There are some interesting rules around international travel. Specifically cruises versus international travel by air. With a cruise the rule used to be that you only need a birth certificate. It’s been a while since I checked, but these days, I think that only applies to children. With international air travel, you need a passport no matter if you are a child or an adult. Now I’m fiscally conservative. Well that’s a nice term. My close friends call me a cheap ass bastard. I knew that we are in a period of time where international resorts are offering some of the best deals I’ll ever see in my life. And as I said, to use the vernacular “I like’s me a deal!” I hatched a plan to try and get the family to go to an all-inclusive in the caribbean. I knew I needed to get my ducks in a row including paperwork. To that end I was trying to get one of my kids his passport. Because it’s so expensive, I figured I’d apply for a passport for the kids, one per month, spreading out the cost. The passport acquisition process is not as easy as you would think and it requires a bit of organizational work to pull off a successful application. It requires both parents to be at the post office at the same time to confirm their identities. Additionally the process includes collecting various certified documents which need to be sent in with the application. So we went through the process for our oldest child and sent off the application. Months later we got a letter in the mail, and that’s where the frustration started.
The letter said that there was an error on the application with my social security number. It requested that I confirm my number, sign the form, and send it back to them. I did that immediately, and it was out in the mail on the very same day. Days turned to weeks, and weeks turned into months. I started wondering where the passport was, so I checked the online processing portal. I received an “Application Status Not Available” prompt and the language on the web page told me to check again. I checked back using a different browser, then I waited a few hours and checked the site again. The site still had the same status not available message. I checked back days later and at that point determined something was amiss. I knew it was time to call the helpline so I searched the website for contact info. There was a number and an email. I called the number. Much to my surprise there was no way to talk to a human. The complex menu system would just regurgitate some basic info from the website about passport availability and then it would refer me back to the useless website for more information. Next up, I tried the email. I drafted an email describing my situation and requested someone call me back. Within seconds I received the email equivalent of the phone system experience. The reply from the passport office was a list of some basic information with the recommendation that I read the website for more detailed information. In both instances the experience was a complete circular reference and the ultimate outcome was that no matter what I did I was not able to get the information I wanted. I had no idea what was going on or if I’d ever see my kids paperwork again.
In another example, one that highlights the benefit of dealing with the private sector versus the public bureaucracy, I had an experience with a hair clipper manufacturer. Again, owing to my frugal personality, one of the best investments in my life was a $20 set of hair clippers allowing my wife to cut my hair on an as needed basis. The hair clippers lasted the better part of fifteen years and recently gave up the ghost in spectacular fashion with a bang and a flash as my wife was about 2/3rds done with trimming my hair. Thankfully neither my wife nor my hair got singed with the 4 inch long spark that shot out of the clippers. Aside from the fact that we had to figure out how to finish the cut so I didn’t go to work that evening looking like an 80’s punk rocker, we had the issue of replacing the clippers. When I went to Walmart to pick up a replacement pair, I was reminded by the boxes of new clippers that our set had a lifetime warranty. I called the manufacturer and they gave me the address to send it in. There was no formal Return Authorization process. I just was told an address to send it to and asked to submit a note in the package explaining the problem and with our contact info. Again I waited weeks and no information was forthcoming. This time around I had a phone number to call that had an actual human being on the other end. Unfortunately the customer service contact person was about as useful as the United States Passport office. She had no record of our clippers and recommended I check back later as they were very backed up.
The third and final example is ongoing as I write this and it’s, to me, much more important than a passport or a set of hair clippers. I’m currently waiting to get my starlink satellite dish as it may be the only option I will ever have for acceptable internet access. I’ve been on the waiting list for the entirety of the beta test period for the satellite service. When something is in beta, there can’t be any expectations of quality service. In fact, with a beta, there is an expectation of issues and problems. That’s why it’s a beta, to figure out what the problems are and to fix them. When the service ended the beta, then the stated plan was to send the equipment out on a first come, first served basis for those like me who put down deposits. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as it sounds, there are some complications. Among them the silicon chip shortage affecting the production of the actual satellite dishes. Then there are uplink and downlink stations around the country that may not be completely online. Finally, there are limitations on how many people can be serviced per each cell service area. Unfortunately none of the specifics of this information are shared. I don’t know where I am on the list in total, and in my cell. I don’t know what the current production rate of dishes is. I don’t even know where the cells start and end. In theory I could be 301st in line out of the 500,000 people who signed up but if the first three hundred are already in my cell, which is the maximum capacity of customers for a cell, then I’d have to wait two years until they launch a bunch more satellites and add more ground stations to handle the data capacity.
