Airline Ticket Prices Are Wacky

I just returned from a trip to Australia and Japan. When I first priced the trip, it looked like it was going to cost about $6,000 traveling on the most discounted economy fares. However, there was one routing that stood out. It cost only $2,000. Here it is:

$2,000 routing

Yes, by flying much farther you can pay a lot less.

Much to my surprise, flying from Australia to Japan is much cheaper if you go via Los Angeles instead of flying a more direct route. Yes, by taking more flights, burning more fuel, taking up more airline personnel time, and eating more great airline food, i.e. costing the airline more money, they will charge you less.

That sums up the problems with airline industry – they are too clever for themselves. The airlines use complex pricing models to try to fill all the seats on their planes. They place various restrictions to try to segment their buyers by the price they are willing to pay and the restrictions they are willing to put up with it. Required Saturday night stays seem to be a thing of the past, but are now replaced by strange routings to get reduced fare tickets. The above routing is an extreme example.

And yes, I did fly this routing. Flying an extra 9,000 miles compared to a more direct routing is not fun, but saving $4,000 is. Several airline gate agents quizzed me about the strange routing and wondered if it was some elaborate scheme to collect airline miles. Nope, just trying to take advantage of the airlines’ wacky pricing models to save some money.

Airlines used to be held up as an example of efficient pricing: set up a complex pricing structure with many different prices and restrictions so you get each passenger to pay the maximum amount they are willing to pay.  The problem with this is that passengers are aware of it, and they will do what they can to take advantage of it. And it frustrates passengers to know they are being manipulated this way. (Want to know the range of prices people paid on your flight? Look it up on FlightAware. You might be surprised at how little most people pay, and how embarrassingly high a price a few people pay.)

This pricing model is a “look at the trees and ignore the forest” strategy. Don’t be so clever airline guys. Follow the lead of Southwest Airlines in using a simplified pricing model. Sure, it is not as clever as your complex pricing models, but who makes more money, Southwest or your airline?

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Eurozone Crisis for Dummies

Uncertainty about the Greek economy and whether Greece will be able to continue using the Euro as its currency have caused stock market gyrations lately. Why?

First, what is the basic problem in Greece? In its simplest form, the problem in Greece is too much government debt. Too much debt, as in there are significant doubts about whether Greece can ever repay it. You can argue about why Greece has too much debt: too much spending, too little taxes, or some combination, but it is important to keep in mind the basic problem is too much debt and doubts about Greece’s ability to repay it.

So what are possible solutions? Well, what if you were in a similar situation? What if you had so much debt there were doubts you could repay it? You could do several things:

  1. You could cut your spending, and use the extra cash flow to start paying down your debt to more controllable levels.
  2. You could increase your income by getting an additional job, getting a raise, or switching to a higher paying job and use the increased income to pay down your debt.
  3. You could declare bankruptcy to restructure your debts to a level you could actually repay.

None of these options is pleasant and not all of them may be available in every situation. Increasing income is particularly difficult, so most people focus more on reducing spending when they realize they have a debt problem. If they do not realize they have a problem they continue piling up debt until bankruptcy is their only choice.

Countries have these same options, plus some others. They can cut spending, increase income, and declare bankruptcy. These actions embody fiscal policy. In addition, most countries can control the available supply of money in their country. By making money more or less available, countries generally try to keep a stable level of growth so business is able to flourish but inflation does not get too large. This is monetary policy.

Using each of these actions to get out of debt like Greece has leads to problems:

  1. Reducing spending can be difficult for people who depend on government spending. In the current Eurozone crisis, this is called “austerity.”
  2. Increasing income is mainly done through increasing taxes, which has the effect of depressing business activity leading over time to reductions in tax income. (To me, this is what actually should be called austerity.)
  3. Declaring bankruptcy makes it difficult to borrow money for an extended period of time, so it leads to a time when balanced spending (through actions 1 and 2 above) is required, not optional.
  4. Debt levels can be reduced through monetary policy by inflating the money supply. This provides more money to repay the debts and causes inflation so future debt payments are paid with devalued currency, which effectively lowers the amount of the debt.

