The last two years have been very busy and required a lot more travel than normal for me and my family. I’ll typically book my own travel and call American Express when I have something more complicated than I can just book online. However American Express is a bit focused on their particular programs and partners. They will take your frequent flyer numbers and hotel program numbers and use them when they book, but they won’t necessarily look at your situation as a whole and try to find the best place for you based on your status level.
I started looking for other options that provide concierge/travel booking/executive assistant type services thinking that when we are spending a lot of time on the road, such a service might be able to pay for itself by focusing on leveraging our status in various programs to get us into upgraded accommodations. I looked at a few places and decided to try Red Butler. My goal was for them to have a complete view of everything about how my family travels and be able to make our hectic schedule a lot more pleasant by thinking through all the different options and finding the ones that would work best for us–especially when it came to getting hotels.
Right about the time I was getting setup with Red Butler, we got an apartment in Manhattan which meant I wasn’t needing to find a hotel room every week. Since travel was only part of what RedButler offered I decided to go ahead and try them out and see if they would be helpful in other areas as well. This review covers my experience so far.
How Red Butlers Works
Red Butler has plans with as few as 5 hours per month all the way up to plans with 75 hours per month. At the 15 hour and higher level, you are assigned a “Dedicated Account Manager” to handle your interactions with Red Butler, but your actual requests are handled from a pool of virtual assistants and travel planners. According to this page, the Dedicated Account Manager will learn your preferences, then take your requests and assign them to the best person for the job from the pool. This sounds good because it seems like you’d get the benefits of a dedicated assistant with the ability to scale up quickly and have multiple people working on various tasks if necessary. In actual practice, it doesn’t work this way though and the people from the pool simply select tasks that they think they are good at. Unfortunately, it means that each task somewhat starts from scratch as the person doing the work doesn’t really have any context about you. They have access to a list of your preferences, but that isn’t always a great replacement for actually knowing someone. You’ll see what I mean in some of the examples later.
Time is tracked in “points.” A point is basically 20 minutes. So at the 15-hour plan you have 45 points per month. If you run out of points in a particular month you can buy more.
Your requests are handled through a dashboard where you basically create a ticket or issue for what you want to be done. You can also call or text your Dedicated Account Manager and they will create a ticket for you. Early on my experience was that while you can call or text them directly, they kind of made it clear that they are doing you a favor and would prefer you use the web dashboard to type in requests. More recently that seems to have changed and the Dedicated Account Managers seem a lot more aligned with trying to help make the process work smoothly.
The dashboard shows you how many points you have left and also shows how many calls and emails have been made on your behalf. It shows you how many hours have been worked on your behalf under the label “Hours Saved.” The Productivity graph is supposed to show how much time Red Butler has saved you compared to the national average hours that employees waste each month.
It seems as if they are kind of repositioning themselves to be a perk that companies can offer to their employees. So you can basically give everyone access to a certain number of points per month that they can use to do things that will make their lives easier. For example, an employee could use it to set up a doctors appointment or deal with a problem with the cable company without needing to wait on hold. Unfortunately if their service switches to trying to handle a very large number of people with just a few requests each month, they become a bit less useful to someone wanting more personalized help.
Red Butler In Practice
So how does Red Butler work in practice? I think they have some great potential if you can get the right people working your task. The example they give on their website is that your task will be assigned to someone named Karen who they describe as:
Karen has been an executive assistant for over 8 years and is based out of New York, NY. As a vetted and trained RBA, Karen is ready to apply her professional experience and skill set to get hands-on, accelerating your productivity. A great all-around admin and graduate of NYU, Karen also has special expertise in online research, Excel and PowerPoint.
After using them for over a year and a half, I have tasks that go amazingly well–enough that they might have been done by someone who had experience as an executive assistant for 8 years. Most of the tasks are done adequately enough that they save me time. Occasionally we have some that take a lot more work or clarification than I think should be necessary. Overall though, my experience seemed to be getting better through 2016. Part of this is probably me learning more what types of things are a good fit for Red Butler and part of it is probably Red Butler learning better how to do what I need and improving their processes.
Beginning in 2017, Red Butler changed some of the staff and a large number of my tasks have started being done by new people. It was a bit rougher than I would have liked, but my account manager started taking a more proactive approach that seemed to be really helping–until my account manager left the company. Some of the new RBAs aren’t as familiar with how to look up the history of previous tasks. While this was inconvenient, it sounds like they have implemented some better training programs for new people and it seems to have helped.
