Phones and Aftercare

A few tweets this morning over on twitter.com/mr_vpw this morning got me thinking about Mobile Phone reliability.

It was triggered by Adam Stone (better known to some as @rokkster) commenting that he had been into the Apple Store with a faulty iPhone which had been replaced on the spot – leaving him satisfied with the service I’m sure. Even though I’m absolutely no fan of Apple, they have a very good approach to warranty replacement – and if the single experience I had (for a friend obviously, there’s nothing Apple here) of a non-warranty period failure is anything to go by, any replacement/fault situation.

My experience of Samsung faults is non-existent, thus far (touch wood etc), I’ve never had a Samsung device fail. By the same token, although not mobile related, I’ve got quite a few things made by LG and have done so over the years, and I can’t recall a single time that they have ever failed. Accordingly I have no idea what the warranty care is like, as I’ve never needed it – this has to be the best situation of course, but clearly when you sell millions of devices sometimes it must go wrong.

But what I hadn’t really considered until now was just how bad Nokia was, and sadly still is. Historically I owned a lot of Nokia phones, including the still brilliant Communicator Series (discontinued and missed), to the less “brilliant” N97 bodge job of a phone, the N900 and so on. Then after a long hiatus, last year I picked up a Nokia Lumia 710 windows phone so I could test it against services at work and ensure we can support our customers.

That phone also failed, and is going back for repair – which will take 2-3 weeks. Fortunately it isn’t my main phone at all, and I haven’t missed it in the 2 months since it did fail since I’ve not had time to get it looked at. I guess warranty care isn’t the first thing you think of, but you’ve gotta wonder why they have such high rates of failure – that Lumia has hardly ever been used, so to have failed is a pretty poor show.

 

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Lenovo Ideapad Yoga – a week on…

Having now had an ideaPad Yoga for a week or so, I thought I’d share my views on it and how it works, alongside the Windows RT Operating System it comes with. First a bit of background…

My original purpose for buying one was that I wanted a device that was better than a tablet – I’m no fan of the iPad and I already own a Motorola Xoom and Blackberry Playbook. They’re both good in a way, but they’re very much “consumption” devices and I want and need to “do” things – create content and work – none of the “tablet” devices do it for me and I really don’t like the idea of bluetooth keyboards and the like.

Introducing the Lenovo Ideapad Yoga

The Lenovo Ideapad Yoga is something I’ve had my eye on for a while and a few weeks back I was able to try them out in London – my initial reaction was that they looked nice, seemed to be pretty well built and could fit the bill. The problem is that you really do have to use any bit of tech properly for a bit before you know if it is any good. PC World finally got them this last week or so, and as much as I normally don’t really approve of the place, they’re the only people selling it and of course you can “play” with them too. I actually spent well over an hour in-store trying it out (and nobody interrupted me at all, which I thought was a bit odd). Anyhow, I bought it the next day having done some more research overnight.

Having now used it for a week or so, overall I’m pretty pleased with it – it runs Windows RT – that’s not something that bothers me and shouldn’t bother you either. You have to realise it is fundamentally a hybrid of the “Windows you know” in the look/feel in it’s “desktop” mode, and the new interface/look of Windows 8. Despite the somewhat hyped-up ranting about it, the Windows 8 interface works well – and with a touchscreen it works realy well.

Hardware wise – the unit switches between the “Laptop”, “Tablet”, “Stand” and “Tent” options easily and the hinge system feels pretty solid. The screen isn’t the brightest in the world, but it’s more than bright enough (and I don’t like my screen too bright anyhow). The touch is nice and responsive, and the weight/feel of the whole device is nice. My only gripe about the unit is the keyboard. It’s actually nice to type on in the main, but I find it does sometimes “miss” repeat keystrokes – such as the “ll” in “hello” – it doesn’t always do it but it does feel like the keyboard has a bit too much flex. I’ve seen some reports that I’m not alone and some find it’s just a case of being a little more “firm” with keypresses”. That said, it’s not enough to stop me keeping it.

On the other hand, the sound is pretty poor – I can only assume Lenovo are anti-audio in some way because even on the loudest setting, the sound is weak, quiet and frankly lacklustre – so if you want it as a music or video device, you’ll not be using the built-in speakers because they’re naff. Completely naff. Perfectly acceptable with headphones though (and if you’re using the included HDMI out your TV will sort the sound just fine).