Politically, option 4 is the obvious choice. Cutting spending and increasing taxes are politically unpopular, so most governments have difficulty doing them. (In the U.S. what we call cutting spending is actually just reducing the rate of increase in spending. It never actually goes down.) Bankruptcy is a drastic solution, and it just leads to more of 1 and 2.

So inflating the money supply is the politically easy way to go. Constituents don’t really notice it at first, and when they do politicians can blame it on businesses raising prices. Win-win! This is the traditional way for governments to get out of sticky debt situations. Unfortunately for ordinary citizens, particularly those on fixed incomes, this causes a reduction in income. Your fixed income buys less because everything costs more. Sorry, but the government has to repay its debts somehow.

And unfortunately for Greece, because of its membership in the Eurozone it does not have independent control of its monetary policy so it cannot inflate its way out of its current debt situation. This is why Greece leaving the Eurzone is being considered. Once it is back to having its own currency, Greece can inflate its way out of its debt. Good for the Greek government, but bad for Greek citizens as they deal with rapidly rising prices.

But Eurozone countries say they support Greece, and there is support for providing more loans to Greece. Does this make sense? Let’s go back to our comparison of the options available to an individual. If you have too much debt and someone tells you the solution is to provide you with more debt, would you believe them? A lot of people do believe things like this, and it never ends well.

The hope is that providing more loans to Greece will give it more time to cut spending and increase taxes. Since Greece is not the only country in the Eurozone to have government debt problems, this will also give other countries (Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland) time to get a better handle on their own debt problems before the shock of a Greek bankruptcy or departure from the Euro causes them additional problems.

The Greek people do not appear willing to go along with either decreased government spending or increased taxes. Therefore, Greece is on the path for either bankruptcy or leaving the Euro and inflating its currency. More loans will only delay the inevitable and make the problems worse in the meantime.

Look for Greece to leave the Euro at some point this year as its options run out. Politically, it is the easiest solution for them. The next question is whether it will end there, or if Greece will be the first domino that triggers a succession of countries departing from the Euro.

(Note: This post is a result of traveling the last two weeks and getting a steady dose of CNN International, which reports the same shallow overview of events over and over and over again. And the news always seems to be framed in the context politicians prefer, e.g. calling reducing the rate of increase in government spending “austerity.” I feel much better after writing this and getting out my frustrations!)

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TSA PreCheck – No Waiting, No Undressing

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has a new program, called TSA PreCheck, that allows certain trusted travelers to pass through security without removing their shoes, without removing jackets, without taking laptops out of briefcases, and without taking liquids out of their bag. The bags still go through an X-ray machine, and the traveler still goes through a metal detector, but it is much less hassle than the standard preflight screening. Basically, it is screening done pre-9/11 style.

How do you get on this list of pre-screened travelers? I am not exactly certain. I received a notice from American Airlines that I was in the program, and I have experienced it a couple times. (It is not available at every security screening location.) When I have been able to use it, it has been great. Aside from not having to unpack and undress, the security line is much shorter since not many people are in the program yet. Even the screeners are more friendly and helpful, probably because they are much less busy and are dealing with people who already know how to get through the screening process efficiently.

Want to get in the program, and no airline has invited you? It looks like you can become part of TSA PreCheck by joining the Customs and Border Patrol’s Global Entry program. That will cost you $100 and requires a background check and personal interview with a CBP agent, but that program lets you bypass the long lines at customs when entering the U.S. at some locations, including DFW. If you travel a lot, it’s worth it.

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I Am The Greenest Man in the World!

No, I’m not quoting Al Gore in the title of this blog post. I am speaking as myself. I just realized I am the greenest man in the world, and possibly the greenest person in the world.

