Monday, August 23, 2010

Re-Attaching the Cord

I've moved back to Chicago, to a new apartment, and have completely realigned my telecom portfolio.

That is to say, I've gone back to the cable companies, and am once again a TV service subscriber.

I was content to live in my apartment, relying on a fast internet connection, a netflix subscription, and a Roku streaming box. I had more than enough content.

Then I moved in with my fiancee, and discovered that if I recommended an option that left her without easy access to Say Yes to the Dress and several cities worth of Real Housewives, I would soon find myself fitted with a new pair cement shoes at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

OK, so cable it is. Welcome back into my life, Comcast. I'm assuming you've changed and are now easy to deal with, right?

What's more, we no longer subscribe to internet service.

Yes, you read that right. Me, exhibit A for any prosecution of Internet addiction, an internet subscriber no more.

What changed...did I find Jesus? (or, if not Jesus, an anti-technology version of Jesus, a Unabomber Jesus I guess)

Of course not, don't be ridiculous. We have free Wi-Fi in the building.

But the Wi-Fi has left me in something of a conundrum.

The service is adequate for basic internet. Web surfing and some light video (short clips on YouTube), that stuff's ok, but forget about anything consistent. Let's just say, if your life depended on your internet connection (think Obama receiving national security information, or me conducting my fantasy football draft), you definitely can't rely on it.

So what's an internet addict to do? Do I subscribe to a plan? Add to my already significant Comcast bill?

It's not an easy decision, in part because I love using my Roku box, and not having an internet connection turns it into a pretty lousy accessory.

The Roku allows me to stream Netflix, watch, YouTube, and a whole bunch of other hyper-specific and relatively useless channels.

Clearly, a more thorough analysis is required.

Reasons I would like Internet:

- Netflix streaming: For $9/month, I have access to an increasingly large library of on-demand content. Some people complain that it doesn't have the most recent movies. This is true. However, it's got tons of movies that I actually want to see and TV shows I'll always watch (e.g., Arrested Development, South Park)

- For $100+, I can watch the Phillies on my big screen. Of course, Comcast has the Extra Innings package, which I think is more expensive, but quite similar. Plus, my 2010 season pass is already paid for. A sunk cost if ever there was one.

- Future Channel expansion on Roku: This is one of the more tantalizing areas. Roku continues to add channels, both officially and unofficially. Of course, they never comment on what's coming. What would be great is an NFL channel, or an NHL channel. But since this is the real world, the NFL doesn't seem willing to give up on the stupid DirecTV Sunday Ticket monopoly, and the NHL might still be too stupid to do something that would allow MORE people to watch their sport. So really, there might not be a lot here.

- Worry-free internet connections: A dedicated line would reduce frustration of disconnection/slow connections over this freaking building's Wi-Fi. That's definitely worth something, particularly if it prevents me from throwing my laptop against a wall.

But really, is that list so compelling? For an extra $40+ a month? Heck, even for $20/month?

Sadly, I don't think so. My rational MBA brain is screaming, 'That's a terrible investment! In no way is it NPV positive! (assuming the value I derive from the service as equivalent to cash inflows)

I may also put a hold on Netflix, because one DVD at a time isn't fantastic, and I can't get the streaming that I enjoy, so why waste $100+/year?

So it looks like the decision is solid. I've re-attached my cable TV cord (but still disconnected the cable internet technically, I'm still a cord cutter!)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

An Unfortunate Lesson in Option Value

I'm a consultant, and as a consultant, I'm also a major points-hoarder.

Doesn't matter what or where, if it's got a program that'll get me anything of value, I'm in.

Airlines, Hotels, Rental Cars...

I would register for a Red Lobster rewards program if its platinum level came with extra portions during Shrimpfest.

