Just how untransparent can they be?

March 24, 2009

In the snailmail today was a notice from Bell Canada:

We’re going green.

Dear R LEE

We are writing to notify you about an important change to our eBill program.

You are currently receiving a paper invoice, along with a monthly email notification advising you that your online bill can be viewed by logging in at the Bell Web site.  Following your next bill, we will be discontinuing your paper invoice to help reduce paper waste and protect our forests.

If you would prefer to continue receiving a paper bill in the mail, you have the option of keeping this arrangement now and in the future.  Simply log in to bell.ca/staypaper and click on “I wish to keep receiving paper bills”.

Thank you for choosing Bell.

Jim Myers
Senior Vice-President, Customer Experience

OK, let’s start with “We’re going green.” — this has become the “ISO 9000″ of the 21st century IMHO.

What I mean by that is back when the ISO 9000-series standards were first developed, they were initally the business equivalent of cod-liver oil — they were told it was good for them, but implementing the requirements for certification wasn’t always terribly palatable.

For companies that already had good quality and documentation practices in place, it wasn’t that difficult, but for many it was a real sea-change — and when they came out the other side, they probably really were better companies, with more consistent quality in their products and services (note: I didn’t say better quality, since implementing any of the ISO 9000-series requirements doesn’t guarantee that quality will improve, just that you will have documented the quality — good or poor — of what you do.)

But as more and more large companies insisted on their vendors being ISO certified, an industry of consultants sprang up around certification (and training to go with it) to make it cheaper, easier and more palatable, with the result being that getting ISO certification became a part of the price of entry into the game.  I won’t go so far as to say it became meaningless, but it certainly has lost some of its value as a differentiator between a supplier you want to deal with and one you don’t.

So, what I mean is that being green in the noughties is something companies have to do just to stay in the game, and which any good profit-seeking company will want to spend the least amount of money on to acheive the appearance of.

Which for me means that they may as well have said “We’re still here to make as much profit off you as we can.”  Fair enough, that’s what they’re in business for — I just object to the lack of transparency in cloaking it with green.

Next: I don’t particularly enjoy having them shout out my name in the salutation, I mean really, how hard is it to automate putting it into proper upper and lower case letters…

Then, the use of the Royal “We” — alright, so that’s a stylistic letter writing formula that I’m quibbling about, but the letter is written over the name of one individual, the Vice-President of Customer Experience.  Why not say “I am writing you…” — it’s certainly not as if the whole company was in on writing the letter…

OK, on to the part that really gets up my nose:

Following your next bill, we will be discontinuing your paper invoice to help reduce paper waste and protect our forests.

Now, as an individual concerned with the environment, I will certainly choose ways that I can “reduce paper waste and protect our forests”, but their statement says that they will be doing it for that reason.

Which is a load of crap: they’re doing it to reduce their costs and maximize profit.

As I’ve said before, I don’t have a problem with a company wanting to make a profit and reducing costs can certainly be a legitimate way to do that — I just take issue with it when there’s a attendant increase in the cost to society as a result (but that’s a rant for another day…)

So if they would not be so untransparent and just admit that they’re eliminating the paper bill using a “negative option” strategy (something which got the Rogers Cable company into hot water some time ago…) I would happily elect to not receive the bill in the mail.

Maybe if enough of Bell’s customers insisted the same thing, that they come clean and say the reason for eliminating the paper bill is to cut their costs and increase their profit, before allowing them to discontinue sending it, then maybe they’d do it.

Well, I don’t plan on holding my breath waiting for Mr. Myers to ‘fess up and admit that Bell is just trying to squeeze a few more pennies of profit out of each customer this way, but if you are a customer of Bell Canada and feel the way I do about this, then why not let them know how you feel and just perhaps we can get him to do it — particularly if we all threaten to click on “I wish to keep receiving paper bills” if they don’t.

And thank you for choosing Unconventional Wisdom.

Required Read… er, Listening

April 30, 2008

If you do nothing else this week, go listen to these two podcasts:

Oh, and if you still happen to have an hour left over, go listen to the DicksnJanes podcast episode #149 wherein K, I and some friends and acquaintances from podcasting help The Scarborough Dude celebrate his 60th birthday this past weekend.  Happy birthday, Dude!

And while you’re at it why not go read Bob Goyetche‘s excellent rant over the morphing/rebranding of Podshow into Mevio (WTF???  Just what kind of drugs were they on when they came up with that name?) – the comments are particularly worth reading.

I’ve got two words for you…

October 15, 2007

Softwood lumber.

Ah, well… hope springs eternal, according to this article on the BBC News website about the WTO ruling that the US has illegally subsidized cotton farmers.

Best of luck, of course, to the Brazilian and West African cotton farmers who are among those harmed by the US subsidies.  Things will be looking up for you Real Soon Now.

People like that make me cranky

September 4, 2007

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to turn up a link to the piece that aired this evening on the CBC news (not The National; it was CBC News: Our World, I think — we were watching on Newsworld, in any case) which would have provided some of the details, so bear with me as I recall things as best I can.

This piece dealt with a Canadian who had travelled to the US, where he’d made some purchases using his credit card including software for the GPS in his car — an Audi, you could tell clearly from the 4-ring emblem on the trunk. The point of the piece?

