Experiences – Good and Bad – With Online Group Coupons

Like most other people who I know, I latched on to the group coupon craze last year, buying coupons for things that I probably didn’t need at prices that seemed to be a good deal. I’ve slowed down considerably from my initial rush, although I still have a few coupons to use up from those heady days, and I’ve learned a huge lesson: some online group coupon sites are reputable, while others are not. One enormous issue is that the sketchier sites don’t check out their vendors very well, with the result that you might end up buying a coupon that the vendor makes it nearly impossible for you to reimburse, or tries to switch the product that you thought you bought for something else. When you have to deal with those sketchy sites’ customer service, they do everything possible to refuse the refund to which you are entitled, and sometimes are downright rude about it.

I’ve had some great experiences, where I’ve bought quality goods or services, and continue to be a customer of a business that I might never have tried otherwise. A great example of this is WineOnline.ca, who offered discounts through TeamBuy and DealFind; I used all of my coupons, and I’m now a regular customer for ordering wine by the case, delivered directly to my home by their always-friendly team. I’ve purchased other coupons through TeamBuy, too: Toronto Airport Express (which I still use occasionally), the One of a Kind show, Mankind Grooming Studio (great gift for a friend), Booster Juice (too sweet for me, but good to try it out), Smoke’s Poutinerie (yum!), Best Limousine (not as convenient as my current airport limo service) and Rock Candy Life (nice shower curtain). The only problem that I had was a failed delivery from Rock Candy Life that appears to have been a pure shipping error, and was corrected immediately with a new shipment. In other words, TeamBuy definitely falls into my “reputable” classification, since they appear to be offering goods or services from companies that are in turn reputable, hence provide an overall good experience both for buying and using coupons.

Groupon has also worked well for me, including their instant coupons via the iPhone app. I discovered a new tea shop in my neighbourhood, Herbal Infusions (great selection and nice staff), went on a ride with Toronto Helicopter Tours (highly recommended), and tried out Front Door Organics’ home delivery (didn’t work for me because of their delivery schedules, although the food was great). I also bought a Bixi membership that I plan to kick off in the spring, and will likely continue with after the first year if I’m using it enough to justify. I also have a couple of coupons to use for restaurants that I’m eager to try out.

I’ve had mixed results with Living Social: I bought a mani/pedi at Soho Spa, booked the appointment for the day before I was leaving for a Florida vacation, then had the spa call to cancel that morning – after they had marked the coupon as used. I had to contact Living Social to have the coupon reinstated, which they did immediately, so they get points for customer service but could provide better instructions to their vendors about marking coupons before they are actually used. On most sites, the customer marks the coupons as used on the site merely as a convenience, and the vendor doesn’t have the opportunity to mark them used; there’s significant room for abuse here if you don’t track your own coupons but rely on the Living Social site to do it for you. TeamSave, similarly, has “disappeared” vouchers from my account; if I hadn’t been tracking them myself, I would have lost coupons that I had already paid for. DealFind, although I had luck with them on the WineOnline and other vouchers, recently sold one for a 32GB SD card from a vendor that appears unable to process an order, and I’m having trouble even contacting the vendor to find out what it happening. I think that DealFind, like a few other deal sites, have lowered their standards considerably in the vendors that they promote, and they’re likely to see a big backlash from that.

In the “not so good” category, we have DealTicker. I’ve only bought one thing from them, and it’s been a massive fail both from a vendor product standpoint and customer service. In mid-November, I bought a coupon for touchscreen gloves – the vendor site showed some brightly-coloured striped gloves that I really liked. The coupon was not valid until November 30th; the day before, I checked the vendor website and the striped gloves were still there, but after the 30th, when I went in to place my order, they had removed all the striped ones and only have plain grey gloves left. I contacted the vendor; they replied:

A variety of colours were available, however, as an online retailer, we experience a high volume of sales (outside of group-buy deals) especially for this popular seasonal item. Our suppliers no longer carry the colours previously advertised on our site. Therefore we are not able to stock the same colours.

A pure bait-and-switch scam: sell the customer one thing, then attempt to substitute something else. I contacted DealTicker, who gave me a completely different response:

We have investigated your complaint, and have been assured that Lifestyl.info will restock any items currently sold out. As they received a great deal of response to this deal, some models inevitably ran out. As your voucher is valid for one year, there is plenty of time to allow them to restock any item that is currently sold out.

