Tuesday, January 31, 2012

It's a girl! (Open forum for baby names...)

We went to the doctor's office for a routine sonogram this morning. Well, not exactly routine -- this was the appointment where we could find out the sex of the baby if we wanted to. My wife and I have long been in agreement on that one -- we always want to know.

It's a girl!

I would have been happy either way, but the missus really could use a feminine presence around the house. We love our boys, but they DO tend to leave a smoking wasteland behind them. And everything is about trains, mud, breaking things and soon, we expect, a fascination with poop. (I wish I could say it was different around the office...) A girl...wow. Well, that's just another whole frontier for us.

I wish I'd gotten her reaction on film. On the drive over she downplayed it. I knew she wanted a little girl, but on my side of the family, at least, we appear to be single-gender producers. So far we've had two little boys, my brother has three little boys, and my sister has two little girls. Fate seemed to have predestined us to have another boy. "I really don't care," she said. (Which isn't to say that she was going to just put whatever it is in a box out in the garage with a bowl of gruel -- it just meant that, well, she'd be fine whichever way.) Her reaction, though, told the whole story -- she really, really, REALLY wanted a girl.

My reaction? "Wait--what? Huh? We just found out???"

I had taken my eyes off the ball in just that second because I was holding Boy #2, Kolbe, who was determined to either wreck the sonogram machine, or find out what was in the hazardous waste container. Also, at the precise second that the doctor decided to find the gender, I got a text from our operations manager asking about whether to buy some straps today.

Work always intrudes. I fully expect to be checking texts while at my kids' graduation from Harvard, Yale and the Hollywood Upstairs Medical School (I won't mention which kid THAT will be, but come on, we all know it's true, little one...)

Anyway, that's Baby #3. Not to be crass, but with each boy's arrival, MTB jumped to a new level (out of necessity, mostly -- I couldn't be moving, then running things on the admin side, AND taking care of little ones while my wife recovered). So, who knows, maybe this little arrival will herald a new franchising model. Just sayin'...

So, names. Right now we're fond of Cecilia, but we need to get some options. Thoughts?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Uh oh...Groundhog Day...

Speaking of tech problems, here's an actual screenshot from my phone. Looks like Thursday is going to be a very, very long day...

More machine than man...

Not my desk, but it could be...
The other day I tried to cut some text from a document and paste it on another page. It didn't work no matter how many times I tried. It wouldn't even select.

I tried checking the documentation, then realized that I'd thrown it out with all my other equipment's paperwork. Okay, I thought, it's time to put that college education to work. Come on, brain, we can figure this out!
The source of the problem didn't take long to find: The page was made of paper, my stylus was actually a ball-point pen.

The realization actually took less time than it took you to read those lines, but still, I had an actual, real impulse to copy text on paper and paste it to another page with my pen.

It occurred to me that I may have reached the point of technological overload.

The signs have been there for awhile. Almost everything I do relies on some form of technology. I use the Weather.com app so I'll know what to wear that day. I use GPS even on well-traveled routes so I can get (usually useless) traffic updates. My whole business relies on multiple levels of computer hardware and software. Without the Internet and the myriad services and systems therein, MTB just wouldn't exist.

I'm writing this on one of two monitors hooked to my computer. I needed the second monitor (so I reasoned) because it's much easier to manage the multiple open windows of data. It's so useful for things like editing the website on one screen, while monitoring the changes on the other. (Because, you know, Alt-tabbing between windows can give you rickets or something.) Or, I might be logging job data in a database on one screen, while reading it in the report form on the other screen. Add a layer of complexity if I need to check the online calendar for missing details.

To hook up the screens to the computer, I needed to get a new graphics card (also useful for video editing) that could handle two monitors. But then there were hours upon hours of trying to find the right frakking adapter to connect the extra monitor. Oh, and look at that! The new graphics card requires a bigger power supply. Might as well install some new RAM, too...

That video editing? It requires software, of course, but also an adapter to hook up the old Sony Handycam to import the video.

Meanwhile, I have a smart phone to be able to remotely access most of the stuff I need to operate such a highly mobile business, but, you know, sometimes that little screen isn't enough. Why, a tablet is the perfect solution.

