Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Google's Places marking shops as Closed but they're still Open... a one-sided discussion

From today's New York Times: In recent months, many perfectly healthy businesses across the country have expired according to Google Places, and fixing the error has often been difficult. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/06/technology/closed-in-error-on-google-places-merchants-seek-fixes.html?_r=1

Shams like these are fairly easy to do. 

From the Times article: "If enough users click it, the business is labeled “reportedly closed” and later, pending a review by Google, “permanently closed.” Google was tight-lipped about its review methods and would not discuss them."

Besides, with Google it's often the community that monitors itself. Crowd-sourcing. You can correct errors and self-promote as far as Google will allow; and they allow quite a bit. And that's the point of crowd-sourcing. I like Google for this reason, and I clearly have no problem using Google services as I'm writing on their blog tool, right now!
Plenty of online and "bricks-and-mortar" businesses have used a variety of Google services, and other non-Google services online (Facebook, Twitter, Yelp!, etc.) to establish, promote and maintain their brand for strategic advancement against competition. 

In the spirit of Google Places -- having the public notify Places that a shop has closed, when in fact it has, is quite a good process for large-scale implementation like Google Places. No single person or department at Google could ever monitor the world that Google Places covers. It's not scalable and not necessary. Let the local public tell the machine that a place is closed, so that others who use that machine know too. Great! But what if that system is sometimes abused. We learned that Yelp! had a similar problem of users writing fake reviews. Who is responsible for setting "right" such a "wrong"? Who slaps the wrist (or sues) the offending person or people who did the act?

On eLance.com, for example, there are ALWAYS postings of paid jobs for people to write SEO targeted copy for (in my opinion, unethical and unscrupulous) site owners who want to pull as much Google traffic to their site and get unwitting web surfers to click on their paid links. Or my favorite: write our company's blog for us and make sure to write it SEO keyword heavy -- and we'll pay you almost nothing for the effort. (The other unscrupulous, or maybe just lazy, employers are college students who post to hire someone to write their college papers. That's a separate issue but I object to that very strongly.)

Many companies have their own Social Media departments, I've found that much of that work is outsourced or done by freelancers. (Great, more jobs!) These employers hire people to write blog posts or go on to targeted message boards or targeted competitor sites and then talk up and link to their postings, articles, products, etc. Basically, using (or abusing) the Google system for their own benefit.  In fact, it's called "reputation management." I imagine that being said, more often than not, with a wink and a nudge.

These employers I've described on eLance, for example, are not doing anything illegal per se. At least I don't believe it's illegal. (I could be very wrong.)

Many of them are located outside the US. I know almost zero about what's acceptable in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and other places that have made such postings on eLance. I believe this kind of job posting was popular on Amazon's Mechanical Turk, too. In fact, people in the US may say, "Well, if someone knows how to abuse the Google system for their own profit, why not? And the eLance employers are at least paying someone to freelance that work for them, so that's good." (I disagree with this but I'm thinking of a counter argument that one could make.)

For Google, a user who clicks that a shop is closed when it is not and does so out of malice may go against their brand value of "Do no evil". But then, is it "evil"?

Does eLance monitor all the job postings by "employers" to see if the jobs are ethical? Besides, who is going to determine if a job is ethical with something like "reputation management." I honestly don't know. Even though there are a TON of reputable employers on eLance, for example, and they pay fairly for sensible freelance work, but I stopped looking for jobs there after I had enough of filtering through what people wanted to pay for.

Snake oil salesmen aren't new and aren't going away anytime soon. (I'm in NO way saying that eLance or Google or Yelp! or Amazon or companies with Social Media departments are snake oil salesmen, they are platforms, however, that such "salesmen" can use to promote their own agendas.)

JCPenney is the famous example of using Google search results know-how to abuse Google's own search results system. Paying sites to put up a JCP link on their site, so that JC Penney had more referral links than their competitors. Increasing their chances of being the #1 link on someone's Google search result for just about any product that JC Penney sells. Cheating? Yes. 

Can the crowds be trusted to be fair?

I don't think Google thinks it can be fully. That's why they have had a verification process to check if a shop is really closed or not. Plus, they're about to change this verification process "in the coming days" to accommodate dealing with this Places problem. I'm really curious to know what Google is going to actually do about it. (I'm certain I'll never find out since they'd have to share an internal process.)

