Monday, June 23, 2008

Verizon's designs on me

My cell phone died. I could place and receive calls; the display worked fine; but I could not hear anyone and no one could hear me. Kaput. No point asking about repair, because repair consists of tossing in the scrap pile and replacing with a new phone. Except phone models are obsolete about five minutes after they’re introduced, so replace means upgrade. Lamentable as this state of affairs may be, it is not news and it is not what this post is about.

No, this post is about the design of Verizon stores and the design of their entire customer-facing operation.

Let’s start with the stores
I purchased my now-defunct phone nineteen months ago and the store has been remodeled since then. So I assume my local store is up to date in terms of Verizon’s corporate design standard. Understand that I’m over sixty and a very light telephone user, not the heart of Verizon’s target market. Nonetheless, cell phones are pretty much a necessity these days, and I think a company of Verizon’s size ought to be able to serve a broad market, not just twenty-three-year-olds.

Here’s how I experienced the store. Initially I felt as if I were walking onto the set of a dystopian futuristic movie. Cold. Black. Evil. A small display opposite the front door invited me to put my own name on a waiting list. However, my eye went first to a human face behind what appeared to be a service counter, and I did not notice the check-in stand until later. The young man I spoke with, to his credit, put my name into the queue rather than telling me to go back to the entrance and type it in myself. He then told me I’d be called from the technical service counter at the back of the store.

The store is vast, with a large amount of open floor space. I assume that on weekends, the place fills up with customers waiting (futilely, for the most part) for service. On a weekday morning, it’s suitable for getting some exercise running laps. The people who think this is a good idea are mostly under five, and they quickly find that there are numerous gadgets within easy reach, leading to a lot of yelling by parents to “leave that alone” and “put that back.” Between the shouting, the elevator music a tad too loud, and the constant ringing of phones, all bouncing off hard surfaces, hearing a clerk call your name is a challenge.

Arrayed around the store are identical-looking displays that probably have different groups of products—or maybe not. It was hard to tell. Nothing told me how one item was different from another except as to price. And the posted prices seemed to have little to do with what one actually pays. It was all very confusing, to be sure. The other visual features consisted of signs listing services but pointing nowhere and counters with personnel sitting behind them, apparently engaged in something not involving customers at all.

So here are some design tips for Verizon, if they’re listening, which we all know they’re not:
  • Warm the place up (introduce some colors other black, gray, and red).
  • Quiet the place down (use softer, more sound-absorbent materials; lower the ceiling).
  • Use signs to direct people to what they need and to identify the different sections of the store. And put them where people can see them without craning their necks.
  • Kidproof the store.
  • Don’t seat employees behind what look like service counters if they’re not there to provide service.
Now about that customer service…
I have no inside information on how Verizon trains their customer-facing employees. I only know that as a customer I feel ill-treated, ill-informed, and disrespected. The friendly and extremely helpful technician who eventually called me over and looked at my phone was quite knowledgeable. But she was not empowered to complete a transaction with me; she had to send me back to the sales vultures at the front of the store. The technician explained to me, later, when I returned to her to upload my contact list to the new phone, that the technicians take pride in their personal integrity and try not to swindle customers, but the reason is that they don’t work on commission.

All I can say about the sales staff is that they do not smile, do not answer questions, do not explain the features or benefits of one model versus another, assume that the customer knows as much about the many choices on offer as they do, and withhold as much critical information as they legally can, in order to induce customers to make bad decisions. Whether they come by these traits naturally or have to be motivated to express them, I have to blame the company, not the individual salespeople, because my experience has been the same on every visit to the store, and I’ve never seen the same person twice.

Here are my customer service training tips for Verizon, again offered in full knowledge that nobody who can do anything about them is reading this blog:
  • When a customer walks into the store, someone should approach and say, “Welcome to the Verizon Wireless store. How may I assist you today?” They should be smiling, warm, and genuinely interested in hearing the answer to that question. They should then walk with the customer to the correct destination and hand the customer off to someone who can directly assist the person.
  • At no time—ever—should there be both an unassisted customer wandering the store and an employee visible behind a counter and not waiting on a customer. Employees should be trained to set aside what they are working on and offer assistance.
  • Employees should be cross-trained in store operations so that any employee can complete a transaction once it begins.
  • Deceiving customers or withholding information to get them to buy more than they asked for should be cause for dismissal on the spot. Bait and switch is illegal.
What’s it to you?
Design encompasses more than great graphics. And design matters. How do people of different ages experience your store? How well do your employees treat your customers?

