Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

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Where is the Service in Customer Service?

July 29, 2010

We’ve all heard Marshall Field’s saying, “The customer is always right.”  While it makes for a nice catch phrase, businesses rarely practiced it.  Worldwide markets tend to devalue the importance of the individual customer resulting in a William Vanderbilt attitude of “the public be damned.”

Many industries meet the general needs of consumers.  Take the automakers for instance, they provide a rich selection of feature on their various makes and models.  Still, they provide the features thought to appeal to the mass market rather than the desires of individual customers.  It makes sense; Ford Motor Company should not be expected to provide a flushing toilet in a car just because one person asks for it.  On the other hand, time proved Henry Ford wrong with his famous quote: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black[i].”  The company soon realized it had to meet the basic wants as well as the basic needs of people to sell its products.

While we understand the limits in production, that in no way limits good customer service.  I remember my dad always wanted to own a Jaguar XKE.  For him, it was the ultimate sports car.  Not until I was an adult he have the financial means to buy his dream car, but by then, of course, the XKE was more a collector’s item than a car for daily driving.  He settled for one of current production models.

At the time, my dad drove a Ford F-150 Lariat with just about every extra possible.  It was a very nice truck.  He drove to the Jaguar dealership in Savannah and talked with the salesman for over an hour deciding on one from the lot.  It was a done deal really; my dad was going to pay for it outright.  All he wanted to know was how much the dealer would give for his truck in trade.  “Oh, we don’t take trucks here,” was the curt reply.  “You can go down to the corner, there is a used car guy there that will take it,” he further said as if shocked at the suggestion and that added insult to injury in my father’s eye.  The man was serious; they would not take the truck in trade.

After explaining that if he drove his truck off the lot, he would not be back, the dealer did not budge.  My dad drove his Ford F-150 Lariat with just about every extra possible off and headed to the Jaguar dealer in Atlanta, four hours away.  He asked the salesman one question, “Will you take my truck in trade.”  The salesman replied, “Of course we will.” To which my father told him “Son, you just sold a Jag.”

Ultimately, that car proved to be nothing but trouble for my father but he never forgot the salesman that “treated me with respect,” as he put it.  To the day my father passed away, he told the story of the salesman in Savannah that would not take his truck.  Moreover, he sang the praises of the dealership in Atlanta that did.  He would take his Jag to them; they would work on it, give him a loner car, take him to lunch, and generally make him feel he was important to them.  Even with a car that was problematic, their customer service kept my father coming back.

That is the lesson for people when they do business with any company, select one that treats you, as you want to be treated and avoid the ones that do not.  Your vote is with your dollar.  Had that dealer in Savannah simply done a little legwork, such as call the guy down the road and make the deal, he would have had a loyal customer for life.  As it is, that dealership closed long ago while the one in Atlanta goes on.  Could the arrogant attitude of the sales staff have something to do with it closing?  You bet!

If you allow yourself to be treated like one of a million cattle heading off to slaughter, that is exactly what you will be.  You will be used, processed and forgotten.  There is rudeness in the nation’s retail business because we, the customers, allow it. If a sales person, checkout clerk, store manager, or any other employee is rude to you, simply walk out.  Leave your buggy of groceries right there at the checkout stand and go.  Make a loud statement that you will not pay to be treated that way so everyone can hear.

It does not matter what a store thinks; if they want your money, it’s your rules.  You do not need to buy a Jaguar to have the respect of a sales staff.  As my dad’s case demonstrates, buying one in itself, does not guarantee that respect. I think my father would have gone down the road and sold his truck if only the salesman did not act insulted at the suggestion of taking it in trade.

Today, we deal with huge companies with automated customer service phone systems designed to frustrate the customer into simply dealing with their particular problem rather than deal with the hassle of receiving the support they pay for.  Cellular phone and cable/satellite companies come to mind.  They have a national strategy dealing with support that has little accountability to individual customer.  If your cable is not working and you talk with a service center across the country, just how vested are they in solving your problem?  While choices are limited regarding cell phones and TV connection, the one that provide service at a local level with provide better support.  Their livelihood depends on it.

