Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Making a big deal out of mobile

Publishing a website suitable for mobile phones used to be a real challenge. There were many factors that played into this, pre-iPhone, and it wasn't just the size and usability of the screen:

  • Bandwidth was limited (oh yes, you think AT&T "4G-is-coming-because-the-rest-of-our-service-is-sooo-slow" is bad, try booking a flight over a standard GSM connection)
  • Usability was clunky at best, Windows Mobile at worst
  • The software development tools were limited, web protocols were obscure (for standard web developers), including WAP and others, all trying to seek standardization and best use of bandwidth, and achieving limited adoption
  • The mobile devices just weren't ready for the general public's use of the Internet (I would struggle with one, my wife would throw it out the window)

Things have progressed in leaps and bounds. The devices are amazing to use. Even the cheapest smartphone 'handset' offers a pretty decent 300x400 pixel screen, completely adequate for browsing simple, standard HTML sites. We have mobile web browsers, with real browser technology squashed down from the desktop. From a distance, things look like websites.

Some devices like the iPhone 4 even boast 900x700 size screens. But that just squashes everything into the same physical size. Side by side with an iPhone 3, the new one looks crisper, sharper, brighter. But it doesn't really do much for my overall web browsing experience. iPad and other tablets aside, the phones have reached a plateau on what they seem to be sensibly delivering from web browsing capability. 

So I'm regularly asked questions like "but an iPhone can browse regular websites, right? So why do you need special mobile sites?". The answer is clear when you actually try. This blog appears okay on an iPhone, if you don't mind zooming and dragging the window around to read it. But anything with multiple columns, Flash, crazy drop down menus -- well, they're usually usable but tiring, and often just look ugly.

So you want to impress customers with your new fancy website? Make sure that those customers who are on the move can get your information fast, clearly and easily on a mobile website built for mobiles. Because you can guarantee that after waiting 30 seconds for a web page that is mostly flash and wide columns of text, they will just hit Google and search for your competitors. 

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit www.consected.com

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Who says you can't have custom apps in the cloud?

IBM Cloud ComputingImage by Ivan Walsh via Flickr
When I first started down the path of building out a software as a service (SaaS) platform for business applications, a common criticism I heard about SaaS was that they were really limiting in what you can do with them. You either take the application the way it is, or you go somewhere else. Beyond a few simple configurations and changing the odd color-scheme here and there, prepackaged applications running in the cloud were limited. 

Now enterprise applications on the other hand were apparently not limited. You could spend tens or hundreds of thousands on professional services to customize the app of your dreams. So that made them better. Hmm, no wonder I often heard the 'build vs. buy' discussion during lengthy sales cycles. 

These seemed to be limited options if you needed an application that fitted your businesses:
  • build from the ground up
  • invest in an enterprise software application and professional services
  • build your app on the Salesforce platform and still write loads of code

Now I'm not saying that the argument about finding an application online to run a common business process, such as travel expense reports, doesn't mean that you are going to get whatever the vendor believes is the right way of working. And for the cost, there needs to be a general, reusable approach. You don't get a lot of options when you're paying $5 a month or less. But this is a feature of the business model (shifting high volumes of cookie-cutter product). 

If the platform has been built right, as Salesforce has shown, it is not the technology behind the scenes that prevents a vendor from offering far more configuration and customization. Salesforce has gone to an extreme it seems.  But it does show that without just building a completely new solution from the ground up there is the possibility to get software specific to your requirements in the cloud. At the same time, just like building off any platform, there are constraints that you must adhere to.

These thoughts come to mind as I'm just finishing off the testing phase of a help desk and equipment management application for a TV station "out west". I'm enjoying that I have a great platform to be building on (yes, Consected does really do some great stuff!) and can put together process and information management solutions like this really quickly with 98% configuration. I'm even happier that the platform can be extended. Not just with an API and a whole bunch of new software following the Salesforce model. But with some simple tweaks of the software itself, allowing an improvement for every client, or a completely new chunk of functionality specific to just the one client. This is the joy of owning the platform itself.

So if you ever need a custom solution that does not need the full expense and hassle of those other options, do look a little further than the closed SaaS applications that meet the needs of many, just not you. And don't assume that custom applications always require teams of software developers, for enterprise application customization or Salesforce. There is a middle ground, and some smaller vendors like Consected can provide the flexibility that the "box-pushers" can not.