So back to my point: This behavior online and in "real life" is at best libel, or at least, just plain bullying and rude. This is why maintaining a company's brand and reputation can be a full-time job as much as marketing, promotion, strategy, and the day-to-day running of it.
  • Could, or really SHOULD, this problem have been anticipated by Google? 
  • Or maybe, better question, is this good Customer Service on the part of Google? Is Google effectively addressing the problems of its Customers? In this case the wronged business owners.
  • And by that token, is everyone who uses Google a Customer of Google? (or just the ones with Gmail accounts, or just the ones who pay?)
  • In this example, who is responsible? Google and/or the people who mischievously mark businesses as closed? 
To be fair, I believe that Google DID anticipate such a situation which is why they had the original vetting process so that, presumably, only a responsible human working on behalf of Google could mark a business as "permanently closed". For the size and scope of Google's customer base (I'm assuming every person who uses Google is a "customer" for the sake of this discussion), that they address the problems of their customers by having and presumably monitoring message boards and creating detailed and extensive FAQs. These wronged business owners did use and have a means of correction; they had a voice. Frustrated and tedious as that was, there was some solution. 
    In my view, both Google and the people who did the mischievous markings were responsible. Google for incorrectly or ineffectively marking open businesses as "permanently closed" and the mischievous people for abusing the system. Google has taken its responsibility, and by words has promised to make improvements. Only those who were wronged can say if the improvements are effective. Only a customer can tell a company if the company has been delivered on its promise.

    I'd love to know what others think. (On your own now, don't pay someone to write a reply for you.)

    Monday, September 5, 2011

    The ongoing saga of (almost) identity theft

    Earlier this year, someone stole my identity, or at least my social security number, address and name. And this person and tried to open some lines of credit in my name. Gratefully, these lines of credit were not opened (phew) but the credit inquiries were posted to my credit report. Since there was a breach of personal information from an ex-employer, that ex-employer had paid for everyone affected to have 3 years of a credit monitoring service. It was this service that alerted me to the problem.

    I then received three formally-written letters from three different companies stating that the credit line I requested was not opened without further information from me. It was Best Buy/HSBC, Zales/Citibank, and T-Mobile. I immediately called the phone number provided on each of these letters and stated it wasn't me but someone else and what can I do to make sure the accounts are not opened AND remove (what I later learned to call it) fraudulent credit inquiry from my credit report.

    Well, from each of them I was told sincerely they were very sorry and they wrote whatever notes they needed to make sure the accounts were not going to be opened and alerted their respective credit bureaus to put an initial fraud alert on my account. Citibank even helped me with the process of putting an full fraud alert on my account that would last 10 years and then I put my phone number on the alert on my credit report so that the credit bureaus would have to call me before opening any line of credit -- even if it was me.

    Great, I figured this is straight forward and I don't have to worry.

    A few months later, I noticed that the credit inquiries were still on my report. So I called each of the companies again, they each told me that they were very sorry and I needed to send a letter to them (as it was only in writing that I could make such a request) to have them remove the fraudulent inquiry from my credit report. They each gave me the address to send it to, told me what to write, and that should be that.

    It is now nine months after the initial fraudulent activity was posted to my credit report and this is still not resolved.

    In the meantime, I had called Equifax and TransUnion. Both told me that I could not have the inquiries removed but the companies that had posted them must do it. I explained that I'd called and written to each of the three companies and they each assured me they'd done their job to alert Equifax and/or TransUnion about it. Both credit bureaus apologized but they wouldn't be able to help me. Equifax's rep from a call center in India even tried to upsell me on putting a freeze on my account for a monthly fee.


    Having worked in Customer Service on the phone for three years and then for about a year online, I can tell you I've had my share of being yelled at. I can also tell you I've many times gone WAY above and beyond for a customer that was in my position: unhappy, frustrated and having met only dead ends after being given inaccurate information by other reps.

    Only the reps at T-Mobile were helpful and they sent me a letter stating they DID alert the credit bureau and it can take the bureau a few months to remove the inquiry. I'm still waiting, but at least I know they did what they said.

    I'm still receiving written letters from Zales and Best Buy's line of credit telling me that either:
    A. There is no open line of credit account with my name on it from them (duh)
    B. There is no way to remove a credit inquiry from a credit report (ignoring the fact that it was fraudulent, in which case there is a way to remove the inquiry)
    C. Thank you, we're sorry, can you send us more information.

    I've now written SIX letters to each of those companies and in their response letters neither has acknowledged the actual problem I've clearly and simply stated in each letter. I even made sure to keep the letters formal, factual and only half a page with 12 point type in case the person reading it has a short attention span.

    Honestly, if my identity had been breached and accounts had been open it would have been an absolute nightmare compared to this, given the lack of effective and responsible responses I've gotten from these companies. Canned customer service letters are not effective nor responsible nor polite when dealing with something of this nature. ESPECIALLY if the canned reply is not addressing the problem.

    It's like a game where the real rules are hidden and only the tenacious win. I'm pretty tenacious but even my resolve is waning.

    I'll post an update in the future if it is resolved. But this is an example of very poor customer service, service design and a faulted bureaucratic process, indeed.

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011

    Luxury Brand: Europe vs China. Is there even a competition?

