Category Archives: Business

How To Be A Good Customer (And Get What You Want)

All businesses are customer service businesses, whether you’re selling widgets or repairing plumbing.  You can’t do business in a vacuum.  You need customers, therefore, it goes without saying that it’s in your best interests to make them happy.  However, here’s a tip: you don’t necessarily need all of them.

I’ve been a manager in the business world for something like 30 years, 22 of them in the business I’m currently in, which makes me the Complaint Department.  But I’m also a customer of many other businesses, and my own customers have taught me everything I know about how to be a good customer, mostly by behaving badly.  I’d say my success rate is much higher than theirs.

Locally there is a business consultant named Jerry Osteryoung.  Here are a few of his qualifications:  Jim Moran Professor Emeritus of Entrepreneurship and Professor Emeritus of Finance at Florida State University; book author; newspaper contributor; consultant to over 3,000 businesses.  He used to write a weekly column for the Tallahassee Democrat, primarily about how to deal with customers and employees.  His viewpoint was a breath of fresh air.

The subject of one of his articles was the meme “The customer is always right.”  His take on that?  Who says?  Whose bright idea was that, anyway?  I almost jumped for joy when I read this article.  He said, the customer is always right, until they aren’t.  Sometimes, he said, the best thing to do is cut your losses.  Part of the old meme was “research” showed a customer who had a bad experience with you would tell 11 people, whereas a customer who had a good experience would tell 3 (if any).  So a lot of attention was focused on bad experiences, out of fear of losing not just one, but eleven customers.  Jerry said, sometimes you just have to say, “Clearly I can’t make you happy, so it would probably be best for us both if you found another provider”.  First, of course, you have to try.  You have to listen.  You have to ask yourself sincerely whether you or one of your employees did something wrong, and even if not, whether you could have done something better.  You have to give the customer the benefit of the doubt.  Neither Jerry nor I are talking about blowing off customers, which would be suicidal.  But it is entirely true that some customers will never be happy unless they are not only made whole for their perceived bad experience, but be in better shape than they were before.  I have two favorite illustrations of this principle, one I only learned of this week.

First,  I have a friend who works in the Customer Service Department for Carnival Cruise Lines.  He once got a call from a customer who wanted the entire price of his two-week cruise refunded, because one night, they served shrimp for dinner.  Not that he’s allergic to shrimp.  He just doesn’t like it.  And there was another option.  The customer’s point was that since he doesn’t like shrimp, that left him with only one option instead of two, so he “deserved” to have his entire fee refunded.  My friend gave him the standard response, “I’m sorry.  We’ll give you a 10% discount on your next cruise”.  The customer demanded to talk to a supervisor.  He got the standard supervisor response–“I’m sorry.  We’ll give you 20% off your next cruise”.  And that was the end of the line for him.  No amount of threatening to call the President of the company, posting evil things about Carnival on Facebook, or telling all his friends and family to boycott Carnival forever was going to get him any further, because what he wanted was unreasonable.

Example #2:  A restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina accidentally served sangria to a toddler, who took two sips before someone realized the mistake.  The family finished their meal, then “rushed” the toddler to the ER an hour later.  Wisely, the restaurant manager went with them.  The manager says the ER said the child was indeed sick, but from an upper respiratory infection.  The family says it was alcohol poisoning.  I’m quite sure the meal was free, since the restaurant acknowledged the mistake.  So what else does the family want.  My guess is, the keys to the restaurant.  They will lose.  But the attitude here and in many other cases is, “It doesn’t hurt to try, right?”  Well, yes, it does.

The impetus for this post is that a friend of a friend person on Facebook has had a very frustrating week with customer service issues.  I sort of half-jokingly offered to post tips, which in fact I will never do, because I don’t think she would like them.  They would work, but she still wouldn’t like them.  Understand, this is a lovely woman, in all the ways we mean that in the South.  Beautiful, elegant, well-educated, a former college instructor, very artistic.  But she is having difficulty navigating the outside world.  She has two main issues.  She can’t find the light bulbs she wants after going to two major hardware stores.  She feels dismissed by them, as they don’t seem to want to help her (they’ve tried to explain to her why, but it’s unacceptable to her).  She feels she has been deceived by ATT, since she accepted a “bundle”, and got a new telephone which won’t work if the power goes out.   Her solution has been to write letters to the Presidents/ Chairmen of the companies.

I may not be able to post these tips on Facebook, but I can do it here.

