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Where To Begin? December 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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As some of you may have noticed, I like to extract lessons from the day-to-day incidents that surround us.  If I’m able to extract some little nugget from an experience, I count it as a worthwhile event.  Imagine my delight to uncover five lessons in a short, two minute encounter earlier this week.

I was in line at a local craft shop. The fellow in front of me was part of a larger group of dads and their kids, making crafts as Christmas gifts.  Apparently, they all paid on arrival, but this dad had discovered he had a 50% off coupon in his wallet.  He was asking for a refund of half of his fee.  And thus the lessons in poor service began.

  1. Develop policies that punish your customer. The salesperson immediately responded with “We do not give refunds.”  The customer was taken aback but undeterred.  He asked again, pointing out that he had just paid a few moments before. Apparently, the policy does not address timing, so again, the request was refused.  When the customer asked again, we moved to lesson two.
  2. Blame someone else. The salesperson then shared that this wasn’t her policy, but instead had been created by “accounting.”  I wondered how big the accounting department might be at a little mom-and-pop store like this one, but no matter. Someone else had set this policy, and we were all powerless to change it.
  3. Pass the buck. When the specter of “Accounting” did not seal the deal, the salesperson called over another employee.  Unsurprisingly, she confirmed the bad news: that was the policy, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It became clear that both employees had been taught lesson four:
  4. Don’t care. It was obvious that these two had no vested interest in making this person happy.  For whatever reason, their engagement with the company simply involved showing up, doing their job, and going home.  Apparently, long-term customer satisfaction did not figure into their performance review. As a result, we finally got to lesson five.
  5. Offend a member of a larger group. This guy was part of a group of dads.  You can be sure he told each one of them about the refusal.  You can be sure that when the group has to pick their next outing, this store would not be on the list.  For want of a small refund and a bit of kindness, a whole collection of families were alienated.

This whole conversation took less than five minutes before the dad finally gave up.  The salespeople had no idea of the damage they had done, and neither would the store owner, who was not present.

Good customer service is hard, but bad customer service is so easy.  For all of us in service organizations, we need to remember that good service is a continuous effort and even a slight slip can create lasting damage.

The unhappy dad went back to his child, and I moved forward to pay my bill.  I didn’t have the nerve to ask if I could use his coupon.

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Lifetime Impact December 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Early in my career, I had the great good fortune to work with a pure research team.  The team had two distinct research areas: advanced digital communications and large-scale parallel processing.  The former was populated by absolute geniuses who, among other things, developed stuff  like 16 kilobit modems back in 1980, along with a nifty technology we now know as HDTV.  I was in the latter group; we were a bunch of young Unix hackers who tinkered with odd things like parallel processing, the internet, the web, and email.  It was a wonderful place to be, and I still have many fond memories of the people and the projects.

Last week I learned that one of the senior members of the communications group, Dan McRae, passed away.  Dan was a brilliant engineer, but he was also a kind, supportive mentor to many, many people.  As his coworkers learned of his passing, they began to share memories of Dan and the profound impact he had had on their lives.  Although I had only known Dan peripherally, those who had known and worked with him for decades echoed a common sentiment: he had made a profound difference in their lives.

Several people shared the same comment: that were it not for Dan, their lives would be dramatically different today.  His guidance and intervention at an early point in their career had led them to decisions that made a big difference for them and their families.

Dan did not set out to make a big difference.  Dan was being Dan, quietly inspiring people to do great things personally and professionally.  Yet the impact he had on so many people is immeasurable.

Thinking of Dan made me realize that to be remembered in this way may be the greatest achievement to which any of us could aspire.  Paradoxically, you cannot try to achieve this kind impact; rather, it occurs as a side effect of doing the right thing, all the time, for a long time.  I suspect that even if you had asked him, Dan could not have explained how he had this impact on people.

If you died today, would people say the same thing about you?  Do you live your life in a way that makes a profound difference to someone?  I hope that in the end, we will all be able to claim a similar legacy as Dan McRae.

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Social Spackle December 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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It’s been a social media week for some reason, with many opportunities to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of all this new stuff with lots of folks.  Despite the attention that social media gets, and the adoption of the tools by some demographic groups, there is still a long way to go for some people to start using this stuff.

There’s a common refrain that permeates a lot of these discussions: “It might be useful for others, but I just don’t think it’s for me. Who cares what I’m doing or thinking?” I have a simple answer for that: “I do.”  And lots of other people as well.

The concept of social media is not new.  Years and years ago, social media went by different names.  We used to call it “talking,” or “writing a letter,” or “making a social call.” As technology advanced, it became “sending a telegram” and “making a phone call.” Now we call it “updating my status” or “sending a tweet.” Technology changes, but the goal remains the same.

