The Power of Good (and Bad) Customer Service

April 17th, 2017

I decided not to write my annual plea listing all the jurisdictions in which I file tax returns and asking them for a thank you note.  I’ve yet to receive a thank you note for paying taxes from any jurisdiction, even the jurisdictions where I don’t live.  (We did fight a war over taxation without representation but that’s a topic for another day.)

Recently, I was talking to a colleague at work.  She recently purchased home appliances.  Something happened and delivery of her appliances was delayed.  The company proactively apologized and, without her asking, gave her a credit on her payment.  She was pleasantly surprised and is telling everyone the story about how great the store has been to work with.

Of course, my luck in home improvement hasn’t been as good.  Our house needs new garage doors.  We called a company that was referred to us to get an estimate.  We were told someone would call to set up an appointment in two business days or less.  A few days came and went, no call.  I called back.  They apologized and said someone would call within a day.  It’s been almost a week.  Nothing drives me crazier than when I’m trying to buy something and the company makes it difficult.  We’re moving on and will buy our garage doors elsewhere.  As enthusiastic as my colleague was about her experience, I’ve been the same telling people about my experience.  If you treat me poorly before I buy something from you, how will you treat me if I were an actual customer?  The thought frightens me.

We live in a viral world.  How you treat customers will instantly be available to the world via social media.  Every interaction matters.  People are forgiving if a mistake is acknowledged and dealt with promptly.  They’ll even become your free marketing department, as is the case above.

 Oh, and customers appreciate thank you notes.  If any taxing authorities are reading this,  I don’t even need a personalized note.  You’ve got my email – just send me a short note thanking me for my payment. 

“Kids Will Find A Way, Dad”

April 11th, 2017

When I’m in town, I often drive my son to school.  As he approaches his teenage years, the rides tend to be a little more moody.  Instead of conversations or good natured bantering, it’s often, “Leave me alone, I’m tired!”  Every now and then, however, a good conversation ensues.

 At dinner last night, he explained the “black market” for mechanical pens and pencils that exists at his school.  A 0.7mm pencil is worth more than an 1mm pencil.  The holy grail is an erasable, retractable blue pen that has a comfort grip.  The kids trade these writing utensils like currencies.  In the car this morning, he told me, “The school might ban mechanical pens and pencils.”  I sensed that opening meant he wanted to ask or tell me something.  My spider sense was right.

 I said, “Really, what will happen?”

  He told me, “Nothing.  We’ll still trade them.  We can use sheets of paper at school to identify what we have and trade on the buses.”

 “Why?  Won’t you get in trouble?”

 “Kids will find a way, Dad.  They can make all the rules they want.  If we want to do something, we will.  Plus, it makes it more fun if we have to do it in secret.”

 Those teenage years are coming at me like a freight train!  On the one hand, I was somewhat proud of his and his classmates’ creativity and entrepreneurism.  On the other hand, the wry smile that came across his face when he was thinking about how to skirt the rules scared me to death.  My wife and I are in for an interesting ride over the next several years.  Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers!

 Why am I telling this story?  Hopefully, you folks with older kids have sympathy on me.  Maybe you smile about the dumb things you did when you were a kid.  But the real lesson here is people are naturally creative.  If they want to do something, they’ll figure out a way to do it.  Your colleagues and employees are no different.  Give them the opportunity to unleash their ideas.  Some might be crazy.  Some might be against the rules.  But some will have value.  It’s your responsibility to unlock that value.     

Don’t Forget Who Got You Here

April 4th, 2017

My wife and I went to dinner a few days ago.  To say we’re regulars at the place we went to would be an overstatement but we had been there recently so a few members of the staff recognized us.  The restaurant wasn’t that crowded.  A few minutes after we arrived, a large crowd of what clearly was soccer moms came in.  They were easily identified by the pictures of their children they all had proudly pinned to their jackets.  It was also obvious by their clothing they weren’t locals.

