Friday, August 25, 2006

The future of data exchange in the meetings and travel industries

Trying to get two systems to work together is a pain, so companies pay big money and adjust their business practices as they try to do everything in one system. But in reality, one system cannot handle all of the data management processes a business has - and if it did then it would be obselete the next day because these processes change constantly. So the future of software will be much like today - humans will need to use multiple systems and IT people need to somehow get them to work together.

The current paradigm in the software world is that some day "Web Services" will magically tie all of your systems together. Web Services is a clever marketing term from somewhere like IBM or Microsoft, and it basically means that Web-based software applications have an interface that other computer applications can talk to. If you are reading this post, then you are familiar with human-to-server interfaces. The web browser is an interface for humans to receive and respond to information stored on web servers. In the same way, Web Services are an interface for computer-to-computer interaction. This allows an online event registration system, like Certain Software's Register123, to submit credit card information to an Internet payment gateway, like Verisign, and receive a response accepting or denying the desired transaction. The Register123 computer communicates with the Verisign computer through a rudimentary web service, and then displays the result to the human requestor through a web browser.

In order for communication to occur, the two parties must speak the same language. Every computer application that was built independently will speak a different "data language", and if two systems are to talk then one side or the other has to build a translator so that communication is in the same language. Since the world has thousands of systems, it's no more practical to build thousands of translators than it is for a single human to learn every language. So software developers across various companies, industries, and countries get together and define standards - a common language that all agree upon. With standards, each company only needs to build one translator that takes data from their application's format into the industry standard, and then (in theory) they can interact with every other system that speaks the language of that common standard. Humans have tried to do this with the universal language "Esperanto", but it appears that computers are going to achieve a common communication standard before humans do.

For the next few weeks, I'm going to discuss an alphabet soup of topics that will soon bring a common data language to the members of the meetings and group travel industry.
  • XML
  • OTA
  • APEX
  • ESG

Monday, August 21, 2006

Modern Miracles

My Father had his kidney removed last week due to a cancerous tumor. Thank you to everyone who expressed their good wishes to me. He is back home from the hospital and should experience a full recovery.

Two weeks ago he had bronchitis and went to the doctor for a routine chest X-ray. The results showed some dark spots on his lungs, which my Dad said always appear on his chest X-rays due to some childhood scarring. Nevertheless, the doctor wanted to be careful and ordered an MRI. Fortunately, the MRI technician scanned a little bit lower than normal, and while the chest was clear, they noticed a lump at the very bottom of the scan. This led the doctor to refer my Dad to a urologist, who ordered an MRI in the abdomen region, which revealed a fist-sized tumor that had been growing on one of his kidneys for years. After getting a second opinion, the doctors decided to remove the kidney as soon as possible, thus surgery was scheduled for this past week.

I often hear that one of the reasons health care is so expensive is that doctors order "unnecesary medical tests" in order to cover themselves against medical malpractice lawsuits. While that may be the case sometimes, thank God that those tests were ordered this time. Normally, you don't discover kidney cancer until you find blood in your urine, by which time the cancer has spread throughout your blood vessels. For my Dad, they were almost able to save half of the kidney, but ended up removing all of it and found no other evidence of the cancer spreading. They left the major blood vessels intact and he's up and walking today (5 days later).

Modern miracles:
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) - It's expensive, but cheaper than death and allows doctors to see inside without cutting people open.
  • Specialization - the family practicioner, MRI technician, urologist, and surgeon worked together as a team and they saved my Dad's life.
  • Internet - I'm working from my Dad's house this week, and no one will notice a difference in my output. I can help him between naps, eat dinner with him, and mow his grass this weekend - without losing any work time. Without the Internet, I would have had to cut my trip short, leave customers and co-workers in a lurch, or use up my vacation for the year.

By the way, this reminded me that you can't replace the family and friends who you grew up with. If some of yours are getting older, please call or visit them today.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Troy Evans, Former Bank Robber

Last week I spoke at the Society of Government Meeting Professionals' Southeast Regional Conference in Ft. Meyers, Florida. If you've never been to the southern Gulf coast of Florida, I highly recommend the Sanibel Resort.

The keynote speaker on Tuesday morning was Troy Evans, former bank robber. I had the pleasure of sharing a van ride with Troy from the airport to the hotel, and we ate lunch together on Tuesday. Never heard of him? You will soon; the movie rights to his life story were just picked up by Hollywood while A-list actors line up to play his part.

Troy grew up as a good kid in middle-class Phoenix, but turned to drugs, and then took to bank robbing to support his habit. This landed him in the federal penitentiary for 7+ years, during which time his son grew up, he cleaned up his act, and received two college degrees. He's a professional speaker now, spending half of his time teaching banks how robbers like him think, half teaching kids about the dangers of drug use. It inspires me that in America, you can mess up as badly as Troy did, and bounce back to heights beyond anything you could have achieved had you lived a "normal" life in the first place.

