Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Filtering Mechanisms

Creating difficult-to-use websites or making customers jump through hoops can be an effective filtering mechanism to filter out difficult or skeptical customers.  The ones remaining will be as pliable as sheep.

I had two recent and polar opposite experiences with websites and apps recently.  The first was for Lyft.  We are in Anchorage and wanted to get around without driving the truck and looking for places to park (which largely require payment).   Since we are going to be traveling to some places (Palm Springs) where we don't want to drive around, we thought it would be a good idea to test out one of these "ride sharing" apps and see how it worked.

Well, as you might expect, signing up for Lyft was like falling off a log.  The hardest part was entering a credit card number on the phone.  Once you did that, you entered where you want to go, and within minutes, a car shows up - a car whose picture appears on your phone, along with that of the driver.

It was pretty simple and painless, but of course, it is not cheap.  But it is cheaper than a taxi and a lot more convenient than a bus.  The company wants you to sign up, and if it is a pain-in-the-ass to deal with Lyft or Uber, you'll just say to heck with it and call a cab instead.

The second and opposite experience was with Holland America.   Mark wants to go on a cruise in the inner passage in Alaska, and taking the car ferry is expensive and not very glamorous.  For about the cost of the car ferry, we can take a cruise from Vancouver.  So, why not?

At first, it is pretty easy to sign up - but of course, like all cruise lines, deciphering the itineraries and figuring out the actual costs is nearly impossible to do.  Hiding the candy is the main idea for cruise lines - if you see a come-on ad for a $299 cruise, expect to spend 5-10 times that much after you've paid that fare for the two of you, plus taxes and port fees and fee-fees, and drinks and tips (mandatory gratuities as well as optional ones) travel to and from the port, hotel stays, parking, etc.

But we sign up anyway.  And once you sign up, you then have to go online and sign up for "shore excursions" and start the whole process all over again.  Like I said, take the advertised cost of a cruise, and multiply it by five - or better yet, ten.   That is the actual cost involved.   I guess if you stayed on the ship and drank only tap water, you could save money, but what's the fun in that?

Anyway, an e-mail arrives exhorting us to "check in" to a cruise that won't occur for over a month.   They want you to check in 30 days in advance (!!) of the cruise date.   So we click on the link to "check in" and get boarding passes.

Nothing.  Nothing but a 404 error.   Bad HTML.  I call "customer service" and am told their offices are closed - only open from 9-5, Eastern Daylight Time.   Very helpful when you are in Alaska.  I call the reservations number and after a half-hour on hold get a human being who says, "well, the website is working fine for me!"

Yes, when you are attached to the server by a five-foot optical cable, it works great.  When you are on a hotel computer or a laptop or cell phone in an area of sketchy service or filtered content, maybe not so good.   I search online and see an article in a trade paper on how Holland America has a new site design - on June 22 - that features "stunning graphics" and "user experiences"and I quickly figure out why the site isn't loading.  It is loaded up with unnecessary HTML fru-fru like auto-loading videos and high definition images, and the hotel WiFi is locking me out because it thinks I am loading a Netflix video.

IT people create these web page nightmares and never bother to think that maybe someone more than 50 yards from their server or someone not on a Cable Modem or fiber optic line might want to use the site.   You know, people who are travelling.

Oh, right, why would one expect people on a cruise to be travelling?  I mean, it makes no sense!

I finally get the site to load on Marks cell phone - it loads an abridged mobile version that doesn't bomb out.  But they want all sorts of information - much of which I already provided, such as passport numbers, birthdates, citizenship, and so forth.   Just redundant data-gathering.  And each page is slow to load and buggy.  Typing numbers into tiny fields on a cell phone is just aggravating.
I finally get to the end of the seven-page endeavor, and the site freezes and bombs out.   Great.

So I try my laptop.  Again, it loads about half the main page before going into freeze mode and displaying their version of an hourglass.   On a whim, I try moving the mouse around and can sort of "feel" by braille, where the icons are supposed to be.  I click on one, which turns out to be "deals" and it loads a new page - a page without self-loading video apparently.  I can then see the login icon and log in from there.

From there, it is just seven more pages of data to enter and disclaimers to read and then, of course, they want a credit card number to charge drinks and onboard activities to.   That is the real deal, ain't it?  The money, that is.

I finally finish all that and click on "print boarding passes" and nothing happens.   It says, "click here if you are having trouble printing" but all that does is load a "help" page with the message "nothing found on this topic".

I realize that Chrome is blocking the print pop-up, using its internal pop-up blocker.  Yes, the site uses pop-ups to print with - very 1990's retro, much like the ships in their fleet.   And it dawns on me that maybe that is one reason the site loads so slowly.   Between adblock plus and Chrome pop-up blocker, the computer is just convinced the entire page is nothing but a load of SPAM.  Which in a way, it is.

And I suppose for grandma, who responds to SPAM messages because she's still using Yahoo!, this all makes sense.   She doens't have a pop-up blocker or Adbock plus enabled.  They want people onboard who are passive and submissive, like cattle to the slaughter.  People who will fill out seven pages of crap online on slow and difficult-to-use websites for the privilege of spending money on their cruise ship.

And we see this, firsthand, here in Alaska.  The cruise lines run "shore excursions" and trips before and after the cruises.   If you see the Princess bus a-coming, run for the shelter of the nearest bar.  It will get ugly fast.  The first thing cruise line passengers do, is form a line, even when there is no need for one, or the boarding of the train or sightseeing paddlewheel is a half-hour away.   Form a line!  You have to get there first!  Never mind that your seat is reserved and they aren't going to leave without you.   Better to spend a half-hour or better yet, an hour, standing in a parking lot doing nothing.

