Saturday, July 15, 2017

Unlimited Frustration: A Sunday with Sprint


Image: Sprint Retail Store Poster

“Customers have to wait one or two hours to get a phone and that's not acceptable.”
Marcelo Claure, CEO, Sprint Wireless

At the outset I want to be clear that dealing with wireless companies has always been akin to getting a wisdom tooth removed without anesthesia. However, given that this is 2017, the age of big data, real-time analytics, beacons and of every grandmother knowing that CRM stands for customer relationship management, I had some expectation that my experience with Sprint would not be like it was still 1990.

Our fateful journey started at the only Sprint store near us. The first sign of trouble came when the store manager informed me plan options the store offered were limited, compared to what customer service could offer. It is odd that Sprint is unable to offer the same options at retail, via phone or online, in 2017, but I said I would call when I got home. But that would have been too easy; we were informed that it was better to do the upgrade after we changed our plan, or we would not get access to the good plans.

I thought to myself that Sprint should make life easier for customers, not harder, especially for loyal ones who are about to renew their vows with the company.

I acquiesced and spent the next hour deciphering plan options with customer service by phone while standing at the store counter. During this time we also found out that we would need to postdate the new plan or face pro-rating fees that would double our cost for the month. No doubt this was designed to be just another way for customers to pay Sprint for their loyalty.

Two and a half hours later we walked out with one phone, one on order and a new plan that would take effect in a month. 

My phone arrived a few days later and it was the wrong colour. By now I was also starting to get used to the obstacles Sprint seemed to like to put up – to test customer loyalty.

Upon informing the store of their mistake, I was told I needed to wait for a return package that would arrive in 5-7 business days, by mail. Then I needed to wait another 5-7 business days for Sprint to process the return, and only then could the store order the right colour for me.

Out of data and with no new phone, I asked why I was being punished for their mistake. I was told it was because this was not a Sprint corporate store.

I realised that I has just failed another test of customer loyalty.

I walked into this store, the only one in our area code, after seeing a big fat Sprint logo on the storefront, Sprint branded posters on walls, shelves full of Sprint merchandising, promotional cardboard cutouts with Sprint exclusive offers, Sprint logos on the salespeople’s t-shirt, but I failed to notice the small certificate on the wall that said “Sprint preferred retailer.” My bad.

I decided to make a last ditch appeal to the all-powerful customer service and asked them to ship me a new phone, while I waited for the circuitous return process to unfold. They were very apologetic and set-up an appointment for me to visit a corporate store, on the other side of town, and said I could simply exchange the phone. Problem solved!

It was a bright and beautiful Sunday afternoon when I ventured out to exchange my phone. Upon checking in at the store I was promptly informed that the exchange could not be done at the store. And they added that they did not care what customer service had told me, because customer service had no authority over stores. Thankfully, they took pains to re-assure me that this happened all the time to customers, making me feel all warm and fuzzy for not being singled-out.

After a heated back and forth, I dug in and said I was not leaving until my issue was resolved. They dialed customer service and handed me the phone to figure it out with customer service. With a strong sense of déjà vu I spent the next two hours, on the phone, standing at yet another Sprint store.

The customer service people were apologetic and admitted that I had been given erroneous information, vindicating the store, but not really servicing this customer. They assured me that the rep would be “coached”, which was wonderful, but again did nothing to resolve my issue. After a long and patient wait, someone in the ‘order support department’ where I ended up figured out that they could simply cancel the original order and have the corporate store create a new one and give me the correct phone.

Wait, the best is yet to come. We now get to part two of the torment, regarding the plan change.

While upgrading the phone, feeling badly about the ordeal everyone in the store had witnessed, the salesperson offered to look at my plan and see if he could save me money, only to discover that I was tethered to a wireless hotspot device that was on contract - totally unbeknownst to me.

