I think of them as American Express, internationally not so much

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2010/07/17 07:01 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2010/07/17/10039409.aspx

It all started in the beginning of June.

Not the very beginning, mind you. Not the 1st of June. But just after.

This "seemingly worthless and over precise detail" is an important plot point, so please keep it in mind.

This India trip was happening, and there were going to be some Microsoft expenses on it. Several people figured as long as I was there anyway, why not take advantage? :-)

So I sent a piece of email to get my American Express corporate card reactivated.

It had been rendered somewhat inert, since I hadn’t had need to use it in the last year, by a company policy that said as much.

But the same email I received explaining it was deactivated said that if there was a business need to reactivate it, I could tell them and they would reactivate it.

Well it did, and I did, so I did, and they did.

Everything was now all set.

But on the day I was leaving, June 17th, i noticed a pretty gruesome fact.

The American Express card itself (which I had not really looked at in quite some time) expired 6/10.

Crap! The biggest part of the trip involving Microsoft expenses were happening in the July half of the trip!

So I call them, a bit frantic, since I am leaving in a few hours.

On the phone call they are at first confused why I was never sent a new card, until suddenly the piece in the American Express system that sends out the updated cards was seen to have a pretty significant bug: it runs on the first day of the month of expiration. And at that point, a new card was not needed since the account was inert.

And no program or process existed to notice the changed status and the fact that the card was going to expire soon.

They felt terrible, and told me so. It was clearly their error.

But it was only the 17th; if I knew where I would be in India then they could just send the new card there!

So I gave them the address to send it to (one of the Microsoft buildings in Bangalore that I knew I would be at and could pick up the card.

No worries, right?


I went to the Tamil conference and had a wonderful time, and all of that was on other people; my only expense was the wireless – highway robbery at Rs. 500 for 50mb, but since it was my only real expense for most of the week I didn’t worry about it.

Though I did learn that connecting to the Exchange Server is a huge no-no in metered situations like this. Its a pig, a real pig, in such cases! :-)

Anyway, the conference over, I head over to Bangalore, and the day before I get to that Microsoft office, I send some mail there and fine out the card isn’t there.

By this point it is the 24th/25th, so I am really panicking.

I burn up quite a few rupees on the international cellular call because waiting a day seems like a bad idea, and the hotel will charge even on collect calls – the mobile will too, but it is actually less for collect on the mobile!

They look at the records and assure me the card has been sent to me.

To my address in Redmond.

They look at the complicated record and can see the address in India it was supposed to be sent to. And they are confused that it was not sent.

I cut off the apologies and expressions of regret and confusion in this AMEX "Sumimasen" exercise by pointing out I could not afford to hear them all on a prepaid cellular.

But they assure me they will get me a new card ASAP.

However, they explain, it is harder to send new cards to areas considered to be “high crime” (which they defined as "countries like Iraq, Iran, and India" – clearly the American Express definition of ‘high crime” is ‘countries that start with I” – lucky for me I was going to be Iceland or Ireland or Iskandar!).

So even the DHL office in India that I literally would be passing each day in Bangalore was not good enough for AMEX – they had to send the card by courier. And it would take three days.

After it didn’t arrive, the next person I was talking to couldn’t believe I was told three days – there was no way it would be less than five to a place like India.

Oh yeah, a "high crime" area. Even though they had DHL offices, they were not trusted in India by American Express as a matter of policy.

I wonder how DHL feels about the opinions of American Express here, I really do.

At this point, with no way to access any other money due to my inactive Bank of America Visa account (BoA flagged my card for “suspicious” charges in another country, a situation I eventually got straightened out with them, but at the time I only knew the card was being declined) and an about-to-expire AMEX, I admit I was getting a little nervous.

I suppose I should have had them next-day it to my manager in Redmond and had him IO mail the card to India, but I didn't think of this until much later.

So I just waited. And hoped that the hotel wouldn't notice that the imprint of the card they took when I checked in expired soon. Having them call AMEX would be a challenge since I had to be the phone at least five minutes to get to someone who saw the right part of my account with the details ("Replacement Cards) here. Stress, defined.

