Saturday, March 25, 2006

From Cluttered to Clear

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

Every once in a while my desk begins to devolve into a confusing mass of papers, manuals, notebooks and water bottles. It doesn't happen often, mind you. I honestly prefer an organized and clear desk. I concentrate so much better in that environment. Occasionally, though, my organizational system slips a little, and that's all it takes. The messy state lasts no more than a few days before I get twitchy and have to straighten everything out again. The funny thing is, that small act (which rarely takes more than an hour) so completely uplifts me, that I feel like I could take on three more projects right then and there.

In a way, I suppose, that's what I do for my clients, and probably why I enjoy doing what I do so much. That process of clearing away the clutter and bringing clarity to what otherwise might be a confusing situation invigorates and excites all involved.

One of my clients, John "Jake" Jaksetic asked me to help him set up his online high school wrestling stats site, Before we started working together, he maintained the site himself using PDF files of the stats. It worked, but the download times were pretty horrendous, and there was no way to find the specific information you wanted, short of a manual search. We worked together to design a simple search interface which allowed the user to look at specific parts of the database. Even better, Jake could now maintain the stats more easily and keep everything up to date. Apparently, this made a number of wrestling fans in northwest Ohio pretty happy, too. Confusion, bad. Clarity, good.

My wife is a wonder at organization. She has helped to institute a whole system of standard operating procedures for the company at which she works, Gene Express, Inc. When she was working in the manufacturing branch of the operation, she knew down to the milliliter exactly how much of any given substance she had in the freezer. Her ability to call up this information at a moments notice continually amazed those around her.

Following her example, I've begun to incorporate more organizational tools into my company, Cyber Data Solutions, too. Spreadsheets programs, like or Excel, are an amazingly useful resource for this. Using OpenOffice Calc, I've been able to set up networking tickler systems (so I always know whom and when I am supposed to call), business activity tracking (how many proposals did I send out this week?), and even a proposal tracking system, so I can find out my metrics on how long it takes, from the date of a submitted proposal until the date that I receive the go-ahead on a project. As my business coach, Keith Hafner, always says, in order to be a success, you have to know your numbers.

So, what sort of tools have you found that help you stay organized?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Free Stuff, Revisited

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the various pieces of free software that you can get out on the Web. I included a variety of titles with which I have personal experience.

Since that time, in the course of my usual Web surfing, I've come upon a great site who's owner keeps track of and reviews a ton of free and for-pay software, websites, support options, you name it. He maintains a variety of "Best" lists which he updates periodically. He also sends out a monthly newsletter with his most recent discoveries. The site is called Gizmo Richards' Tech Support Alert and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to make their computer work just a little (or a lot!) more like they want it to.

Through the resources on Gizmo's site I was able to locate the software package called "Hamachi", a third-party-mediated virtual private network (VPN) system for Windows and Linux. I had been wanting to set up a VPN for quite some time, but the difficulty of doing so always put me off. Every time I started looking at it, I would quickly become lost in the esoterica of the networking world. For those who've never considered doing something like this (or who said VPN? Huh?), the benefits of having this available to me would be that when I'm away from the home office, I could still connect with my desktop machine and retrieve information from there.

Hamachi cleared up the confusion. This software is as easy to install as any other piece of software -- just click and go! The help doesn't stop with the installation. The first time you start up the package, it takes you through a tutorial which should be sufficient to get this working for anyone. Now that I have this installed and working on my various computers, I can easily connect to my home computer even though it is sitting on my desk practically on the other side of the country. Now I am a truly mobile worker. I no longer have to make sure that I copy all of the necessary files to my laptop before I walk out of the house. Check it out if you ever have a need to connect back home when you are out on the road.

That's about all for tonight. Once again, I'd love to hear about any great free software you might find out on the Internet. Drop me a line to let me know.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Hand of Friendship

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

I'm going to wrap up this little series on customer service stories and leave on a high note. Not all of my experiences have been bad, as you read in my last missive. This one, though, even impressed me.