I remember it being given as a free gift during our last upgrade; one I was told required a data plan but no mention of a two-year contract. So I said get rid of it, which required me to pay an early termination fee of over $100. Again, the store folks empathised with my plight and genuinely tried to help, but clearly lacked the authority to free me from my bondage.

So I reached out once more to the all-powerful customer service, and they transferred me to the termination department and to someone who said they would solve my problem without a termination fee. I was unwilling to pay because I was never overtly made aware of a contract. Three quarters of the way through the process the line got cut. I waited but nobody called back, even though they had my number.

So I called back and got a different rep, possibly in the Philippines. She was completely clueless. This person could not even find the device I was referring to, leave alone understand the issue.

After what seemed like an eternity of explaining, and getting nowhere, I asked to speak with a supervisor, but she kept putting me on hold, while going off to ask someone questions and then coming back and asking me the same question. With my Gandhi-like patience starting to run thin, I firmly asked to speak with a supervisor, at which point she hung up.

Glutton for punishment, I called back again.

Of course, I got a new rep, to whom I had to repeat the entire ordeal (this happened every time I called); who was again polite and very apologetic, but said I needed another department. I asked that he at least brief the person they were transferring me to, so I wouldn't have to go through the entire story every time I was cut-off.

I must have repeated my story at least a half a dozen times as I got transferred between departments, and finally reached someone with an American accent. At least she could understand the issue – progress!

She patiently took me through numerous options. One requires a degree in rocket science to understand the permutations and combinations of data plans and device leasing options, but despite this she was unable to do the one thing I needed – waive the early termination fee.
 
I suggested she talk with a supervisor and explain that I was ready to leave Sprint over a $110 termination fee, resulting in a loss of approx. $200 per month revenue over the next two years from me. The math was easy. She agreed wholeheartedly, as did her supervisor but again both lacked the lacked the authority to what they truly wanted: to retain this customer. They did offer me a one-time $30 credit to lessen the pain.

Needing to right a great service injustice and feeling like a combination of Mandela and the Energizer bunny, I reached out to Sprint’s CEO, Marcelo Claure on Twitter, asking to speak with him directly because it was clear that he was the ONLY person in the company with the authority to waive this fee.

Needless to say he did not respond but had something called “Team Marcel” reach out. I got a call from a lady in the corporate office and she too was also extremely apologetic and said unequivocally that my experience was totally unacceptable and that she would personally look into the entire matter. She magically waived the early termination fee…

I am still completely at a loss to understand why such a simple process for an upgrade and plan change required numerous phone calls, three store visits, countless hours on the phone with representatives from multiple departments and continents and tweeting the CEO. I have been told childbirth is less painful.

I want to be clear that, based on my experience across all of Sprint's touch-points, the central issue has little to do with poor or rude employees; in fact the majority I dealt with expressed frustration at not being able to resolve my issue. It has everything to do with a complex organisational structure that is badly siloed, coupled with employees whose hands are tied and who lack the authority to provide resolution, use of third party resellers without a consistent service policy, and offshoring to poorly trained customer service reps who sometimes barely understand the English language, and finally the lack of a proper escalation policy.

This is clearly a management issue that begins at the top with a lack of singular focus on customer care and retention, which you would think is the most important aspect in an industry plagued with the highest customer churn.

So unless Mr. Claure meant he was working on increasing wait times to four and five hours when he said “Customers have to wait one or two hours to get a phone and that's not acceptable”, I do hope he gets in touch with me. I still believe he needs to hear this unbelievably frustrating and painful experience, firsthand, because no customer should ever have to be put through this again.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ashok Vaish: 12th December 1935 - 26th July 2013


This father’s day I am sharing the eulogy I gave at my father’s cremation: 



Sometimes you spend your whole life searching for greatness only to realize one day that you have been living in its shadow all along.

My father was a great man.

Growing up I just assumed that everyone had amazing, loving and caring parents. And a father they could look up to and respect. I loved spending time with my father. He was my idol much before I knew it. I will admit that I never had him wrapped around my little finger like my sister did, but I had an amazing relationship with him. We were truly lucky because it turns out not too many people have fathers like him.