The initial plans for Community TechDays (a quarterly series of events targeted towards Developers and IT Professionals across Microsoft technology focused User Groups in India) were pushed back until mid-July given the end of the fiscal year, and no one ever set up time with the other MVPs either. But that is a conversation for another day that is much more likely to be an internal MS communication so that Soma can know that I was not given "other opportunities or ways to leverage [my] presence in India with the developer community" as he had envisioned (long time readers will remembr how last time I was in India he set up the chance for me to speak to students at Anna University as I described in To Err is human, but to Geek is divine).

For now, we'll just note that I had to find other work to do to fill my time. The time create by this whole AMEX debacle.

'It didn’t arrive on Wednesday (June 30th) or Thursday (July 1st) or Friday (July 2nd). I can’t leave Bangalore and am at this point having to start shifting around and even cancelling plans for the “vacation” parts of the trip since I can’t go to them, and doing extra presentations of interest to the folks at Microsoft Research in India -- mainly I think out of guilt.

The courier wasn’t going to be delivering over the weekend, I was told.

I couldn't leave Bangalore even though I could get to money now (Bank of America fixed their little overeager denial issue -- remind me in the future to tell my BANK when I have travel plans!). Because if I left I couldn't get my AMEX card that woulkd be siting here in the city I would have just left.

And Monday was the Bharat Bandh, the huge 1-day strike in India to protest increasing fuel costs (see here for more info). The strike really hit Bangalore more than almost anywhere else in India (in Tamil Nadu they took the precaution of jailing the most well-known troublemakers so by report almost no one felt it there, for example), so it was the wrong place to be on Monday (though I had no other choice, obviously). I was stuck in hotel all day that day.

On the glass half full side it let me ride the iBot on the nearly empty streets of Bangalore, which was actually a lot of fun. Not that it was worth that many of lodging expenses in the wrong city.

Finally on Tuesday in the very early morning (for me; for them it was Monday) I get word from Courtney, who was subbing for Rachel, some of the people behind the AskAmex Twitter account who had been trying to assist me without requiring expensive phone bills on my prepaid mobile. Rachel was out that day but had left a note for someone to tell me when they got word of news on my case.

The card arrived in India!

Though not to the requested address.

The courier they use, who cannot deliver on weekends, also apparently can only deliver to a bank.

My movie-based mental definition of couriers who are armed and handcuff themelves to their briedcases and can get the goods anywhere and the American Express definition have some serious differences!

So I burn an hour getting to the bank and back on Tuesday morning to pick up the card, with the cab driver who was going to take me to MSRI and wasn't entirely pleased with the poor quality of the directions the bank gave to their address.

And then the card was finally in my hands!

Though when I was initialing the log where the card was listed at the bank and saw it had a bunch of entries after it, I was suspicious. There were an awful lot of cards listed there for a Tuesday morning. Could there really be that many cards delivered to this small bank in so short a time?

“When did this card arrive here at the bank?” I ask in a hushed tone. A missile silo kind of a hush, though really in my mind aimed somewhere in the US, not at this teller in the bank with no accessible entrance that required a security guard to carry me up the stairs to get in. Though that is as whole 'nuther story.

She traces her finger in the log to the date column, and then says “June 22nd.”

I have to look and check her work to be sure she got that one right. I even look at the entries around it to be sure.

What the hell?

Five days after the first card was supposedly sent?

The one that supposedly was sent to Redmond and got me all worried that I would never get a card in time in the first place.

There is no way that could have been anything other than that first card they sent, back on July 17th, because there was no way this could be the second card I asked them to send three days later on June 25th.

At this point I had been required to give up plans to visit Kolkata (Calcutta) and Kerala (highly recommended by almost everyone who knew I would be in India) this trip though I would have liked to do one and maybe both of those things, and stayed grounded in Bangalore for at least six days longer than I intended.

