June 2010

Audience vs Monetization, which comes first?

This topic has come up a several different times in many different circles over the last few weeks so I thought I’d make a post about it just to sort of document some of my thoughts on it. I’ve been talking to companies and groups about their situations and trying to help them isolate their current problem or bottle neck. Often times people know something isn’t working right, but aren’t sure exactly what the problem is and an outside perspective can sometimes help make things more clear and that is where I come in. It’s been a little surprising to me how frequently the problem has boiled down into one of two things:

1. They have an audience but don’t know how to monetize it.
(aka traffic but no business plan)

or

2. They have a good business plan but no audience or idea how to attract one

Which of these problems people have often comes from their approach – are they trying to make something cool or are they trying to make a business. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those approaches, and in fact both should be on your mind, but one without the other will lead to one of the above problems, and one of those problems is definitely better to have than the other. People often confuse this with the “build it and they will come” idea which isn’t really reliable because some people think “it” can be anything, but really “it” needs to be something awesome for that to work. Most people aren’t awesome product factories so there are other aspects that need to be considered.

“Would I want to use thing?” is a fantastic question to ask yourself. I asked an entrepreneur that the other day about the product they were pitching me on and it stopped him cold, he thought about it, and then told me he wasn’t really the person he was building it for and it would be much more helpful to a different kind of person. I don’t need to tell you anything else about that other than that and you should know it’s likely going to fail because the guy isn’t invested in his own product. He’s not trying to solve a problem he is having, he’s trying to solve a problem he thinks someone else is having. Really it’s a solution without a problem. And while it might have positive numbers in all the right places in the business plan, if no one ever uses it.. ? Well, you get the idea.

I think in a lot of situations people have this idea of getting everything perfect before they launch so drilled into their heads that they lose sight of the original idea. At some point they thought of this product and thought it might be fun or useful or cool for people, or might make their own lives easier and decided to get it built. But along the way they got more focused on the finances and exactly how much they will make from each user and by the end what they’ve built isn’t fun or useful or cool and doesn’t make anyones life easier. It doesn’t matter if you will make $100 from every user every month if only 1 out of ever 10,000 people to your site signs up, and you only get 10 people to your site a day. See the problem?

Conversely if you make something cool, something that people find useful and that makes their lives easier, they will use it and they will tell their friends to use it. Having thousands upon thousands of people going to your site or using your product is great even if you don’t know how to capitalize from that, because that allows you room to figure it out. Doing tests on an existing audience is easy, not so much the other way around.

It’s because of this I’ve been telling people to stop worrying about perfection, get their produce out there and see if people find it useful, if they don’t, what changes can be made to make it useful? Tweak, tweak, tweak until it makes sense to the users – then figure out where the cash is. If it doesn’t make sense to the users, well, time for a new idea.

Travel Diary: Singapore pt1

Astute readers will know that a few weeks ago I packed up all my worldy possessions sans a suitcase or two and put them in storage. Tara did too and we gave up our lease in Venice Beach in favor of a loose 9 month travel plan. It’s part opportunity, we had some offers come up all at the same time that made sense to accept, it’s part experiment, to see what it’s like to live without a set place of residence for an extended chunk of time, part reminder that stuff just gets in the way of life, and it’s the experiences that really make it worth waking up every day.

The first 30 days of this journey find us in Singapore once again. I’ve been here several times over the last year though Tara hasn’t been here since the first “guided tour” trip that brought us here last September. Because of that I’ve seen a bit more of the real Singapore and she’s had nothing but that “one office building to the next” viewpoint to go on, I was hoping to change that a bit with this trip. Because of the work I’m doing with Neoteny Labs and HackerspaceSG I expect to spend some time here every few months at least so it can only help to have a better grasp of the territory.

I originally thought Chinatown was going to be culture filled bastion away from the overly clean and sterile majority of the country, but having spent a bit of time there I don’t find it to be that different from any other Chinatown in any other city. Maybe a few more temples and street vendors, but for the most part it’s not too new. What I do find new, and admittedly this could just be because of my lack of experience with these cultures, but I really enjoy the Arab Street area. The hackerspace is located just off Arab St and we’re hoping to get the offices for Neoteny Labs there too.

