Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Open Letter to the President of Intuit

September 30, 2009

Mr. Brad Smith

President

Intuit

PO Box 28867

Tucson, AZ 85726-8867

Dear Mr. Smith:

As a long-time user of QuickBooks and Quicken, I am writing to express my very real frustration with the off-shoring of QuickBooks technical support. I challenge you, sir, to call your own company’s Payroll Support phone number and try to solve a technical issue using your Philippines-based technical support representatives.

I spoke to one of these representatives today. I found the connection horrible, no doubt because VoIP isn’t immune to distance. I also found the representative’s accent extremely hard to understand. And I found that when I started to describe my problem, the representative was clearly trying to find the right page in her script to come up with a response to my statements. She otherwise appeared unfamiliar with the program.

I write a blog that can be found at www.zackcompany.blogstop.com. Quite a while ago, I wrote one titled “Why QuickBooks 2009 sucks. Let me count the ways....” As of today, I have fifty-nine comments, of which fifty-seven agree strongly with me and go into great detail of the problems others have suffered. Of the other two, one was Greg Wright, Director of Product Management for QuickBooks, and one was not on topic. Thus, other than your own employee, every person reading the blog agrees that the program sucks. More interestingly, since my blog is not about QuickBooks in general, the only way that users are likely to discover this particular entry is by searching on the phrase “QuickBooks sucks.” Sir, your customers are searching the web for this phrase. That should tell you a lot about the levels of customer dissatisfaction out there.

Beyond the basic issues of the program, though, are the headaches and hoops that people have to jump though to get technical support. US customers universally hate dealing with technical support located in other countries. I’m sure you personally hate having an issue with your computer or credit card and ending up on the phone with India or the Philippines. So why do you subject your customers to this hellish experience?

I personally believe that there is a strong issue with one of two things at Intuit, possibly both:

  1. Groupthink: As defined on Wikipedia: “Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight.” I believe Groupthink is what resulted in the new online banking module that was so bad your company actually went back and reinstalled a means to use the old version. I strongly sense that employees are encouraged not to rock the boat by being a customer advocate, but simply to embrace the Intuit way. What you need is a team of customer advocates whose job it is to constantly question why the engineers are doing things that make the program more complicated for users, rather than less complicated.

  2. Institutionalized arrogance: I have long had the feeling that Intuit is not interested in the way that customers do business or even use the program. The company decides how the program “should” be used and then designs it in that manner, despite that customers may find it counter-productive, counter-intuitive, and annoying. The errors in designing the online banking module are a perfect example.

    Further arrogance can be found in the way that Intuit structures its Payroll Services, making it increasingly difficult and increasingly expensive for users, rather than simpler and less expensive. The pricing of products in the Intuit marketplace, such as checks and deposit slips, is not competitive with companies such as Costco Check Printing. Does Intuit honestly believe that its products are one hundred percent better and thus should be one hundred percent more expensive? I respectfully submit the products are not better and the Payroll Services have not been made easier and more effective, only more expensive. Intuit even had the arrogance to increase the price of Direct Deposit during the worst economy of our lifetimes. Way to support the customer base in a down economy!

I have, over the years, seen some improvements in the program. The ability to file tax forms electronically on both the federal and state levels is one of them. But otherwise, I feel I have seen few improvements. I have asked for years that the Job Description field be made part of the Memorized Transaction list or that the name field for that list be longer, or both. That change has never been made. I have asked for years that calculating items be created, so that you can use percentages of item X for item Y. That has never been added. I have urged QuickBooks to have true synchronization or coordination with Microsoft Outlook and with Stamps.com software (being able to tie Stamps.com shipments to QB customers or Vendors) and that has never happened. QuickBooks has never even been able to differentiate Customers and Vendors with the same name without the user customizing the names! Really, where is the innovation that would inspire customers to stay with and upgrade with QuickBooks? Thank God I’m a PC user. If I were a Mac user, this letter would be five times longer, given that lack of support, improvement, and innovation Intuit has provided the Mac community.