1.  Lose the entitlement attitude.  No, the customer is not always right, and that may include you.

2.  Ask yourself if you have truly been wronged, or if you want something because you’re special.

3.  If you’ve truly been wronged, make them want to help you.  You ask.  You don’t demand.  You don’t threaten.  “I’m never coming back here!” (Okay, we won’t miss you.)  “I’m writing the President of your company!” (Please do, I want you to tell him how much you hate shrimp.) “I’ll have your job!” (Good luck with that.)

4.  Ask yourself what you would be satisfied with if you don’t get everything you want.  A friend recently asked that question about the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri.  The Justice Department determined that major changes were needed in the police department, and a half-dozen high officials in the city have resigned–but people are still protesting.  So, what is it you want?  When will you know you’re happy?

These are just the bare bones of how to be a good customer.  You can follow them or be permanently outraged, which is an unfortunate way to live.  Life is short.

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All Hail to the United States Postal Service

“Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”. Most Americans, I’d say, think this is the motto of the USPS, but actually, they don’t have a motto. This particular quote appears as an inscription on a post office in New York City.
The quote itself is taken from the writings of Herodotus (circa BCE 500), the Greek philosopher that I remember as being famous for saying that you can never step in the same river twice. (Still a very profound thought.) But describing the Persian system of messengers, he said, “It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey, and these are stayed neither by snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.” Think Pony Express. It also reminds me of the origins of the Iditarod.
The USPS is in a very weird position. It’s mandated by the U.S. Constitution, and yet, it’s received no money from the taxpayers since the early 1980’s. So it’s expected to sink or swim on its own merits, by hook or by crook. But let them try to raise the price of a stamp by even one cent (which has to be approved by Congress), and watch the outcry. They are always between a rock and a hard place. They’re expected to act as a private company would, but without the ability to set prices or charge higher fees based on whatever hardships may be involved based on where they have to deliver. They have to deliver everywhere for the same price, regardless.
For instance, they deliver mail to a Native American tribe living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which they have to do by donkey.
This is an unsustainable business model. They cannot compete with private companies that aren’t hampered by these archaic regulations. FedEx killed them. Email killed them. In the sink or swim category, the answer is…sink. The USPS lost $5 billion last year.
Think about what you get in the mail these days. Bills and ads, mostly ads. Crap you just throw away. Wasted paper, and wasted labor to deliver it.
It’s no wonder that working for the Postal Service is very depressing. The employees are under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform, but in the end, what is the reward? Yes, you get very good federal benefits, if you can manage to keep your job. But how motivating can it be that your goal is “Don’t get fired”? The first mass shooting by an employee in the workplace in this country was by a postal worker. We even have a saying for it…”going postal”.
So…at work have a regular mail carrier named Alvin. Alvin is black. Always wears an earring and has a little soul patch on his chin. Has ear buds in his ears, connected to his cell phone in his pocket. There was a time when none of that would have been permitted. The ear buds and the earring may still not be permissible, so it could be that he attaches them once he’s out of headquarters, but the soul patch isn’t something he can take off and on. So the USPS has relaxed its standards…or, said another way, has migrated into the 21st century.
Alvin likes us, because we are always glad to see him, and we tease and joke with him, so he sometimes spends a few extra minutes with us, even though he is always in a hurry. On Friday he regaled us with stories. One of the stories is that the USPS now delivers on Sunday for Amazon. When you go to work, they give you your packages and map which says, “Go here first”. And how long has FedEx been doing that? Apparently there was a bid, and the USPS won. In another story, he told us all the things you can ship via USPS, which includes food and dead bodies. He also said that because of his appearance, he is often approached and asked to take packages from one address to another without postage and without it going through the normal channels. He said he thought that was the quickest path to federal prison for him. So he isn’t going there.

Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead

On June 8th, I did a post called “Why Are There Evil People?” I’ve been going through a situation at work where an employee (specifically, the assistant manager) has been trying to get me fired since the week before Memorial Day in May. She wrote an eight-page letter to my Corporate office, detailing all my alleged failures. She convinced three of my employees to sign on to the letter. She tried to get at least three others to sign on, but they refused. The rest were either too new, or in one case at least, too loyal to me, for her to even ask. I’ve never seen this letter in person, but I know what’s in it due to her having shown it to one of the employees who refused to sign on, who was perfectly willing and eager to share the contents with me.
In addition to listing my alleged shortcomings, part of the letter extolled her qualifications. She claimed that I didn’t do much of anything anyway, and what little I do, she knew how to do it too. Because of her dedication and laudable work ethic, she would be more than happy to take on additional responsibilities, which would have the added bonus of saving the company money (my salary). Showing a complete lack of understanding of my role, which isn’t that uncommon. She believes that work is made up of a series of tasks, and she has always missed the big picture…which is called “management”.
Have you ever seen the TV reality show “Big Brother”? This is one of this person’s favorite shows. Here’s how it works: A large group of complete strangers are placed in a house (the “Big Brother House”). They can’t leave the house except for going into the back yard. There are competitions, and the winner is named Head of Household (“HOH”). The HOH then nominates three people to be evicted, and a vote is taken during a house meeting, and one person gets thrown out. The objective is to be the last person standing. I’m sure I don’t need to explain the level of deception and scheming it requires to “win”.
For the purposes of this post, we will call the assistant manager person “Catherine”, and here was Catherine’s first mistake: she believes that real life is like Big Brother. That you can form an alliance with other people and “vote out” somebody you don’t like.
Cutting to the chase, on Thursday afternoon at 4:45 my boss informed me that on Friday, they were eliminating “Catherine’s” position. And that took place on Friday morning. He said that his observations and analysis of my operation (based on two visits of one day each in six months) did not require an assistant manager position.
I think this means one of three things, or a combination.
1. He really believes this, in which case he’s wrong.
2. He’s under pressure to cut expenses, making the company appear to be more profitable. Rumor has it that the company is quietly for sale.
3. This is the safest way to resolve what HR called the Fakename versus Catherine camps. Now everyone has to depend on me, whether they like it or not. And some of them won’t like it. “Catherine” was sweet, or apparently so. She has this sweet little girl voice, which grated on my nerves every time she opened her mouth in the last two months. But HR correctly described her as passive-aggressive. Her apparent sweetness hides the heart of a rattlesnake. I’m not mean, but I’m not sweet. I’m fair, and I’m straightforward.
Eliminating the position will mean I have to work more and longer hours. Is it worth it? You bet it is.
If money were the sole issue, my company could have saved more by eliminating my position instead, but they couldn’t really have done that. Every city has to have a General Manager…you can’t eliminate that position. So they would have had to fire and replace me…without cause, other than allegations made by employees that are emotionally based, speculative and unprovable. In addition, I have the double protection of being female and over 40. Not that I think I need to rely on that, but if forced, I would be in the lawyer’s office tomorrow.
The real deal is, I’m good at what I do. Yesterday, I talked to my old boss, whose position was “eliminated” back in February. He said, you’re safe for now. Your main client would have a coronary if they replaced you. Nice. But, he said, don’t feel too safe. Well, who ever does feel safe in corporate America?
But there are some secrets for surviving corporate culture. One of them is, Don’t draw attention to yourself in some negative way. Whether it seems that way to you or not, your bosses are busy. They don’t need the added interruption of dealing with a personnel issue that you created. And they do have to respond whether they like or not, and they will resent it. “Catherine” is not smart enough to understand that.
In the end, here’s what I think: I win, you lose.

Fun As A Manager…Part 2

So I have this delicate problem, with an employee in my office who, not to put too fine a point on it, talks too much.  As if that weren’t enough, she whines about everything.  Every day she comes in with a big bright smile, but it goes downhill from there.  She is too hot, she’s too cold (move to Iowa already, then you’d have something to complain about), it’s too humid, it has rained too much to mow the lawn and the grass is too tall, her knees hurt, her back hurts, and her head hurts.  And then, it takes her at least an hour to report what she had for dinner the night before, what movie she saw (and how much that movie reminds her of this OTHER movie she saw), and what her live-in boyfriend Keith said.  (It’s a wonder he can say anything.)

As I know well, you cannot change or “manage” a person’s nature, and I wouldn’t even want to.

But last week it sort of came to a head when she (her name is Kitty) said she was too hot.  Then she went to the restroom, which is right next to the thermostat, and said No wonder!  It’s 76 degrees in here!  OMG…call the paramedics.  P.S. The energy experts encourage us to set the thermostat at 78 in the summer.  Which I think is too extreme, even for me.  And P.P.S., it was about 82 outside at the time.