Two years ago, my wife and I got married and our joint taxes became my problem. She had been a resident of Ohio and was now a resident of Michigan. She still worked for a Toledo-based company (who still sent her withholding to Ohio). The whole situation was a little confusing to figure out. Now here is where the surprise comes in...

My vote for best customer service of 2005? The Ohio Department of Taxation. Yes, the tax collector.

I called them up hoping against hope that they would answer one simple question: How do I determine the amount of income credited to Ohio and how much to Michigan? Is that on a daily or motnhly basis? Y'see, I've got a real aversion to making mistakes in general. That goes trebly for anything having to do with taxes!

The polite and very professional man with whom I spoke was able to answer my question clearly, distinctly, and without that hint in his voice that would have said that he was talking with an idiot. Wait a minute, don't be hasty. This is not the reason that he gets my vote. This would get him a nod of thanks, but certianly not the championship trophy! Now, listen for it... He then offered, "Sir, if you'd like, we can go through some of the other calculations, just in case there might be any other confusion." Free tax help? Who am I to turn that down?

My hero then proceeded to walk me, line-by-line, through the entire State of Ohio income tax form. I was astounded and amazed. In our everyday belief system, tax collectors rank even lower than used-car salesmen and ambulance-chasing lawyers. The only real difference is that the latter two categories tend to be the butt of jokes. The tax man, though, is no laughing matter. We fear too much the havoc in our lives that his undo interest could cause and we justly fear him for it. Yet, that day, this professional young gentleman came to my rescue without my having even to ask. Maybe we need to re-evaluate our beliefs in this matter.

Certain jobs engender respect by their very nature (or should, at any rate) -- teachers, computer programmers, accountants, etc. The tax collectors, whether state or federal, have no such benefit. In general, they are reviled and feared. Few, upon learning their occupation, hang around long to share small talk at a party. That this guy could rise above it and act contrary to the stereotype should inspire the rest of us to match his example.

And so I put forth this challenge. Find the Tax Man of 2006. Who do you know who does just a mind-bogglingly good job at customer service? I'd love to hear your stories.

What was the best customer service situation you've ever experienced?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Now, On The Other Hand

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

I've spent the last two entries griping about bad customer service. I've complained about the moronic and insensitive louts who sometimes lie in wait at the end of the help line waiting to waste my time and boil my blood. I'm sure, however, that only a small percentage of customer service reps are truly unhappy with their jobs and are just waiting to take it out on me. A vast majority of them are just like you and I. We have our good days and we have our bad. A select few, though, seem to be willing and empowered by their employers to go above and beyond the call. This is one such tale.

My wife and I are pretty good with our finances. Before I met her, I usually only had the vaguest guess as to how much money I had in the bank. I paid more fees than I would care to count because I thought I had more than I did and the check that I wrote wasn't quite covered by the funds I had available. Before we got married she helped me get on the straight and narrow (for which I am eternally grateful). Still, when it was time to put her name on my account, we decided to get the overdraft protection, just in case.

For the longest time we had no need for the protection. Then as often happens, we made a slight change to our spending and, "wham!" we were overdrawn. Suddenly we had a $64 overdraft charge and a $12 monthly maintenance fee (which is waived in months when you don't have an overdraft). Needless to say, I thought this was a bit excessive, even if it was my fault.

So, I put on my telephone headset and decided to brace the lion in its den. I always use my headset when I am calling up institutions. I figured that I'll be on the line for a while. So I, with great reluctance, dialed the number of our financial institution, Bank One (soon to be Chase).

Remarkably, I got through to an actual person in minutes. Wow! When they say they care about my call, maybe they really do. After all, they apparently have enough people to answer the phone! The rep who answered was exceptionally polite and listened to my entire story before going onward. Don't you just love it when people listen to you? First, came the bad news. "I'm sorry, Mr. Peters, but overdraft protection has not been activated on this account." Oh, drat. I knew what was coming next -- "There is nothing I can do." or "I'm sorry, it's just our policy."