He’d been charged an extra fee on the foreign exchange purchases he’d made — extra, as in above the exchange rate for the date. And he had called the bank to complain about this; they informed him that the fees were clearly explained in the small print (his words) on his statement. He said, showing the statement to the camera, that it was printed “faintly” and said that the person he’d spoken to claimed that “they had been having some problems with the quality of their printing” (or words to that effect — again, _his_words_, as they didn’t have anyone on from the bank IIRC), the smug implication being that the bank was being (or at the very least, approaching) deliberately deceitful.

Well, let me say that both K and I could quite easily read the fine print on the screen — on our not-HD, not large screen (20″) TV. We could see that it said foreign exchange transactions were subject to a fee of 2.5% on top of the current exchange rate. Sure didn’t look deceitful to me…

They also trotted out some dude from a consumer organization — can’t remember its name — who went on about how this “hidden” fee added up to millions, if not billions, of pure windfall for the banks, on the backs of beleaguered consumers.

Now, I’m not an apologist for banks or other for-profit businesses — those who know me, know I’m fairly left leaning, socially conscious, yadda, yadda. But I also understand quite well that profit is not an inherently evil thing. How some people or corporations go about achieving their profits is another thing, and I know there are plenty which pursue profit at all cost to the detriment of society (well, *some* parts of society  — usually the parts that can least afford to be screwed over to the benefit of someone who probably already has more than enough, several times over… did I mention my socialist leanings?), the environment and so on.

The report went on to show the Canadian government’s web site where the foreign exchange fees charged by the major banks on their credit cards are listed. They all charge 2.5% — perhaps there are others, not shown, that have lower or higher fees.  Given the competition between credit card providers (seems like I get Yet Another “You have been pre-approved for a <fill in name of a credit card brand here> card!” mailing at least a couple of times a week… I start worrying something has happened to the letter carrier if there isn’t one waiting for me when I get home), you’d think one of them would shave a fraction of a percentage point off their foreign exchange fee in order to lure customers over from The Other Brand.  And then they’d all have to drop the fee to stay competitive… which leads me to think that there’s not that much room for them to move on this, or it would happen.

Now, as someone who has done a fair bit of travelling and living abroad, I have a lot of practical experience with foreign exchange. And the exchange rate that’s quoted in the newspaper, on the TV and the internet is not the rate the banks use in processing transactions — whether you’re buying (or selling to them, for that matter) actual currency or they are converting a credit card transaction.

Like any business, they buy for less than they sell — this rule works for a company selling widgets as well as for a bank buying and selling foreign currencies; it’s called making a profit, which is what a business is, well, in business for. The margin between what they pay to buy a currency and what they sell it to you for — less the costs they incur in making the transactions — is their profit. The quoted exchange rate is usually halfway between the two.

So what really gets me cranky about people like the one in the new items is this: their sense of entitlement. This person was obviously reasonably well off — the Audi, the trip to the US to buy things (hey, why’n’cha shop in Canada and support Canadian businesses?) — and yet he’s outraged at being charged 2.5% for a service, for the convenience of not having to go to the bank and get foreign cash (which, I can assure you, would not be sold to him at the rate reported in the news either… there’s still that pesky profit thing happening) to carry around.

That’s not the only reason I get cranky at this kind of whiny behaviour: you can bet your sweet assets that these people have investments (as do I, for retirement — hey, leaning left does not mean you stop looking out for yourself; you just take the needs of others into account while doing it…). And what do they expect from their investments? Why, they expect them to grow, pay dividends or interest — which come from profits. And the expectation is always that the company turn the biggest profit possible; often without regard for the impact to others.

This is called “wanting to have your cake and eat it too”. People like this want to buy everything cheap but have their investments turn big profits. Do the math, people — it won’t work, at least not in the long run. That mutual fund you have? Dollars to doughnuts it’s invested in a financial institution or two; you want the fund to grow? Pay for it, like everyone else, in the service charges the banks make their profits from.

Myself, I prefer to deal with companies that charge a fair price for their products or services, are socially responsible (to their employees and to society as a whole) and derive justifiable, sustainable profits from their enterprise in order to deliver a reasonable return on investment to shareholders.

OK, enough ranting for now — the story on the CBC was really just a trigger for the “having your cake and eating it too” issue that’s been bugging me for a long time.


September 3, 2007

I’ve been reading a thought provoking book, the cult of the amateur (subtitle: how today’s internet is killing our culture) by Andrew Keen, which touches on the socio-cultural consequences of the supposed democratization of new media brought about by “Web 2.0″.  As I’ve not yet finished the book, I won’t say a lot about it at this point; it is, as I said above, thought provoking — but in reading it, I do find that I swing between agreeing with Keen on a point and then strongly disagreeing on another.   Often within the space of a page or two, even within a single passage.

At that, I’d still recommend reading it, even before having finished it — whether or not you agree with his conclusions, the points he raises are ones we should all be considering, as they concern more than just new media and “Web 2.0″.

What really prompted me to write was a recent post on Mr. Angry’s blog in which he speaks (in his inimitably candid and refreshing manner) about the hypocritical behaviour of big business toward copyright infringement.  His rant, er, post was prompted in turn by the situation Christopher Knight found himself in, as described on his blog The Knight Shift.

