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.

You Can Learn a Lot From a Grocery Store

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is visit local grocery stores. These spaces are often the best way to learn about the similarities and differences of local culture.

In France, the wine selection goes on for days and days. Sometimes there is even a wine cellar. The wine is all dirt cheap (think $2-3 a bottle for something that would easily cost $25-30 in the States), and very good.

The French also love smoked salmon, apparently, because never in my life have I seen such a selection of that particular item.

DSC_2066
I wasn’t kidding about the smoked salmon.

In Italy, what’s not on the shelves is interesting: peanut butter. While you may find familiar labels (Nivea, Dove, Nestle) on the shelves, peanut butter of any brand has not infiltrated Italian culture.

In Iceland, I found a variety of dried fish, candy that tasted like menthol, and skeins of wool right there near the cash registers.

In Japan, a four-pack of peaches cost $20. A lot of fruit has to be imported, so the prices reflect that.

DSC_1533
I wasn’t kidding about the menthol candy, either.

One thing I have noticed in particular is that in European countries, eggs are found on a non-refrigerated shelf. I was happy to have the opportunity to explore why when invited to write an article about it for moneysmartfamily.com. The short version as to why some cultures refrigerate their eggs and some do not lies in how we approach managing salmonella. The chickens, and the eggs, are essentially the same.

I hope you enjoy reading about the cultural differences of egg storage. Please share the differences you have found with grocery store food when traveling!

My Story

Just over ten years ago, I made a decision.

I had been working at my job, writing direct mail fundraising letters for nonprofit organizations, for five years, and I was bored. Not of the work itself – I loved the writing. I loved telling stories, finding the meaning behind the ask, and making connections between organization and donor. I especially loved putting pen to paper, which I did, literally. I would frequently gather up my research materials, a fresh notepad and my favorite pen, and head to the conference room or the kitchen or even a bench outside to scratch away at some ideas that I carefully shaped into stories that become fundraising appeals.

Eventually, though, I wondered what else there was out there for me to do. I had expanded my role quite a bit from copywriter and editor, to freelance coordinator, to ad hoc public relations representative for my agency. I wrote articles for publication, edited fundraising letters that come in from freelancers, and carefully selected new freelancers to test on different appeals. But, after several years of similar mail plans, of membership packages, and of checking calendar proofs, I was ready for something more.

I took that hunger and curiosity and applied to graduate school. I only applied to two programs: an MFA and a PhD. The MFA program turned me down. The PhD program welcomed me in. Suddenly, I knew what I would be doing with my time for the next five to ten years.

My agency graciously allowed me to shift from full time to part time hours while I gave graduate school a try. That lasted for a time, but the call to explore new options was strong. I eventually left the agency that had been my professional home for five years and jumped in feet first to a new challenge: teaching.

Let me tell you something: teaching is far more difficult a profession than you think it is. My first teaching job was with a community college where I was handed the textbooks, a sample syllabus, and my schedule, and told “Welcome! We can’t pay you much, but we’re glad you’re here.”

That was the extent of my training. I walked into class the first day absolutely terrified. Somehow, I found my way. I even managed to have fun. Hopefully, I taught my students something. In time, I learned how to be a better teacher, but those first few classes, wow. Talk about a learning experience. That job was easily the toughest – yet most rewarding – job I have ever had in my life. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to do it.

Because I had some flexibility in my schedule, I began volunteering at the local zoo. Not too long after that, an opportunity opened up to teach at a different zoo, marrying my teaching experience with my volunteer experience into one very awesome yet spectacularly low-paying experience. I stayed at that zoo for more than seven years, advancing over time into positions with greater levels of responsibility.

The call to teach writing beckoned, though, and, quite frankly, so did the necessity of earning a better living. I began teaching for an online university while working at the zoo full time. I did this for two years. Once I knew it was time to move on from the zoo, I began applying for other positions, and was offered one in Miami that was very tempting. I knew, though, that the move was not the right one, for a variety of reasons. I also knew that, moving forward, I was only going to apply for local jobs that did not involve a move, with one exception: if the university where I taught had an opening for a full time position, I would apply.

Within three months of making that decision, a full time position did become available. I applied in September, gave notice to the zoo in October, started my new position remotely in November, and moved to a new state in December. It has now been two years, and I still sometimes look around, shake my head, and ask myself: how did I get here?

Over time, I will expand on this story a bit. I will share more about the different pieces of what led me from a pathway to a traditional academic career to a very different life at a zoo and then back to academia, but still in a somewhat non-traditional fashion.

Throughout the years, though, and throughout the experiences, the constants for me have been: education, both formal and informal; love of learning; love of nature and how it ties into our lives; travel experiences and how they foster a great love of global community; nonprofit missions, and their connection to direct mail; community and customer service; and putting pen to paper to tell a story. These are the themes I will explore in this blog moving forward. I hope you will join me.