Our First Happy New Year!

It’s been an, um, interesting 2010: unemployment still a major problem despite raging equity markets, twitter going “mainstream” (kind of), Dodd-Frank, wikileaks (aka delusions of gradeur of Albino creepsters), PIIGS crises,  and so many other things that I’m too lazy to list now.  After starting in February, we’ve received somewhere around 40,000 views this year, with our most popular month getting 6,000, our best day ~1,500 when we jumped all over Gretchen Morgenson for mixing up CDS and FX Swaps and the NYT for having an internal wikipedia-like library that’s about as authoritative as Gretch.

We appreciate all the views, comments, and feedback we’ve gotten hear and on Twitter, and hope to receive even more in 2011.  I’d like to throw some big shoutouts to everyone at Business Insider, Minyanville, FT Alphaville/Tilt, Stocktwits, and probably a handful of others I’m forgetting who’ve supported and dealt patiently with us this year.  We sincerely appreciate you and your extremely patient ways!

Going forward, we’ll be transitioning from wordpress.com to wordpress.org and redesigning the website (eta: early February for our 1-year anniversary), bringing on even more business/finance/etc pros, and expanding our coverage and reach to new markets/asset classes/industries/etc.  If you’re interested, shoot us an email stonestreetadvisors (at) gmail (dot) com.

From all of us at Stone Street Advisors, a Happy New Year to you & Yours!

Customer Service: Not Rocket Science, Airline Edition

While it’s no surprise that firms with monopoly/oligopoly power (real and/or perceived) are notoriously poor providers of customer service, I’m still mildly shocked that so many firms have their heads metaphorically stuck in the sand, Ostrich-style.  Firms now have the ability to measure and react-to customer sentiment in real-time with their websites and social media operations.  While some may argue that social media is still too young to judge firms on their twitter/facebook/etc acumen, there is absolutely no excuse for firms not using their websites for effective customer service.  What I’m talking about here is not, contrary to what you’d think from perusing most firms’ websites, Rocket Science; real-time status updates on store closings, system outages/delays, and any other business interruptions should be clearly posted to firms’ homepages, end of story.

This is especially true now more than ever since customers immediately and impulsively take to Facebook and Twitter to complain about poor/lack-of service and other bad experiences.  Several vendors offer tools to monitor and track brand sentiment in real-time, for example, Lithium, from Scout Labs (I recommend clicking on/reading that link as it further explains this point).

The reason I’m writing this post today is because of this lovely little snow-storm that has people throughout the North East running around like chickens without heads as if they’ve never seen snow before.  All of the NYC-area airports were/are still shut-down, New Jersey Transit bus service is still suspended (despite major roadways being clear since this morning…), and trains are no-longer running out of New York Penn Station on NJ Transit due to signal problems (really, I’m not making this up!).

Interesting Dichotomy: Unacceptable service, good communication.

While I can’t possibly comprehend how in 2010 we don’t have affordable, robust, quality train signal technology, nor why bus service is still suspended despite every highway camera I checked showing clear roads, at least NJ Transit has got the customer communication thing down right.  Frequent, clearly-marked, and informative, at least informative enough that commuters have enough information to make alternate plans (not that there’s much alternative besides sitting in terrible traffic or working from home).  Unfortunately, repeatedly-bankrupt/reorganized/merged airlines still haven’t gotten the memo…

Great! We’ve got a prominent alert that we can no longer buy American Airlines tickets on Expedia or Orbitz, and a News section, yet no mention on the main website about travel advisories, delays, etc.  Unacceptable.  Just watching my Facebook/Twitter feed I saw several complaints of flights being delayed for days from American.  Curiously, though, it looks like American Airlines has a pretty transparent and effective social media operation:

I’m actually quite shocked here, seldom do firms “get” social media while simultaneously missing the simple, more-established methods of customer relations/communications.  Both a tip of the hat and a wag of the finger to American.  Let’s check out Continental’s website:

Whoops! Zero sign of any delays/cancellations on the homepage.  Clicking on the tiny Red “Important Notices” link next to “Latest News and Offers” takes us to a relatively confusing kind of catch-all “alerts” page that’s unnecessarily complicated and so poorly-organized I’d imagine the average internet user may very-well give up before they find the information for which they’re looking.  Like American, though, Continental appears to have a decent Twitter effort (although redirecting traffic back to the aforementioned unspectacular website is a real faux pas):

Now I’m not really very surprised that the incumbent airlines have sub-par customer service, news that is not, but I did expect newer/more nimble airlines like Virgin Atlantic to be much more on-top-of things.