People told me the food there would be the draw but really that’s just a small piece of it, because shockingly there isn’t a ton of veggie options there. There is an all vegan spot called Living Greens but as you might guess from the name it’s a little more on the hippie tip, but it’s good for sure. There is a lot of middle eastern food around, but nothing that really jumps out to me as amazing. My friend Bassel from Syria says not only is it not stand out, it’s not even good enough to be considered a reasonable attempt. But it’s a quieter area with a lot of shops selling colorful fabrics and cafes with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk where people hang out eating and drinking coffee (or what is called kopi here, which is really the furthest thing from coffee) all day which makes it pretty comfortable. And it gets better at night when the sun goes down and the breeze picks up and the smell of hookas is in the air. There is also a mosque there which broadcasts the call to prayer a few times a day which just adds to the atmosphere and even though I’m not religious at all makes it feel pretty welcoming. This is also the area of town where the graffiti artists have opened up street wear shops so it has that going for it as well. Of all the streets in the area, Arab St is actually the largest and most traffic filled which makes it the least cool to hang out on.Brassorah St and Haji Lane are much better, Haji especially which is basically a walking street that is barely wide enough for one car to drive down, and at night it’s so full of people hanging out on pillows and folding chairs it’s definitely foot traffic only.

Anyway, that is Arab St. There are people dressed in traditional middle eastern robes with big beards hanging out next to Singaporian hipsters and hackers. I love it.

Dinner panorama

Where I have been finding good food is Little India, which probably isn’t surprising at all. There are tons of South Indian and “pure vegetarian” spots which have more than enough to fill my belly. I’ve been eating tons of idly recently thanks to this. And a gang of dosas. One of the first nights in town Tara and I walked through Little India with Ripley to meet some friends for dinner at a little half gallery, half cafe, half community center called Post Museum (where I had an awesome soy, almond, date smoothie thingy) and she said it was definitely the closest thing to India she’d ever seen outside of India, but noted that even in that it was a lot cleaner. And in Singaporian standards it’s not really that clean. It’s definitely packed with character and there are people hanging out on the corners and curbs and parks at all hours but given that it is Singapore you can walk down dark alleys with not much concern. And it’s one of the few places in central city you can see cats and dogs walking around which I think is kind of a good thing.

I’ve been spending a lot of time working and bouncing between meetings in assorted university and governmental buildings but we did get a chance to break from the norm and head about 10 minutes away by taxi to the Bukit Timah nature reserve the other day and saw monkeys all over the place. It’s easy to forget sometimes, when traveling from one air conditioned mall filled with Rolex and Timberland shops to another airconditioned mall filled with Adidas and Starbucks shops via their air conditioned underground tunnel, that we are kind of in a jungle right on the equator. Going out to the nature reserve was a good reminder of that, and while we didn’t really go hiking or anything like that, having monkeys all over the place – around you, above you – is the kind of thing that you could never experience in North America. You don’t always realize those things until they smack you in the face, almost literally.

I brought my biggest suitcase with me on this trip, a large size zero halliburton which I previously used to transport artwork in. I thought it was indestructible. I was wrong. All three of the big metal clasps that keep it closed were ripped the hell off somewhere between LA and here which means I won’t be returning with it and need to find a replacement. I’m thinking of getting something one size smaller both to make it easier to travel with as well as to help restrict the things I bring with me. It’s been two weeks and there are a few things I brought that I haven’t touched and obviously didn’t need to bring, as well as a few things sitting in LA that I wish I had. We checked out some of the luggage shops in the larger malls and they are really pricey, which I don’t mind because I need something that can withstand a lot of use, but we’re going to check out this other place called Mustafa as well which I’ve been told can have all kinds of hidden deals. Either way I’ll likely be picking up a new suitcase in the next week or two so I’ll let you know what I decide on when I get it.

The sun is starting to go down which is my que to get mobile and head out for some kind of adventure so I’m going to wrap this up here. Let me know if you like these kind of diary posts, I kind of enjoy putting it all down on paper but I’m not sure if it’s interesting to anyone besides me.

Creativity is just connecting things

This quote by Steve Jobs has been flying around recently even though it’s a few years old but it’s really good and I wanted to talk a little about it. Here’s the full thing:

“To design something really well you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to thoroughly understand something – chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that. Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask a creative person how they did something, they may feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after awhile. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people have.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. They don’t have enough dots to connect, and they en up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have.”

This isn’t just really good, it’s really, really good. That’s 2x the really. Really. It’s so good because while it’s specifically about design it actually applies so much more, and actually goes a long why in helping me describe what it is that I do – even though that answer might still be confusing to some people.

Steve is talking about design, and likely product design at that, but I think the essence of this is the need for lots of points of reference and lots of dots to connect. And the need fully digest something to be able to isolate those points worth connecting. Think about your favorite movie, how many times have you seen it? I’ve talked to people before who when mentioning a movie say something like “oh that is one of my absolute favorite movies ever! I’ve probably seen it 5 or 6 times!!!” This doesn’t make any sense to me because movies that I simply enjoy a lot I’ve seen over 10 times, and movies I really love easily over 100. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve watched The Big Lebowski for instance, but it’s enough that I know almost every line by heart and have stared at each scene and studied how they were put together for hours. This is the difference between just watching something and really getting it. Of course Steve isn’t talking about watching movies, and neither am I really, it’s just a simple example of how really getting into something means different things to different people.