Sure, Al Gore is generally recognized as the greenest man in the world. After all, who has done more to publicize the inconvenient truth of global warming and to plead for – no to compel –  us all to reduce our carbon footprints in order to save the planet. He says:

Each one of us is a cause of global warming, but each one of us can make choices to change that with the things we buy, the electricity we use, the cars we drive; we can make choices to bring our individual carbon emissions to zero.

Yes, we each must do our part. Of course, none of us are as noble as Mr. Gore, so we must settle for half-measures. Or, at least that is what I thought. Then I compared my carbon footprint to his.

Here is a quick tally:

Carbon Producing Item        Mr. Gore                Me                                     Advantage

House                                             10,000 sq ft           1,000 sq ft                          Me

Cars                                                 Limo idling           Toyota SUV                        Me

Travel                                              private jet             airline economy class        Me

Those are the big carbon producers, and the tally is not even close. I figure my carbon footprint is about 1/20th of his. So, I declare myself the new greenest man alive! Care to challenge me?

Oh yes, there is one green area where Al Gore beats me hand down, making money off investments in green companies. If I was cynical, I would think his public speeches are related to this rather than real concern for the environment. No, that can’t be it.

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Review: An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen

I recently read “An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules For Foodies” by Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. The blurb at Amazon made it sound like something right up my alley:

Tyler Cowen discusses everything from slow food to fast food, from agriculture to gourmet culture, from modernist cuisine to how to pick the best street vendor. He shows why airplane food is bad but airport food is good; why restaurants full of happy, attractive people serve mediocre meals; and why American food has improved as Americans drink more wine. And most important of all, he shows how to get good, cheap eats just about anywhere.

In the end, it was an interesting book, but not the rigorous, scientific approach to food I was expecting. The typical passage starts out with a presupposition. e.g. how to get cheap, good food anywhere, and then tosses out a few anecdotes illustrating how the author was able to get cheap, good food in an unusual place, with some economic principle thrown in to show it is all very analytical, don’t-you-know.

The problem is it all seems backward. It seems like Mr. Cowen starts with the answer and then comes up with an economic explanation for what he believes to be true. In the beginning, he explains how Prohibition is to blame for U.S restaurants being so bad until recently. OK. Sounds plausible. Restaurants make most of their profit from alcohol sales. If they cannot sell alcohol, they naturally go for cheap food rather than quality.

The next section of the book discusses how to shop at the supermarket and says that ethnic markets are the place to shop. Their customers are more geared to cooking at home so they know more about how to shop at a market, thus forcing the markets to stock higher quality items. Maybe things are different in the D.C. area where Tyler lives, but around here the produce is much fresher in most traditional markets than it is in the ethnic (Asian and Latino) markets. Of course, it must be economic pressures, but that is my point. You cannot do economics by starting with the answer and fitting the problem to fit the solution. It requires a broader scope.

Overall, this is an entertaining book, but it does not offer any unique insight or economic perspective. Or maybe I just don’t understand economics. Maybe economics is a lot fluffier than I thought and the economic descriptions in the book are the way economists really discuss ideas.

No, probably not. More likely, it has been fluffed so it will appeal to a wider audience. That’s OK. It is just not what I expected. An Economist Gets Lunch  is worth reading if only to learn how to find good, cheap food wherever you go.

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Satellite radio is subversive

My new car came with a free three month trail to Sirius XM satellite radio. It has hundreds of channels of programming, and being an engineer I had to listen to them all to decide if I should pay for a subscription once the free trial ran out. (To end the suspense, yes, I subscribed.)

Sirius offers a good variety of music and talk channels, and I have listened to them all, if only for a few minutes. What surprised me is that I find myself returning to Sirius XM Hits 1 (channel 2) over and over again. That can’t be me. I am a middle-aged, white male. I should be listening to political or sports talk radio, easy listening, or, if I want to stay in touch with my youth, some 70’s rock.

