Jul 02

Mark Twain and me

Every now and then it’s comforting to know that the more things change, the more they stay Telephone2 the same. Take customer service for example. Please!

This past Saturday, we suffered a lightning strike in our back yard and lost power for 15, count ‘em, 15 hours! Desperate to keep the refrigerated food fresh and be able to watch the new HBO series ‘Hung’, I feverishly dialed Jersey Central Power & Light (and, unwittingly entered the automated attendant Twilight Zone).

I never spoke to a live person. Instead, I interacted with a voice activated service representative from computerized hell. His voice began by asking me to either dial or speak my account number. I did so. But, he refused to recognize either for a good 25 minutes. (“I’m sorry. I didn’t quite understand what you said. Can you repeat it?”) When I finally got past that initial hurdle, I next had to orally describe my problem. ("Please answer by saying: ‘Payment,’ ‘Power outage,’ ‘Power outage with a downed power line’ or ‘Miscellaneous.’ Thank you.”)  I repeatedly screamed “Power outage, Dammit!” But, I kept being forwarded to the miscellaneous automated attendant, who wanted to know if I’d like to know about Jersey Central’s package of service value adds. I didn’t.

Long story short, I finally broke through the voice recognition system, reported my outage and, voila, a Jersey Central service van rolled up my driveway several hours later.

Customer service is always included alongside military intelligence as the ultimate oxymoron. That said, it’s nice to know that poor customer service isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, upon reading Emily Yellin’s excellent new book on the subject, entitled, “Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us,” I see that I have some rarified company. To wit, none other than Mark Twain who, in 1890, wrote the following letter to AT&T:

‘The Hartford telephone is the very worst on the face of the earth. No man can dictate a 20-word message intelligibly through it at any hour of the day without devoting a week’s worth of time to it, and there is no night service whatsoever since electric-lighting was introduced. Though mind you they charge for night-service in their cold, calm way, just the same as if they furnished it.’

Customer service. It stank in 1890 and it stinks in 2009. At least ‘Hung’ was good.

Apr 03

Talk about revolting

I love every David McCullough book. Whether it’s "The Bridge," "Mornings on Horseback," "1776" orAdams
something else, McCullough does it for me. Every work is a masterpiece.

So, as might be expected, I couldn’t wait to see HBOs take on the McCullough book, "John Adams."  And, while I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve also found myself wincing at times.

Having read the book, I knew how critically important Abigail Adams was to John’s success and stability. But, the HBO series focuses on the marital angle to the detriment of the rest of the story. So, instead of seeing Adams negotiating with the vanquished Brits at the Paris Peace Treaty conference we, instead, see him dropping his drawers and ravishing Abigail. That’s way too much information, especially with Paul Giamatti playing the lead role.

HBO also took great pains to ensure the octogenarian Benjamin Franklin (played by the scene stealing Tom Wilkinson) is seen cavorting with French tarts. Talk about revolting. The whole thing gives new meaning to the phrase ‘founding fathers’ and diminishes what, in my mind, is an otherwise outstanding contribution to cable programming.

Mar 18

I have to write off the new USPS/HBO campaign

I hate to say it, but letter writing is a dying, if not, dead form of communications. The youngerLetter
generation, in particular, has no interest in putting pen to paper.

That said, I was fascinated to see the US Postal Service partner with HBO and its most excellent new mini-series, ‘John Adams,’ to launch a letter-writing campaign. The ‘power of the letter’ initiative is aimed at high school students and is costing HBO a cool million dollars to underwrite.

USPS Spokesperson Sue Brennan, said, ‘In this era of e-mail and text messaging, there really is something to be said how about personal a letter is.’ I agree. But, unlike the American Revolution, this cause is doomed.

Kids simply don’t want to take the time or effort to send traditional letters or notes. I’m not alone in encouraging college kids to use letter writing as a differentiator in their job searches. It really does work. I’ll always open a personal letter, but will quickly delete most anonymous e-mails.

Written letters say something about a person’s desired image and reputation. It tells me he or she does care enough to take the time and effort to personalize a message in a way that text and e-mail never can. It’s also a refreshing, if antiquated, antidote to the anonymity and coarseness of the web.

So, here’s a challenge/request: tell me if you agree or disagree that letter writing is dead. But, put it in writing and mail it to me. Assuming I get any takers, I’ll do a follow-up blog (and mail a personalized, written version to the letter writers).

Jun 12

Sometimes advertising can be smart and funny at the same time

Every now and then an advertising strategy comes along that is smart, funny and memorable (and, for an advertising campaign to get my attention, it has to have all three qualities in spades).

Anyway, I was genuinely impressed to see how creative HBO was in promoting the upcoming season Big_love_3 of Big Love, a very cool series that had me hooked midway through the very first episode.

To reach potential viewers in new and unexpected ways, HBO has placed ersatz ads alongside the wedding announcement sections of the New York and LA Times. The ads promote funny, but faux, products and services for polygamists. They’re very smart and very irreverent (just like the series itself). In fact, when’s the last time you saw TV ads alongside wedding announcements?

My favorite ad is for Polygaworld, a travel agency specializing in destinations for polygamists. That’s beautiful. In fact, I can just picture the Club Med for men and their plural wives.

Anyway, hats off to HBO and its agency for creating an advertising campaign that I actually paid attention to.

Thanks to Ms. Vividor for the idea.