In the end, the customer may not always be right but the customer has the money companies want, which makes them right by default.  Make companies earn your money, demand service, and hold them accountable when it’s not provided.  Sooner or later, if enough customers vote with their dollars, they will get the hint.  Either that or they will join the trash heap of companies that rode poor customer service into oblivion.


[i] Ford, Henry, and Samuel Crowther.  “Chapter IV.” My Life and Work,.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Pages 71 & 82, 1922.  Print.

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We’ve all heard Marshall Field’s saying, “The customer is always right.”  While it makes for a nice catch phrase, businesses rarely practiced it.  Worldwide markets tend to devalue the importance of the individual customer resulting in a William Vanderbilt attitude of “the public be damned.”

Many industries meet the general needs of consumers.  Take the automakers for instance, they provide a rich selection of feature on their various makes and models.  Still, they provide the features thought to appeal to the mass market rather than the desires of individual customers.  It makes sense; Ford Motor Company should not be expected to provide a flushing toilet in a car just because one person asks for it.  On the other hand, time proved Henry Ford wrong with his famous quote: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black[i].”  The company soon realized it had to meet the basic wants as well as the basic needs of people to sell its products.

While we understand the limits in production, that in no way limits good customer service.  I remember my dad always wanted to own a Jaguar XKE.  For him, it was the ultimate sports car.  Not until I was an adult he have the financial means to buy his dream car, but by then, of course, the XKE was more a collector’s item than a car for daily driving.  He settled for one of current production models.

At the time, my dad drove a Ford F-150 Lariat with just about every extra possible.  It was a very nice truck.  He drove to the Jaguar dealership in Savannah and talked with the salesman for over an hour deciding on one from the lot.  It was a done deal really; my dad was going to pay for it outright.  All he wanted to know was how much the dealer would give for his truck in trade.  “Oh, we don’t take trucks here,” was the curt reply.  “You can go down to the corner, there is a used car guy there that will take it,” he further said as if shocked at the suggestion and that added insult to injury in my father’s eye.  The man was serious; they would not take the truck in trade.

After explaining that if he drove his truck off the lot, he would not be back, the dealer did not budge.  My dad drove his Ford F-150 Lariat with just about every extra possible off and headed to the Jaguar dealer in Atlanta, four hours away.  He asked the salesman one question, “Will you take my truck in trade.”  The salesman replied, “Of course we will.” To which my father told him “Son, you just sold a Jag.”

Ultimately, that car proved to be nothing but trouble for my father but he never forgot the salesman that “treated me with respect,” as he put it.  To the day my father passed away, he told the story of the salesman in Savannah that would not take his truck.  Moreover, he sang the praises of the dealership in Atlanta that did.  He would take his Jag to them; they would work on it, give him a loner car, take him to lunch, and generally make him feel he was important to them.  Even with a car that was problematic, their customer service kept my father coming back.

That is the lesson for people when they do business with any company, select one that treats you, as you want to be treated and avoid the ones that do not.  Your vote is with your dollar.  Had that dealer in Savannah simply done a little legwork, such as call the guy down the road and make the deal, he would have had a loyal customer for life.  As it is, that dealership closed long ago while the one in Atlanta goes on.  Could the arrogant attitude of the sales staff have something to do with it closing?  You bet!

If you allow yourself to be treated like one of a million cattle heading off to slaughter, that is exactly what you will be.  You will be used, processed and forgotten.  There is rudeness in the nation’s retail business because we, the customers, allow it. If a sales person, checkout clerk, store manager, or any other employee is rude to you, simply walk out.  Leave your buggy of groceries right there at the checkout stand and go.  Make a loud statement that you will not pay to be treated that way so everyone can hear.

It does not matter what a store thinks; if they want your money, it’s your rules.  You do not need to buy a Jaguar to have the respect of a sales staff.  As my dad’s case demonstrates, buying one in itself, does not guarantee that respect. I think my father would have gone down the road and sold his truck if only the salesman did not act insulted at the suggestion of taking it in trade.