Christopher Knight is an independent filmaker, according to his blog, who created a video for his campaign for election to the local board of education.  In addition to airing the piece on local TV, he posted it to YouTube.  Nothing too unusual in that, in these Web 2.0 days (q.v. Keen’s book).

Where it gets interesting is that VH1, a Viacom show, used his YouTube video in an episode of their show Web Junk 2.0 — without obtaining permission, a clear infringement on Knight’s copyright.

Turns out this was not a problem for him — he was pleased at the exposure, even though Viacom was making a profit off his work.

Where it gets interesting is when he posted a clip, featuring his work, from the Web Junk 2.0 show on YouTube in order to reference it on his blog.  And Viacom slaps him down for… copyright infringement!  Talk about cajones

Evidently, democratization of new media a.k.a. Web 2.0 and money mix about as well as political democracy, old media and just about every other facet of life where big business thinks they can suck another dollar out of you.

When I’m done reading Keen’s book, I may have some more to say about it; even if I don’t, I suggest that it’s certainly worth your while to read it yourself.

When the chickens come home to roost

May 24, 2007

I’ve blogged about the “Low Cost Country” (LCC) phenomenon previously, so if you’ve read that post you — like me — will probably not be surprised by this latest problem reported on the BBC News website: US checks toothpaste for toxins

Now, I’m OK with businesses being in business to make a profit — hey, I have investments for my retirement and I’d appreciate it if the businesses that my mutual funds have shares in would oblige by returning a reasonable return to ensure a reasonably comfortable retirement.

At the same time, I believe that companies owe a certain duty of social responsibility to, well, society.  That is, decisions to cut costs need to be thoroughly examined to ensure that the public’s safety and security is not sacrificed on the altar of shareholder value.

More and more these days, it seems that the chickens are starting to come home to roost.


May 15, 2007

As in the sound of me letting out a biiiig breath.

Busy day: full on interview with the company that I wrote about previously, the one that held the job fair. I felt that the interview went well; there was the young woman from HR who had given me the preliminary interview at the job fair, the hiring manager for the position and one of his colleagues — a standard panel interview situation, and there seemed to be reasonably good chemistry so I am hopeful that this may end up proceeding further. I remain impressed with the company and would be very happy to work there, and this manager is actually looking to fill three of these positions (two permanent; one contract) in his department Real Soon Now, so that increases the possibility of being selected (hey, a bronze medal would be OK, right?).

And then later in the day, I went to my second ever job fair. This event turned out to be a little different than the first one; it was again being put on by a single company (it’s their second annual one) and was actually billed as a “Technology & Careers Showcase”. This is a relatively new Canadian company; they were started in 1999 and have grown rapidly.

There was a presentation by the founder, talking about the company, its products, customers and the corporate philosophy — they are very customer oriented (he said something to the effect of “we’re a little unusual; we put the interests of the customers ahead of the shareholders.” — yet they still manage to be profitable, and have grown organically mainly by customer word-of-mouth with very little sales and marketing effort) and work in collaborative fashion with many of their customers.

As well as being customer oriented, they strive to be good corporate citizens — and not just as window dressing; talking with the employees after the founder’s presentation, you can see that this is a company that walks the talk. While the objective is to be profitable (hey, it’s a business after all), they are driven by a vision of their product making a difference in the world — and unlike many modern, technology based consumer products which are often just playthings or fads, their product (not a consumer product) does provide some value to society; it’s used in the field of education.

They are also trying to encourage eco-friendly behaviours in employees (they pay up to a certain amount to employees who use a bus pass to get to work; one of the “advantages of working here” listed was “located on a bus route”), as well as providing support for health and fitness: partial subsidy of fitness club membership and free healthy snacks in the cafeteria.

And the level of passion demonstrated by the employees was pretty impressive — talking to them I got a sense that this would be another great place to work. Challenging to be sure, as they are growing rapidly, but definitely the kind of job that you could feel good about at the end of the day; where you felt you had made a positive contribution not only to the company’s bottom line (which, in the scheme of things is still important) but also to improving the quality and reach of education in the world (quite literally; although the largest part of their customer base is North American, they have customers in all sizes of countries throughout the world and are expecting to grow these markets rapidly too).

Once the founder finished his presentation, he answered questions from the audience and then a draw was held for some prizes — mainly items with the company logo, but also a $200 gift certificate to a local dining establishment (the latter prize was drawn only from the names of people — like myself — who had RSVPed that they would attend the event via the company’s website, as indicated in the newspaper ad; a fair number of attendees just showed up — the HR person in charge of organizing the event that I spoke to told this was what they had expected based on the previous year’s experience — and evidently a number of people who had RSVPed were no-shows since they had to draw several names before awarding the prize).

They also provided coffee, tea, bottled water, juice and hors d’oeuvres (a pretty nice assortment of wrap-style mini-sandwiches, veggies & dip, fresh fruit and some dessert squares) — neither the food nor the draw prizes were something they needed to offer to get people to attend; just the mere mention of “career opportunities” in the ad would have guaranteed a good turnout.

As it was, I was actually quite surprised that there weren’t a lot more attendees; in fact I had arrived fairly early myself in anticipation of this (and based on my earlier job fair experience) in order to be near the head of the line.