QuickBooks has, in essence, become nothing more than an American automobile model. It changes colors and shapes a little bit now and then. It adds a bell and whistle here and there, but is as likely to remove it in the next version. And like American automobile companies, Intuit will crash and burn if it doesn’t start listening to the customers and giving them what they want: a better program, that makes their lives easier, not harder, less expensive options for add-ons like payroll and supplies, and technical support that is located in the United States.

Thank you for your time in reading this letter. It would be greatly appreciated if I could receive confirmation that this letter was actually given to and read by you and not intercepted by administrative personnel tasked with keeping the “little people”/customers from bothering you.

Sincerely,
Andrew Zack

eQuery Form Headaches

Apparently there's a glitch and the form is currently offline. If you used the form recently and got an error message after hitting submit, then your query was not sent. You should send us a paper query or try the eQuery form again when it is back online.

Z

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tips for Our New eQuery Form

If you’ve visited The Zack Company’s website recently, you may have noticed it looks a bit different. That’s because we are in the midst of a loooooooooooooong redesign. I’m not going to lie. It’s not turning out quite the way I’d hoped. I thought it would look “slicker” and that by switching to Joomla, it would be easier to maintain. Neither seems to be the case. But I’ve invested quite a bit of money into it and so we’re going to be living with it for a while.

One major new improvement in the site, though, is that we’ve added an eQuery™ form. eQuery will allow authors to query us online, without having to send in paper queries or the dreaded Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE). This is both a good thing and a bad thing.

It’s a good thing because, obviously, it saves authors paper, time, and postage. It’s a bad thing because it requires me to read queries like I read many of my other emails: quickly and with the goal of hitting the DELETE button as soon as I can. I honestly suspect that I’m more likely to pass on an eQuery than a snail mail query, but only time will tell if that becomes a verified pattern.

There are some other bad things. The form has been designed to get authors to provide me the information in the format I prefer. First step is a one-to-three sentence “Keynote.” Keynote is a word taken from my days as an editor and when I wrote Tip or Title Information sheets for the sales force. It’s supposed to tell the reader (in this case, me) what the book is about in very few sentences. So far, no author has written what I would call a correct or compelling keynote. Here’s an example of what it should be, using the new TV-show-based-on-a-book, FAST FORWARD:

For two minutes and seventeen seconds, everyone in the world blacks out. During that time, each person has a vision of what they believe is their future, only six months away. This is the story of what happens during those six months. Are their futures fated, or can they stop the future before it becomes their present?

And, honestly, even that is a bit too long. Let’s try one for THE FIRM. You’ve read the book or seen the movie.

Mitch McDeer is a young man from a poor Southern family who has struggled through Harvard Law School. When a Southern law firm makes him an offer too good to refuse, he takes it. But shortly he learns that the offer really is too good to be true, because his new firm is actually a front for the Mafia.

The purpose of the keynote is to grab the reader’s attention and make him or her want to read more. It’s also a good test of whether or not the book is “high concept,” which is something that agents and editors love to see. If your book can be described and made intriguing in three sentences or less, you’re off to a good start.

Next, the form asks you for a description of the work. This is supposed to be three or four paragraphs at most. Including the length of the work is not a bad idea, as well as the format (proposal for nonfiction, for example).

Last but not least, there’s a section for About the Author. This is your one-paragraph bio, pure and simple. Pick up any hardcover book and turn to the back flap. This is your model. Don’t go too long. However, if you are writing nonfiction, it’s important to put in any relevant information. If you are writing about mental illness, do be sure to tell me you are a shrink, for example.

My article from THE PERFECT PITCH remains a good place to get ideas on writing query letters, so be sure to check it out.

Also, keep in mind that the firm doesn’t allow formatting. Everything you put in there will be plain text. So if you want to italicize something, better to use ALL CAPS.

I hope this helps. I’m sure as the form gets more use, I will be posting more tips and also refining the form to make it work better.

Z


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Should You Go for Full Disclosure?

Well, I'm back from being ill and playing catch-up. Got an interesting email a while back and haven't addressed it.

