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Month: April 2016

The gift

I read a business book years ago called A Complaint is a Gift. The premise is that businesses should look at customer service not as a wearisome task that needs to be dealt with, but as an opportunity to better your organization while potentially creating brand ambassadors. The concept is so stunningly simple that it’s amazing more companies don’t adhere to it. Listen to your customers, admit your error, and graciously fix what’s wrong. This happens so little these days that when it does, customers are blown away and won over, often leaving even more happy with the company than if they’d never had an issue to begin with. “I will stick with this company, because they stuck by me.” What seems like should be a basic human value – treating others well – still clearly needs to be outlined in a business book. It’s a good reminder for all of us, though.

The book was interesting in that it gave statistics to back up why it’s so important to listen to people and resolve their issues. You know, just in case you need proof that you should be a decent human being. For every one person that calls (or emails) to complain, there are seven more who are just as unhappy but who choose to stop doing business with your company. For the silent seven, their resolution of choice is departure, which is not what any company wants, and telling everyone they know about their horrible experience, which every company dreads.

On the heels of reading this book, the president of the organization I was working for proposed a new policy that virtually guaranteed an unhappy customer base. I saw it coming a mile away, and counseled (loudly and persistently) against it. I was overruled, the policy was implemented, and I watched, horrified, the revenue carnage that ensued. After a few weeks of tracking complaints, I took a report in to the president. She leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms, and replied, “If they’re unhappy, they can go somewhere else.” Well, they did. Sales tanked. Cash flow slowed to a crawl. It was like watching a car accident happen in slow motion.

After a year, remembering the book I read about complaints, I conducted another analysis mostly just out of curiosity. I took the complaints that I had tracked (number of calls, emails, and in-person complaints), and multiplied by seven based on the book’s statistic. This gave me a total number of unhappy customers, if the book’s premise held true. I then took the total number of unhappy customers and multiplied it by our average sale amount, and I’ll be darned if it didn’t come out to almost exactly the amount of sales decline over the prior year. I was stunned. I took my statistical proof to the president, and suggested that our customers had indeed done exactly what she challenged them to. They left. She waved me off, the policy stayed, and I eventually departed like so many of those unhappy customers.

Now, I’m sure there were many other variables that contributed to the decline in sales. But still, those numbers were pretty compelling. And it taught me, again, that when someone tells you you’ve done something wrong, you should listen and apologize and learn and change. Because I think this is a good thing for people to do, not just companies, I try to apply it to my own life.

This week, someone told me I did something wrong. It’s one of you, dear readers. The concern was expressed anonymously, which doesn’t lessen the validity of the complaint in the slightest. The fact is, I messed up. I own my mistakes, all of them, because they all teach me something. I won’t get into the details of how I messed up or how I tried to fix it (because who wants to blast their own imperfections out to the internets…especially if one is mortified, as I happen to be), but I do want to acknowledge to myself (and maybe to the reader, if I haven’t lost him or her, and maybe to the seven others who didn’t complain but felt the same way) that I am still growing and learning and figuring things out. I am so grateful that someone had the courage to point out to me what I had done wrong, otherwise I’d have never known. How many of us can easily see our own faults?

I receive gifts every single day. My family, friends, and colleagues make me laugh, which is a huge gift. People show me love and support through their words, their hugs, and sometimes a bottle of beer. My daughter snuggles with me and tells me she loves me. My husband insists that I don’t skip writing group, knowing that this time is so important to me. My photography friends share their beautiful images, and my writing friends share their beautiful words. My extended family shares their lives with me. And I have people in my life who help me be a better person by pointing out ways I can improve. I am rich in an abundance of gifts of all kinds. This is what I must remember when life feels hard, when in addition to the gifts I receive bad news, as I did last week (also not willing to disclose). (At least not yet.)

I am grateful for these gifts. All of them.

The lesson of Boaty McBoatface

I received three bits of disturbing news today. My best friend from 7th grade is back in the hospital with a headache from hell that will not go away, my dad had to have some testing done for a potential health issue, and the U.K.’s science minister announced that despite overwhelming polls to the contrary, he will most likely not allow the country’s new research vessel to be named Boaty McBoatface.

