Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for the ‘banking’ Category

Cool ideas and links – coworking, cooking and more

Posted by shannonclark on April 4, 2011

I have been slow to blog in the past few months so my goal for April is starting today (April 4th) to post at least one blog post to one of my blogs at least 5-6 times a week. Besides my personal blog here the other places I likely will be blogging include Slow Brand and the blog for wwbll my new startup venture.

Cool ideas and links for today:

  • New office space for startups in SOMA- Storetek Building – this looks to be a very nice new space, not the best of locations (but not the worst), no idea what the price of rent in the space will be or how many startups will be there but it is good to hear about another large space and venue possibility in SF
  • Speaking of new venue spaces – Cookhouse SF recently opened here in SF. It is a brilliant business (one that I had thoughts about myself a while back) – it is a fully outfitted serious kitchen and entertaining space located in North Beach here in SF where you can rent the space by the house, get help stocking the kitchen if you need it, and cook for (or with) your guests and entertain in style. A perfect business for an urban environment where many people do not have big kitchens or space for a dinner party for 24 friends. They offer rates by the hour, auctions for busy times around the holidays and a membership program which offers discounts to events and other benefits. One link to them I read today mentioned that they may also be offering a co-working space/wifi cafe, something I will have to follow closely but in general I love this whole idea and will be following this carefully (and fully expect to host a dinner party there sometime later in 2011)

I have spent the day at the Data 2.0 Conference here in SF. Which has had a bunch of interesting announcements and product launches amongst great keynotes and panel discussions. Two in particular stood out as services and applications which I will be using in the future.

  • 3taps.com which is a venture from one of the early investors in Twitter is now live and the founder gave a great talk and presentation on stage. They are a service which is taking lots of websites with postings of some kind and by considering that they are facts and thus can be considered public domain knowledge (which I suspect may lead them to some legal challenges which I hope they eventually win) are aggregating postings from sites such as EBay, Craigslist and many other places across the web. Turning these into a firehouse of near realtime updates. As a demonstration of their capabilities they have created an iPhone app Craiggers which offers search across multiple geographies of all of Craigslist, something which the actual website does not allow you to do. They have also launched a self-branded app 3Taps which offers full access to all of the datasets they are collecting. Both are very cool and I’ve installed them on my iPhone today.
  • Twitter and MediaShift got up on stage after lunch to announce the launch of Datasift which offers curated and filtered access, on demand to the full Twitter firehouse (as well as other data but that last bit wasn’t mentioned on stage today). Exceptionally cool and looks to be something I’ll be using as soon as later this week.
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Posted in banking, geeks, internet, iTunes, San Francisco, web2.0 | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Tips for surviving the downturn or how to live (well) like a grad student

Posted by shannonclark on October 12, 2008

I quit a very well paying job to start my first company in the early winter of 2000 just a month of two before the first (i.e. Web 1.0) bubble burst. Initially I was able to pay myself a reasonable (if lower than I had been earning previously) salary, but having not raised further rounds I cut then nearly eliminated my own salary. While I have earned money in the years since, it has not be large sums. Instead I have adapted a range of techniques to keep my cost of living quite low – and thus allow my resources to be mostly focused on developing my businesses. Many, perhaps all, of these suggestions may help you during the coming downturn.