But my true points hoarding heart belongs to hotel programs. Starwood and Hyatt are my two chains of choice, and I constantly go back and forth like a mixed up tween choosing between Team Edward and Team Jacob (note: I know this is from Twilight, but I'm still not clear on who these people are, or why I should pay attention to vampires. I feel like it's an apt analogy nonetheless)

I'm fairly in the Starwood camp at this point, because that's what a lot of more senior consultants have told me, and the SPG Amex is a pretty good card if you don't care about the nominal annual fee.

Anyway, this is to set up the fact that I track their promotions fairly closely. Recently, Starwood offered a new one. With five stays at their hotels, you could have any one of three reward options.

Option 1 - 4,000 SPG points

Option 2 - Something like a restaurant gift certificate, I don't recall, it was a bad option

Option 3 - 25% off a points redemption at a Starwood property.

The choices were offered to you at the SPG promotion registry website, and you had a few weeks or so to make your choice. You could only choose one option, and once you made it, it was irreversible.

Now, I could have waited a while before making an award selection. I had the option to sit back until the end of the registration period, then at that time, make a choice to maximize my future reward. It was available at no additional cost, except that I would need to remember to physically register for something.

I sat there and debated in my head.

Am I really going to be in a position where I need to use points and will need the reward? I can't think of anything. Of course, I could wait, but then I might forget. The 4,000 SPG points is pretty tempting, I can always use more points and they never expire. The redemption coupon has an expiration. I kind of just want to make a decision and stop thinking about it.

So I did stop thinking about it. I picked the 4,000 points. Option to decide in the future forfeited.

Flash forward 6 weeks or so.

I'm sitting with my fiancee in our new apartment, and we're thinking about our honeymoon destination. We've settled on Hawaii, and I start to look into hotels that I can book using points.

I book one five night block at a really nice looking St. Regis in Kauai. That's a pretty hefty number of points, but it's a really nice hotel (or so I've been led to believe). Then I look to book some nights in Maui, and it hits me.

The Westin in Maui costs 12,000 points per night. You get a fifth night free with a booking, so for five nights it would come to 48,000 points.

Oh crap, I realize, that redemption coupon I passed up.

The coupon would've gotten me 25% off in points, turning it from a 48k requirement to a 36k requirement. It would've been worth 12,000 points.

Of course, I had just cashed it in for 4,000 points straight up.


I tried to get it changed, but given my hotel-switching prowess, I had already racked up the necessary 5 stays and had already been credited with the bonus points. Even if I hadn't, the promotion specifically didn't allow any changes after a selection (because you would obviously change it to a coupon if you realized you could use it and it would be financially beneficial)

Sigh. Looks like I'll have to keep throwing the Starwood Amex around. My kingdom for another 48k SPG points.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Budget Truck Customer Service Sucks, and is also OK...

So the biggest news of the month is that I've officially moved. I have left Manhattan and moved back halfway across the country to a new apartment in Chicago.

No, I didn't renounce my consulting career to run back to Chicago and become a deep dish pizza artisan. Transferring offices at the firm was actually surprisingly easy, it only took about a five minute conversation with a partner. One of the perks when you're working in a transient environment, no one really cares where you are when you're not at work.

Anyway, I needed to move all the stuff from my apartment out to Chicago. Seemed simple enough. I went on Budget Truck rental, who had a location in Manhattan, and booked a one-way rental to Chicago for a Friday pickup at noon. I did this a few weeks before my move, got my confirmation, and was all set.

In the weeks leading up to the move, I started to line up all the other logistical details. I began packing boxes, I arranged for the elevator with my super, I cleared the move day as vacation with my project team, I even got my brother to come up from Philadelphia to help me load the thing.

Everything was all set, just needed to take the subway up to Midtown and pick it up.

I found the lot easily enough, it was the one with a couple trucks sitting around.

My brother and I went inside the office and up to the counter. There was a woman in front of us renting a truck.

I waited patiently while the woman finished up her forms, went outside with the agent and got in a large truck, driving off.

As she departed, the agent came back in the office and I gave him my credit card and license.

He took my stuff and worked at his desk. He worked for a while. Too long, it seemed.

Finally, he came to a realization.