The other keynote speaker was Jon Gordon, energy coach. This guy has a head cold that would have kept me in bed, and he still manages to jump on stage (literally) at 8am and motivate us all to attack our day with positive energy. The conference organizer, Beth Miller-Tipton from the University of Florida, definitely headed his advice as she effused praise about our speakers and topics for the conference.

Friday, August 04, 2006

What I learned about customer service in France

Last week, I spent 9 wonderful days in Paris and Normandy. I love the French towns and countryside, but I found the customer experience with their service industries to be less fulfilling.

We took the train to the airport our last day, and exited into Terminal 2. This was a wild guess on our part, since the signs didn't list anything about the differences between the various terminals, such as which airlines are there or if the terminal has domestic or international flights. We walked to the information desk and said, "We're trying to find American Airlines."

The agent replied, "Why did you get off here?"

"Umm, well, we didn't know which terminal to enter."

"Well, American isn't here. It's in Terminal 3."

The agent promptly looked down, ending the conversation. I had to then ask, "How do I get to Terminal 3?"

The agent replied without looking up, "You can take the train or the bus."

I'd already been on the train, so I asked, "Where do I find the bus?"

Apparently I had exhausted the limit of the agent's patience, so he just waved his hand to the right and said, "Over there."

It's probably a cultural difference, where the French expect you to be able to solve your own problems. But I realized that I've come to expect excellent customer service, where the customer's problem becomes the supplier's problem. I expected that the information agent would have understood that I must have been lost, otherwise I wouldn't have come to him in the first place, and I expected that he would provide a solution from start to finish, rather then just answering my questions one at a time.

I see both good and bad customer service in America all of the time, unfortunately, even in my own company. This experience led me to crystallize some of my thoughts about what I hope our company will offer it's customers.

  • The fact that the customer contacted you means they have a problem.

Even if you've seen this mistake a thousand times, it's likely the first time they have encountered the situation. Always start with the assumption that the problem is real and that you can help them.

  • The customer is the most important person to themselves.

When you provide service, the customer should feel like they are the only person in your world, and that their problem is the only one you are working on. This will never be true, but they deserve that level of respect and focus while you are communicating with them. It makes me cringe when I hear a service representative say "We're really busy right now with a lot of other customers" (i.e., "you're less important then them") or "I haven't been able to get to that because I'm working on another project" (i.e., "I'm too busy to deal with your issue"). This leads to the next point:

  • Your problems are not your customer's problems.

Good service means that you focus on listening to the problem, document the issue, and either provide a resolution or an estimate of the solution delivery time. And you should do this without trying to pass your problems or your other customers' problems off as excuses against delivery.

  • The customer needs a solution, not an answer.

Instead of giving simple yes/no answers to the customer's questions, or providing a standard solution from a list of FAQs, I try to listen for the root problem. Often, customers ask questions that are symptoms of the real problem, or that are just plain the wrong questions to ask. Don't answer their question right away; take the time to drill-down to identify the problem, and then provide a solution, which should anticipate follow-up questions and issues.

  • Communicate and follow-up.

Excellent service keeps the customer informed of the progress on their issues, and follows through with the customer after providing the solution in order to make sure that it met their needs. This sets the stage for a good working relationship when the next issue arises.

  • Be nice. Be polite.

On the flight home, the American Airlines attendant had the happiest face I'd seen all week. She looked me in the eye and smiled when she asked me questions, and used "please", "thank-you", and "you're welcome" liberally. Personally, I think that "you're welcome" is a phrase of beauty that is being destroyed by "no problem".

  • Be honest. Be fair.

When I mess up, I fix it. And if I've caused you financial loss, I offer to share it. If I promise that my service will be available 24/7 and it's interrupted for 8 hours, then I think that a 5% reduction in your monthly service bill is appropriate, i.e. 1 workday lost out of 20 for the month. The customer would rather have paid the money and not had the problem, but this is both a gesture of fairness and a way for me to quantify the financial cost of my mistake, so that I can justify any financial investments required to prevent it from recurring. (Note that this is the way that I would run a business, but it doesn't reflect the policy of any company I've ever worked for.)

  • Charge the customer enough so that you can profitably deliver the service they need.

Everyone tries to keep costs down, but sometimes this can be counter-productive. If I have to service 50 accounts, then they are each going to get, at the most, 2-3 hours per month of my attention. If this is not enough, then reduce your number of accounts and increase your support fees so that you can provide superior service. I saved this point for last, because it is often the root problem when a service agent does not meet the above points. If you have fewer accounts, then you can focus on individual problems, you won't have to pass excuses about being over-worked, you won't be mean becuase you are stressed out, and you'll be fair because you aren't operating on razor-thin profit margins.