Tag Archives: United Parcel Service Inc.

Filtering Communications So They Don’t Drive Us Mad

A dear friend was supposed to drop something off around 11 pm last night. I turn in around that time, so I just nodded off. Luckily I didn’t hear her SMS come in around 1 am. But I could have. I consider the phone the primary communications device–if someone has an emergency, that’s how they’re going to reach me–and so you can’t really close it off. But how do you filter out stuff like my ditzy friend SMS-ing me at 1 am to tell me that after all she’s not going to drop something off?

In short, how can we set up filters on our communications channels so they don’t drive us mad?

One is not to give out your phone number. I keep a second prepaid phone around and I give that number, and that number only, to people I do business with. That phone gets turned off on weekends and evenings. I often don’t answer a cellphone call if I don’t recognise the number; if it’s important enough, I figure they’ll SMS me first, or else they’ll already be on my contact list.

Another is to confine and contain online. I don’t accept contacts on Facebook unless I’ve met them in person (and like them.) Everyone else I point to LinkedIn. I’ve noticed a lot of people are now following me (and everyone else, it seems; I’m not special) on Twitter so I’ve scaled that back to ‘public’ observations.

Indeed, Web 2.0 hasn’t quite resolved this issue: We’ve been campaigning to bring down those walled gardens, but we’ve failed to understand that garden walls (ok, fences) make good neighbors.

Email is still a burden: I’m still getting a ton of stuff I didn’t ask for, including press releases from UPS, just because I once complained to them about something, and stuff from a PR agency touting posts on a client’s blog (that’s pretty lame, I reckon. What would one call that? “My-Client-Just-Blogged Spam”?)

One way I’ve tried to limit incoming stuff is through a page dedicated to PR professionals. I then point anyone interested in pitching to me to that page. I’m amazed by how few people who bother to read it, but I’m also amazed at how good the pitches are by those that do. (And of course, I then feel bad that I don’t use their painstakingly presented material.)

I like this from Max Barry, author of Jennifer Government, who gives out his email address but says If you put the word “duck” in your subject (e.g. “[duck] Why you’re an idiot”), it’s less likely to be accidentally junked. What a great idea.

Then there’s simple things that help to keep the noise level down: Subscribe to twitter on clients like Google Talk and you can turn it on and off just by typing, well, on or off. (You can also turn on and off individuals, so if scoble is getting a bit too much for you, just type ‘off scoble’. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that.)

I’d like to see more and better filtering so we don’t have to succumb to the babble.

Stuff I’d like to see:

  • Phones that change ringtone or volume after a certain time unless they’re from some key numbers.
  • SMS autoreturns, that say “The person you sent this message to is asleep. If you need to wake him/her, please enter this code and resend. Be aware that if the message is not urgent or an offer of money/fame/sexual favors you may face disembowelment by the recipient.”
  • Oh, and while I’m at it, the ability to opt out of Facebook threads if they lose your interest.

And, finally, a way to turn down friends and contacts from my communication channels without them knowing. A great service, in my view, would be one that appeared to authorise their requests to be your buddies, but didn’t. Call it faux-thorising.

Dark Age Messengers

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Maybe I’m missing something, of I’ve been taken in by those TV ads of guys walking across stepping stones made out of frogmens’ skulls, but I expect the big couriers to be somewhat snappier and higher-tech these days. Not based on today’s experience:

  • Call their hotline to get a guy in either Mexico or the Philippines (based on accent, and he wasn’t saying) who scolded me for giving the second line of the address first, and then refused to accept the package as documents when I told him it was a book (it’s actually a pile of edited pages, so I guess it could be either.) Stoopid that I am, I didn’t realise the huge difference (commercial invoice in triplicate and duties for one, nothing for the other) and should have said “documents” when he asked me. So that session was a bust.
  • My colleague, the recipient and courier account holder tried the other end, and we got somewhere, though both of us still had to give the details twice, including something called a “control number” (I’ve just been watching Terry Gilliams’s Brazil so I’m on the lookout for things like this) to “smoothen things out”.
  • Of course when the guy came there were no documents, no smoothing things out, so we had to do everything by hand. All nine sections. Good luck to whoever has to decipher my atrocious handwriting. We’ll be lucky if the package makes it before Christmas.

So, questions:

What happened to those handheld computers that couriers were using a few years ago to do all this? Wouldn’t it be easier? Just type out the details or input them from Central Service — the guy with the van already has my address, presumably, unless he just drove around knocking on everyone’s doors, and as the recipient is the one being billed, presumably all they need is his account number for all those details to pop into the appropriate fields.