They chose a table near us.  They moved tables around, clearly expecting a large group.  The amalgamation of tables grew closer to where we were sitting.  We had ordered our entrees and were waiting for our food to arrive.  We were in a meaningful conversation, which as my wife pointed out given travel schedules and parenting duties, happens about once a quarter.  As we continued our conversation, a person who appeared to be the manager came over to us.  She said (verbatim), “This is going to sound like a strange question but would you mind moving so we can accommodate that large party?”  There was no offer of a complimentary drink or any such accommodation.  My wife’s translation was, “You’re less important than that large group that will never come here again.  We’re changing your table.”  After getting over the shock of being asked that question, we did not move and the rest of their party never materialized.  Oh, and our meaningful conversation vanished into the night air.  We have not returned to that restaurant.

The siren of new customers is always calling us.  Businesses need new customers.  But existing customers are a business’s life blood.  If you don’t treat them right, they’ll become someone else’s new customer.  Cherish your existing customers.

The Swamp is Alive and Well

March 27th, 2017

Along with industry colleagues, I spent a few days last week in Washington D.C.  I took part in a “fly in.”  A fly in is DC lingo for hiring a lobbying firm to set up meetings with congressional staffers to discuss issues pertinent to your cause.  We participated with a direct mail group, who has a vested interest in Post Office reform legislation that is currently going through committees in the House.  We also discussed tax reform and trade.  Of course, our visit coincided with what turned out to be a non-vote regarding the repeal of Obamacare.

Donald Trump and I both learned something last week: the swamp is here to stay.  The president learned how hard it is to get a bill passed, even with his own party in power.  I was and still am astounded at the machine that is Washington D.C.  There are literally millions of square feet of office space for congressional staffers.  I tried to find data on how many people work for Congress.  After seeing a lot of data, my blood pressure was getting too high.  As a result, I decided to end that search.  My best estimate (from a few years ago) is between 7,000 and 8,000 people work for Congress.  I know some of those work at offices in their home districts/states, but a lot of them are “on the hill.”  And they’re all on the federal payroll.  That’s a lot of money out of the pockets of the good ol’ American taxpayer.  Most of those staffers eventually graduate and guess what they do?  They become lobbyists!   Who do you think they listen to?  You don’t have a voice in Washington unless you’ve got a pocketbook!  There are over 12,500 registered federal lobbyists in the US.  That’s a large army figuring out how our tax dollars are spent and what regulations are good and bad.

(My source:  Note the data is from 2010!

Unless some real reform is done regarding lobbying, nothing will change.  The machine is too entrenched and too large.  Destroying it is the only solution.  No one who participates has an interest in doing that.  Those that pay lobbyists get their voices heard.  They don’t want that changed.  Lobbyists have a pretty good gig.  They don’t want that changed.  Congressional offices do not have the resources to understand what bills really mean (and I think many of them have no clue about business).  They need someone to educate them.  They don’t want that changed.

Money makes the world go around.  That is a gross understatement when it comes to our federal government. Trump motivated voters with his “drain the swamp” mantra.  Based on what I saw last week, there isn’t a siphon large enough to make that happen.

The Way Technology Should Work in Customer Service

March 21st, 2017


I had a customer service experience that demonstrates how technology can improve customer service.  First, a little background:

Shortly before Christmas, I took my son shopping.  He needed to get a present for his mother.  We walked into the store and he saw Roomba, the robot vacuum, and exclaimed, “Dad, Mom NEEDS this!”  I turned white and had never felt like a bigger failure in my life.  “What’s wrong, Dad?” he asked.  After my heart started beating again, I calmly said, “Logan, haven’t I taught you anything?  Under no circumstances do you ever, EVER get a woman an appliance or cleaning apparatus and call it a present.  It doesn’t matter if she’s a friend, girlfriend, wife, mother, grandmother, aunt – anyone.”  He was unfazed by my plea.  “Dad, Mom’s always vacuuming.  She’ll LOVE this.”