It’s no secret that I’m a very obsessive person who has to regularly fight the compulsion to collect things. I’ve been this way my whole life even if I only realized it in the last 5 years. I find something interesting and for some chunk of time that becomes my entire world. I fall asleep and wake up thinking about it. I dream about it and day dream about it. I endlessly research it and try to find the people who know the most about it and try to soak up as much of that information as possible. I immerse myself in that world until I feel like I get it. Sometime I get it in a few weeks, sometimes it takes years. And once I do feel like I’ve really “groked” something, I rarely leave it behind, even if it doesn’t continue to be my all encompassing daily routine. In fact, often it continues to expand – usually because of bits and pieces I fine in later obsessions.

In many cases my obsessions take up so much of my time that I end up needing to find a way to justify the time I’m spending on them and end up turning them into businesses. If you look at my history this becomes pretty obvious. My record label spawned from an obsession with punk rock in general and subcultures like youth crew straight edge hardcore movement specifically. My record distribution company spawned from an obsession with how those subcultures grow and manifest themselves. My design firm spawned from obsessions with advertising in general and the emotional responses imagery can provoke in people specifically. While I never actually started a real business from it, it was my obsession with old Japanese toys in general and Jumbo Machinders and Sofubi Kaiju specifically that drove me to the web and got me creating things there. Before these toys and the community I found around them online I mostly used the internet for one off communication and minor games, the toys gave me a reason to write articles, do research, take phones and try to actually build something. (My first “blog post” predates blogs considerably, and was a guest article in the mod 90’s on Alen Yen’s Toybox about an 18″ knock off Getter Robo figure I’d won on ebay.) Continued obsession with arts, and my growing connections to visual artists as the creative director led to my involvement in the art gallery world, and continued obsession with web communities and relationships led to the launch of blogging.la.

Not everything has had a justifiable business come from it – lots of the things I’ve collected have been from obsessions that lasted only as long enough for me to track down a bunch of them, learn enough about where they came from and what was drawing me to them. Sometimes I just collect images of them. Some of those things stick around, some are sold to make room for the next thing, but the info and knowledge I amassed from studying them carries on into everything else. I learned print production from designing concert flyers at kinkos. I learned product design from seeing the difference between how Ark and Popy designed toys for the same robot characters with vastly different results. (image above is a rendition of Baltan by Popy on the left, and Ark on the right) I learned marketing from touring with punk bands. I perfected trend spotting by hanging out in fixed gear bike shops in LA and Tokyo. I sharpened attention to detail by watching baristas at Intelligentsia craft the perfect cup of coffee again and again. I learned business best practices by sitting in the lobby of technology conferences and listening to what people said about others -who did they have respect for and why, and who didn’t they. Most recently my obsession with the D.I.Y. culture that fueled much of my punk rock years has drawn me to hackerspaces. I spent years hanging out in European hackerspaces before attempting to open one myself. It’s a different world for sure, but many of the underlying themes are constant. That chapter in my life is still being written.

Travel has also been a massively important piece of this – going to many places regularly and surrounding myself with interesting people gives me a much better perception of who is doing what and why, and where similarities pop up and dots that need to be connected. When I talk to people and companies, I’m able to draw from all these experiences. Otaku level knowledge only comes from immersive obsessions, and I’ve spent a lot of my life collecting obsessions.

This existence isn’t all roses and sunshine – part of the trade off with always trying to find new and exciting things means to make room in my head for it I often have to leave less shiny uninteresting things in the past. In means I need to see a pattern developing before I recognize new threads. It means I’m rarely content with my surroundings and when I have 5 free minutes I need to find something to fill them with. It means I go through cycles of insomnia because something I’m so excited about something new that I can’t shut off my brain to sleep.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t imagine looking at the world through any other viewpoint and I love being able to help people see their projects from another perspective. I love tying things together. And these things all become part of my repertoire, part of my arsenal. I know that doesn’t really answer the “what do you do” question any better, but hopefully it sheds a little more light on the process.