Basic suggestions for living (well) like a grad student

  1. Eliminate as many regular monthly expenses as possible, especially those that also create stress. In my case the biggest monthly net gain came when in 2004 I sold my car and did not replace it. Immediately I dropped from my monthly budget nearly $1000 in monthly costs (car payment, cost of a monthly parking space, gas back when it was still <$2/gallon, oil changes, occasional parking tickets, car repairs, new tires etc). I reduced stress by avoiding having to find parking spaces, dealing with rush hour traffic etc. To make this work I did have the advantage of choosing an office (when I had one) which was in walking distance of my home. I also added to my monthly budget a monthly public transit pass, took taxis as needed and occasionally rented a car or used a carshare service. When I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I did not move my TV, which meant that I also do not have a monthly cable or satellite bill. Again, instead I buy the occasional series via iTunes, watch other series online (with minimal ads), or occasionaly rent a DVD (Netflix might be another option)
  2. Do use services which save you considerable time for a reasonable price. Two main services I would not give up are a business mailbox which is a few blocks from my home and which means I never have to be home to pick up packages (giving me flexibility and security, for $100/year it is money very well spent). And the second is I let the cleaners across the street from me do my laundry – for $1/lb they wash, sort and fold my laundry and I can pick it up usually the next day. The cost is not much more than it would be for me to use a laundromat (which since my apartment does not have a laundry machine would be my only option). Even if I did have a laundry machine, this way all my laundry gets done at once – instead of me having to waste many, many hours on sorting, loads one after the other, drying and then folding, not to mention the energy costs plus the costs of the laundry machine itself.
  3. Cook at home. I am a serious cook and foodie, so I do like to eat out (a bit more on how I make that work on a budget below) but I also cook an increasing number of my meals at home. One very valuable thing I suggest it make sure you always have enough food options at home that in a pinch you could feed yourself for at least a week, ideally a few weeks, without needing to do much if any shopping. A few boxes of instant oatmeal, pasta, sauces, tortillas and beans etc all mean you have the comfort of knowing you have, in a pinch, food to eat (and then either drink water or make tea). But most weeks I shop for fresh foods, usually from local farmers markets.So how do I make that work on a budget?First, I shop for quality over quantity and focus on a few, highly seasonal items. What is most seasonal is usually also what is in the greatest abundance (and thus usually even at a higher end farmers market reasonably priced).

    Second, I look for bargains and usually shop without a specific menu in mind. At the Ferry Building here in San Francisco, for example, one of the amazing local, organic, free range butchers often has some specials. Recently I bought nearly 2lbs of amazing free range steaks, each vacuum sealed, for <$10, more than enough for two great meals. When I get to the farmers market towards closing the farmers often offer deep discounts to sell produce that would otherwise go unused, if I expect to be able to cook it, I try to take them up on the offers.

    Third, something I don’t do much currently but could let you get even better deals (and more on this point below) is to shop with others and share your purchases. Frog Hollow Farms is a phenomenal local organic orchard, all of their fruit is usually $4/lb (so pricey but very tasty), however they will sell a 10+lb case for a flat rate that is much lower (I think $25/case) if you can share that case with even one or two friends, it is a great bargain. Many local farms also have CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) which offers a wide selection of seasonal produce, often delivered right to your door (i.e. to your mailbox where someone will sign for it for you) every week or every other week. For a single person however this can be a bit much, but shared with a few others it could be a great deal.

    But the key is to be flexible in what you eat and cook as well as to emphasize vegetables and relatively limited amounts of protein. I’m an omnivore but I try to eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, in turn this is both cheaper and healthier.

    A final food tip, splurge on spices and oils, great spices and olive oils will make a huge difference in the quality of your food and the cost of amazing spices is actually not much more than the random and poor spices found in most stores. I buy nearly all of my spices from The Spice House which delivers anywhere in the country.

  4. Share. Living with others will be cheaper per person than living alone (I live alone, having a girlfriend who shared my space would cut my costs by a lot). Instead of every unit in your apartment building having a wifi connnection, consider pooling resources with your neighbors, buying a single very fast connection and splitting the costs (assuming the wifi will reach everyone). Of course this has some risk – you have to trust your neighbors won’t abuse the network. Go in with some friends on getting a CostCo (or Sams Club if you prefer, though I think CostCo is the supperior company) and then take advantage of bulk purchases of staples – split amongst your friends. Better still, avoid as much as you can the purchase of new non-perishables (electronics, furniture, even clothing) and instead by from resale shops, local merchants, off Craigslist etc. But you will need toilet paper and why not buy it in bulk, take only one car trip, and share the time & expenses with others.
  5. Do not cut corners on the tools you need for your job or what you truly need for your own sanity. For me this means that I have a serious laptop and decent desktop computer and an iPhone – without both I would be severely restricting my ability to do my job (and if you have been reading my blog for long, or my twitter feeds, even having spent a lot of money on my laptop doesn’t mean it is ideal for the job, I anticipate replacing it in the next year). For my own sanity I do indulge my interest in books. I have and buy a lot of books – mostly used, but new books from authors I really like (or as is more often the case these days also know personally). For me reading (and reading widely) keeps me sane and focused. For others this indulgance might be your favorite music (though think seriously about a nearly “all you can eat” plan such as Rhapsody in that case) and/or live concerts. For others it might be your gym membership etc. Don’t go overboard, do look for bargains when you can find them (and when taking them doesn’t negate your values). For me, though I do like to save money when I can, I don’t mind paying nearly full price for books from my favorite bookstore by the authors I really love and support. However I do buy many other books from used bookstores (and do buy used copies from my favorite bookstore when they have one of a book I’m looking for) when I care more about the content of the book than supporting that author (i.e. business books not by friends of mine).

