Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Telephone Voice Menus, a useful bane

We've all used them, and we still use them, on an almost daily basis. Please pay careful attention because our menu system has changed...Press 2 if you want Spanish, Press 7673 if you want English...Press 8 for sales...Press 27 for customer care...and at the end of the experience, which took about 20 minutes to navigate, we have to hold for another 20 just to speak to someone.

I understand why they do it. Call centers can be pretty costly to setup, with the biggest expense being salaries. Although each individual may earn what would be considered a relatively low salary, when you multiply that by 600 you can see you are dishing out a fair amount of change. Then there's the technology costs, and training, etc. So for every CSR (Customer Service Representative--being a bit on the techy side of CS) to have billing capabilities could pose huge additional costs, with each having to have access to the credit card system, and then there's security--how do you protect everyones credit card numbers from being copied then used fraudulently later on? Then you have that training expense, the list goes on.

Then there's the reporting systems that all these Customer Service systems have. What was the total call volume, who called for what department, then quality for the CSR's themselves, did they resolve the question in the company way, did they stick to policy and save the company money, did they save face and make an exception to policy to have a happy returning customer. All this can be reported upon depending on the options chosen, and they can report on length of call, etc. Can you imagine a CSR having to know every nuance of the company to ensure their quality remains top notch. That would make them directors.

However, us customers, poor plebeians that we are want to speak to someone. A lot of us have tight schedules to adhere to, and deadlines to meet, and having to wait for hours on end to get answers can be very frustrating. The telephone systems have to change, and they have to become more streamlined to deliver targeted, effective services, much like search engines work hard to get algorithms right so that the most relevant results get displayed at the top. Why not apply these principals to telephony systems?

This is how I see it, when a customer phones your system, it's not how you pizazz them with how fancy shmancy you sound, or how professional the recorded voice sounds, it's how effective the message is conveyed, and the speed of service and the expertise of the person who deals with their inquiry or problem that proves how good your company is and the services you provide. People know that the phone systems are cleverly programmed computer systems that act on DTMF frequencies to "click the links" for the appropriate queue. So lets bring the systems back down to the level of being a computer driven menu and drive it for speed:

Thanks for calling ACME Industries. For Spanish press 2, Sales 1, Billing 3, Tech support 4, Operator 0, Directory 8.

See how simple that is. Single keywords and single digits, quickly annunciated for complete clarity. There's nothing worse than having to listen for 10 seconds while an individual option is slowly spoken. With the shorter system, it's succinct and quick to listen to. If we were on a website we would skim through the keywords to find the information we want, lets skim through voice prompts to reduce frustration.

Which leads me onto the next thing, while it may be convenient for the CSR to have my information presented to them as my call comes through, it's one total nightmare trying to get the system to understand me when asking me for my account information before I get put through to someone, unless I specifically choose to use the self help options first. It isn't because people can use an automated system that you get less calls, it's because they don't want to go through the hassle of spelling out a name, then having the system say "I'm sorry, I didn't understand that, can we try again? " (ignores "NO" when shouted) "...What was your...".

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Chip & Pin - When will we see this in the US?

I've just read an article by the BBC that states the amount of credit card fraud has dropped to the lowest levels in ten years, at just 187m over the first six months of the year. That's an incredible achievement I believe, considering that the past eleven years has cost the banking industry over four and a half billion pounds sterling.

While I was living in the UK, the banking industry introduced chip and pin, a credit card containing not only a magnetic swipe strip, but also a smart card chip similar to the ones seen on cellphone sim cards. It was clearly recognized at the time that magnetic strips could easily be copied when a customer wasn't looking by swiping their card in a reader, then swiping the card to do the actual charge on a PDQ. The person who copied the information later transfers that digital data to another credit card, presumably in their name which then makes an exact replica of the original credit card, minus names, to minimize required explanation when the credit card does not match the persons real name.

The original magnetic readers were obsoleted throughout the entire commercial industry, and restaurants, bars, cafes, shopping centers, corner stores, etc replaced the magnetic reader for a reader that read from the chip. That coupled with the physical input of the card holders pin number, facilitated through the use of easy to carry portable readers with key code entry pads, or shielded keypads at the register. Goodbye skimmers, goodbye having to have a working pen to scrawl ones autograph, goodbye nightmare, and it certainly seems that way.

I've lived in the States for the past three years now, and have yet to see ANYONE with a chip & pin card. If the UK suffered four point seven billion pounds in credit card fraud over eleven years, I would hate to imagine what the States has suffered, especially with a population that dwarfs the entire UK's population by 251 million people.

