September 11, 2001

September 11, 2001 always gets me thinking.

I remember sitting at my desk in my little office at a company I have long since left, learning about this crazy thing happening in New York. I tried to look it up online but couldn’t, because the Internet was down. So many people were trying to go online at once that the entire Internet had crashed.

I lived near DC, and my family is from New York, and so the news of the shocking attacks on the twin towers always felt way too close to home.

dad
Dad with Red Auerbach, Faneuil Hall, Boston

I had no idea just how close to home this day would end up becoming.

Getting the news

I got through my day mildly confused and curious about the world events that I had heard about second hand. I walked through the door of my apartment, and turned on the news. That’s when the chaos flooded my eyes and my ears. To this day, when I think of 9/11, I hear George W. Bush’s voice. I don’t remember what he said, but I will probably forever associate his voice with that day. I simply cannot separate the two.

My phone rang. I numbly answered it, and it was my mother. She was crying. I thought that was strange. She is typically not that affected by world events.

I don’t recall if she even knew that the twin towers had fallen. Her day had been spent sitting in a doctor’s office in Baltimore as a surgeon told my parents that my father’s tumor was the size of a peach, not the size of a pea, as they had been previously told.

They had walked into this office with a sense of hope, their last hope, really. At this point, they knew that there was a tumor, they knew it was on my father’s pancreas, and they knew that pancreatic tumors, even when operable, are often fatal.

But, if the tumor was small, it was potentially operable. They were there to discuss a surgical procedure known as a Whipple, which might just buy my dad some more time.

They walked out of that office leaving their hope behind. The tumor was too big, it had grown around a major blood vessel, and any surgery risked a major bleed-out, and certain death.

They talked about maybe doing radiation to shrink the tumor and buy a little time, but what kind of time would that be? My dad had already suffered quite terribly. He was ready to accept what was before him.

Accepting the imminent death of a loved one is a difficult thing. It means acceptance of a complete change of life, in ways big and small. Everything becomes a “last.” Dad’s last Thanksgiving. Dad’s last Christmas. Dad’s last birthday. He got sicker faster. The end was not good for him, though he was surrounded with love. I suppose that’s something.

Affinity for pens

Before he died, my dad gave me his pen. It was a retractable fountain pen that I loved and secretly coveted. I later thanked him (again) for the pen, and asked if he knew how much I liked it. He said:

liked the pen

I asked how he knew. He said:

observation

Over time, part of the casing broke, but the manufacturer no longer makes that specific pen and so don’t have replacement parts. They offered to replace it with a newer model, if I send in the broken pen.

No way. I’m keeping that pen forever and always, thank you very much.

Fast forward to more recently. I discovered a company called The Goulet Pen Company. This is a store my dad would love. They have everything, every pen at every price point, plus all sorts of fancy inks. He would love their customer service, too. I reached out with some questions, and a lovely woman named Susan replied, with all kinds of great information.

I asked more questions. She replied with, get this, a video that she whipped up on the spot just for me to demo different types of pens.

That’s right: She made me a video.

She noticed that my name is Italian, and we exchanged a few small pleasantries in Italian. She signed off with “Just let me know when I can help, noi ragazze italiane dobbiamo stare insieme!!” which I’m pretty excited I understood.

I feel like signs are everywhere that dad has stuck around. You just have to know where to look.

Looking forward

I struggle every year when the inevitable “never forget” messages flood social media and the news and I can’t turn it off or run or escape or hide. But then, I hear from a complete stranger like Susan in ways that remind me of my Dad, or I hear from friends who supported me through some pretty big life changes recently, and I know that, despite the rough days, there are good days ahead.

“Enjoy every day,” my dad said to me on September 11, 2001, after he got the worst news of his life.

I do my best, Dad.

 

What Does Fifteen Minutes Mean to You?

IMG_0429
View from the elevator of the hotel once I finally checked in.

I can do a lot of things in fifteen minutes. I can hardboil some eggs. I can run a mile and a half. I can take a cat nap. I can read a chapter in a book.

What I find frustrating is spending that fifteen minutes on hold, in particular when the hold is with a major hotel chain known for their customer experience.