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit www.consected.com

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Don't use 'personas' to hide the fact that can't do 'usability'

Personas are commonly used by analysts in collecting requirements for building new software, so that the essence of the needs of different users can be distilled and transferred to a group of developers who have never had contact with those end-users. A persona is a profile for a common type of user the software is catering to, and tries to embody not just the fixed requirements (it must calculate my travel expenses exactly), but also the experience, personality and working practices of different types of end user (the software needs to be used by my dad, who types with two fingers, occasionally, but still manages to book vacations to far-away places online). 

Personas allow an analyst to engage just a little right-brain creativity to the process of requirements gathering, by writing a fictional biography of the type of person being targeted by the new solution. The bio (always accompanied with a stereotypical photo snagged from some website or other) adds a human element to the requirements, which is supposed to help people understand not just what the requirements are, but why they exist, who they relate to, and how.

Wow, you might be saying to yourself. Those software guys are smarter than we thought. We just assumed that software was churned out by a bunch of geeky hackers sitting in a room, surrounded by glowing monitors, half-empty pizza boxes and Diet Coke cans. Well, appearances can be deceiving, and you may walk past a software developer on the street without realizing that he fits the geek profile, but most of the rest of it is true. The real nuts and bolts software does come out of some creative juggling of code. The personas are just there for the analysts and product managers to believe that they are transferring some additional useful information to the software developers. In fact the personas are just giving the analyst a creative outlet for the fact that they are supposed to NOT suggest a solution to the requirements they are writing, for fear of limiting what is produced by the developers. Yes, the developers are really going to come up with a better solution if you don't restrict what they produce!

So the persona is really just a doodle on a page. It reflects the fact that gathering requirements for new software can be incredibly difficult and sometimes dull, and that all of us need to show some creativity. The persona is meaningless to most software developers (in my opinion), since the people represented are so alien to them in terms of technical experience that they might as well have two heads and three green tentacles for working the keyboard. If you have never worked in a real business environment, how are a few words on a page describing a stereotyped personality going to assist you in coding your software? They are not, so the team leader (or technical interpreter) gets the slideshow of the personas, makes a vague attempt at keeping a straight face while describing what 'Corporate' wants, then everybody prints them, pins them to their cubes and scribbles facial hair on them.

Perception is clouded by experience. We can't expect the personas, the human faces we add to our requirements to be meaningful to anybody who does not have experience in what we are trying to explain. We need somebody with experience of business requirements to translate. That person, and I would hate to give them the title 'Usability Expert' knows enough of what the personas really represent, and enough credibility with the software developers, to be able to bridge the gap and state in solid terms, "put a single text box and a big button on the screen that says Search". Nope, the persona with the picture of my dad, and a bio discussing how he plays golf on weekday mornings (because its cheaper) and types with two fingers, did not result in Google. It just took a very creative 'somebody' with some profound creative thought to say, "this is how we are going to make web-search usable by the masses", and enough credibility with the software developers to convince them that it was worth the effort of writing extra code to make things easier for the end user, and that they wouldn't miss all that other stuff that was previously just cluttering up the screen.

So personas have been absorbed into the marketing of software more successfully than the building of it. Therefore I'll suggest that we should not use those picture-profiles of our intended end users as a cover for the fact that we have no real idea what will work for them. Two options remain: make lots of excuses and just accept that we are going to have to do a lot of training of our end users, or; get ready to refine our software a lot after we release it and start getting feedback from end users on how much it sucks! 

A post from the Improving It blog
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Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Do Checks/Cheques Still Dominate B2B Payments in North America?

You have heard this theme from me before, and it was triggered again when I read a post on Finextra by Matthew Dragiff, "Why do checks still dominate B2B in NA?". In it, he suggests that IT and the need to develop a business case for a project such as electronic payments stops any change in its tracks:

The mantra, “do more with less” pervades today’s business climate, and companies increasingly struggle with how best to allocate limited resources so they have the most impact. The elimination (or reduction) of paper checks is perceived as requiring system changes for which a business case must be developed and funding approved long before projects can even be considered for the IT development roadmap.
My personal opinion that the paper check, and the vague attempt at electronic payments (by printing paper checks - ha!) needs to just go away. Despite this, I am never going to suggest doing a big expensive project without a good business case. This is nothing to do with today's business climate though. IT constraints have alway been a block on producing highly polished solutions in the US, compared to what I was familiar with in Europe. 