We bought it.  I had to think quickly to keep Logan (and more importantly me) out of trouble.  I decided we wouldn’t wrap it and give it to her immediately.  I would throw him under the bus and make it very clear that it was his idea.  He was thrilled, still not comprehending the danger he put us in with his choice.  We got it home and the initial reaction was as expected. “A vacuum as a present?  Really?  The dog will attack it.  I don’t want that thing.”  Using the power young sons have over mothers and men have while dating someone but  lose when they put a wedding ring on, Logan calmly explained, “Mom, this will help you.  I’ll even vacuum with Roomba.”  The effect was immediate.  She became excited about Roomba.

Roomba became a hit in our house.  The dog even tolerates it.  (I think he knows his hair is the reason we have it.)  The other day, my wife told me Roomba was making a weird noise.  I turned it over and realized one of the rollers (“extractors” in Roomba lingo) was torn.  I got online and did a chat session with a representative from the company.  I had logged in to my account.  Unlike many other experiences I’ve had, she actually had all my information available – no double entry required and I didn’t have to introduce myself to her.  I explained the situation.  She quickly diagnosed the problem and apologized.  She told me the company would send me a replacement part.  As I was explaining this to my wife, she said, “You better get her name and make sure that happens.”  Not that we’ve had bad experiences and been lied to before by customer service people.  I didn’t have to – I got an email indicating a replacement part was on its way before my chat session ended.  After our call ended, I received a transcript of our communication via email.  The part came on the promised date.  I put it in and Roomba is back in business.

As I’ve written in the past, technology is not a cure for apathy.  But if used properly, technology can help solve a customer’s problem quickly and efficiently.  If only technology could explain how women think…

The Healthcare Debacle Marches On

March 14th, 2017

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Republicans introduced their alternative to Obamacare late last week.  The proposal would change subsidies to tax credits.  Right wingers are angry the proposal doesn’t go far enough to repeal Obamacare.  Left wingers are upset less people will have insurance.  Maybe Paul Ryan is on to something – no one is happy with this proposal!  If you’re not upsetting people, you’re not making a decision!

On a positive note, the Congressional Budget Office analysis predicts the proposal would reduce the deficit by $337 billion over 10 years.  It would also increase the number of uninsured by 14 million.  Curiously, no one on the left is reading the rest of that analysis.  The increase in the uninsured population would be driven primarily by people choosing not to buy insurance.  Without being required to buy insurance (the individual mandate), people would choose to spend their money elsewhere.

As I’ve written in the past, healthcare is a complicated issue.  Maybe it’s time to start from the beginning.  How did we get here?  Employers started offering health insurance as a benefit during the wage control years of World War II.  Employees were scarce and employers couldn’t compete on wages.  They competed via benefits.  That started this entire disaster.  Medicare and Medicaid came in the 1960s, making the government the largest buyer of healthcare services.  Why don’t we start over?  Why is health insurance treated any different than any other insurance?  My company doesn’t offer automobile insurance as a benefit.  My home owners’ premiums are paid with after tax dollars.  The argument from the other side is healthcare is a moral issue and society is better off if more people have health insurance.  I get that argument but I can also argue society is better off if many things happen and I really don’t want the government mandating anything else.

If I were emperor, here’s my simple and flawed plan:

  1. Health care is no longer a tax-advantaged benefit. If companies provide health insurance, it is considered taxable income.
  2. You only qualify for a standard deduction or itemizing deductions on your federal taxes if you have health insurance. If you don’t file tax returns, no subsidy (see below).
  3. Non-profit status for hospitals is eliminated. Pay taxes like the rest of us.
  4. All tax revenue from hospitals goes to support Medicaid/Medicare and subsidize those who can’t afford health insurance
  5. Allow competition across state lines for health insurance.