Then, a miracle occurred. This angel of mercy told me that since it was their fault, she would be able to waive not only the overdraft fee, but also the maintenance fee. You could have knocked me over with a ten dollar bill -- actually I would be diving to get that since, remember, I had insufficient funds at the time. Prior to making the call, I was seriously considering switching to a different bank. Afterward I had a new respect for an institution which would give their reps the power to make things right with the customer. I went into the call knowing that I had done wrong. The nice thing was, I didn't come out feeling worse.

I think I'll be sticking with Bank One/Chase for a good time to come.

I can't be the only one who has been impressed by a particularly exceptional act of customer support. I'd love to hear your story. Drop me a line through the comments section.

Customer Service Horror Stories, Continued

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

As I mentioned last time, I've had a few bad customer service incidents, but one stood out, head and shoulders, above them all. This one involved Sears and the popular Wieder Crossbow exercise machine.

About two years ago I had started an exercise program to try to keep myself in a little better shape. Apparently moving the mouse on the computer doesn't count as aerobic exercise and we computer programmers rarely get much more exercise than that. My program involved three days a week of aerobic exercise and three of resistance training (i.e. weight-lifting). It was to meet this need that my wife and I purchased the Wieder Crossbow 800, a marvel of engineering which used an electronically controlled tension bar and a series of pulleys to provide the resistance to do a variety of exercises. I loved this machine ... when it worked.

The problem was that this piece of ... equipment ... had some pretty shoddy wiring in it. When the wiring broke, the motor which increased and decreased the tension would stop working. With a ten-year warranty, the first time this happened, it didn't bother me too much. These things happen. It took Sears a month to fix the machine (they had to order a part), but it got fixed and I got back on track with my workout schedule.

The fourth time it broke, however, I was becoming a bit less sanguine about the whole situation. This is when Mr. Greg's Wild Ride began. Please keep your arms and hands inside the car at all times.

I made the usual call to Sears. They scheduled a repair visit the following Tuesday "sometime between 8 and 12". I'm sure you could all join in on the chorus on this one, but, wait. It gets better. I stayed home from work that day waiting for my savior, who, I knew, would show up, take one look at the piece of ... equipment ... and tell me it needed the new part, again. Oh, but that clever lad never showed. At 12:30, after waiting all morning, I decided to give Sears a call. Cue the scary organ music.

Call 1: The Sears repair line is busy. Not a problem. I'll call back.
Call 2: I wend my way through the voice mail maze. I finally get to the choice "Are you checking on the status of your appointment?" Why, yes, I am. "You have an appointment today between 8 and 12. Would you like me to repeat that information?" No, I knew that. "Thank you for calling Sears ." D'oh!
Call 3: Back into the voice mail abyss. "Do you want to check on that appointment again?" Nope, fool me once, shame on you... "Would you like to talk to a Customer Service Representative?" A-ha! A human! Yes, I would like that very much. "Thank you, I will now transfer you. <click><bzzzz>". Glrk.
Call 4: Busy again.
Call 5: Needless to say, I was feeling mildly cranky when finally I got hold of the poor yotz at the end of another interminable voice mail trail. Oh, but it isn't over yet.

"Sears, this is Bob speaking, how may I help you?"
"Yes, Bob, I'd like to know where the repair person is who was supposed to be here this morning."
"One moment, sir, let me look that up. Ah, yes. Apparently, the technician assigned to your case had to leave due to illness. Another technician has been assigned and should be there before 5."
"Bob, when were you going to tell me?"

Well, needless to say, the conversation went downhill a little after that.

Now, to give Sears their due, when I went in the next day to tell them they could come and haul away the piece of ... equipment ... they were more than accommodating. The young man I dealt with in the sporting goods department was efficient and sympathetic. On top of that, Sears has such a detailed sales history system, that I didn't even have to produce the receipt. It's funny how two people working for the same company can engender such a completely different response. After dealing with the collective idocy of the Sears repair department, I was this close to never buying from Sears again. Then I dealt with that helpful guy in sporting goods and he saved a customer for Sears.

