully educated.

Maybe I'm just old school. But, the fact that we may now have the highest percentage of catchers as managers (Torre, Scioscia, Girardi, Wakamatsu, Geren, Bochy, Wedge, Gonzalez) in MLB history leads me to believe that there's something to the concept of the guys behind the plate being pretty good learners, and pretty good teachers, too.

Assuming they're allowed to learn, of course. At the pace we're going, I fear that in 20 years, we might not have *any* former catchers calling the shots at the major league level, which would be shameful. Yeah, major college baseball is important stuff. No, it's not the revenue-generating sport that football or basketball is, but it's important just the same. But, depriving the guys behind the dish of an education on how to properly handle batters (and their pitching staff) is horribly detrimental to their development as signal callers. Right now, with most college programs calling every pitch from the bench, catchers aren't signal callers. They're signal relayers, in the loop only because of the need to know what's coming to be able to catch the ball.

That's a shame. I fully expect the next step to be a catcher's helmet with a green sticker on the back, just like a quarterback's, designating that he's the guy with the radio. Then we'll put a sticker and an earpiece on the pitcher's cap, so both hurler and receiver know what the skipper wants to throw. Sure, it'll look odd to see a reliever come in from the 'pen and have to plug in his earpiece and radio when he toes the slab, but maybe that'll be the new normal a decade or two down the road.

But I sure hope not.

(Apologies for any mistakes...this was a pretty lengthy diatribe to type on a BlackBerry while sitting in the stands. Thankfully, Stanford's now up 6-2 in the 7th. Might be karmic retribution for Aielli having to wear a friggin' play chart just to interpret the number of fingers to flash.)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

What's in the Hopper?

In response to a number of questions about what's under test right now...

New stuff includes...
...along with the existing array of Boxee, Promise's 2-slot DLNA NAS, Windows 7 (which doesn't support yet, annoyingly), the Logitech diNovo Mini (which is awesome--the ideal living room/HTPC keyboard), the new Blackberry App World, and a few other random bits of consumer tech...

I'd Like a Confirmation Number. Seriously.

Annnnnnnd, we're back...

Lots of stuff to work through. First off--non-repudiation for customer service calls.

I'm told that I may not be alone in being annoyed by service fees my bank charges. Yeah, really.

When I launched my consultancy, I had to do lots of stuff, including choosing a bank. Living in the Bay Area, you truly only have a couple of options. I've been with one of the big boys since I moved to California in 1993; The Wife has been with the other guys since she arrived in '96. Realistically, we had two choices; we ended up going with my bank. As part of the sign-up process, and despite vehement protests that I neither wanted nor needed them, I was "offered" a few services I needed to opt out of after 90 days.

Which I did. Except, they claim I didn't.

When it's my word against their word, guess who wins? Not The Little Guy (me), at least not immediately. The Wife and I have now called five times to cancel one of the services--including while sitting in a branch last week, where a personal banker even dialed the number for us. He sat there while I canceled (for the fifth time) a service costing $30 a month, one which I never wanted in the first place, one which I've been trying to cancel for way too long. Lo and behold, I'm getting onto a flight at IAD the other night, and in comes an e-mail--informing me of my monthly charge for $36. Yeesh--trying to cancel a service I had no use for costs me an extra six bucks for no longer wanting to have it.

Or something like that.

The last couple times we've called the bank, we've specifically asked for a confirmation number. When we've asked, we've been told "Oh, just check your statement to make sure it's canceled." I'm checking, and it ain't.

Similarly, I called my video service provider last night to cancel my MLB Extra Innings package. Lest you think I've suddenly found wisdom and renounced my beloved Cubs, I'm in no way giving up just because they're now into Century of Futility Numero Dos. Nope, nothing that insightful. No, I simply chose to cancel because A) the package costs $179.95 for me to watch many (but not all) games at (nowhere other than) my home; and B) the MLB.TV Premium package from MLB (at $109.95) has a sweet suite of capabilities this year, including HD, every single game on both video and audio, multi-game viewing options, and much more. Since I have computers hooked up to multiple TVs here at home, and since I'm on the road a fair bit, I figured I should the save $70 for a couple of bottles of Veuve for when the Cubs win the World Series.

A guy's gotta have hope, right?

I hopped on the service provider's portal last night; I've been with them for eight years, and have conducted the vast majority of my transactions over the Internet, so I figured this should be a no-brainer.

Not so much.

