Frequent Flyer Miles: It’s Not The Name. It’s What You Can Do With Them.

British Airways has been my preferred airline for years now. Their planes are in good shape, their safety record is decent, and their pricing reasonable. But most of all, their staff is amazing.

None of the other airlines I’ve flown with could boast onboard personnel that is so welcoming as BA’s. The atmosphere on board is downright cozy, and the purser’s “Would you like tea or coffee, Sir?” in a fine English sing-song is so much more pleasant than “Somessink to drink voh you?!”

As a long-time BA passenger, I’ve collected quite a few “BA Miles” with the airline’s “Executive Club” loyalty program throughout the years. Those miles just got a new name: They shall henceforth be known as “Avios”!

“Avios” — It’s what’s for flying

Besides the name, some of the program’s features will also change. E.g., there will be a broader range of bonus awards that you can purchase with your Avios. Umh, by the way, is “Avios” plural? As in, “one Avio”, “two Avios”, etc.? Or is it singular? In which case I’d wonder what the plural is: “one Avios”, “two Avioses”? And why did I have to think of “adios” the very moment that I first saw that name?!

Oh well. Whatever.

See, it’s nice that they came up with a new name and all that. But none of this addresses the key problem with the Executive Club program, and that’s the availability of flights you can purchase with Miles. Umh, I mean, Avios(es).

As of now, my Executive Club account lists just over 150,000 BA Miles/Avios. That’s enough to buy three return flights from Europe to the US and back. But with a single exception, every time I tried to buy such a flight reward, I could not find any flights for the dates I was looking at. Let me show you just how bad that problem is.

In theory, there are no restrictions on reward flights. In theory.

How about trying to find a reward flight from Düsseldorf, my German “home airport”, and Denver in the US, which currently is my most frequent long-distance route. And just for the kick of it, lets look at the availability of award flights in six months.

Seats in economy are easily available, but the possible dates for grabbing a Premium Economy seat on that route looks rather, shall we say, spotty?

Available award flights DUS-DEN in March 2012 in Premium Economy class

For the eastbound flight, I am offered a choice from merely six of that month’s 31 days. And, again, that is with a booking lead time of six months! Well, at least there’s more choice for the return flight. Unless I would prefer to treat myself to a lush Business Class seat. In that case, there are even fewer choices.

Available award flights DUS-DEN in March 2012 in Business class

Function goes before label

I’m not a big fan of re-branding campaigns. In many cases, they’re like giving a car a new paint job. But if you start out with a clunker, there will always be a clunker underneath that paint, no matter how great the craftsmanship that went into the project.

BA’s Executive Club certainly is far from being a clunker among its peers, and I don’t really care all that much what label is attached to the frequent-flyer miles I have earned. I just wish that British Airways were less restrictive in how they make award flights available so that all of those Avios, née BA Miles, were actually (more) useful.

Here’s hoping that the powers that Be Ay (sorry…!) will look into this aspect of their loyalty program as soon as their marketing folks’ headrush over the Avios campaign has subsided.

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DFW Airport’s Handy Taxi Guide

When traveling to an unfamiliar destination, many travelers worry about being ripped off by local taxi drivers. On my way to the amazing Big(D)esign 2011 conference in Dallas, I received an info brochure that assured me that I would not have to worry about excessive cab bills at this airport.

DFW's Taxi Brochure

I was handed the little brochure by an attendant when I asked at the taxi stand where to join the line. Published monthly, the Getting Around Town guide contains lists of taxi companies’, airlines’, and city attractions’ phone numbers plus a schedule of cultural events for that month.

DFW's Taxi Brochure

More important, though, is what you see when you completely unfold the brochure.

There’s a full fare table for cab services from DFW airport, and an overview map of the Dallas/Fort Worth area and both cities’ central business districts. For some destination like close-by cities and special points of interest, an estimated fare is listed. If the amount shown on your cab’s meter as too far off the ballpark figure listed here, you know that something didn’t quite go as planned

DFW's Taxi Brochure

In case you do have a difference of opinion with your temporary chauffeur, a section in the brochure explains what your rights are. For example, it’s good to know that all “DFW permitted” taxicabs (must) accept credit cards. I remember flying into my “home airport” in Düsseldorf once, and was surprised when I found out how many cabbies there don’t even accept debit cards.

Finally, in the unlikely event that you really fail to part with your cabbie on friendly terms, there’s a phone number and an email address under which you can reach the Airport Information Center to file a complaint or ask for further help.