I won’t name the hotel chain today. I’m not looking to shame a specific business, in particular because the specific business isn’t the real problem.

The real problem is what passes for customer service these days.

Who actually thinks that it’s good for business or makes customers happy to need fifteen minutes before you can speak with a live human about your reservation?

All I needed to do was call the hotel and confirm that I did make a request for a refrigerator in my room.

That’s it. That’s all I wanted to do.

I had the phone number for the hotel. I had my confirmation number. I gave them a call.

The woman who answered asked for my confirmation number, and then cut me off before I had finished reading it out to her.

She insisted that was not my confirmation number. Oh, but it is, I assured her. I called this same phone number and gave this same conf…

“Ma’am, our confirmation numbers start with a 7 or 2. Yours started with a 3. That’s not a number in our system.”

Again, I started to explain that I had just called the other ni…

“What’s the last name, ma’am, perhaps I can find the reservation that way.”

I spelled my name.

It turns out that she couldn’t find the reservation because it’s more than 8 days prior to check in.

Excuse me? This is a major hotel chain. The company is worldwide. Yet you can’t find my reservation in the system a mere 25 days out?

I started to again try to explain that I had actually called this same phone number, and provided this same confirmation number just last week and spoken with a person who found my reservation right away, but Ms. Customer Service had no time for that.

“Ma’am, the best I can do is transfer you to another office where they might be able to find you by that confirmation number, which is the number provided because you booked as part of a group rate.”

“But just the other da….”

And, I’m on hold. Awesome.

I wondered how, exactly, this major hotel chain remains so major despite this bizarre idea they have for what constitutes customer service. I wasn’t being argumentative. I wasn’t being difficult. In fact, I was as nice as can be. I simply wanted to talk to a human and be able to finish my sentences.

Turns out, that was a lot to ask.

I was transferred to one of those automated systems we all know and do not love. With the robot woman’s voice saying, “Hi there. I just need to ask you a few questions to route you to the appropriate person.”

I seriously could not even deal with this. Not after I called the same number I called a few nights ago and got a person who could help me. What was different tonight? Why was I now speaking with a robot? Argh. No.

“Human being,” I said.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” robot-woman said. “If you could just answer a few questions…”

Me: Human being.

Robot-woman: If you could just…

Me: Human being.

Robot-woman: “If you can answer a few questions, I can route you faster to …”

Me: Human being.

Robot-woman: “I think you are saying you would like to speak to a customer service reprsentativ…

Me: Dear god, yes.

Robot-woman: If you could just answer a few questions first, I can better route you to…

Me: ARGH HUMAN BEING.

Robot-woman: If you could just…

Me: HUMAN BEING.

Robot-woman: If you could just…

Me: HUMAN BEING.

Robot-woman: If you…

Me: HUMAN BEING HUMAN BEING HUMAN BEING!

Robot-woman: Please hold while I connect you.

I was then on hold for fifteen solid minutes. I folded some laundry. I poured some wine. I contemplated having pie for dinner.

Finally, a nice lady named Nancy answered the call. Nancy was able to look up my confirmation number. Nancy confirmed that the reservation is not fully in the system until 8-10 days prior to check in (what? seriously?), but she would be happy to make a note of my request on the reservation.

Nancy was lovely. I appreciate Nancy. It is not Nancy’s fault that it took me fifteen minutes, one less than helpful customer service representative and a robot to get to her. She couldn’t really explain – or understand – why the original person wouldn’t or couldn’t help me, nor provide a different phone number or way to contact the hotel in the future. But, this is not Nancy’s fault.

I’m sure it’s cost-effective in the short term for big hotel chains to use the robot lady, but I’m not sure what their excuse is for the difficulty with the conversation with the first person with whom I spoke.

I’m also willing to bet that with so many business travelers, people just deal with this nonsense, because their job is paying for it. Or maybe they’re used to it. I find it hard to believe that people might not care. A simple phone call to request a refrigerator in my hotel room for a reservation occurring in less than a month should not have taken fifteen minutes, two humans, and a robot. This call should have taken three minutes, tops, and been far more pleasant.