Underlying all of my suggestions is an assumption that you have a good general grasp of everything which you spend money on each year, each month, and most weeks. People may disagree with my final suggestion and there are certainly valid arguments against it, for example if you are in the rare category of people who take good advantage of credit card points programs, but I suggest living a mostly cash based life. To do this I withdraw cash from an ATM only a few times each month and then use that cash for almost all of my costs of living (other than rent, phone, etc). My food, transportation, personal purchases, cleaning, entertainment etc all for the most part come out of the cash I withdraw. This allows me to have a lot of personal flexibility but also emphasizes relatively low cost but high impact rewards to myself – great coffee or a good book – but makes me slower to spend lots on a meal or larger purchases. Lots of small credit card purchases can very rapidly add up, incur interest charges, but more critically inure you from the full impact of your choices by delaying that impact until the next billing cycle.

A mostly cash lifestyle, in contrast, gives you simple measures of how rapidly you are spending money. Your wallet shrinks and you find yourself seeking out your bank’s ATMs with greater frequency.

I always use my own bank’s ATM. Not just because I hate on principle the idea of paying any fees to get my own money but because by forcing myself to make that extra effort I raise the pain threshold for getting out cash. I also generally always withdraw the same amount of money with each visit, this allows me to have a rough gauge of how much I am spending in a month by thinking back to how often I went to ATMs or looking at the receipts in my wallet. I try to visit the ATM fewer times a month than there are weeks in that month, the weeks when I have to visit the ATM once during the week and again over the weekend are generally times I am spending more money than I really should be spending.

I hope these tips help you, please add other suggestions in the comments.

Posted in banking, economics, personal, working | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Taxes, the USPS, and other customer service woes

Posted by shannonclark on April 18, 2007

Every year around this time one of the most popular blog posts I made is one I wrote a few years ago about finding a 24hr post office in Chicago. I had a similar challenge last year finding a post office that was open late in the East Bay. And again I had this problem this year (and actually for the first time in my life failed to get my taxes in on time and will have to pay some penalties and will be mailing them later this week).

Go take a look at the USPS website.

It is, I believe, one of the single worst UI’s for a government website (and for the web in general). Try to find a post office – tonight of all nights – and you get an outsourced to a private firm directory where you have to put in a zip code and an address to find a post office (and that is your only options). You can not just put in a city, you can’t search by any criteria other than precise location, nor can you search by hours. So if you are in a city where you do not know the zipcode, you are out of luck (well they have other tools you might be able to use to get the zipcode and come back).

But you still can’t search for say the post offices which are open late.

And here in San Francisco & the bay area – do they choose to keep local post offices open late? Nope.

Do they keep downtown, centrally located, post offices accessible easily via public transit open late?

Nope.

Do they have directions which do not involve driving to get to the post offices?

Nope.

And what happens if you call, having found the post office that might be nearby and still open?

Well if you select the first number, the one that shows up in the main search it is a general USPS 800 number, calling that and inputing your zipcode gets you a listing that will only tell you two of the post offices nearby (of course in my case, already closed) then literally the automated phone system hangs up on you by itself.

It does say “Goodbye” first.

If you called one of the post offices that was open tonight late, you got their regular voice mail message, a message about leaving a message for them if you lost money in the postal machines (hmmm wonder how often that happens if it is the only possible reason someone apparently might call and leave a message). But no way to reach an actual, live human.

This may not be entirely universal across the USPS, Chicago at least in years past did keep their downtown, main post office branch open and it was not too hard to reach via public transit (but not too easy to reach either).

However the utter refusal of either the website or their phones to let you reach someone to help, or to get timely information is really frustrating.

Especially as postal rates keep going up.