Obviously, no real communication going on between DealTicker and the vendor, in spite of what DealTicker claimed. I requested a refund; DealTicker responded that it would be processed by December 29th, almost a month later. Unhappy with this, I tweeted that DealTicker should be ashamed to sell a bogus coupon, then take almost a month to refund me for it. The following Twitter conversation, in which they stated that their really horrible customer service is “awesome” and I am “miserable”, ensued (read from the bottom up):

DealTicker fail

At the very least, whoever posts to their Twitter account should be moved to a position where they don’t interact with customers.

Also in the truly horrible category is WebPiggy, which took part in The Butchers scam. I bought two different deals from them – an airport limo company that wouldn’t even return my calls, and the Butchers – and had to have both of them refunded since I couldn’t get what I paid for. The airport limo refund came right away, along with a code for an additional discount on my next WebPiggy order, but I had to send several emails and make phone calls to the customer services director with accusations of fraud before he made the larger refund for the Butchers.

The upshot of all this is that I’m more careful about the sites that I will even consider purchasing from, and the specific deals that I will purchase. TeamBuy, Groupon and a few others are definitely on my list, while DealTicker and WebPiggy emails go straight to my spam folder. I also avoid deals from websites that appear to be pushing junky products purely through internet sales, like Lifestyl.info and xsv360.com deals that have proved quite unsatisfactory, and where the same goods can be found at a similar regular price at more reputable online retailers such as TigerDirect and Canada Computers. Instead, I now focus on deals for local businesses that I just need a bit of an excuse to try out, and of which I will potentially become a regular customer.

In my business, if I sold a service then tried to bait and switch to something else that wasn’t what the customer wanted, or was deficient/rude in my customer service, I’d be out of business. By that measure, some of the online coupon sites should definitely not be in business, and won’t be getting any of mine in the future.

Ten Years Later

On my last business post about the upcoming BPM conferences where I will be speaking, I accidentally typed “2001” instead of “2011” for the title. As I fixed up that little goof, it had me think about the past 10 years. 10 years ago, I was finishing off my last few weeks as an evangelist for FileNet, having given my notice at the beginning of August, and I ended it with a customer trip east just before the Labour Day weekend, swinging back through Toronto to see friends before my last few days at work in southern California. September 6th, I was out of there, putting all my belongings into storage, packing the necessities into the tiny trunk of my S2000, and heading north with the top down. Destination: Vancouver, by way of everyone who I knew on the west coast for a grand tour/extended farewell party, (Canadian) Thanksgiving with my bro in Vancouver, then off to New Zealand and Australia for a couple of weeks walkabout before deciding on what was next.

FileNet had been part of my mid-life crisis. Working for my own companies (one product, one services) for 13 years before joining FileNet in 2000, I had just shut down my 40-person services company and decided to take some time off. FileNet execs had a different idea, and convinced me to relocate from Toronto to Costa Mesa and create my own position there. I picked “Director of eBusiness Evangelism” as my title, worked directly for the president, and travelling to 14 countries in 16 months. I loved the job, the people and the travel, but poisonous corporate politics eventually wore me down, and I decided to call it a learning experience and move on. Hence the road trip, to meet up with all the great west coast FileNeters who I had worked with, then off to Australia to see the gang down there.

Five days later, things changed. I was in Lake Tahoe when the planes hit the towers, and heard about it when  a friend called me that morning from Sacramento, where we were supposed to meet that evening. “Turn on your TV”, he said. “I’m in a cabin in the woods, I don’t have one”, I replied. So he described the events of 9/11 to me, the towers having already fallen, before I headed for the main lodge where I spent the day watching the news coverage and trying to get word of NYC-based friends and colleagues.

With life seemingly frozen in time, I decided there was no better time to take a real break, like I should have done back in 2000 instead of joining FileNet: I spent a month driving up the coast to Vancouver, a leisurely 10 days there, then a trip to New Zealand and Australia that ended up lasting three months (after my host down there pointed out that I didn’t have a job, so didn’t really need to go back after three weeks as originally planned).

January 2002, I finally ended up back in Toronto, the city that owns my heart, picked up some consulting and did my third incorporation to form Kemsley Design. That turned into more implementation consulting work, business blogging, conference presentations and industry analyst cred, and I’ve been doing the one-person consulting gig ever since. I sometimes think that I have one last startup left in me, but really like the lifestyle of the independent consultant.

Kemsley Design hasn’t quite reached the 10-year mark, but it started with that decision 10 years ago to get out of a corporate culture that was bad for me. Happy anniversary to my decision to get back to doing the work that I love.

Living the Mobile Life

This morning after I left the house, I checked the real-time streetcar tracking to see when the next car was coming by the end of my street, looked over a presentation that I’m working on, checked which subway car to board so that I would exit near the escalator at my destination, read a chapter of a book, checked in at my hairdresser’s, then told you all about it.