Uh oh...not only is it illegal to use your phone while driving in many jurisdictions, it's also dangerous. So, a hands-free device is necessary. But not just any hands-free device -- I need one that won't fall out of my ear or cut the circulation off in my arm when the cord wraps around it. So, a rechargeable headset ought to do the trick!

All of this comes with cords, cords, cords! And cords, of course, require outlets. How many outlets? More than what you can find on the wall. Better go get a power strip...

I'm not complaining. (No really -- I'm not.) I actually love gadgets. It's a weakness. But there comes a point, probably long before you think, when you've long since blown past the usefulness of all your gadgets. I think I crossed that point in 2009. After all, a friend and mentor in this industry who more than doubled his gross revenue last year still does everything on paper. He runs about five crews, each of which are governed by a paper calendar. He looks at our operation, and the operations of some of my buddies in the industry, as being some kind of super tech-savvy NEXT GENERATION Web 7.0 stuff.

Then again, maybe he's patronizing us. While we're up to our eyeballs buggy databases, he's doubling his revenue -- effortlessly, apparently. Nice strategy, buddy.

Will I reduce my digital footprint. Most likely not. After all, I solved a calendar problem during the writing of this stupid blog post. Literally between paragraphs. I love and loathe my digital prison.

Friday, January 27, 2012

In other words, thanks, Greg!

Yesterday's post turned into another mini-rant about Yelp, but the intended purpose was to thank Greg L. not only for the review, but for standing up for us vis a vis some negative feedback. And thanks, of course, to everyone else who wrote great feedback!


Thursday, January 26, 2012

More Yelp Shenanigans

As noted below, Yelp sucks, primarily because it's highly likely that there's some shady business going on. In the past, they'd promise business owners that negative reviews would be "shuffled" out of view, or at least moved to the last page or something. In some cases, it appears, they'd tell business owners they could remove negative reviews altogether. To be fair, we never received any such promises. They gave us the standard line that we'd have "much more" exposure with a paid ad at the top of page. (In actuality, we got maybe a ten percent bump in business page views).

The most common problem with Yelp is the well-documented tendency to filter positive reviews when business owners declined to advertise with them. It would go like this:

Company gets a few positive reviews, ergo, gets on Yelp's radar.
Aggressive account executives try to sell business owners advertising space on the website.
If the company accepts, it may, for a while, be left alone. If the company declines, their positive reviews start disappearing.
Yelp denies any wrong-doing.

It went much like that with us. We got a surge of good reviews that stayed on the site, unfiltered, for months at a time. Yelp called us, and in my naivety, I thought it might give us a little bit of an edge. I bought in to the advertising.

However, just as our contract was about to come up for renewal, we couldn't keep a positive review on the site longer than a couple of days. After I formally canceled the renewal, every review we received was archived (filtered) within two or three days.

Another recent example: Greg L. gave us a five-star review on the 19th, the same day that an angry customer gave us a one-star review. (That's a story in itself -- she admitted that we gave her five-star service, but a later assembly job went bad thanks to a very green employee we shouldn't have sent. She later upgraded the review in order to get some more of that five-star service, but when I declined, she downgraded it again. That comes pretty close to extortion, if you ask me.) Anyway, Greg wrote the positive review, then updated it later that day in response to the one-star review.

Here it is:

So it has been several months since I hired these guys to help me move last October.  That's not a reflection on their service in any way. I'm just kind of lazy.

Anyway, these guys are great.  I could call up the owner and actually speak with him.  Booking was a breeze.  Everyone was always very polite, and I wasn't charged anything for needing to cancel the move the day before because of a problem with the apartment I was moving into.  When I rescheduled, they were great about that as well.

The three men I hired to help with the move were impeccably professional.  My belongings were well-secured.  They were careful with everything and didn't waste a second.  Not once did they stop, not even for a breather.  They worked very, very hard.

I plan on asking them to help me with my next move. There's not even a question in my mind about who to call.