This experience, though, is a crystal clear picture as to why, when I travel for myself and not for business, I avoid big name hotels. I much prefer AirBnB rentals, where the accommodations are better, and where there is more of a personal touch.

Complacency Will Cost You

A few years ago, I went to the Verizon store with my mom just after Christmas. After years of resisting technology, she had just spent several days in the house with me and my sisters as we all shared photos and texts among one another. Mom felt a bit left out, and decided she was ready for a smartphone. We were thrilled.

Once in the store, we helped mom pick out a phone that would best suit her needs. The salesman then described the data plan. He offered her the same data plan that I had, but for $20 less a month.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I said. “I have those same levels of talk, text, and data, only I’m paying X.” The salesman got my mom set up with her new phone and then took a look at my plan, and found a way to match her deal. By speaking up at the right time, I scored a plan that was $20 cheaper each month, for the same amounts of service.

Fast forward to this year. I went in to the Verizon store because I was having an issue with my phone and needed some help. The salesman was able to help me with my concern, and then asked if he could look up my plan. I thought for sure he was going to try to sell me some new expensive deal. Instead, he offered the opposite.

Plans had changed over the previous year, and he could offer me the same amounts of talk and text (unlimited, for both) with more than double the data, plus monthly carry-over data, for less money each month.

I had my skeptical face on as I asked for the catch.

“No catch,” he said. The plans had changed since I last checked in, and as long as I stayed on auto-pay billing, I could have the cheaper rate.

Granted, I don’t have the latest model phone, but I bought it new (and for cheap, since it’s an older model) just a few months ago so it should last a good while. And I now have an even less expensive cell phone bill than when I matched my mom’s rate.

Lesson learned. Every year I’ll check in with my cell phone carrier to inquire about current plans and see if I’m eligible for any changes. I may not always be eligible for a discount, and there is certainly no secret or rocket science involved here, other than the importance of being vigilant and the willingness to have a conversation and ask about my options.

I Saved 25% on my Internet Service. You Can, Too.

I think often of the man I met at my former job, who told me about his efforts to simply be nice and ask for what he wanted and how that usually worked in his favor. I also know, from my experience in nonprofit fundraising, that the number one reason why people give money is because they were asked. And offering a discount isn’t that different than writing a check for a donation.

So, when my new resident promotional rate ended after a year, I knew it was worth asking for a discount. And, by simply calling my internet company and asking for what I wanted, I got it. Here’s how I did it:

I was strategic: Even though my internet provider has customer service representatives available 24/7, I made sure to call during regular business hours. I knew that the authority to offer a discount would likely need to be made at the manager level, and the manager was most likely available during the business day. I also chose to call at the end of the business day, knowing that customer service reps generally have angry people calling at all hours, so I knew if I was the nice voice at the end of a long day, it might make an impact.

I was patient. I called the 800 number on my bill, knowing it would likely take many steps and probably several minutes, minimum, before I spoke with a live person. The automated system that “answered” the phone tried to get me to say what I wanted so it could route the call appropriately, but I have a strong aversion to talking with robots. I simply kept saying “I want to speak with a person,” each time I was prompted to speak until I was connected with a live human. It took maybe half a dozen tries.

I was polite. When the woman who answered the phone asked how I was doing today, but she was working from a script. I wasn’t, however, and my kindness was sincere. I said that I was just fine, thank you very much, how are you? And when I asked that question, I meant it. I think my friendliness surprised her, and set the tone for the rest of the interaction. Would she still have been willing to escalate my request had I been rude? I do not know, but I have a hunch, given my experience working in customer service, that my politeness made an impact.

I was direct: After we exchanged pleasantries, I simply told her why I was calling: “My one-year new resident introductory rate for internet service has expired so now I am being billed at the higher rate. I’m calling to see if there are any promotions or other ways I can reduce my monthly bill without reducing my level of service.”

That’s right – I told her I wanted the exact same product, but for less money. I made sure to say it nicely. I knew that she was likely not someone who could authorize such a thing, but that someone there could. I was right.

I was prepared to repeat my request. The nice customer service lady asked if I would mind if she transferred me to the Customer Solutions department. I said not a problem, that that would be terrific. She placed me on hold for a few minutes, and then a new person was on the line. I repeated my request to him, again just as nice as I could be.