My plan would never get me elected.  As the Republicans in charge understand, it’s hard to get elected after taking away an entitlement.  (The right wingers in gerrymandered districts are OK, which is why they want to blow up Obamacare completely.)   It’s impossible to fix something that is fundamentally flawed.  It’s time for an intelligent debate on health insurance.

When Things Go Wrong, The Truth Shall Set You Free

March 7th, 2017

I was traveling last week.  I got to the airport early and made the fateful decision to check a bag.  I was connecting, it was a long flight, and I didn’t want to lug my bag around.  Frequent travelers know what happened next.  I made it to my destination but my bag did not.  After looking for my bag on the carousal, I went to the baggage desk.  Fortunately (or frighteningly, you decide), they knew my bag wasn’t there yet.  They told me not to worry; my bag was on the next flight out.  They promised to deliver it to my hotel that evening.  I filled out paperwork and they gave me a code to track my bag’s progress on line.  They told me I could be reimbursed up to $50 for incidentals I needed until my bag arrived.

The evening came and went without my bag arriving.  By the time I realized it wasn’t coming as promised, it was too late to buy clothes.  I went to bed expecting the bag first thing in the morning.  I got up early and according to the website, my bag had been delivered to my hotel.  I called the front desk.  No bag.  I called the airline.  After waiting several minutes, I was told the wrong code had been entered about my bag’s status.  My bag was still in route to me.  I showered, did my best to air out my clothes, put on the same clothes I wore the day before, and went to my meetings.  I periodically checked online to see if my bag arrived.  Finally, late that night, almost 36 hours later, my bag arrived at my hotel.

Had I known when my bag would actually arrive, I wouldn’t be writing this story.  I could have prepared by buying clothes, or at least had the proper expectation been set.  “Under promise and over deliver” is one of my favorite clichés.  Stuff happens.  When stuff happens, do the best you can to communicate honestly with your customers.  Oh, and never check a bag.

Bill Gates Wants to Tax Robots as Labor.  How About Microsoft Pays Its “Fair Share?”

February 28th, 2017

Dear Mr. Gates,

 Let me start by saying I admire your software and business vision and acumen.  You created a business that truly has changed the world.  Thank you.

 Recently, I saw an interview in which you recommended the government tax robots that replace workers.  Did you propose the government place taxes on your software that replaced jobs?  I don’t recall you or anyone at Microsoft advocating for increased taxes on your products.  In fact, every month I get an alert from our corporate credit card company.  We use Microsoft Office 365.  When we get billed, it goes through as a large foreign transaction on our card.  It seems we buy our Microsoft licenses from Ireland.  All of our licenses are used in the United States and purchased from a company headquartered in the United States.  According to an article, which I provided a link to below, Microsoft does that to reduce its tax bill.  The laws are the laws and if you can afford tax accountants and attorneys to pay less in taxes, I do not begrudge you.  I do begrudge you proposing the government to interfere in a new market under the guise of helping people displaced by new technology.  The cynic in me thinks you are proposing a tax because large companies, such as Microsoft, will better able to deal with that cost than a small company.  In other words, you want to create a barrier to entry for upstart companies who can’t afford legions of accountants, attorneys, and lobbyists to influence government policies.  Even more bluntly, you are now part of the “establishment” many Americans voted against in November.

 Mr. Gates, I know you have had your run-ins with the government over the years.  I recall Microsoft having some trouble over using its market share in operating systems to attempt to destroy Netscape and its browser.  I’m pretty sure Microsoft lost that case.  Now, you’re advocating for government interference in a new market.  “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” seems to be your strategy today. 

Technology disrupts industries.  A corollary to that is technology disrupts employment.  It also creates opportunities.  Government’s role in any new market should be establishing a level playing field, not helping pick winners and losers.

What’s Your Plan? 

