Unemployment Extensions Expire (Thanks, Congress)

not hiring

For a lot of us, Saturday was the end.  Adíos.  Sayonara.

Goodbye, federal unemployment extensions.

As Congress has failed to renew the four tiers of federal unemployment extensions, the enabling legislation passed last year quietly expired on Saturday.  Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Many of us will receive our very last unemployment benefit checks this week.  I am willing to bet a nickel that a good number of those affected have no clue.  Sure, they’ll get a little notice in their envelope.  As if anyone bothers to read those.

So, how many are being summarily cut off?  About 1.2 to 1.3 million nationally, 222,000 here in California alone.  By the end of 2014, it is estimated that nearly 5 million Americans could be affected.

I consider myself lucky.  I am still on my “initial claim,” receiving state, not federal, unemployment benefits.  But those only last for 26 weeks.  I was laid off on September 27, which means I am now halfway done.  If I do not obtain gainful employment by the end of March, I will be on my own.

I ought to add a sidebar to my résumé (not that anyone wants to see those anymore).  It should read something like this:  CONGRESSIONAL SPECIAL!  Halfway through and accepting deep salary discounts!  Call, text, email or tweet now!

In a couple of weeks, I will change the font and color for the next promotion:  MLK DAY SPECIAL!  Ten weeks left til I’m broke!  Hire now and pay me less!

A month down the road, I’ll cut and paste some little clip art silhouettes of George and Abe:  PRESIDENTS DAY SPECIAL!  Only six weeks til poverty!  Patriotic employers, hire now and improve the American economy!

As a last ditch effort, in mid-March I shall turn my entire résumé green:  ST. PAT’S SPECIAL, LAST CHANCE!  Final grains of sand in the hourglass!  Only two weeks left!  Hire me on the cheap before I’m out of luck!

Perhaps it won’t come to this.  There are currently six bills in Congress (three each in the House and the Senate) that would provide out-of-work Americans with various types of benefit extensions.  There is a possibility that one or more of these may be voted on and approved after Congress returns from its New Year’s break on January 6.  Personally, I think our elected representatives are lily-livered, insensitive, gutless wonders to allow federal unemployment extensions to run out and then head off on vacation.

The Democrats are blaming the Republicans (what else is new?), but not everyone on the Democratic side of the aisle wants to spend the $26 billion needed to renew unemployment benefit extensions either.

President Obama, who has taken so much flak for the Affordable Care Act, unsuccessfully urged Congress to extend benefits rather than allowing them to expire.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urges the restoration of unemployment benefits to be Congress’ first priority upon legislators’ return to the Capitol.

One thing that seems fairly certain is that if any extensions are approved, they will not be retroactive.  So let the suffering begin and, hmm, happy new year?

It is no secret how being cut off from unemployment benefits will affect the 1.2 million.  Many have no savings and will effectively have no source of income whatsoever.  They will be unable to pay their bills, right down to food, rent and heat (um, it is wintertime, folks).  There will be an increase in evictions, with homeless families crowding the shelters or sleeping out of doors in the cold.  Food banks, churches and emergency assistance services will be taxed even more than they already are.

And we can expect an increase in crime.  Who is going to blame a parent for taking whatever measures are necessary to feed his or her children?  Panhandling?  Check.  Shoplifting?  Check.  Petty theft?  Check.  Breaking and entering?  Check.  Better put out the “Welcome, Unemployed” signs at the entrance of the county jails.  Police departments and hospitals had better add overtime shifts to their schedules.  Why hospitals?  Can you say “substance abuse?”  How about “depression?”  How about “domestic violence?”  Try this one:  “Hypothermia.”  It’s a very big word, but I bet you can say it, children!  Even you with the frostbitten fingers and toes.

Congress, however, has no problem with its extremities; it is its heart that has been frozen.  From what I’ve been reading, it appears that our elected representatives feel no sense of urgency in this matter, as employment has been increasing nationally.  In November, unemployment decreased from October in 45 states, falling 7% nationally.  Here in the West, however, we continue to deal with the highest regional unemployment rate in the nation.  Ironically, California was the exception, with the greatest drop in unemployment in the whole country.

The worst increase in unemployment was in Ohio, where 12,000 joined the ranks of the jobless last month.

But you know what they say about statistics — it’s a primer in how to lie with numbers.