Not much better than the other guys, eh?  A relatively small, non-distinct “latest news” link on the lower right hand side of the homepage.  Again, seems VA, like its larger competitors, learned a little from Jet Blue and appear to be relatively adept with social media:

Speaking of Jet Blue, often regarded as having best-in-class customer service, this is what their website looked like earlier today:

Well look at that!  Only took four airlines to find a website that prominently displayed weather/flight delay/cancellation information on the homepage, sigh…

I’m curious what these firms pay all their consultants and layers of managers for when they can’t plan/execute the basics of customer communication/business-disruption-management right.  As I said above, in today’s world of instant-communication, a not-insignificant part of customer service is managing and shaping expectations and giving customers the information they need to interact with your firm.  All of these airlines were tweeting madly about know about long wait-times on their customer-service phone lines were today, but if they did a better job of diseminating information on their websites (etc), I’d venture to guess alot of passengers wouldn’t have needed to call in the first place.  Remember, these are the same firms that jump to outsource and minimize the cost of their customer service operations, yet continually fail to realize that customer-service isn’t just a responsive cost-center, it can and should be a driver of competitive advantage and increased brand loyalty/equity!

A Free Lesson on e-Publishing for The New York Times, And/Or: Things That Are Not News

I’m feeling generous & in the holiday spirit so let’s just say blogs – and best practices that evolved from them – didn’t achieve any real popularity until 2006.  Even if I temper my already low, low expectations from the MSM and specifically the New York Times, 4+ years is a LONG time to apparently be in the media business without picking-up on prevailing trends in that business, like in-line citation of source material, for example.  Whereas blogs and the more forward-thinking members of the 4th Estate understand that when you mention an article, like this one, you don’t link to your own site, you like to the article or website of the subject of said article.  The NYT has this really annoying, hypocritical habit of mentioning something or someone, yet the hyperlink goes not to the web presence of said thing/person, but to an internal index of articles on that topic/person.  Bloomberg does the same thing, but I don’t see them abuse it nearly as much as the NYT does, and let’s be honest, more often than not, Bloomberg has much better internal information than does the Grey Lady.

If we’re talking about computer programs that “read” text found in news and attempt to gauge sentiment and initiate trades based on that analysis, why not mention some of the products or talk about how this is hardly news?  I recall reading several articles over the past 5+ years on this subject, and Reuters has offered such services since at least 2007, as I learned with a 20-second google search.  Even if we’re to compare apples to apples (insofar as such a comparison is even possible with the NYT on one side), FT/Alphaville touched-upon this topic 11 months ago!  Putting aside how painfully the NYT coverage ignores their ignorance/laziness for a second, I want to look back at this particularly annoying paragraph from the NYT article that illustrates, quite clearly, just how badly the NYT just doesn’t get it, “it” being web-publishing best practices:

Tech-savvy traders have been scraping data out of new reports, press releases and corporate Web sites for years. But new, linguistics-based software goes well beyond that. News agencies like Bloomberg, Dow Jones and Thomson Reuters have adopted the idea, offering services that supposedly help their Wall Street customers sift through news automatically.

The hyperlink for “Thomson Reuters” goes to http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/thomson-reuters-corporation/index.html?inline=nyt-org, which looks like this:

Perhaps this is a bad example, as that NYT page about Thomson Reuters is likely a decent resource for readers totally and ignorantly unfamiliar with one of the largest news and data providers on the planet…a faux pas for which there’s really little excuse, especially for anyone who’s ever visited Times Square in New York City…

Thomson Reuters, never heard of him...

The NYT (and other MSM business sections’) management inexplicably still has this mostly-deluded idea that they need to keep eyeballs within the nyt.com domain – and certainly never ever under ANY circumstances send eyeballs to competitors – at all costs, even if it means delivering an inferior product, in this case, an article that could have been made significantly better with a few hyperlinks pointing to other websites/articles.

