An Ode to Sonic.net’s Customer Service

Several years ago, I was voicing my ongoing frustration with AT&T to my friend, Jason. Jason recommended that I look into Sonic.net. I did some research, and made the switch soon thereafter.

Overall, I’ve been satisfied, although I haven’t been thrilled by the speed or the uptime. Uptime is critical for someone who works from home and hosts a lot of teleconferences. While I haven’t had any major outages (unlike AT&T), I’ve had several intermittent outages, some at inopportune times. I know that some of this is out of Sonic.net’s control, but that doesn’t make me any happier when I lose my Internet access while making a presentation. I’ve also had multiple modems fail, including another one this morning. Recently, I’ve been pondering a switch to cable.

What’s prevented me from making the switch has been Sonic.net’s incredible service. It’s a joy to talk to their customer service people. I always get a human being who isn’t reading from a script, who doesn’t patronize me, who goes out of his or her way to solve my problem, and who is friendly and knowledgable. It reminds me of the good ol’ days fifteen years ago when most ISPs were mom-and-pop shops where everyone knew what they were talking about.

This morning, I woke up to discover that my DSL modem had failed, which was super annoying, considering I was planning on working all weekend. I looked up the customer service number on my phone and saw that the call wait was over 30 minutes. On the one hand, that made me grumpy. On the other hand, it was cool to be able to know the wait time before I even called.

So I called, waited a few minutes, and then was given the option to leave a call-back number. Why doesn’t everyone do this?! I left my number, ate a leisurely breakfast, and relaxed. Someone from Sonic.net called back about 45 minutes later. I explained what had happened, he saw that I still had 15 days left on my warranty, and said he’d send out a new modem right away.

I asked how long it would take, and he said two to three business days. Again, that made me grumpy. It meant that I would not have Internet access until Tuesday at the earliest. I expressed my annoyance and asked if there was anything else he could do. He thought for a second, asked me to hold, then said I could swing by the office in Santa Rosa to pick it up myself.

Santa Rosa is over an hour’s drive from San Francisco. It would not be convenient. But, it was better than not having Internet for five days. Plus, there are many worse things you can do than take the beautiful drive up to Santa Rosa in a sunny Saturday afternoon.

So I drove up and met the guy at the Sonic.net offices. He gave me my new modem and asked whether I was heading straight back. I said that I thought I’d find a coffee shop somewhere and camp out for a while. He suggested I go to Flying Goat Coffee nearby. And so here I am, at Flying Goat Coffee (which was an excellent recommendation), sitting outside enjoying the wonderful weather.

I woke up this morning frustrated about my modem. Replacing it was going to be inconvenient no matter what, but if I was going to be inconvenienced, this was the way to do it. It’s yet another reminder of what a difference great customer service makes.

I love the fact that, even on a weekend, I’m going to get someone good and friendly on the phone who will take care of me. I love the fact that, even when the call queue is long, I won’t have to wait on the line, because there’s a callback service. I love how, when I mention Sonic.net on Twitter, the company’s CEO, Dane Jasper, often responds. I wish I had better uptime and faster speeds, but I’ll take the great customer service any day of the week.

Breakfast at Tucker’s

Last month, I decided to fly out to Cincinnati to surprise my older sister on her most recent “milestone birthday.” I hadn’t visited in a while, and in the interim, she had given birth to her second son, Benjamin.

As a present, I wanted to give my sister space. Those of you with kids know that parents of young children — especially babies — basically have negative amounts of time.

My plan was to hang out, take care of the kids, and do what I could to create some space for both her and her husband so that they could have some time for themselves. My only agenda was to get to know my newest nephew, Benjamin, while wreaking (quiet, manageable) havoc with my eldest, Elliott. I had no plans to spend much time outside of their apartment, much less explore Cincinnati.

As it happened, my trip coincided with a large snowstorm and bitter cold. While that sounded terrifying to this native Californian, it had an unexpected silver lining: snow days! School was cancelled for both my nephew and my brother-in-law, Isaac, a teacher. I had come to create some space for my sister’s family, and the weather ended up creating space for all of us.

We put that time to good use. I went sledding for the first time with Elliott and Isaac. As you can imagine, I handled my inaugural trip hurtling down a hill on a frictionless surface with skill, comportment, and aplomb.

The following day, we had breakfast at Tucker’s, a small neighborhood eatery that’s been serving down home food for over 60 years. To understand the significance of the place and our meal, you need to understand the story of the neighborhood.

My sister and brother-in-law are musicians and teachers. They live humble lives in a part of town known as Over-the-Rhine (“OTR” for short). As with many artist enclaves, OTR is very affordable, which loosely translates into “bad neighborhood.” It’s the poorest, most violent neighborhood in the city.

My sister lives across the street from Washington Park, which is a haven for drug dealers and miscreants. In 2001, a white cop shot and killed a young, African-American male in OTR, igniting city-wide racial tensions that had been building for years and resulting in the worst urban disorder since the L.A. riots in 1992, which I had had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand.