Back to more positive news – the battery life is amazing. Absolutely amazing. This thing just runs and runs and runs – I’ve watched hours of video, I’ve used it to work via Agility Desktop whilst online, and then gone out, met a friend, had them play around with it, then surfed the web in Tablet mode for a couple hours (online Christmas Shopping), got home and it’s still more than 40% to go. Outstanding stuff.

Software – Windows RT seems pretty responsive and fast on this device (it has the Quad Core Nvidia Tegra 3), and I’ve installed pretty much all the core software I use regularly. The supplied software works well – and I find myself rarely leaving the “Modern UI” (or Live Tiles, or Metro or whatever you call it) – I quite like the way the “Live Tile” system works. I’ve installed plenty of apps from the Store – some paid, most free.

Of the apps, my only real gripe is with the “evernote” app – it’s already installed when you buy the Yoga, and I’ve installed the latest updates, but it does seem that Evernote (who have made pretty good software on all the other devices I own) seem to have issues on the Windows 8 platform. Mine simply does not sync, and has lost 2-3 of the notes altogether so right now, I’m not using Evernote at all (which is annoying). That aside, it’s a strange omission, but would be nice if Microsoft had released a Metro/UI app for the “Task” functionality in Exchange – there’s the Mail App to get the messages, the “People Hub” gets your contacts perfectly well, and the Calendar syncs, but for some reason there’s no included “Task” app that also talks to your Exchange Servers – or in my case, Agility Mail. I’m currently looking through some apps to find a decent one for this.

Big Pros so far:

– Battery Life – it lasts and lasts – no charger needed!
– Performance – considering it’s as per many smartphones, you can’t knock it
– Weight – it’s pretty light for a multi-format convertible device
– Conversion Features – It’s nice to go “tablet” to surf, then “laptop” to write up some docs

The cons:

– Keyboard seems a bit flaky if you’re a rapid typer
– Sound is weak, quiet and almost pointless
– Accessories – I can’t buy a proper “Sleeve” for it anywhere
– Other People – everywhere I go people ask about it and tell me it’s the one on TV…

Overall:

Despite the minor grumbles, it’s actually really very good and if you want a device that’s primarily geared towards “getting work done” and you want the power and ease of a keyboard, but don’t want to lose the superior “tablet” experience for browsing the web, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better device. You might consider it “expensive” but I think it’ll pay for itself in no time.

 

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Windows RT: Perhaps the Game Developer missed the point…

There are a few articles appearing online focusing on the fate of a games developer who has ported a game that has been popular on the iOS and Android platforms but which has “only made £52 in the first week” on the Windows RT platform.

The developer says he’s not going to develop for the platform anymore – because just porting this one app cost them somewhere like £10,000, so it’ll take 192 weeks to break even. He marks that as a complete failure of Windows RT.

But is it really?

Actually I’d wager that isn’t the case, but that this is a poor understanding of where Windows RT fits in and of course it is also pretty new out there without too much fanfare. This wasn’t a much hyped release with lots of stupid marketing and PR. It’s a slow release. Either way, it’s still not the point…

Firstly, the developer has previously released on platforms that are essentially “phone” and/or “mobile” (I’m still not sure if Tablet’s are widely considered “mobile” or not). These are platforms where gaming has already been established as popular and the whole size/format of devices and places and ways they’re used make them ideal for gaming. Windows RT however is not available on phone platforms, and there is plenty of evidence to show that MOBILE gaming (eg Phone based) is popular. Tablet gaming is less popular – although I’d agree that iPad’s do seem to be used for this type of purpose quite a bit in some cases. That’s great. but Windows RT isn’t really on tablets.

I imagine his sales on Windows 8 through the normal store would be equally poor – if his games aren’t designed to ideally suit “Desktop” use, it won’t sell well – and that’s on the number 1 Desktop OS used globally. Not sure you can say “Windows 8” is a failure or “Windows” in general is a failure.

Given that Windows RT is aimed at, and comes on hybrid devices only so far as I can see – such as the Microsoft Surface (which to add to the poor sales in the UK at least is ONLY available on the Microsoft Online Store – bah!) and the odd other new device literally just launching like the Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 11 (I actually managed to buy after all yesterday), it isn’t much wonder sales are low. Ultimately I believe these devices aren’t really targetted at the type of person who uses a laptop or tablet device (let alone a “hybrid” or “convertible” device). Those people, just like me, are buying them for productivity tasks – eg getting some work done and not for gaming. The size/format of these devices don’t lean well to general gaming use and as I suspect that isn’t going to change.

