Reflections on customer service and gig economy

Well the gig or outsource economy is in full swing and since it is impossible not to interact with it, I thought I’d note the last three and make some observations:

Buying with e-certificates at Lowe’s.

This shows why competing with Amazon is so hard. They offer huge discounts vs Amazon. Beside free shipping, if you use a click through site, you get 5% off and then with Discover, you can get an additional 10% off using e-certificates. In trying to checkout, the site failed with an edge case. Lots of e-certificates and then trying to add a new credit card. The result was that all the e-certificates were marked with zero balance?!. Trying to chat resulted in quick service, the guy (“Charlie”) just said, you need to call the issuer and thanked me and then hung up. Obviously, he’s going to get a bonus clearing customers and with no customer satisfaction metric, how is Lowe’s to know.

Then an hour long call with a super nice grandmother (two kids) working hard to figure out what happened. After an hour, she called another hard working person in the gift certificates department to get the number unwedged. And at the end, I got the order, but it took an hour. I was super happy, but when I tried to click on “1” at the end to give good feedback, I got the message, “this center is no longer taking customer feedback”

Net, net I got the order done, but it’s just sad to me, this really wonderful person who did a great job covering for Lowe’s really hard time keeping up with the market leader in e-commerce not only didn’t get credit, but I’m sure the hour long call is not going to reflect well on her stats. And even if it did, she’s just a gig economy worker, so what’s her career path anyway.

It’s sad because so many companies are not “Day One” Amazon companies, but instead, try to lower cost outsource it all and they lose what is their greatest asset, people who care.

Broken drone at B&H

Another catastrophe, buying a drone, it doesn’t work out of the box. Calling on a Sunday and you hear that they don’t handle this directly but outsource it, so call again tomorrow. The next day, I get routed to some back end fulfillment house, they give me an RMA and I send it off.

Now how is B&H ever supposed to know that these guys did an awesome, awesome job, I looked at the address, somewhere in New Jersey and it is actually addressed to a real human. I don’t know if I will actually get my money back, but wow what a great experience.

Again, I wonder, with all this outsourcing, how is the CEO of B&H every supposed to know how things are working.


Well I don’t know if there are any lessons to be drawn, but it is pretty clear that by cutting off the “low levels” for the “high value”, that big companies do lose something important. That is the direct feel of what happens to the hapless customer. Feeling bad about customers is part and parcel with the job (I know I’ve had those jobs), but doing something about it is super hard. Without that direct contact, what happens to all the great grandmothers who really should get promoted for making customers happy, vs. the chat bot guy moving through calls.

Net, net, the main lesson is that all consumers have to vote with your dollars and your feet.Reward the folks who are doing a great job, but also find a way to recognize the people who do a good job despite all the efficiency metrics.


Price Protection and Extended Warranty

Ok for the truly nerdy, did you know that if you sign up for it will track your purchases and if you have a chase or Citibank card, it will take a 25% commission, but will automatically handle the refund process. A pretty good deal.

If you want to do it manually, then Chase, Discover and Citibank all have this. Citibank is the best (so maybe a good card to use) for this. It has something called Rewind which does this automatically.

then if you are careful, most cards from Merrill Lynch to Chase Sapphire will also double the manufacturer’s warranty. You need to register the warranty with Visa to make this all work at

Mountain Hardware delight

OK, for a long time this was one of my favorite brands, but then they bulked out and got less athletic, so I don’t normally buy their stuff anymore, but if you are lucky enough to have a discount on them, here are the best things in their line:

  • Mens’ Stretch Ozonic. The best thing is they come in S/M/L as well as Short/Regular/Long which is 30/32/34. Really convenient.
  • Hyperlamina Spark 35. In the old days, the down bags were small and light but couldn’t handle the water. Now with the Spark that tradeoff is gone, super light at sub kilo yet it handles water no problem. Miracle.
  • Monkey Man 200. Who wouldn’t love a fleece named Monkey Man, this is just below the very best made, so get it if you get a good discount.

Mavic Pro works!

Well it is nice to have an actual working controller. First a hat tip to B&H Photo Video, they have a 30 day return policy and it is really just a phone call and you get an RMA.

As I said before for things like this, you really want to use a local store because of the possible need for returns. So a local bike shop and a local drone shop are both on the list.