With that background, I’ll finish this post by listing a number of tasks they have done for me along with the results
I coached my son’s soccer team and used Red Butler to call the parents to remind them of games, snack schedules, practice, pictures, etc. Once I got the list of the team, I scanned it and emailed it with my original request to call and tell everyone the practice time. Once that was done I could simply send in a request that said something like, “Please confirm with the rec center that our game is at 10:30 Saturday and then call the team to remind them Friday afternoon.” Friday afternoon I’d get an email listing each parent and the status of whether RedButler had spoken with them or left a message. When a new kid joined the team, it was just a matter of emailing Red Butler and saying to include the new child/phone number on the call list going forward.
Dealing with Southwest Outage
We were scheduled to fly back to our home in Kansas from NYC for a weekend the day after Southwest had a big computer glitch. Between the 4 of us, we had 7 large pieces of luggage checked of stuff that needed to get back to our house in Kansas. Our plane was there on time, but unfortunately, the crew wasn’t and the flight was canceled. With thousands of flights canceled, there were huge lines at the airport and very long wait times on the phone. Since we weren’t going to make it home for the event we had planned, we decided just to stay in NYC that weekend. I wasn’t sure how we could get our luggage even if we had wanted it, and everything we checked needed to go back to Kansas anyway. I texted my Dedicated Account Manager at RedButler and told her our preference would be for them to send the luggage to Kansas so it would be where we needed it–even though we weren’t flying that weekend. We headed back into the city to get some sleep. After she had waited on hold for about an hour I suggested that it might be better to deal with in the morning. The next day, Red Butler had arranged for Southwest to take the luggage to the Kansas City airport and then drive it 100 miles to my parents who live near our Kansas home. I didn’t have to spend any time dealing with the airline and RedButler just made everything work perfectly. For me, this was a very big win. Even though our plans had been messed up, I was able to focus on my time on my work and being with my family and not on spending hours on the phone trying to get luggage from one place to another.
Cancel Extended Warranty
We had traded in our car and purchased another one. The deal I had worked out was to include Honda Care, but when I got to the dealer they sold me something else. I was under a time crunch to get back home so I made sure I could cancel it and went ahead and purchased it anyway.
I submitted a request along with the bill of sale asking them to cancel the extended warranty and look into the cost of getting Honda Care and Honda Prepaid Maintenance from a third party. The Red Butler Admin (RBA) did a good job of getting the paperwork started for the cancellation. She also got a quote for the Honda Care and found out that if I want it, I should get it in the first 6,000 miles. She didn’t get the Honda Prepaid Maintenance quote saying that she had been told that our car will indicate when it needs maintenance. (This seemed to indicate she didn’t understand what I was asking for, but I didn’t pursue it.)
She was able to get the paperwork I needed and sent it to me as a PDF to sign with instructions to fax it back to the car dealer. Things got a bit confusing from there. I was able to sign it, but I wasn’t really set up to fax and was just getting ready to get on a plane, so I sent it back to her to ask her to fax it. The next email I got gave me an email address to send it to, so I went ahead and sent it. Of course, I would have preferred that she go ahead and email it on instead of putting it back on me. I think this may have just been a matter of crossed communication though. The dashboard does a good job of showing your interactions, but the RBAs also will email you directly. So between the two chains of communication, I think we just got things mixed up.
I think someone with a little more experience would have gotten the quote for Honda Prepaid Maintenance the first time since I explicitly asked for it. A really good RBA would have also included a quick analysis of the cost of the prepaid maintenance vs. the as-you-go cost even though I didn’t explicitly ask for that.
Overall I think it went well and consider this one to be one of the better successes. It saved me a lot of telephone calls which was very convenient since I was on a plane and working with a client. This actually highlights what I think is one of the biggest strengths of Red Butler–the ability to give you an interface to things that require waiting on the phone when you don’t have time to sit and wait on hold or track people down and wait for a callback.
Send a Cell Phone to India
I needed to buy a Blackberry and send it to a friend in India. So I sent the following request:
Please purchase and send a Blackberry Q5 or Q10 to XXXXX as a gift. His address is in my wallet and so is my Amex Number. Ideally I want an unlocked phone, but a locked phone would be ok if it were significantly cheaper. New or used is fine. You can source it from the US or from India. An new unlocked Q5 from Amazon will usually cost $129 so it should be somewhere in that price range.
I just need to send him the phone. Extra packaging and accessories will only add to the weight so they aren’t needed if there is a way to ship without them.
Experience has been than simply sending through US mail has a very high chance of getting there within a week. Since UPS can easily exceed the cost of the item, I usually send through postal service and just plan to send another one if it doesn’t show up for some reason.
If you can do this for less than $200, proceed without checking with me again.