Instead, I now know who Kimbra, Flo-rida, Sia, fun., Neon Trees and Gotye are, and I enjoy their music. (By the way, whoever thinks the younger generation is illiterate should pay attention to how they use grammar and punctuation. Clever of that Gotye to be pronounced Gautier. Perhaps his first name is Dick?) Maybe this is a temporary phase or one of those famous middle-age crises. I don’t know, and I cannot explain it. I am just enjoying it for now.

In an homage to Flo-Rida, I am thinking of starting my own musical act. I will call myself Tex-Azz, and I will be a country hip-hop artist. If only I had any musical talent! In the meantime, I will enjoy listening to fellow DFW native Kelly Clarkson sing Stronger.

Just to show I have not gone completely wacko, the other channel I listen to is Willie’s Roadhouse (channel 56), as in Willie Nelson’s Roadhouse. I know. That is not proof I am not wacko. It probably just reinforces the notion.

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Political Haiku

I have not been able to get excited about any candidate for president this election season. Maybe I am just getting too cynical in my middle age, but I have finally decided this is actually a good thing. They work for us, not the other way around, and none of them understand that government has grown so large it is our biggest problem.

It does not matter if they are Democrats or Republicans, they are politicians, and that is what makes them different from you and me. They all want to tell us how to live our lives, as if they had some special insight to what makes you and me happy.

Rather than get all grumpy about this, here is a lighthearted look at our current government situation through some political haiku (within the limitations of my rookie WordPress editing skills):

Austerity bad! / We must pay everyone. / Oops. No money left.

 You’re a helpless naif. / I’m a benevolent sage. / You must obey me.

I promise you all. / I deliver empty vapor. / So what! Vote for me.

Freedom or safety. / Seems an easy choice to me. / But I know Ben’s words.

How did we get here? / Little promises added / and added. That’s how.

So remember, it’s not Democrats versus Republicans, it’s over-bearing know-it-alls against the normal people. Make normal normal again.

“Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security” Ben Franklin

 

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Test Flight

Usually I have some destination in mind before I depart on a flight, which is pretty much required for proper flight planning, but today I took off with only the objective of testing my headsets. Along the way I ended up landing at an airport I had never visited before and flying higher than I ever had in a light plane.

Cardinal RG

Cessna Cardinal RG on the ramp at Meacham

As a result of a burglary back at the beginning of the year, I have an odd collection of aviation headsets: an original Lightspeed Zulu, a Lightspeed Zulu.2, and a Lightspeed Sierra. I use the Zulu.2 all the time, but I have not really checked out its Bluetooth connectivity with my iPhone, which can be used to listen to music and to make phone calls. The original Zulu and Sierra are used by passengers, and both were reportedly having problems.

Even though I did not have a particular destination in mind, I knew I would probably head west from Fort Worth since the winds aloft were out of the west, and I prefer to fight headwinds on the way out instead of the way back. So I did my flight planning with that in mind. No TFRs and no bad weather anywhere close, so it looked OK.

After takeoff from Meacham, I headed west and started playing with the Bluetooth connection on the Zulu.2. The headset and iPhone had been previously coupled, and turning on the Bluetooth radio on each was it all it took to get them talking again. After that, all it took to get music to stream from the iPhone to the Zulu.2 was to play it on the iPhone. The iPhone shows a menu that lets you select where the audio should go: Bluetooth device, iPhone speakers, or iPhone headset output.  With that, the sounds of  Mele O Hawaii accompanied the rest of my flight.

The sound quality was very good, but at first the music seemed to cut out at random intervals. Thinking it might be a connectivity problem, I placed the iPhone in various places around the cockpit to see if it made a difference. Nope. The Zulu.2 automatically interrupts the music whenever there is a transmission over the radio so the music does not interfere with important communications. That is a good thing.