And if my local carrier is to be judged by, service continues to diminish and drop. About once a week I get mail not addressed to me in my mailbox (usually not even addressed to my building – which leaves me to wonder how often mail for me is not making it to me) and recently a package that was mailed to me was stuffed inside my mail box. In a way that only the postal carrier, literally, could have gotten the package out – as it was exactly the same size of the mailbox, and only the carrier could remove all of the outer doors to the mailbox giving the package enough space to be removed (instead I literally had to get a knife and cut open my package in the mailbox, a process that took some time and had the very real risk of damaging the unknown contents of the package – which turned out to metal puzzles from Mexico my ex-girlfriend gave me, but though I knew the package was from her, I had no idea of what the contents were, nor how fragile the might have been).

In short the USPS, especially around tax day gets my vote for one of the worst branches of government. Ironic, because they are one of the few branches which is self-funded.

My other woes this tax season?

One of the mortgage firms which had issued me a mortgage on my condo in Chicago, which I sold this past summer, did not mail me my tax documents. So I tried to call them. I called the company which had issued me the home equity line. The no longer actually owned that division, instead there was a new number I had to call for that group. I tried that. It was Monday, apparently the day before taxes were due – they were closed and not answering their phones.

I then tried to call the company which had serviced the loan (which was yet a third company). Nope, no luck there.  (oh, did I mention that the number on the documents from the mortgage company was no longer the right number – they couldn’t just connect you, you had to take down a new number and call that – based on a voice tree that suddenly said “sorry you have to call # and the stopped. Did not even repeat the number more than once – so unless you had pen and paper at the immediate ready, you had to call back a second or even third time to get the number down).

So I looked at my past records for who had sent me the tax documents in years past. Yet a fourth company.

I called them. Got one person, she couldn’t help me, transfered me to another guy (putting me hold, having already been on hold for a while). He came on, asked me for my id number (i.e. soc. security) I gave it to him. It failed to look up anything in their system (apparently once you have paid off the loan they no longer count you as a customer). But giving him the much longer loan account number did the trick, he could, in fact, look up my details (and verified my identity correctly before doing so).

Turns out, where did they send the end of the year tax documents for a loan which had been paid off after the sale of the property?

Of course, to the property that was sold. Brilliant.

And it means that somewhere, along this massive chain, my correct address, the one that I had given to all parties at the loan closing (for fear of this very occurrence)  had not be delivered up the chain of companies.

So I was able to get the information I needed and a paper copy of the records will be winding its way to me (apparently it takes them 7-10 business days to mail such information – why, I have no clue, but that’s what they said).

Not my best day.

Posted in banking, customer service | 1 Comment »

StartupCamp Day 1 – notes from my session on Economic Networks

Posted by shannonclark on November 3, 2006

I have just this evening returned from the first day of StartupCamp at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It was a great first day, lots of engaging conversations and discussions and for myself it started with a session I led during the first timeslot on Economic Networks. This was the first time I have led a discussion of my theory of Economics as Networks or applied it live in a session and especially for a first time I think it went fairly well.

We started with a brief discussion of my theory, then looked at applying it to a number of cases – both broad categories of businesses as well as specific cases drawn from the attendees. I was very happy that I wasn’t the only person speaking, I got multiple people in the session to come up and present their company and lead that part of the conversation.

My theory, in a nutshell, is:

1. All Economic activity can be represented as the creation and destruction of links over time.

2. By looking at the patterns and structures of the network (always over time) new questions can be asked about first the structures around a given entity (a startup company for example).

3. Next we can look at the role of that entity in the networks of the entities in the network – i.e. where your firm is in the economic network of partners as well as investors, employees, suppliers, even local communities.

When you start with this picture of economics as a network you are forced to deal with some aspects of economics in a way that may differ from traditional economics. For example, these networks over time do not suggest ever reaching an “equilibrium” – indeed the fact that not just links but also the entities (nodes) in these networks will be created and destroyed over time makes equilibriums very difficult and possibly impossible (especially given that populations are growing and that the number of non-human entities (corporations, governments, etc) are as well.

As we discussed in the session this morning, this also suggests a view of value that is very different than both our “normal” view and from the traditional economic view (in a simple form). Namely that everything does not have an “intrinsic” value – but that value is ONLY determined within a network context. i.e. that bar of gold in my pocket has no value at all UNTIL it becomes part of the economic networks – at that point it will via these links and relationships get a “value”.