When I first arrived in the US to do professional services and sales engineering for an enterprise software company (8 years ago), I was surprised at the difference in the style of enterprise software implementation projects between the territories. I had the definite feeling that US companies were happy with "just good enough". This mostly translated into projects with a lot of rough edges, software that with little customization for the end users, and anything at the end of a business process (in this case check payment) being swept up by a mass of available labor.

The question was asked, "why would I pay for integration when humans could do the job more easily?". Fair enough. Its hard to get past that when you are building a business case, and it doesn't matter how many less quantifiable attributes you throw at the argument, like:

  • reduced risk of fraudulent payments
  • reduced risk of errors
  • easier tracking of payments within a full bank-reconciliation process
An ROI is an ROI, and there was definitely the view that automation was not needed around the edges of processes. And frankly the banks didn't make it much easier. With little option but complex sounding ACH / wire services, nobody but the specialists even considered it. And the cost per payment does not seem to be going down, and is still much higher today than using paper checks.

So, although Matthew says that ERP systems can handle this stuff easily, via middleman services, its not the cost of IT that is going to be the block, but the cost of paying your bank and a middleman for making each individual payment. Costs have been shifted, but they have not gone away.

A post from the Improving It blog

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

My website wants to be the "belle of the ball"

Design, when applied to fashion, includes cons...Image via Wikipedia
Am I an amazing website designer? No. Do I know a great website when I see one? I think so. The challenge I have when designing a website is not getting carried away and trying to copy the slickly designed sites that are intended to show how great the designer behind the scenes is at design, rather than providing a clean website packed with useful information for my customers, prospects and random Googlers. As I balance a desire to produce a slicker website, I constantly have to remind myself why it is there. And that in itself opens up quite a can of worms. Why is the website there? What is the point of the business it is representing? Can this thing be beautiful and functional?

As a small business owner, I have the self-imposed responsibility for the company website. I'm quite comfortable with this, despite it being horribly time consuming. If I can spend the time to verbalize what I think the company offers customers on the website, then I'm in a better position to talk about it with prospects and partners. It reflects what I alway knew about the best software salespeople I worked with in a previous life as a product manager -- the best of the best could understand enough of the technology to talk lucidly with customers about what they were selling. They didn't just walk in the door with shiny shoes, a big smile and hand over the show to the sales engineer to do the talking. If I can write decent copy for the website, I understand what is being sold well enough and what value it offers the customer. If I end up in technical jargon, or marketing fluff, then I need to think a bit more. Yes, I do regularly go back and read what I have written. Then I add it to the to-do list to fix up later.

So a website now has great content, an aesthetic appeal to match what it is selling. What more is there? If the website has the potential to be the  "belle of the ball", but never stops staring at itself in the mirror, then nobody is going to notice it. Twitter, Facebook, whatever other social media tools are all very nice, if you can generate a credible number of real friends. But as I've seen from my own website stats, a little paid advertising can go a very long way! 

My one rule of websites: flaunt what you have, then when people talk about how beautiful you are you can stun them with your depth of knowledge too.

(It seems that this blog and the Consected website still need a little cosmetic work!)

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Strategic thinking in the "Browser Wars"?

Main logo and icon for the open source interne...Image via Wikipedia
Web browsers have started to develop again really quickly. Cloud computing, so central to the marketing from the biggest technology players, relies on fast, well designed browsers. So the "Browser Wars", the fight for dominance between Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla' Firefox is becoming interesting again. Largely because Google threw in a little flare a while ago to light things up, in the form of Chrome. Believe it or not, this really does matter to businesses, large and small, not just teenagers browsing dubious websites. With three big releases from the big browser players with us, we can start to see how the whole PC market is going to shape out. Yes really.

