Monday, May 30, 2011

Customer Service Follow-up

So, after I talked about how bad my customer service experience with Comcast was, I thought I should follow up regarding my positive experience as well.

As I mentioned in my other Comcast blog post, I was not happy with the customer service I received, and I felt like the representatives on the phone were more concerned with following a script than doing what was right. I had a situation where Comcast as a company really made some mistakes, yet no one was trying to make it right. As a result, I was considering moving to FIOS.

I went to the physical Comcast location near my house to return the rental modem. I was planning on just dropping it off and verifying the fee was removed from my bill. The representative took a look at my account, and I think he saw all the issues I had been having. I wasn't even planning on talking with them due to my frustration level, but he offered me a different package. Basically, it will save me about $40 a month for the next 6 months, and gives me more channels.

I marked my calendar to call in November and change back to a cheaper plan, but for the moment, I save $240, which was an unexpected surprise.

Again, just from a customer service perspective, I am not sure why it took me physically showing up to get a good deal, but I won't look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say.

So Comcast. you've won me back over, for now.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Customer Service Failures (A Comcast Rant)

I hate dealing with customer service most of the times. There are some companies that do a spectacular job of it, and others that do not. Still others are helpful in some areas and not so much in others. I get offended when companies make me use my time to fix their mistakes,

As an example of this, let me tell you about my issues with Comcast. I've been a customer since roughly 2000, between two addresses. I've had a number of bizarre issues occur, for example, when I moved, I returned my old cable box. Two years later, I received a bill for the cable box, and since it was two years later, I didn't have the old receipt. It took me getting on the phone and talking with people a few times to get this fixed.

In early April, I received a letter from Comcast saying my old cable modem didn't support the highest possible speeds for the network, and that I should call them for a new one. A few years back, I had purchased my own cable modem to avoid rental fees, but my thought was that if it meant higher speeds, I could use their modem for a month or two and buy the same model they sent me on eBay to save on future rental costs. I called and the representative asked if I wanted to pick up the new modem or to have it sent to me. Since there was no cost mentioned, I took them up on the offer to ship it to me.

The modem arrived very quickly.

Before I disconnected my old modem, I went to (my 163 students will recognize this site) and got a baseline speed. I swapped out the modem for the new one, spent an hour resetting everything and registering the new device with Comcast, and then re-ran the test on the site. Oddly enough, it was about the same speed.

I called Comcast and they told me my old modem would not support the higher speed connection if I chose to use the more expensive Internet service ("Blast"). I decided to stick with the new modem and find a replacement, because I have been considering upgrading.

I sold my old cable modem (again, my own personal modem) on eBay. This is when problems start.

The modem arrived to a customer out in California. He tries to set it up and Comcast tells him it is a stolen modem. The customer wants a refund, and since I sold the item and it did not work, he rightly filed a significantly not as described complaint. So, it cost me $11 to ship it to him, and $15 for him to ship it back to me. I am now out $26 because of Comcast's mistake.

My bill comes in the mail the next day, and I have three charges:
1) Unreturned modem fee ($60)
2) Shipping Fee ($9.95)
3) Modem Rental Fee ($7.00)

As you can imagine, I was frustrated. I called Comcast and tried to be polite. I find that explaining that I am frustrated up front helps me to stay courteous. The rep tells me they need to submit a research request, which would take ten business days, after which I would be contacted via email. The rep took down my email address and we ended the conversation.

I hadn't heard anything for over two weeks, so I called in. The rep I spoke with yesterday told me the credit for the unreturned modem was there (and I was able to verify this online), and she wasn't sure why I didn't get contacted regarding this. Having resolved the modem fee, I asked about the shipping fee, and the customer representative was able to refund that, since it was a charge that I was not told about, and the eBay stuff is my problem. She then tried to get me to sign back up for Comcast Voice, which really infuriated me. I told her I have an Ooma and ended the conversation.

So, Comcast refused to refund the modem rental fee, and as a result of Comcast's mistakes, I have wasted $26 on shipping, $7 on a modem rental fee, a bunch of hours dealing with their customer support, my first negative feedback on eBay, and frustration. Comcast has decided they can't do anything more for me, and while the representatives are nice, this is an obvious mistake on their part, and my inconvenience is my problem.

I think companies nowadays spend way too much time following procedures, and I don't feel like customer service representatives understand "the right thing to do". If a first-line customer service representative sees something that just isn't right, they should be getting a supervisor involved.