I used all available information. I had recently received a promotional letter in the mail offering service with this company at a steep discount than what I was currently paying. I did see the fine print saying this promotion was for new customers only, but I knew that if they offered this deal, perhaps there might be other deals for which I did qualify.

My new customer service rep asked me a few questions to clarify what I type of service I wanted (nope, I’m not interested in adding cable or a landline to my service, thanks). He confirmed that the that promotion I received in the mail is for new customers only and involves internet access at lesser speeds than what I currently use, but that he would be happy to see what else may be available.

I continued being patient. He then placed me on hold for a few more minutes. I took the time to pace around the room and get in some more steps for the day. When he came back, he said he found a much cheaper plan, though it was for slower speeds. However, he could include an upgrade to my current speed for an additional charge, making the total price, with fees, about 25% less than my current bill. I said that sounded perfect.

The breakdown:

  • Total time spent on phone: 22 minutes
  • Customer service representatives: 2 (3 if you count the robot)
  • Times placed on hold: 3
  • Original monthly bill, with fees: $97.95
  • New monthly bill, with fees: $72.99
  • Monthly savings: 25%
  • Product received: Exactly the same

This rate is good for one year, after which my rate will go back up again. The customer service representative did say it’s a good idea to call each year to see what promotions or packages might be available. I intend to do just that. It’s more than worth 22 minutes of my time once a year to save $299.52 in monthly expenses!

A quick note on customer service

A colleague and I like to trade customer service stories. He loves Plated and recommended them to me. So far, I haven’t had any issues with them that required resolution, but my friend has. Little things, like once they forgot a minor ingredient, so they credited him a few dollars to cover the cost. Or, recently, his box was delivered to the wrong house. It took a few extra hours and some confusion before the error was revealed, and in the end, all was well, but Plated took the extra step of crediting my friend the cost of the box. He did not expect this, nor did he request it, but Plated’s response was, “You were inconvenienced. That is not okay. This box is on us.”

In return, my friend tells others about this, and then they want to use Plated, too. It’s a win all the way around. Plated empowered it’s customer service representatives to consider how customers might feel in a given situation, and made an adjustment. Plated gets it right.

Recently, I experienced the opposite of Plated’s customer service, from Amazon.

I reached out to Amazon because a book I had ordered was not delivered on time. Did I need the book that exact second? No. But I didn’t like the pattern of delivery issues I have been having with Amazon, and this book coming late did not help.

In the last year, I have had four items either not delivered per their “guaranteed” delivery date, or not delivered at all.

When I did reach out to Amazon to address these issues, I struggled to reach resolution. I filed an electronic complaint, and was rewarded with five – count them, five – robo-calls from Amazon’s customer service department. It was the weirdest thing; I would answer my phone only to hear a recorded message saying, “Thank you for calling Amazon’s Kindle services…a customer representative will be with you shortly…your estimated wait time is…”

Seriously? First, I didn’t reach out to Kindle services. Second, you called me, Amazon. Why on earth do you think it’s a good idea to ring someone’s phone only to force them into being on hold? Whose idea of customer service is that?

While I do think the company should refund items that never arrive (which they did), and I do think they should be held accountable for their so-called “guarantees” without customers chasing them down (after all, what does “guaranteed” delivery mean otherwise?), what will keep me a loyal customer of any business is some acknowledgement that the company actually values me as an individual. I want to shop with businesses that empower their staff to keep their word, stand behind their promises, and deliver as expected. And mistakes happen, own it. Stand behind the promises you make to your customers, and don’t make excuses. And for the love of all things sacred and holy, don’t make them chase you down (or sit on hold) to make it right.

 

Because Nice Matters

Several years ago, I was the manager on duty at a large cultural attraction during our biggest fundraising event of the year. Thousands of people came through our gates that day, and my job was to keep things running smoothly. That involved managing the main gate ticket sales, keeping the flow of guests running without issue, and addressing all of the various and sundry issues that come up over the course of a busy day.