Thanks to this brochure, a cab ride to or from Dallas/Fort Worth airport is one less thing a traveler needs to worry about. Now, if only such information were as easily available at other airports, too.

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The Long and the Short Path to Tech Support Satisfaction

Just before publishing this article, I noticed that Micromat had launched a redesign of their website. Since the contents of the site remain unchanged, I decided not to take new screenshots. My criticism of their process remains unchanged, too.

_Upon closer inspection I noticed that the Micromat contacts page now does list an email address, allowing their customers to reach the Micromat tech support people directly. Kudos to Micromat for making it so much easier for their customers to contact them._

The updated Micromat contact page, including a direct email address for their tech support department

May this little rant serve as a reminder of how to do it right.

If you have ever used a software application from The Omni Group you will likely agree that their software rocks. And so does their customer support.

Lending customers a virtual helping hand

Want to get in touch with someone at Omni Group? The friendly invitation to “Send Feedback…” is just a short mouse pointer journey away in the Help menu.

The Send Feedback… item in OmniFocus' Help menu

Select that menu item, and your email client of choice springs into action, displaying a shiny new email, which is addressed to the Omni Group’s support wizards. Its subject line names the product that your inquiry is about and also lists your serial number. The body of the message is as empty, giving you lots of uncluttered room to describe your problem, ask for help, praise the application, or what have you.

Once you send your inquiry email on its way, you almost immediately get an automatic reply to confirm that your message has made it to Omni’s Seattle, WA, headquarters. And a few short hours later, you can expect to receive a friendly and helpful reply, custom-written by a human just for you.

Don’t you wish that all software applications made contacting their developers this easy: absolutely no hurdles to jump over, no hoops to jump through, and no puddles of mud to jump into.1

Simply put, this is just how contacting customer support short work. Kindly keep this in mind, because I need to take a quick detour now.

Essential maintenance software going on strike

Every computer will develop odd behavior of some sort sometime. If that happens, it helps to have a computer maintenance application at hand. One such utility that I have been using for years now, is Micromat’s TechTool Pro.

TechTool Pro, or TTP for short, is a very powerful, very versatile, and reasonably easy-to-use application for performing maintenance tasks on a Mac, like checking the main board for defects, reading out a hard drive’s SMART code, repairing a volume’s directory structure, etc.

TechTool Pro's main window

When I moved to a new laptop end of last year, TTP was among the list of applications I installed straight away. Instead of relying on OS X’s Migration Assistant to bring over all my data and applications, I configured that new machine from scratch. Consequently, all applications, including TTP, were freshly installed from scratch, too.

When I tried to run TechTool Pro’s standard suite of tests for the first time, the first test from that suite (Memory) finished just fine. As soon as the screen for test number two (Video Memory) appeared, however, the software stalled. Further indication that something wasn’t quite right was the lack of information in the Video Memory section, and also that my Mac’s model was listed as “ATM,” and its build date given as November 2000.

TechTool Pro being stalled at the launch of the Video Memory test

Trying to quit the Video Memory test and some of the others that were still in the pipeline, failed, and quitting the application brought up some errors, as well.

In other words, something was seriously fishy. So I went searching for some helpful information on Micromat’s online forum. According to a support forum entry, the current version of TTP should run on my Mac just fine.

Micromat forum entry stating that the current version should run on a current Mac

Since I could not find any further relevant help in Micromat’s forum, I decided to get in touch with their tech support department. According to the TechTool Pro manual — which is a seriously good example for a well-written, concise, and complete software users’ manual –, one option for contacting them is via email, so I set out to compose my inquiry in

The first of too many steps

After that little detour, let’s get back to the topic of customer service.

Getting help for the problems I had run into with TechTool Pro turned out to be much more involved than I had hoped.

The PDF version of the manual that is installed along with the TechTool Pro application does not list any phone numbers or email addresses, so I needed to look up my options on the Micromat website’s “Contact Us” page.

Options for contacting Micromat

While this page does list some email addresses, there is none for directly contacting their tech support department. Instead, the page refers to the site’s “Support Section” for technical support inquiries.

Tech support options at Micromat

As a paying customer, I refuse to use an online forum to post a tech support question, as it requires too much follow-up effort on my end. Also, I expect the experts, i.e., the software’s makers, to respond to my questions, and I am not willing to sift through well-intentioned, but all-too-often useless responses from other users.

The Knowledge Base, which is also listed here, does not even provide any information on version 5 of TechTool Pro as I write this.

I also skipped the third and last option of calling the company, because I had made the decision to get in touch with them at a time that was already outside their business hours.

And after all, the manual explicitly mentions email support, so that was what I was looking for.