For one thing, I have to wonder how many of the lucky people who found jobs in November were signing on for seasonal work?  You know, employers beefing up the staffs of discount and department stores for the holidays, hiring bodies to load and unload trucks in warehouses, bringing on bell ringers and sign wavers?

I think about my nephew, who was one of those warehouse workers until he was laid off a few days ago.  Christmas is over, don’t you know.

And what do the unemployment numbers really tell us?  How many people are on the unemployment rolls — in other words, how many have open claims and are still receiving unemployment checks.  What about the hundreds of thousands who have already run through all available federal extensions?  Federal and state agencies refer to those who have been out of work for more than six months as “the long-term unemployed.”  But what about those who were laid off back in 2012 or earlier? Many of them are still out of work, but are not counted in unemployment numbers because they are no longer eligible to draw benefits.  These are the unseen unemployed, the invisible ones.  It is no surprise that many who fall into this category have become discouraged, depressed and have given up looking for work altogether.

But, hey, look on the bright side.  Eliminating these slackers from our unemployment figures makes the American economy look ripe for investment in the eyes of world markets.  And the news is about to get even better.  As of last Saturday, we have 1.2 million fewer on the unemployment rolls!  Imagine that!

I think the solution to all our unemployment problems is totally obvious.  Simply cancel all unemployment benefits of every kind, both state and federal.  Then our unemployment rate throughout the nation will be . . . (drum roll, please) zero!

Who says full employment is just a pipe dream?

 

References

Fox, Emily Jane, “Unemployment Benefits for 1.3 Million Expire,” CNN Money, December 29, 2013. http://money.cnn.com/2013/12/27/news/economy/unemployment-benefits-expire/

Lauter, David, “Q & A:  Why Unemployment Benefits Expire for 1.3 Million,” Politics Now, Los Angeles Times (December 27, 2013).  http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/politicsnow/la-pn-q-and-a-unemployment-benefits-20131227,0,1111524.story#axzz2p1oXeJcn

Lowrey, Annie, “Benefits Ending for One Million Unemployed,” New York Times (December 27, 2013).  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/28/us/benefits-ending-for-one-million-of-unemployed.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Plumer, Brad, “Unemployment for 1.3 Million Expire Saturday.  Here’s Why,” Wonkblog, Washington Post (December 23, 2013).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/12/20/unemployment-benefits-for-1-3-million-workers-expire-next-week-heres-what-you-should-know/

 

Wake Up, Dear, You Were Just Having an American Dream

dream

Shout out today to new bloggers Laura and Bob of The Two Who Wander.  I am so glad I happened to run across their little corner of the blogosphere.  They are recent retirees who have invited us to share this new chapter in their lives and to tag along on their adventures across the USA.

I particularly enjoyed Bob’s post Retired! in which he takes us on a guided tour of his career working first on coin-operated games at a small firm and then for many years at Hughes Aircraft.  Bob tells us that his employer provided “a pension that will provide enough income to help Laura and I survive into old age.”  I can only sigh and gaze wistfully at such things.

In my mind, I travel back to my junior year of high school, when I was one of two students selected to compete in a national writing competition.  The other student was a girl who was a talented musician, a brilliant student and at the top of our class.  I, on the other hand, was a new student who had just moved to the area and somehow impressed the creative writing instructor with a couple of poems.  Perhaps the school thought that this outsider could be the secret weapon who brings home the big one for good old John Jay High.

When the two of us arrived in the classroom at the appointed time, the proctor informed us that we’d have an hour to write anything we wanted on this year’s topic, “the American dream.”  I asked if it was okay to write a poem.  The proctor reiterated that we could write whatever we wanted.

Peering over to the other side of the classroom, I saw the young lady immediately begin to scribble her thoughts, only occasionally looking up for inspiration before lowering her head and continuing.  I, on the other hand, had no clue what to write.  None at all.

I had no idea what the phrase “the American dream” meant.

I writhed uncomfortably like a butterfly mounted on a pin while still alive.

The jig was up.  I would now be exposed as the fraud I really was.  I ended up turning in three or four lines of nonsense and did the best I could to forget about the whole thing.  Now that forty years have elapsed, I think I can fairly state that I have been as unsuccessful in the forgetting part as I was in the writing part.

Later, I found out that “the American dream” is somehow associated with home ownership.

Oh.