Let’s dig into that last one, shall we?

The National Environment Research Council (NERC) in Britain conducted an online poll to name their new $300 million research ship, due to launch in 2019. They accepted nominations from everyone. After Englishman James Hand jokingly suggested Boaty McBoatface, the internet did what it’s best at and pandemonium ensued. Thousands, then tens of thousands, then over a hundred thousand people voted, and Boaty McBoatface won in a landslide. It received 120,000 votes, four times the number of the next entry. There were so many voters that at one point the site crashed.

This, my friends, is awesome, and a great lesson in “How to ask a question so you get the answer you want.” Also known as, “That time an open-ended, online poll bit me in the rear end.” Someone at NERC was asleep at the wheel when this promotion was launched. Or NERC decided that no one knows what the heck they do anyway and so only nerds geeking out on oceanic exploration would bother to nominate names, and only names of worthy deceased explorers or forgotten politicians who supported exploration or other Important People no one has heard of. Regardless, the outcome is not what they wanted.

My guess is, as the numbers started ticking up and Boaty McBoatface took off in a run-away landslide blowout of epic proportions, the NERC folks started breathing in paper bags. “No no no, Nigel! This is not how it was supposed to go!”

That’s the way it went, though, and then the internets did what it’s second-best at and the story went viral. I’m generally not the most plugged-in kind of person (yet another sign of my advancing age…darn whippersnappers) and even I knew about it. So that unequivocally means it went viral. The more I read about Boaty McBoatface, the more I laughed. In fact, I pretty much haven’t stopped laughing about it since I first read the words “Boaty McBoatface.” I mean, c’mon. That’s just funny. I told M about it last night and he started laughing, and then promptly texted the Brit who works for him and gave him nine kinds of hell. Richard’s response was something along the lines of “I’ll take Boaty McBoatface shenanigans over Trump any day. Wanker.”

And then today I read that the science minister (which is a cool title, I’ll give him that) announced that Boaty McBoatface is in fact most certainly not funny and that no, NERC will most likely not be naming their hoity-toity research ship that and will indeed select a most proper name. All delivered, I’m sure, in a snotty British accent. (He’s British, after all, so that’s to be expected.)

He’s quoted as saying, “I think we were clear when launching the competition that we were looking for a name that would be in keeping with the mission.” He then sniffed with disdain.

I think he’s making a mistake. I mean, sure, the poll didn’t go the way they planned. It went way better. This is a public relations dream. I’m going to hazard a guess that the vast majority of people who voted for Boaty McBoatface hadn’t even heard of NERC and their mission before this poll. And if they had, they didn’t give a rip. Boaty McBoatface gave them a reason to invest, to be involved, to care. And care they did, in record numbers.

If NERC had a PR professional worth her salt (like, you know, if they had me), they’d be full steam ahead with naming their ship in accordance with what the people want. Think of the fan base they would engender. So many people would follow the adventures of Boaty McBoatface way more than they’d ever pay attention to what’s happening on the HMS Simon Smythingtonshireham. The marketing opportunities are endless. The educational potential – enchanting children on a level that appeals to them – blows my mind. This is the chance for NERC to really engage the public on polar research and climate change. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s world in Kansas is in sepia and then she steps through her tornado-blown doorway into a Technicolor world. Who wants to view vibrant marine life in black and white?

Science minister Johnson instead said, “You want a name that fits the gravity and the importance of the subjects that this boat is going to be doing science into.” Seriously, this man should not be allowed to talk to reporters, much less make boat-naming decisions, but I digress.

I posit that there is too much gravity in this world. There are too many serious subjects, and after awhile, most people tune them out despite their importance. The sheer volume of data flying in our faces means that unless it’s catchy or super-intriguing, it’s gonna be gone without a second thought in moments. If it even lasts that long.

My recommendation, as a PR professional, would be to keep “Boaty McBoatface.” Exploit it. Use it to your advantage and leverage the heck out of it. Match the quirky moniker with real education, good information, facts about our planet. Make science actually fun and appealing. Sneak in some learnin’ while people are having a good time.