And then don’t get me started on the whole “give-me-your-details-over-the-phone-and-can-you-spell-your-name-again-is-it-German-no-it’s-not-it’s-English-like-Shakespeare” (not that I have anything against German names) thing. Why can’t we do this any better?

Off the top of my head, type “Fedex” or “UPS” into Skype and you’re instantly connected to customer service where you can type your details in so they won’t be misheard, and you don’t have to sit on the line listening to “Rhinestone Cowboy” on a loop (actually it was worse; I think it was “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro).

I’d be up for a USB dongle that the guy carries, and the customer slips into their computer (who doesn’t have one sitting around these days?) and a little courier program pops up so the user can fill in the details from their laptop or desktop. He just plugs it into his handheld device and the data zips across and self-checks. Courier guys could carry round free branded ones and hand them out as promotional items and so customers can fill out the fields in advance.

Or if that’s too complicated, going to the website and opening up a chat box with a customer representative. (I’ve just checked Fedex’s customer support page and it involves filling out 14 different fields. And don’t try to sidestep any:

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Yeah, I’m going to fill all those in.

Maybe these courier firms are smarter in other parts of the world, but I didn’t come away feeling impressed. I’m sure their package tracking systems are second to none — i.e. once the atoms are in the system. But it seems that the burden is still being passed to the customer, when it could be so much less painful for both parties if it was electronic.

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The Prepaid GPRS Rip-off

I’ve grumbled before about how hard it is to do GPRS on prepaid cards. For those who haven’t done this, it’s simply a way to turn your smartphone into an Internet ready machine when you’re on the road (removing you from some of the pain of roaming GPRS charges, in the rare times they’re available. )

The problem is that as far as I can work out there are no flat-rate plans for prepaid GPRS users. Instead, you’re charged per kilobyte transferred, and just downloading a dozen or so email headers  (not the contents; just the headers) will quickly drain your credit. I emptied 20 pounds of credit on UK’s T-Mobile this month after checking my email twice and making a couple of local calls. The price per kilobyte is given as 2 pence but that doesn’t sound right. GPRS on prepaid seems a quick route to bankruptcy. No wonder there’s no useful information about the pricing on their website.

Sadly it’s not just Rip-Off Britain that’s emptying pockets with what are  beguilingly called Top-Ups. Singapore and Hong Kong, when they offer GPRS at all, do so at rates that are usurious.

Anyone had similar or contrasting experiences? Or tips for getting around this problem? Here are some from Syd Low of Alien Camel. My only ones are these:

  • use one email account for vital stuff when you’re travelling so the number of emails you need to sync is manageable;
  • download only headers on sync. You can always download the whole email if you need to;
  • eep your inbox folder as empty as possible if you’re using IMAP. This reduces sync time and cost.

A Way Forward For RSS Content

RSS is one of those technologies that’s hard to explain to casual users of the Internet. When you tell them they can have their news and site updates in the form of a feed, direct to their desktop, they usually ask

a) can’t I do that already? I thought I could do that already.
b) you mean like email? I don’t want more programs on my computer. Or
c) OK, sounds good but what kind of things can I get?

Don’t get me wrong. RSS, or something like it, is the future. But it’s a hard sell to folk who haven’t downloaded a program in their life (more people than you’re care to imagine; I wonder what the stats on that look like), or to folk who are so worn out by spam they don’t want to sift through more bits and pieces arriving on the computer. But even if people do like the sound of it, RSS still doesn’t lend itself to grabbing information. It’s great for folks looking to read what other people are writing, or even keeping up to speed on general news, but it doesn’t quite have the customisation necessary to lure ordinary folk. Not everyone considers reading blogs in another format to be their idea of fun.

This may be changing (not the idea of fun, the customisation of RSS.) Klips, an RSS-type desktop feed from Serence, have introduced modules that include feeds of more specific, user-defined data, allowing you to track selected currencies, UPS and FedEx packages and stocks. (While I love the design and simplicity of Klips, I don’t think they work for large bodies of information, such as blogs and news, so expect to see Klips move more and more in the direction of small clumps of changing data, such as traffic reports, flight departure and arrival times, or hot deals, scattered around your desktop.)