We take so many things for granted in this life, like believing that our parents will always be around. Like not telling them each day how much we love them and how amazing they are, because we think we can always put it off till tomorrow, or the day after.

My father was a great man.

He was my hero and my mentor. He set the high standards to which I hold myself. He set the bar both for the level of professionalism in my career and the politeness in my life. He was my yardstick for integrity, honour and unwavering principles. Never compromise on your beliefs. Never waver in the face of great obstacles. Never succumb to external pressure. Always fight for what you know is right, no matter the odds, or the personal cost. Those were not mere words or idioms to him, but how he lived his life.

The world needs more men like my father. My father was a great man.

Dad was by no means the talker in our family; in fact many would say that he was a man of few words. But when he spoke he was wise. He always seemed to have the right answer and solution to every problem. He seemed to know exactly how to handle delicate situations and bring down the tension in the room.

I can still hear him say, when I sought his counsel about complex situations at work (which was often), “Son you need to think about this rationallyRemove the emotion from it, and look for the logical answer” – and he was right.

I will miss being able to seek his counsel, among all the other things we will miss about Dad.

However, something struck me last night as I thought about my Dad’s passing, and how much I will miss him. It struck me that the impact he made on all the lives he touched was so great that he seems to have left a part of himself behind in each one of us. As a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a boss, a colleague and most of all, as a father - he will never be forgotten.

I truly believe he made us all better people by awakening a sense of duty, honour and integrity within us. And I know that I embody all the virtues and values that my father held dear, with perhaps the exception of humility. I know that if I can be half the man he was then I will make him proud.
 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Four Dangers to Democracy Greater than President Trump


"Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." 
John Adams 

John Adams words are prescient for what is transpiring in America today. I understand that people are genuinely scared of Trump and while some of those fears are nonsensical, like comparing him with Hitler, others are genuine and based on his own words, bombastic tweets and wildly erratic behaviour. Yet, despite these realities we cannot ignore the fact that he is still the democratically and freely elected President of the United States of America.

For all the never Trumpers, it is important to remember that our system of checks and balances is designed to withstand the shock of rogue actors (not to prevent one from being elected) and we must put our faith in democracy to curtail Trump whenever he strays, but never break rules to fight him; or we will just play into his hands and prove his refrain that the rules are changed when liberals do not get the outcomes they desire.

So it is really important that no matter what people think of him personally, or how much they fear his actions, that we never circumvent due process, bypass checks and balances or colour outside the lines of democracy (especially when he does) in a bid to foil him, because our actions will have grave consequences and weaken our democracy for the long-term.

At the moment, I am seeing four dangerous trends, behaviours and precedents being adopted by the Democratic Party and the so called liberal “resistance” to Trump, and they must stop. The end result of continuing down these paths damages our democracy far more than any errant President can in four years.

One: Rogue Government Employees
When the parks department sent out a tweet showing larger crowds at Obama’s historic inauguration in 2008 versus Trump’s in 2017, most people viewed this as an innocuous act or laughed at Trump’s expense. However, what was at issue was not a single errant tweet but that of breaking a sacred rule – one where a government agencies should never show a partisan face in public. In the days after, we saw a slew of rogue twitter accounts springing up from within government agencies, from the EPA to NASA, that were clearly designed to humiliate Trump’s administration. The problem with this behaviour is that it compromises the integrity of each agency for the long-term by putting a doubt in people’s minds about government employees' abilities to do their jobs, irrespective of which party is in power.

Second, the manner in which Sally Yates (the acting Attorney General) acted was also wrong. First, let me be clear that I fully agree with Ms. Yates stance against President Trump’s ill-conceived travel ban, but my issue is the way in which she took action. The professional thing for her to do would have been to resign.

