Friday, November 13, 2009

That Syching Feeling

I'm sitting next to a dear friend of mine at a dinner event, and he says "You were late, so I called you, but you didn't answer."

"Do you have my new number?" I ask.

He shoots me a dirty look.

"Wait, I'll call you and you'll get it on your screen." I open the address book on the phone, only to find that his number isn't there. "Um, could you call me?"

He shoots me an even dirtier look. "This is looking really bad for you," he says.

Later in the week when my kids wanted to call my brother-in-law to wish him a happy birthday, I found out I didn't have my sister's phone number either.

I got a new job about a month ago, which meant I changed computers, cell phones, and Outlook/mail servers. (Fortunately, my personal e-mail never changes, so 90% of my contacts can always find me by e-mail and the other 10% know how to use Google.)

I exported my my Outlook contacts, Gmail contacts, etc. I synched up my phone and my GoogleCalendar. Miraculously, 2 weeks into the job, Plaxo offered me a free trial of Premium membership, so I was all set up for synchronization and duplicate elimination. This was going to be easy.

And it was, it was really easy. There were only two problems:
  1. The technology didn't work properly.
  2. For a change of phone number, you need a "push" technology, not a "pull".
Let me first say a thing about the technology that didn't work. I have nothing against Plaxo, but let me just state a general rule to any company. If you are planning to charge for a "premium" service, the service should actually work. Fortunately I got 30 days free, but seeing as it not only didn't work properly, but also caused damage, free turned out pretty expensive for me. Oh, and I can't cancel the trial except by calling them by phone during California business hours, which I most certainly will, and it will cost them more money than just letting me do it by Internet. I guess they figure they'll get more money from people who can't bother to call than it will cost them to answer the phones for people who do call. I don't have much to say about ethics on this one, but it's still a poor business practice to do something with the potential to piss people off. They might blog about it.

Back to my story.

I synched Plaxo with my Outlook, and then I used Plaxo's functionality for removing duplicates. (Actually, this was after trying Outlook's functionality for removing duplicates, which was really, really lame.) At first, I started using the manual functionality, but by the time I was up to 23 of 1156 duplicates, I thought it was impractical, and trusted the Plaxo functionality. Needless to say, I lost plenty of data this way. I don't know whether it was the sync or the dupe, but one way or another, information disappeared. (Yes, I have backups, if I want to return to the universe of 1156 duplicates.)

BTW, I am skipping a discussion of the miseries of incompatible file imports, etc., with Outlook because I assume you all know that it's par for the course. Apparently, if you are technical enough to know there is an "import/export" function in your mail app, you are technical enough not to be upset with a bit of fiddling with csv, pst and xls files. I'm willing to put up with a lot of scrap as long as in the end, my contacts are synched.

You'd think that contact synch would be easy to figure out. For any company doing contact sync, let me tell you a secret. This is a big secret, so you are going to owe me for this.

People's name are not unique identifiers. People's e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers are unique identifiers.

Given this, it should be friggin easy to do a contact merge. Really. Yes, some people have more than 1 e-mail address. Yes, often I have the cell phone number stored in my cell phone and the e-mail address stored in my gmail account, and sometimes there is no overlap, so let me tell you another secret. Again, this is a big secret, so you are going to owe me for this one too.

If you are a social networking site, you don't need to ask me the correct e-mail address and mobile phone number, because you are probably more accurate than my address book. (Yes, I know there are privacy issues, but if I am linked/connected/friended with them, it's legit for you to just update the proper name. That's why I joined Plaxo and connected with people there in the first place.)

So, once you know these two big secrets, a computer program, especially a social networking site computer program, should be much smarter than I am when it comes to duplicate contact resolution. From the 23 contacts I did manually, I can confirm that the program behind Plaxo is worse than my brain is at duplicate contact resolution. Listen, Plaxo, you have great ideas of what we want from Plaxo. Close to perfect ideas, I would say. The execution falls way short.

Ok, that's my sinking feeling about synching. I want to have a quick discussion of the largest part of the puzzle that is missing, which is push technology to send out important new information.

Now, I have a lot of announcement technologies to publish my new phone number. I'm not a very secretive person. After all, my job is to be the company spokesperson, which means my cell phone is published on company press releases. Still, I'm not actually going to tweet it. I did update LinkedIn, Plaxo and FB profiles, and announce on FB and twitter that I have changed phone numbers, so if you are my contact, you can find it.

Still, these are basically pull technologies. Either you noticed or you didn't. More than half of my RL contacts are not connected to me through any online social network.

Ok, so next, I started sending out e-mails to say I'd changed my information. Now that you know how many duplicate contacts I have, you can imagine how many actual contacts I have. Also, Gmail hasn't saved all of them as friends. Some of the people I write to most are not in my address book there. (AAAAAH, how did this happen? What kind of feature is this?) I didn't know this when I started, either. And, of course, there are limits on how many e-mails you can send in bulk, both in terms of spam blocking, and in terms of patience in clicking boxes. I guess you could just do "all", but in most people's cases, that doesn't make real sense. Not all of my buddies from every group list I belong to need to get this notification.

Over the course of a few days, I got up to R. So if your name starts with R-Z, or you are listed in my address book in Hebrew, and you didn't get an update yet, sorry. Maybe I'll get to it. Maybe not. And then I have to go back and go through the contacts that Gmail didn't add to my address book and send to those ones. And then there are the people who aren't on my e-mail list, like the parents of all my kids' friends. I could SMS them, but again, with the number of people I know, that's both expensive and time-consuming. Mostly time-consuming, to tell the truth. I'd be willing to pay twenty bucks for it.

Technologically, it's not problematic to create this functionality. Spammers use it all the time. Normal people, however, can't. It would even be easy to provide this as a one-time service when you get a new phone number. I'd be willing to pay for that. Sounds like it is time to call my cell phone provider and ask them if they can do that for me. I'll let you know how that goes next week.


John McCrea said...

I head up marketing at Plaxo and am sorry to hear of your experience. I also really appreciate your detailed feedback. Please email me, so I can handle the cancellation of the Premium trial. I'm john at plaxo dot com.

Rebecca Rachmany said...

Wow, super cool, Plaxo contacted me! I wrote the following note to John, and I'll update the comments here if there are interesting developments. BTW, when I can vouch that Plaxo's customer service in general does answer emails promptly (of course, they can't resolve the bugs, but they do respond honestly and promptly).

Dear John,

Thanks so much for checking out my blog, responding, and helping me cancel the Premium trial.
I'll be glad to check it out again and blog about improvements when they happen. I really love the idea behind Plaxo, because, as you can see, my contact synchronization problem is fairly critical.

All the best,

Rebecca Rachmany said...

Update: Plaxo has upgraded me to a free year of its Premium service. I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse, but it was certainly both gracious and smart. I will be doing a follow up in 6 months or so to let you know if there's been an improvement.