This is not news, nor, unfortunately, is this the most egregious example of the NYT’s utter lack of understanding of how this whole internet thing works.  Remember this, when popular object of my scorn Gretchen Morgenson proclaimed that Greece’s troubles were caused by CDS instead of FX Swaps?.  Even worse, the link in her article on CDS pointed – no surprise – to NYT’s internal page “about Credit Default Swaps,” which even in an updated version, reads as if it was written by monkeys.  Honestly, linking to Wikipedia would be a significant improvement!  Like several orders of magnitude better!  (On a side note I have to thank Gretchen, because that is the most popular post on this website!)

The point is, ladies & gentlemen, that even lowly bloggers like myself understand that best practices dictate when you mention someone/something, you link to it.  Period.  This is a simple evolution of those annoying MLA (etc) documentation standards we were all forced to use growing-up, and the rationale is the same: if you say something, back it up.  This is ESPECIALLY true when the author is not a subject-matter expert (even tangentially), but a journalist, and the subject matter at hand isn’t common knowledge, as is the case here.

I find it painfully hypocritical that the NYT (and many of its employees who hold themselves in such high esteem) claim(s) to uphold the highest journalistic standards, yet routinely and consistently makes a mockery of them.  As several journalist friends/acquaintances are keen to remind me, not every reader or viewer is an expert; on the contrary, a significant number are closer to laymen than professionals, and thus articles & television segments are published/produced with that in mind.  Fine, but there is a vast and serious difference between “dumbing it down” to appeal to/inform a wider audience and speaking with authority without actually having any.

I’m certain defenders of traditional journalism, its standards, practices, and conventions will immediately reply that there are several experts quoted in the article.  Big freaking deal.  That isn’t good enough any more.  I can easily claim to and convince several journalists that I’m an expert in several fields with which I’m only moderately familiar.  If you want to establish someone as a subject matter expert, throw in a link to their website.  For example, this article quoted a man for whom I have the utmost respect but did him a disservice by introducing him poorly and incompletely and worse, not linking to his complete bio, which is – guess what – readily available here, on his website, where readers could – had the NYT linked to it – read about Roger’s qualifications and credibility instead of taking the NYT’s abridged word for it.

“It is an arms race,” said Roger Ehrenberg, managing partner at IA Ventures, an investment firm specializing in young companies, speaking of some of the new technologies that help traders identify events first and interpret them.

Ironically, there’s another arms race going on, and its between thick-headed traditional media types and those who adapt to a shifting landscape, who understand that old paradigms are dead or dying, who embrace the ability of the Web to help them (or us, I should say) better-inform readers than ever-before.  Some people get it*.  Alas, it appears not many of them have much sway at the New York Times.

*An curious phenomenon, considering the recent expansion of the Sorkin-edited Dealbook, which while far from perfect in respect to the issues discussed above, is far ahead of the “regular” articles on the NYT website.

Wherein I Show How to Identify Baseless Political Opinion Masquerading as Economic "Analysis"

I’ve written several dozen times that I go out of my way to avoid ad hominem attacks, instead preferring to address the merits of a particular argument. Occasionally though, I read something so painfully rife with non-sequitur and logical fallacy, so absent any factual or analytical support that in crafting my reaction to it, despite my best efforts to the contrary, it’s simply impossible to respond without calling into question the author’s credibility and expertise in the topics at hand.

Earlier this week I came across one such piece, appearing in the Huffington Post entitled “Economic History Shows Clearly That Tax Cuts for Rich Hurt the Economy,” which I thought curious from the start, as the Author, Robert Creamer is cited as a “Political organizer, strategist, and author,” to say nothing of the fact that economists debate the effects of tax policy quite frequently, and consensus (if it can even be called that) is a relative word.

I’m not one to write-off an argument purely due to the apparent lack of qualifications of it’s author though, so I read the rest while trying to keep an open mind, giving Creamer the benefit of the doubt.  I sincerely hoped to encounter a well-structured, well-argued essay supporting the article’s title, unfortunately the prose which followed only served to confirm my initial skepticism.

Just to be clear, as I’ve said several times before – most recently just this past week – one does not need a degree or even work experience in economics in order to intelligently discuss the field, however, that does not excuse one from penning a thinly-veiled political spin piece under the guise of well-researched analysis, which is exactly what Mr. Creamer (herein “the author”) has done.  While a self-defeating practice, I don’t particularly mind people conflating politics and economics in their private views, but to do so in a public forum speaking as a subject matter expert is dishonest, at best.

To be sure, both Democrats and Republicans (and politicians of every stripe in between) are g