A good helpdesk experience?

Normally, I avoid helpdesks as much as possible… for all the regular reasons. But I recently installed a new wireless router and the “quick install wizard” was neither quick nor installing and completely wizardless.

In the process of installing, the wizard was supposed to replace the account I normally used to connect to the internet with a new account representing my new configuration. Well, it got half of it done (deleting the old account) and decided to stop. So before I could continue with the router, I had to call the helpdesk.

I dialed, expecting a long, long wait.However, what I got was a recorded voice that told me to input my phone number and someone would call me back within 22 – 28 minutes. The voice assured me that I had a place in line and I would not lose it by indicating that I wanted a call back. 22 – 28 minutes recaptured in my day? YES! I’ll take it!

Sure enough, about 15 minutes later, I got a call back and they resolved the issue.I’m sure this isn’t an usual experience for some, but it was for me.

I’m realistic to know that you can’t always have the staff capacity to answer a phone right away. And I also understand the risks associated with just having an answering machine where people should leave their name and number for a call back.

My experience was a positive one and it falls right in the middle — an excellent way to solve the staffing issue without trying to decipher the incoherent mumbles from the recording of a frustrated customer. This service provider added real value to my day by helping me to recapture time.

5 things I hate about TV commercials (#1)

#1: Any commercial shown before 6pm or after 12am.

Yes, I know that’s most of them.

Daytime and late night commercials are terrible. Plain and simple. Many promote gender, ethnic, and age stereotypes in an effort to target their demographic. And they are universally of such poor quality that it makes me want to purposely avoid the products.

Early morning commercials
In the morning, before the kids are off to school, commercials show little boys playing with exciting cars and military action figures while little girls dress in pink princess costumes and playing house. Gender profiling aside, these kids have way more toys than they need, they look a little too old to be playing with these toys anyway, and they don’t seem to be playing out a story but simply making sweeping exclamations: “Cool!” “Awesome!” “Pretty!”

Daytime commercials
After the kids are in school, and cartoons give way to soaps, talk shows, and tough-love “courtroom judges” (note the ironic use of quotation marks), the commercials change, too. Typically they fall into one of 5 categories…
Cleaning products. Busy (and good looking) woman says: “It’s tough enough being a mom. I don’t have time to keep my house clean! If you’re like me, you will clean your house better with these effective products”.
Car dealerships. Short, sign-holding car dealer shouts to the camera: “We’ve all gone crazy down here at XYZ Dealerships. We’re so crazy we’ve slashed our prices on new and used cars. You won’t believe the deals (etc., etc.)”
“Medicine” (again, note irony). Examples include HeadOn and the QRay bracelet. In general, these commercials depict regular people trying in various ways to verify the dubious claims of the remedy with anecdotal experience… or they simply ignore their claims all together.
Career Institutes. Essentially these are schools that seem to only teach medical transcription (which, according to every ad, is a growing field, although I’m not clear how). The ads seem to be so poorly produced that it makes me think that maybe the schools also teach video production, but just not very well.
Injury attorneys. This is the group of people you’d think could afford good commercials and yet they insist on a standard “talking head” commercial in which the lawyers themselves are clearly reading cue-cards. If they’re making as much money as they say they’re making, they need to hire someone to write a good commercial for them.

If you miss daytime commercials because you’re at work, count yourself lucky!

Here is one commercial you miss. Yes, it’s a real commercial. No, I have not cut anything out of it.

Somewhere between midday and late night (presumably 6-ish) the commercials improve in quality. Without a doubt it’s because more people are watching television at this time and the people who earn an income (hint: the best market to target!) are now home from work.

And for this short stretch of 6 hours, the commercials take on a new quality. Or at least they try.