She had every right to protest the order by resigning, but it was wrong for her to refuse to fulfil her job responsibilities. By doing this, and even more worryingly, by ordering her subordinates not to do their jobs, she signaled to all Justice department staff that they too are free to disobey direct orders based on personal or partisan whims, rather than expected to always act in a professional manner and follow protocols.

We must consider the flip-side of government employees taking unilateral actions that disobey direct orders. For the short period that President Trump’s travel ban was in effect, there were numerous reports of US Customs agents harassing and detaining people that were not covered under the order. Like Ms. Yates did, these men and women might also justify their unprofessional behaviour and rule breaking as a moral obligation to protect the nation and keep all Americans safe.

We also saw a senior Secret Service agent publicly post that she did not want to take a bullet for the President because she supported Hillary Clinton. Imagine what would happen if police across the country started to behave in the same manner (the majority of local law enforcement supported Trump) and decided that they do not want to intervene when a riot broke out in a Democrat leaning district; this is a very slippery slope. Government employees going rogue, acting insubordinately and refusing to do their jobs, rather than using proper and professional protocols of redress must never be excused or condoned on either side.

Two: Loss of Credibility of the Fourth Estate 
There is little doubt after the last election that the majority of the mainstream media skews liberal and favours democrats. We can argue this but all you need do is look at the sources all liberals use to make their arguments on social media and you will find the usual suspects.

That there is some bias in the media is not an issue; all publications lean one way or another. The issue arises when respectable mainstream media outlets go out of their way to play judge and jury, and do it through a blindly partisan and subjective lens. This is NOT the job of the media. We rely on them to hold a mirror up to society by reporting the facts, and to do so objectively after taking the time to verify the credibility of their sources.

 At the moment, we have a new leak from deep within the government almost every day. These leaks are suspiciously designed to embarrass Trump’s administration or target a particular official within it, and all conveniently cite ‘unnamed sources’. I am not defending Trump or his combative relationship with the media, but no matter how a President behaves, it is still the duty of the fourth estate to rise above juvenile and vindictive behaviour and to fairly and accurately investigate, find and follow the facts of every story. This is the only way the media can start to regain their credibility and, more importantly, hold the President accountable for all his actions. Otherwise they will continue to be seen by a growing majority as part of the rigged and corrupt system that Trump says they are.

It is most certainly NOT the job of the media to fill their pages with conjecture, baseless and hysterical opinion pieces, stories supported entirely by unnamed sources and “unverified facts” and even total falsehoods. The media seems to have forgotten that the biggest loser of the last year’s election was not Hillary Clinton but the mass media. Gallup found that Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history…”  

While there is no question that sites like Fox news and MSNBC are heavily biased and driven by political agendas, at least the majority of Americans trusted venerable institutions like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal because they upheld basic ethical standards in their reporting. Now these institutions are further eroding the scant trust Americans have in them by behaving like hysterical children. If they don’t start doing their jobs and once more act as the credible bridge for both sides by focusing on and ascertaining all the facts, they will be responsible for destroying a crucial check and balance and seriously weakening our democracy.

Three: Abuse of State Apparatus
If you followed the sequence of events that led to the resignation of Michael Flynn, the facts clearly show that someone high up in the government leaked highly classified information to the Washington Post. The Post first published the article about Flynn possibly being compromised based on a “… call and subsequent intercepts, FBI agents wrote a secret report summarizing ­Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak.” 

It may well be that Flynn is compromised but that is not the issue; what is concerning is what Eli Lake points on Bloomberg News about the leak itself: Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do.” Once again this is another example of a very dangerous precedent being set in a fundamentally misguided haste by Obama era appointees to take down Trump’s administration.

As it turns out Flynn did not break any law and the FBI has confirmed that they don't believe Flynn intentionally misled them during an interview last month and they are not going to press charges. So it would seem that the media furore that led to Mr. Flynn’s resignation was an orchestrated political assassination from people within the government, who selectively leaked highly sensitive information. I am not defending Flynn - he lied and was rightly fired by the President. The point is that again this is a line that should never have been crossed. Once state power is abused and targets individuals, for purely political reasons, there is nothing stopping opponents from doing the same when the tables are turned.