I've had other issues with Verizon. My apartment building just got wired for FIOS. My doorbell rang, and the person said "I'm here from Verizon". I told them "you must have rung the wrong bell" - assuming he was setting up someone else's apartment. Two days later, the doorbell rang again, and it was Verizon. He asked if he could speak with me, so I assumed they might need to get in my apartment. (When they set up FIOS in the building, they had to put some equipment in the back of one of my closets). I stopped work on a project and went upstairs, and the guy was just there to try to sell me FIOS. I walked away from him, and called Verizon, because it isn't the right thing for me to be harassed at home like this. The first representative I spoke with told me to go to and register there (which only opts me out of phone calls, not in-person calls). We got disconnected somehow. I called back and re-explained my problem, and they told me there was nothing they could do. I finally sent an email to the customer support on the Web site, explained the situation, explained my frustration, and asked to be forwarded to a supervisor. The supervisor got back to me and told me they added me to their "do not knock" database, but offered no apologies or explanation as to why the other reps couldn't do that.  Had Verizon been a little more helpful or a little less intrusive, I would be switching from Comcast to Verizon right now. I'm still considering who is the lesser of two evils, but it does look like FIOS would be about $20 cheaper.

For those of you going in to support-related fields, try to keep the idea of "what is right" in mind when you deal with customers. I know it is not easy, and I know I stray sometimes myself when dealing with students and co-workers, but it is a good ideal to shoot for.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


My semester is now officially over. I have from now until September off, and then I will be teaching six courses in the Fall 2011 semester (my complete Fall schedule is linked here). I got to thinking about the last year, and how it has changed me as a professor. Here are some of the things I learned this year.
  1. Teaching less classes yields better results. I have in the past had a tendency to take on a very heavy load, and only teaching two courses a semester has left me with more energy to get in to the classroom. 
  2. There is a better way to teach application software. This was inspired by one of my students in INF 101, Kevin. Teaching application software in introductory computing classes is difficult, because of the different levels of students. I've tried to teach this a number of ways. First I would lecture and leave the computers open, which led to people not paying attention. I feel like my job is to structure a lesson to promote the maximum possible learning, so I did not like that. I then tried using hardware to lock the computers and offer class time to work on things, but as soon as I stop lecturing students seem to disappear. I then moved to a model where I first demonstrate the software (with the computers locked), and use ungraded groupwork to practice (with two students sharing one machine to prevent drifting), and then assign an individual case problem to students. This seems to work well, but in the CIS 101/INF 101 courses, there is never enough time to leave for that groupwork. Kevin inspired me to try something different, so I combined groupwork and lecture for Access and PowerPoint this semester. I would lecture and demonstrate, and the groups would follow along. It gives the advanced students a chance to teach, and what better way to reinforce skills than by teaching? It gives less advanced students more individualized attention, since they are more likely to ask a peer a question. Finally, it keeps everyone focused on the work. I really liked how this turned out and I will use it in the future in certain classes.
  3. Electronic tests have many advantages. At PCCC, I never really investigated giving tests on hte computer. We have a campus portal (which allows students to submit assignments, allows faculty to share files, etc.). This portal does not allow students to take tests online. We also have WebCT, which is primarily used for online classes at PCCC, but is available for regular classes. I may continue to use the portal for assignments, and use WebCT for tests. It's convenient, ends up with less mistakes (and no true/false answers that look like a combination of the letter T and F), and saves me from reading handwriting for essays. Bergen has a software tool called Respondus LockDown browser, which allows me to prevent students from using the Internet and other electronic files. This tool works both in WebCT (which we used this year) and Moodle (which we are moving to). At PCCC, I don't think we will have the software, but I can use the monitoring software we have in our classrooms in Hamilton Hall.
  4. Open book tests work. I always was sort of against open book tests, but I tried it this year, and I see similar results to non-open book tests. The trick I never caught on to is a time limit of 45 seconds to one minute per multiple choice/true false/completion question. With a strict time limit, looking up every answer is near impossible, and students still need to prepare for the tests. Even better, if they know it is open notes, they may take the time to really organize their notes. Organizing notes requires students to re-read the notes, review them, and even look up things they are not familiar with. This is a good thing. I found the standard deviation and average for the open book tests were similar to tests I've given in the past. Anecdotally, I feel like this gives students with a good work ethic an advantage over students who come in to the class with some knowledge.
  5. I can kill less trees. I generally would create and print assignment sheets for every assignment I give out, and run off copies. I would also make those descriptions available electronically. I did everything electronically this year in my INF 163 course, and it went well. I figure students can print things manually if they would like a copy.
  6. Doing textbook supplement authoring is kind of fun. Since I had so much time on my hands, I did some freelance textbook supplement authoring. I've done test banks, PowerPoint presentations, scorecards (rubrics), lesson plans, and book reviews. I've actually had some fun doing this, and I may pick up a small project or two. 
  7. Sign language interpreters have a tough job.  I had one deaf student each semester, and in a technical course, it becomes difficult for the interpreters to keep up. I have a tendency to throw out all sorts of technical terms and abbreviations, and interpreters are experts in translation, not in technology. In addition, there are many technical terms that need to be fingerspelled (in which the interpreter spells it one letter at a time). Bergen actually had a grant to provide signers for students, so they sent a team of two signers to every class, and paid a student notetaker. Even with that, there were challenges. For example, Bergen's INF 101 course has podcast and video assignments, and the publisher hadn't made accommodations for deaf students. The college allowed the interpreters to work with the student in an open lab, and the publisher did eventually provide transcripts and captioning. It was a learning experience for me, to be certain.
All in all, I think being taken out of my comfort zone has led to growth, and for that, I am grateful. I look forward to returning to PCCC, evolved.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Productivity Software and Being Productive

