• June 1, 2008
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

"Houston, We Have a Problem"

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Memo from the desk of Marshall Lager, June’s Chief Missile-Missing Officer:

Everybody has a story about The One That Got Away. In my case The One is Space Shuttle Endeavour.

(If I wanted to be accurate, the headline to this article should involve Florida's Kennedy Space Center and not Houston -- but I'll take a grabby cliché over accuracy anytime.)

In early March, I discovered that I was covering Microsoft Convergence, an event being held barely a week later, in Orlando. There was a rush of activity as I booked flights and begged for a hotel room. Three days before I left, Forrester Research's Ray Wang mentioned over drinks that he'd be going down early, to watch a rare nighttime shuttle launch. This chance to bond with some key analysts led to a new rush of activity as my managing editor, also drinking that night, ordered me to go to the launch, rescheduling flights and all.

It also led to one of the most disappointing customer experiences of my life. In retrospect, my only revenge -- infecting most Convergence-goers with my flu -- was misplaced and not at all satisfying. [For attendees who contracted Marshall's flu: Our sincere apologies. --Ed.] Surprisingly, the bad parts had very little to do with the rescheduled flight.

First, there was getting a ticket for the launch. The first attempts were made via mobile device--three of them, in fact: a BlackBerry (mine), a Palm Treo (my editor's), and a Windows smartphone of some sort (Ray's). Thus, our failure can't be blamed on any particular platform. [Or on the drinking. Honest. --Ed.] NASA just doesn't seem to like mobile browsers. I had more success later, on a PC, but even then the process was lengthy and difficult; I'd be more descriptive, but I'm really not sure how I did it -- as of this writing I still can't find ticketing information on the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) site.

Because I was booking the reservation just a few days before the event, KSC was unable to send me a ticket directly -- no e-tickets?! -- and instead placed it at the will-call booth. Here's where the story gets interesting. KSC's will-call is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The launch was scheduled for approximately 2:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. My flight was due to land at 9 p.m. Monday night, but the KSC customer service rep -- yes, I'd finally had to resort to a live agent -- informed me that all I'd need was my confirmation number and everything would be fine.

I think you can see where this is headed.

Ray had kindly offered me a lift from the Orlando hotel to the launch -- supposedly a 45-minute drive under ideal conditions. Unfortunately --inevitably? -- my flight was delayed by about 90 minutes, so I wasn't able to connect with him. "No problem," I thought. "I'll just get car service."

One hour and $160 later, I reached the traffic jam leading to KSC's entrance, where some nice fellows with loaded firearms informed me that a confirmation number was not, in fact, good enough, and my hired car couldn't get in anyway because it lacked an entry placard.

Sleep-deprived at 1 a.m. is not ideal for arguing with the United States military, so we turned around for another hour's drive back while I thought dark little thoughts unfit for printing. I will print the following though: NASA might be able to manage rocket launches, but it's pure bollocks where customers are concerned. I had no trouble with the airline (aside from the delay) or with Travelocity, which I'd used to book the flight. Even the hotel did me a solid, letting me check in early: I wasn't supposed to have the room until later that day, since I figured I'd be watching the launch and hanging out with analysts until sunrise, but the front desk let me go up so I could collapse. All credit for the ball-dropping goes to KSC. [With, perhaps, a little left over for the editor who got Marshall into this mess in the first place. --Ed.] Worse, NASA told me my unused $40 ticket -- still at will-call, for all I know -- wasn't even refundable. Does our space program need the money that badly?

Ray, by the way, was kind enough to send me a photo from the launch, which he called a bit disappointing due to cloud cover.

He also was gentlemanly enough not to laugh at me.

Contact Senior Editor Marshall Lager at mlager@destinationCRM.com.

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