Kicking the dust off

The more I write the more I write. When I slack off I lose the motivation, it’s almost like the tubes get clogged and it’s much harder for me get going again. I was on a really good streak there for a while with the 750 words thing but then the technical problems and self inflicted criticism conspired to work against me and I fell off that wagon never to return again. I have this fantastical idea that if I hadn’t missed that one day I would still be doing it and kicking so much ass but the thought of going back is like having to admit that I failed before and that is a shitty way to start something new so I just abandoned it. But I need to write, and I need to feel the need to write, and so this post is filler. It’s just me flowing whatever comes to my head to try and clear the tubes and get things moving again. If you think of a sink in an old house that hasn’t been used in 10 years or something – you turn it on and wait, you hear something gurgling but still nothing comes out, you keep waiting, and then finally there’s a little sputter of rusty brown shit water that is filled with bits of gunk and is really the last thing in the world you’d want to touch, that’s what starts flowing. But you keep waiting and the brown becomes tan becomes cloudy becomes clear and then all is right with the world and you can fill up your glass or take a shower or whatever you were intending to do. The next day when you do the same you still have that rusty shit but not for nearly as long.

That’s what this post is, it’s the rusty, cruddy shit that is clogging up my pipes that I need to clear out. Of course I could just write something privately but for whatever reason, call it masochism or exhibitionism or just plain egotism I need the audience. The audience of the 3 or 4 people who actually read my blog, but it’s the exposure that works for me. If I know ahead of time that no one is going to see what I’m writing then I just give up and feel like I’m wasting my time. Knowing that in a few minutes I’m going to hit publish means I do have to try and make real sentences and convey some kind of tangible idea. So if you are reading this I appreciate you being my muse, even if you weren’t planning on doing that today.

So I need to write because I have decided to take the plunge and full on really write a book for the purpose of writing it. Not just collecting shit I wrote before and calling that a book. But starting from zero with a final goal in mind and working towards it. I thought this trip would be a good venue for that since I’m writing what is basically a life philosophy manual pretending to be a book about travel, with traces of self help. Though the help may be one sided, I’ll benefit from writing it but who knows what kinds of take away you’ll get from it. I’m writing about the multibasing idea and how, in addition to that being a shitty name, it’s more than just travel and taking less luggage with you. It’s about a way of life. A perspective. And a suggestion or two about how the perspective you hold decides what you see. If you think the whole world is nothing but the single room you live in, then chances are you aren’t going to spend much time trying to get out of that room. However if you think the whole world is the house which is filled with many rooms that you bounce between without any real decision to do so, well then you have a bit of a bigger world view, but it’s still limited by the walls you built yourself. See where I’m going with this?

One of the things that set me off was a friend, actually several friends, hearing about the trip Tara and I were about to go on and calling it “the trip of a lifetime.” I thought about it and realized that most people would be excited to go on the trip of a lifetime, but hearing those people say that was very depressing for me. It made me feel like this trip is some big built up one off thing that could never be achieved again. And of course I didn’t want to think that because I see this as a continuing step in a direction I’ve been heading for a long time. And those people knew that, they know about other trips I’ve been on and they know about my penchant for being transient and mobile, so WTF? But then I realized they were projecting – if they were going on this trip it would be the trip of a lifetime because, some of them anyway, hadn’t left their own counties in many many years, if ever, and hadn’t left their cities in a pretty long time as well. So them looking at the itinerary we had laid out was overwhelming and impossible, where as to us, it’s cool for sure, but it’s just the trip we’re taking this year, and there will be more like it later, just like there were some like it before. For me, this isn’t the trip of a lifetime, it’s the trip of the moment.

Realizing this changed my thoughts from being bummed that the idea was I’d never do something like this again, to being bummed other people thought they could never do something like this on their own. And that’s why I decided to write the book, because seriously anyone can do this, and they only reason they don’t is because they have convinced themselves it would be too hard. They couldn’t get the time off work, couldn’t save up the cash, couldn’t just leave things behind. Fuck that. It’s not that they don’t take big trips because big trips are too hard to take, they don’t take big trips because they have convinced themselves big trips are too big to take.

There is a saying about trying and not trying. If you don’t attempt something, there is a 100% chance you won’t pull it off. The only way to ensure you never go on a trip, is to tell your self going on a trip is too hard, expensive, time consuming, etc. I’ve never thought that way, I always assume if something is too hard I’ll fail somewhere in the process of trying. I can’t stomach the thought of not trying and then wondering what life would have been like if I did. I don’t want to think about the memories and experiences I could have had. Trying and failing is much more rewarding than playing it safe. So while the book is about traveling, and about traveling regularly to several places – maybe even “living” in some of them simultaneously, it’s also about how to use that same way of thinking in life in general. You’ll only ever pull off what you try, and if you think the world is only the one room you live in, then there is 100% change you’ll never walk out of the room and see the rest of the house, or the front door and see the outside.

So I’m writing this book while I’m on the road. Trying to write a little every day. It’s going, not as fast as I’d like, but it is going and if I just keep chipping away by the time I get to the end of it I know it’ll be something I’m proud to have done, even if only the 3 or 4 people who read this post read the book. Wish me luck.