Today was a nice day for flying and many people were out enjoying the day. My radio was tuned to a Unicom frequency used by many airports, so every time someone would transmit at one of these airports it would interrupt the music. Some of the transmitting planes were so far away I could not hear them, but the radio was picking up some signal, causing the music to be interrupted. So, if you are on a busy frequency listening to music would be a problem. Again, that is a good thing.

Next up, let’s make a phone call. That turned out to be easy as well. Just dial the number on the iPhone, then listen and talk on the headset just as if you are on the phone. (But make sure not to hold down the radio transmit button while you are doing it or you will be talking to everyone on the frequency.)

The Zulu.2 Bluetooth connectivity was working fine, so it was time to test the other headsets, starting with the original Zulu. This was my old headset. It was stolen from my home during the Christmas holiday and then recovered by the police in February. When I got it back it had been drawn on with some sort of red marker and it reeked of cigarette smoke, but it seemed to work fine. However, the last time a passenger used it they said they thought the microphone only worked intermittently.

I plugged the old Zulu into the passenger headset jacks and put it on my head. Noise canceling was working fine and transmitting worked fine too. The passenger problem was probably not keeping the microphone close enough to their mouth. It has to stay right next to the mouth to overcome all the ambient noise in the cockpit. So the result was good. No problem with the old Zulu.

However, it seemed like the old Zulu was actually a little quieter than the new Zulu.2. Could that be? I tried switching them back and forth several times, but the cockpit is so loud without headphones, and the brief blast of noise when changing headsets made it hard to make a direct comparison. (How did we fly in the old days without headsets? Seems crazy now.) The Zulu.2 has different ear seals with a reduced padding area to let eyeglass temples pass through without putting additional pressure on the side of your head. Makes them more comfortable, but maybe it is letting a little more noise in too.

I could not tell if the old Zulus were really quieter than the Zulu.2s, but I did find that pushing the Zulu.2s against my head made them quieter and they stayed more quiet even after I released the pressure. I’ll have to start doing that now every time I put them on.

The last test was the Sierra headset. It was purchased as a replacement for the two Telex headsets I had stolen, so it is new. When I first brought it home it would make a loud squealing noise whenever the noise-canceling was turned on. I sent it back to Lightspeed for repair, and it worked great when it came back from them. However, a passenger had reported hearing a loud noise when the noise-canceling was turned on again, so it was time to check it out.

I unplugged the old Zulu headset and plugged the Sierra in to the passenger jacks. I put it on and at first left off the active noise reduction (ANR). The Sierra is lighter than either of the Zulus, but its passive noise reduction was not as good either. It is noticeably louder than the Zulu when both are in passive mode. I turned on the ANR, and as expected it got a lot quieter – and no squealing. I tried various ways to make it squeal, lift off one ear and then the other, push on both sides, push on one side and then on the other, but it would not squeal. It is working fine now, and I hope it stays that way.

By this time I was approaching Jacksboro.

Jacksboro

Jacksboro, Texas. Its airport is just on the other side of the lake on the right side of the picture.

I looked at my chart to see what was interesting around here and saw that Olney, Texas was not too far away. Olney is home to Air Tractor, the world’s largest manufacturer of agricultural and firefighting aircraft. I met the president of Air Tractor, Jim Hirsch, at Texas A&M University’s aerospace engineering senior design review last week, and it sounded like a very interesting company. You don’t expect a world leading company to be located in a small west Texas town, but there they are. So off to Olney I went.

Olney is not hard to find from the air. Just look for the windmills.

Olney on sectional chart

Olney on an aviation sectional chart. Note the caution about windmills. The upside down V’s and W’s are windmills.

Windmills near Olney

Wind farm located just east of Olney.

Olney was pretty quiet on this Sunday afternoon, so I did a touch and go and headed back to Fort Worth. I was not in a particular rush to get back to Fort Worth, so I decided to see how high the Cardinal could climb.