So I said, Tough.  She said, did you just say “Tough?” I replied, I’ll set the thermostat a degree or two cooler, but it seems to me that you are rarely happy.  She said, I don’t think that’s true, but I guess that’s your perception.  I used to be uncomfortable with this concept, but these days I want to say, What part of my perception being the one that counts do you have a problem with?

At the time I made the comment, there were three other people in the office.  Two of them were instantly engrossed in…something else.  I look over at the third person, my assistant manager, and she is desperately trying to wipe a smile off her face.  Like thank you God, finally somebody said something. She finally had to leave the office because she knew she wasn’t going to be able to keep it together.

Then guess what happens?  Kitty immediately jumps up and follows her, without a doubt to complain how mean and cruel I am..  I bet on that happening, and too bad it isn’t the lottery, because I would be a millionaire now.  I love my assistant manager, but she has this tendency to be  maternal.  She seems to forget that these people are adults. Even when she agrees with me (as in this case), she tends to listen non-judgementally.  Which in real life is a pretty good quality.   In management life, not so much.  One day she too will have the opportunity to get screwed by people she worked hard to understand and accomodate.

So two or three days after the “You are rarely happy” comment, I pulled the assistant manager outside for a pow-wow and said, I officially can’t take it any more.  I can’t get anythng done from the minute she walks in the door until the minute she leaves.  You have to hand it to the assistant manager.  She said, so do you want to talk to her, or do you want me to?  I would never have demanded that she do it, but I was grateful and relieved when she volunteered.  I said, it would be nice if you did, because Kitty already thinks I’m the Wicked Witch of the West, whereas you are the good witch Glinda.

In the interim, Kitty told us that she has always been a talker. When she was a child, her father told her she must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.  That was probably pretty funny when she was five years old.  Not now.

Green Trash…and Management School

I have previously posted about trash, when the City passed an ordinance that you had to bring your rolling trash containers from the street back to wherever you keep them. within 24 hours of trash pickup.  And you can’t take them to the street until the evening before pickup day.

Fortunately for me, that regulation only applies within the city limits, and I live a happy half-mile outside those limits, in the County.  I tend to think that we are a lot more laissez-faire in the County.  Plus, I live in the kind of neighborhood where no one gives a rat’s ass about where your trash container is.  If you want the front of your house to be advertised by trash, so be it.

So at work, I wanted something to be shredded.  My operation was recently audited by the City, so I’m very sensitized to the need for paper trails.  I wanted shredding, because they will give you an official “Certificate of Destruction”.  I don’t care whether they actually shred it or not.  I still have proof that I did my part.  (Read:  paper trail.)

I’ve used shredding companies before in a different city, and we took all the material to them.  Since that time, mobile shredding companies have appeared.  I see their trucks on the street all the time.  Not terribly surprising when you live in a city full of lawyers.

So I assigned my assistant manager the task of researching mobile shredding companies.  She LOVES this kind of detail.  It was like, Woohoo!  You actually WANT me to Google?  Is this a great job, or what?

There are levels of delegation.  For instance, we needed some landscaping work done at one point, and I said, find a company and just hire them.  Do what you think is best.  In this case I said, find a company you like, pick one, but discuss it with me first.  Primarily because I didn’t know anything about mobile shredding companies and wanted to be educated.  But secondly, there are some times when you have to keep a closer eye on relatively new managers.

She–like my last assistant manager–is so focused on saving money (not that that’s a bad thing)–that she will pinch a penny in the beginning, get shoddy work in return, and then have to spend even more money on someone new to correct it.

But she picked a company and made a recommendation to me.  This is a huge improvement!  I have finally taught her–don’t give me three choices and expect me to make every decision.  I can’t do it, don’t have time for it, etc. The “manager” part of your title means you have to make some decisions, and you have to quit being scared about it.

We went with the company she picked.  The cost was $45 if you take the stuff to them, $55 if they send the mobile truck.  A quick calculation told me that my time and her time was worth more than $10.  I said, send the truck.  And they came the same day!  I made her go with the driver to see the operation.  (Okay, I do care a little about whether they actually shred it or not.)

She was so excited that she took pictures of it on her iPhone.  They have this huge truck that is kind of like a regular trash truck, which lifts the container and dumps it into a bin.  But there is a shredder inside, so you can actually hear it working.

So this was the best of all possible worlds. The job got done.  I got my Certificate of Destruction.   She learned something, and had a lot of fun doing it.  Is this a great job or what?