After logging in, I promptly went to my programming section, where I tried to uncheck the MLB Extra Innings option. No love--the site said I needed to call to cancel. So, I dutifully picked up the phone and dialed. After dealing with the interactive voice response tree, I was given the option to speak to a human being, or allow the IVR to help me. I like humans. In fact, much of the time, I am one. I figured I'd help somebody justify their job, which is why I said "AGENT!" to the IVR until she listened.

I was summarily transferred to a recording informing me that operators are only on duty from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. local time, and that I should call back during regular business hours. That's annoying--my friggin' TV's on at 1 a.m., and I'm working. To me, that's normal business hours.

I hung up and called back.

This time, I chose to let the IVR help me. She was such a cheery little chipmunk, I figured I should give her a shot. Once again, no love--she claimed that she was having trouble understanding me (when she'd told me on the last call that she was definitely able to help me out with my problem). I felt like I was trying to get into a European airport lounge that I knew I had the right to be in, but that the concierge/door guardian had decided that Americans didn't belong. I mean, I'm not trying to shop in Germany on Sunday. I'm just trying to cancel one component of my programming.

After she gave me the Heisman, I set a reminder to buzz them back this morning. I called around 10 a.m., and had a very nice conversation with a real, live (I think) customer service representative who said she'd be happy to help. While we were speaking, she told me that I should be able to see the charge reversal in real-time. I didn't, but I figured, hey, she knew what she was talking about. I asked her for a cancellation number so I had some kind of record of our conversation, but she said I wouldn't need one, since she'd taken care of everything.

Except that she hadn't.

Having learned from my experience with the bank, I watched the service provider's website like a hawk. All I saw was an $.80 credit--not really what I was looking for. I called back around noon; despite the IVR lady's protests that really, she could help me, I again chose to speak with a human being. I told him about my earlier call, and asked him to have a look at whether I'd been successful at canceling my MLB programming.

I hadn't. Which pisses me off.

I mean, this isn't rocket science. Customer service agents exist to provide, oh, I don't know, customer service. I acknowledge that the absolute vast majority of CSRs I've dealt with over the years range between competent and outstanding; dealing with the United 1K desk for the last dozen years has been particularly smooth, save for their short-lived foray of shipping the 1K desk offshore. Marriott's and Hyatt's top-tier desks are awesome, too. As a mega-frequent traveler, it's easy to be spoiled, but the regular line-level CSR desks at most places are staffed by really good folks--who sometimes suffer from horrible training (or a total lack thereof), as well as systems that aren't exactly cooperative.

I'm not sure the culprit in this case...I'm willing to blame it on the computer system, based on the fact that the first CSR I spoke with seemed very competent. During my second call, the CSR was extremely apologetic, and asked me to stay on the phone with him until the website updated to ensure (with my own eyes) that the service had been removed and a credit issued. Despite the fact that the process took 10 minutes, I was more than willing to do so, particularly since I didn't want to be forced to make a third call--or further calls, as we've done with the bank. While the bank issue didn't necessarily have any urgency (aside from them charging me for a bunch of stuff I neither wanted nor needed), the television issue did--if I hadn't been successful in canceling MLB Extra Innings before the first pitch of the regular season, I'd've been stuck with paying for the entire season.

Which brings me to my point.

My time's valuable. Every consumer's time is valuable. When CSRs go home from work, their time is valuable--not to denigrate the value of their time when they're at work, but when the shoe's on the other foot, I think they end up as frustrated as me. Being forced to make multiple phone calls to resolve an issue isn't productive for anyone. And, when it's the consumer's word against the big company's, it's pretty tough for the consumer to prove his case.

In the travel market, it's easy to do so, since a canceled transaction comes with a cancellation number. Why can't the bank or the TV guys give me one, too? When I make a financial transfer online, I receive a confirmation number from the bank, which I save as a PDF so I have proof of the transaction. That's my validation that what I said actually happened, happened.

When I call the bank or the TV guys, I have to confirm my name, my address, the last four digits of my social, All of these are in the name of non-repudiation--a mechanism for them to validate that I am who I say I am.

Why should non-repudiation stop there? When I execute a transaction via any method--online from my computer, from a mobile device, over the phone--why don't I receive a transaction number (whether for a confirmation, cancellation, change, you name it) every single time? If the system is designed properly--and that's a big if, in the truest sense of garbage in, garbage out--the CSR shouldn't be able to confirm that the transaction is complete until a transaction number is issued. Give it to me. I'll write it down. Then, when I call back because Big Company hasn't done what they said they'd done, it's no longer my word against theirs.