I have been trying to find an agent or publisher for a literary fiction novel of mine, and after sending dozens of query packages have found no one who wanted to read the manuscript. I suspect the reason is that I have very few publications to my real name, which is the name under which I have sent the queries.


However, under a pen name I have had a great deal of success publishing some half dozen erotic stories in major hardcopy anthologies in the last two years. Most of these anthologies are or have been sold in major bookstore chains, in fact. At the risk of sounding boastful I can say that I am one of the best writers now working in this genre.


I would really like to capitalize on my success as an erotic fiction writer in order to get the attention of a publisher or agent, but would rather publish my non-erotic novel under my real name. Do you think it would be at all feasible to write agents and publishers under my real name, tell them of my intention to publish under my real name, but also tell them my pen name, just to demonstrate that I am already a published writer? Can they be trusted with this kind of confidential information? Would it be better to write them under my pen name and agree to reveal my real name if they showed interest in my novel? Perhaps these are impossible questions to answer, but I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this if at all possible.


I guess the author of this email didn't consider that I answer these questions in my blog! So, if you're worried about confidentiality, perhaps this is not the way to go about it. Anyhow, I have opted not to publish this author's name, so that he can retain his anonymity.

That said, Yes, Yes, Yes. Tell potential agents that you are a previously published, great- or best-selling erotic fiction writer. Why wouldn't you? In telling them, you deliver more than one important message:

1. "I have been deemed worthy of publication. Thus, I am not one of the thousands of writers contacting you who have never been published and have never been evaluated
objectively as being worth publishing.
2. "I can actually finish something. I've written stories or books that have been published, so I'm not just playing around with this. I'm dedicated and have proven that I can finish what I start."
3. "I recognize that this is a business. By using a pseudonym to write in one market, I have proven that I'm not just desperate to get published. I'm working the angles to make sure that I'm planning for a career that's more than one thing."
4. "I can do more than one thing. I've written in one genre, but here's another. Sure, there's no guarantee that my science fiction novel is as good as my erotic fiction (hey, I've had erotic encounters, but I don't own a space ship or travel to the 24th century often), but certainly the fact that I am published in one genre increases the odds that I have some basic skills and am worth considering in other genres."

Of course, just because you write one thing doesn't mean you can write another. I remember working with a best-selling romance writer and lecturing her on all of her bad habits, each of which was entirely acceptable in romance, but not in general fiction, I felt. I mean, it's one thing to write about your hero's "throbbing manhood" or the "rising pulse" between your heroine's thighs in romance, but try that in regular fiction and I think you'll just get a belly laugh.

So, can an erotic fiction writer write in another genre? Who knows? But certainly if he has been writing successfully in that genre, he should use that as a selling point to find an agent for other works.

As for the question of whether or not agents can be trusted with the author's real name and pseudonymous writing credits, I would venture to say that agents who are not interested in his work of literary fiction will not be interested in telling anyone about his erotic writings. And those who are interested in his work of literary fiction will have an incentive to be discreet.

Z

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Here Piggy, Piggy...

I'm out of the office with the flu. On the plus side, I'm catching up on my sleep and losing weight, both of which I really needed to do. And my wife says I never see the glass as half full....

That'll teach me to pet the pigs at the zoo...

Z

P.S. Yes, I know I did not catch the swine flu from a pig. I don't even know if I have the swine flu. But I've got the flu and there's not a lot you can say about the flu that's funny. But pigs are ALWAYS funny!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

No one should die...

If you are a Facebook user, you would have to be blind to miss the current movement in which users are changing their status to read as follows:

No one should die because they cannot afford health care and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

I think this is a great sentiment. Unfortunately, I also think it's unrealistic.

I fear that the Obama administration and many of its supporters have really and truly bitten off more than they can chew when it comes to health-care reform.

Because, you see, it's not at all about health-care reform, it's about health INSURANCE reform. And the goal of Obama and many of his supporters is to remove the risk from the concept of insurance, which is simply not realistic.