The long and winding tech support road

Not shown in the “Support Section” is yet another option labeled “Online Support,” which is only found in the site’s navigation menu. When you follow that link and log into the Micromat website, you are taken to an “Account Control Panel” that lists your registered products. It is here that you can request a support incident.

After clicking a “request” link, a plain form appears where you can enter your tech support inquiry or — copy-n-paste the body of the message that you had written because you thought you could just shoot these guys an email.

The tech support report form on the Micromat website

Any support enquiries that you have submitted this way, are listed in the Support Section, so that you can always check their status online.

To get to this point, i.e., to submit my support enquiry to Micromat, I had to…

  1. search TechTool Pro’s documentation PDF for contact information
  2. visit the Micromat website and search for the support contact details
  3. log into the tech support area on the site
  4. open a new “support incident”
  5. enter my request for help and submit it

Compare this to:

  1. Select “Send Feedback…”
  2. Write email and hit the Send button

Apart from the process being so involved, I found it to be extremely tedious and annoying how Micromat made me hunt for the required contact information.

A surprisingly quick (and underperforming) response

Having posted my inquiry with Micromat at 7:42pm, I was pleasantly surprised that their reply showed up in my email inbox at 9:52am the next morning. The reply’s contents were disappointing, though, since the email only contained this canned body copy, that did not even include a salutation or greeting, …

> Thank you for contacting Micromat technical support.

> You can login to your account and read the response to your tech support questions by clicking on the link below:

… followed by a link to the support “conversation” on their website.

So I clicked the link, logged into the site again, was taken to the forum, and read their response.

It instructed me to repair the permissions on my Mac, uninstall TechTool Pro, and then install it again from scratch with a stand-alone installer (as opposed to installing 5.0.3 from the boxed DVD and updating it in two separate steps to 5.0.7).

The stand-alone installer is available as a disk image for download from Micromat’s ftp server. Even though the software needs to be “unlocked” by entering a registration code, the disk image is also “protected” with a password. I doubt that this password will prevent committed pirates from obtaining a copy of the TTP installer, but I know for sure that this adds yet another onerous task for customers who paid for the software.

Like the password, the link to the disk image was included in the reply from Micromat support, but wasn’t clickable, so downloading the file took yet more copy-n-pasting.

In summary, following up on my tech support request to Micromat required me to:

  1. read their email response
  2. click on the link inside the email to go their online support reply
  3. log into their online forum (admittedly, the login form does feature a “remember me” checkbox)
  4. read their reply
  5. copy the download link for the installer disk image
  6. launch my ftp client of choice and paste in the link to start the download2
  7. open the disk image
  8. enter the password
  9. launch the installer on the disk image

Alternatively, my customer experience could have been this:

  1. read their email response
  2. click a link inside that email to start downloading the installer disk image
  3. open the (non-password-“protected”) disk image
  4. launch the installer

Much less hassle, much quicker, much more user-friendly — and much more conducive to creating a truly positive customer experience.

On a tangent: the simple workflow to fix this problem, as well as the availability of the stand-alone installer for the current version of the software, make me wonder whether what I had reported to Micromat is a “known issue” for them.

If that is the case, why isn’t it easier to find this fix on their website, e.g., via the site’s Knowledge Base page? Which, as I had said earlier, does not mention the current version 5 of the software at all.

The correlation between tech support and customer happiness

There are bigger problems to be tackled than a botched customer experience job like this one. No doubt.

Then again, dealing with this problem cost me a lot of time and, as you may imagine, also seriously worsened my mood. Because it would be so easy to make the overall process much simpler, more effective, and less tiresome.

Compared to Omni Group’s awesome support experience, Micromat’s was very lack-luster. A big part of this is that I was required to take care of a lot of steps along the way that should have already been taken care of by the Micromat guys.

It’s a welcome coincidence that The Omni Group’s support manager, Brian Covey, gave a talk about “giving and getting good customer service on the internet” at Macworld in San Francisco last January. This should be required viewing for anyone involved with managing customer service.

Brian’s video makes for great (and, at only 15 minutes, very short) viewing for customers, too, because he also explains how to properly write tech support inquiries. A well-written and well-formatted email helps support technicians find and solve a customers’ problem quicker and more thoroughly. And that, in turn, results in better replies, getting the user back on track more quickly and more easily, too.

  1. The one about the puddle of mud? Yeah, I just made that up. 

  2. Another option, of course, is to select the link, right-click on it, and choose Go To Address. But that’s still not nearly as convenient as simply clicking a proper link. 

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