[EDIT] I have just seen that there are some absurd negative reviews on here.  I cannot imagine how someone could give these folks such a poor rating.  Chris is  fantastic person to deal with and very understanding.  He really seems to care about providing excellent customer service. And like I mentioned above, the men who showed up for the move were very professional and polite.  I cannot stress that enough -- I was very impressed.  These are good people who work hard.

It was archived five days later.

Negative reviews, of course, are "evergreens" and stay on the site forever, presumably until I shell out more cash. As friend in the industry put it, "Yelp is a finely honed protection racket."


Thursday, January 19, 2012

7 Things Your Employees Never Want to Hear

Inc. online has an article called "7 Things Your Employees Never Want to Hear." It details alternatives that you, as a boss, might want to consider.

The advice is good, but it doesn't work for every industry. And anyway, I've found my own alternatives. In brief, here they are:

1. "Good idea -- now if we also..."
My alternative: "That's a horrible idea. Go fold those blankets."

2. "Look. I’m in charge here."
My alternative: Actually, that's pretty good.

3. "I have a great opportunity for you."
My alternative: "You don't look like you're doing anything. Go fold those blankets."

4. "Man, I’m looking forward to my trip to Europe."
My alternative: "I don't care where we take our vacation as long as I don't have to see you for two weeks."

5. "I’ve had enough. I’m out of here."
My alternative: "I'm gonna brainstorm in the boardroom." The boardroom, of course, is the Majestic Lounge around the corner. Great beer selection.

 6. "No."
My alternative: Hahaha. "No."

7. "We."
My alternative: "Look. I'm in charge here."  

Feel free to use any of these! 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rant of the Week: Yelp

Mind if I rant a little bit?

Today I'd like to rant about Yelp, our harsh mistress, our abusive spouse, the source and summit of all our success and the cause of much of our stress.

(Btw, check out our nearly complete Yelp archive here -- we've collected all the reviews we could, but we're a little behind. Still, the document is huge...)

First, the good: Yelp has been very good to us on one level. A few years ago, I noticed we were getting website traffic from this curiously named site called "Yelp.com." I asked TJ, my buddy who knows all things wine, food, travel and pop culture, (he worked for USA Today for a little while, writing about such things) if he he knew what that site was.

"You're getting good Yelp reviews?" he said, "That's great!" (I appreciated his optimism -- we WERE getting a few good reviews, but it was equally possible that we were getting negative reviews).

He told me it was one of these great new Web 2.0 websites or something, and that we might see some new exposure from it. That was welcome news, because back in those days, I was putting out flyers in coffee shops, putting ads on Craigslist, and hoping for the best. "The best" usually meant a couple of jobs per week.

"Good," I said. "That would be nice."

About a year later, somewhere around 90 percent of our business came from Yelp. I remember calling my dad, a fairly big bigshot businessman in his pond, to brag to him that his liberal arts major slacker son had amassed 15, that's fifteen reviews on Yelp.com.

"That's great!" he said, clearly not knowing what the hell Yelp was. "Keep up the good work. How's the weather?"

That's how all of our conversations go. [New business] + Weather + [Here's your mother.]

I was pretty frakking proud of that particular high water mark, and I couldn't have guessed or even hoped for much more. Still, we managed to shoot up to almost 90 reviews by the end of 2010. Most of which were 5-stars. The vast majority of which were 5-stars.

We weren't the only ones benefiting from great Yelp reviews. We have a little network of what I call our "Trusted Movers," of which there are about four companies. One of them, Bookstore Movers, was always our north star -- no matter how many reviews we received, we were always at LEAST ten reviews behind them. At one point, I think they had over 100 visible 5-star reviews.

The word "visible" is key there. Because not long after we started getting a lot of reviews, we started losing a few. Then a few more. And then many more. It didn't take long to discover that Yelp has an "automatic" (more on that later) filtering system that looks for bogus reviews and shuffles them to a filtered (or archived) section. You can still access them, but they don't show up in the rankings, and you have to scroll way down to the bottom of the page and click on an obscure, grayed-out link, and THEN do that annoying captcha thing.

So, for example, as of this writing we have 189 filtered reviews and 53 visible reviews, our overall ranking is based on those 53 reviews. We are currently the most-reviewed company in our category and area, but we show up on page two or three, depending on inscrutable factors.