One of the companies that we discussed this morning is working on data systems to help buyers in broad niches online – for example via helping them look at data about what various electronic items have sold for across a large number of electronic marketplaces. In the session the man from the startup used the phrase such as “they will help show what the intrinsic value of an item is” – and one of my points to him is that I would be cautious about that as their approach. For one, it focuses all of the attention on price as the only factor (leaving aside other aspects such as reputation of seller, timeliness, total cost of the transaction vs. the point price of the item, speed of delivery, speed of certainty – i.e. perhaps you use the ‘buy it now’ to be certain of getting it vs. waiting 7 days to possibly save a small amount).

But as well it assumes that the item has an intrinsic value which I would argue it does not. I certainly do not disagree that there may be a historic price trend or range of common prices – but I would also argue that the “value” of the item is that which is set by the transactions around it. This may seem a small, perhaps merely semantic point, but believe that it is a very crucial and important one. Many people today (and much of our current models of economics) build in assumptions that there is some “real” value, some “right” price – that at this “real value” or “correct price” the system will just semi-magically work – everything will be optimal, all trades will clear, etc.

But reality – and thus I also argue our economic models should reflect this – is not at all this simple. Many other, non-price factors impact transactions – as I pointed out, racing to my only sister’s wedding if I broke or lost my camera I would gladly pay quite a lot for a working camera – the “value” at that point in time would be immediate use – and I’m unlikely to dicker over a few dollars, probably not even over a few hundred dollars. Sodas or a cold bottle of water, after a long hike, on a hot summer day – does that extra $.50 matter then? (for some people yes, very much so, but for most – not at all).

Traditional economics does, to be fair, address this point about different needs being reflected in different prices. But there is another, more subtle point that I hope my model of Economics as a Network can address, that all of this value, including money itself, arises out of a network. In the case of money and most currencies, a very large and complex network, but a network. The US dollar does not have an “intrinsic” value – rather it reflects the common agreement of literally billions of people who all acknowledge the link between green pieces of paper and the US Treasury – between electronic records and those same pieces of paper.

To return to this morning’s session, we looked at a variety of firms. We started by mapping out in a very simple format a model of the flow of value through or around the business today. I’ll see if I can get links to the photos from the session – if so I’ll update this post with links to them/embed them here.

Next we looked at where in that flow of activity and value the company was capturing value as well as where value was being transacted. As part of this we looked at the role that the company was playing in the networks around the company – for example helping enable another transaction to occur.

For many companies we then brainstormed about what other sources of value there might be for the company – i.e. what other parties might be interested in some aspect of the business of the firm. Could Edgio (which aggregates classified listings from RSS feeds) build up data from the listings and the content of those listings that might be of value to various Brands or their marketing/sales teams? (for example, helping Sony and Nintendo track how often people are selling older game systems to pay for a new PS3 or Wii).

One of the longest conversations we had and most interesting was a long discussion about how you might model an “Attention” company in this way. (I should have given a shout up to Steve Gillmor during that part of the session). We had a great discussion, one key point which I emphasized being that the point of all of the value that changes hand as a result of attention (from advertisers to an attention firm on to the providers of content and the readers of that content who clearly could be the same people) is funded because at some point in most cases that advertiser had a more direct transaction with some of those individuals. These transactions – the sale of some good (or service) in turn provide much of the value that coul then in part flow through and around the Attention firm.

Again, I’ll see if I can find a link to the photos of our whiteboard notes, they would help illustrate the rest of this conversation.

We ended with a great discussion (which built on a lot of thinking I have done in preparation to writing my book) around the role of credit. Specifically one of the people at the session is working on a new payment technology (using biometrics) which could (they hope) be an alternative to the current credit card (and bank) options. We started by thinking deeply about the current networks around credit card transactions and then tried to think about how a new player could enter the marketplace. I pointed out that and people in the audiance echoed this as well that in many places the new players that are arising are firms such as phone companies (especially cellular phones) which in many places can be used for many different forms of payment already today (for trains in Japan for example).

All in all I am very happy with this morning’s session – I learned a great deal from trying to explain my view of Economics as a Network and I hope it was a useful session for everyone who was there. I may do another session tomorrow as a follow up to this morning’s.

