@internet -- A Shock to the System

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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven

When California became a state in 1850, it was initially divided by its Legislature into five counties. One of those five was named Mariposa -- Spanish for "butterfly." The natal Mariposa County consisted of the whole Southern reach of the Sierra Nevada and San Gabriel mountain ranges, plus a goodly chunk of the Southern Central Valley, the San Fernando Mountains and the Los Angeles Basin South through San Bernadino.

Over the next 43 years, the Legislature carved up that vast expanse into 11 much smaller counties -- a process that, back in 1997, the students of Woodland School documented on a Website that's nicely designed for even low-bandwidth connections. Each time the solons hacked off another chunk of the original territory, the remnant Mariposa retained within its borders most of what would one day become Yosemite National Park.

As I write these words, my wife and I are mired deep in the swamp of paperwork and fees that is the real estate escrow process. The experience is not one I enjoy. It feels a lot like being robbed by a gang of pickpockets -- except that, in the case of escrow, you save the thieves the trouble of reaching into your pockets by writing checks to them.

But, at the end of the ordeal, we will own our first home -- in Mariposa County, where the entire economy centers around Yosemite. And our lives will thereby profoundly change.

Today, we rent a tiny stucco dwelling on a postage stamp of a lot beside a busy, four-lane, divided street. By early September, we'll have relocated to a nice little manufactured home on more than five acres of property, literally miles from the nearest highway. Here we have many friends and many ties, going back literally decades. There we will be newcomers -- strangers in a strange land, without history or roots in the community in which we live.

The change is going to require us to do a lot of adapting -- but we know it will be worth the effort.

Naturally, there are many things we'll miss about the Bay Area: restaurants, nightlife, cultural resources -- and the incredible convenience of having nearly every kind of store you could want within easy reach. We'll also miss the rich gumbo of vastly different cultures, ethnicities and affinities that Bay Areans simply take for granted -- and, of course, we'll miss being close to our friends most of all.

But this is the Internet Age. We'll have instant messaging, email and and a little gadget called the "telephone" to help us keep in touch with our Bay Area friends. And, by moving to Mariposa, we'll get to keep and ride horses -- a dream we've shared ever since our first visit to Yosemite, 'way back in 1993.

Change and growth are good -- but sometimes you need a swift kick in the fanny to realize how particular truism applies to you, personally, right now.

For us, that boot in the butt came this past June, courtesy of our landlord's eviction notice. For Netflix, it appears to have come from me, via my column in that same month's issue of Boardwatch.

American Movie

You'll recall that, in my June column, I took Netflix to task for a raft of problems. My biggest complaint was their terrible email response lag -- it took 18 days before an actual human replied to my own plea for help -- but several aspects of my conversation with Matt, a telephone support person, were almost equally troubling.

I also found fault with Netflix's promotional materials, which I thought misled consumers by promising "free" movies that weren't technically "free" at all -- at least, not according to my lexicon. And I objected to the way their so-called "special offers" merely funneled everyone into the very same month-long "free" trial of their service that's available to any casual visitor to the Netflix site -- with no coupon or special code required.

That constellation of issues -- combining what appeared to me to be the worst aspects of technical incompetence and corporate dishonesty -- I took to be signs of a company in deep, deep trouble. And I said so, in no uncertain terms.

After that column first saw print, more than a month went by without so much as a peep out of Netflix. Then, on July 25, I got an email from Jon Klaff, an account executive with Niehaus Ryan Wong -- Netflix's new PR firm.

He stated that my column had been "quite a wake-up call" for Netflix. He claimed that the company had been "working toward improving customer service and clarifying marketing messages" ever since. Then he apologized for my "inconveniences" and more-or-less implored me to speak with Reed Hastings, the company's CEO, about "the company, your article and any other pressing concerns about the company you might have."

When I got around to replying, I told him I'd be happy to talk with Mr. Hastings.

That afternoon, Klaff called me and arranged a conversation with Hastings for the following day. He told me that he'd be listening on the line to provide advice to Hastings, but that I wouldn't be able to hear his comments to his client.

Soft Conversation on Hard Subjects

Netflix's CEO telephoned me around 4:00pm Friday, July 28. I was a little surprised, because I wasn't expecting his call until later that afternoon. I was a little more surprised, because Klaff didn't come on the line first to set the stage.

And -- somewhat unexpectedly -- I took an immediate shine to Reed Hastings.

For one thing, he has a sense of humor. For another, he didn't duck the tough issues -- in fact, he began our dialogue by saying, "I really have to apologize to you for our lousy service."

I accepted his apology and asked him what he'd done about Netflix's glacial email turnaround times.

"It's primarily a staffing issue. We've bulked up our support staff since then and we're continuing to aggressively recruit additional support people."

"Hiring them is one thing. Training them is another -- as I think you'll agree, if you've reviewed the tape of my conversation with Matt."

"You're right about the training. And we're working on that. But there is no tape. There never was. I apologize for that, too. I don't know where he got that, but I can tell you that we don't have a policy of taping customers' support calls. I'm pretty certain we don't have the capability to do so, even if we had the desire -- which, again, we don't."

He also admitted that, back when I'd first encountered Netflix, email response times were "not where they should have been," but he said they had improved "quite a bit" since then.

"Our goal is to turn all email around in 24 hours or less. It's probably closer to three days at the moment -- but we're working on it and we're going to get it down where it should be."

(My test email -- sent earlier that afternoon -- was answered by a human just over 42 hours later.)

"Your 800 number still isn't listed on your Web site."

"What if we put it in our auto-generated response to tech support emails about credit card problems?"

"That'd work."

"Then that's what we'll do."

"What about promising 'free' movies, but charging $6 for shipping? In my book, that's called 'bait and switch.'"

"The fee is in our disclosures -- but the real issue is that we don't want our customers to feel we're misleading them."


"To that end, we're changing our promotional materials to focus more on the service we provide -- and we're dropping the kind of Columbia House 'Twelve free discs now, if you commit to buy just ten more in however long a period' approach we've used in the past. In fact, our new promo ticket doesn't use the word 'free' at all. Instead, it stresses that you can rent as many DVDs as you want for one flat fee with no late charges."

(He sent me a prototype via FedEx. I thought it was a major improvement.)

"What about the old ones that're still out there? Are you going to refund those shipping fees?"

"No. But we are going to improve the disclosure language and its placement on the Web site, so it's made clearer, earlier in the process that we do charge an initial shipping fee. Eventually those older promos will all have surfaced and the issue will go away."

I had to accept that, since it was clear he wasn't going to authorize refunds. The conversation ended with Hastings promising to keep me updated as his people implement putting Netflix's 800 number into credit card auto-responses -- and thanking me for talking to him.

"No thanks needed," I told him. "I took you to the woodshed and you claimed you'd changed. I think I had an obligation to let you make your case.

"And I'm always open to the possibility of a change for the better -- even if it takes a little outside encouragement."

(Copyright© 2000 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)