Today, we deal with huge companies with automated customer service phone systems designed to frustrate the customer into simply dealing with their particular problem rather than deal with the hassle of receiving the support they pay for.  Cellular phone and cable/satellite companies come to mind.  They have a national strategy dealing with support that has little accountability to individual customer.  If your cable is not working and you talk with a service center across the country, just how vested are they in solving your problem?  While choices are limited regarding cell phones and TV connection, the one that provide service at a local level with provide better support.  Their livelihood depends on it.

In the end, the customer may not always be right but the customer has the money companies want, which makes them right by default.  Make companies earn your money, demand service, and hold them accountable when it’s not provided.  Sooner or later, if enough customers vote with their dollars, they will get the hint.  Either that or they will join the trash heap of companies that rode poor customer service into oblivion.


[i] Ford, Henry, and Samuel Crowther.  “Chapter IV.” My Life and Work,.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Pages 71 & 82, 1922.  Print.

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Illegal Immigration: Checkpoint Charlie Will Not Solve the Problem

May 7, 2010

The recent action by the state of Arizona has returned the issue of people coming to America illegally to the international spotlight.  President Calderón of Mexico is critical of the law in a very public way, even calling it a “violation of human rights[i].”  Without delving in to the particular motivation of Arizona, it is clear that inaction by the federal government is leading us to a patchwork of laws regarding a subject that needs a national consensus.  For purely political motives, the federal government refuses to effectively deal with the issue resulting in harm to the citizens of the United States as well as people here illegally.

The problem for both the congress and the administration is perception.  On the one hand, too tough a law is seen as racist; on the other, too little intervention is seen as not protecting the national border.  In reality, it seems the public is truly concerned about one border, the one between the U.S. and  Mexico.  The northern border with Canada hardly receives national media attention, though it is almost three times as long.  The U.S. – Canada border is 5,526 miles in length while the U.S. Mexico border measures 1,952 miles.[ii] That illustrates it is not the border itself that creates a problem but its being crossed illegally.

There are two basic approaches to ending people coming to the United States illegally,

  1. Protect the boarders to prevent illegal entry.
  2. Remove the reason people enter illegally.

Returning to the political reality politicians face, to address the first approach requires building a national barricade and patrolling the border, much like the East Germans attempted with the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.  The image of our borders dominated by Cold War style “Checkpoint Charlies[iii]” is not the image most politicians wish to give the world, though that is quickly becoming the norm. What is next, will Arizona have neighborhood checkpoints and ask everyone for their documents?  In other words, welcome to the Police States of America.

Figure 1 Checkpoint Charlie[iv]

Addressing the second approach requires understanding why people enter the United States illegally.  While there are many reasons, one dominates all others – work.  Slanted media coverage focuses on issues that inflames fear and promotes stereotypical prejudiced beliefs while minimizing employment as the prime motive.  In doing so, the politician has no political upside in addressing work as the true motive and faces many downsides.  One of the biggest downsides being people working in the United States illegally provides a cheap labor force for employers.  Taking that labor force away will drive wage costs up in employment areas like farming and food processing plants, which employ people here illegally on an industrial scale.  Still, that is exactly what needs to be addressed and does not require the extreme measures of making “Fort America” out of our home.

Regardless of the defensive systems we install, people will get past them.  People enter the United States illegally from all parts of the planet and in all sorts of ways.  Looking at the border with Mexico only addresses the means of egress and not the motives behind the entry.  Rather than pass a law that requires the police to engage in practices that are bound to create civil rights issues, a sensible course of action is to require all employers to verify employment status and penalize them when they do not in a way that removes the incentive for hiring people not here legally.

We face many problems that are not easily solved.  This is not one of them.  The solution is simple and cost-effective.  All it requires is political leadership and that is where it fails.  Rather than accepting the reality of needing the labor force people here illegally provide and giving them a legal option, our political leaders simply kick the can down the road for our children to deal with.  To put it bluntly, anyone with an entrenched position that refuses to compromise is part of the problem and prevents a solution.