Travel Video Podcasting

This is kind of shocking, one of those thing people always talk about doing because they think would be a good idea but then never actually do is actually getting done! Tara and I (though it’s mostly Tara doing all the hardwork) talked about and are now actually doing a travel video podcast documenting this trip and where it takes us. We’re calling it GTFO and it’s not really over produced, or well, produced at all – honestly it’s mostly just us talking about what has happened in the few days prior to recording it. The first episode is mostly just us talking to the camera, the second has a bit more ‘out in the world’ footage and I hope we’ll get better at this as it progresses. If you are curious about what we’re up to and haven’t had a chance to check these out yet, here’s both episodes thus far…

Episode 1: Leaving Los Angeles:

Episode 2: Singapore So Far:

International Introspectical

I’ve been out of the US for a little over a week now and just now finally letting the dust settle. Tara and I got to singapore a day or so before Joi which means I didn’t have much time to put things in order before jumping into full time GSD mode as we only had a few days to take care of things in town together before he headed out again. So while we were settled in our apartment here in Singapore I was leaving at 7am and getting home at 11pm and didn’t even get around to unpacking until a few days in. Of course the fact that my super indestructible suitcase suffered fatal damage on the way here means I wasn’t really *packed* that first few days either. Anyway, those bits are behind me and the next 3 weeks here should be a little easier to manage.

Well, after I buy a new suitcase it will be anyway, and I think I’m going to go for something a little smaller because as I suspected (and predicted) being out in the world facing an extended trip has me thinking a lot about the stuff I have with me vs the stuff I need with me vs the stuff I left back at home. It’s even more on my mind because the stuff I left back at home isn’t so much “at home” as it is “in a box in a storage unit” which I’ve always thought of as the purgatory on the way to the landfill. I thought I was being extremely minimal on what I brought with me and I already know a few things I brought that I won’t need, though most of that is weather related. I can only think of a few things that are packed away in Los Angeles that I wouldn’t mind having with me, and honestly those aren’t really that big a deal – things like it would be nice to have 4 short sleeve shirts rather than 3. Nothing crucial.

The other night I was talking to a guy at the hackerspace who was in town for Echelon2010 from Bangkok. He’d left New York City 6 months ago after subletting his apartment and clearing out a storage facility. We talked about the stuff he had been and I currently am paying to keep locked up in an off site box. He had stored large (yet empty) suitcase that probably cost under $500 for over 10 years in a storage space that cost over $100 a month. This is something with zero sentimental value and easily replaceable. It’s also something that goes out of date because as I’m finding out in my current luggage replacement search, luggage tech has improved greatly since I last looked. A $500 suitcase from 10 years ago is crap next to one available right now. Yet just do the math on how much this guy had spent to keep something that was both easily replaceable and essentually worthless in storage all those years.

This has me thinking long and hard about the stuff I opted not to sell at our garage sale, and to box up instead, as well as the stuff I did try to sell but that no one bought. I’d planned to donate a lot of the unsold stuff but I ended up boxing it and storing it with the stuff I wanted to keep. Right now I’m having a hard time justifying a lot of that stuff and I find myself wishing it was all just gone. Obviously I don’t really want it all just gone, but in a way I kind of do. Between Singapore and Paris we have a few days in LA which will certainly involve a trip to the storage space to trade out some items, but I’m dreading both that I’ll have to dig through and extremely packed unit and that I won’t have more time to get rid of some of it. I should have been more ruthless when packing, but I had other things on my mind.

Of course this is an easy stance to take when I’m looking at living out of a suitcase for the next 8 months or so, but I don’t think that is really a bad voice to listen to. If I don’t need it for that length of time while traveling around the world, why do I really need it if I’m parked somewhere more permanently? I remember how free it felt when I lived in Florida knowing that everything I owned could be fit in a car and moved in one shot, and I know how tethering it feels to think of a 10×15 storage unit packed to the brim. I have 4 bikes in that unit. I love my bikes and can’t imagine being without one, but at the same time I don’t have one here with me and the ones there are gathering dust. If I had the option to trade all 4 of those for something like a freeman transport bike that I could more easily take with me I’d probably do it, and be happier because I had less physical clutter and thus less mental clutter. Boxing those up and mailing them around the world to places I stay frequently is an option, but requires a lot of time and effort to coordinate.

My head is swimming with a technomad minimalist manifesto of sorts. One thing you can use always trumps any number of things you can’t. Portable and compact trumps sizable and unpackable. Multifunction trumps single use. Durable and reliable trumps cheaper and breakable, price isn’t the issue to worry about. Buying once beats buying often, and at the same time the is no reason to save something that isn’t being used if it’s easily replaceable. These are things I need to think about and remember more often.