In all cases the problem wasn’t the wait times, it was the fact that I was completely in the dark and had no way to hunt down information about where my request was in the process. I also didn’t have information about how long the process takes to get the requested service.
The whole thing made me think of the XBOX 360 Red Ring of Death crisis and how Microsoft handled it. If you are a gamer of a certain age, you’ll know that the first iteration of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console had a design flaw that caused each and every console produced in the first three years to eventually fail. Microsoft had a choice, ignore the problem, and eventually destroy the brand, or spend billions to do right by their customer in fixing every console they shipped. They chose the latter and built an entire industry around fixing consoles. For me, the most amazing experience of the whole thing was the tracking. I had never experienced it before. It was completely granular. You put in a request and they sent a box with a prepaid shipping label and instructions. You were notified when they received your order, when the empty box was shipped, when the box was received at your house and when they received notice you shipped it back. The shipment was tracked with updates at each step including being accepted in the repair facility. Once in the facility the owner was given updates of exactly where their box was in the repair process and how long it was expected until the next step.
Microsoft set the standard for letting the customer know exactly what was going on. Something, thankfully, we see today much more commonly than we did back then. Today, with certain transactions with online retailers who have partnerships with shipping companies, we get this level of granularity pushed to us through text messages and through emails. Thinking back to my experiences with the passport agency, my hair clippers and starlink I wondered why this standard of transparency isn’t applied everywhere. I’ve talked about transparency where it will never exist, but this was about transparency where it should. So why not?
I think there are many challenges to overcome. The first and most critical is focus. When you think of Starlink, where all hands are focused on getting the network up and running, customer service is very low on the totem pole. In truth, customer service is almost always of minimal concern when a company is experiencing an initial explosion in growth. Managing that growth is always the biggest issue faced by management. The only time transparent communications doesn’t get lost is when transparent communications is part of the culture of the company baked in from the very first days.
Even when things slow down, there is a tremendous amount of extra work involved. This isn’t just setting up the systems that notify customers. Those systems can be simple automated notices to complex multifaceted communications and public relations outreach. There is a huge amount of internal organizational effort that must be put into tracking everything as well as systems that can engage the situation when something goes wrong. The Passport situation is a good example of this.
There is also risk involved. Being transparent means you are sharing not only details, but the good and bad of those details. Notices where you are told you have been moved further down the line, even if it’s not the vendor’s fault, are never welcome and can create very irate customers by giving them bad news. It’s easy to see why decision makers choose to give them no news so that’s an issue you don’t have to deal with.
The net of all this really boils down to investing in a system that’s completely transparent. People are expensive. Information and communication systems are expensive. Shareholders are not big fans of spending money on systems if an organization can thrive without them
I think these reasons are why we don’t really see transparency as much as we could. That being said, there are some very positive aspects to this type of transparency and its greater adoption in the future. The tech to do it is getting easier and more well known. I cite the Microsoft / Amazon / UPS examples where I get notices of where my request is in the system every step of the way. I’m altered to what’s on backorder, when it’s expected to be out of backorder, what’s shipped, where it is in shipping and when it’s potentially going to show up. I’m also told of changes and why those changes are happening. So it’s possible over time that we will see more organizational transparency as organizations upgrade their process and infrastructure. These types of systems will simply be included by default in the new processes and can be implemented with less cost and less friction.
Another big benefit is that it’s very sticky to customers. Amazon, the master of getting customers to be sticky, figured this out a long time ago. Among equals, I’ll always defer to an option where I’m more in the loop about what’s going on. It’s not just information technology. If I have a local car service company and one gives me updates and options and the other just gives me a quote to fix the car, I’m going with updates and options.
Transparency, at least as it becomes more prevalent, is a bit like a hygiene factor. I am content when it’s there, but I’m very bothered by its absence. Transparency equals information. We live in the information age. Looking over it all, it’s no wonder that I’m frustrated by not having the information I want when I want it. When you are in the dark about things that are important to you, it can be very stressful. I guess I could go on vacation to escape from this and the other stressors of life. Unfortunately I can’t make it a family vacation. I’d like to, but as you know, My kid doesn’t have his passport. Hmmm, maybe that’s the silver lining in all this. Vacations without the kids are definitely less stressful than those with the kids and that’s something any parent will be very transparent about.
CODA: We wound up having to go to the local congressman’s office to get any sort of insight into the passport application process. From what I hear out of my representative’s staff, they have cleared up the problems and the passport is getting processed now.