Posted in banking, economics, geeks, meshforum, networks, startupcamp | 2 Comments »

Customer dis(ervice) – a tangled tale of moving

Posted by shannonclark on September 1, 2006

Today I have dealt with paperwork (and via proxies people) from 4 different mortgage companies, a title company, lawyers, three different banks, one brokerage, one utility, one airline and one phone company.

Of all of those firms TWO firms and two alone had the right attitude and complete competance to serve me quickly, rapidly, professionally and logically (The brokerage, Charles Schwab, and the airline, Southwest. A couple of the mortgage firms were neither good nor bad, all of the other firms were uniformly so bad as to be laughable.

Most tellingly as an observer of business I see a ton of places where these firms are so bad at customer service that, were it possible (and it may be) I will not only cease being a customer of those firms but will actively seek to dissuade others from using these firms. Further, these experiences which I will document (only in part – service this bad really needed to have been recorded for posterity) show some really fundemental flaws with how many big businesses are structured, flaws that I think will seriously cripple them in the future.

When I start investing the money recently deposited at the brokerage, in fact, I may take a serious look at how to play my negative expectations of these firms (and their sectors).

On to the dis(ervice)…

My first experience of the day was very early, on the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority)’s El train headed into the city, we had just passed the stop before my stop, the Chicago Loop was in sight, and I was ready to get off, stop at a café and get a coffee, and arrive at the Title Company’s offices with plenty of time to spare. Instead, the train ground to a halt and stopped, we stayed motionless for about 15 minutes, then moved about 100 feet only to stop again for another 5-10 minutes, when finally nearly 25 minutes late we arrived at the station. Not, as I had planned before 8:30am but at nearly 8:50am.

This morning I, finally, sold my condo in Chicago. At the closing, which took far too long due to various changes and waiting on hold that was required (mostly on the part of the buyer’s two mortgage companies) most of the closing went relatively smoothly, if not entirely as I wanted (ended up with more fees than I expected to have to pay and various other factors that combined to result in a few thousand less as my net than I anticipated, but all in all I did make a very real profit on my first sale of real estate (nearly 10 years after I bought it). However, as I went to decide how I would take my payment I faced the following options.

Option one, a check from the Title Company (a regular check, not an “official” or “certified” check as I probably should have insisted upon).

Or

Option two, a wire transfer for which service they would charge me a further $25 fee.

I called my bank, trying to determine how long they would take to deposit my check (the title company kept insisting that some banks would treat their check as a certified check – as indeed they probably should as the money had indeed that morning been made available). My bank informed me (at least the phone service person I finally reached) that there was a FEE for RECEIVING a wire transfer (she couldn’t, however, easily tell me WHAT that fee was – just that there was a fee). So given that I had just spent the morning paying lots of fees for services I really didn’t want to pay for, I chose the check.

However this meant that walking out of the office I was carrying the second largest check I have ever held, made out to me, in my simple messenger bag (the biggest check was the initial angel investment in my startup, and that wasn’t made out to me). Now came my next bit of “fun”.

I had to find a branch of my bank, and, I thought, make a simple (if very large) deposit – followed up with a conversation about what options I had with that money (cd’s, money markets, etc). I tried to remember where the bank branch was, called a friend with easy access to a phonebook and she informed me that there was a location nearly next door to the title company (however on entering that building the guards clarified for me that it was only a mortgage/home loan office and the nearest office was a few blocks away. However in that building was a second bank that I also had to visit to run yet another errand (closing an Illinois account for a non-profit I started).

So I went in, signed my name to the sign-in form for the customer service. And I sat down. And waited. And waited. Waited some more. Watched the depressing example of terrible parenting a too young mother was displaying (I think she was the mother, but the mother could have been the other woman in the group who was the one opening up a series of accounts). The toddler, not yet walking, wanted to crawl around and explore the bank floor and waiting area – perfectly natural, even healthy urges for a child of that age. Instead the woman would stop the child just as he was getting ready to crawl and indicate to him “chill”. repeating this frequently as I watched. Periodically giving the child a cell phone to look at, only to take it from him equally quickly. Then the child, not surprisingly started to make noises and almost cry. So the woman fed him, first a bottle then later when he was crying some more a sweet sucker (all the while commenting that he was getting fat – wonder why…). A bit later he was allowed to crawl a bit and came over near me, happy to entertain him and hoping that some engagement might quiet him I indicated that I didn’t mind that he was crawling towards me. Just as he was near me, however, she let him briefly engage – then quickly picked him up and sat down again. Sad. I’m not a parent, but I hope that when I am, that I will recall this poor example and find ways to allow my children (boys or girls) to be engaged by the world from a very early age, not to discourage them from exploring (while still teaching them what they can/can’t do) and I hope, to resist the easy way out of overfeeding.