American Airlines just doesn’t get it

Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

So just for a quick recap, I’ve been an American Airlines AAdvantage member at Platinum status for years. Years. On my most recent flight there was some kind of confusion where I was getting different stories from different employees so I sent a note to their web customer service form asking to clear it up. I received a boilerplate reply answering a different question, which included a note saying you couldn’t reply to that letter. Rather that start over from scratch I called them and all hell broke loose, you can read the whole story here. In the midsts of my ranting, I said something on twitter and whoever writes the American Airlines twitter account responded saying they wanted to help. I sent them my AAdvantage number and said I’d filed a complaint, they responded saying someone from Customer Service would likely want to contact me. I replied telling them they had my account info and if someone wanted to contact me they had my e-mail.

Since I didn’t hear anything within the hour I assumed I wouldn’t, however I was wrong as I just received a note from them. A note that is so amazingly bad and such evidence that they totally miss the point at every step I had no choice but to post it here, with notations of course. Truly, this is a work of art.

from: American Airlines – AmericanAirlines.wecaare001 @aa.com
to: “SEANBONNER @GMAIL.COM”
date: Fri, Jun 4, 2010 at 11:07 PM
subject: R2010/06-04065-00293-001-00

I gotta jump in here for a second already as there are some gems not to be missed and we haven’t even gotten to the content of the letter yet. Check out the e-mail address this was sent from. “wecaare001.” With 2 A’s. So they care enough to be clever with the AA thing, but not enough to use a subject line is human readable and doesn’t look like some random string of crap spit out by a computer. Anyway…

Dear Mr. Bonner:

As an AAdvantage® elite member, you are among our most valued customers, so it is
particularly troubling to hear on our AAirways® Twitter Channel you were disappointed
by our service.

At first I thought this was a typo and when they typed “AAirways®” obviously they must have meant “@AAirways”, except that their account is “@AAirwaves”, but then I read the “Twitter Channel” part and realized it wasn’t a mistake at all, they just had no idea what they were talking about at all. I got this vivid image in my head of an old guy with a remote control that he probably calls a clicker shaking it at his TV screaming to a half deaf wife that the reception on his twitter channel needs adjusting, and that made me laugh, so at least I’m enjoying myself reading this.

If you would be kind enough to email me with the details, I would be happy to look
into the matter for you. Please send an email to my attention at
www.aa.com/customerrelations.

Whoah whoah whoah whoah!

Do you want me to send an e-mail or submit something via your contact form? Because I’ve already submitted something to the contact form and there is no way to direct it to anyone’s attention. So they care so much that they are e-mailing me and inviting me to use their public contact form to tell them about the problem that I already told them about via their public contact form? Brilliant. This also tells me they didn’t even look at my tweets or follow any links to my website.

Additionally, this doesn’t offer a solution, it says that he’ll look into it. So they want me to do more work with no promise of a resolution at all. I could spend 30 minutes writing up a new note for them only to have them respond telling me to stuff it, or maybe they’d send me another reply to something completely different again, further wasting my time. No thanks.

While space limitations are fairly standard in this
type of web format, please feel free to submit as many messages as you wish. Our
system automatically combines multiple messages from one customer. In other words,
we’ll be able to read all the important information and details that you have to share
with us.

Wow. So dear reader, do this math with me. They know that their contact form doesn’t provide enough space for someone to actually write something useful, but their system is smart enough to combine multiple messages from one customer as a workaround. Which for some reason makes more sense to them then simply taking off the text limit on their contact form? But also, it’s smart enough to combine those notes, but not smart enough to tell this customer service rep who is clearly looking at my account (to know that I have elite status and to get my e-mail so he could send me this note) that I already sent in something via that form just the other day? Or maybe it does, but for some reason this guy didn’t bother to look if I’ve submitted anything via their contact form. Or maybe the person who sent me the boiler plate answer to a question I didn’t ask marked my submission as ‘resolved’ and deleted it from their system. In any case, FAIL.

If you prefer, however, you can always send us a letter via U.S. mail or fax. Our fax
and mailing address information is:

Customer Relations
American Airlines
MD 2400, HDQ
PO Box ********
DFW Airport, TX 75261
Fax: 817-***-****

Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to think if someone is competent enough to use twitter and email, they probably aren’t rushing to use a Fax machine. It’s 2010 for crying out loud.

In addition, it might be helpful to know that when completing the Customer Relations
email form, much of your personal information can be “populated” for you if you
actually login to AA.com. From the home page, click the ‘Login’ button located on the
top of the navigation bar, then enter your AAdvantage® number and password. If you
don’t already have a password, after clicking ‘Login’ at the top of the home page,
select ‘Need a Password’ and then proceed.