My “wallet” is a secure area in your dashboard where they keep your data. I tried to give an expected price range, suggesting of the best shipping method, and a budget of $200 that they could act within without needing my input again.
The RBA checked and found that she could not ship directly to the address in India from Best Buy or Amazon. It doesn’t appear that she checked on sourcing it from India. She suggested that they ship the phone to RedButler headquarters and then reship it from there. Two days later I forwarded her a text saying that the phone had been delivered. She confirmed. Four days later she said that they couldn’t ship because the address was wrong. I said it was correct and confirmed that it was the same I address I normally use and asked her what she felt was wrong with that address. She thanked me (but called me Mike) and said she’d have them try shipping it again.
The next day I got a message saying:
Upon confirming with Red Butler’s Headquarters, unfortunately they are unable to delivery your package to India due to the address not complying with any acceptable UPS, FEDEX or USPS mailing destinations.
She went on to say she would ship it back to my house. I quickly replied that she shouldn’t send it back to my house since I wasn’t there and wouldn’t be for a few weeks. I reconfirmed that the address was correct, provided the GPS coordinates and my friend’s email address in case she wanted to verify the address with him directly. I also asked again if she could tell me what part of the address she felt wasn’t right.
The next email I got had a custom’s form to fill out from UPS–even though I had highly recommended using USPS and had given them the info they should have needed to fill it out themselves. I eventually got an email back saying that she had tried to use UPS and they were complaining about the country code and suggested using a different code. I typed the number they suggested into Google and it came up as an area code–in a different country. I also searched for the number I had originally given her and it came up with the exact area where my friend lives and where we needed to send the phone. I also showed her how to search for the area in Google Maps.
Somewhere in here I emailed my Dedicated Account Manager and asked her if she could help. She sent me a form to put the address in line by line. I did and sent it back to her, but that still didn’t seem to help.
Finally I got on a call with my Dedicated Account Manger and Red Butler’s Business Development Manager and told them I give up on this task and to just send the phone back to me. They said that Red Butler doesn’t typically deal with physical tasks, but they tried taking it on for me and probably shouldn’t have. I explained that I was more concerned that I was needing to instruct the RBA on how to type postal codes into Google to see what area they represented and suggested that this should have been their first step. Further I questioned whether the Dedicated Account Manager was actually assigning my tasks to the best possible person to complete them as their website indicates. I was told that no, the dedicated account manager doesn’t assign the tasks and the RBAs actually select their tasks themselves. I tried to find out more about the role of the Dedicated Account Manager because it seemed to me that they should have been able to get involved earlier when it became clear that the task was not progressing. I was basically told that the DAM had responded to every email I had sent her. I agreed to try some more tasks and see if we could find a better way to work together.
So basically my takeaway on this one was that the Dedicated Account Manager gives you a point of contact, but isn’t really acting in a proactive way to make sure things are getting completed correctly. If you have concerns, you are going to need to contact them early on and not expect them to jump in on their own.
Basically, this is the only task that I’ve felt was a complete and utter failure.
Itinerary for Visitors
We had some friends coming to visit us while I was on a project in New York, so I gave Red Butler a list of things we absolutely wanted to see with them, a list of things we might want to see with them, a list of our kids ages, and asked them to put together a schedule we could follow that would have us hit the places to take them along with suggested restaurants. I also asked them to see if there were package deals that we should consider that would cover many of the places we wanted to see. I also said I especially wanted options that would avoid lines either through going when things weren’t busy or with passes to skip the lines.
The first result was basically a list of places copied from the web. For example, I had said we wanted to go to FAO Swartz if they had opened up in a new location. The RBA simply gave me the address of the current store which they had announced would be closed by the time our friends were coming. The list also included a Mars-themed restaurant that had been closed since January 2012.
I contacted my Dedicated Account Manager and asked if my request was unclear or if I was asking for too much. She said everything looked good on my end and spoke to the RBA. The edit I got was much better. It mapped out a daily plan for seeing the things on our list and some recommended restaurants near those attractions. She also noted when certain museums were free and noted the ones that offer reciprocal entry via ASTC where both of our families have memberships.
Other than needing to ask them to go back and re-read my original request, this one was great and they provided a lot more information than I probably would have located on my own.
Barnes and Noble prints some nice classics in a simulated leather binding that I like. They aren’t particularly expensive and the selection changes over time. I previously had ordered a number of these books but wanted to get any new ones that were available now. I gave RedButler access to my account and they figured out what I had and what I hadn’t and then ordered the ones I didn’t have. Every few months I have them check for new books in this binding that are available. Most of the time it works ok although there was some confusion at one point and they ended up getting some books in different bindings.