Taking a look at the article in CIO, Five Changes CIOs Should Care About, and you'll get a good idea of the importance Microsoft is placing on the newest release of its browser. Browser design, in my opinion prompted by Google Chrome's minimalist view of the world (you have one text box and a button for everything) has started to realize that people are most interested in the application that is running inside the browser, not the fluff and toolbar buttons around the edge. Looking at the official IE9 website, it shows the browser with a minimalistic frame around the website, a bigger Back button a large address bar and some tabs:
Simplified yet enhanced, the user interface brings sites forward. Characteristics of each website are reflected throughout the browser, allowing you to be more immersed in each site you visit.
Great, so the browser has been designed down to what it should always have been - a container for showing websites, not a flashy application that distracts and makes browsing or application use harder. So, what's the big deal?

Browsers have got faster. Much faster. And this matters for the growing adoption of cloud based applications. Google Chrome pushed the envelope, and gained a significant market share for three reasons: 

  1. it looked good
  2. it worked fast
  3. it was secure

I used to use Firefox. It was starting to get bogged down under its own weight, and not managing the load of modern websites and software as a service (SaaS) / cloud-based applications. So I tried Chrome and never looked back. Internet Explorer has been slowing down for years, as the Microsoft teams placed little relevance on the importance of the browser. But if Google can make the browser the primary operating interface for all applications (since all your apps are apparently moving into the cloud and off the desktop), then that starts to make the Windows operating system irrelevant and largely an unnecessary expense for most PCs. So it was time for IE to fight back. And this is where the Browser Wars strategy seems to get confused.

IE9 is fast. In some tests it is faster than the newest release of Google Chrome 10, and likely to be faster than the much delayed Firefox 4. They are all fast compared to IE8 though. This is great news for everybody. No matter which browser you choose, your browsing experience has just got hugely faster on the slickest websites (and trust me, that makes it much more enjoyable to use sites with smooth transitions, images that fade in and out, menus that do clever things, etc). You are starting to use some of the power of your PC hardware again. 

But then we come to that "strategy" topic. Microsoft have decided that IE9 will only run on Windows 7 and Vista. XP is dead in the water. Why would they do this? Well, cost is the primary reason. Its easier to develop and support for two versions of Windows, rather than three. Then there is the fact that Microsoft must be acknowledging that the browser really is making Windows irrelevant. If they give you a great browser (for free remember) on XP, why would you ever buy Windows 7? This is where I find the strategy to be flawed.

If the browser is so important to the OS (and you'll remember that Microsoft ended up losing a lot of money in the European courts for tying IE and Media Player to Windows to try and destroy the competition), then I'm not going to upgrade from XP to Windows 7 just so I can use a fully featured browser with the latest security. Oh no, I'm going to install Firefox 4 or Chrome 10. Microsoft loses more market share with the older OS users. The users come to realize that they really don't use that annoying Windows stuff behind the scenes, their browsing experience just got better without a new PC, and the next time they come to upgrade they buy the absolute cheapest edition of Windows they can possibly find (you can't get a PC without Windows pre-installed, so you'll have to suck up the Microsoft tax). And they'll install the same browser they've been using for the last 18 months, which will not be IE.

So, cost aside, Microsoft is basically telling people with older versions of Windows to go and try a competitors browser until they upgrade their PC next. But then Microsoft doesn't really care about that mass of users. They want the bigger slice of the pie, the CIO and his or her re-growing IT budget. Which is just a shame, as the next big companies (those growing from SMB to Enterprise status) will be using Google Apps or Zoho in a Google browser, not Windows, Office and IE.

Whatever happens, I'm happy to have faster, prettier, more secure browsing. Even better that I don't need to worry about botched Windows releases anymore!

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Enchantment - its as much about 'you' as it is your business

By now you must have heard that Guy Kawasaki, the master of Mac marketing has just released a new book. Enchantment covers every tool marketers, sales and even customer services people have available to them to individually and collectively enchant customers. I've written my impressions of the book, and even have a Q&A direct from the mouth (well really keyboard) of the master himself, so read on!

(On a mobile device? Click to read the mobile version.)