Monday, June 16, 2008


I’ve been traveling the last few days, and I was rewarded with a bit of entertainment at the security checkpoints, both outbound and homebound. I find security procedures as frustrating, ill-conceived, bureaucratic, and annoying as anyone. But I figure the people who work for TSA are doing the best they can in the jobs they have and deserve as much courtesy and respect as anyone.

On the outbound trip, I overheard one TSA employee telling the party behind me about his recent experience patrolling the passenger pickup area. He saw a woman park her car and get out of it to walk into the terminal (not allowed). He approached her to tell her she had to move the car, and she laid into him. “No rent-a-cop is going to tell me what to do.”

“Ma’am, whatever your experiences may have been in the past with contractors working airport security, I’m a federal agent and I’m ordering you to move your car.”

“Well, I pay your salary, and you can’t make me move my car.”

“No, ma’am, I can’t.”

At that point he wrote her a citation and had the car towed and impounded while she fumed. She continued her tantrum to the effect that she makes two hundred thousand dollars a year and won’t be treated like this.

“Oh,” the agent replied (in his retelling), “I didn’t know the street corner was that lucrative.”

The woman stormed off, and the crowd that had gathered by that point applauded spontaneously.

Okay, he’s probably told the story a few times and buffed it a bit. On the return trip, though, I was a first-hand witness.

The players: A pleasantly pretty TSA agent with a low-maintenance hairstyle and a friendly mien, the sort of person you might run into at a neighbor’s barbecue, with kids in tow, and with whom you’d easily strike up a conversation; and a nineteen-year-old (or thereabouts) looker with straight, shoulder-length, perfectly trimmed platinum hair.

The scene: The passenger had passed through the metal detector and her bag had gone through the X-ray scanner. The TSA agent was holding a bottle—of perhaps five- or six-ounce capacity—of some sort of spray.

The line overheard as I walked by: “No, miss, a hair product is never a medical necessity.”

Novelists, dramatists, and short story writers fill notebooks and journals with snippets of conversation they hear when they are out and about in the world. Careful observation of real interactions seen in the wild informs and enriches fictional dialogue and description. Writing naturally is built on such artifice.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Max Palacios on Voice of America

Novelist Max Palacios will be interviewed Tuesday by Rod Murray, on Voice of America, about his latest novel, Nikola’s Predicament, a great summer read. The interview will be at 9:05 am PDT, 12:05 pm EDT.

If Max keeps getting great interviews like this, I won’t actually have to think of something original to post about for quite a while. Way to go, Max!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Max Palacios on Jordan Rich

Novelist Max Palacios will be interviewed Friday night (or Saturday morning, depending where you live) by Jordan Rich, WBZ, Boston, about his latest novel, Nikola’s Predicament, a great summer read. Listen live online if you’re up that late. The interview is scheduled for 11 pm Friday PDT, 2 am Saturday EDT.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Kinky corporate logic strikes again

Great news for Sir Speedy and AlphaGraphics!
Kinko’s, a household name (or whatever the cubicle farm equivalent of household name is) was bought by FedEx a few years ago and has been operating under the FedEx Kinko’s name since then. If you type in your browser, you’ll be redirected to the FedEx site, but the Kinko’s brand name is still displayed prominently.

Today, FedEx announced they’ll be dropping the Kinko’s name in favor of FedEx Office. Uh huh. Brilliant move. Store closings to follow.

File under: Peter Principle

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Every Good Bird Does Fly

There are memoirs and there are memoirs. These days, the word is usually associated with what are called literary memoirs, generally angst-ridden confessions of youthful transgressions seen from the mature side of the statute of limitations. And of course there are political memoirs (tell-alls like Scott McClellan’s new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception as well as quieter reflections on recent history). And then there are the puff pieces of retired corporate chieftains, successful trial lawyers, and other masters of spin. But there is an older tradition, still very much alive, of professional memoirs—personal explorations of a particular craft by a master practitioner. One such master is Bob Kline. Bob was a pilot for four decades, for the Air Force and for TWA. Bob’s book, Fasten Your Seatbelt: A Pilot’s Memoir, is chock full of great stories sure to delight anyone who ever harbored the fantasy of flying big birds. It’s a fast-paced book where you’ll learn a lot about flying at the same time you’re reliving scenes with Bob that range from the terrifying to the side-splitting.
Bob came to me for editing (he’s a good writer and didn’t need much of that) and design, as well as a website for the book, which just went live a few days ago. He’s about to launch a publicity campaign, but meanwhile the book has been selling well through word of mouth. With the price of airline tickets going up daily, reading Fasten Your Seatbelt may be the only flight you take this summer.