Except. There was no line this time. I went in to the conference centre (this one was held off-site, unlike the other one I attended) and was greeted by the young woman from HR who was organizing the event — I think I was the first attendee to arrive. We chatted a bit, and she told me to help myself to some of the bottled water that was out on a table or if I wanted coffee it would be coming soon.

So in the end there were perhaps a hundred, maybe even 150 or a bit more — I wasn’t counting, people in all who showed up. A stark contrast to the other job fair where there were probably 10 times as many. This may have been due to two factors: the first job fair I attended was with a company in a city which has seen a fair number of manufacturing and skilled trade jobs lost in the past few years and they were recruiting for a number of positions in the production side of the business; the one I attended today was with a technology (um, call it software development) company in a significantly less economically challenged city.

This is a company that has grown rapidly since it was formed and it looks set to continue growing, which is why they are looking to recruit — and recruit experienced people, particularly, as one of the hiring managers I spoke to said. While they have their share of young, recent grads, they are in need of experienced hands to help manage the growth.

There certainly seem to be some opportunities there which would be a good fit for my skills and experience; I had a very good conversation with one manager in particular who was looking to fill some positions that are of interest to me. He told me to submit my résumé with a cover letter to him, mentioning our conversation, when applying for the positions he needed to fill.

Once again, putting the “human” back in Human Resources seems to Be A Good Thing when it comes to connecting the hiring managers to candidates — you get the opportunity to put a face to a name, and have a dialogue rather than getting a two-dimensional view from just reading their résumé.

So, this is another company that has impressed me with its qualities and that I would be pleased to work for; their corporate culture is one that I wish were more prevalent, wanting to be a source of positive change in society as well as being profitable.

Now, time to wind down and have a rest… beyond these two opportunities, it’s looking like I may soon be getting interviewed by another company. Good things come in threes, don’t they say? ;)

Bien élevé

May 8, 2007

For those of you who don’t speak French, this post’s title literally means “well raised” — that you’ve been brought up properly and know how to behave in the company of others; you have social graces and good manners and so on. It’s not a phrase you’re likely to run across in a guide-book, but it gets used all the time in France — as well as the pejorative negative form, “pas bien élevé“. You really don’t want to hear the latter being said in reference to you…

And what does that have to do with what’s on my mind today? Well, if you’ve read one of my responses in the comments, a couple of posts back, where I described my experience with going to a job fair, you’ll have seen me mention that I was contacted by a recruiter about a position she was trying to fill for a client after she had found my résumé on one of the on-line job search sites.

As it turned out, I had already been interviewed for the position (but didn’t get the job), so the effort on her part ended up being in vain. With most recruiters I have been in contact with, things would have ended there — time is money, as they say, and the recruiting business tends to be particularly cut-throat and competitive.

So, with most recruiters, unless they feel you’re an exact fit with a position they are trying to fill they don’t want to bother presenting you to a client — they’re looking for a quick, low-effort slam-dunk placement so they can get on to the next one.

What impressed me about this woman was that she told me to e-mail her a copy of my résumé to have on file in case she came across another suitable position. Well, that’s not the part that impressed me, as I’ve had other recruiters ask me to e-mail a copy of my résumé — and then there’s been absolute radio-silence from them…

For example, another recruiter that I spoke to on the phone told me to e-mail it to her and asked me to follow up by calling her back the next day, which I did. When I called back several times over a few days, she was always either in a meeting or out of the office. I left voicemail, but never heard anything back.  Zip, zilch, nada, bugger all, not a sausage…

What did impress me about this latest recruiter was that I actually got an e-mail back from her — several in fact as we conversed about the circumstances that had transpired when I had been interviewed for the position she was trying to fill. I had explained that after the second face-to-face interview I had not heard anything back from either the company (possibly because they had not been provided with my contact information — this is a fairly common practice with recruiters to prevent them from being cut out of the deal and losing their contingency fee) or the recruiter who had presented me to them.

In response she said that too many agencies seem to “have lost the basic principles of courtesy and mutual respect” and she added that “I hope I never fall prey to this negative trend”. She also said she would be happy to keep me in mind for any suitable position that comes her way and asked me to let her know if I land a position on my own.

That’s when the phrase “bien élevé” popped into my head, and when I wrote back to her I told her that based on our phone conversation I thought it unlikely that she would lose the basics of courtesy and respect; that some things are bred in the bone, and I felt she was “bien élevé“.  I also noted it seems that this is becoming all too common behaviour in just about every facet of life, not just the recruiting business.  Sigh.

Once more, she took time to respond, and thanked me for my kind words, asking me again to keep in touch. I certainly will, as I don’t want to be “pas bien élevé;) .

Now, if you’re either an employer looking to fill a position or a jobseeker and are looking for a recruiter with a difference, if you’re in The GTA you should check out the website of the agency she’s with: Career View Inc.

Their website has contact info (general e-mail address, phone and fax numbers, snail-mail address) for the company, but if you’d like to deal with her specifically let me know by leaving your request in the comments (you’ll be able to provide your e-mail in the comment form, but it won’t be displayed in the blog) and I’ll pass it on to her (as I’m not about to put her e-mail address in this post, opening her up to spammers and other assorted internet trolls and vermin).

Hey, do you think someone “bien élevé” would just give out another person’s e-mail address on-line?

