Customer Service More Important Than Ever

Sometimes, a company will have a customer service failure; it happens every day. However, with the advent of the Internet, and especially services like Twitter a customer service disaster can have some serious fallout.

Consider what happened to Virgin America recently. They had a standard (but unusual) misstep for an airline: the aircraft was stuck on the airport tarmac for 6 hours. That was notable enough; however, what was most unusual was the fact that on board was David Martin, CEO of a social network startup ( that enhances user’s experience of Twitter and Youtube; he took the opportunity to document the entire ordeal by using the airplane’s wifi to update his account. The story was picked up by CNN, the New York Post, CBS, and ABC, and followed up by the blog Technically Incorrect and the blog AeroChannel.

Alson on board was “Dancing With the Stars” judge Carrie Ann Inaba, who sent Tweets about her experience. Another passenger, Uana Coccoloni, posted her experiences to Facebook as it happened. David Martin also posted a video of the experience that can be seen at ABC.

The story began with Virgin America Flight 404 into John F. Kennedy Airport; the flight was forced to divert north to New York’s Stewart Airport. After landing, the passengers were twice offered a chance to disembark; about 20 took the chance to leave. After six hours on the aircraft, the captain was able to contact a competitor with service in the terminal – JetBlue – to take the passengers to JFK airport by bus.

Also quite notable is the fact that had this event happened just a few weeks later, it would result in a fine of over US$3 million. A US law (14 CFR 259) is going into effect on April 29 that will fine the airlines US$27500 per passenger if passengers are kept waiting more than three hours. Several airlines have requested waivers for the airport at JFK (where this catastrophe started) because of this.

In this age of constant Internet presence, and being able to reach thousands easily and quickly, companies (and employees) need to be prepared for an instant backlash to customer service failures like this one. Virgin America responded later by sending letters of apology to passengers of flight 404 as well as a ticket refund and a $100 gift towards future travel. Unfortunately, the initial response by Virgin America was just the $100 ticket towards a future flight; the refund was David Martin’s idea (and Virgin America’s CEO readily agreed). However, this response is too late. Next time these passengers have to fly, will they think of Virgin America or JetBlue?

What should Virgin America have done? What would you have done?

I would posit that some sort of “first responder” group needs to be created that could respond to customer service issues large and small, and that the personnel “on the ground” should be able to respond as needed. The First Responder Group could have notified as soon as the fight was diverted and then had buses waiting at Stewart to take passengers to JFK.

The airport itself (Stewart International) could have had a First Responder Group that would be practiced and ready to go for just such an incident. There could be buses on standby and pagers distributed to appropriate responders, with appropriate responsibility given to them.

Why does it take an act (14 CFR 259) of the US Congress to force appropriate customer service from the airlines?

The final insult? After the plane was cleared, it finally was able to take off for JFK – and beat the passengers that were travelling by bus. Thus, the passenger’s original flight was already at JFK when they arrived.

The Advent of NoSQL

The concept of “NoSQL” (that is, non-relational databases) is more of a phenomenon than you might think. The NoSQL Live conference will take place on March 11, 2010, put on by the people behind MongoDB, a non-relational database.

In June 2009, a number of folks gathered in San Francisco to discuss the various NoSQL technologies (such as Cassandra, Voldemort, CouchDB, MongoDB, and HBase). Johan Oskarsson has an article about the meeting, with videos and presentations from the presenters.

ComputerWorld took note of the event, discussing NoSQL and how and Google are using non-relational databases for their data stores. Likewise, too, Facebook converted to non-relational databases.

Digg posted a nice article that talks about their conversion from MySQL to Cassandra, showing how they came to the point of considering non-relational databases.

Possibly the oldest non-relational database is non other than MUMPS (or M). This includes GT.M (open source) and Intersystems Cache. Long before relational databases came on the scene, MUMPS was running and saving data – and it continues to this day, working hard in finance and healthcare settings.

Over at, they claim to be the Ultimate Guide to the Non-Relational Universe. This may be true; certainly they have an extensive list of links to noSQL articles, and a list of NoSQL events.

The NoSQL world has been covered by Dave Rosenberg, who noted the upcoming NoSQL Live event in his discussion of real-world use of non-relational databases. Dave had reported earlier about the pervasiveness of non-relational databases in the cloud.

Now to go read some more about NoSQL…

Cloud Computing: Privacy Concerns

Over at Ars Technica, there is an article about privacy issues with cloud computing.

Of particular note, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) bringing up the need to work together to protect the American consumer during the development of the Broadband plan. The FTC has an entire section of their web site dedicated to Internet Privacy and Security, as well as other areas.

Government access to cloud-based documents can be much easier than getting it from the source; it is all up to the cloud service provider whether to turn your data over or not.

The provider might not even be in the United States, which means a whole new set of rules would apply. The government might have continual monitoring already in place, such as in New Zealand for example.

No matter where the provider is, it is really the location of the data – which servers it lives on – that matters. This could change over time; the data could be in the United States today and in China tomorrow. Thus the laws pertaining to data privacy and protection could change without notice.

The World Privacy Forum has a nice detailed whitepaper titled Privacy in the Clouds that makes for interesting reading. Every business considering moving data to the cloud should read this paper.

There is a nice article on Viodi based on a presentation from Nicole Ozler of the ACLU of Northern California (titled ACLU Northern CA: Cloud Computing – Storm Warning for Privacy?) which describes some of the legal aspects of cloud privacy (in the United States).

A recent article in the MIT Technology Review describes privacy and security in the cloud as well. The article suggests that encryption is one answer, but more sophisticated encryption than we have now: straight encryption removes the ability to work with data online (such as searching), and prevents others from looking at the data (in the case of shared data). The article also suggests that data could be limited to a particular area by the provider (such as being hosted solely within the United States).