Even though I was born in Manhattan, I feel as if I must really be from another country, as home ownership has never meant anything to me.  I’ve always been a renter and plan to continue so to the end of my days.  Perhaps somewhere along the line I fell asleep and had the Swedish dream or the Chinese dream.

I guess I could be like my sister, who owns homes in two different states, but has to rent them out in order to pay for them.  Meanwhile, she is unemployed and living in an extended stay hotel in Reno, where she just had her car broken into and had to have the smashed window replaced.  On her own dime, I might add, as she hasn’t yet met her deductible.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like the countless multitudes of my fellow Americans who have become victims of subprime mortgages, who have seen the value of their homes plummet in decomposing neighborhoods, whose home loans have gone “under water,” who have been awarded their marital homes in divorce settlements but can neither keep up the mortgage payments nor sell out, or who have absconded after the foreclosure notice has been affixed to their front doors.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like the many impoverished households in this area in which ten or twelve people are forced to live together and the roof over their heads is earned at the price of having no food in the house.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like our homeless friend who alternates sleeping in a chair at a friend’s house and rolling up in his sleeping bag outdoors.  One day last week, he came begging for a dollar because he was dying for a cigarette.  Thursday, he came by because he was hungry and we fed him dinner.  The next morning he came by again and we gave him breakfast.  Is that the American Dream?

I suppose I could quit it with the pessimism and look at the multicultural melting pot that we have become as the American dream.  The joy of living in a time and place where I can sing Hebrew songs in a church in which most of the parishioners speak Spanish.  Where I can eat latkes one day and tacos the next.  On that day back in high school, perhaps I should have written about my grandmother traveling by train from Austria to Le Havre in France and boarding a ship to cross the Atlantic in steerage, seasick for weeks, to reach a better life in the United States.  In the insular childhood I enjoyed on the East Coast, I had no idea that there were Mexicans paying their life savings to be ferried across the Arizona border, only to be abandoned and die in the heat of the Sonoran Desert.  Nor did I know about those who actually made it, finding the American Dream working as domestics, field hands and day laborers in California or meat packers in Nebraska in order to send a few dollars back home to the family in Jalisco.

Or perhaps the American dream has evolved into obtaining our fifteen minutes of fame, winning the Power Ball, wearing a chicken costume on American Idol or twerking on the world stage of the VMAs.

No, today I think we have a new American dream, and I thank Bob and Laura for reminding me of this.  The American dream for the twenty-first century is to be able to retire before the age of sixty with a pension that will support us so that we can follow our dreams, American or otherwise, for the rest of our lives.

For myself, however, as for most of us, this is a dream that will forever remain out of reach, a dream that vanishes into thin air the moment we open our eyes.

 

Understanding Your Employment Ad

ads

As an unemployed job hunter, one of the skills I have had to acquire is how to read between the lines of employment advertisements.  While the want ads hardly qualify as great literature, having been a college English major has turned out to be an asset in interpreting what can often seem like a foreign language.  The wording of many ads contains much in the way of subtext and subtlety, simile and symbolism, all of which lends itself to the same style of explication de texte as is a work of poetry.

The following is a description of just a few of the elements that you may wish to consider in understanding your employment ad:

Salary

Most help wanted ads do not list a wage or salary.  The reason for this should be obvious:  This simply isn’t a very important factor in deciding whether to apply for a particular position.  Wouldn’t you agree?

A notable exception is in the public sector (such as federal and state jobs), where the salary for most positions is public information and may even be set by law.  In ads for public sector jobs, you can expect a salary range (either per month or per year), such as “$3650-$5025.”  However, don’t be misled into believing that the successful candidate may start at a salary anywhere within the stated range, depending on experience.  Generally, the low number constitutes the starting salary; public employees advance by steps, usually annually, until the high end of the range is reached.  After that, salary generally remains the same from year to year, sometimes with a cost-of-living allowance added.  Many applicants are led astray by salary ranges.  For example, an applicant who has many years of experience in this position and would like to earn about $5000 monthly may be in for quite a disappointment when $3650 is offered.

This is not to say that an applicant can’t make a counteroffer for any type of job.  If salary is not set by law or union contract, there is almost always an opportunity for the successful applicant to negotiate money.  The worst they can do is say no!  Remember, the very fact that the job has been offered to you means that the employer is very interested in bringing you on board and might be inclined to throw you a bit more money to snag your services.  Of course, there will always be employers who operate under a “take it or leave it” model and would be just as happy to move on to another candidate who is sufficiently desperate to accept their pathetic offer.  These are the employers who have a revolving door and have to continuously recruit and hire.  Why?  Because their employees will bolt at the first opportunity to earn a couple bucks an hour more (see Arrogant SOBs, below).