Given that I own an Xbox 360, 2-3 Android devices and an Android Tablet, a touch-enabled all-in-one desktop, and now the ideaPad Yoga you’d probably expect the Xbox 360 to mostly be used for gaming. Actually, I very rarely play games on ANY of them – the Xbox is more a media hub and mostly for things like Netflix, and I occasionally fire up Angry Birds for 5 minutes on my phone, and that is about as much as I do. I doubt I’m alone on this. That’s not to say some people won’t want to, and indeed can play games, but perhaps the developers mistake was assuming that Windows RT is aimed and and ultimately used by the same type of user demographic as the iPhone/Android Phones and such, rather than the platform.

It’d be good if some of the various “online media” outfits thought things through and perhaps looked into the adoption and reasons people buy/use devices and create some useful news and information rather than just firing off half-baked articles based on a developers moaning, and look at WHY it might not be doing well…

Rant over!

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A quick roundup…

It has been a while since I blogged, and that’s mostly because I am pretty busy with all manner of stuff. Much of it you might well consider to be not exactly ‘essential’, but that is beside the point.

So here’s some thoughts in a nutshell of sorts…

Loving right now…

The new ‘Hot Chocolate Cup Cakes’ served in Costa. Without doubt the nicest cup cakes around and I am completely addicted. Like the need to breathe. Go and buy them NOW, but make sure you leave me one (or 10).

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2. Finally a phone that is more optimized for use as a mini tablet, web and app access device that can also make the odd call. It is really helped by having a brilliant battery that can last as long as my day, well above what a typical person wants and fails to get with a typical smartphone. Add the pen which comes in handy (and was used to do a brilliant sketch by a friend) really sets the bar for mobile tech. Once coupled with 3s service, you get a blisteringly fast phone, on a blisteringly fast network (Sorry EE, your pathetic coverage and download allowances and high cost are beaten by 3 every time), and enough stamina to make full use of it. Awesome tech.

The Lenovo Idea pad Yoga. OK, I Have not got one yet, but that is more because Lenovo are not shipping than anything else. For me this device is likely to be the ultimate tablet/ultraportable laptop I crave. Tablets just do not cut it for me, iPad stinks as a device for real work,  my seemingly ancient (in modern tech terms) Motorola Xoom just not enough, and Microsoft Surface (Pro) both unavailable and expensive for the slightly disappointing spec when you consider key benefits of the platform are keyboards that cost 100 quid plus…

Stuff I don’t like so much…

EE, the most stupid brand ever (almost). I don’t like the adverts which imply you can do so much on 4G. I would not mind if it was vaguely possible but the coverage for 4G is lame, even at launch, the cost is high, and the amount of data usage pathetic. Actually the tariffs remind me of when 3 launched. Plenty of minutes and texts, but absolutely no proper data outside a horribly limited walled garden. In my view, the EE offering is a modern day equiv because the amount of data you get per month is so low, even on the most expensive tariffs, that you simply cannot take advantage of the speeds and capabilities properly (assuming you are in the tiny coverage areas). Fail written all over that. (Side note: apparently tariffs are getting a bit of a boost on data but by the looks of it still in the realm of poor). I doubt that 3 have anything to fear from the competition for now!

I’m not actually done with EE yet, because they have also made my existing service poor. As many know, I have lots of mobile tech, and my main phone number is provided via TMobile. At the time, this made sense, and for a year to 15 months, everything has been great. Since the we are rebranding in a half passed way scheme where I sort of still see TMobile branding but also have EE on phone and such, the reliability has fallen along with speeds. It could be a strange coincidence but my data speeds are notably poorer (confirmed by speed tests and comparison to tests done historically on the same handset in the same places on the same tariff etc). I have also had a few occasions where I just cannot send messages or receive calls for a few hours. Another coincidence???

I have a bunch more loves and hates but the above will do for now — annoyance vented :-)

When it isn’t possible to save money after all…

I was bemused reading the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) latest magazine.

In it was a feature highlighting the impact of the postal charge rises, which are without doubt severe and make it really rather expensive to post items, especially given the insane pricing in proportion madness.

However I have the distinct feeling someone at the FSB editorial side was not paying attention. The woman said that she has to send samples out of fabric by post etc, so the FSB highlighted the benefit of the FSB Print and Mail service…

…which unless I am very much mistaken does not help someone sending goods and items at all.

Just another disconnected moment between items of copy…

Which Gadgets?

As a self confessed gadget person, I’ve spent many years trying to find the right gadgets for me – the ones that just work, do what I want and let me enjoy the technology I have. While I’ve long since realised the ultimate goal is just too demanding, in recent months I’ve made great progress towards the goal.