OTR is a challenging place, but there is something special about it. For starters, if you look past the poverty and pain, you can see that the neighborhood is beautiful. The brick buildings evoke an old elegance, dotted with dilapidated storefronts and the occasional quirky gallery, perhaps foreshadowing the hipster gentrification that sometimes seems inevitable for these little enclaves of starving artists. The hipsters come because of the artists, but the artists come because of the beauty, the charm, the essence.

The essence of OTR — indeed, of Cincinnati and perhaps of the Midwest as a whole — seems to be community. Unlike my adopted hometown of San Francisco, people who live here tend to come from here. They are tied to their neighborhoods, their churches, their local haunts, their people. As Isaac, who comes from nearby Dayton, said to me the other day, he loves living in Cincinnati, because Cincinnati is home.

For many who live in OTR, Tucker’s has been a favorite eatery for generations. Down the street from Findlay Market, on a battered street under a nondescript sign, there are maybe six tables and a long counter inside of Tucker’s.

The service is wonderful… if you don’t mind waiting a very long time for your food. They greet everybody warmly, they keep your coffee cup filled, and they take their time cooking the food. And that’s fine. The food is good — healthy portions of rib-sticking, diner food, all made from scratch — but that’s not the main reason people come here.

People come for the people. They come to rub shoulders with their neighbors. Everyone from the community comes here — the owner of the store down the street, long-time residents, the pastor from the local church, local politicians, homeless people, young artists. Because the place is so small, people often share tables with strangers, and they walk away friends. Tucker’s is a haven, a melting pot in a neighborhood that has seen violent racial strife.

People come because they’ve always come there. Maynie “Ma” Tucker and her husband, Escom, started the restaurant in 1957. The place hasn’t changed much since. Their son, Joe, and his wife, Carla, run the place now. Escom died six years ago, but Ma Tucker, now 90, still works in the kitchen.

Earlier in the week, two gunmen had entered the diner and attacked a customer. The customer walked away unharmed, but two women were shot, including Carla. Both women were fortunately okay.

Tucker’s had shut down for a few days. Unbeknownst to us, it had just reopened the day we arrived. The place was packed, as it always is. People greeted each other warmly, as they always do. The service was good… and slow, as it always is. Ninety year old Ma Tucker popped her head out of the kitchen from time to time to check on things, as she had been doing for over 60 years.

You would not have known that anything had happened earlier that week if not for the journalist taking video, and even she melded seamlessly into the room. She just seemed like another local artist who had come to ply her craft and enjoy the morning at Tucker’s.

When we sat down, Isaac spotted the local pastor, Father Gregory, sitting at the counter, and went over to greet him. Father Gregory joined us for breakfast and filled us in on the history of Tucker’s and the meaning it had in the community. He himself had come here since he was a child. As people walked in and out, they stopped to greet Father Gregory, who smiled and chatted with everyone. Isaac knew several people there as well. They were colleagues, neighbors, fellow church-goers, and friends.

Of course, people were happy to see Elliott, who always seems to make people smile and laugh, and he greeted Isaac’s friends warmly as well. I watched my nephew interact with people comfortably, and thought about how — at six years old — he had already established roots here in the community.

Time always seems to slow down for me when I visit friends and family in the Midwest, regardless of how busy I actually am. People there are in love with their neighborhood, their community, their home.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 15 years and in California for most of my life. I love it here. And I’m lucky to have friends all over the world, some of whom I’ve known since I was a child. I stay connected with them via technology that has been around for most of my adult life, and I even have opportunities to see them face-to-face on occasion. It’s a wonderful world of connection and community that, for many, is new and exciting.

For some, it’s scary. There’s a sense of loss, this notion that all of this virtual hyperconnectedness will disconnect us from place. I understand that feeling, because when I visit my sister and her family in Cincinnati, I feel what I’m missing.

But it doesn’t have to be a choice. Community is not a zero-sum game. For me, visiting my sister’s family in Cincinnati, becoming part of their community for even a few days, enjoying breakfast at a place like Tucker’s, all of this is a visceral reminder that, at the end of the day, behind all of the wires and waves and screens, it’s about people. It’s about connecting to other living, breathing human beings. How we do it and where we do it may evolve, but why we do it and how it feels when we do is fundamental and constant.

This is the wonderful video that Carrie Cochran, the journalist who was at Tucker’s that day, created:

A Day In A Networked Life

I live a networked life, but there was something about yesterday that made me fully appreciate how lucky I am and how amazing this world is. Here’s yesterday’s rundown:

6am — Up early. Long day of work ahead of me.

7:30amAsaf Bartov (currently in Israel, soon to be in San Francisco) and Moushira Elamrawy, newly hired global community reps at the Wikimedia Foundation, are holding IRC office hours. Decide to listen in. Happy to see several old friends from around the world there. It’s just text scrolling on the screen, but it almost feels like we’re in the same room together. Moushira lives in Egypt, which was serendipitous, because while we chat, something cool happens there. Again, networks.