February 21st, 2017

I’ve been a Simpsons fan since the days of the Tracy Ullman show.  Much to my wife’s chagrin, I sometimes watch reruns with our son.  An episode we saw last week made us laugh hysterically.  The retirement home Grandpa Simpson lives in has an issue that requires everyone to move out.  Grandpa and two of his friends come to live with the Simpsons.  Marge starts a conversation with Homer about preparing for the future.  Homer, as only Homer can, makes gestures of eating, drinking beer, and having a heart attack.  He then proudly proclaims, “My lifestyle is my retirement plan.”  You can view the clip here:

The timing of me seeing this episode hit home.  Over the last few months, we’ve embarked on a strategic planning process at I.D. Images.  We’ve done it before but this time we are making a more concerted effort to get input from throughout our organization.  Hopefully, our choices won’t lead to a premature death of our company like Homer!  On a more serious note, one of the observations this process has led me to is we make choices every day, consciously and unconsciously, that will dramatically impact our company’s future.  Similarly, Homer makes choices every day.  He is aware of how those choices will impact his future (or lack thereof).  He knows his plan and is executing it well.  He is comfortable sharing his plan with his main stakeholder.  As part of our planning process, we are preparing to share our results with our key stakeholders, namely our employees.

As Yogi Berra quipped, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”  Whether it’s your personal life or professional life, have a plan.  Get input.  Share it with others.  And make contingent plans if your lifestyle is your retirement plan.  Modern medicine can do amazing things.

Technology + Apathy = Lost Business

February 14th, 2017


Since winter is almost over, I decided it’s finally time to fix the gap in our front door.  We need a simple seal at the bottom of our door.  I started my journey online.  The closest large home improvement store to me that advertises, “You can do this.  We can help,” claimed it had what I needed in the right color in stock.  Their website even told me the exact location I could find it in.  I stopped by after work to pick up my $1.98 corner seal.  I confidently marched to the location, excited to solve a home improvement problem with only one trip to the store!  I got to the location and looked.  And looked.  And looked.  No corner seal in the color I need.  They did have several boxes of white corner seals.  I looked for someone to help me.  I wandered around aimlessly and found two men sitting in the door and window section (yes, sitting) looking like they had nothing to do.  I asked and got a response that made my blood boil, “That’s not our department.”  Really?  I’m not your store’s customer?  “That’s not my job” or any equivalency is worthy of immediate termination in my book.  They offered to call someone from the department in which I needed help.  While they did that, I left the store.  I got in my car, got on my phone, and ordered the part online from a competitor of the store I went to.

Technology, when used properly, is an incredible tool for increasing efficiency.  In the perfect world, I would have ended my confident march into that store with my required door seal and some other stuff I didn’t plan on buying in my bag shortly after entering.  In the store’s perfect world, I would not have interacted with a person, saving them money.  Instead, I bought nothing and left with a bad taste in my mouth.  It happened that way because someone entered the part number improperly.  They probably got a shipment in with 2 colors of door seals on it and scanned in a box of the brown without scanning in white.  The brown sold out but the system had bad data so it thinks it still has brown.  (Inventory mishaps like that never happen at I.D. Images or with our customers.  Never!  If you believe that…)  Mistakes happen.  But the mistakes are amplified when you share data with your customers.  If their online system hadn’t told me they had what I needed, I would have never gone to that store.  I’d have no blog topic this week.

We all want more data and in general, more data is good.  But the more data we have, the more likely it is to have mistakes in it.  I can deal with mistakes.  Apathy makes me sick.  All the technology in the world won’t fix an apathetic workforce.  In fact, if used improperly, technology contributes to apathy.  The workforce gets concerned about losing jobs.  The only way to solve that problem is to engage your workforce and train them on value add activities.  Finding a part doesn’t really add value; that process can and should be automated.  Helping a frustrated customer does add value.  Had the apathetic worker offered to check inventory in other stores or simply walked me over to his colleague in the other department, I would have left with a smile on my face, even if they didn’t have the part I needed.  That lost opportunity cost a lot more than $1.98.