Bathroom updating (aka everything you didn’t want to know about toilets)

OK, feel free to skip past this post, but it took an evening, but right now I feel like the worlds expert on toilets and all things modern (and no there will be no yucky talk here). But here’s the scoop:


We’ve been using the Toto Drake II 1.28GPF which is a “flagship” model at $350 (right hand lever is the CST454CEFRG which you can decode as model 454 which is elongated, ADA height and the CE means the coating, R means right hand or at Home Depot). Toto is reliable and this hits the middle of the road. It is pretty expensive, but on the other hand it is going to last a lifetime. While you can get these on Amazon, using a local place like Home Depot might make more sense. It is easier to return there! [Note that these are all right hand levers, subtract the “R” from the model number to get the left side]

The difference between the Drake and the Drake II is the double cyclone because let’s face it you want a lot of cyclone when dealing with toilets 🙂

If you are smaller and do not want ADA approved and need a round bowl for a tighter space, then a good choice is the Eco Drake 1.28GPF Round with traditional. The market for non-ADA is much smaller, so you can’t get the regular drake style in non-ADA round. Also it is the older Drake so less flush 🙂

None of these come with a seat, so you need either the elongated SS114 at Amazon.

The details

  1. Twenty years ago, the government mandated 1.6 gallons per flush toilets. This is a huge reduction from the 3 gallons before. Might now seem like much, but it does add up and toilet flushes are one of the highest uses of water in most homes.
  2. Today, the new push is to get to 1.28 gallons per flush. In drought areas like LA (not this year!), this is actually required. Amazingly, computer modeling and various techniques allow reliability at this level. This is called Ecosense by the way EPA. The best ones are really very good now.
  3. There are also more complicated two button systems that have a 1.6 and a 0.9 gallon flush pattern. This is designed so the arithmetically 1.28 🙂 Maintenance of course is more complicated and it’s harder to deal with than a lever.
  4. Coatings. The higher end toilets have these special coatings that are easier to clean, they cost more, but what the heck.

Well people are also getting taller and older, so there are some new ADA requirements that most modern toilets fulfill:

  1. Height. The old standard was 15 inches, now ADA is 17-19 inches. While not a big deal, it probably is a good thing to get an ADA one for home resale.
  2. Shape. The so called elongated bowl is also ADA.
  3. Level side. ADA requires that you put the lever on the “entry” side. The standard is on the left, but many times, you need it on the right, so you need the “R” models.
  4. Seat. These guys are tricky, they don’t include a $40 seat with the toilet, so beware

Losing your points

Man, I can’t count how many $$$s I’ve lost with expiring rewards points, but with a disciplined use of 1Password, so at least I know what accounts I have, plus a subscription to Awardwallet, hopefully this will be a thing of the past. Some notes, (by the way I was dumb, the old price as of February was $10/year, now it is $30/year, so it does cost something to keep track, otoh, you can lost $400 a year, so it probably does pay back).

  1. It is a complete pain, but you can painstakingly go through Awardwallet and give it the codes to all your accounts. If you are paranoid, they have a client-side only option, so that all the passwords are kept on your local machine. This is like 1Password’s system and is great.
  2. For most of the hotel, airline and other rewards systems, it will periodically logon and tell you the expiration date and then you search the web to figure out how to prevent expiration.
  3. It also has a “family” feature so you can keep the accounts of the family and each can access their own.

Last year, we lost a free ticket on Virgin, and who knows what else. Hopefully not this year.

As an example:

  1. Alaska Airlines has a 18 month expiration policy. You just have to use their portal and you are OK.
  2. Marriott has a similar rule and you can donate to charity 2500 points and keep it going.

Argh Mavic Pro is cool but beware

Well there isn’t any doubt that DJI has the best drone on paper with the Mavic Pro, but here’s what to watch out for:

  1. Hardware issues. Out of the box, the brand new Mavic controller would not pair with the drone. I’m sure they are selling like hot cakes, but this is the first time a $$$$s is completely broken out of the box. Fortunately there is a DJI Authorized Repair center there and they verified the controller is dead (it stays on connecting and it does beep when you press buttons). More frightening is that they tried 3 other controllers and one was dead. The manager said, yes this was a common problem, so unscientific, but a 50% failure rate doesn’t exactly breed a lot of confidence. I’m going to return the Mavic and rebuy from the local dealer.
  2. Net, net, make sure that if you are buying a drone, to get one from a local dealer because it is pretty likely you are going to have to get it replaced.
  3. DJI Repair plan. That is not what it is called, but for an extra $99, you can get a destroyed bird fixed for $99 or so and then another in the first year. However, be aware that you have to activate the plan within 48 hours of using your drone. The guys I bought from were good, they activated the plan with the now dead bird. I’m unsure, but hopefully I can return this thing and still get the $99 back.
  4. Customer Service. Well, I sent them email and after a week, still no reply. This is a common complaint on the forums.
  5. Acres of firmware updates and deep user interface. Man, for a consumer product, they sure ship lots of firmware updates, you have to update the battery, the drone, the controller and of course the iPhone itself. Make sure that when you get one, you leave half a day to get all this done. Many complaints on forums where you go out and try to fly but you need to do an update first, so make sure to update before you fly.
  6. Flight modes galore. This thing has so many different modes it is hard to keep track and the forums are filled with experts talking to noobs, the user base is not yet large enough to have every question answered

Net, net, the drone thing is moving rapidly and hopefully customer service and product quality catch up. In the mean time, if you have to have one, make sure to get one from a local dealer who also does repairs (e.g. not Best Buy). You need someone who is willing to fix the thing.