A cautionary tale: Mismanagement, Bad Customer Service and a Revelation

May 6, 2007

Why “a cautionary tale”? Because the business behaviour I will describe, and the ultimate result, should serve as an illustrative lesson on how not to succeed in growing your business…

The story begins some years ago, while my wife and I were living in France during my assignment as Project Manager on a global EDMS (Electronic Document Management System) implementation, using Documentum. Now, France is blessed with a very good road system; it does, however, have some peculiarities (at least to those with non-French sensibilities) when it comes to road signage.

One of these is the liberal use of signs that read “Toutes Directions“, which indicate the road so marked leads to all directions (or more literally, all destinations); these frequently occur at junctions and turnings, exits from autoroutes (highways, freeways or motorways, depending on where you’re from) and the omnipresent ronds-points (roundabouts or traffic circles). And in that paradoxically logical French way, there will often be another sign pointing to a different turning or exit in the same junction or roundabout that reads “Autres Directions” — literally, other directions or destinations.

OK, so you go one way to get to anywhere… and the other way to go everywhere else. In truth, once you get the hang of the peculiar logic, and keep your wits about you while reading the complementary signs indicating the actual destinations and the type of road that you’ll end up on, it’s actually quite an effective system. Mostly. And when it all goes wrong, one can still get lost (horribly so…), even following the most scrupulously researched maps and route planning information — it’s no wonder that the country turns out some spectacular rally drivers; navigating special stages are probably a piece of cake compared to daily driving in some areas.

“So, what exactly” you say, “does this have to do with the cautionary tale.?” It spawned a domain name, that’s what. Actually, a photo in one of the French automotive magazines I used to read had a lot to do with it too: a reader had sent them a photo of a pair of Toutes Directions signs, one above the other — with arrows pointing in opposite directions. At that point in your travels, you may as well just pull over and stop in at the nearest café or bistro for a leisurely drink while you sort out how to get where ever you’re going from where ever you are.

We became enamoured of the concept of Toutes Directions — the idea that you can get to anywhere from where you are, and in particular, how suited it was to be used as the domain name for our personal web page, which we intended to be a starting point to get to all of the widely varying things we are interested in. As a result, we registered the domain toutes-directions.com to use for our very own internet rond-point. You can still see some of those pages using the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive.

Which is where we start to get to the meat of the cautionary tale. I did a bit of searching to find a registrar for the domain, and the one I selected was Domain Direct. Interestingly enough, this is a subsidiary of Tucows — the shareware download site. What was also interesting, at least for us, was the discovery that Tucows, and thus also Domain Direct, is a Canadian company; that wasn’t the deciding factor in choosing them, but it did add a warm, fuzzy feeling to be dealing with One Of Our Own.

My memory on the exact reasons I chose them are lost in the haze of time, but I think they offered — at the time — the best combination of features for the money of all the registrars I researched. So we registered toutes-directions.com with them, and it has remained registered through Domain Direct ever since.

We did eventually use another domain registration company (000domains.com) for parking some other domains, as they offered a better price:feature combination for a parked domain than DD (which is how Domain Direct is often abbreviated) — time had passed and the domain registration marketplace had become quite competitive.

These parked domains were complementary (the .net and .org versions) of a another domain name (modknit.com) we registered with DD; this one was for a web site dedicated to “Modular Knitting” (this is a particular knitting design technique which builds garments, such as scarves or sweaters, up from modular elements; frequently these knitted elements are in the form of “mitred squares” — this is probably waaay more than you want to know, right? If you’re really interested, check out K’s site on modular knitting; it hasn’t been updated for some time, but it’s a good place to start and Google should turn up plenty of other resources).

Again, we stuck with DD for the .com registration as they still seemed to offer a competitive set of features and pricing; there was also a certain amount of “comfort factor” in dealing with them, and we had never experienced any problems with them.

Until… The Great Spam Upgrade Debacle.

This is where we get to the nub of the story. Spam essentially didn’t exist when we first registered a domain; it has, of course, grown exponentially since then to become the pestilential plague we all fight against every day now. In response to the increasing spam traffic, DD implemented spam filtering on the e-mail accounts we had that were hosted with them as part of our full-service domain registrations; they also filtered spam on the e-mail forwarding accounts that went with the parked domains we had since registered with them (their offering for parked domains had become much more competitive, with the features we needed at a price comparable to the other domain registration company where we have other domains parked).

The spam filtering was OK but not perfect (which is about as good as it gets when it comes to spam filtering, although some services work better than others), and the interface to the quarantine was a little clunky but functional. The increasing volume of spam was taking its toll, however, and their e-mail performance (both accessing the quarantine and basic mail sending and retrieving) was suffering.

DD decided that they needed to upgrade the spam filtering system to better serve their customers — “Wait,” you say, “this is supposed to be a cautionary tale about mismanagement and bad customer service… but it sounds like they were managing the problem pro-actively to give good customer service?”

That would certainly seem to have been their intention… but then “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

In fact, what did happen is probably best described as a charlie-foxtrot of the first magnitude. To cut to the chase: the upgrade turned into a sidegrade, then a downgrade and ultimately DD gave up trying to fix it and pulled the plug on the whole spam filtering system.