Thank you for telling me something completely obvious, and for shedding more light on the fact that no one at AA can add 2 and 2 together. I’ve already submitted a note via the comment form, I purchase all my tickets online, I’ve redeemed miles online, and done all this while logged into my account. The same one tied to my e-mail and AAdvantage number that this guy had to look at before e-mailing me. Unbelievable.

Thank you for your cooperation and I look forward to assisting you.

Given the level of assistance I’ve received from AA in the last week, I highly doubt this will ever happen.

Sincerely,

Stephen ************
Customer Relations
American Airlines

Thanks Stephen, I’m sure you are just doing your job, but this e-mail is a nightmare. And now that we’ve had the closing line, we’re back into the boiler plate which is no less amusing.

For security purposes and to protect privacy, our process does not allow for
replies to this message. If we can assist you further, please let us know by
clicking http://www.aa.com/customerrelations.

There’s that bit about not replying. So there is no way to continue a thread, basically they are saying this is the final word and if for some reason you are thinking you have something to add, you have to go back to square one and submit a note on their public contact form which by this point you know if your time is at all valuable to you, isn’t worth it.

The information in this email is confidential and is intended solely for the
addressee(s); access to anyone else is unauthorized. If this message has been
sent to you in error, do not review, disseminate, distribute or copy it. If you
are not the intended recipient, please delete this email from your email system.

Oh man I love this one. Where do I even start? E-mail is never confidential, it’s accessed by 3rd parties every step of the way. This was sent to my gmail account which means Google even indexed it and is running contextual ads against it. Once confidential information has been shared with 3rd parties it’s no longer confidential, and American shared this with 3rd parties the moment they hit send. But also, this assumes they can enter into a contract with me without my agreeing to it. I’m not agreeing to any confidentiality here, yet they are telling me that by simply opening the e-mail from them we have an agreement. I wonder if I sent an e-mail to AmericanAirlines.wecaare001 @aa.com, or to their CEO, or their legal department that said “by reading this e-mail you agree that you now owe me $1,000,000” would I get paid? Likely not, because you can’t opt someone else into an agreement, both parties have to agree. I don’t agree.

They totally don’t get it.

But not being one to just bitch and point out problems without offering solutions, here is some free advice and what they should have done…

Step one – They should make sure the people responding to their contact form actually read the comments and understand them before responding to them.

Step two – There should never be a situation where a phone rep, a supervisor for the platinum status line no less, yells at, insults, and hangs up on a customer. Ever.

Step three – They should ditch the stupid @Aairwaves twitter user name, and get something that makes sense like @AmericanAirlines or @AAmerican. Then the person manning that account should be empowered to actually engage customers, not just say “someone will be in touch.” Twitter is a personal and conversational medium, if you want to use it for your business you need to play by it’s rules. Sticking a puppet mouthpiece there isn’t winning you any points.

Step four – The customer service rep should have pulled up my account, seen what I had written in the initial note I sent, looked at the stuff I wrote on twitter, followed the links I posted to my account of the full details of the events, and once he/she had a firm grasp on the situation, they should have e-mailed me an apology and offered a solution. And they should have done that from an account that is tied to a single person who I could reply back to directly.

See, as a customer I can interact with and relate to a real person who has some empathy for my situation, boilerplate filled e-mails sent from bucket accounts that you can’t reply to sent by “customer service” representatives who haven’t bothered to do the least bit of legwork to understand why they are even e-mailing me does not cut it, and in fact just illustrates my complaint that they don’t care and I should take my business to another airline who does.

The happy ending to this is I’ve spoken to people at United AND Continental who said they will happily and immediately bump me to their comparable frequent flyer status level and will be delighted to have me. In closing, please enjoy this video of a cat hicupping and farting at the same time.

I’ve had it with American Airlines

I’ve been flying American Airlines for many years, and have maintained AAdvantage Platinum status for several years due to how often I travel. The service on AA which used to be great has been steadily declining over the last year and it’s been most obvious to me when I fly somewhere with a stop over where one leg of the trip is on AA and the other is on another One World partner airline. I’ve been sticking with AA hoping it’s something that will just pass, but what just happened was the final straw.

As many folks know Tara and I are basically traveling around the world for the next 9 months with our new baby, Ripley (he’s 3 months old right now). The first leg of this trip was from Los Angeles to Singapore through Narita. The first leg of this flight was on AA, the second on JAL. If you haven’t flown with a baby you might not even know that planes have some seats with bassinet’s that make travel easier. I didn’t even know about this option until last year. When I booked the flight I asked about reserving the bassinet seat, I was told that this spot was unreservable and I had to go to the gate the day of the flight and request it then and they would be given out on a first come first serve basis. I spoke to several people at AA and AA Platinum service who told me that same story. The day before the flight I called again and confirmed the only way to get the gate and request it. The representative I spoke to suggested I get there 2 hours early, I got there 4 hours early.