There are various limits on how high an airplane can fly. Its service ceiling is defined as the altitude at which its climb rate drops off to 100 feet per minute (fpm), but there are other limitations. All flights above 18,000 feet have to be on instrument flight plans, so an airplane needs to be IFR capable to fly above that and there are other limitations related to aircraft instrumentation and equipment at other altitudes above that.

The service ceiling on the Cardinal I was flying is 17,100 feet. No way was I going to be able to go that high. First, federal aviation regulations require pilots to use oxygen above 14,000 feet or when above 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes. So, I could go to 14,000 feet as long as I get from 12,500 feet up to 14,000 feet and back down in less than 30 minutes.

In the end, I got bored with climbing and stopped when I reached 12,500 feet. at that point my climb rate was about 250 fpm so going up to 14,000 feet and back down to 12,500 feet could have been completed in well less than 30 minutes. I think 17,100 feet would have been possible too, if I had an oxygen system, even though the temperature was much warmer than standard. Of course, I was well below gross weight too.

12,500 feet

Altimeter showing the Cardinal at 12,500 feet.

The top of the climb was just north of Mineral Wells, so it was a nice long descent back into Fort Worth from there. No particular place to go, but still a good time.

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Freedom(TM)

Just finished Daniel Suarez’s Freedom(TM), the sequel to Daemon, which I reviewed here. The story picks up right where Daemon ended, but this book is more of a political story than a gaming and technology story. Like Daemon, this is a fast-paced story and has enough realistic twists to keep you thinking, but as in Daemon there is not a lot of character development. That’s OK. It is still a great story, and I recommend it without qualification. I’ll talk more about the storyline below, and there may be a few plot spoilers, so if you have not read Freedom(TM) you might want to stop here.

In this second book in the series, the Daemon gradually transitions from a malicious force of evil to an apparent force for good as the real bad guys emerge – government contractors! Hey, I have seen enough examples of bad government contractors to know they can be frustrating, but the frustration is usually caused by their ineptness and not their all-powerful competence that puts them in the position of being the real government power.

As Freedom(TM) progresses, the contractors have elevated themselves to positions of power and elected officials and government employees are made irrelevant. I guess that is the reason for the trademark symbol in the title. The major struggle in this story is between the government contractors and the Daemon, which is trying to organize people into small, self-sufficient communities. The idea is these independent communities make society as a whole less vulnerable to a large-scale collapse that can happen when we all depend on large corporations, large government, and large organizations of any type. It’s kind of like An Army of Davids, but it is all being manipulated behind the scenes by a computer program.

For me that is the unsettling part of the story. Self-sufficiency is great, but how independent are people when they are being manipulated by a computer program. The downside to large companies and large government is the people at the top have to make decisions that affect the entire organization, but it is impossible for them to understand all the information they need to make good decisions. Here large government and large companies are being replaced with a large computer program, and I think the Daemon would have all the same problems a large organization would have.

The story ends before we get a chance to see how successful (or not) this type of society would be. I hope Suarez is writing a third book in the series that picks up where Freedom(TM) ends. He has a good imagination, and I would like to see where he would take that.

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Drive by customer service

I wrote previously about my poor experience with AT&T customer service. Maybe this is some sort of weird retribution, but AT&T has managed to top that experience with something even worse. They are now providing poor customer service even when I am minding my own business and not trying to interact with them.

It started last Friday afternoon, when I received a text message from AT&T on the iPhone my company provides to me congratulating me for upgrading my phone. That made no sense, since I had not upgraded my phone, so I figured it must have been sent to me in error.

A few minutes later our office administrator sent me a chat, “Why did you upgrade your phone without telling me?” OK, that seems more than coincidental. I looked at my phone more closely and found that my voicemail was no longer working and when I manually entered voicemail it said I needed to reset my password. However, it did not give me a way to reset it. Great. Maybe someone stole my identity and got a phone in my name.