Four: Democrat’s Blind Obstruction vs. Debating Issues
Democrats seem to have a short memory. Until recently they were decrying the Republican Party’s obstructionism during Obama’s tenure and now they are doing exactly the same with Trump. I encourage and expect both sides to challenge every President’s nominees, but it is wrong to attack anyone’s character; as Elizabeth Warren did with Jeff Sessions (and was rightly censured for doing so). I am not a supporter of Mr. Sessions, but Ms. Warren lost my sympathies and respect when she mounted a personal and subjective attack, rather than go after Mr. Session’s record and actions during his tenure in office. There is no excuse for such behaviour; this is the United States Senate, not third grade.

I was equally vehement when the likes of Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal attacked Obama personally, rather than his record and failed to address policy disagreements with him. John McCain is the only politician in recent times that showed character in refusing to let a woman at his rally personally attack Obama, when running against him in 2008. There can be no room for public personal attacks in politics; it only lowers the standard of discourse, leads everyone into the gutter and ensures that all Americans lose.

Also, Democrats did a great disservice to another check and balance when they permanently changed the rules in the Senate “so that federal judicial nominees and executive-office appointments can advance to confirmation votes by a simple majority of senators, rather than the 60-vote super majority that has been the standard for nearly four decades. “ This is a necessary check to ensure that candidates from both parties are only confirmed after the necessary hearings and debates are held to evaluate and convince a majority of the Senators to support them. This is how democracy works - by driving consensus across the aisle.

Thanks to Democrats, we are now left with a lopsided rule that hacks democracy and allows any party, with a simple majority, to advance their picks without sufficient debate. Such measures are short-sighted and only weaken democracy by removing safeguards designed to protect it.

Finally, the Democrats would do well to remember that “obstructing” is not a winning strategy. The GOP learnt this lesson only after the total annihilation of their party; one that ended with a hostile takeover by Donald Trump. Democrats need to win voters based on the strength of their ideas and not blind obstruction. And this is the only way to succeed because unlike Communism, Capitalism is about ideas, not ideology. If Democrats do not heed this warning, they will suffer the same fate as the GOP did after George W. Bush.

The bottom line is that no matter how people feel about Trump, the election is over, and they have no choice but to abide by the results and live with the consequences for the next four years. That is democracy and there are no exceptions; otherwise, we must stop calling ourselves a democratic society.

For all those who believe that Trump is evil and must be removed from office, they are entitled to their views, but have only two options to get rid of him, one entirely out of their hands. They can vote him out of office in four years and use the mid-terms in two years to elect Democrats to both houses that can curtail his power and stall his legislative agenda.

The other is to wait for Trump to commit a crime that leads to his impeachment and subsequent removal from office; Clinton was impeached but this does not automatically lead to removal from office. There is no other way to get rid of a democratically elected President that does not involve a military coup, which is never good for democracy.

This does not mean we need to rollover and accept everything the President does, or not fight back when his administration strays. We must hold every President to task like we did with Watergate, the Iraq War, domestic surveillance overreach, etc. However, respecting our democracy also means we never simply get to remove a President because we find him distasteful or vehemently disagree with his views – that is anarchy.
 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

I have never been more optimistic about the future of the world than I am today.




I understand that it is hard to fathom or comprehend my optimism based on what you see and hear in the news and on every TV channel in America and globally. Let me explain.

I do not see the world through rose-tinted glasses or suggest that things are hunky-dory. I see the same turmoil: civil wars, terrorist attacks and the potential descent of stable democracies into chaotic anarchy.

In fact, I see chaos growing and I also have absolutely no doubt that things are going to get much uglier, globally and here in America, in the short-term. I see all the same things you do but I also see something you may not - yet.