I waited and was the first person to speak to the gate agent when she arrived, I asked about the bassinet and she told me it was already reserved but that the best she could do was move me to row with a little more legroom. She apologized and said I should have requested it in advance, when I told her I did she said there was no record of my request. Once on the plane we noticed that there was a bassinet attachment in our row and asked the flight attendant about it. She confirmed they had a bassinet we could use and brought it out, however when she did another family stood up saying they had also requested the bassinet. The flight attendant told us that whoever had made a prior reservation for the bassinet could have it, and the other family said they had. Later on I asked the father of the family how he reserved it and he said he simply requested it when he bought his ticket.

To be fair I didn’t ask the family who they bought their ticket from, and it’s possible they bought it via some other airline or through a service like Expedia. That said, we were both on the same AA flight and if you can get better service on an AA flight by going around AA, the problem is only compounded and seems to suggest if you are flying with a baby, don’t fly AA.

Upon arriving at Narita we asked the gate agent again about getting a seat with the bassinet and were again told that those seats were already reserved. To be fair, the second leg of the flight was JAL not AA, and the bassinets are built into certain seats, however the flight attendants did tell us that if it had been requested when we purchased the tickets we could have gotten those seats, and even though the tickets were bought from AA they could have put in that request.

When we arrived in Singapore I immediately sent an e-mail to the Platinum customer service department detailing the above and asking what we did wrong that we weren’t able to reserve these bassinet seats, and how we could do it in the future. I received a boilerplate e-mail saying that bulkhead seats are very popular and given out on first come first serve basis. Frustrating as I wasn’t asking about bulkhead seats, but even moreso because there was no way to reply to that note and if I wanted to follow up or respond I had to submit a brand new complaint. Rather than risk the same thing I called the desk directly, even though I’m currently on the other side of the world and international calling rates aren’t cheap.

The first person I spoke to said there is no way to reserve the bassinet seats end of story. I asked to speak with a supervisor, who I was transferred to and who I relayed the above situation to. The first thing she told me what that they don’t offer bassinet seats any longer, except on some international flights. I pointed out to her that Los Angeles to Singapore is in fact an international flight. She told me that no one is able to reserve bassinet seats, and it must have been a mix up at the gate. I told her that both the gate agent and the family who booked the bassinet told me they booked it at the time of purchase. The platinum service rep said “no they didn’t.” I told her that regardless of the policy she was reading to me, I was the first person at the gate to request the bassinet, and didn’t end up with it because it was previously reserved. She offered two possible explanations “maybe someone was having a bad day” or “maybe you just didn’t see them get to the gate before you.”

I don’t know how someone having a bad day could play into this, but I do know that I sat at the gate patiently and no one spoke to the agent prior to me, or even immediately after me, and regardless the gate agent didn’t say “sorry those people just snuck in front of you and requested it seconds ago” she said “sorry, that was reserved weeks ago.” Weeks.

Assuming that perhaps I wasn’t explaining the situation well enough I tried to tell the AA Platinum service rep that both the agent and the family told me they booked the bassinet at the time of purchase, and she begin yelling at me and interrupting me to the point that my wife, sitting a good 6 feet away from me, could hear the conversation clearly. I asked the lady to please stop interrupting me and she continued without a beat. I asked her what I had done to be treated like this as I was trying to be very polite, the representative kept talking over me thoughout this telling me that no one else could have requested the bassinet and again telling me that they don’t even offer bassinets except on some international flights. As it appeared we were going in circles I asked to speak to someone else, she told me there was no one else and again told me that I must just not have been paying attention when someone else walked to the counter ahead of me. I again told her that not only did no one walk in front of me at the gate, but the gate agent confirmed the reservation was made prior to that day. The representative said “no they didn’t” I asked “are you calling me a liar?” she responded “I didn’t say that, but you are making things up and telling me things that didn’t happen.”

I was rather shocked by this and again asked if there was maybe someone else I could speak to, she didn’t hear this request because she was too busy talking over me again. I waited for her to finish yelling at me and then asked if I could have her name, she then hung up on me.

And yes, just to confirm this was the Platinum Service desk, because I have Platinum status because I spend so much money flying with them every year. Why am I doing that again? Yeah, after this interaction I couldn’t think of a good reason either. I did a little research and spoke to some people and it looks like several airlines that are part of the Star Alliance will comp my status with AA if I switch to them. I feel bad because I really have enjoyed flying with many of the other One World allied airlines, but given that I’m based in the US I need a good US carrier to base most of my flights there with so I think that is that. So long American, you used to be awesome but I can’t say I’ll miss you after all this. (If you work for Continental or United and are reading this, please get in touch!)