Bike gadgets and apparel

Well if you are getting back into cycling, it’s a great time to instrument up and DC Rainmaker has the best reviews and for apparel the most important thing is a good big with a good pad

  1. Bike computer. I have an old Garmin Edge 800, but many folks are loving the new Wahoo Elemnt Bolt. This is also the computer that Brad likes 🙂
  2. Bib. There are many, but I’ve used Castelli for years. The Aero is a decent value at $150 or so and the Mondiale is a splurge at $300, but I’m sure you feel fast!

But the coolest thing to figure out are the sensors and mounts. The main thing to decide is if you want just ANT+ or want Bluetooth LE as well for maximum compatibility. I like the idea of BLE so:

  1. Scoshe Rhythm+. An optical wrist band, so no more chest straps and it is dual ANT+/BLE. This thing works really well if you don’t have an Apple watch 🙂
  2. Speed/Cadence. The Wahoo BlueSC2+ is both but is bulky. If you want small, then the Garmin is tiny and uses accelerometers and no magnets but is ANT+ only. Or, you can if you have a Shimano Di2 system, you can get an ANT+ and BLE transmitter so you get both gearing (with Garmin 810 or later) as well as cadence, so you only need speed.

Then there are the expensive items, Power Meters. The main issues are reasonable cost (that’s relative, these are $600-$2K items), but then there is portability and battery life not to mention accuracy. The big issue is left/right differences and weather it is measuring just one side. And it is literally raining crank arms, so a complex market:

  1. PowerTap hub. The grand daddy of them all, but you need to change your hubs, which is you have a fancy wheel set (Topolino, ENVE) could be. a problem. Also you have to swap wheels if you have have lots of bikes. If you want these, you need to build a wheel set, so for instance, the ENVE 3.4 Disk for just the rears are $1K.
  2. PowerTap P1 pedals. The easiest to move, just move the pedals, but you had better like Look style pedals. it is however DC Rainmakers favorite. At $1.1K, they are expensive, but reliable and of course dual feet. These are about a 250 gram penalty over basic pedals, but work super well. Main thing is easy to assemble and works seamlessly with a Garmin 800.
  3. Chainring systems. PowerTap C1, Power2Max and Quarq units all in the same boat according to him, the main issue is compatibility with the rings you have and of course, it is way harder to move them to different bikes.
  4. Stages. Obviously cheaper at $600 since it is left only (but you can also get the Powertap P1S for the same price). But you also get to use your own pedals for those of us who like something else (like Shimano) or Speedplay (for float).
  5. 4IIII Precision. The new kid on the block and just $400 for a single side, so a value leader, but new.

Battery packs for laptops and things

Well you do run out of power all the time, then here are some good choices:

  1. MacBook Magsafe and special tip. This is the only system that I found where you have a plug in and it works directly to charge a MacBook Pro MagSafe (pre 2016). Also this system uses a five pin adapter, so it also works at lower power for USB C (but the one below is better).
  2. USB C 30 watt power delivery. This is perfect to rapidly charge or keep charged a MacBook Pro 2016. Most USB C chargers are limited to 10-15 watts, but this one does 15 volts at 2 amps. Way faster
  3. 12V and 19V for Windows laptops. It is expensive at $200, but comes with a whole host of tips and is great for the oddball Dell and other machines with their custom tips.

Best SD Cards

Time once again to look at SD cards as on a shoot you don’t want to run out or have ones that are too slow. The main news here is the increase in performance to U.3 UHS II which is 250MBps way above the previous 80-100MBps on U:1 UHS I.

In looking at the reviews, the main thing is pay for a lifetime warranty and don’t buy a counterfeit card:

  • Wirecutter recommends the Sandisk Extreme Pro XDSC is a reasonable choice. Make sure you do not a counterfeit card, so try to buy directly from Amazon and run Crystalmark when you get it to make sure you have the speeds you want. It’s a very reasonable $32 for 100MBps 64GB cards.
  • EPhotozine recommends the Lexar Professional 2000x SDXC as the best UHS II card with sustained 250MBps read and write. This is enough to keep up with the very fast UHS II cameras that are out now. It does cost you though with $95 for a 64GB card.
  • Finally if you need a micro SD card for your drone then Lifewire recommends the Sandisk Extreme PLUS microSDXC U:3 UHS-1 card which is 90MBps in that tiny form factor