The point is to keep in touch with people you care about, and for them to keep in touch with you.  These simple interactions with others build a rich fabric that connects you and keeps you close. While some people belittle the trivial information that often gets shared, it is that information, in fact, that makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

In today’s world, we rarely cross paths with people and engage them in person.  When we do, we often spend time catching up: “Where have you been? What have you been doing?” We do it because we care, and the more we know about a person, the more we can connect and share.

Social media lets you share those little bits about yourself all the time.  Interested people can absorb them and keep up with you.  I call this information “social spackle.”  It is the stuff that fills in the cracks in our relationships and keep them strong. When you do finally meet someone, you are already up to speed on their life; you can have a richer and more valuable moment together.

Consider a simple example: an acquaintance tweets as he goes on a trip to visit his daughter and see his grandchildren.  Trivial data, he thinks; who would care about that?  But those who know him are glad to know it, and file it all away.  When we next meet, we have excited questions: How was your trip?  How are those grandkids? That little bit of social spackle strengthened our bond and made for a nicer moment.

Reluctant to try social media?  Don’t do it for you.  Do it for those who care about you.  Find ways to spread some social spackle and see what happens.  You will be surprised at the change in the richness and quality of your relationships, both with people you’ve known and the people you will meet.  What do you have to lose?

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No Coffee, Please December 7, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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At a recent industry event, I settled in for the luncheon keynote speaker.  As you would expect, they came around and poured coffee.  I dutifully added cream and sugar and took a few sips. Perfect!

When I was half-finished with my coffee, the waiter came around and refilled it.  Aaagh!  This completely upset the careful balance of cream, sugar, and coffee.  Now I was stuck: put up with too-bitter coffee, or try to make corrections with partial portions of cream and sugar.  Either way, my coffee experience has been disturbed, if not ruined.

As I gave up on my coffee and decided to just eat the mints from the bowl on the table, it occurred to me that many of us in IT run around with coffee pots.  With the best of intentions (always have a full cup!) we disrupt the carefully crafted experiences of our users.

We talk a lot about change management and preparing users for the impact of system modifications.  Change is inevitable, and there is no way that we’ll be able to preserve everything a user likes about a system as we add new capabilities.  Even little changes in menu ordering or form layout can cause great consternation among people who have grown used to a system.

It is one thing when we recognize an impending change and work to avoid end user difficulties.  Big system rollouts usually have lots of formal change management to make life easier during transition. But how often do we send out little changes and ruin our users’ coffee, so to speak?  It doesn’t have to be a system change; a change in process can be disruptive, too.  Vendor changes to support or licensing terms are hard to deal with, even when they work in our favor.  Even changing a phone number or replacing an old piece of equipment with a new one can inject an unwelcome change into someone’s life.

Change is hard, whether it is big or small.  And the size of the change is in the eyes of the changee, not in the changer.  As we constantly improve and upgrade our world, let’s be careful when and where we decide to pour coffee.  Hopefully, we’ll have fewer users left with a bitter taste in their mouth.

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After The Beep November 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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There was a time, many years ago, when telephone answering machines were state-of-the-art technology.  They used little cassette tapes to hold both your incoming and outgoing messages.  Fancy ones could count how many messages you had; cheaper machines just blinked to get your attention.

The first time you ever set one up, you were instructed, when recording your outgoing message, to include instructions for the caller.  What should they do after the beep?  Leave a message, of course, and you’ll call them right back.

Many years have come and gone, and physical answering machines have evolved into voice mail stored on some remote server in the ether.  Every single person in every developed country on Earth has both sent and received voice messages.  Yet we persist in including those same instructions when we record our message in the voicemail system.

Why are we beholden to instructions that are absolutely useless?  How much time is wasted as people wait for the message to play before being able to record their message?  Even with the shortest message possible (“Not here. beep“) everyone would know exactly what to do.

Perhaps the worst possible offenders are those voice mail systems that tack on additional instructions, in a smooth female voice, after your message.  You’ve heard it a thousand times:

Leave your message after the beep.  When you are finished, you may hang up, or stay on the line for more options.

Is anyone unclear as to the next step after leaving their message?  Has anyone ever “stayed on the line for more options?”

Of course, many people are fairly gregarious when leaving a message, in a sort of karmic revenge for the long outgoing message.  There is nothing more frustrating than listening to some lengthy explanation in a voice mail when all you really want is a name and a number.  People ramble on and on, going into all sorts of detail that, truth be told, you are ignoring as you anxiously await the crucial data they might spring on you at any moment.

And when they get to that part?  They rattle off their number faster than anyone could ever transcribe it, mumble their name, and hang up.  You know what’s worse than listening to a long, tedious message?  Listening twice to check the name and number at the end.

I propose that we establish a new set of voice mail rules that will save everyone time and frustration:

  • Outgoing messages need to be short and sweet. No extraneous instructions; we know what to do.
  • Incoming messages need to be short and sweet. You get no more than twenty seconds to give a reason why you need a return call.  State your name and number slowly.  Pause and repeat it.  Hang up.

Get the message?  Together, we can change the world, one beep at a time!

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