Back in 2010, though, that wasn't as much of a concern. We had more business than we could handle, people were predisposed to love us (and be much more forgiving if we screwed up) because they knew they could trust us to at least try to do a good job and never screw them over. What could be better?

Well, aggressive account executives from Yelp convinced me that we could do better by paying for advertising. Benefits:

More exposure by:
  • Put up a slideshow of the images of your business.
  • Highlight a user’s review that you like the most (as the business owner)
  • Promote your business as a sponsored search result and on your competitors’ business pages. Target potential clients while they are making decisions about where to spend their money on a business like yours

Sounds great, right? It sounded like a nice little cushion of a lead -- our already numerically superior advantage bolstered by some good top-page placement on competitor's pages.

And, of course, the unspoken expectation that by becoming paying customers to Yelp, we'd get some...oh...less tangible pull with management when it came to regulating or monitoring our reviews. Surely someone paying thousands of dollars per year is going to get a little extra juice with Yelp, right?

Wrong. Almost immediately after beginning our advertising campaign, our reviews took a nosedive. It was epidemic -- every other company I'm friendly with had a similar problem. Bookstore Movers went from 100 reviews to around 25 in just a couple of months.

It was a slaughter. My Truck Buddy, Suburban Solutions, Haulzing, District Relocators and others all lost huge chunks of their reviews. It was panic time.

Worse, Yelp's algorithm was OVERLY aggressive. I mean Mike Tyson on a third date aggressive. 99.99 percent of our reviews are legitimate (one of our guys, in a fit of well-meaning but totally unsanctioned initiative wrote a review for us. It was filtered). So, new reviews were being archived (filtered) within days or weeks of posting. Curiously, bad reviews would stay on much, much longer. I don't have hard data for that time period, but more recently, we've lost at least eleven reviews in less than a month of posting -- actually, all but two were lost within a week:

Suzanne C.: 2 days
Jamie K.: 5 days
Sara D.: 3 days
Jeffrey C.: 3 days
Ricardo C.: 5 days
Desiree W.: 2 days
Jane E.: 2 days
Donna M.: 3 days
Jw.w.: 3 days
Justin S.: one month
Julie G.: 3 days

That's a tiny sample of the archive.

I now know I was naive to think that with no hard agreement we'd still have a little more pull at Yelp. As it happens, they don't give a damn. They get your money, and then, mysteriously, your reviews start dropping into the ether.

Yelp reps have a bad reputation among us business owners, at least in the moving industry. (Here's a good take-down of Yelp's shady practices from another industry.) Whenever any of us would call to get some clarification or HELP, we'd get the standard boilerplate "Our algorithm is designed to ensure people are reading only legitimate reviews blah blah blah." That's little comfort to a business owner who's worked extremely hard to build systems and practices that ensure customer satisfaction, only to see tangible, public, online proof disappear after a few days on the site.

And don't get me started on their near-refusal to do anything that comes close to redress for biz owners plagued by stalker psychopaths. Actually, too late, I started...

About six months ago we got a little backdraft from a situation involving one of our friends in the business. Long story short, the move went bad. Some of it was their fault, and some of it was their customer's fault. The situation became extremely acrimonious, and as best as we could tell, that customer got all of her friends to write negative (scathing, actually) reviews about them on Yelp. The problem: at least six of those reviews were totally bogus, as in THE COMPANY DIDN'T ACTUALLY SERVICE THEM IN ANYWAY. The reviews were pure fiction.

Because we'd referred that customer to our partners, we got a little of that wrath. Some jerk who we never helped wrote a negative review about us, accusing us of damage and theft. I take that very seriously, and I got to the bottom of it immediately. We had no record of that customer, he didn't respond to inquiries about it, and he never bothered to contact me directly. In other words, this was a completely and utterly bogus review.

Further proof: that guy reviewed about five other moving companies on the same day. Huh? Did he store up all his negative reviews from the past five years? And the only positive review he'd ever given was for a bike shop in Portland, OR.

I brought these facts to Yelp, and they said there wasn't much they could do: they weren't going to get into a "he said, she said" situation because they had no way of knowing who was telling the truth.