RSS could do a lot of this too, but so far hasn’t. You can harvest a lot of information via RSS but most of it is passive: You can’t tailor it too much. Either take the feed or don’t. This will change, and already is beginning to, thanks in part to a guy called Mikel Maron from the University of Sussex. He’s come up with a way to deliver some of the personalized data from your My Yahoo! account to an RSS feed, a neat trick that arose from his university studies. (If you’re interested in the technical aspects, here they are in PDF form.) So far his feed — which is not related to Yahoo! in any way — can handle market quotes, weather and movie listing, depending on how you’ve configured your Yahoo! account. But of course his approach offers great potential for funnelling all sorts of personalized data straight to your RSS browser. Let’s hope Yahoo! support, or even buy, Mikel’s efforts.

(Thanks to Chris Pirillo’s LockerGnome RSS Resource for pointing out Mikel’s site.)

More On Google’s Masterplan

BusinessWeek pick up the theme of Google taking on the world. With the ability to track shipments and airplanes in real time via Google, the search engine keeps eyeballs on its website longer. But “Google is providing this new shipment tracking service even though it doesn’t have a partnership with FedEx. Rather, Google engineers have reprogrammed it to query FedEx directly with the information a user enters and provide the hyperlink direct to the customer’s information.”

But, BusinessWeek point out, “with every new service, Google takes a slice of someone else’s pie. Its ability to find pizza places within any given Zip code ultimately eliminates the use of YellowPages. Using it to find word definitions diminishes the business proposition of online dictionaries.”

The argument goes that “Google becomes the omnipresent middleman and a clear and present danger to just about any company that relies on the Internet for commerce.” But where is the revenue? I think BusinessWeek is right in saying the money will be in providing the gateway to those sites. Most folk I know go to Google first, indeed have it as their homepage. The more you can access from that fast-loading, uncluttered page, the more you’ll use it as your homepage. Who cares where you go next?

It has nothing to do with stickiness in the way we used to think of it. Google doesn’t need people to stay at Google. But folk like UPS and FedEx need to have the link with Google — especially if their competitors have it. For them Google becomes their customers’ first stop. Whether it’s cinema tickets, airline tickets, packages or whatever, Google will act as a kind of fast-searching gatekeeper for other sites. Those other sites may not have much choice — they don’t already, with the site: hack on Google working as a better search engine for individual sites than the site’s search page — but they’ll all draw benefit. And presumably Google will collect a toll, in advertising or something else.

It’s the New Portal: Empty , except for what you need, and fast.

Google The Portal?

At what point does Google stop being a search engine and start being what we used to call a Portal? Or has it already happened? Yesterday it announced a new search feature for tracking shipments via Federal Express and United Parcel Service. Type in your tracking number into Google and it will take you directly to the relevant company’s webpage, CNET reports.

The new “Search by Number” feature also brings up information linked to other kinds of numbers, such as patent numbers, equipment identification numbers issued by the Federal Communications Commission, and airplane registration numbers from the Federal Aviation Administration (for checking flight delays).

As Gary Price of ResourceShelf points out, offering such specialized information is not new: Ask Jeeves has been working on something called Smart Answers, AltaVista on Shortcuts for even longer. It’s intriguing that what folk a few years back thought would be popular — lots of noisy graphics and titbits of news in an all-flashing, all-dancing big brand portal — is being overtaken by something very, very simple: a quiet, white interface that lets you find what you want, whether it’s a recipe or a patent, fast. I kinda like that.

News: Have you been brand spoofed yet?

 SurfControl, an anti-spam company, says that “brand spoofing spam” – where a spammer sends fraudulent email that pretends to be from a well-known and trusted company — is getting worse, after only a few months of its existence.
 
 
The spammer, posing as a customer service or security official, directs the unsuspecting recipient of the spam to a phony Web site. The site then requests confidential financial information or a Social Security number that allows the spammer to commit fraud or identity theft. Over the last few months, SurfControl said in a press release, Best Buy, UPS,
 
Bank of America, PayPal and First Union Bank have been brand spoofed. Four large Australian banks also have been brand spoofed, including the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Last Thursday, Sony Electronics reported that it had become aware of a deceptive spam e-mail that had been sent to consumers, requesting personal information such as password and e-mail address, claiming to come from “SonyStyle Customer Service.”
 
SurfControl says brand spoofing spam was first seen in March and has been growing steadily since then. Brand spoofing spam has grown from zero before March to more than five a month. The increase in such dangerous spam is linked to the growth in the availability of open proxy servers, which allow spammers to send anonymous, nearly untraceable e-mail. According to a researcher at the University of Oregon Computing Center, the number of identified open proxies grew from 1,000 in October 2002, to 100,000 in April 2003.