All due to a series of software bugs, process problems, inept phone support, lies, errors, bad communications coming from American Express.

That company with a representative that equated doing business in India with doing business in Iraq or Iran.

I will technically be violating several Microsoft corporate policies for use of the AMEX since I was forced to charge items that I will ultimately claim as personal (since they were) but had no other means of credit at the time. I think my boss will understand so I'm  not worried, but as expense reports go its one I'd rather have my gums scraped than fill out, and there is at least a part of me that thinks it would be easier to quit and work for some other company than fill out the expense report from hell that became so devilish due to American Express.

I’ll say that in the end and for the record, I have no authority to make decisions on behalf of Microsoft for its choice in corporate cards.

I also have no authority over American Express and its ability to disciple or terminate their employees.

Nor am I hankering for any of those responsibilities.

But it is quite lucky for American Express that this is the case, or I would fire a bunch of them for dishonesty and/or incompetence, and send then packing as a corporate card until they proved they could do a much open, honest, and professional job in International scenarios. With the exception of one employee -- Rachel Toledo of the AMEX Social Media Response Team, who I would call out for her nearly heroic efforts to keep me informed that proved it was just as bad on the inside to get things done as it looked on the outside --  I find the behavior of every person involved with the case to be so consistently awful that it is hard not to come to the conclusion of serious infrastructural issues that random chance in my case happened to expose.

This is not mere bad luck -- there are real problems in design here of their overall system.

No wonder they spend so much money on commercials in the US about getting people tickets to the best shows in town, how else can they distract from all their other issues?

I suppose they will just shrug and blame it on me for not noticing the expiration date on the card I had not used in a year and do nothing about their own internal issues. I am easier for them to blame as they prove to live up to their name of American Express, and internationally, not so much.

It cost me a bit of my vacation and some personal money and some of Microsoft's money, and I’ll live (I suspect Microsoft will too). But their mistakes could have led to much more dire problems and with no evidence that anything will change here, there is little I’d be willing to recommend about them.

Raymond Chen - MSFT on 17 Jul 2010 7:22 AM:

"remind me in the future to tell my BANK when I have travel plans."

I called my bank to tell them that charges on dates X through Y in city Z should not be flagged as suspicious, and they said, "Oh, we can't do that. In fact, it's while you are on travel that your card is most likely to be stolen!" So telling your bank about your travel plans probably wouldn't have helped either.

Michael S. Kaplan on 17 Jul 2010 8:16 AM:

There is that. Though the purchases were not so unusual to my perhaps flawed way of thinking about it....

John Cowan on 17 Jul 2010 9:10 AM:

What a horrible bummer.  But it seems that your employer should take some of the blame for letting the card go dormant in the first place.  My wife has used her Amex card maybe 10-15 times in the last 30 years, and it has always worked, unlike most bank cards.

If you use a bank card in a different location (where "different" can be as close as a few states away[*]) you can expect 2-3 uses of it before it starts to be declined.  The bank's security department will leave a message on your home voicemail, should you be inclined to pick it up: but in general as soon as it's declined even once, call Customer Service and tell them you want your card reactivated.  You have fallen afoul of an algorithm that looks at your pattern of transactions, so I don't think notifying the bank in advance will help, though it wouldn't hurt to try.

[*] It may be that if you travel in the U.S. a lot, the algorithm learns that unusual U.S. locations are okay for you, though they certainly aren't for me.

Michael S. Kaplan on 17 Jul 2010 9:55 AM:

I don't know, my job did change a lot (I used to be travelling to UTCs 3 times year and conferences 1-2 times a year and other random travel, then suddenly I wasn't doing any of that stuff. So I understand why the company might want to minimize the chance of someone stealing it and using it if it wasn't actually being used. I would consider that the least of the sins here (since they are the ones that will have to put up with the myriad of policy violations caused by AMEX's behavior I'm inclined to forgive them if they let me keep the job!).

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referenced by

2010/07/24 My 2 out of 119 (11 + 108) trips around the Chilkur Balaji Temple's inner shrine

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