By the time we were within an hour of closing, I was tired. I loved my job, but it’s amazing how demanding people can be once they have bought a ticket to something. Suddenly, “the customer is always right” echoes in their minds and typically reasonable people let their rude flags fly.

I was standing near the main gate, saying goodbye to guests as they left, when a man walked up to the ticket window. He wanted to renew his annual membership to our attraction. The ticket agent offered the standard discount for an early membership renewal – 10%. The gentleman politely asked for a 20% discount instead. The ticket agent said she could only offer 10% off. The man, again politely, asked to speak with someone who could authorize a larger discount. The ticket agent pointed at me.

The man walked over. He explained that he was a member and would like to continue to be a member. He was interested in renewing his membership that day, but would appreciate a 20% discount instead of the standard 10% discount for early renewals. I explained that that was not our policy.

He then told me about his strategy. Over the last year or so, when he would go to places like home improvement stores or other attractions, he would see rude customers harass customer service agents and get their rudeness rewarded with whatever they demanded, whereas the people who didn’t speak up did not receive the same concessions. So, he made a decision. He was going to try being nice and simply ask for what he wanted, on the theory that people who were used to taking abuse would appreciate being treated with consideration and he could then get what he wanted without being rude. Everybody wins.

Over the last year or so, he had been able to receive discounts for all sorts of things, simply by being nice. He was right; being nice was a great strategy. He knew that I had likely been beleaguered by rude people all day long (I had), and that if he spoke with me at the end of the day, I might appreciate speaking with a nice person (I did). He was straightforward and transparent. Of course I gave him a bigger discount than the standard one. He saved a bit of money, I had an enjoyable conversation with a nice person, and the attraction kept a loyal member.

Over time, I find that being nice is generally the way to go, as a customer, as a service provider, or as a human being in general. We can all stand to err on the side of kindness and transparency in our personal and business dealings.

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Managers

My very first paying job – complete with actual paychecks as opposed to babysitting money – was at a local bagel shop. I was in high school, and earned $4.50 hour. This was twenty-five cents more than minimum wage, and I was thrilled.

My job mostly entailed working at the counter, taking orders, prepping and serving food, and working the cash register. When it was slow, I would clean anything I could find, including the bathrooms. When I was really bored, I would restock any available thing that needed restocking, like the napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers. I don’t like to be bored, so I tried to always keep moving.

There were two managers who typically worked when I did. One of them, Bob, was the man who hired me. He was my first impression of what a manager in a professional situation could be. Unfortunately, that impression was a bad one. This guy was lazy. I don’t think I ever saw him do any actual work. He would come in, sit in the manager’s office, and talk on the phone to his girlfriend the entire time, while the rest of us hustled out front.

Except…I soon realized that I was the only one hustling. If Bob was there, he certainly wasn’t paying attention or holding anyone accountable for doing their jobs, so my coworkers would slack off, too.

Sometimes, I got lucky and Patty was the manager. It was impossible to outwork this woman. She was a force. She would come into that shop and not stop moving the entire time. She didn’t just work the counter and keep things moving up front; she made sure to get the back in order, too. Some nights, this meant she wanted to deep clean the kitchen floors. My coworkers hated this, because it not only kept them there an extra hour, it kept them there to clean. Patty did not care. It was as if she was oblivious to the staff eye-rolling and huffing and puffing. She simply expected them to do their jobs.

When it was floor-cleaning time, we would first get everything off the floor that couldn’t get wet. Then, we would flood the kitchen with the hose. Water would get in every corner and crevasse that regular sweeping and mopping couldn’t touch. After that, took the real work: we each grabbed a mop and scrubbed and washed and wrung out and scrubbed and washed again. If you’ve ever done any type of industrial cleaning, you know that those mops were heavy. This was hard work. I loved it.

That first employment experience taught me a lot. I learned what it means to have a real work ethic, and what it looks like when you don’t. More than that, I saw the impact that one’s own work ethic could quickly have to those around you, especially if those people are subordinates.

I also learned to pay attention. At every job I have had since, I quietly look around. I seek out qualities in managers that motivate and inspire, and those that depress and demoralize. Over time, I hone my own approach at being both manager and managed, trying to be true to my own work ethic, and to practice what I have learned.