By definition, insurance requires a calculation of risk. That's why homeowners living in areas known for wildfires or floods have trouble getting home insurance. If they can get it, it is often more expensive than someone living high up on a hill in an area that gets plenty of rain. Less chance of fire or flood for that homeowner, so lower insurance costs.

Every insurance company is making a bet and that bet is that the party paying for insurance will never need it. I have paid thousands of dollars in homeowner's insurance over the years and have only had one small claim. I've paid thousands of dollars for health insurance, also, and have had thousands of dollars in claims over the years, from knee surgery to back surgery, to broken bones and twisted ankles. Have I paid in more than I have taken out? I bet not. And most people would consider me a fairly healthy person. I do not drink much, I do not smoke, I take no regular medications, and my cholesterol is in a healthy range. I do need to lose twenty to thirty pounds, but that's a recent development brought on by the life changes such as moving from walker- and cyclist-centric New York City to car-centric San Diego, not to mention having a toddler son cuts into your ability to get to the gym.

You cannot force insurance companies to insure people who are unhealthy and who present bad risks. It's bad business. You CAN incentivize them. Offer tax breaks to insurance companies for each "high-risk" customer they take on. But is that really any more cost-effective than simply letting those folks sign up for Medicare? I think not. In fact, letting the uninsurable sign up for Medicare is likely more cost-effective, since Medicare is an established system and no new infrastructure would really need to be set up.

But we CAN make the health insurance companies foot the bill. Why not take a lesson from the banking crisis? Millions of depositors have seen their funds protected by the FDIC when their banks went under. The FDIC is funded by banks themselves, who must pay into the fund. Money from the fund is then used to protect depositors.

What amazes me is that no one has apparently considered applying this model to health insurance. I have read that there are about 1300 health insurance companies in the US. They are responsible for billions of dollars in business. Why can't the federal government simply create the Federal Health Insurance Fund (FHIF) and require health insurance companies to contribute some percentage of their billed premiums every year? Then those unable to get health insurance through their employer are allowed to sign up for Medicare and the funds from the FHIF are used toward financing their care. They would still have co-pays and minimums, etc., just like the rest of us, but at least they would have insurance.

There are flaws, no doubt. What's to stop small businesses or even large businesses from ceasing to offer health insurance when there is a government option? Well, lest we forget, businesses are not REQUIRED to offer health insurance, free lunch, or 401(k) plans. These are not mandatory entitlements; they are BENEFITS. Companies offer benefits to entice good workers to come to work for them. Companies that stop offering benefits will find that the best talent leaves to go to companies that do offer benefits. It's a fundamental part of the market economy and it works quite well.

Of course, one major issue many have with health care in this country is that it actually IS a market economy, but hasn't it always been one? Doctors move to cities with growing populations and few doctors to ensure enough patients to make a living. Towns without doctors may recruit and offer to pay off medical school loans for doctors if they will come practice locally. Good doctors may even refuse to accept health insurance—even good health insurance, not just Medicare—to ensure that they will get paid in full and are not locked into the rates established by Medicare or considered "reasonable and customary" by health insurers. But if they find that patients are few and far between, I'm sure they will rethink their decision not to participate in any insurance plans. But try to force doctors to ONLY accept what Medicare will pay and you will truly only get the most altruistic of students going to medical school. Why would anyone go to medical school if the only hope of earning a living as a doctor is to earn what Medicare allows?

The United States has laws against price-fixing, yet Medicare and insurance companies essentially engage in price-fixing every day. Well, technically, they engage in the REVERSE of price-fixing, as they drive prices down, rather than up. Medicare has a fee structure and doctors who accept Medicare have to accept that structure. Insurance companies will only reimburse what's "reasonable and customary" according to their own system, which is somewhat like the blackjack dealer telling you that you have lost but refusing to show you his cards. Perhaps someone should examine the restraint-of-trade and antitrust issues in health-care reform?

I don't believe that it's at all possible to "reform" health care and health insurance in our country with one bill, not matter how big the bill. And I think that it's unreasonable to even try. They may have passed one desegregation law, but it still took dozens (hundreds?) of confrontations in different states to get us to where we are today...still working on it.