Late night commercials
All good (or even passable) things must come to an end and by midnight, television networks are trading good commercials for bad once again. These ones target a completely different market. Daytime commercials targeted busy moms, potential students, and those who want to sue someone. Late night commercials target the elderly and the entrepreneurial with…
“Medicine”. Again with the remedies of dubious value. Not surprisingly, HeadOn and QRay are the two most common.
Reverse mortgages. This pull-equity-out-of-your-home commercial feels a lot like the “medicine” commercials: We see the product… but it has dubious value.
Get Rich Quick schemes. From their yacht or their Caribbean beach house, a white-pants-wearing wealthy person offers the secrets to their success for 4 easy installments. Testimonials follow (with disclaimers!). It’s usually related to real estate, for some reason. Thrown in for good measure are money-back guarantees and “if you call in the next five minutes, we’ll reduce the payment by one installment”. I’ve always been a “night owl” so I tend to see these commercials if I happen to leave the TV on after watching Leno or Letterman. Years ago, the very first get rich quick scheme I’d ever seen was this one.

Although there was some controversy over his ridiculous claims and “opportunity”, he was never charged with fraud. And, interestingly enough, he has made a comeback as a legitimate poker champion.As a self employed business person who works out of my home, there is one benefit to a day that is three-quarters filled with bad commercials: it improves my productivity. I have little desire to turn on the TV during those times, even if the show might slightly appeal to me because the commercials are so repulsive.Commercials are an interruption and viewers completely ignore most of them. There are a few that might get through, but they need to be compelling and well produced. Many of these daytime and late night commercials are neither compelling nor well-produced. And that makes it seem like they don’t even try.

5 things I hate about TV commercials (#2)

#2: Disclaimers

Disclaimers are appearing in more and more commercials. At first, they were stuck onto the end of car commercials in tiny and utterly unreadable-sized print telling the viewer that their car was subject to various taxes and that various discounts could not be combined and that the dealer may sell for less.

Fine.

Then something happened. Was it an increase in litigation? Was it an increase in a fear of litigation? Was it an increase in people foolishly attempting to do the same things they saw on television? I’m not sure. But the disclaimers followed:

First, the typical “Professional Driver, closed course” tacked onto the bottom of a car commercial showing a regular driver zipping speedily along an empty country road.

Slightly more daring car commercials — perhaps with the driver drifting expertly between parked cars to get into an otherwise-impossible-to-get-into parking spot — might also have a “Do not attempt” added. As if someone might think for a moment that there was suddenly a new way they could finally get into those tight spots without having to parallel park.

But now disclaimers are moving out of the realm of car commercials. “Do not attempt” is seen in all kinds of places — anywhere where an activity might raise your heartbeat above normal. With obesity becoming an epidemic, it might be helpful to see this disclaimer at the bottom of fast food commercials.

Similarly, impossible-to-do activities in commercials are coming with a “Dramatization” disclaimer to inform viewers that the actors on television must still obey the laws of physics.

One of the disclaimers I love to hate is usually found in commercials for toothpaste or over-the-counter medicine: a silver-haired man in a white labcoat is seen talking about the benefits of using this particular brand of product. (Notice how he’ll take off his glasses when it’s time to get serious?). And at the bottom of the screen, for those viewers who foolishly assumed that this was the one commercial in the history of commercials where they brought in a real doctor to shill a product, the disclaimer is noted: “Actor portraying a doctor” or maybe “Not an actual medical professional” or something like that. It has made me wonder what would happen if I donned a white labcoat and walked down the street. Would someone call me “doctor”?

Another disclaimer I love to hate is found in the various prescription medicine commercials that dominate television. Remember when they weren’t on television? Someone somewhere changed their mind a few years ago and said that pharmaceutical companies could advertise as long as they included a disclaimer. Now here’s my favorite part: the disclaimer is often longer than the pitch itself. Which means the hook and pitch of the commercial are fairly short and the disclaimer ends up as a run-on sentence:
Men taking nitrate drugs, often used to control chest pain (also known as angina), should not take LEVITRA. Men who use alpha blockers, sometimes prescribed for high blood pressure or prostate problems, also should not take LEVITRA. Such combinations could cause blood pressure to drop to an unsafe level. You should not take LEVITRA if your doctor determines that sexual activity poses a health risk for you. Men who experience an erection for more than four hours should seek immediate medical attention. LEVITRA does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases. The starting dose of LEVITRA is 10 mg taken no more than once per day. Your doctor will decide the dose that is right for you. In patients taking certain medications such as ritonavir, indinavir, ketoconazole, itraconazole, and erythromycin, lower doses of LEVITRA are recommended, and time between doses of LEVITRA may need to be extended. In clinical trials, the most commonly reported side effects were headache, flushing, and stuffy or runny nose. LEVITRA is available in 2.5 mg, 5 mg, 10 mg, and 20 mg tablets.