So after a long time of that, I stood up and stretched a bit and finally caught the attention of one of the bankers. He then proceeded to be pretty helpful, gave me the forms to close my account, looked up the balance and gave me the form to change the mailing address. And the other banker then happily helped me get a cashiers check for the balance. So once engaged the service (in person) was good, but very very slow.

Confident (foolishly) that the next bank stop would be even easier and faster, I called a friend with whom I had tentative plans to meet for lunch, and we set up a time to reconnect of around 1pm (or about 45 minutes later, plenty of time I thought. But now I had to find the bank branch. I tried to follow the guard’s directions, got to the right street, but having misheard him I thought the address was an odd number (not the even number it turns out to have been) so I walked around in a bit of a circle not seeing the branch.

I then had my next, of many more to come, phone tree experience. Winding my way through my bank (Washington Mutual)’s phone tree, I tried to find the “locate a branch” option – getting first a computer that took me repeating myself three times with each step to figure out that I was in Chicago, looking for a financial services branch, only to fail when I entered the intersection I was standing at, it then transferred me to a woman. I spoke with her quickly, telling her what I needed, and she replied with two options, neither of which were, in fact, in the Chicago Loop. I then asked her directions to one of them and she proceeded to quote (from MapQuest per her statement) directions which started by turning down a street that as a 23+ year Chicago native, I had never heard of or encountered before downtown (and I’ve walked, literally, up and down every street in the loop at least once). I gave up and finally asked her to transfer me to the branch directly. She did and when I spoke to the branch, they quickly told me the correct address of the branch (which didn’t show up on the “mapquest search”) and which was just a few blocks from where I was when I called.

I entered that branch, waited in line behind five other people, and approached the single teller who was working at that point. I had two checks to deposit, for a combined very, very large amount. However, while one was a certified check and would be credited to my account overnight, the other much larger check would be considered “out of state” (though it was an Illinois check and the branch I was in was an Illinois branch) since my account had been opened in CA the check would be out of state for my account. She then told me that the funds would take 7 days to clear (and even at 4% interest this would mean a very real loss on my part, not to mention the funds would be in limbo until they cleared). Uniterested in this, I decided to not deposit that check at WaMu and instead just deposited the one check and was out of there.

I next tried to find a location for Charles Schwab (as the branch I used to use has since closed – more on Chicago’s downtown office/store closings in a different post). While I searched I walked and entered into a branch of Bank of America. I figured, Bank of America has a strong presense in San Francisco, so perhaps I could open up a new account with the proceeds of my sale and get better service than I was getting at WaMu.

Here, I encountered my next piece of absolutely crazy (bad) customer service.

We are the Illinois branch, if you open up an account here you won’t be able to access the funds in California as our CA bank uses different account numbers and we’re not yet integrated so we can’t open up CA accounts in Illinois”

Yup. A national bank, Bank of America, told me that internally they can’t deal with customers of their bank from any state for any state. Instead if you want to, say deposit almost the FDIC limit into a new account, but happen to be doing that NOT in your (new) home state, you are just out of luck – they can’t figure out how to handle their divisions (all with the SAME branding mind you) as one, merged entity. Needless to say, I didn’t take them up on this rather shocking display of completely horrible service.

Finally I reached Charles Schwab, first on the phone, then in person. On the phone the local (they published their local branch phone number on their website where my mom was able to look it up and relay the local number to me) agent was able to very rapidly explain to me what they would be – I could deposit the check, start investing with it immediately, but couldn’t write a check against it for 5 business days. But yes, I could immediately sweep the funds into an interest earning investment and that wasn’t a problem – heck they expected me to do it.