Thanks for this mobile productivity goes to the following iPhone apps: NextBus (actually a mobile site, not an app), DropBox, TTC Exit Guide, Kindle, FourSquare and WordPress.

Some of this might seem trivial, but these things enhance my life and make me more productive. Knowing when the next streetcar will really arrive tells me whether I need to take a taxi to avoid being late. Accessing active project documents allows me to some work done even thought I’m in the middle of a haircut. Knowing which subway car to board can save me battling through crowds on the platform, only to end up at the wrong exit. Even reading a book is business in this case: ironically, it’s “Empowered”, all about allowing people to use their own tools and methods for getting things done better.

In case you were wondering, the ringer is off: I take calls and read email on my schedule, not just because my device tell me to. Use your mobile device to work the way that you want to, not to turn you into a phone and email slave.

PM Hell

Every once in a while, I run up against a project manager on a client project who seems to be there just to make my life hell. Usually I just let this roll off me since it’s only a temporary condition — that’s part of why I work as an independent, after all — but sometimes I just have to rant.

To begin with, I usually work on the design side of things, from functional requirements through technical design, and I leave the project management to the trained professionals: not only do I not like doing project management, I’m not very good at it. I think that many companies do a great disservice by "promoting" technical people to project managers by allowing that to be the only pathway for their advancement, rather than creating senior technical positions with the same prestige and pay. What happens in the current model, since so many developers have moved into project management roles, is that the term "project manager" has come to mean someone who also does some amount of the business requirements or design work on a project as well as managing it.

This is just plain wrong.

First of all, if someone is tasked with managing the project, let them manage the project without burdening them with other roles that might be in conflict with their primary role. Second, if someone has been in project management for a while, their technical skills are probably a bit rusty, and you could end up with poor results. Furthermore, many people in project management don’t even have a technical background, but are expected to take on technical project work because of the assumption that they used to be a developer; this is almost always not going to work out well.

The worst case that I experienced was when an ex-COBOL programmer was assigned by his large management consulting employer as a project manager on an implementation project, but he was obviously frustrated by that position and wanting to do technical design. I was the lead architect on the job, but he argued with pretty much every point in the design, even though he had no understanding of the technical development environment, and little understanding of the specific products that we were using (products on which I was very experienced). We spent a lot of time arguing over things, only to end up back where I started in the first place. Since I was a subcontractor to his company, he lobbied to have my contract terminated (which was within their rights, with the appropriate amount of notice) and I breathed a sigh of relief over not having to deal with him any more, as well as not having to go to a very cold part of the country in February. The end result: the architecture and design were redone by the project manager with some input from a couple of the developers who weren’t familiar with the BPMS; the system was installed more than a year late, went way over budget, and didn’t meet the customer requirements. After turfing out the big consulting firm, the customer called me back to see if I could help fix the mess. I laughed all the way to a different customer in a warmer climate.

A more recent PM from hell wanted to completely control my access to the customer. As an independent contractor rather than permanent staff, she may have felt threatened by my existence, and obviously felt she could do my job just as well as I could — without any apparent skills or experience at it. Since I often work offsite and she worked onsite, she was able to convince the customer to funnel every piece of email and documentation that I needed through her, rather than just having the customer copy her on communications to me. There were obviously a lot of conversations (via email) going on that I was not privy to, and which would have made my job easier, but the PM decided to filter the information that went to me. At one point, she even said that she was doing this in order to "watch my back" for me (presumably so that she knew exactly where to stick the knife). At one point I needed a detailed database schema, and the PM replied that what she had was too detailed for me; I suggested that I could make that decision, and to just send it on, but instead, she had someone in the internal IT group run a not-detailed-enough report for me. When I asked for more information, the PM said "This is what we decided was best to send to you." Every interaction that I had with this PM was the same frustrating, teeth-pulling exercise. Although I did a good job for the customer, it could have been better if I’d had wider access to people and information.

I have a huge amount of respect for skilled project managers, but let’s get a few things straight:

  1. I don’t want your job, so don’t feel threatened. I like my job just fine, or I wouldn’t be on the project in the first place.
  2. I don’t care if you want my job, the customer hired me to do it, not you. Do your own damned job.
  3. Don’t create barriers between me and the sources of information that I need in order to do my job, or you will negatively impact the end product and the customer satisfaction.

Some things never change…

I missed the CASCON conference this year, but just found some notes from last year’s conference, which included a session on barriers to women in technology/business. In addition to some dismal numbers on the percentage of women on corporate boards (14.7% in the US, 11.2% in Canada), I jotted down a brilliant quote from the speaker:

When a man fails, no one ever wonders if it was because he is a man.