We should strive to fix only the question of the uninsured for now. Portable health insurance is a great idea, but if you lose your insurance at least there will be an option for the uninsured. And when it comes to pre-existing conditions, go ahead and say that the new option for the uninsured allows for pre-existing conditions. Yes, it may result in an insurance pool that covers only those who can't get insurance, who have pre-existing conditions, and are the worst off, but aren't those the ones who need the most help now?

Z


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

American Express: the New Bully

We have all been getting the emails. From our banks, from our credit cards, and from pretty much every company that sends us paper, the emails keep coming. Please go paperless. Sign up to get your statements online. They make it all sound so convenient and easy. Even my company does it, scanning and emailing royalty statements.

Up until now, though, it has all been voluntary. They ask and if you want to cut down on some paper or save a tree, you agree to go paperless. I don't know about you, but when it comes to bills, I pretty much like getting the paper. Otherwise, I risk losing the bill in the plethora of emails I get every day and forgetting to pay it. That doesn't happen with paper bills.

The other reason I like paper bills is that I like using paper checks. Sure, paying online might be convenient, but I use Quicken for personal financial tracking and QuickBooks for business. And I don't write enough checks in either service to be worth signing up for Intuit's bill-paying services. Sure, my banks offer bill-paying services, but then I have to log onto their websites, set up the bills to be paid, and otherwise do a ton of duplicate data entry. I like entering things once and, incredibly, getting paper bills and paying them using paper checks seems to be the best way to achieve that.

But American Express wants to take the paper choice away from you. American Express Corporate Card holders no longer receive paper statements and they cannot get paper statements even if they request that they receive such statements. American Express has made online statements mandatory for Corporate Card holders. And they are going to do it to the rest of us, too.

You see, I've just been informed that Corporate Card holders are just the start. American Express is apparently on a mission to stop paper statements.

Good for the environment, you say? Perhaps, but I actually trust the US Mail to get me a bill more than I trust any email to reach me consistently, month after month. And if you use your local cable company's email system and then move to another city or state, and you fail to update your email address with each company, you risk missing your statements and becoming delinquent on your bills. At least the US Mail forwards your mail when you move. Do you trust Time Warner, AOL, or AT&T to forward your email? I do not.

I'm 100% confident that part of the thinking at American Express is that they will be able to make more on late fees and interest by forcing folks into paperless billing. That's better for their bottom line, but not yours, for sure.

So call American Express at 212-640-2000 and ask for the office of the president of American Express Credit Cards and let them know you are against mandatory paperless billing. And, like me, put your American Express card in a drawer until they stop trying to bully us into accepting changes like this without our agreement.

Z

The August Monthly Round-Up

With my summer intern, Crystal, now back at school, this monthly round-up is all me.

In August we...
  • Received 46 queries and declined 51.
  • Received 9 sample chapters and declined 8.
  • Received 1 proposal.
  • Received 1 manuscript and declined 1.
We have on hand and need to read...
  • 12 sample chapters.
  • 1 proposal.
  • 5 full manuscripts or self-published books.
In addition, we have 3 full manuscripts from current clients that we need to read and respond to, as well as one proposal we are preparing for submission.

We are waiting on the following requested materials...
  • 4 sample chapters.
  • 1 proposal.
  • 1 full manuscript.
Here's a list of what we have on hand and the order in which we intend to read them. Please note, though, that material from current clients is read before material from potential clients.

Chapters:

  1. Watts
  2. Smith
  3. Marso
  4. Johnston
  5. Cannon
  6. Lawrence
  7. Mercado
  8. Bartlett
  9. Kates
  10. Stills
  11. Kelly (2)
  12. Biela

Manuscripts:

  1. Conner
  2. Perrotta
  3. Hanford
  4. Dracoules
  5. Gerard

If your name is not on this list and we are supposed to have received material from you, then we either did not receive it or we have declined it. The oldest sample chapters we have are dated July 28th (letter date, not received date).

Z