I have spent the last couple of years getting actively involved in a number of social issues in India, and as part of an organisation in America that brings together accomplished people from many fields, from journalism and marketing to banking and politics. Through this organisation and my personal efforts I have had the opportunity to listen to and engage with a broad spectrum of corporate, social and political leaders, behind closed doors. I have also spent time engaging with extreme right and left wing voices, on Twitter, both in India and America.

In these interactions and in-depth conversations, I have listened closely and learned much more than I could ever learn from watching the news or reading articles that increasingly tilt left or right, but are always filled with one-sided opinions.

Here is the reason for my optimism. I have been heartened to see that many of the people I have met and worked with no longer see the world through a markedly liberal or conservative lens. Like me, they see a world filled with serious and pressing problems that no politician is willing to take on or solve in a manner that goes against their party base or donor interests.

Time and again we have found that it is politicians who have been the fundamental roadblock to solving issues because they invariably put pseudo-ideological and big money interests ahead of meaningful solutions. From the refugee crisis, to understanding the motivations of jihadists, to helping get young girls out of the sex trade - there are many brilliant solutions available that simply cannot be affected because our leaders lack the political will and integrity (and fear losing their popularity) to fight for them.

The people I have worked and engaged with are Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Independent and come from virtually every political stripe, but not one of them is slave to party affiliation or ideology. They are slaves only to solutions that work, and they refuse to accept less effective solutions merely to placate some personal ideology or partisan bias.

I call us the post-partisans.

We often vehemently disagree with each other but always do so civilly and respectfully.

We have found that heated debate, one that features a multitude of diverse viewpoints, leads to the most innovative and breakthrough solutions. But we never take any of what is discussed to heart or personally.

We also choose never to take offense, even if sometimes in the heat of debate, it is intended. Not because we are without feelings, but because we remind ourselves that the problems we face are bigger and far more pressing than ego or hurt feelings.

We always come with an open mind. Our goal is also never to try and get others to see the world the way we do, but to find the brightest, most cost-efficient and lasting solutions to the problems that affect us all, irrespective of our politics.

Through our dealings, conversations and our work we have realised that political parties can no longer be relied on to lead us forward or solve the problems we face.

Over the last three decades political parties, left and right have deteriorated further into an ideological abyss. They have allowed the most hardened and extremist voices within their ranks to take the reins, and are no longer able to offer thoughtful or pragmatic solutions. Instead, their solutions are built for populist rabble rousing or designed to pander to some narrow interest group.

The post-partisan mentality is a growing movement across the world. It consists not of people who identify as liberal or conservative, but of a coalition of the willing (not like those who invaded Iraq in 2003!), who are passionate about a cause. They consist of people from vastly different backgrounds, upbringing, skill sets and political views who find each other because we are looking for apolitical and uncompromised solutions. Many of us will never become friends, but we will often find ourselves on the same side of a problem and remain together until we find and implement a robust solution.

I am not suggesting that all this will happen overnight or magically mitigate the pain and suffering in the world. I have realised that pain and suffering are part of the human condition, and while we must always strive to lessen each other’s, we also cannot function without them. Remember that there could be no courage if there is no adversity, and good cannot triumph without evil. Real societal change, that requires changing attitudes and mindsets, always takes a generation or more to affect and there is no way around that.

So the rise of populists, nationalist and narcissists do not scare us, but has been a great motivating factor for all post-partisans; we gladly accept the challenge. Their effect has been to end our complacency and serve as a necessary wake up call, one that reminded us that it is naïve to expect democracy to be safeguarded by coming out to vote once every few years or by entrusting it to a corrupt and ideologically bent political class intent on defending their power, at all costs.

It will not be easy but nothing worth doing ever is. The road ahead is arduous and the journey painful (and sometimes bloody) but one thing I know for sure is that we will overcome and our democracies will become stronger for it. The future is very bright and the number of post-partisans will only continue to grow.

My mother once told me something that I never fully appreciated or understood until now – she said, “the job of a parent is not to protect their child from the world but to prepare them for it.”

I am ready