Reading With Fakename: Lifeblood

Subtitled:  How To Change The World One Dead Mosquito At A Time.  Naturally, since it’s the middle of the summer in Tallahassee, Florida, this is a title I could not resist.  As you know, normally I am all for the survival of Nature’s creatures, and I recognize that some species I may consider odious have their place in the food chain, and are remarkable in their adaptation…Well, Whatever.  I would have a party if we could make mosquitos extinct.  As one friend said to me, fish eat mosquito larvae.  And I said, then the fish will have to eat something else.

But I digress.  The book is about malaria, which the author says is the oldest known disease.  In the beginning of the book, it was killing a million people a year.  If you survive it, it isn’t as if you’re done.  You will continue to have flare-ups for the rest of your life.

On a personal note, l will mention that my ex-husband (who was a very brief husband) had contracted it in Vietnam.  I didn’t believe him, since he was prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandizement.  It turned out he was actually telling the truth most of the time, but who knew?  So I didn’t believe it until we actually got married, and one of the presents we got from one of his friends was a certificate for a pint of blood in “Skip’s” name.  It was the best wedding present we got, and then I believed him.

Only the first two chapters of the book are devoted to the disease of malaria and the science of it.  The rest of the book is devoted to the business of eliminating it.  This part may have turned off some people, but not me.

So most of the book is devoted to following around one guy, Ray Chambers.  Described as a Wall Street genius and gajillionaire, he got bored.  And wanted to do something “good”. So he studied it with a sort of cold eye, trying to determine where he could do the most good for the least money.

The answer was:  malaria.  It wasn’t going to take 20 years of research.  It wasn’t elusive, like cancer.  They already knew what worked: bed nets.  Even better, bed nets treated with insecticide.  And spraying insecticide to kill mosquitos.  The reason bed nets worked so well all by themselves is that mosquitos are most active when people are sleeping.  It seems so obvious.  It was a low-tech solution.  So why wasn’t it being done already?

The answer lies partly in the culture of “aid”.  Aid organizations have poured money into various causes without much of an impact.  So Chambers looked at it as a business.  You have to show results.  How many bed nets did we distribute, and how much did the death and infection rate decline?

You get an insight into the whole aid process, reading this book.  It has become a sort of juggernaut.  It reminds me of college sociology, when studying organizations whose main focus turns into the survival of the organization, rather than the mission they started with.

There is a place in Uganda which is Ground Zero for malaria…Lake Kwania.  Specifically, a town called Apac.  When the author first visits, the only people he sees on the streets are two naked men mumbling to themselves. The doctor in the local clinc explains that they have brain damage  from having malaria as babies.

The next time the author visits, after the Chambers campaign, they are having parties in the streets.  Outdoor cafes.  The town has come to life again.  It was a beautiful scene.

Today’s Rant: Modern Packaging

The occasion is that today it dawned on me that the pharmacy is now giving me the two medications I get (that come in pill bottles) without childproof caps.  I don’t know whether to be happy or offended.  Offended, because I figure they have now decided I’m too old to have children in the home, and that at my age, I may have trouble opening a childproof cap.  Okay, the first is true, but I’ll have you know I can still open a childproof cap with the best of them.  Including children.  Since children at the age of five can open Google and hack your email, I figure a childproof cap is no challenge at all.  And don’t get me started on the OTC things like bottles of Ibuprofen where you have to match the arrow on the cap to the little projection on the bottle.  Whose idea was that anyway?  Grr.

Let’s now talk about tape.  At work, I get a lot of deliveries from UPS, which come in boxes that would put the security of Fort Knox to shame.  Sometimes I think, it would be nice to know what’s in this box, but apparently I’m going to have to Xray it to find out.  Because I’m certainly not going to be able to open it.  The fact is that in order to open the box, you have to have a tool, namely a carpet knife, to cut the tape.  What is wrong with this picture?

Having to have tools to open a package leads me to my coup de grace–that hard plastic molded stuff that surrounds (fill in name of product here).  Never try to buy, for example, a tiny little flash drive for your computer.  It will come in a package 100 times its size and be surrounded by cardboard and hard plastic.  The package will cost more than the item.

I once read that this style of packaging was developed to discourage shoplifting of small items.  Okay, I get that.  But this stuff is the bane of my existence.    So you have to have a tool, and here’s one from Amazon.com:  http://www.amazon.com/Zibra-ZPCOPEN-OR-Universal-Package-Opener/dp/B000IHHOVI

Can shoplifters outfitted with Zibra Universal Package openers be far behind?