Not sure if this was hers originally or if she’s quoting someone else, but it’s brilliant nonetheless.

I also noted a source for stats on women receiving degrees in Computer Science, which shows not exactly stellar numbers: women took 15% of the undergraduate degrees in 2004/5, 25% of the Masters’ degrees, and 15% of the Ph.D.’s.

A speaker from the University of Waterloo (where I graduated Engineering) stated that we have to be honest when speaking with girls considering going into computer science, and tell them that they may be the only girl in their high school or even university computer science class: I was shocked that this is still the case.

Online retailing to drop? I don’t think so

From an article today on Money Morning:

More than a decade after Internet pioneer Amazon.com burst upon the scene and revolutionized online retailing, experts are projecting that Internet-based shopping is destined to fall out of favor.

In the next five to 10 years, those who are already comfortable shopping online are likely to grow even more so. But the bulk of the folks who haven’t already made purchases will likely be staying on the sidelines, experts told The Associated Press.

Although I agree that store-based retail will outstrip online retailing for a long time to come, I just can’t see an actual decline in online retail sales, for several reasons:

  1. Although the boomers are starting to retire and will have more time to spend on shopping in person, they’re fairly tech-savvy and will likely keep shopping online for the convenience. That portion of the market will likely stay stable, or drop slightly as their income drops on retirement.
  2. The younger generations — X, Y, whatever — are increasing their earning power and therefore their disposable income, and they’re definitely shopping online. This part of the market will continue to grow.
  3. Some large number of “the bulk of the folks who haven’t already made purchases” are in the 65+ age range, and will die off. Although this doesn’t increase the amount of online shopping (except maybe for their grandkids with the inheritance), it does pull down that part of the curve when you’re looking at the number of people who have never shopped online.
  4. More stores are offering online shopping. For those of us with a preference for online to in-store shopping, that means that more of our disposable income will go to online shopping as it becomes available.
  5. Small businesses are increasingly shopping online to save time and money: I buy office supplies, computers, office furniture and anything else that I can find for my business online.

Camping for beginners

Talking about *camps and unconferences on my business blog is starting to have some effect: yesterday, I received the following email thread that had gone between two conference organizers in my industry:

You mentioned a technique for facilitating a discussion and I think you called it CAMP? I did a brief search on the web but didn’t find it. Did I remember the acronym correctly? Would you point me to a website for more information? I want to investigate techniques for getting the audience more engaged.

The recipient had passed it on to me, and I responded with some information on Open Space to get them started.

It may come to nothing (especially when they realize that they can’t charge as much for this sort of format), but any interest in unconference formats by conference organizers has to be a good thing for the participants.

Google spamming me in real life

Proof that Google AdSense sells their member mailing listWhen I receive postal mail at the PO box address for my wine club, I know that something is weird — the PO box is only emptied every few days by another one of the (volunteer) board members, and I only see him every couple of weeks, so anything that I want to receive in a timely manner, I provide my own address instead.

One exception that I made was when I signed up for Google AdSense for the club’s website, since I wanted the (few and far-between) cheques to go to the official mailing address for the club. As far as I know, that’s the only time that I’ve ever used that address; no one else would have my name and that address associated.

Imagine my surprise when, at our last board meeting, I was handed an envelope of obvious postal spam addressed to me at the wine club PO box address, advertising a seminar on more effective ways to make money from Google AdSense, among other online revenue sources. This was really smarmy-looking, very reminiscent of real estate seminars, where they trap you in a room for 90 minutes by promising you a meal at the end, and obviously looking to sell some sort of package or consulting as part of the deal.

The thing that really surprised me, however, is that Google — the company that claims to “do no evil” — would sell their AdSense customer database without permission. What’s not evil about that?

Update: A couple of people have linked to this post or my original photo, and reading the comments on their posts is fascinating — some people would much rather believe that an individual (me) is a liar than that a corporation (Google) would divulge name and address information.

How much does your data cost?

If you’re like me, and have a data plan for your Blackberry with one of Canada’s mobile carriers, you feel massively ripped off every month when you get your bill, especially if you roamed outside Canada or went over your monthly data limit.

Tom Purves has plotted out just how bad this situation is in Canada, where 500MB/month of mobile data will cost you a whopping $1,600 from Rogers (my carrier), compared with as little as $58 in the US, or even $74 in Rwanda. He suggests that you talk to your MP to see what they’re doing about this huge barrier to technology competitiveness in Canada. While you’re at it, Digg Tom’s post so that it gets even more exposure.