Sunday, August 21, 2016

A plague o' both your houses

Often quoted as "A pox on both your houses." This is a famous quote from Romeo and Juliet. As Mercutio dies, he utters this phrase three times, cursing the families whose rivalry led to his death. We’ve all had nightmare customer service experiences. Some experiences so vile, so painful, that we might find ourselves secretly cursing the person on the other end of (the phone, the email, the “your call is important to us” phone robot). This probably brings back vivid memories of wishing you could transport yourself (like on StarTrek) to the call center.  “Energize, Scotty! I’ve got a customer service miscreant that needs to meet my phaser...”

And then, every once in a great while, the opposite happens. 

A customer service experience so good, so amazing, so flawless - that it stops you in your tracks. Customer service so impressive, that is makes you feel like you are watching Triple Crown winner Secretariat taking the Belmont Stakes in what remains a record time, leaving the field far behind him (I was there in 1973 screaming “That’s impossible!”)

We use Highrise and Basecamp in all of our companies. The FAQs on their respective websites are good, and their “self-service” customer service is strong. But I had a specific question about how a certain feature worked in Basecamp. I was about to make a significant change in how we do things in our back office. If I got it wrong, disaster could ensue. So, even though the FAQs were clear, I needed some hand-holding. I needed to make sure. So I sent off my email to Support. On a weekend. I’m hoped to hear back sometime next week.

Ah, no.

Minutes later, “James” from Basecamp is in my inbox. No robot, no auto responder. James (turns out he was in Berlin) is answering my question, with such detail and care that it felt like he was talking to me, standing behind me, with his hand on my shoulder. Words matter, but I “felt” James in the room with me.

There was a flurry of emails back and forth, with me now having a virtual conversation with my new BFF James from Berlin. And then with all of my questions answered I sent this email to James (and to the entire support team) at Basecamp:

Just so you know, the level of customer service from Basecamp may indeed be the best - as in - THE BEST I have ever experienced. I am not trying to be overly dramatic here.  It is so good, so fast, so efficient that it makes me pause and wonder how does one duplicate this level of professionalism in my own company. How do you TEACH this? How do you hire for this? We use Highrise and Basecamp to run all of our companies (plus a handful of other SaaS tools). But the technology is only a small part of the process, yes?  I feel that your level of customer service is the gold standard of using technology plus talent via remote work. How can we learn and teach the ways of Basecamp?


What happened next pushed me over the edge. James then responded with the most eloquent, detailed, helpful, caring email I have received in years. I cannot cut/paste it here without permission. Suffice it to say that James was talking to me like he was my best friend - partner - investor - cheerleader. One human (not a single robot involved) talking to another human. And, he needs my mailing address to send me some “goodies”. I love goodies! Goodies are my favorite thing!

The book REWORK arrives. I have now read it twice, and before this weekend is over, I’ll probably have read it three times. It has been 8 days since my email exchange with James. And I am still stunned.

How can I repay James?

Maybe I can give every member of the a FREE copy of REWORK, on me. Maybe I can give every member a free trial of BASECAMP and HIGHRISE. And if they love it (what’s not to love) I’ll pay for their first month AFTER their 30 day free trial.

Maybe I can do all of the above?

If James can do customer service like Secretariat, then so can I - so can we! If James can love his customers to this degree, so can we! So it shall be written - so it shall be done!

Starting in September, all new members will receive a FREE copy of REWORK, and 30 days of both BASECAMP and HIGHRISE. We shall care about our clients and our customers and our vendors and our sponsors - and ALL MEMBERS of our community, with the same passion as James.

There you go, James. I just returned your serve. “Goodies” back at ya!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

My Checkered Past

Today for the first time in many years, I played checkers. Similar to the life lesson on the sign: when a kid from the neighborhood comes over with a checkerboard under their arm, you play checkers. You stop writing your blog - and you play checkers.

And, you make sure you look happy and surprised and thankful for the opportunity.

And, you lose. You answer toy phones, and you lose to neighborhood kids in checkers.

Now, I was not sure what was in the box: were we going to play chess, or checkers? Based on age, I assumed checkers (but I did not want to assume anything) since my other neighbor was International Master Dean Ippolito, who started playing chess at the remarkably early age of two-and-a-half, and is one of few International Masters in the United States. Ippolito attained the elite level of International Master in 1999, is a ten-time All-America Team member, eleven-time National Champion and one of the foremost and recognizable chess players in the United States.

But today’s game of choice: checkers.

And, it is going…slow. We are playing checkers, but it is at the speed of chess. And so, I smile as I take out my phone and I Google checkerboard. I asked myself: are checkerboards and chessboards the same thing?


A checkerboard is a board of chequered pattern on which English draughts (checkers) is played. It consists of 64 squares (8×8) of alternating dark and light color, often black and white.

Other rectangular square-tiled boards are also often called checkerboards. In this sense it refers not to a physical board as such but to the mathematical abstraction of such a board.

The adjective chequered refers to the pattern shown in many contexts, such as the checkered flag used to signify the end of a vehicle race, the popular ice cream flavor or the livery on some emergency service vehicles. However, when this pattern is used on such vehicles, in certain countries, it is called a Sillitoe Tartan.

A red-and-white checkerboard is the medieval coat of arms of Croatia, and is widely used in national symbology there.

The checkerboard pattern is often associated with the Ska music genre, for breaking the racial barrier between black and whites at the time.

A checkerboard marking painted on a hilltop was used as visual guidance on Hong Kong's old Kai Tak Airport. Many taxicabs also use a checkerboard pattern.

A checkerboard pattern of alternating aviation orange and white is commonly required for compliance with the FAA as a means of making tall or sufficiently sizable structures stand out, so as to make them clearly visible to pilots, including water tanks, gas tanks, grain storage tanks, tall buildings and flags.

In the time that it took me to lose a game of checkers on my back deck to a fine young gentleman from the neighborhood, the power of the Internet allowed my mind to wander, and drift around the world.  Checkerboards, checkerboard patterns, the “math” of the checkerboard matrix.

And then I asked myself: which came first, the checkerboard or the game checkers? Or the chessboard or the game chess? Did the board come first, and then the game followed, or was the game invented - and then a board made to support the game? And why an 8 x 8 matrix of 64 squares? Why not 6 x 6 or 5 x 5?

Where are you going with this, Tom?

Chess computers were first able to beat strong chess players in the late 1980s. Their most famous success was the victory of Deep Blue over then World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, but there was some controversy over whether the match conditions favored the computer. Chess programs running on commercially-available desktop computers had convincing victories against human players in matches in 2005 and 2006. Since that time, chess programs running on commercial hardware - more recently including mobile phones - have been able to defeat even the strongest human players.

And there it is: today - our smartphones 
can now beat any of the strongest human chess players.

My checkers match on my backyard deck took me around the world today. It made me pause and reflect on how Artificial Intelligence is coming. CEO Jeff Bezos says we're at the earliest days of artificial intelligence and the influence it will have on consumers' lives.

"It's hard to overstate how big of an impact it's going to have on society over the next 20 years," Bezos said on stage at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

I guess it is inevitable that robots will soon be smart enough to beat any of us - all of us - in chess, checkers -or any game. International Master Dean Ippolito or Gary Kasparov or anyone - we are not going to be a match for the AI robots.

I hope that these same AI robots who are doing more and more of our repetitive tasks (our jobs) are also going to be smart enough to know how to LOSE to a kid who rings your doorbell and wants to play a game.

AI robots will soon be able to beat us, every time, all the time - in many, many things.

But will they know when to lose?