The most egregious thing was the e-mail DD sent announcing that the spam quarantine would no longer be accessible from a domain’s control panel — it arrived well after they had shut it down on Friday morning. I had been able to access the quarantine first thing in the morning, then later on I couldn’t — at that point, given the woes DD users including us had been experiencing due to the “upgrade” (you can read all about it in various posts on DD’s info blog), I assumed it was just Yet Another Patch Gone Wrong. At least that’s what I thought until the e-mail announcing that this would be done arrived after it had already been done. Thanks a lot, that really helped us to prepare for it.

As it is, I’ve now turned off spam filtering completely (since there is now no way to check the quarantine for false-positives) for the e-mail accounts that go through DD and redirected the messages to our non-DD e-mail addresses that had, over time, become our primary addresses (fortunately, we have addresses provided by our ISP — who, by the way, is a model of good management and customer service; if you’re in their service area I can very highly recommend you check out Execulink Telecom). Execulink uses Postini for spam filtering and it works pretty well — it’s not perfect either, but at least it’s working and I can check the quarantine easily for false-positives.

Now, on to the moral of the story — I’ll explain how this is a cautionary tale for companies who mismanage and provide bad customer service.

You see, the modknit.com domain which was registered through DD was coming up for renewal on the 8th of May and we needed to decide whether to let it lapse, renew it with DD or transfer it to another registration company. And given the nightmare of the Spam Upgrade From Hell, we certainly weren’t inclined to just renew with DD as we had previously.

What to do? Well, this is where the lesson for management starts, so take notes… We have been listening to the Adam Curry (a.k.a. The Podfather) podcast The Daily Source Code on PodShow.com where he is sponsored, in part, by the domain registration company GoDaddy.com

I had some vague awareness of GoDaddy.com prior to hearing Adam Curry shill for them, but since he has both some tech savvy and business smarts I figured he wouldn’t be risking his reputation and business ventures by registering domains (a whois shows that he in fact uses GoDaddy) with a fly-by-night organization. That was enough to make it worth taking a look at them, particularly as they advertise having very low fees (which is of interest at any time, but particularly so when you’re still searching for a job). I did also look at the other domain registration company we had used for parking domains, just to see if they were competitive.

In the end, transferring the modknit.com domain to GoDaddy turned out to be an easy decision. They offer to transfer a .com domain, give you the time remaining on your current registration (not much in this case, as it was about a week before it was to expire) and extend it for a year, all for US$6.95 (plus the US$0.22 ICANN fee) — that was way cheaper than sticking with DD (albeit with a plan that had somewhat more features, but GoDaddy provided everything we actually needed) and at least half of what it would have cost through 000domains.com; a no-brainer, in other words.

I initiated the transfer using GoDaddy’s on-line system (once I had disabled the transfer lock on the domain at DD). It’s a well designed, easy to use system that steps you through the whole process in no time. The control panel you access once the transfer request has been submitted does a great job of telling you what the status of the transfer is, and best of all, it tells you what you need to do next — a very good feature (and is something a lot of designers overlook, since they know the process intimately, they often forget that this may be the first time a user is going through it and needs guidance).

And the next step was to authorize the transfer at DD. Which required them to send an e-mail requesting that we authorize the transfer. Which took some time in arriving. In fact, because of the impending expiry I was a little concerned that they wouldn’t send the authorization request soon enough, so I submitted a support request via the DD website — with great trepidation, as there were a lot of comments on the DD info blog from people who were not getting timely responses to support requests. I also tried calling their support line a couple of times. After waiting on hold for some time on the first call, I left a message when given the opportunity and gave the details of the transfer request.

Still nothing. The next day, I called again and this time just kept waiting on hold (hey, it was their dime — I called the toll-free number) hoping to get through to a real person. This was about 4pm EDT and I took the cordless phone outside with me, put it on speakerphone and listened to the recorded messages alternating with a radio broadcast, while I washed the car. I finished washing and drying the car, went inside and finally gave up after being on hold for an hour.

I was preparing to fax the request to DD, in the hope that it might actually get a response, when lo and behold we finally received the transfer authorization message. I logged in to the website with the authorization codes provided and authorized the transfer. At least this part went smoothly (although this was actually handled through the OpenSRS system, not DD itself) and shortly afterwards when I checked the control panel in GoDaddy, the transfer was no longer pending, it was done — success!

Now, even though the transfer is complete DD still keeps sending us reminder notices that the domain is about to expire and that we need to renew the registration with them. As if.

Once the domain was transferred, setting things up on GoDaddy was easy — URL redirect, e-mail and so on. I am very happy with how it went. And then, to top it all off, on Friday afternoon we got a call from a support person at GoDaddy – they called us! The rep said that they call all new customers to make sure they got everything set up OK once their domain was registered — he confirmed that he could see that I had set everything up already and asked if there was anything else he could help me with. I said there wasn’t anything and thanked him very much for the call before ringing off.

You could have scraped me off the floor with a dustpan… what a difference in customer service, from being on hold for an hour and never getting through to DD, then having GoDaddy call us to make sure everything was taken care of. And at a price that’s just sweet.

So, guess which company is first in line to get any future domain registration business from us… including transferring existing domain registrations, particularly now that I know how easy GoDaddy makes it. The well managed company that knows how to provide good customer service wins, the mismanaged company that gives bad customer service loses.

And my impression from reading the comments in DD’s info blog is that there are others who will be moving their domains too; this then is the lesson to be learned by businesses from my cautionary tale — even loyal customers have their limits, and this level of mismanagement and bad customer service can quickly destroy years of good relationship.