The big question the book addresses is "why enchant customers?". The answer, obvious to the social media generation maybe is because they advocate your products and your brand, buy more and persuade others to buy more. Enchanted customers, as Kawasaki explains with multiple examples, are a powerful force, and are way more valuable to a brand's success than the "rich, famous, and traditional influential people", the media superpowers such as himself. After all, if I can be a blogger, anybody can be a blogger, and many (most) of you are going to be a hell of a lot more influential than me. When you add all those voices together, if you can get them to talk about you, many more people are going to hear, believe what they are hearing, and will subsequently buy what they are hearing about. In Kawasaki's words "Nobodies are the new somebodies in a world of wide-open communications".

The book has been described by several reviewers as the "How to Win Friends and Influence People" for the 21st century, and even before I read the other reviews (or even the back of the beautiful book cover) I was coming to the same conclusion. There is a lot written about how you, as an individual can affect people's perceptions of you personally, and therefore the brand you represent. I wasn't reading this as enchantment (initially), just how to be a better salesman and not piss people off. As I read on though, it starts to fall into place. If you are an insincere or bad person, you are going to struggle with enchanting customers and might as well stick with conning them into buying your junk using your current devious tactics. Kawasaki reinforces the importance of being good and not confusing successfully 'selling' with 'enchanting' several times as the chapters progress. He even has a fun online test to see how enchanting you are.

An interesting theme that I found challenging in the book was around building an ecosystem around your product. I understand this is hard, and a great point that Kawasaki makes is that for an ecosystem to work, you have to create something that is worthy of that ecosystem. You need a great cause, and if you have it the ecosystem will probably grow itself. The challenge for me out of this, and many small and mid-sized businesses is providing one thing that can be identified as good enough to warrant and ecosystem, and identifying enough like minded people who can seed it. The ecosystem starts to be a realistic concept when you already have some success. I was going slow when I read this, as I kept trying to understand how a startup with five paying customers can develop and ecosystem. The book is targeted at all phases of a lifecycle of a company, and this part just happens to be down the path from where many of us are now.

So, the really good bit of this post is the stuff that you won't read in the book. A really quick Q&A. Questions are from yours truly. Answers are from the master of enchantment, Guy Kawasaki.

PA. Enchantment sounds like a wonderful goal for big brands (and there are many big names [in the book] to back it up). But what about the small businesses growing from the ground up? What is the most important thing a small business owner can learn from the book?

GK. Enchantment isn't a big, expensive, "hire a consultant to get it done" activity. Not at all. In fact, those qualities are the enemy of enchantment. The bottom line is that a small business should employ people who are likable and trustworthy, and it should sell a great product or service. Money isn't the gating item. The hard part is realizing that there is a better way to do business, and the flexibility to give it a try.

PA. The enchanting experiences require us to think differently and interact with customers differently. Is this just a change in the way we educate employees, or do we need to fundamentally change the nuts and bolts processes that businesses run to allow this to happen?

GK. There is a causative relationship: if you educate employees and empower them to enchant customers then, quite naturally, they will change the nuts and bolts processes of the business. Management, however, has to believe in enchanting customers. My recommendation is that instead of announcing a great enchantment campaign ("Oh God, the boss read another book..."), management should start with small things. Stuff like answering email faster or returning all customer phone calls. Take it a step at a time and build upon success.

PA. Working with customers in an enchanting way sounds like it is extremely time consuming and probably quite costly. Are there any short cuts a small business can take?

GK. Quite the contrary, enchantment is not time consuming and costly. How much more does it cost to smile, dress appropriately, and give a good handshake? And to act in honest and trustworthy ways. "Shortcuts" is a loaded word. I don't recommend shortcuts that amount to putting lipstick on a pig. But the foundation of enchantment is not hard or costly. It's just different. 

As you can see from just the answers here, there is a lot for small and mid-sized businesses in Enchantment. And it comes down to personal commitment and presentation, as much as complex organizational changes and expensive marketing campaigns. We think the same it seems: simple changes to the way a business works can have profound effects.

Enchantment Infographic

A post from the Improving It blog
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Friday, March 04, 2011

Do mid-sized businesses have money to burn?

Windows mobileImage via WikipediaIts interesting that as soon as a company grows large enough to fill more than a shared services office space, they consider themselves big enough to throw money around like crazy. I offered my thoughts to reporter writing a story about how small and mid-sized businesses could save money in the IT department, and realized that many small businesses are way ahead of their bigger cousins in terms of working more cost effectively -- without losing anything in the way they work.