My prediction, as a PR professional, is that “propriety” will rule. The ship will be named something no one will remember, and it’ll steam off to do its work in boring ambiguity without fanfare, without good press, and without the interest of anyone not actually on the boat.

As for me, after years of wondering what I’d name my boat if I ever got one, well, I think I know my answer.

Finding my way back

I wrote and wrote and wrote for a third installment on the train trip. And then I went back to read it and discovered that in an attempt to avoid the whole, “My vacation is awesome” refrain and a detailed listing of all the tourist places we landed along with everyone else that goes to Seattle, I had instead devolved into a huge crabfest which really didn’t accurately portray our trip at all. What a waste of 2,655 words!

So I will instead attempt to pull out some of the more humorous anecdotes, because there were a few scattered around in there. I think.

The aquarium in Seattle has a huge touch pool, where Zoe and I were able to “pet” sea anemones, urchins, star fish, and sea cucumbers. We petted them all. One of the anemones is a fraidy cat and sucks in all its fronds at the gentlest of touches. Zoe loved that and “scared” three of them. I was amazed at how different star fish can each feel. M stood nearby and watched, trying to hide the look of horror on his face that his two girls were touching sea monsters.

Close quarters on the train means that embarrassing situations can happen. Like when the guy didn’t pay attention to the compartment numbers and whipped open the curtain on mine, thinking it was his. He about fell all over himself apologizing and desperately trying to fix the curtain with one hand while not spilling his coffee, and I congratulated myself for keeping the compartment door closed and locked until I was dressed. I had just been fixing my head scarf, so it wasn’t like he got a good view of anything, but it scared the heck out of both of us, I think. I bet he never yanks open another compartment curtain without checking the number first.

On the Coast Starlight route, when we had coach seats, I went downstairs to use a bathroom. The bathrooms on Amtrak trains have light indicators for when the lavatories are occupied. If the light is on, the potty is populated. Easy peasy. I marched downstairs and yanked open a door without a glowing light, only to find myself face to face with a petite Asian woman who I could tell was just as startled as me. She pulled the door back as I slammed it closed and stammered my apologies, and I moved less assuredly to the next bathroom. This time I tapped on it and listened for a moment even though the light was off. It was open, so in I went. As I sat there congratulating myself on my superior intellect for using the door lock and preventing something like that happening to me, a man yanked open my door. It appears that the door locks can be tricky on these trains, leading to all sorts of surprises and fun, unexpected get-to-know-your-neighbors visits. Later, on the Empire Builder, I learned that no matter how securely you close the door and latch the lock on the upstairs lav of our sleeper car, the gentle jostling of the train discreetly unlocks the door regularly. Now I was paying attention as I sat there doing my business, having been surprised twice now by men I don’t know, and watched as my locked door unlocked itself three times with the quietest of clicks. I think they’re out to get me, these doors. I’m hyper-aware now. You won’t catch me with my pants down again, potties.

The steward for our sleeper car on the Empire Builder route is named Rodgie. He has been with Amtrak over 20 years and is funny, efficient, and knowledgeable. Everything you’d want in a steward. He informs every group of new passengers that this car requires smiles. If you lose your smile, just find Rodgie and he will replace it. He peppered most stops with rhymes and limericks, and you could hear people up and down the corridor laughing. Amtrak should make Rodgie their poster boy for riding the rails.

I enjoyed wine on our train trip, and M enjoyed beer. However, one passenger began his libations before boarding in Seattle and then continued, to the point where he was not only ejected from the train in Wenatchee, Washington in the middle of the night, he was also arrested. Rodgie told us that he hadn’t been playing nice with the other passengers, but wouldn’t go into detail because the man is a professional and because telling us what some drunken sot did wasn’t guaranteed to put smiles on our faces. M and I agreed, and Rodgie confirmed, that Wenatchee, Washington, probably isn’t the best place to get kicked off the train. Google tells me that it is the largest city and county state of Chelan County, and offers Wenatchee Valley College and Academy of Hair Design as its institutions of higher learning. I didn’t look, but I’m sure that Western Union has an office there if your wife has to wire bail money to get you out of the pokey after being thrown off the Empire Builder.