I get asked quite often what I’m using and what I would recommend, so I figured I’d blog about it to save me time in the future :-)

Today the main gadgets in my ultimate “tech lineup” includes:

– Motorola Atrix

By far the best mobile phone I have ever owned. Solid, reliable and tough. It survived numerous occasions of being dropped on the pavement, and only took a hit once it fell out of a window – from 4 floors up. The damage? Broken screen – but otherwise working phone. One repair later and good as new. As well as coping with “life”, it is also one seriously fast mobile. It’s the first time I’ve not spent all of my time wondering when it will get around to doing things I’ve requested.

If that wasn’t good enough it’s also crammed with stuff to make it “cool” and dependable. From the huge (but light, good use of Li-Polymer folks!) battery that actually lasts long enough not to drive me to distraction even with heavy use, to the incredible multimedia features – it has a media centre facility, and with the dock has a remote so I can just use it as a music source. Then there is the ultimate bit of cool. Actually there are 2 – the fingerprint reader – everyone loves that little feature that discovers it has it, and the incredibly cool and actually quite handy Linux OS option when connected via HDMI or plugged into the “Lapdock” so I can literally work from one device all day using it as a laptop, and not just a phone.

– Motorola Xoom

Bizarrely enough there is a second Motorola gadget that hits the mark. After years of finding Motorola to be pretty poor – it all went downhill in the post-Startac era, they’ve recently woken up and started throwing out great kit. The Motorola Xoom 3G is a brilliant tablet, and as someone who already uses Android on the Atrix, it also makes sense to keep on the same OS (buy apps once, easier transition between them, less brain capacity used remembering the different layouts). The Xoom comes in handy for all sorts, from wireless surveys at work to watching Netflix in bed or in the kitchen. Like the Atrix, it’s Dual Core too so never leaves me waiting. If only Spotify would release a proper tablet optimised version of the Spotify Mobile client…

– Blackberry Playbook

Having mentioned a tablet above, you might be thinking “sorry what has he got 2 tablets for” – well actually they perform 2 pretty different functions for me. The playbook is amazing for video and has the smoothest playback by far. Its smaller size also makes it “handy” for use as a general web browsing device, and someone at blackberry clearly wasn’t stupid as they realised speakers are best on the FRONT of the device. Good job. The playbook also makes a nicely sized remote for my Squeezebox system and makes it far more user friendly than logitech’s own efforts. Since I also own a blackberry, the blackberry integration is pretty neat as well (they’ve released software so you can have e-mail without a blackberry now I realise, but that doesn’t bother me). It’s quite nice having photos in my e-mails on the blackberry display on the playbook, or reading e-mail on the better screen of the playbook without needing to pick up (or even find) the blackberry, and having zero setup of each e-mail account to do to get started.

– Blackberry Curve 9300

The blackberry was originally something I hated. The first blackberry I tried made me want to cry. It felt horrible. I couldn’t get on with the keyboard. Now you’d be pressed to get me to get shot of the blackberry. The real QWERTY keyboard is amazing and makes a huge difference to how easy (and accurate) it is to use a phone for various tasks – and since the rise of services like Facebook and Twitter comes into its own every day. By far the best bit of the blackberry is the “it just works” factor. You set it, then forget it. It will just keep streaming your e-mail in, and it is still my preferred tool for using with twitter (I use the Ubersocial client). Since the blackberry also has respectable battery life, I can not worry about charging it daily even with reasonable usage, so it is also the trusty standby for those times where I do defeat the already brilliant Atrix battery.

– HP Elitebook 8530w

Technically a work laptop, rather than mine, but it gets used a LOT. Pretty much every single day, and I’ve had it for years now. Still rock solid, fast as you like and copes with my demanding needs. By current standards it is a bit out of date – it doesn’t have any of the “i3/5/7” series of processors, and is currently sat on 4GB RAM with no SSD. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it – it runs day in, day out. It’s taken flights, it has been dropped, but it works just fine. The saddest thing is that HP don’t have an equivalent I can look at right now – the last 3 times I’ve tried to replace it, I’ve sent the new laptops back as they’re just not as robust. Oh and if you care, I run Windows 7 Enterprise on it, alongside the usual Office 2010 and then quite a lot of other tools, from Adobe Creative Suite to Music Editing software, it’s all crammed on.