Since I didn't hear anything from my pitch to the reporter, I'm going to share this information with you. You'll look and say, "of course - that's ridiculously obvious", but really how many mid-sized businesses have taken the plunge into saving money rather than being trapped in overpriced 20th century technology? Bear in mind also that I have 15 years experience around software, so if you know how to manipulate Dell for a better offer, let us know! (I go to NewEgg for my hardware requirements - they offer small name PCs cheaper that work just as well as the big names).

  1. Productivity Suite: Use Google Apps as a replacement for Microsoft Office. It is significantly cheaper, especially considering how small a piece of the functionality of Office most people use.
  2. Dump Windows: Now that you have a friendly Office productivity apps in place, start using Linux on your new desktop and laptop PCs, when it comes time to replace them. Nobody is going to complain, since they are doing most of their work in a browser, and Ubuntu (my OS of choice) is as clean and simple to use as any Windows 7 machine for all the remaining desktop tasks a user may have. And with that, you save on buying licenses for resource and wallet hungry virus scanners.
  3. Save it to the Cloud: Install and maintain complex and expensive network attached storage? Why bother, when cloud-based storage is cheap, flexible and saves you not only hardware, but the hassle of backups too.
  4. Need Windows for Quickbooks? Some business applications just haven't been made workable in the cloud - Intuit's offering is an example where some users will still need Windows to install some real software. So consider using virtual machines with Windows installed to run them. Why? Because the next time you have to replace the hardware, you don't need to buy yet another license for an OS you already own.
  5. Work Better! All of this has been about saving costs for IT. How about giving back to the business a little? After all, its the reason IT exists. Encourage the use of process, content and collaboration tools that will help people work better, share information better and save emailing every document they work on backwards and forward a hundred times.
Let me know your tips that we can all use to work cheaper and better.  

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit www.consected.com

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Not great customer service

We all say that providing great customer service is important to us and our businesses, but how many of us really mean it? Sometimes words and actions just don't align, and I have what I consider a great example. Ready for a short rant? Read on! 

I use a Citibank credit card, so I can collect airline miles for occasional trips to go and see the family in London, and its been fine. How hard can it be? I buy things, pay the bill and Citi credits me with some miles. So this week (despite the date of February 18th) I received this letter, which in summary (and jest) said:
On January 1st, you tried to buy some flowers for you mother's birthday. We rejected your card a bunch of times. You assumed it was the fault of the vendor, as their site stopped accepting any card you owned. That's probably because we were providing merchant card services for them too. Though you can only guess at that. Anyway, almost two months later we are going to remind you of this bad experience and give you vague assurances that it won't happen again. Love and kisses, the CEO (who will claim he never even saw this letter if it comes down to it).
Now, thanks for reminding me of an unfortunate experience with your credit card, which I could have just assumed was somebody else's issue. Doing so, so long after the event is just crazy in my opinion. I'd forgotten about it long ago, and have been frankly more irritated by the incessant calling from your India based sales reps trying to sell me fraud detection services I don't want (to the point that I will dump the card if I see that Citi telemarketing call pop up on caller ID once more this month). Though you kindly reminded me that you can't be trusted to run a decent service, and that I'll receive more calls from Sales than for any useful customer services. And if you are going to send me a really personalized letter (wow - it addresses me by my full name), at least make it sound personal. That letter must have taken at least two minutes less than the time it took me to write this blog post (including the time to get it reviewed by Legal). Maybe you could learn something from my discussion of aligning employee development with business process improvement. You might get a meaningful letter out in a timely manner.

Sorry Citi, but you have no idea how bad the perception of your customers is over annoying telemarketing, and misjudged customer service like this (or maybe you don't care). I am not looking forward to the day when you screw up my bill or block my card due to "fraud detection" and I have to actually try and speak to somebody real to get it fixed. I think on that day all my eggs will be in one basket with Bank of America, who provide me really good service. If you would like me to help with an assessment of why this letter irritated me so badly, and whether other customers feel the same, just give me a call. I'm sure you have my phone number on file as your sales reps are going to wear it out.

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit www.consected.com