I found the branch and walked in. No line for customer service and the representative at the front was able to immediately establish who I was, look up all three of my accounts, and as quickly as I asked start handling my requests – change of addresses for all of my accounts, the deposit, change of my contact phone numbers etc. He was quick and highly professional (which makes some sense, as he noted as we spoke, everyone at that office was a licensed stockbroker – so though he was at the front reception desk, he was able to immediately and professionally help me.

With my check deposited, addresses changed, new checks ordered, and identity verified (and then any written documents with private data immediately shredded) he asked if I wanted to meet with someone for some suggestions and offered one immediate suggestion of a money market fund that would earn nearly 5% interest and be price stable and easy to enter (and exit when I needed cash). As I sat down, he asked if I would like anything to drink and then got me a cold can of coke while I waited. I then sat comfortably and met with a broker who will be getting back to me with some suggestions for how to balance my various accounts (retirement, personal etc) to meet my short and long term goals for these funds. My funds being transferred tonight into the money market fund where they will earn 5% interest until I decide what other investments I wish to make.

This is how customer service SHOULD work. One person for the customer to deal with who, empowered by training and great technology, is able to handle the multitude of requirements for a given customer (i.e. take a deposit, change some addresses and contact details, order new checks, make investments etc). All done in a professional manner which conveys how much the company wants my business (and noteably in this case a deposit that was about 1000x what I had in my personal account at the moment). All also done immediately, but discretely and securely (verified my identity through photo id as well as requests for information etc.)

Unfortunately until a few minutes ago when I changed my flight home details on Southwest (which took all of a few minutes on their immediate and quick website – a truly painless process to pick a different flight and flying home date – highly recommended) this would be my only good customer service experience of the day.

Next was cancelling my ComEd service. ComEd (an Exelon company) is the primary power company in Illinois. I had my bills, so rather naively I assumed that by calling the customer service number I would be able to reach a human being and take care of my two tasks – one, pay what I owed them and two, cancel service to prepare the service for being started by the buyer. Simple, yet not simple at all. First came the over 10 attempts to navigate the phone tree from hell.

No way to go back to the previous menu.

Countless times when it asked for data points (like account numbers) or in one case “payment amount” (withou reference to, say, how much I owed) and at no point was the behavior explained, anticipated or clear. Some times when I entered my account details and confirmed my address I would be directed to still more phone prompts. But finally on about the 10th attempt, I found a path through to a human being (after the dance of my billing phone number and address being confirmed).

He was, in fact, able to cancel my service and even update their billing address for me.

But, when I asked “can I pay you as well” he said “nope, that’s a different phone number, which he then gave me” and, oh yes, he informed me that for the “convienance” of paying on the phone I would charged a $3.50 fee. Yup, I had to pay more to pay them quickly and easily. At this point I gave up, I’ll wait for the final bill and just pay that.

Next was AT&T (or what I still want to call Ameritech, then SBC, now AT&T).

Quick – guess what detail is MISSING from the “Customer Support Page” at att.com? The one for “Residential Help and Support”? (hint, they are the PHONE company – see http://att.sbc.com/gen/general?pid=5395 for yourself)

If you guessed, a PHONE number – you win.

I finally, after much poking and searching (which turns up nothing useful for a search such as “cancel phone service” btw) found a phone number to call for customer support.

I called it.

A machine asked whether I was calling about the number they detected (my CA Cingular phone number), I said “no” and then it asked me for the number I was calling about, which I gave it after much pain. It then asked what I was calling about, I said “cancelling service” and finally got it to understand that.

At which point it transferred me to a representative, however not until I had wated on hold for well over 10 minutes. That rep, once I got her on the phone, asked what I was calling about (so much for telling the phone tree) and then informed me “oh, this is the CA support, we can’t help you with an Illinois number, let me transfer you.”

I was then asked which of three Midwest states I was calling about, I told the system, and I then waited for a little while before speaking with someone.  Who, it turns out ALSO couldn’t “cancel” a phone – instead she had to transfer me yet again to another group. Which, as I waited was described as the “transfer a number” group (which I did not want to do). When I spoke with this group, after a wait of about 5+ minutes, I was, in fact, able to cancel my Chicago home number.

However, when I asked, can I pay my bill (and can I change the mailing address) I was told Nope, we don’t take payments here but when we’re done I can transfer you to collections…

I declined. Again, I’ll just pay them when the final bill(s) show up next month.

More when I’m rested – but needless to say, a crazy, tiring day.

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