Because there is so much material for the pharmaceutical companies to cover, they have to hire someone to narrate who might also be a qualified auctioneer, although lately I’ve noticed that they’re getting their actors to deliver the disclaimers in a way that sounds caring.

And since it takes so long to deliver, the montage of on-screen shots usually depicts a 55+ woman running through the surf in a pastel-colored pantsuit, holding a silky scarf above her head. I’m not sure why.

Recently, I saw a disclaimer that made me angry when I saw it, but has had me laughing and feeling confused ever since. It was for a toilet paper or paper towel company and in the commercial, the roll of product is rolled out and suspended horizontally (and inexplicably) in the air. Then a puppy runs across it. I’m not sure why. The disclaimer at the bottom of the screen read “Puppy fantasy only”… as if your dog dreams of running across suspended toilet paper.

Clearly, these disclaimers are the product of company-paid attorneys who say: “someone might try this, we’ll need a disclaimer”. And because no one else knows the law, and the attorney is probably the highest paid person in the room, everyone goes along with it. And thus we get “Puppy fantasy only” disclaimers that make us dumber.

Maybe we should put one disclaimer on all commercials: “Please don’t sue us”.

This is a funny video making the rounds on the internet which parodies the pharmaceutical disclaimers mentioned above.

Here’s my disclaimer: Disclaimers are a part of life and I do recognize that they are necessary (either actually necessary, as in the earliest disclaimers to go to the dealership for more details, or legally necessary, as in the “please don’t sue us” variety). But at some point there is a threshold in which we cross over from informing the viewer to insulting the viewer.

5 things I hate about TV commercials (#3)

#3 Fake Urgency

This post doesn’t come with a snappy little video.  It doesn’t need to. I won’t even be able to scratch the surface of this nonsense and you’ll be able to list many, many more instances of fake urgency that you’ve seen.

Urgency in advertising is meant to encourage viewers to run to the nearest store and buy whatever is being offered. It’s meant to drive sales now. That part is okay. Ads that use real urgency are able to explain that events are about to change and a purchase now is better than a purchase in the near future. Limited time offers are a good example of this.

And then there are the ads that try to fake it. Usually these are car dealership ads or furniture store ads. And their messages go something like this: “Hurry! These prices won’t last long”. “You may never see prices like this again!” “This is a once-in-a-lifetime price”. “Because of customer demand, we’ve held over our sale for just one more week”. “We’re overstocked for the holiday season”. “The boss is away on vacation for two weeks so we’ve marked prices down.” etc,

Businesses offering these deals are so price-driven that I know we will see prices like this again. Probably sooner than later. That’s what makes this urgency fake.

… And we all know they intentionally overstocked for the holidays and most wholesalers would simply buy back whatever they sold to the retailer.

… And we all know that the boss okayed a price mark-down before he or she left on vacation because if it hadn’t been okayed, everyone would lose their jobs when the boss got back.

What diminishes their urgency is the use of open-ended words like “these prices won’t last long” (how long is long. An hour? A month?) and “you may never see prices like this again” (I may not… but I may. And I’m willing to bet that I probably will).

About 6 months ago I got a call from a cellphone company trying to sell me their plan. I kept declining the offer and the person on the other end suggested that I was passing up an unbelievable once-in-a-lifetime deal. I didn’t say anything to the salesperson but I was sure it wasn’t once-in-a-lifetime. Sure enough, three months later, I got a similar once-in-a-lifetime offer from the same company. I’m so lucky with these once-in-a-lifetime offers, maybe I should play the lottery (and be extra careful of lightning!). I’m about due for my semi-annual once-in-a-lifetime cellphone offer again.