At lunch our final day, we sat with a young Indian man earning his PhD in food safety in Fargo, North Dakota. His name is Ashish, “Like hashish without the H,” he explained. Ashish and M had a wonderful conversation about Indian cuisine, and about driving in India, and about how there are many different languages in India, and countless dialects. He told me about Holi, the festival of color in India, and made me want to go there even more now. He was traveling to Chicago to meet his cousin for a Pink Floyd concert. Ashish is a pretty cool dude.

I may think of more later, but those are the standout ones right now. It was a wonderful trip and we all had a blast, etc. I highly recommend train travel if you have the time and if you don’t mind forced relaxation.

Sunday afternoon

Right now I’m sitting in my home office/writing studio/photography den/room of her own trying to write and being largely unsuccessful. I have gotten too much out of the habit, I think. I didn’t write nearly as much as I expected on the train, probably because I was far too busy watching the ever-changing scenery out the window. At night I felt too tired, although in hindsight I probably should have just forced myself. The past week I’ve been busy getting back into the routine of things at home (cooking and cleaning and laundry and bills) and the routine of work (writing, editing, proofing, photographing). It has felt good, this return to the work of daily life. I do love travel and experiencing new things, but just as much I love the feeling of being home. (I’m only saying this because right now dinner is in the oven, the house was cleaned yesterday, laundry is going, and bills are paid. So I’m feeling fairly on top of things.) Zoe is outside with M, working on her softball skills. She’s batting in rubber rain boots.

It’s now 5:35 a.m. Tuesday morning. I dragged my sorry butt out of bed to write. Mostly because I had a little nutty last night and melted down over absolutely nothing, and afterwards, with a lot of thought, figured out it’s because I’m not very happy. And I’m not happy because I’m not writing. I wrote a bit on our vacation, but not as much as expected. Then we returned and the first Thursday night, my normal writing night with my writing group, we had to go see the tax lady. Tonight is Open Mic, which usually gets me writing, but a Girl Scout meeting for troop leaders to figure out where the hell we’re going to go after being kicked out of the parish was scheduled, and I need to be there. So no Open Mic. This Thursday I was invited to a fun party which I wouldn’t miss for the world, so no writing group again, making it a month since I’ve been. Apparently I need these scheduled writing prompts or I don’t write, because instead of writing I’ve been very good about getting laundry done and the house clean and the taxes pulled together and the bills paid and good, healthy meals made and grocery shopping done.  I’ve been very good about doing everything but writing. Which is great for everyone else and terrible for me.

I was tired and had a throbbing headache after my nutty last night, so I set my alarm for earlier than normal and gave up the day. Just gave it up and went to sleep. When the alarm went off this morning I was in the middle of a vivid dream about being with my Girl Scouts and drawing pictures based on Little House on the Prairie, and I was determining whether I was going to draw the tiny stone-fronted soddy they lived in when they first left the Big Woods and went to the prairie, before Walnut Grove, or if I’d draw a log cabin that Pa built. Clearly I’ve been thinking too much about Girl Scouts and we’ve been watching too much Little House. I was having a good time with the girls in my dream, though, and turned off the alarm without getting up. Then I remembered melting down and knew I had to get up.

So this is my new endeavor, to keep peace with myself and ensure my family doesn’t end up having me committed. I used to get up early and write, and then fell off the wagon for whatever reason.

Although I will admit that just after I typed that, I spotted a stack of checks on my desk that need to be deposited, and realized that this morning would be good because I don’t have to be at work early. So I sorted those. And then one of the cats came in and meowed and used the litter box just outside my studio door, so I got up and cleaned the box.

Clearly I have some work to do with this whole notion of shutting out the world and writing.

I’m going to post this to the blog now, even though the whole thing is a mish-mash of bad writing and disjointed thoughts, because, well, that’s just where I am right now and it’s been too long since I posted and I’ve always been honest here.

The second cat just stalked in, yowling. I give up for the day. Tomorrow I know to start with a clean desk and a closed door.