Are you going to the fair?

May 3, 2007

Job fair, that is.

That’s what I did last Saturday. The first one I’ve ever been to. More about how it turned out below, but first some general observations and thoughts about job fairs and how they fit into the job search landscape.

I think that there are probably three broad categories:

  1. Job fairs targeted at soon-to-be or recent post-secondary graduates;
  2. Industry specific job fairs; and
  3. Single-company job fairs.

The first type can be single-company or multi-company, and are often run on-campus in cooperation with the school’s administration. The second type is a strictly multi-company affair — since I’ve classed single-company job fairs as a separate case.

Now, since I haven’t attended any of the first two types, I can’t speak with authority about them — so take anything I may say about them with an appropriately sized grain of salt.

In any case, I’m far enough past graduation that the first type isn’t applicable to my current job search. I’m sure there were some on campus back when I graduated, but I didn’t attend any — my degree was in aerospace engineering, and I was fortunate in joining The deHavilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd (yes, I know it looks a bit odd, but I assure you that was the company’s name, including the initial “The”; originally a subsidiary of a British aircraft manufacturer, the company was eventually bought from the Canadian government by Boeing and then sold a couple of years later to Bombardier Aerospace) straight out of school as they were recruiting new engineers in the aerodynamics department for the development of the Dash 8 commuter airliner. I still have many good memories of my time there and feel a sense of pride at my contributions to the design every time I see one flying overhead.

As for the second type, my impression is that they are probably useful for bringing together employers seeking very specific skills — typically either in highly technical fields or in skilled trades — and those who have those skills to offer. I suspect that they are more likely to be organized when there is a shortage of the required skills; when there’s a glut, there would be little incentive for a bunch of competing companies to get together to woo prospective employees.

Which leads to the third type, and which was the kind I attended last Saturday. It would seem that a company conducting a job fair to fill a bunch of their job requirements flies in the face of the current conventional wisdom of recruiting, which seems to be: do as much as possible to take the “human” out of “human resources”.

It’s true that the organizing and execution of the job fair took a lot of effort — and cost, I expect — on the company’s part and particularly on the part of the employees who participated (more about which later). Using the internet to recruit candidates, then screening them with software designed to match keywords found in a candidate’s résumé with keywords provided by the hiring manager, would seem to require much less effort — I can’t comment on the cost aspect, since there is obviously some cost associated with the systems and software required to do this and I don’t know how it compares with the cost of running a job fair (although I’m sure the software vendor’s marketing team has a well-cooked set of figures to prove how much money it will save…)

But maybe the reason it requires more effort is that it actually produces better results. Now, I’ve had some feedback from a number of sources that suggest to me this is true. Specifically, I’ll use RIM (Research In Motion, maker of the now ubiquitous BlackBerry) as a sort of “case study” for this — I’ve applied to RIM for a number of positions through their internet recruiting system.

And apparently, I have impressive qualifications, at least according to the canned rejection e-mails I keep getting back. Now don’t take that as sour grapes on my part, there’s more to the story. I do have some inside contacts at RIM: my brother-in-law works there, and so does a friend from university — they have both told me that the recruiting system seems to work against the hiring managers seeing the best candidates.

I’ve had this corroborated by the outplacement consultant I was provided with, who has spoken to a number of RIM’s managers and has heard the same thing from them. There are also lots of stories about people who’ve submitted applications and heard nothing back at all from RIM… until they get a call months, even years, afterwards asking them to come for an interview.

Perhaps RIM is a bit of an anomaly — they’re considered such a desirable place to work that they get a huge volume of applications and perhaps this significantly exacerbates the inherent limitations in the system. And having been a software developer, I can assure you that even an expertly developed system will not be able to identify suitable candidates as well as an experienced human resources professional.

But even so, I think it still serves as a pretty good indicator of the downside of taking the human out of human resources. It’s hard enough getting a hiring manager’s requirements stated clearly enough for a skilled and experienced human being to put them into a coherent job description (having had to write requirements as a hiring manager myself, I can say this with some confidence), but identifying good candidates that fit the requirement is tougher still and requires a level of judgement that only comes with experience — something much better dealt with in wetware, not software.

So, on to the actual job fair. I spotted an ad in the local paper for the job fair, which was being held at the company’s site in Cambridge, not far from here. I knew of the company, but the positions I had seen advertised previously were for skills outside my area of competence — they build communications components and systems for satellites, and the jobs I had seen before were mainly for electronics, RF and microwave engineers or for production workers and skilled trades (e.g. machinists).

But for the job fair, they were recruiting for a variety of positions, including some that matched my profile — a job that requires project management experience coupled with strong inter-personal/relationship building skills, for example. I decided that it was worth investing the time to prepare for and attend their job fair.

As noted, it was run on Saturday — presumably to allow people who are employed to attend, in addition to those who are (like myself) between jobs. There were a lot of their employees involved: from directing people in the parking lot and the lineup (and it was quite a lineup), to registering candidates as they entered (due to security and confidentiality restrictions that the facility operates under, everyone had to be signed in and out, and all cell-phones and cameras had to be left at the registration table — neatly tucked into a zippy-bag and labelled with your name for retrieval on exit), then directing people inside to various interviewing areas; not to mention the considerable effort spent in actually interviewing candidates.