Programs in Microsoft Office generally fall in to a category of software called productivity software. The idea behind this is that users should be able to use the tools to save a company time, and hence money. Programs like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are tools many companies view as useful.

However, I hear that many companies are not impressed with the technology skills of students graduating college, and that seems counter intuitive at first. I think the issue is only partially technology-related. For example, I am in the process of teaching PowerPoint to my 101 class. I try to make the comparison between the things businesses like students to know and the things students want to know how to do. The things students like to do in PowerPoint include animations, slide transitions, and sounds. However, in a business environment, those things are generally not used. As a matter of fact, in many medium to large sized companies, employees will be using a standard company template and just adding the data they would like to the slide.

What a company would look for is certainly part technology, but also part English. A company would expect a new hire to be able to take a paper and summarize it in to a presentation. This involves very little technical know-how. If a new hire takes that paper and types in complete sentences on the slides, or spends a lot of time playing with animations, the company will not be impressed. I try to get across a few key pieces of information, for example, don't write in complete sentences on each slide, summarize data and try to use the 7x7 rule (no more than  words per line, and 7 lines per slide), and use the notes pane, especially if you plan on sending a presentation out via email (this will allow a blind user's screen reader to give a blind user a similar experience to a non-blind user).  As you can see, those are less technology issues and more using the technology to achieve a task.

Similarly, I see a disconnect between the technical aspects of Excel and the application. Every semester, I put the percentages for each component of a grade on the syllabus. Let's say tests are 40%, lab projects are 40%, and the final is 20%. With that information and knowledge of what grades the student has received, this spreadsheet should be pretty easy. However, I find most students seem to have no sense for how they are doing in a class unless I tell them.

In a business environment, this is the type of problem a new hire may be presented with. Given a certain situation you should create the formulas to get an answer. If a new hire can't figure out how to do that, is that a logic problem or technology problem? I'd argue logic problem, providing they know how to enter formulas.

Companies expect new hires to really understand the technology. It isn't just remembering every point and click, because even I forget specific tasks sometimes and have to Google it. It is also understanding the capabilities of each tool and being able to apply it to the tasks you face.

My last job before I started teaching full-time was at a highly technical company. People did amazing things with programming, but they were still doing really silly things like using a paper log book to keep track of problems. If one wanted to log something, one had to go to a specific person's cubicle and write it down on paper. I made the suggestion that we create an Excel spreadsheet and just put it on the network (in a configuration management system - don't worry about the details). Of course, I didn't try to force it on people, because that never works. I made a suggestion to my manager, and he asked me to create a prototype. He loved it and made it policy. Soon people were asking me how we could generate reports to show only open ones that were more than a month old...replace a text column with a pull-down menu...validate data...etc. This little spreadsheet took on a life of its own, but made a lot of information available to management, things they would otherwise have had to have someone tabulate by hand. It also helped reduce mistakes. This was me applying technology to an existing situation, and this was something that helped me stand out. In a very technical company, I got promotions and gained the faith of management because I could not only use Excel, but also because I had the vision to see where it could make things more efficient. I did a lot of things that helped streamline processes, and was on the fast track as a result

I think many students have a built-in understanding of computers that people thirty years older than them do, but they don't always know how to apply the tools to real-world problems. If you can do so, you will do well in the real world.