The Island Home carved its way through a small chop on its way from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven. It was Monday morning, and the week was starting with optimism and a gentle rocking. I flipped open the lid of my MacBook Pro, all four bars of the Wi-Fi lit up, and I clicked into a website to catch up on the morning’s news.
A black-and-white page appeared with a Tyrannosaurus rex, its tiny arms a symbol of being unable to reach my destination. “There is no Internet connection,” the bold message indicated.
I clicked on the Wi-Fi icon, and it said, “Steamship Authority Free Wi-Fi.” I clicked on another website; same message about no connection. Tried a different browser. Ditto.
Sitting on the table, right next to the laptop, was my iPhone. It was linked to the Steamship Wi-Fi, and surfing just fine. I was perplexed. I clicked on my personal hotspot, linked my laptop, and read the day’s news, scanned my emails, and reached out to staff to get the week started — making use of my 45 minutes of commuting time.
The scenario repeated itself for every trip on my five-day commute. The laptop appeared to connect to the Wi-Fi, but I couldn’t navigate anywhere. Meanwhile, I was burning cell phone data faster than a spark races down the wick of a firecracker on the Fourth of July. (I share data with two teenagers, so, you know, running out would be like having that firecracker explode too quickly.)
I did a Google search about the issue, and stumbled upon a message linked to a story on The Martha’s Vineyard Times website. The person wrote about a feedback form on the Steamship Authority website. “If you write to them, they respond within 24 hours,” the person wrote. I had nothing to lose. So on my Friday commute home, I took care of one piece of unfinished business.
Under the “contact us” button at the bottom of the SSA website is a place to “give us your feedback.” It gives options for “suggestion,” “compliment,” or “complaint.” Mine didn’t fit any of those because it’s against my nature to “complain” about a free service. So I clicked on the suggestion tab, and explained my dilemma in the comment space provided below it.
Fast-forward to Monday. A busy weekend of sun, a little golf, and a lot of errands had put the Wi-Fi blues out of my mind. That is, until I got to the 8:15 out of Woods Hole, and had to fire up my hotspot to read my morning emails and news.
At about 12:06 pm, my phone rang. It was a pleasant woman named Mary Claffey. She said she read my feedback form and she wanted to help.
“Wait, what? Is this a hoax?” I wondered. “Am I being punked?”
Nevertheless, Mary persisted.
“We really want to help you,” she said. “If you can tell me what ferry you’ll be on, I’ll see if someone is going to be on that ferry to help you.”
I gave her a couple of options. She promised to call back. I went back to work and was consumed in a breaking news item when my phone rang again, at 3:37 pm.
“Can you meet Mark in the terminal before the 5 pm ferry?” Mary asked. “He’ll try to help you.”
At that point I asked Mary if this was something they do for everyone, or was it just me. She insisted that this is how they try to resolve all of the comments they get through their feedback form.
Wayne Lamson, executive director for the Steamship, wrote in an email that the feedback form was instituted in 2010 as another way for customers to reach out with concerns, suggestions, and, yes, compliments. Since January, the ferry fleet has received 98 forms (13 of them were compliments), with the vast majority of them having to do with the Wi-Fi, he wrote. Not bad for a business that’s had 68,000 vehicle registrations during that time, and thousands more walk-on passengers. We’re not even into the “season” yet.
Mr. Lamson reviews all the feedback forms and gets them into the right department head’s hands. In my case, that was Mary.
It’s not unusual to send an IT rep onboard “to meet the customer on a subsequent trip to see if we can help resolve the problem, whether it is with settings on their laptop computer or an unreported problem with SSA’s Wi-Fi equipment on the vessel,” Mr. Lamson wrote.
I met Mark Thompson at 4:50, and we climbed aboard the ferry. We went upstairs to an area set aside for passengers with computers. There are tables, outlets, and lights — a pretty cool setup for commuters who have to get some work done.
“Let’s see what we have,” Mark said. He went through a bunch of troubleshooting steps, deleting preferred Wi-Fi, including the Steamship. Nothing seemed to work, so he tried what every good IT person tries when nothing else works: “Let’s reboot.”
Off my laptop went with the click of a button. I turned it back on, clicked on the Wi-Fi, and sure enough, it worked.
For the rest of the trip across Vineyard Sound from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole, Mark explained how sometimes the Wi-Fi does have issues. There are a couple of dead spots where it drops off, and at times in the summer, there are so many users that it’s tough to get in the queue, with only so much bandwidth to go around. (They do block YouTube and Netflix, so those bandwidth hogs don’t block out the rest of us.)
Then we talked about commuting. Turns out Mark grew up in the same neighborhood I did in Cedarville, a section of South Plymouth, where he still lives. He was on one side of the Little Red Schoolhouse. I was on the other. We’re about 18 years apart, but as we reminisced about some of the old Cedarville haunts, a third commuter chimed in. “I lived in Cedarville for 10 years, too,” he said. “I never heard of some of those places. I enjoyed your conversation. Sorry for eavesdropping.”
If you’ve ever been to Cedarville, you know the odds of having three people from the tiny village in the same 100-square-foot space on a ferry is like finding three unrelated people from Aquinnah in the same coffee shop in Manhattan.
So for just being patient and digging for an answer to my Wi-Fi woes, I got my issue fixed (I’ll probably have to reboot every time I climb aboard, but that’s really no biggie), I got to talk about one of my favorite spots in the world — Cedarville — and I learned a little valuable lesson about customer service. The personal approach is still a winning hand, even in these days of quick communication through text messages, social media, and email.
So the next time you have an issue with SSA, click on the feedback form instead of firing up a Facebook post. Be polite, state your problem, and you’ll likely get a call from Mary or some other Steamship Authority employee.
Of course, if it’s a Wi-Fi issue, you could always try rebooting first, but look at at all the fun you’d miss.