The law passed in Arizona seems to take a “just get rid of them” approach.  Expanding that to a national level would mean the removal of a little fewer than twelve million people[v] from the United States.  The cost and logistics of such a move is staggering.  By the very nature of the individuals being undocumented, how would we prove them to be citizens of a particular country to return them to?  It is not as if a country will allow us to dump them on their doorstep because we do not want them.  A better solution is to punish the ones giving the incentive in the first place and then develop a system that allows people to work here legally.  Why do we need to send them home first?  It is more cost-effective to document them where they are and move on.

It is often stated that it is unfair to people who followed the rules to allow the people here illegally to simply get in line for citizenship.  It rewards illegal behavior.  That is not true as there is no need to grant them citizenship at all.  Instead, we grant them foreign worker status, collect taxes, and move on to the next problem.  If they wish to become citizens, let them use the process in place now, if not they can simply work until they wish to return to their home countries. We can thank them for their hard work and they can thank us for the opportunity to earn some money to support their families back home.

Accepting that Arizona’s only wishes to address valid issues surrounding people entering the country illegally, Washington’s inability to take action is the root problem that drives the issue.  We need to remove the politics and just deal with the problem.  Then Mexico can start dealing with its own problem of not providing for its citizens to the point they seek to enter the United States illegally, President Calderón – that is the true human rights violation you need to address.


[i] Booth, William. “Mexican Officials Condemn Arizona’s Tough New Immigration Law.” Washingtonpost.com – Nation, World, Technology and Washington Area News and Headlines. Web. 07 May 2010. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/26/AR2010042603810.html&gt;.

[ii] Length of United States Border with Mexico. Wolfram|Alpha. Wolfram Alpha LLC. Web. <http://www.wolframalpha.com/&gt;.

[iii] 1950s, The Early. “Checkpoint Charlie.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 07 May 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checkpoint_Charlie&gt;.

[iv] Mellmann, Helga T.H. A View of Checkpoint Charlie, the Crossing Point for Foreigners Who Are Visiting East Berlin. 1977. Photograph. DefenseImagery. United States Department of Defense. Web. 7 May 2010.

[v] United States of America. Department of Homeland Security. Office of Immigration Statistics. Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2008. By Michael Hoefer, Nancy Rytina,, and Bryan C. Baker. Office of Immigration Statistics. Web. 7 May 2010. .

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Inviting the Criminals In

April 20, 2010

In the dark of the night, the robbers approach the bank with faces concealed and little evidence of how they arrived.  Surprisingly, the men find the bank door opened and the alarms off.  They soon make their way to the ultimate prize – the vault.  Not surprisingly, they find the vault locked and the bandits can make no further progress.  At first, they seemed thwarted but this was the first of many attempts.

Night after night, the bandits return to the bank and find it open with only the vault impeding their progress.  At first, they try to cut their way in, it proves impossible.  Next, they try to tunnel under; again, they are turned back.  Then it happened, a simple stroke of genius came to mind.  They only needed to trick an employee with the combination and the contents of the vault would be theirs.  After all, human nature is much easier to manipulate than a vault door.  Needless to say, after returning through the open bank door, the vault proved no problem with its combination in hand and the bandits made off with its treasures.

Now, no bank leaves its doors open and its alarms off.  Even with the imposing vault, banks deny would-be robbers access to it.  They understand that with access, eventually a criminal will overcome whatever security they find on the inside.  In other words, banks rely on physical separation to further protect themselves from theft.  It is prudent for them to do so.

This is the lesson internet companies must learn.  As obvious as it may seem to the average person, for legitimate business concerns many internet-based companies leave the doors open and alarms off allowing hackers access to their version of a bank vault – a hard drive with sensitive information stored on it.  This is exactly what Google did when their most critical systems were hacked earlier this year in China.  In his April 19, 2010 article[1] in the New York Times, John Markoff describes the attack in detail.  In the end, hackers gained access with trickery after they were past the front door.