While I’m sure that the employees would be compensated in some fashion for working on Saturday, with time-off in lieu perhaps, it was still impressive to observe the dedication and energy being shown by everyone — my impression was that they were putting in a lot of effort not because they were forced to, but because it was the best way to make the organization be successful.

I gathered from one of the staff that the company had put on a job fair the year before (perhaps they do it annually; I’m not sure about that, but they definitely had one last year as she talked about how hot it had been and having to take water out to the people standing in line. Not a problem this year; it was cold and there was plenty of water available in the form of rain) — I take this as an encouraging sign that their business continues to grow.

Once through the registration process, where things like name and address were noted, and the position you were interested in was marked on the top of your résumé, people were seated in the lobby until being called into one of the interviewing areas — which one depended on the type of job and skills required. After a short wait, I was ushered into a conference room with probably close to a dozen people — all HR personnel, I believe — performing preliminary interviews; a sort of triage to determine whether or not to send a candidate on for more in-depth interviewing with a manager.

I had a nice conversation with a young woman from HR, and found out that she had only been with the company for 6 weeks — I commented that they had really thrown her into the deep end right away. She asked a few questions and concluded that I should see one of the managers — she consulted her list of people conducting interviews and put the names of three of them on the top of my résumé, indicating that any of those three would be in a position to evaluate my suitability for the position; I would see whichever of them was available first.

When she was done with the interview, she gave me her business card and asked me to follow up with her after my interview with one of the managers, to let her know how it went.  One of the benefits, I think, of putting the human back into human resources — with most companies, when you submit an application through their faceless internet portal, it’s generally just “radio-silence” (other than, perhaps, an automated e-mail cheerfully informing you that your application had been received) unless you get contacted for an interview.

After another brief wait while they assembled a group, we were taken in to the cafeteria where the secondary interviews were taking place.  I waited there a bit longer this time, sitting through a presentation about the company, its history, products, business philosophy, corporate culture, employee benefits and so on…  actually, I saw the presentation quite a few times while waiting, and noted a small grammatical error on slide 15 (in describing the function of the recreation club they used “who’s mandate is…” instead of “whose mandate is…” — I pointed this out to my interviewer so that it could be corrected, and he noted that I certainly demonstrated good attention to detail).

The interview took about 15-20 minutes, I think.  The interviewer was a manager from the production engineering department, and was not the hiring manager for the position I was interested in — nonetheless, he was familiar with the main requirements of the position, so I expect that as part of the preparation for the job fair the managers who participated were briefed on all the positions being recruited for so that they could at least decide if a candidate was suitable enough to be passed on to the hiring manager later for an in-depth interview.

The discussion was very thorough, and I think we quickly established a good rapport.  At the conclusion of the interview, he said he would forward my résumé to the director of the department that was recruiting the position, and he expected I would be contacted soon to set up a formal interview.

Based on the experience with the job fair and the people I met, my impression of the company was that it is a very strong, dynamic organization; that the people who work there are dedicated, committed and truly enjoy being part of a successful team.  I tend to be somewhat cynical about “mission statements” and “corporate values”, but the ones stated in the presentation were: a) very much in evidence; and b) actually very much in line with my own beliefs about what makes a business strong, sustainable and a good corporate citizen.

So, my first experience with a job fair was exceptionally positive; however, I don’t expect that this would be the case with all companies running a job fair, so take that into account as well.

Also, I’ve gone from knowing almost nothing about the company, other than its name and where its products are used, to knowing a fair bit about them and being very impressed with the organization:  according to the information presented, their market share for some of their products is greater than the combined total of all the other suppliers in the marketplace (granted, satellite communications components are not exactly a high-volume business…  but it’s still a worthy accomplishment).  Beyond the commercial success, I can see that it would be a very good environment to work in.

Oh, and did I mention the lineup?  The job fair was scheduled to run from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm; I wasn’t able to arrive until right at 9 am (K was going to Toronto that morning to help her friend Karen, who’s opened a knitting store in New Hamburg called Shall We Knit?, with a booth at the DKC Knitter’s Frolic knitting show and I had to get her to the meeting point for Karen to pick her up before I went to the job fair) and the lineup was already half the length of the building.

The lineup moved slowly, and the time that was marked on my résumé at the registration desk was 10:42 am.  Fortunately I was able to strike up a conversation with the woman behind me in the line, as it turned out she is also from the city where I live so we had something in common; the conversation helped pass the time and distract from the miserable weather that day.

By the time I left, it was about 12:20 pm, and I think that the lineup was even longer than when I had arrived at 9 am.  When I later spoke to the woman from HR who had asked me to follow up, she said that they had been a bit surprised at the number of people who had showed up for the job fair; there were a lot more than they had expected.  A sign of the economic times, I suspect.

She told me she was forwarding my résumé to the hiring manager for the position, but that they were travelling on business this week, so it would probably be the end of the week or more likely next week before I would hear from them.

Based on my very positive impressions of the company from the effort that they put into their job fair, and also the obvious quality and dedication of the people I met during my time there, I have to say I would be very pleased to become a part of their organization; one that has the Unconventional Wisdom to put the human back in human resources — they evidently see enough value in return for the significant effort it takes.


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