Ralph Quixote

The favorite son of my hometown (Winsted, CT), announced his candidacy for the Presidency yesterday on Meet the Press. Ralph Nader has generally been embraced by his mostly liberal blue-collar hometown. Even those who disagree with his politics and tactics tend to acknowledge his impact on the consumer protection laws and the environment.

But Nader’s Sunday morning chat show appearance was kind of sad.

I’m not going to criticize him about being a potential spoiler in this campaign (although I do believe that to be true in the 2004 Presidential campaign and, given the current climate, may be true again). But what the Meet the Press interview revealed about him was that, although his ideas may be progressive, his single-mindedness and dogged determination may be his own undoing.

The interview reveals a man who is frustrated — even bitter — at his own inability to see his ideas gain wider acceptance. There seems to be a complete lack of pragmatism about his approach. It’s as though he’s never learned how to move from the theoretical to the practical.

Tilting at (Corporate) Windmills, Pt. 2

Telecom giant SBC has a product that they’re hawking called “SBC Unified Communications.” In theory, it sounds like a convenient technology — all your voice mail from all your phones in a single account, which you can play back from any phone (residential land line or Cingular cell phone) or from a browser based mailbox. Plus you can receive faxes in the mailbox, too, and print them out. Sounds great, right?

Well, don’t get too excited, because it sucks. SBC proves unmistakably that theory and practice are two entirely different things by taking a good idea and implementing it in such a shabby fashion that it makes it seem like a bad idea. Not only is the product drastically misrepresented in their marketing hype, but also almost no one in SBC’s customer service (and certainly no one in Cingular’s customer service) has ever heard of it.

Here are the pitfalls I found in less than 24 hours of starting and then cancelling this utterly useless service:

  • SBC advertises that the web service is available from any PC in the world. What they don’t tell you is that you have to install a bunch of ActiveX and Java plugins to get it to work. So if you’re on a corporate PC that has restrictions on software and plugin installations (as most well-secured systems do these days), you can’t access it.
  • If you have a SBC Yahoo Email account, they can’t integrate the two. You have to have a whole separate Email account, and it’s limited to 50MB. Are you starting to see how the concept breaks down?
  • If you have a Cingular cell phone, the marketing hype makes it sound like they’ve already got things completely integrated. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The only thing they have integrated is the legal arrangements between the two subcorporations of the uber-corporation; the technology doesn’t even come in a close second. For example, they haven’t figured out a way to flip the “Message Indicator” switch on your Cingular phone. Instead, when you get a voice mail message, the system sends a text message (for which you are charged a separate fee); then, when you retrieve the voice mail message, it sends anothertext message (for which you are charged another separate fee). Their customer service tells me that they’re working on coming up with a way to remove the second text message and it “might be done by the end of the first quarter.”

The most insulting aspect of all of this is the utter contempt that SBC shows for its customers. First, they think it’s o.k. to send a product to market that clearly isn’t remotely ready for human consumption. Second, they don’t bother to train their own personnel sufficiently in how to use it. Oh, I spoke with a number of people who claimed they had had training, but with only one exception, no one had any idea how this thing actually worked. None of them had actually used the product, and all (including the man who knew a little about the product) were working from a script and not from first-hand knowledge. Damn! (Then the excuse they use for not knowing anything about it is that it’s a new product. One guy told me “We’ve only had it available for about a year and a half.”)

For SBC, it’s o.k. to ask customers to spend more money for products that don’t work as well as the ones they are paying less for. For SBC, your time is worth nothing. Just once I’d like to hear the following phone hell outgoing message:

Thank you for calling BigScaryCorp. Your call is important to us, but not so important that we’d actually have someone here to answer it. Instead, we’re going to use some of your unpaid time and some of the unpaid time of everyone else who calls so that we don’t have to spend money on staffing and we can increase our returns to our stockholders. Your approximate wait time is 2 hours and fifteen minutes.

To date, my investment in time for this foolish venture in misplaced trust is as follows: (a) approximately 2 hours of phone hell trying to get specific questions answered about the product prior to ordering; (b) a half hour placing the order; (c) another three hours of phone time determining that the product did not perform the way either the marketing materials claimed or the way the people who answered the initial questions claimed; (d) another hour or so cancelling the order with SBC; (e) another half-hour getting SBC to give me back my original voice mail; and (f) another half-hour getting Cingular to give me back my original voice mail. There was also two weeks of waiting between the time that the order was placed and they actually initiated the service.

Oh, I just remembered. There’s one more investment of my time — the time it took to compose this rant. But at least that part was worth it.

HRC Can’t Be This Desperate …

Here’s an Email I sent to the Human Rights Campaign, in its entirety. It speaks for itself:

I am writing to express my concern for your most recent marketing ploy, the affinity credit card that bears both the HRC logo and Visa logo. I have received a couple of offers in the mail for this product, and I am quite disturbed that HRC would choose to align itself with a credit card company, especially one as predatory as Providian. The credit card industry has pretty shaky ethical footing, with its usurious interest rates and its aggressive marketing methods. It taints the long-standing good reputation of HRC to forge such an alliance. It is an additional slap in the face that you are marketing this product at a time when Congress is in the process of getting rid of bankruptcy protections for ordinary citizens and bolstering the protections of the credit card industry.

It is my belief that the GLBT community needs allies in Washington who are independent of such commercial forces. What happens, for example, when issues regarding the financial well-being of GLBT citizens arise? On whose side will HRC be — the side of the GLBT citizens that you claim to represent or on the side of the banking industry whose money is now part of what keeps your organization afloat?

Whatever money you receive from the deal you struck with Providian is not enough to offset the erosion of trust that you will undoubtedly receive from the GLBT community.

I am sad, disappointed, and more than a little bit cranky at this wrong-headed decision. I hope you will examine your organizational conscience and reconsider this foolish stopgap deal with the devil.