Well, enough of my cathartic venting for this evening. Tomorrow I'll share a tale of good customer service. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your scary stories.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Helping Hand or Slap in the Face?

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

Customer Support, Technical Support, Help Desk, Hotline, Guest Services -- all wonderful names for the people you call out to when you have a problem. Sometimes they are quick-witted angels of mercy. Sometimes, well, sometimes they aren't as useful. I salute those who place their tremendous knowledge and technical skills in the service of this thankless task. Great job and thank you! For those who just read the script and go through the motions without really listening to the cries for help on the other end of the line, well, this one's for you.

Everyone has their horror stories of bad customer service. If you've worked with technology for any length of time, it seems, you really can't avoid it. I've had a few and I think it's story time. One was surprisingly bad. I say that because the company, Linksys, had always treated me wonderfully. I didn't have to call them often, but on those rare occasions that I did, they were able to get me straightened around in no time.

This time, though, my router/wireless access point was acting up. My desktop computer, connected directly to the LinkSys box, continued to chug along with no trouble. My wife's computer and my laptop, though, both using wireless connections could no longer see anything. I tried a few things, but when they didn't bear fruit, I called up the help desk -- and pronmptly received my first annoyance of the day. Wait time was 45 minutes. Not bad and certainly not enough to make me hang up and come back later. Still, a minor irritation. When the "service technician", i.e. the person reading the script, finally came on, we went through the basics (flipping things off and on, checking to make sure they are plugged in, etc), which I didn't mind. I believe in the basic troubleshooting dictum of "When in doubt, reboot".

The problem came when we had to go beyond that. The "tech" refused to comprehend that it wasn't my computer that was having the problem, despite the fact that all of my wireless computers were unable to connect. Still, in the vain hope of getting somewhere, I gamely attempted every inane "solution" she came up with, including such gems as renaming the network and plugging the router into a different outlet (I'm assuming if the lights are on, it's probably not the power). Finally after a total of three hours on the phone, I thanked her for her time, hung up, and drove out to CompUSA to get a new wireless access point. What do you know? My solution worked!

Later, I told my tale of woe to my sister-in-law, JoAnn, who used to train customer service people at the old AT&T Wireless. She told me that my mistake was patiently working with someone who patently didn't understand the situation. Within the first ten minutes I should have told them to "escalate" me. Next time I'll know!

In my next installment, though, I'll tell you about the time when I didn't have the opportunity to be "escalated"!

You must have a horror story or two, please share them with me. What was your worst cutomer service experience ever? If you are a customer service representative, I'd love to hear about the worst customer you have had to face.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Free Software, Part 2

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

OK, so I'm finally getting back to this topic. In part 1 of the story, I briefly talked about the wonders of -- a great office productivity suite which, while not perfect, is more than sufficient for 90% of us. So, what other treasures are out there?

Tell me to what use you put your computer and I'll likely be able to find a free software package that would cover your need. Web browsing? Firefox is arguably the best browser available. It has more features and is more secure than Internet Explorer. Sending and receiving email? Firefox's little brother, Thunderbird, compares quite favorably with Outlook Express. Also, both of these applications are available for Windows, MacOS and Linux. The same cannot be said for the MS apps.

I know, I know, you're just getting warmed up. What about image manipulation? You want to go through the pictures of your family reunion and touch up some of the details. Google's Picasa is a great, easy-to-use photo editing package. If you need something a little more advanced, the GIMP image editor should meet most of your needs. What about sound recording and manipulation? Audacity does quite a nice job. Anti-virus software? AVG Free has been rated quite highly.

If you think of something that I haven't covered, click over to or SourceForge and do a search. You will be amazed at the number of enthusiastic, even passionate people who are building or have built exactly what you need. And they are offering it to anyone who wants to use it often without even asking for acknowledgement. Check it out. If you do download something, though, and it works better than you had hoped, be sure to send the creator a quick thank you. That's the fuel that spurs them to greater and greater heights.