In your advertising, it’s good to include an element of urgency. Just make sure it’s legitimate urgency. Don’t overstate how shockingly low your prices are. Don’t use open ended language like “you may never see a sale like this again”. Instead, create real urgency with limited time offers and significant sale prices. Make sure your sale ends when it ends. Offer different types of sales through the year (so that customers don’t think that they’ll simply catch your once-in-a-lifetime prices when you offer them again next month).

Here’s an observation: Airlines do put seats on sale once in a while, usually in anticipation of slower travel seasons, but they don’t need to do much to explain urgency because travelers know that these prices fluctuate by the minute and we all know that if we find a good price, we need to snap it up fast. I’m not suggesting that this will work for every other business, but we’ve become accustomed to this invisible auction pricing policy from airlines… so it might work in other businesses to.

Here’s another observation: Businesses that sell e-books have struggled for a few years on how to create urgency. If you have ever visited one of those super-long sales pages for ebooks you’ll read something about “this deal won’t last” or “buy now and for a limited time you’ll receive this free bonus”. In most cases, we can be sure that the limited time offer is perpetual. (Update: Since writing this post in my previous blog and then importing it here, I’ve seen 3 examples where the limited time offer was truly limited!)

5 things I hate about TV commercials (#4)

#4: Weak connections between the hook and the pitch

This one is a little more specialized and can be easy to miss. But once you notice it, it will drive you crazy because it happens so frequently.

Most TV commercials contain a hook, a pitch, and a close. The hook is the introductory sentence or two meant to capture your attention (and keep you from going to the fridge). The pitch is the main part of the commercial. The close finishes it off memorably.

Good commercials tie the hook, the pitch, and the close all together. Bad commercials (like the one you’re about to see) tie just the hook and close together and leave the pitch on its own.

The hook (-0:30 to -0:27) goes like this: “My son lives on a boat, how original”.The pitch (-0:26 to -0:08) discusses how the detergent gets rid of grease.The close (-0:07 to -0:00) completes the story with a “boat sweet boat” joke.

Now here’s the part I hate: the connection between the hook and the pitch is the word “original”, and has nothing to do with the boat (which is the true substance of the hook). After the mother says “original” in reference to her son’s choice of home, the father picks up the word and uses it to describe dinner. Then that carries the viewer into the pitch by implying the daughter-in-law’s meatloaf might be difficult to clean if it weren’t for the detergent. The hook is referenced again only at the close.This is poor commercial writing at its finest because there is no relationship between the hook and the pitch. The hook is “tacked on” as if it was written as an afterthought… as if a bunch of marketers were sitting around a room looking at a decent pitch and saying to themselves, “It’s 4pm Friday. If we write a quick hook we can get out of here and beat rush hour traffic!”

Here’s how you know the hook is tacked on: The choice of home can be swapped out for anything as long as the word “original” is still there. The son and daughter-in-law can live in a tent, on the moon, or in a biodome at the center of the earth, and the advertisers could still pull off the weak connection because the word “original” is more important than the rest of the hook. In fact, the advertisers could have written a commercial about a mutant child ushering in an alien invasion and it would still work. (The mother might say, “My son has 8 arms and 3 eyes, and here come the martians… How original”). As long as the father picks up the “original” keyword in his sentence, the commercial can barrel forward in its story, completely ignoring the tacked-on hook.A better way to write any kind of advertising that tells a story like this is to tie the hook more closely to the pitch.

Dish detergent commercials that do this well don’t try to be clever with boat-dwelling children, but rather talk about the loads of greasy dishes left over from dinner. Laundry detergent uses a similar technique: The hook is a sloppy husband or child spilling something on their nice clothes, the pitch is the detergent getting it clean, and the close is the happy family once again. Yes, it’s a standard formula but it is so much more cohesive (and therefore, effective) than the story of the guy on the boat.

(On a side note, the father is REALLY concerned about the grease… and doesn’t he remind you of the millionaire on Gilligan’s Island?)