How not to solve systemic problems

Organizations generally try to find the nicest, most empathetic people for their customer service department. It’s way, I think, of placating customers without really fixing the problem.
The people at the front desk at Charter (our local cable company), Comcast (in spite of their occasional cement headedness), Social Security, Metlife, and other are very nice. It’s hard to get mad at them, even when they’re explaining something that clearly went kablooie.
My iPad app for our local paper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, stopped working the other morning. I was unable to sign in, even though my account was good on their website. Among other things, when I was trying to figure out what was going on, I received this vexing message.

I sent an email to their customer service address and received no response. Twenty-four hours later, I called and talked with a very nice woman who explained that a) my account number was linked to an old address that was no longer valid after we moved in June and b) everything was all set now, except that I’d have to wait another 24 hours before I could use the iPad app.
A day before I can use an app?! That’s frickin’ nuts. The person on the line was very nice.
We had a similar incident with Metlife, where an important document was sent to our old address and returned (presumably because the envelope said not to forward it). No one at Metlife thought to contact our agent or to call us on the phone numbers we had listed with our account. The transaction just dropped into a bureaucratic black hole from which neither light nor reason could escape. The person on the customer line was very nice in explaining what had happened.
Seth Godin writes that the lowliest employee in an organization is an ambassador. Theirs is a hard job. “They apologize. Not for things they did wrong, but for things that others did wrong.” Ambassadors can only be successful if the messages that they receive from customers are moved back up the chain of command, such that the originating problems are fixed. If you hire nice and empathetic people whose job it is to mollify the irate customer time and time again and have no mechanism to learn from those people, you will burn out those employees and lose customers. Unless, of course, you’re so big that you don’t have care.

The Hotel Californication of America

It costs more than three times as much to rid yourself of America citizenship as it does to obtain it.
The naturalization fee is $680, including the $85 biometric charge. (If you’re over 75, the biometric fee is waived.)
To renounce your citizenship, you must pay an exit fee of $2350, up from $450.
Not a lot of people are leaving, however. The Wall Street Journal reports that 1800 departed these fair shores in 2011, a sixfold increase during the Obama administration. Even though Rush Limbaugh gave us hope when he said he’d move to Costa Rica if Obamacare became law, he’s still rumbling among us. 

Ten years of Gmail

I don’t remember my first email message. It was some time during the early 1980s when I was working at DEC. For most of that decade, email was all internal, sent from one DEC-owned computer along DEC networks to another DEC-owned computer.
As the 80s closed, there were a bunch of email protocols and messaging schemes. It wasn’t until the early 90s that I started using the format on a regular basis.
My first non-work email address was through a local provider, now defunct, called (It’s now a parked domain held by a Chinese company.) It was run by a weird, fanatically pro-smoking guy named Joe Something-or-other whom I knew from DEC. We used that for a couple of years and then switched to Ultranet before buying my own domain and hosting services in 2001.
When Gmail came along in April 2004, it was invite-only. Google handed out invitations to a few folks and let those new subscribers invite others. It took until August for someone in my circle of friends to have invitations available. I signed up on August 25, 2004.

They promised a gigabyte of free storage, five to 10 times what other providers were offering. They discouraged people from deleting messages. They did this in part so that they could have more information to search and thus give you ads and also to change our thinking about online storage. Cloud storage is, for most folks, effectively unlimited. I long passed 100K messages. (At this writing I have 113,481 conversations, individual messages plus replies. I am using 11Gb for email and other Google services such as photos and docs.
Threaded messages were confusing to some people at first. In threaded email messages, the original messages and its replies are grouped together. It’s much easier to keep track of discussions, but it can be disorienting for people who were expecting each email to be delivered in a discrete chunk.
Some of my friends distrust Google and/or cloud services and prefer to download all of their email to their local computer. Others dislike the Gmail interface, the appearance of ads, and Google in general. Good for them.
For me, the convenience of having an email service that I can use on any device anywhere far outweighs the worries.
Gmail changed the way that we think about email. No other product has come close to having that kind of impact.