"Oh, I was supposed to hold the 15 foot truck for you"

I wasn't sure exactly what he meant, but I suspected the worst. The clerk then confirmed the worst.

"That woman had reserved a van, and we gave her the truck being held for your reservation"

I quickly thought of Seinfeld, and that I was in a bizarre cosmic rerun of that scene.

I tried to remain calm, explaining that they needed to find me another truck.

We don't have any other trucks

What about those in the lot???

Those are all broken down

What about two smaller trucks???

That was our last one

This round of dialogue went on for a while, me asking how I could get a truck, the clerk explaining why I couldn't.

Needless to say, it was seriously screwing up my plan.

My brother and I quickly put backup plans into action. He called UHaul, I called Penske. Our prospects seemed dim, as it was a hugely popular period for moving.

The Penske woman even laughed when I asked her for an immediate reservation. However, we were in luck, as one office had just gotten a 15 foot truck back and had it available.

Of course, it was in Brooklyn.

So I ended up having to take a couple trains over to Brooklyn and pick up the truck. Not only was it more expensive, but it set us back a couple hours that ensured we left Manhattan for our drive right in the teeth of Friday afternoon rush hour.

Needless to say, when I got to Chicago, I wanted to make sure Budget knew what had happened.

So I looked up their customer service email address (as well as their CEOs), and wrote them a polite but firm email.

They responded, but they responded twice and in wildly different fashion.

The next day, I had a voicemail from the General Manager for the New York area. I connected with him the next day, and he was very apologetic. He agreed that it was completely unacceptable, and that if I would send them a copy of my Penske receipt, they would reimburse me for the difference between it and my Budget reservation. I thought that was fair.

I haven't gotten a check yet, but I'm assuming I will. Anyway, I thought the case was closed at that point. But then I got an email. Two emails actually. Both from the 'Budget Truck Customer Service Executive Response Team.'

Sounded serious, like a crack SWAT team of Indian call center workers. Maybe it's a team of experts, each with a different specialty like an action movie. There's a pilot, a strongman, maybe a smooth talker. That actually is most of the A-Team, but you get the idea.

Then I read their email. Wow.

Budget Truck takes seriously it’s commitment to have the rental truck our customers reserved available for them at the time and locations it’s reserved at. Unfortunately, there are instances when there may be an unexpected vehicle maintenance issue or the previous customer’s plans change causing them to keep the truck longer or drop off at a different location. This is the reason we do not guarantee a specific size, time, or location as specified on our terms & conditions which are accessible on our webpage.

As you stated, the end of the month is a very busy time for moving and trucks are in short supply.

We will also send you via email and apology letter with coupons you can use with a Budget Truck or Budget Car.

We do apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.


Budget Truck
Executive Desk

I'm still blown away by the content of that message. They may as well have told me to go screw myself. Allow me to summarize...

1. Sucks to be you
2. We never promised you a truck at a time and place, we promised you some kind of vehicle at some point in the future, potentially
3. Here are coupons, because we know you're anxious to use us again.

I'm not even going to talk about the grammar errors in the email. Of course, the next email was also there to distract me from playing language police.

The next email had the subject line

BTR (APOL) Standard CS Apology Letter.xls

The content, was an excel file, that had a little text. The most salient part was the section where they asked me to accept their apologies for any inconvenience I may have experienced due to inventory delay.

Is inventory delay the technical term for 'Your idiot clerk gave my truck away to someone else' ?

Anyway, they also gave me a couple coupons in the attachment.

- 15% off my next Budget Truck rental
- Up to 25% off a Budget car rental

Note: Coupons expire 12 months from the date of the letter

So in the event that I need to move again in a year, and want to take a Budget truck again, I'll get 15% off, which falls somewhere between a AAA discount and a mark down the clerk will give you if you show some cleavage.

In short, the Budget manager seemed like a reasonable guy, but their 'Executive Response Team' is borderline absurd.

Rest assured, I won't be using Budget Truck again. Get bent Budget Truck.