 

Before anyone worries, that’s not the entire collection, just the items I thought I’d highlight :-)

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A Testing Week – of Technical Capability, Disaster Recovery and Sleep Deprevation…

The past 7-10 days have been an interesting journey to say the least. There have been many events, both personal and professional that have completely taken over my normal routine and resulted in some insanely long days, a serious lack of sleep and a backlog of things to do.

But what I really wanted to blog about was the work side of things…

A typical week for me involves lots of random events, since despite my best efforts, and those of my team we haven’t really got final say in many of the things that happen around us – customers can have IT issues needing our attention and systems can break, unexpectedly and without any real sort of warning.

What is unusual is to have several different issues collide leaving us with a huge amount to do and really testing the skills of our team as well as all those backups, disaster recovery plans and such that everyone talks about but very few actually have in a meaningful way…

Monday started with a bit of a bang, and our core e-mail service which is very much a flagship, highly advanced service decided it had finished providing e-mail and was going to take a nap. Actually that is somewhat understating it. In reality, we had a complete loss of service for a portion of our customers as the database storing the e-mail, contacts, calendar entries and such for them had become corrupted.

This wasn’t something that was immediately apparent since the errors being thrown originally were relating to the lack of backups (or rather that the system could not work out if a backup had been taken recently). With a little bit of digging we eventually determined there was a database issue.

Troubleshooting these kinds of things is far from trivial – you are dealing with live customer data, on a operational platform with hundreds of people connecting, and literally hundreds of GBs of data. So everything you do can have a large impact on the reliability of the services being offered. Key is the integrity of customer data, after all they trust you to keep it safe, handle the backups and such.

I can tell you that is a pretty large responsibility and one I don’t recommend taking on!

Fortunately I’m incredibly paranoid about backups and having plans to handle this sort of stuff, and so comes the challenge of how to restore servic to our customers. While in an ideal world simply bringing customers back online is the ideal scenario, you have to take a number of precautionary steps when handling this type of data, so for one business day a subset of our customers (which generally is not a whole customer – with a couple of exceptions for legacy reasons we need to address) had no service.

Getting the system to a safe state to begin the task of looking at restoring backups and rebuilding mail data was particularly challenging because the very systems that are supposed to provide redundancy for other types of problem (for example loss of server through fire, theft or simple failure) haven’t been operating as flawlessly as they ought to – and we have had a number of projects ongoing to address this.

This made life even more tricky, since we then had to interrupt service for all our other customers 2-3 times throughout the day in order to progress this partcular issue – normally this can be avoided, but the particular condition the fault had arisen in meant the only real fix was to dump everyone off and force a clean start on the system – having to do this in the middle of the day is not something I like doing, but experience tells you that restoring data is a long winded, time consuming process – so waiting another 5-6 hours makes a big difference to how quickly you can bring everyone online.

With those challenges addressed we can finally move onto restoring backups – this is again a problem scenario since we have also been working on some issues with our Backup Platform – indeed the specialist teams at Microsoft have been working with us on some issues. So the nearest) local backup server does not have the data we want.

For most people this would be the point of panic since the backup server, well, just isn’t any use unless it has backups. Fortunately, and as I mentioned before I am incredibly paranoid about backups so we have more than one backup system in place – so we turned to our off-site backups. as expected, this had the data we wanted and could refresh the main backup servers to ensure we could perform a restore.

Sounds simple enough right? Well not quite – there is another issue – we know that restoring customers can take many hours (don’t forget we are talking about bringing back hundreds of GB of data – which in reality means we have to build a “good” database first, then reimport customer mail back to the real mailboxes they have. This would mean we leave customers with no e-mail for hours, possibly days.

Accordingly we need to get customers operational again so they can at least receive new mail until we can bring back historical mail – to do this, we effectively have those affected customers added to alternative databases – they end up with a blank mail account – but anything not yet delivered will turn up and allow them at least some form of communication.

So problem solved now? No – you have to make sure you can bring back messages that were received before the failure as well (eg between the backup and the failure – those messages are “at risk”). Again, more paranoia on my part means that we have configured the systems that process new incoming/outgoing messages to hold a reasonably large “cache” of things they have processed in recent times.

A few requests later, and we now have customers online, with new messages as they arrive, and messages received between the backups and point of failure. Not bad, but we still have the millions of messages they have received historically – in some cases our customers could have many years of historical e-mail data. It is pretty critical to some of them we can get this back, since we deal with all manner of businesses including solicitors and such who must BY LAW retain content – so that challenge of ensuring integrity is critical.