Travel (The 4 I’s)

Some management positions require travel, but many do not.  A well-written job announcement should specify not only whether travel is expected, but also how much — 20%, 40%, 60%, etc.  This should be obvious, as it is a waste of the time of both the employer and the applicant to prepare and examine applications for positions requiring travel from candidates who, for example, are unable to be away from home much for health reasons or due to child care or elder care responsibilities.

Unfortunately, many ads for managers (in)conveniently make no mention of how much travel is required.  Sometimes, however, the wording of the job announcement can give you a hint.  For example, if the ad states “passport or ability to obtain one required,” that’s a pretty good clue that international travel will be the order of the day, and probably not just once or twice a year either.  The successful candidate in this position is likely to fall victim to the four Is:  iPhone, I’m at the airport, I’m on a plane and I don’t recognize you, are we married or something?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not being a prima donna here.  I realize that some amount of sacrifice for the company is an integral component of a management position.  I don’t like planes and I like to sleep in my own bed every night, but I certainly will not object to flying to a decaying Rust Belt city two or three times a year to make presentations at conferences, even though it will likely involve changing planes in Phoenix and again in Dallas.  Nor will I balk at occasionally packing up and heading to Peoria or Missoula to hold the hand of a panicked client.  But I won’t do it every other week, nor will I do it if the same thing can be accomplished in our conference room over Skype.

Testimonials

Businesses, particular larger ones, frequently include employee or applicant testimonials on their jobs site for the purpose of serving up a heaping helping of palaver regarding how great it is to work at the company.  Having said that, please take a look at this applicant’s testimonial.

So, to summarize:  Mr. Carlozo worked as a freelancer (no steady paycheck and who knows if the company will accept and pay for your latest article or not?), then became a contracted editor, then was “let go.”  So what did he do?  He went back to freelancing for these people!  I mean, does this guy live in his mother’s basement or something?

As if that’s not enough, then he writes a testimonial gushing about how his sometime employer considered him for (gasp) a full-time position by flying him out to Virginia and then to New York for a series of interviews.  The company emphasized that this had to be done immediately so they could hire him before a hiring freeze went into effect (now there’s a red flag warning!).  The interviews went great, he felt important but they did not hire him!  So what happened then?  He went back to a temporary contracted position with the company.

And this is supposed to be a testimonial?  I sat here slack-jawed reading this piece.  There are no words.  I suppose I should say “fool me once, shame on you; fool me eight times, shame on me.”

The Russians

The old Communist Party in Russia was intolerant of any ideas that deviated in the slightest from the party line.

Some employers emulate the Russian Communists in their job announcements.  Rather than acknowledging the wide range of experiences and ideas that applicants could bring to the table to help improve their businesses, these employers tell you exactly what they want you to think.  This allows applicants who do not share the employer’s philosophies to decide whether they are willing to adjust their thinking to the company’s narrow mandates or whether they should just look elsewhere.  I vote for the latter, and many of these employers would agree.

For example, an employer with the Russian Communist mindset might start a job announcement with a statement something like this:  “If you think that <fill in the blank>, we’re not interested.  But if you think that <company’s party line>, we’re not only interested, we’ll roll out the red carpet for you.”

Another style of the Communist approach goes something like this:  “Those who are not technically oriented need not apply.”

When you see this, I recommend that you run for the hills.  And how exactly would you define “technically oriented,” Mr. Moskva?  Do you require many years of experience with C++ and Java programming, or just a passing acquaintance with HTML?  Are you rejecting out of hand the artists among us who appreciate beauty and speak and write well, but don’t know their way around coding?  How about those who can crunch your numbers like there’s no tomorrow and provide accurate forecasting?  What about the visionaries and ideas people?  Do you honestly believe that only techies have anything of value to offer your company?

If you apply for these types of jobs, be prepared for your square peg to be shoved into the company’s round hole.  These employers deserve what they get.