8:30am — A colleague of mine in North Carolina passes along an unusual request from a colleague of hers in Belgium. She wants to use a YouTube video of a Korean rap song for a workshop, and she wants to make sure the lyrics aren’t offensive. I’m amused, but my Korean isn’t good enough to help her. I ping a friend from Korea on Facebook, whom I met at a conference here in San Francisco last summer.

9am — Take a peek on Twitter, and see my friend, Nancy White (based in Seattle), asking for stories about social media in public health education. I don’t know any off the top of my head, and I could easily have retweeted Nancy’s request and left it at that. But I immediately think of two friends on Twitter who could help — Steve Downs (based in NYC) and Susannah Fox (based in D.C.) — and I decide to introduce the three of them instead, in public and over Twitter. Total time spent on this: About a minute.

I had met Steve in person almost a year ago. I discovered Susannah accidentally through an article that evoked a blog post here. I still haven’t met her in person, but I’ve enjoyed all of our interactions since. Steve and Susannah immediately get to work, retweeting the request to specific people and supplying a stream of great stories to Nancy. I check in a few hours later, and I’m blown away by the response.

9:30am — Plotting a surprise for a dear friend. Can’t share the details here in case said friend reads this blog post. I’m in the early stages of scheming, and after talking to a few people, I decide to set up a Facebook group. A few hours later, 30 people are on the group and work is happening. Many of those folks are friends I haven’t seen or talked to in a long time.

Throughout the day — Lots of work, and I need to focus. I have calls for four different projects. On three of them, we use Google Docs for collective, real-time synthesis. How were we ever productive before real-time, collaborative editing?!

I end up working until 7pm, then settle in for the evening. I disconnect, cook dinner, chat with a friend, do some reading, then go to bed early.

This morning — I wake up before 6am, refreshed. My friend from Korea has responded. Not only does she verify that the lyrics are indeed not offensive, but she sends me a transcription of the entire song! I thank her, and forward the news to my friend in North Carolina.

Later in the morning, I ponder all that happened in the past 24 hours, and I sit to write this blog post. As I write, Travis Kriplean IMs me from Seattle. He pings me about some great news, and we end up having a great, thought-provoking conversation about tools for engagement. My mind is racing again, and now I have to go read one of Travis’s papers.

Israel, Egypt, Belgium, Korea, and all throughout the U.S.: Over a 24-hour period, I interacted with friends and colleagues from all over the world, including one in Egypt while incredible things are happening there.

I spent about 20 of those minutes on my computer in my office here in San Francisco connecting people to others, creating online spaces, and walking away. Amazing stuff magically happened.

While all this was happening, I focused and worked productively, again from the comfort of my home office, using tools that have only recently become widely available.

What an amazing, wonderful world we live in, where possibility is reality.

Productivity, Working Big, and Spatial Awareness

My colleague, Jeff Shults, has a saying: “Work big.” Jeff is a space guru, as many of you who have participated in a Blue Oxen Associates workshop know, as most of my events have been at his different spaces. The most glaring feature of his space are the huge, movable work walls.    (MQE)

Working big is important even when we’re working small — at our desks in front of our computers, for example. I’ve cited speculation and a study on the productivity gains from using larger screens. I recently ran across Clive Thompson‘s New York Times magazine article that cited a similar study by Mary Czerwinski at Microsoft.    (MQF)

On the bigger screen, people completed the tasks at least 10 percent more quickly – and some as much as 44 percent more quickly. They were also more likely to remember the seven-digit number, which showed that the multitasking was clearly less taxing on their brains. Some of the volunteers were so enthralled with the huge screen that they begged to take it home. In two decades of research, Czerwinski had never seen a single tweak to a computer system so significantly improve a user’s productivity.    (MQG)

Thompson makes a key point in his article: Productivity in an interrupt-driven world seems to be closely related to our ability to switch and remember different contexts. Bigger screens allow you to take advantage of spatial awareness to switch and remember different contexts.    (MQH)

There’s a corollary to this regarding complex problems. I’m convinced that the primary value of graphical facilitation is not the Visual Language used to capture ideas, but the relationship created between ideas and space. In other words, you’ll remember the discussion around an idea better if you remember that it was the conversation that was captured on the lower right hand side of the screen or wall. This belief has greatly eased my stress when Dialogue Mapping, as ultimately, I see my task as building spatial memory.    (MQI)

That’s not to say that Visual Language isn’t important. It is, and fortunately, there’s a fantastic community of folks who are exploring it. The better news is that many of these folks will be converging in San Francisco on January 27-29, 2008 for the VizThink conference.    (MQJ)

Green Festival; SF Wikipedia Meetup

I’ve enjoyed being a hermit for most of this year, but I’ve made up for lots of lost time this past month. Got lots of great stuff to report, but in the meantime, you can catch me in San Francisco:    (MOF)

  • 6pm, Friday, November 9 at Green Festival. I’ll be facilitating an abridged, green edition of my Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration curriculum.    (MOG)
  • 3:30pm, Saturday, November 10 at the SF Wikipedia Meetup. This will be a great opportunity to meet some of the community members who make Wikipedia amazing, including the inestimable Phoebe Ayers. Word has it that there will be a few surprise guests, so definitely drop by.    (MOH)