And sadly, they are like that - like cattle.  We went on a "glacier tour" and the cruise line people show up in a bus at the train terminal and start forming a line and crowding the boarding area.  The train won't board for a half-hour and they all have reserved seat tickets.  So why spend a half-hour standing for no reason?   The reason is, they are utterly clueless as to what to do, unless someone tells them explicitly what to do.

We get to the glacier cruise boat and the same process is repeated - only this time they are standing in line in the rain.  We get our boarding passes, figure out which seat we are assigned to, and manage to find a nearby bar and have one of Alaska's fine microbrews.   These folks surge onto the boat, block all the aisles and say, "where are we supposed to sit?  No one told us where to go!" - because instead of figuring this out, they brainlessly stood in a line for nearly an hour - standing in a line unnecessarily as the seats are all pre-assigned.  There is no point to "getting a good place in line" when you have a seat assignment.

But, you see the same thing at the airport - people rushing like cattle to get on a plane that won't leave for 45 minutes at least.   It is not like you are going to "get a better seat" (except maybe on Southwest).  But of course, these are the kinds of people who bring too much onboard and hope to "score" a good overhead or whatever.  Shallow, sad people.

But they make good consumers.   They are convinced that it is a privilege to do something you paid good cash-money to do.   That somehow the hundreds or thousands of dollars you put on your credit card are not enough to insure that you are going to get the services you are entitled to.  No, no, no!  You have to get a "good place in line" and "know the hidden insider secrets" to scoring freebies on a cruise.

And these companies cater to this mentality.  All companies do.  They want you to believe you are "lucky" to score a deal on Cable or Satellite TeeVee, or that having the latest cell phone is worth sleeping out overnight in line for.   They get you to believe that you are lucky to be allowed to spend money.  It is power-shifting at its most basic and finest.

It is no different from the car dealer who makes it seem like a privilege for you to sign away five years of your life for what ultimately is a mediocre car.   If you are "lucky" enough and obsess about your credit score enough (another area where they power-shift) maybe you can get 0% financing!  But if not, you'll take whatever they deem to give you, because deep down, you know you are a worthless sack of shit who deserves no better.   The low-self-esteem engine is so good for business!

I mentioned credit scores, and indeed this is one area where power shifting has succeeded utterly.  People act like a credit score is a magikal thing - how to I get mine to go up?  I need a 770 to score that new Camaro!  Please Mr. Credit company, loan me more money!  It is such a privilege to be in debt!

The reality is, though, they make money off you, and that is a privilege for them.   And your "credit score" is something you have complete control over in your life, and should easily be over 800, once you get out of the mindset that borrowing money is some sort of privilege and moreover you stop borrowing so much.

No one wants to run a business where the customers are picky and complain and demand service for their money.  The Starbucks model of doing business took off in the 1990's and is the model for most businesses today - charge outrageous prices for trivial products, tell the customers it is a privilege to be allowed to buy the product, serve the product with a sneer, and then let the customer believe it is a sign of "status" to go through all this nonsense.

It is a filtering mechanism, much as this Holland America site was.   The folks who go through seven pages of bullshit to get a boarding pass - or wait on hold for a half-hour as I foolishly did - are going to put up with anything you dish out.  After all, they've "invested" time and energy in this (not just their hard-earned money) and thus will look forward to the cruise not as something they paid good money for but rather some special treat or gift they are being allowed to have.

It is like these crudely worded e-mails from Nigerian Princes that you get - promising millions of dollars in ill-gotten bounty.   Only a fool would believe such a primitive and poorly written missive and that is exactly the point.   When they do get a response, they know it is from someone who is either not very smart, or has lost their faculties.  Skeptics are filtered out.

But of course, not all businesses run this way.   Lyft is in direct competition with Uber and local taxi services.  They cannot afford to "hide the candy" or have a website or app that doesn't work well or takes seven pages to sign up for.   If they did, people would just say, "fuck it, I'll just drive or take a taxi!"

And you'd think that would be the case for the cruise line business - after all, there are so many companies!  But if you parse it down, many of the companies are just congomerates of smaller companies.  Princess is a subsidiary of Holland America, which in turn is owned by Carnival.  It may seem there are a dozen cruise lines out there, but in reality, there are only three or four.  And the difference between them (within the corporate families) is about like the difference between a Chevy and a Pontiac.  There is an appearance of competition, but in reality, not much competition.

So they can make it a pain-in-the-ass to deal with them, and if you go through all of that, well, they know you are prime Grade-A chump meat, who won't blink an eye at $12 beers with a 15% mandatory gratuity factored in (mandatory gratuity - an oxymoron if there ever was one!).  The cable company knows, once you put up with waiting at home for 12 hours for the "install" guy, that you are not going to bark at a $150 cable bill (once the "promotional period" ends) or switch to "another service" because in reality there are only two services (cable and satellite).  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain with his streaming and Netflix and whatnot.   Besides, now that net neutrality is gone, we can simply filter that dude out.   Whacha going to do?  Stop watching television?  Ha-ha!  Oh, wait, come back, I didn't mean that seriously.  Everyone has to watch television - it is the law!

Anyway, I approach this cruise with trepidation.  There will be lots of old people milling around, standing in lines, and worse yet, standing in the "choke points" of every room or hallway, preventing others who know where they want to go from getting there.   The only consolation is a bottle of vodka and gin they place in the room ahead of time (supposedly - I paid for it!) and free room service.   One can avoid the cattle-call at the all-you-can-eat buffet, if one chooses to.

But the scenery is supposed to be amazing and if it makes Mark happy......

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