The Arrogant SOBs

After noticing an interesting job announcement, I did some reading online to give me a better idea of whether this is a company for which I would like to work.  (Believe me, it’s worth it to do a little research.)  The company had recently opened a call center nearby and a local newspaper interviewed a manager about the hiring drive they were conducting.  The manager explained that the company had selected our rural area in the hope that employees will be “more loyal” than they were at the previous call center in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s all about money, people.  Let’s take a moment to read between the lines and decode what these arrogant asses are really saying:

  1. We want to pay employees less, so we’re relocating over here where the cost of living is lower and jobs are more scarce.
  2. We were stuck in a vicious cycle of recruiting, hiring and training in the Bay Area because we couldn’t keep our employees.  Why?  We were underpaying them and they bolted the second they got a little experience under their belts and were able to earn better wages at one of our competitors down the street.

Funny how employers refuse to pay more when they can pay less, but chastise employees who refuse to accept less when they can get more.  Go figure.

 

Ten Decembers

Dec

Inspired by the DP Challenge Ghosts of December 23rds Past and particularly by Jeni’s delightful post Nine Decembers on Joy and Woe.

December 1977

No room at the inn.  Transferred colleges and couldn’t get into the dorms, so lived in a tiny hole in a decrepit, single room occupancy hotel in downtown Albany.  Took the bus back and forth to campus, five miles away, even when the temperature was below zero.  Glad to go home for the semester break.  Bundled up and walked a mile to the record to store to buy the double album Barry Manilow Live to bring home with me.  Planned to take Amtrak down to the Hudson Valley, where a friend would pick me up.  Had to take a taxi across the river to the train station in Rensselaer.  Had the hotel bellhop call me a cab and carry out my luggage.  Became frightened when he started to yell at me.  Later realized I was supposed to give him something called a “tip.”

December 1978

Slacking and slouching my way through college.  Finally got into the dorms and hated living with a bunch of creeps. Accidentally bumped into the dorm Christmas tree and knocked it over.  Hated taking political science courses to please my parents, who wanted me to be a lawyer.  Allowed my mother to talk me into taking Constitutional Law.  Hated it with a passion but was afraid to drop it.  Plowed through piles and piles of mimeographed cases, understanding next to nothing.  Final paper was due right before Christmas, but I put it off until it was too late.  Stayed up all night to try to put something together.  Couldn’t.  Wrote a note to the professor explaining that I am a square peg being forced into a round hole.  Walked across campus to the PoliSci office and gave the note to the secretary.  Told her to tell the prof to just fail me and get it over with.  Walked back to the dorm and went to bed.  Went home for winter break the next day.  Shouted “I hate the Constitution!” in front of my parents, earning a tongue-lashing from Mom.

December 1979

My parents had recently won some money in a lawsuit and purchased a Honey motor home.  The thing slept eight, got nine miles to the gallon and drove like a tank.  Rode down to Florida in it with my parents and sisters.  It was my senior year of college and I figured this would be my last chance to do this.  One of my college friends had taken a shine to my sister, and she really liked him.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t Jewish and my mother was having none of it.  Mom and Sis fought and carried on the whole trip.   My sisters and I slept on chaise lounges on my grandparents’ lanai in Florida.  Sis cried all night and my heart ached for her, particularly since it was my stupid friend who caused this mess.

December 1980

After graduating college with a useless liberal arts degree in May, my job prospects were exactly zero.  My mother was working in Rhode Island, so I lived with her and started taking the courses I needed for a teaching credential.  Took summer and fall classes, but Mom quit her job in November and moved back to New York.  I moved into the dorms (where I lit Hanukkah candles but blew them out after about 30 seconds for fear they would set the curtains on fire or set off the smoke alarm), but when the semester was over in December, my parents said they were done with Rhode Island and I should come back to New York and look for a job.  A few days before Christmas, my father arrived to pick me up.  I cried as we drove away.

December 1981

Quit my first job.  Eleven months on the night shift at minimum wage was enough for me.  I had found another job, so I just called in and quit without notice.  It was a weird feeling, half guilt, half liberation.  On Dec. 8, started working at a huge, stinking chemical plant that I will call Carcinogens R Us.  Thought I had won the lottery because I was making union wage, $8.07 per hour.

December 1982

Threw a thirtieth anniversary party for my parents on Christmas Eve.  Tried to keep it a secret, but then learned that they were planning to fly to Florida for Christmas and had to tell them.  Invited distant relatives whom we hadn’t seen in forever.  Most of them came.  Spent a lot of money on catering but had no music.  My girlfriend, who was also Jewish, kept asking me if this was a Christmas party.  Dumbass.