Our next step then is to bring back everything we have in the backups – this takes some time as I have said before – we offer pretty generous storage allowances, so an individual customer may have anywhere up to 25GB of e-mail data in a single users mailbox – so the volumes of data are not to be taken lightly.

We undertake this in 3 steps – first – recover a full copy of the corrupted database to the nearest point we can to the failure (as we take several backups a day, we can be reasonably close ) – in this case the nearest backup was from around 12 hours before (the interim backup had failed – which we suspect was an early warning of the corruption!).

Next we have to import that mail back into a customers mailbox – one user at a time as it were (actually it is a little slicker than this but that is essentially what happens behind the scenes).

The final step is to fix the duplicate issue – since we have “replayed” mail as far back as we can before we restored anything, we have to complete a process which will “correct” the state of e-mail – this means that some messages may need moving to a different folder, may have been deleted by the user and needs to be re-deleted, or may have been edited/updated in some way. They also store calendar data – so we need to make sure that we do not duplicate customer appointments, AND we also have to ensure that when they have added a new appointment in the meanwhile, if it conflicts with an item that was in the last backup we handle it correctly.

If you are still reading, you are probably struggling to understand how we even keep track of all this – the answer is actually in having a plan for disasters. It would be lying to say you can document every possible issue, request or command that may need to be entered, and the reality is your plans give you the basic outline and make sure you complete all key steps – but you need capable staff with expertise if you are going to survive.

The above gives you an idea of just ONE of the many incidents this week – combined with Server Hardware failures, more problems with the main Backup System that I touched on above (which actually resulted in us needing to rebuild it and then, perhaps ironically restore from a backup our backups…), and to finally top things off, an incident with one of our Datacentre partners which resulted in us losing servic at one facility for about 2 hours – the cause? A break in and theft of some pretty critical equipment.

I won’t even bother to explain why that should never have happened, but it did!

The end result of this is that while customers complain that e-mail is down or that they have some technical issue (which I understand from the perspective that it affects them THERE and THEN), what they do not see is how much effort goes into making sure when something goes wrong (and it will – anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, and you will get burned), that having good plans and processes means you can get them back up and running.

It can take a little time depending on the issue (a combination of the time to identify the issue – the first major barrier and one people forget when yelling for answers on “when will it be working again”) – and then executing appropriate plans to get things up and running, but the reality is that an outage of this nature is very much the exception, and having multiple different failures even less likely, yet when it does eventually happen, having a decent IT partner that has genuinely ticked all the boxes to make it possible to recover is worth far more than you pay them.

It is this very hidden aspect of IT that is the hardest to explain, the most difficult to get people to “buy into” in terms of realising the difference between a quality provider and a “does the basics” operator – everyone tells you they have a plan, but ultimately you will only ever find out if they are right once the problem has already happened.

A few days on, and I’m actually pretty pleased with how we handled things overall:

– We contacted those customers directly affected by the core issue – by phone, in person to make sure they knew we were aware and dealing with the issue – not many companies bother with this.

– We regularly updated our Service Status feed to provide information as best we could (not always the easiest thing when you are trying to focus on getting things going) so that we could help customers plan around the issue

– Our plans for Backups – and importantly Backing Up The Backups with more Backups of Backups, and then more Backups again seems crazy to many people – and indeed we have been told on more than one occasion that our plans are far more extensive than providers with considerably more financial clout and resource than us, yet they proved that they are worth the considerable investment and effort we put into them

– Having a team of people who have good skills which complement each other allowed us to make rapid progress to restoring service.

– Actually having a test platform in our “Labs” where we can dry run intended recovery steps to minimise the chance of loss of data was invaluable

– For the isolated cases where the customers client software (normally Outlook) got confused with the changes, we provided full remote assistance at no charge to help bring those customers back online with normal service.

…plus numerous other steps.

Hopefully this gives those who are interested a good idea of just how busy a week can be for me as someone running a small business – and perhaps an insight into just how much happens that you never see each day when you log onto your computer and begin using things such as e-mail. So the next time something goes wrong, remember that the decision to use a quality provider isn’t about when things have been going smothly, it really is about what they do when the muck hits the fan.

And it will.

If you think that was all I did, then ignoring the things I did personally (which will remain personally) I found time to help one of our key customers move offices, went to see a new customer in the middle of the country, and get some other issues fixed. While there was plenty more I should have done but haven’t, I think 20 hour days were pretty much the limit!