    I'm no fortune teller but I have a feeling that a shift and change is afoot in the geographic home to luxury goods. Currently, that home is Europe and has been for quite some time [http://www.eurocham.com.hk/about-eubip/88-chinas-investment-in-european-luxury-buyer-beware.html]. The biggest group of buyers (in dollars/yen/pounds/euro) is currently the Chinese.

    I read a recent interview in the Financial Times with Diego Della Valle, the head of Tod's (Milan). [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/84721c1c-c33f-11e0-9109-00144feabdc0.html] I found two points most interesting: FIrst, his belief that a luxury brand will have to maintain, what he called "the dream touch." A balance between a brand's products being exclusive and yet popular. Second, his belief that for the foreseeable future the Chinese will want "Made in Italy" and shun "Made in China".

    Here's the excerpt:
    With all this talk of Asian resurgence, does he consider that the “Made in Italy” label will retain its lustre? “Yes,” he replies unhesitatingly. “Because it is still the maximum guarantee of high quality for products such as ours. Like the French for perfume, the Swiss for watches. The Chinese do not want to buy ‘Made in China’.” But the Chinese will surely learn, if they haven’t already, how to make things equally well? “But we have the hundreds, the thousands, of family firms, micro-enterprises, almost a Renaissance model, that guarantee that quality. That’s not easy to copy.”

    At first I was blown away at how naive this statement is, especially given some of the other things he said that were rather insightful. The undying belief and pride that luxury-good brands from high-end, family-owned Italian businesses could not be replaced by an emerging Chinese luxury-brand of equally high-end materials, style and exclusivity. That, perhaps, the Chinese are not capable of such competition. That Italians have a solid and experienced network of suppliers, designers, and craftsmen/women to design, produce, market and sell (with that balance of exclusivity and popularity in hand) -- that this is not easy to copy. Perhaps not easy, but it can be copied. If nothing else, the Chinese factories that produce US and European technology and apparel goods have proved they're darn good at copying.

    The luxury market, however, is not the place to sell copies. Although Canal Street vendors in New York City have fairly good imitations on the black/intellectual-property-infringed market. The real buyers in any luxury market, a copy will just not do. So what's to stop a Chinese luxury-goods company from doing the same? Establishing a high-end model? Is it the lack of intellectual property statutes in China or the fact that European brands just have more cache?

    (Truthfully, I know very little about the fashion industry. In fact, as a regular reader of the Financial Times it may be my only exposure to high-end brand names and products at all. I'm definitely not the typical FT reader and do not own any luxury brand goods. Though, of course, I aspire to as someone in the middle class is supposed to.)

    The only high-end Chinese brand I know of is "Shanghai Tang". So, I went looking for an article about them and their head of company's view [http://www.cnn.com/2010/BUSINESS/03/30/china.fashion.luxury/index.html ]. What I found was what I expected to find, a similar set of statements that basically promote the pride that Chinese have in their own Chinese brands and that luxury goods can be produced, designed and bought with cache with "Made in China" on the label. 

    However, I found the interview devoid of any substantial statements about strategy or brand values. Although this was a CNN interview not meant to be in-depth about any point, unlike the Financial Times interview which is "Lunch With the FT" column and is meant to be a meaningful conversation with substance. So it is a bit unfair to compare. The CNN inteview with the Shanghai Tang CEO had weak sound bites meant to promote that Shanghai Tang has Chinese pride and the future is all about China: "But today everybody produce in China. Simply because you can get quality in China the same way you can get quality in the Western World."

     Will a Chinese label be able to establish and maintain that "dream touch"? 

    Both interviews referenced the Japanese market of 20 years ago as being the predecessor of the Chinese market today. Delle Valle (CEO Tod's) mentioned that unlike the US and Japanese slow embrace of luxury goods over years that started with the wealthy and then the middle class, that the Chinese market is more of an explosion of both the wealthy and middle class at once. The development of embracing and buying luxury goods is different.

    From what little I know about China today, I think everything is different about this "explosion" of wealth. I think the Europeans are going to need to stick even more strongly to their brand vision and values and maintain brand across everything they do, while simultaneously looking over their shoulders for a stream of Chinese luxury brands who will be able to really compete with them.

    Like with any brand that is selling something, the appeal to one's emotions is often paramount. Just look at luxury hotel chain: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/29/business/media/ads-for-luxury-collection-hotels-appeal-to-emotion-advertising.html?_r=1&smid=tw-nytimestravel&seid=auto Promoting the "personal touches", the little details, that separate a hotel from a room with a bed to an experience. The luxury market, no matter where and no matter for what, the quality and differentiation is crucial.

    Tod's understands that and we'll see how well Shanghai Tang (or any other yet-to-come high-end Chinese brand) understands that, too.