Since Chip & Pin appears to be so successful, isn't it about time that the US banks protect our hard earned cash, reduce the countries credit card fraud rate, and provide us with some cool looking credit cards that will be the talk of the country for several months? I don't like carrying cash around, but I'm also very wary when I had my card over to be swiped each and every time. I watch the person carrying my card like a hawk and if they go to the back to swipe my card, I pay extra special attention to their actions to ensure they aren't skimming my card. Should I, or anyone else have to feel this way?

Sure, the implementation of such a system would cost alot of money. Every card holder would need to be issued new cards, and all the PDQ machines would have to be replaced to support a card insertion slot which then enables the device to read from the chip rather than the magnetic strip, ATM machines would need to be upgraded, we as card holders would have to (dare I say it) remember that pin number and keep it handy--I can see how this could potentially cost millions if not a few billion dollars. Would the savings be worth it in the long run though? I believe the benefits outweigh the cons a million to one.

This needs to start at the congress level, if not the President himself. Reduce the fraud, and then the fees can be reduced. That's where it costs the most is the fees that banks charge for the privilege of having a card because of the scammers out there that skim cards and steal money, and it has to be paid somehow; I don't want to have to foot the bill, no matter how tiny my payments are in comparison to others and I think many other people would be in agreement.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Ever had trouble with your bookmarks? A simple solution is available.

Well, this is a post with a difference from what I've posted before...I think. I want you to imagine the following scenario, which I think you will find very familiar.

I have been using the Interwebnets for the past 15 or so years. I've seen the web in it's very early-advanced (a term I'll explain in footnote 1) state, where IE had just come out along with Netscape and I could browse web pages that had not only text but images, oh and there were also--wait for it--animated gifs. Wow. This is fantastic I thought. Here were online brochures which I was designing for print and you could deliver them to thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions. There was also bookmarking where I could save a book mark to a menu and easily return to that fantastic site that had terrible blinking text, but useful design and development information any time I wanted, without having to remember the address. Remember those aweful geocities addresses with the directory tree the size of a piece of string? Well how the heck else was I going to remember all those letters and numbers, along with tilds (~) and and dashes. Bookmarks were fantastic and the web was full of them. Then my computer was infected with a virus, and all those bookmarks, along with my work, photos, emails, and everything was gone.

Once I was back up and running, I had to start the whole process of collecting emails, collecting those valuable bookmarks, some of which were impossible to find again because search engines weren't the same as they are now. A huge undertaking to say the least, and then the hard drive crashed, or I upgraded the operating system and something corrupted my profiles, or I had bookmarks at work, and bookmarks at home, and bookmarks on the laptop, but it was difficult to migrate them, and retain them for many years without worry.

So I then became aware of delicious, the website where you could add links to your account, along with description, tags for easy keyword references, and then interlinked profiles based on links I had. A fantastic site, but still just not the same as the typical bookmarks. After all if I really wanted to, I could always navigate into the folder on the hard drive and copy all those links. There are other many useful sites that have come famous and work hand in hand with delicious, facebook, twitter, stumbled, ad nauseum. All great and very useful sites, however also workarounds for the simple problem that it's difficult to retain your bookmarks in a perpetual state, or otherwise known as in the cloud.

Cloud computing has become a very real and beneficial way of storing and accessing data on and over the web. It increases the capacity by spreading load and resources and allows for millions of users to concurrently do processes that would otherwise be on a most probably slow computer, and state is stored online, not on a device that could potentially, or should we say probably fail at some point.

There is a solution to the most basic problem of having a normal bookmarks menu in your browser, which is easily restorable in the event of localized data loss, as well as synchronizing your bookmarks between browsers, and different devices and it's free. Ladies and Gentlemen, I proudly introduce you to:

This browser plugin is compatible with IE, Firefox, Google Chrome, and Safari. There is also an iPhone, iPad and Touch application available with support for Android coming soon. I've used this utility for the past couple of days and I'm happy, erm ecstatic with the results. My bookmarks are now synced between the many browsers that I use on a daily basis, on my laptop, and home computer. My laptop also has some virtual machines running that I could also get synced up so that I'm never away from my trusty bookmarks. It's better than having to log into a website over and over, then browsing through that specific page, or downloaded browser plugin menu to find what you want. I'm not saying it's a replacement for the likes of delicious etc, it's more of an additional asset in your arsenal of tools to manage the wealth of information out there so that you can easily retrieve it. I have to say though that my bookmarks list is very small, for the time being because I've relied mostly on my memory or Google search to find the information I want; but it's going to grow.