December 1983

In charge of the Christmas party for our section at work.  There were a hundred of us.  Arranged for the food, but there was no money in the budget for music.  Didn’t have any Christmas music because I still lived at home and, well, we’re Jewish.  Went through my collection of vinyl records and made a party tape using the cassette player on my stereo.  Discovered that a lot of people really hate Barry Manilow.  Was mildly embarrassed when my coworkers kept rewinding the tape to play Gloria Estefán singing “Conga” over and over again.

December 1987

Quit my job back in August to go to law school full-time.  Quickly found that I was in over my head.  I had begun exhibiting agoraphobic tendencies a couple of years before and started having full-blown panic attacks as exams approached.  At Christmas, foolishly decided to ride to Florida with my parents again, with yet another girlfriend along for the ride.  We were staying with my grandparents while the girlfriend was staying at her father’s house down there.  My sisters had wisely flown the coop.  Mom hated everyone on my father’s side of the family and hated my girlfriend even more.  She decided to take it out on me.  Endured ten days of listening to Mom scream, yell and curse at me.  Never rode to Florida with them again.

December 1988

My parents drove to Florida by themselves.  I stayed up at law school in Massachusetts.  I was renting a room along with several other law students in a huge house owned by empty-nesters.  They invited me to stay for their family Christmas and I eagerly accepted.  Their four children came home for Christmas with their spouses.  The depth of the pile of gifts around the Christmas tree staggered my imagination.  It took hours to open them all on Christmas Eve.  My landlord’s son-in-law referred to this exercise as “death by presents.”  I just called it awesome.

December 1990

Quit my job as a clerk (Do you see a pattern here?) when I realized the temp-to-hire position was all temp and no hire.  Also because I had failed the bar exam once already and figured I’d better study full-time for a couple of months if I were to have any chance of passing in February.  Also because I was sick and tired of the boss and his secretary imitating my parents by having daily screaming matches with each other.  The first Gulf War got underway in Iraq and I was horrified.    Wrote my first letter to “any soldier.”  Wrote an anti-war poem and had it published in “Yellow Ribbons,” a tiny local mimeographed piece of shit.  Wrote another poem titled “Daddy Hates Chicken.”  My agoraphobia worsened and I tried to stay at home as much as possible.  Of course, “home” was still my parents’ house, where I figured I’d have to live til I was old and gray.  Had multiple fights with my girlfriend (who still lived with her mother) because she didn’t know how to explain to her friends that I wouldn’t go places.  Memorized the causes of action for all the intentional torts and wrote one practice essay after another, lying on the blue carpeted floor of my childhood bedroom.

 

The “No Whining” Rule

no whining

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of businesses that gripe and complain about whiny-ass customers who make unreasonable demands.  If not for us customers, you wouldn’t exist.  When no one is willing to purchase your products any longer, you and all your profits will vanish without a wisp of smoke.

And I, for one, will shed no tears.

If you want a glimpse of what I mean, take a look at Stacy Hall’s columns about customer service on deliveringhappiness.com.  First she claims that customers should be nicer to businesses, then she justifies telling us “no” as long as businesses do so politely.

“Co-Dependency” or The Balance of Power

Hall describes the relationship between many businesses and their customers as “co-dependent” on the grounds that “one person is continually serving the needs of the other without reciprocation.”

Checking further into the definition of “codependency,” I found one therapist who describes this phenomenon as “making the relationship more important to you than you are to yourself . . . trying to make the relationship work with someone else who’s not.”

Hall’s implication is that customer service representatives (CSRs) are often called upon to exercise self-sacrifice, i.e., to satisfy the customer regardless of the unreasonableness of her demands and regardless of the cost to the company.

This, essentially, is a description of the relationship summed up in the ancient adage that “the customer is always right.”

Hall argues that this line of thinking results in an imbalance that unfairly tips the relationship entirely in favor of the customer, giving her or him all the power and the business none.  So, if I understand what she is saying correctly, the customer is not entitled to act like a self-absorbed three year old who throws a tantrum to express his frustration over not being able to get exactly what he wants.  In other words, businesses exist to make a profit and ought not allow themselves to be bullied by (ooo!) aggressive customers who want what they want when they want it and who don’t care how their attitudes affects the companies with which they are doing business.

I’ve often heard talk about a sense of entitlement among customers.