One last thing – I’m actually pretty appreciative of our customer base over this incident – we know it has had impact to them despite our efforts to minimise it, but on the whole they were patient, understanding and helped us by avoiding constantly calling for updates – whether that is because they trust us to get it sorted, or were reassured by our attempts to reach them I don’t know.

(Having said all this – if you are looking for a quality IT provider that actually cares about ensuring that problems get fixed, and when something really awful happens you don’t get left in the lurch, give us a shout – www.vpwsys.net!

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Posted in SME Business by Vince. No Comments

A lesson in stupid Customer Service from TomTom

Recently my TomTom SatNav device decided it didn’t want to play anymore. It had been acting up for a while, so it wasn’t exactly unexpected.

I had gotten used to it refusing to work on battery at all [it isn’t an old device, less than 6 months old], but then the Live Services stopped working (telling me the battery was too low despite being on connected to my car etc). The final straw was when it decided to start rebooting constantly.

Every few minutes it restarted, naturally at those moments when I was expecting to need help getting somewhere, not when I was sat for 80 miles on the motorway or a long lonely stretch in the middle of France. Worse, at night, each reboot made it switch to daytime colours.

Still, not to worry, technology goes wrong, and the device is under warranty.

Then the madness began.

Despite various posts online telling me it takes ages to get through to someone at TomTom, I was actually pretty impressed that my call at peak time was answered within a minute. So far, top marks.

Describing my issues (which seem pretty commonplace on my model, the Go Live 1005 Europe Edition) was not a problem, and I progressed to the repairs stage. Fit took about 20 minutes to spell out my address to the operative, despite not being the most tricky address, both. Words, phonetically, and good old pigeon mode. Sorted. Or so I thought, with a lengthy phone call done and the promise of a box to ship the faulty one back within a couple of days.

12 days later, still nothing, and as I had been busy hadn’t really thought about it, imagine my surprise when I find an email about my return. I go online to find the address they have is a bizarre and massively inaccurate variation. Even with Royal Mails ability to find places with vague info, I doubt they had any hope in this case.

Back through to TomTom Customer Services, the bloke I speak to is pretty cheery, apologetic and says he would have to open a new RMA to ensure the box is sent. No problem, he takes all the details over. New RMA, box promised in the next couple of days. Result! Well no…

Roll forward another few days, still no box. I get annoyed and rant about it online via Twitter. A TomTom rep gets in touch and asks me to email details to them. I do. I wait another couple of days. Nothing, no acknowldgement, no response. Still one annoyed customer.

So I reply to TomTom via my open RMA and suggest that they explain where this box is, and why, given I still have the original packaging I cannot just put it back in the box it came in (must be good enough right?) and if they give me the address I will just get it sent, after all we a talking nothing much for postage compared to my time and hassle.

After a couple of emails to and fro (one of which tells me that it isn’t TomToms fault my second box did not turn up, but didn’t suggest who was responsible), I eventually get told that the box they ship the device in isn’t suitable, but I can package it up and they will give me details to send it.

Hurrah, they do, and it turns out I can just call UPS with an account number and the relevant details given to me and they will come and get it. I do, and UPS turn up, take it away. Progress at last.

I get an email the next day to say TomTom’s repair dudes have received my broken Sat Nav. Later that day I get another email to say a replacement device is being sent.

The very next day, my new Sat Nav turns up. This begs the question… why the hell was getting a box such a big deal, like sure make it an option, but the whole process could have taken 3 days (most of which was transit) and not the best part of 6 weeks.

All being well I will be able to use my Sat Nav normally this coming week, which will be a relief to my father who has been playing a game of SatNav relay with me for the last few weeks (and boy do I miss the re routing past traffic jams feature!)

But for the smallest change in the process, I could have been a pretty satisfied customer instead of a mostly miffed one.

“New” Facebook is actually much better…

For the past 24-48 hours there has been a lot of moaning about the changes Facebook have made to the layout. Now I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about, except that it seems any change annoys people. Maybe they didn’t bother to review the initial intro that told you what is happening, and just did the typical “yeah whatever, I wanna play farmville” thing.

Personally I like the revised facebook, since it has made a few positive changes (at last):

– Pictures are now larger and you can see smaller versions of multiple photos at once on new album uploads.

– New “Closest Friends” list means you can add those who you do really want to see all the updates for, as they happen – less time spend wading through zillions of life drama posts from those you occasionally keep up with to find the one post by a close friend. If you ask me, that’s almost worth paying Facebook for as a feature…

– Your custom lists (if you bothered setting them up and locking down your account) are more useful as you can use them as feed filters (the thing everyone says is like Google+ circles). Again, this makes it better for me since I filter work colleagues, close friends, random aquaintances etc.