SAY WHAT?!? Their whole business is predicated on the veracity of their reviews!

Fortunately, that review was eventually flagged for content violations. It doesn't show up in our rankings or even the filtered section. But who knows what kind of damage that did?

I could go on (especially about over-zealous reviewers who seem to take pleasure in damaging companies' reputations over trivial things, or about customers who basically extort us for more goods and services while wielding the badge of "consumer advocate").

To all our customers who've reviewed us favorably (and even those who've LEGITIMATELY reviewed us negatively): thank you for taking the time to register your opinion. That aspect of Yelp is good -- a public forum where people can reward good customer service, and help companies improve when they've dropped the ball. But to business owners considering buying into Yelp's malicious business model, STEER CLEAR. It's not worth it. You'll spend thousands of dollars for maybe a 10 percent uptick in page views. As noted here, your money is spent far better on Adwords or really, anything else.

Rant fin.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hire movers or move yourself? Part II

Here's the second part of our reflection on whether to hire movers or do it yourself.

It's totally and completely unbiased, of course.

Get the article here.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hire a mover or do it yourself?

Whoops! I forgot to post this article here last week. It's Part 1 of a two-part article covering the first decision in the moving process. Check thou it out:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Do it! Do it now!

The most expensive poster I've ever purchased.
Want to know how to get things done? Do them. Yeah, it's that simple.

If you're like me, though (and I feel sorry for you if you are), then you often feel like there's no better time to do those big, important things than "tomorrow."

There is no greater threat to getting things done than "tomorrow." I said "I'll do it tomorrow" for about thirty years, but I rarely did unless faced with the threat of painful financial or personal consequences, and even then, I could find a reason to put it off, whatever "it" was. You know what? Tomorrow always comes, and so does another one. And another one. And another one. There always seems to be an infinite series of tomorrows -- especially when you're young.

I've wanted to write a novel or two since I was fifteen years old. It's the one, single desire or motivation that I'd ever identified in my life. Everything else has been something like "I want to find meaning" or "Someday I'd like to travel the world." Blah, blah, blah. While I was searching for meaning and planning to plan to travel, I should have been putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or whatever. Instead, I lived lavishly on a huge stash of tomorrows.

"I'll get started on that novel tomorrow." Of course, my timing was always horrible -- it always seemed like the next day was Friday, and the guys are having a going-away party for so-and-so, and the next thing I know, it's Monday and my job isn't to write crappy knock-offs of Stephen King novels (my high school fiction specialty).

Things are a little different now. I have no choice but to set up tasks and knock them down. I'm ever mindful of tomorrow, but now that remote date isn't a repository of future hopes and dreams. It's actual, real, precious and dwindling time. It's finite. I have no idea if I have more of it left than what I've already spent, but it sure doesn't feel like it. So now I USE the hell out of it.

I have a print-out on my wall just above my desk reminding me that the best time to get something done is right now. It says "DO IT NOW! DO IT ONLY ONCE!." I got it from an efficiency expert who came in once a month or so to remind me how much of a slacker I was. I won't tell you what I paid for this irritating reminder, but it was a LOT, and that little poster is probably the sum total of what he taught me. It was expensive as hell, but if you've had a lifetime habit of doing the opposite of that, sometimes you need to pay for a jump start on reversing the habit.

Following that advice ("Do it now!") has been the single greatest change in the business. The last three months or so of 2011 were more productive than the prior three years. Until about September or so, I'd PLANNED a great many things, but the endless pressing minutia of a moving business (responding to emails, scheduling jobs, assigning crews, buying equipment and, of course, actually DOING the jobs) took up 20 hours per day. Meanwhile, the website languished, processes and procedures never left my head, and nothing got done. But once I started DOING those things that needed to be done instead of planning to do them, that's when we turned a corner.

So, that's your advice for the day. For a lot of people, this is obvious, but for many of us out there wondering why things never change, it's life-changing. I think the sum total of all "guru" advice is this: Do. Do it now. Like any bit of wisdom, it's the simplest things we already know that are the most effective, true and profitable.