Although Xmarks is a plugin and is required to be installed on each browser you use, the download is very quick, very easy to install and provides a very simple to understand button. You can log in and stay logged in perpetually and it will synchronize itself. If you add a new bookmark to your bookmarks you can easily click the button and it will update the repository and your other browsers or machines will be updated automatically.

Please note that I am in no way affiliated with Xmarks, delicious, Facebook or any other online entity that I have mentioned in the above. I just feel that this is a very useful utility--about time right--that everyone could benefit from. I've certainly been impressed the past couple of days and I think you will be too.

Happy bookmarking

(And in case you didn't know, Ctrl+D, do it now for this page if you like :) You can also click on the little star in Google Chrome, Add to Favorites in IE, etc etc etc.

Footnote 1: By early-advanced I mean the Internet as being in the very early stages of the multimedia rich Internet as we know it today. This was the beginning of the .com bubble, and alot of learning was still being done to make webpages more accessible, aesthetic, informative and encouraged trust to buy things online. Without the graphics today the web wouldn't be as successful as it is now and now we are in a totally new and evolving stage of the web which I refer to myself as being the enlightened web. We now see more clearly what's important for business to succeed through online interaction, and reliability is being demanded. The cloud enables us to do this.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A prediction - Data centers on the Moon will be main cause of colonization

I have been dormant for a very long time. It's not often that my ramblings make it to the web however today is an exception to that. I've had a moment of eureka which I am biting at the bit to get out and I think it could be pretty hot, or cool depending on how you may want to see it.

Lets look at the initial facts, the earth is running out of space because we keep propagating and that then increases computing demand and requirements; the size of computers having to work to compute that data increases; the size of data centers required increases; but how? H0w can we keep on expanding for these mega data centers when we are running out of space? We could perhaps dig big bunkers and set them in those. This would increase heat generated though, which at the moment has been quite a cause of concern for the entire planet, Global Warming.

Science Fiction leads us to believe, and quite probably and possibly rightly so, that the human race will have to leave planet earth and find somewhere else to live. The Moon is one consideration as a destination for colonization. Wow! Lots of ions in that sentence.

Having spent a couple of micro seconds on the notion, it doesn't make sense. Humans need water. We also need the right gravitational environment, and air, lots of it. I don't believe that the moon is the best place for living do you?

What I do feel however is that the moon could be an ideal spot for gigantic mega data centers. If we can build a modular pod which holds so many thousand processors, and have this as a self contained unit, oil cool all the components into the unit and ship it up. Once it's on the moon it gets tethered to a network which then has a microwave link with earth, or a relay of satellites etc. power source could be a whole farm of solar panels.

I think that the vacuum environment of the moon, plus the general temperature there anyway and the remoteness of it would be a perfect place for the types of data centers we are starting to need and with such a computer system in place, we can focus our energies to studying ways of becoming more efficient, and discover ways of cleaning up the damage we are causing. I know that the last thing about temperature would have raised alot of eyebrows, and I'm not surprised, everyone knows how hot it can get in space. Especially without an atmosphere protecting us from the sun. Well, consider this, the pods would be constructed in such a way that heat could be retained in an outer shell only to be quickly dissipated when the temperature drops as low as -153°C. it rises to 153°C when it gets hot, and really that's the boiling point for water.

This is another area for research because that's free cooling right there. And it's heck of a cold if you ask me, so why not tap it.

Earth has a lot longer than we all think. It's survived for billions of years, and yes, unfortunately it will have a day. As long as we keep innovating and creating better technology do we understand more and this is a fantastic, and probably more affordable solution in the long run than chomping up valuable resources down here while adding to global warming because of the massive cooling machines, need I go on.

Well there we have it.

Oh, and about 8 years ago, when thumb drives really started to take a hold on the market with the original 1GB and 2GB sticks, I experienced an extra burst of electrical stimulus in my brain and predicted at the time that one day, there will be hard drives with SSD's build into the side of them for the operating system. Makes sense right?

Well how about having a really big, generous SSD built into the motherboard directly? Would make for a phenominal increase in speed. And besides when ever you change your hardware such as a motherboard, the operating system freaks out so badly that you need to reinstall windows for a fully optimized system. I'm sure someone will argue this point and perhaps we're both right. Anyways that also reduces an additional consumption of energy for a packaged SSD and more responsive as it's integrated directly into the motherboard. Nice!