I do not know about the rest of you. But I sometimes have the feeling that everything is falling apart – and that applies to American business as well. Let me describe my experience with four quite different operations.
The first is Intuit – the supplier of two indispensable programs: Quicken in its various forms, and Turbotax. I have no quarrel with the latter, though perhaps I should. It is the former that drives me crazy. I have owned and used it since 1995. In the early years, it got better every year, and I saw no reason not to buy the new version when it came out. Then, at some point – perhaps in 2000 or 2001 – the improvements stopped and Intuit began subtracting functions from the new versions of Quicken Deluxe so that they could charge more for versions including those functions. They put a new interface on the program every year, but they added no new functions worth having – and they eliminated functions provided in the earlier versions. They also introduced bugs that had not been in the program before and failed to fix them. You had to buy the new version, hoping that in it the bug would be fixed. In the last couple of years, I have found that on some computers (my Dell mini, to be precise) the program tends to crash. Too much information, I suspect, has built up in the last sixteen years, and nothing has been done to enable the program to handle a larger database on a computer with no more than a gigabyte of RAM. Intuit can get away with all of this because there is no competition. Microsoft abandoned Money, and Intuit bought out the one other company about to enter the market. It is apparently cheaper to buy off the competition than it is to provide a good product.
The second is Delta Airlines. Delta has its hub in Detroit, and that is the airport nearest Hillsdale, Michigan. On the whole, I am satisfied with Delta – though it has its bad days. But Delta’s website is terrible and has always been so. In the spring, I wanted to book a flight from Detroit to Prague and a return via Newark (with a one night stay-over). In principle, the website offered me the option of using it to book what was a slightly complicated itinerary. In practice, it simply would not do the job – so I had to resort to the phone (and pay an extra twenty-five dollars for my ticket). This is not rocket science. Programmers can produce websites that work like a charm, but Delta does not get the job done.
This morning, I had a comparable experience. I used www.orbitz.com to see what sorts of flights are available between Detroit and Salt Lake City (I am giving a talk at Brigham Young University in early November). Orbitz revealed that there were direct flights on Delta – out on Wednesday evening (7:15-9:15 p.m.) and back on a Saturday evening (5:00-10:35 p.m.). I then turned to the Delta website to see whether I could do better. I would have been perfectly happy with an outbound itinerary in which I had to take two flights if it reduced the cost for my hosts. What I found was that on the Delta website I could not get the 5:00 p.m. flight back that I could purchase through Orbitz.
I have also had trouble with scheduling. In April or May, I bought a ticket to Seattle – where, over the Labor Day Weekend, I am slated to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. I bought my ticket early so that I could get the latest possible flight back to Detroit, for I feared that the panel on which I was slated to appear would be scheduled on the last morning of the conference. It is a very good thing that my fears proved unjustified – for Delta shifted the departure time for my flight back by ninety minutes. Now, I do not object to such adjustments – if they do not amount to much. But what happened, in effect, was that they cancelled my flight at 1:45 p.m., created another at 12:15 p.m., and put me on that. In my book, this amounts to an unjustified denial of service.
My third example is Merrill-Lynch – which I abandoned recently. Prior to that moment, I had had a brokerage account with the firm for something like thirty years. At some point in the 1990s, I switched to an online account. Over the years, I noticed that the service was none too good. This did not bother me greatly until this year when I received a letter suggesting that I send to the brokerage purchase-price information for stocks and bonds I owned so that they could put the cost basis into their computers. So I threw together the information, which took some time because I had originally purchased some stocks by way of direct investment and had had the dividends reinvested by the company in its stock. I then mailed in the information to Merrill-Lynch, and nothing happened. It did not appear on the website. I called about this and got nowhere. Then, after a while, I called again and was transferred three times. Eventually, someone told me to hang on and he would look into it. Then, I was cut off, and no one ever called me back. My business was clearly not worth their bother, and I eventually closed the account. Fidelity and Vanguard have websites where their customers can input such information themselves.
Finally, there is The Wall Street Journal. I have little quarrel with the newspaper as a newspaper. It publishes too much fluff, but all newspapers do, and I find reading material in each issue that is stimulating and informative. The business side of the operation, however, I like less well. This week I received a letter from it, informing me that the price I was paying for the paper was about to double. From this letter, I was able to infer what I did not know: that, under the terms I had apparently accepted, re-subscription was automatic. No number that I could call was provided in the letter I received. There was nothing in it about my possession of an account with The Wall Street Journal on the web. But I knew I had one. So I dug through past e-mails and found one I had saved, which led me to the account. There, I was able to confirm that, in my case, re-subscription was automatic, and there I learned that, on the web, I could change the address where the paper was delivered, the e-mail address listed for me, and so forth. What I could not do online, however, was to make re-subscription a matter of decision for myself on the occasion when the old subscription ran out. Eventually, I found a telephone number and managed to get this changed. I am not about to pay the new subscription rate. But – and here is the kicker – it took me an hour or more to work my way through the maze. I do not doubt that this was intended. The business staff at The Wall Street Journal deliberately make it easy to remain a subscriber and exceedingly difficult to alter one’s status in this particular. It is, if I may say so, sleazy, and I resent the way in which this outfit treats its subscribers.
There is something sloppy about all of this. Intuit, which has no competitors, plays games with its customers. Delta has never managed to set up a decent website, and it is beginning to be fast and free in altering the schedule of its flights. Merrill-Lynch never really adapted to the internet and seems to think that it can do perfectly well without online customers (which, given the drift of things, is madness), and The Wall Street Journal is so desperate to claw in money that, by what are shoddy business practices, it alienates the likes of me. This does not bode well. I would not buy stock in any of these companies. They are not conducting themselves in such a fashion as to win anyone’s loyalty and admiration, and down the road they are apt to pay a high price.
I wonder whether what I am seeing is true of American business as a whole. Are we getting sloppy and losing our edge?