I walked down to the admin’s office to see what she knew. She was on the phone with an AT&T customer service rep trying to find out who had upgraded my phone. The rep was able to determine that someone had gone into a local AT&T store and used an upgrade associated with my phone to get a new iPhone. Even worse, they used one of our company credit cards to pay for it.

After a few minutes the rep was able to give her the last 4 numbers of the credit card that was used. It did not match mine, but she was able to find one of our cards that did end in those 4 digits. A quick chat to the person holding that card, and he confirmed that he went and got a new iPhone that afternoon after his old one was damaged.  Apparently the salesperson at the local AT&T store noticed that one of the phones on our company account, namely mine, had a discounted upgrade on it, and he used that to help pay for the new phone.

So things were getting better, but I still did not have voicemail on my phone. The AT&T rep on the phone had several suggestions for fixing the voicemail, but finally he suggested I dial into the voicemail system and then he told me how to reset the password. Success! Everything was back to normal and it only took about 30 minutes. Thanks AT&T!

That is not really a big enough deal to blog about, but it gets better. Later on Friday, I received another text from AT&T asking me to take a survey about my customer service experience when I visited their store on Friday. I gave them the lowest marks on everything I could, and then explained at the end what had happened.

Today, I had the day off, so I spent a good part of the day catching up on some yard work. When I came back in from that there was a voicemail on my iPhone: (This is paraphrased and the name has been changed.) “Hi, this is Jim from AT&T. I am the regional AT&T customer service manager, and I understand in the survey you filled out last week you gave us an opportunity. I am calling to make sure all your expectations were met.”

To prove how gullible I am, my initial reaction was to think this really was a good opportunity for AT&T to improve their customer service. I think I have some good ideas of ways they can improve. So I called “Jim” back.

After I introduced myself, Jim gave me the same spiel about this being a great opportunity and wanting to make sure my expectations were met. Again, this is paraphrased, but this is how the conversation went after the introductions.

Me: “I realize I was very negative in the survey but I have had several bad experiences with AT&T customer service lately and in this case I was just minding my own business when AT&T reached out to me with more bad customer service.”

Jim: “I want to thank you for this opportunity. Did the problem you were having last week get resolved to your satisfaction?”

Me: “Yes, my phone is back to normal and everything is taken care of.”

Jim: “Good. I am glad we were able to meet your expectations. Thank you for giving us this opportunity.”

Me: “Let me be clear. My problem is solved, but my EXPECTATION is that AT&T would not have caused this problem in the first place. And I would not have complained in the survey so much if I did not have several other bad experiences with AT&T recently.”

Jim: “We are aware of the problem using an upgrade from a different phone can cause and we are working on it. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to improve.”

Me (finally realizing he is just trying to get rid of me): “OK. Thanks for your help. Everything is working fine now.”

In my mind, Jim just made things worse. I can understand that mistakes are going to happen sometimes, but for a manger to call with a “follow up” that is really just intended for him to be able to check off some box shows the hollowness of their service efforts.

How could Jim have done a better job handling this? First, when someone says something really bad about you, do not call it an opportunity. Yes, opportunity is a much more positive word than complaint, but it describes what you can do with the information you were given, not the information itself. If you then follow up by ignoring everything else said during the call and not being interested in other, unreported, problems, you sound arrogant and not really interested in improving.

Instead, Jim should have acknowledged that I had reported a problem. He did not even have to agree there was a problem, only that I had reported what I thought was a problem. Next, he should have asked me to explain the problem. Then he should have listened without interruption. And listened. And listened. The only interruption should have been if he did not understand something I was saying or if he needed more detail. Once I had my say, then was his chance to say thanks for reporting the problem, and he either could offer an immediate solution or would consider this for improving their customer service systems going forward.

The difference is that in one case he is immediately trying to put a positive spin on things to get them off his desk, and in the other case he is trying to understand the problem so maybe he can do something constructive about it. Sadly, Jim is continuing the AT&T tradition. They invented the telephone, you know.

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