– Updates to posts are appearing reliably now (whereas before you refreshed and it was some voodoo if they came or went – now you don’t refresh, it just happens

– It appears to be remembering what you last read across mobile and web version, so I don’t end up reading the same post over and over

– It is reliably remembering where I last read to, so the next time, the old stuff I saw last time goes to “older posts” at the bottom better

– I quite like the live “scrolling” events as they happen on the right hand side too – quite handy (although I’d like to be able to make that just live events for my “closest friends” filter to make it less busy.

Personally, I’m not entirely sure what the big fuss is about. It seems cleaner, quicker and saves me re-re-re-re-re-re-reading stuff all the time. Win all round if you ask me. Given I use Facebook from loads of different devices (according to Facebook, I have 31 registered devices), it makes sense to track my last views centrally.

How long will it take? When will it be fixed?

As many of the people I interact with daily will know, I am working on a wide range of initiatives at present designed to strengthen our services to customer, a project which stretches well beyond the obvious aspects of the products themselves.

One area I am tackling at the moment is improving the general interactions we make between our customers in our Support Team. This is without doubt the area of our business where the most direct customer interaction happens each day. A combination of those things that just ‘go wrong’ and need the expertise of our engineers to help, but also the issues our own systems can have that cause interruption to our customers.

Both of these have a common issue, which I call the feedback loop. Giving customers feedback is undoubtedly an important aspect of handling a support case, but getting it right is tricky.

For example, when a support issue is logged, we often won’t know the cause of the problem, and therefore cannot really suggest how long it will take to resolve. This leaves a few possible ways to advise on the time until resolution:

– Give them a guess based on our best guess/hunch before we have a proper assessment

This works if the issue is quite likely to be one we have seen before. The downside is that new issues or complictions may frustrate that estimate. Sadly customers do hear the response as a guarantee and not an estimate.

– Suggest a time when we would be able to provide an update

This seems sensible enough, but often isn’t what a customer wants to hear, they want a definitive ‘when will it be fixed’ which as I outlined is not always feasible. Sometimes too we end up with the customer taking that also as a guarantee of fix time, like with best guesses,

– Give a widely generous estimate

This in theory gives us more breathing space, since it means we can often out perform those estimates. The side effects are that we either then appear to be just ‘slack’ at responding to customer issues, or the next time we give a wide estimate the customer ignores it and assumes a quicker time will certainly be the case.

…there are other poosible combinations but you get the idea!

There are sometimes ways you can manage this expectation better, particularly when you are dealing on a one to one basis, where you have good relations, as you can gauge how they interpret your message and give them an appropriate response that ensures they have realistic expectations, you can deliver and nobody is misled or otherwise uncertain.

More difficult however is generic communication. For example, we are currently introducing a twitter status feed (http://twitter.com/vpwsysstatus if you care) so we can provide better feedback to customers, but with very limited space and an audience you cannot predict or tailor to individually communicating clearly and in away which avoids the negative feedback loop is tricky. We are not actively promoting this at present as we are still bringing this into our communications mix, but I can sense the challenge already,

Interestingly this discussion came up today on twitter as @JohnWLewis ( http://twitter.com/JohnWLewis and me http://twitter.com/mr_vpw ) felt that while o2 provide information on network faults, they do not provide adequate informaion to him on the ‘time for resolution’ or at least more information to give him the reassurance that the issue is not just known but being worked on for resolution. This is certainly an interesting debate as views vary so wildly.

Undoubtedly the first priority has to be acknowledging that such issues exist, since this will save a lot of time and hassle in investigating faults that ultimaely do not lie within the control of the customer.

For me, the challenge going ahead is to ensure we provide an open dialog on issues that arise, provide truthful response (even when that means admitting the issue is ours as the supplier), and finding the right balance to ensure customers feel reassured that issues are taken seriously and dealt with in a timely professional manner.

Our current lineup of ways to communicate include:

– ensuring the helpdesk team can discuss faults openly with customers
– making sure incidents are visible via tools such as twitter
– for major or recurring issues provide incident reports direct from me as company director so customers know the most senior people take issues seriously
– empowering our staff can say ‘I made a mistake’ – it happens

…but I am still seeking further ways to improve on this. Our aim is to provide the best feedback, best support and service of any company. A massive challenge, and a massive yardstick, but we work on this every day!

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Posted in General SME Business by Vince. 2 Comments