Do you use any free software? If so, which package(s)?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Recording Life

I do promise to get back to the topic of free software eventually. After running Linux as my main operating system for the last ten years, you can believe that I've pondered the topic now and again. Today, though, my thoughts turn to the area of recording ones life and the various mechanisms toward that end.

The main reason that this is on my mind right now is that I just finished one of my journal books, a beautiful cloth-bound one from India, and have started on my newest, a leather-bound one from Florence, Italy. In the seven years since I started keeping a journal, I've usedIndian and Italian Journals several spiral notebooks, a beautiful leather-bound book that I received from my wife, and the two aforementioned ones. I've used writing implements from cheap Bic and Papermate pens to pencils to my current favorite, a Cross pen that I've had to refill several times. Each has its impact on what I write. The spirals are easy to write in, but get tattered quickly. The words that flow into them often seem to have the routine of the everyday about them. The nicer journals, on the other hand, are physically more difficult to write in (the pages don't lie flat and they usually don't have lines). They also seem to demand that I record something a bit more profound which can lead to the worst kind of writer's block.

What do I write about? Sometimes it's just about the happenings of the day and my thoughts thereon. On better days, I'll record my goals and my plans for the future, or sometimes the next step I want to take in development of my business. I've jotted down my dreams I've had while sleeping and those I have while I'm awake. I write about my feelings, whether sad, angry, or happy. I write about the challenges I encounter and, quite, often in the process, I discover the solutions to problems that at first seemed insurmountable.

My Karate teacher (for eight years) and business coach, Professor Keith Hafner of Keith Hafner's Karate, has advised us to record our lives in everything we do. If we don't know from where we are coming, we don't have much of a chance to get to where we want to be. He should know. He's been recording his life since he was sixteen years old! Philip Humbert, another inspiring coach, who's weekly newsletter I reed religiously, also touts the many benefits of journaling. Writing down what you want and how you are going to go about getting it are the first, surest steps to a World Class Life.

Of course, taking pen to paper isn't the only way to capture your experience. Each of us must find our own best techniques. Some people prefer the keyboard and mouse. Others make audio or video logs (think about Star Trek's "Captain's Logs"). One young woman I know has a calendar on which she jots down just a few words to represent her day. She claims she can go back to any day and recover the meaning of that time with only those few words.

How are you recording your life? Pen? Pencil? That giant 64-pack of Crayola crayons? Let me know!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

What's in Your Toolbox?

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

I'm going to take a small break from exploring the wonderful world of free software in order to address a related topic.

In my previous post, I talked about, one of the many pieces of free software available out on the Web. Since then I came across a discussion on Digg about the relative benefits of (OOo) vs MS Office. The general consensus was that OOo was a pretty good productivity suite, but that it lagged behind MS Office. The latter had features as yet unimplemented by OOo and if you needed those features then MS Office was the way to go. Despite being a strong believer in the Open Source Software movement, I have to say that I definitely agree with the last part of that statement. I've believed for a long time that you should get the best tool for the job. If you need the features that only MS offers, then by all means get it.

I'm a computer programmer. The computer on my desk is one that I built myself. I wanted to have the tools specifically designed for my needs. My friend Billy Wilson is an electrician. He was out doing some work for me recently and I saw his tool set. He has specialized tools that I would never have thought existed, let alone needed, and those were only the ones he brought into the house. My mom's husband, Steve Cotner, is the President of Corporate Intelligence Consultants. He's shown me some of the high tech gear that he has to sweep a room for bugs. I'm a technologist and this stuff intimidated me!

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you are going to excel in whatever your craft is, it is worth getting the best tools available. Oh, sure, I could get by with a lesser computer (and did for many years), but I'm much more efficient with my current machine. Billy could get by with cheaper tools, but he gets his work done a lot faster with the ones he has. Steve got by for years without his advanced bug detector, but you can bet he enjoys having it available when he needs it. Who wants to just "get by"?