As Google is one of the more advanced companies in the world, when it comes to internet technology, it must be assumed that less savvy companies are even more vulnerable to such attacks.  Companies that collect large amounts of data have an absolute responsibility to safeguard it.  It is not enough to simply provide a quasi-vault door in the form of passwords.  Access must also be limited.  Had such a policy been in place at Google, this attack may have never happened.  As it stands now, security is limited in a desire to provide easy access for uses across the globe.  When is comes to safeguarding personal data and sensitive company information, perhaps a better course is less convenience.  For example, if someone wants to download the company’s user database, maybe the request needs to be in writing and approved rather than just happening.  Yes, it will slow things down but that is the one thing criminals do not want, for you to have time to think.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)[2], over half of the business that participated in one of their surveys reported at least one cybercrime.  While the intent of most cybercrime is not obvious at the time, the results of such crimes cost business and people real money.  Here is a recap from BJS’s website with the 2005 results:

Among 7,818 businesses surveyed:

  • 67% detected at least one cybercrime.
  • Nearly 60% detected one or more types of cyber attack.
  • 11% detected cyber theft.
  • 24% detected other computer security incidents.
  • Most businesses did not report cyber attacks to law enforcement authorities.
  • The majority of victimized businesses (86%) detected multiple incidents, with half of these (43%) detecting 10 or more incidents during the year.
  • Approximately 68% of the victims of cyber theft sustained monetary loss of $10,000 or more .  By comparison, 34% of the businesses detecting cyber attacks and 31% of businesses detecting other computer security incidents lost more than $10,000.
  • System downtime lasted between 1 and 24 hours for half of the businesses and more than 24 hours for a third of businesses detecting cyber attacks or other computer security incidents.

The debate over the necessity for data security is past us.  Rather than try to just stay ahead of clever thieves through programming, the tried and true solution of limiting access must be incorporated into the security plans for businesses.  In addition to locking the vault, we must also lock the front door and prevent access in the first place.


[1] Markoff, John. “Cyberattack on Google Said to Hit Password System.” New York Times. 19 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 Apr. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/technology/20google.html?src=busln&gt;

[2] “Cybercrime.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Web. 20 Apr. 2010. <http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=41&gt;

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Eating an Elephant (advice to a young engineer)

February 3, 2010

In a past work life, I headed the engineering department for a major U.S. food producer.  One day, a new engineer was having a hard time managing his work and emailed me to ask how I was able to manage so broad a range of projects.  Here is my response:

Have you ever heard the saying “how do you eat an elephant?”  There is great wisdom in this axiom.  If we remember it as life goes on, it will help us gain focus on the things we have to get done throughout our day.

Think of it like this, if we constantly jump from one problem to the next, problems are never fixed, much less fixing the underlying causes for them.  On the other hand, if we have two or three tasks in mind and work them until they are resolved, things get done.  No matter what you face, there is only so much you can accomplish at one time.  Of course, you will still have to run put out a fire now and then but that should be the exception.  Most problems are not as urgent as people would have us believe.  Give the issue the attention it needs and understand it, and then place the right priority on it.  If someone comes to you with an issue of their own creation, why should their lack of planning create for you a problem?

Another way to look at it, problems are distractions; they keep us from accomplishing work.  Always take time to understand the interruption and put it in its proper place.  Always address the most important things first.  The problem may or may not be the task you should be doing now; you make that choice.  Most importantly, if you do detour to address an issue, return to your line-up of work as soon as possible.  It is a sound engineering principle to make a plan and follow it.  In construction, an architect lays out a plan for the construction crew to follow.  Frequent meetings take place to adjust the workflow and deal with problems.  In the end, they follow a plan and work is completed.  After all, they have an elephant to eat.

This same approach works with any complex issue.  Others will not be happy with the choices you make, especially when you place their particular problem at a lower priority than they feel it warrants.  That is too bad for them, someone has to steer the boat and that requires making decisions.  By keeping the work (your elephant) before you and always knowing what comes next, you accomplish more than by trying to do everything at one time.  Sooner than later, you will see real progress as each task is completed.  You will come to understand there are damn few problems, only tasks of relative priority.

So, how do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.

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