So, what tools do you use and which ones could use an upgrade?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Why Line Bill Gates' Pockets? Part 1

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

I spent a portion of my day on Friday setting up an installation of OpenGroupware for my wife and I to use to coordinate our schedules. Yes, I know, as my wife has pointed out, we could just get a large calendar and put it on the fridge, but where would the fun be in that? In the process of setting it up though, I began to reflect on all the free software that is available out there on the 'Net.

A few years ago, a friend of mine, Murray Zetterholm, who runs a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Crossroads Bibles, Books, and Gifts, was telling me that he would really love to be able to install Microsoft Excel on every computer in his office. I think he had about four computers at the time. The problem was, he said, that it would cost too much to buy a copy of the software for each computer. I pointed him to, a complete office suite, including word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, and even a database program. All of these can open the equivalent files from their Microsoft Office counterpart.

Are they exact copies? No. Are they close enough for most peoples needs? You bet. In fact, the only real problem I have is that, like their counterparts, the applications have so many features, that I can get a little lost sometimes just trying to do something simple. If you are in need of an up-to-date office suite and don't feel like shelling out for the most recent version of MS Office, you just might want to check it out.

More tomorrow on this topic. In the meantime, do you have any favorite freebies on the Web?

Friday, March 03, 2006

That was Then

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

I jokingly refer to myself as a dinosaur with respect to the Web. I remember when it first appeared on the scene back in the early 90's. I was working on a project at the University of Michigan at the time. We were trying to use WAIS to create an art image browser complete with thumbnails and textual information about a variety of pieces of art. Pretty advanced stuff, huh?

One of my officemates at the time, Lee Liming, showed me an early version of NCSA Mosaic, the first widely available graphical web browser. This was an early ancestor of today's Firefox browser. After playing around with it for about an hour I had to go to the professor who was leading our project. WAIS was out. The Web was in. Even back then, before all the fancy graphics, fonts, and blinking text, we could tell that this was really something special.

Not long after, Lee went on a trip to Antarctica. When he returned he built one of the Web's first travelogue sites, including excerpts from his journal and pictures that he had to scan because no one had heard of a digital camera yet. He still has a version of it available today. Remember that when he made this site, he had to do everything by hand. We didn't have Dreamweaver or any of the other website development applications that you can find now. Unlike other dinosaurs, I'm not going to even pretend that we liked it that way!

"Surfing the Web" has changed a bit, too. I remember each day while I ate my lunch I would go check out the site called "What's New on the Web?". Sometimes there were even two new sites! Now, I can barely keep up with what's new on my Google-hosted home page.

What stories do you have of the early days of the Web? Do you remember when AOL first gave its users access to the Web and "every day was September"?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Chalk It Up -- Write It Down

Note: This entry appeared in my original blog, "Home|Work"

I realize I am late in coming to the Blog scene. In fact my mom, Debby Peters, a very wise woman in the ways of business networking, but no technophile, even got her blog up and running before I did. Let's just chalk it up to youthful ignorance and leave it at that.

I call my blog "Home Work" because it is an outgrowth of my consulting business, Cyber Data Solutions, which I run out of my home office. Coincidentally, the focus of my business has been on helping non-profit organizations, in particular those that help people with special needs to find housing, such as Community Housing Network, Inc and the HOMES Coalition. I have to admit that earning my living by serving those who help others is a pretty satisfying thing.

So, what shall I write about in this venue? I'm not sure. Some days it may be about a Good Thing that one of my clients is doing. Other days I might wax rhapsodic about the latest website technology about which I've been learning. Still, don't be surprised if the occasional mention of my wife's beautiful tulip garden sneaks in. I realize that in the maelstrom that the blogosphere has become, the shouting masses can quickly drown out the lone voice. For those few who find me, though, and stick around for the ride I hope I can provide a moment of amusement or even an idea to ponder as the day goes on.

Until the next time, I hope you find Good Things around you to bring you joy. If you do, share them in the comments. We can all use a pick-me-up now and again.