Well, isn’t this a switch?  And what about the sense of entitlement among businesses?

Most of us shop in stores that are very far removed from the souk or the Arab bazaar.  Customers do not have the opportunity to haggle over prices, nor do they have any say about the relative quality of the merchandise nor the business’ return and refund policies.  As you can see, all the power is in the hands of the business.  Like the prisoner whose only power is to go on a hunger strike, the customer’s only power is to walk out the door and shop elsewhere.  And depending on the community in which one resides, there may or may not be a viable “elsewhere” (online shopping is starting to change this).

So with all the power in the power in the hands of the business, I think it takes some pretty big cojones to aver that we, as customers, are abusing our power.

Businesses need to implement a no whining rule.  I submit to you that those businesses that wish to be known as providing world-class customer service must find a way to satisfy the customer, even when he or she is being unreasonable.  And here is where I disagree with Hall.

Whether the customer is “right” or not is a perception on the part of the business.  And guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  To obtain repeat customers and spread a positive company reputation to draw in new customers, the CSR must find a way to satisfy the customer.  And yes, I mean even when the customer is being “unreasonable.”

This means that the CSR must be thoroughly trained in all the tools and options available to potentially turn the customer’s frown upside down.  It’s bad enough that the customer is dissatisfied in the first place; failure to rectify the situation will lose the customer for good.

Hall seems to believe that there are times when it makes sense to lose the customer, that the deal must be beneficial to both parties.  That’s what a contract is all about, isn’t it?  Mutual benefit?  Hall is correct in the sense that there is no contract when there is no agreement between the parties.  Just be aware that walking away from the contract enough times will cause your business to evaporate.  Satisfied customers often keep their opinions to themselves, but dissatisfied customers tell everyone they know about how awful the company is.

So. . .  Do businesses have the right to say “no,” to stick to their guns, to adhere to company policies to a T, to allow CSRs to spout meaningless verbiage from a script?  Certainly they do.  And then they can spend their time chasing rainbows and other newfangled theories about why business is falling off.

It’s not a mystery.  Quit whining and start providing the type of service your customers deserve.

Perhaps Hall is correct in here position that customers tend to be demanding.  That, however, is the price of the business being the party that establishes all the rules.  If it behooves businesses not to permit customers to walk all over them, I submit to you that customers must take the same approach to businesses.

Ultimately, a business that “stands up for itself” rather than “giving in to unreasonable customer demands” has far more to lose than does the customer.

I like what Hall says about customers receiving better customer service when they treat CSRs with respect.  As a manager, it is my wish that this would always happen.  But the fact remains that customers do have bad days influenced by factors in their lives that have nothing to do with the transaction at hand.  The CSR does not have such a privilege.  That is what is known as a “cost of doing business.”

Finding a Route to “Yes”

In her article “Saying NO and Staying Happy,” Hall recounts how she spent a large part of her life allowing herself to be trampled upon by others because she was simply too nice to say “no.”  She tells us that she often acceded to requests unwisely.  Soon after, she would realize that agreeing was not in her best interest and would wish that she had been sufficiently assertive to turn down the request.

Hall seems so proud that she managed to come up with a polite way of saying “no”:  “Thank you but that doesn’t work for me.”

While I applaud Hall’s efforts to stop being a doormat, it seems to go over her head that, however you say it, no is no.

Hall wished to escape a pattern of “putting my own needs aside in order to take care of the needs, wants, or desires of someone else.”  While this may be a wise course of action when one feels imposed upon by a neighbor, coworker or Great-Aunt Bedelia, I submit that it has far less validity in the realm of providing excellent customer service.

Although Hall doesn’t specifically mention CSRs in her article, a disappointed customer is unlikely to be a repeat customer no matter how politely you tell him or her “no.”

Often, what the customer is requesting may be beyond the authority of the CSR to provide.  In such case, the only hope of satisfying and retaining the customer (short of a supervisor contravening company policy to mollify an upset customer — a course of action that can often be justified, by the way) is for the CSR to get inside the customer’s head.  The CSR needs to ask open-ended questions to probe the origin and nature of the problem at a depth beyond the partial information that the customer has provided.  It may very well be possible to salvage the contact (and the customer relationship) by pinpointing the true place that things went awry.  Frequently, the customer will be satisfied with quite a bit less than he or she initially requested.  Customers stewing in their own juices while waiting on hold in a phone queue or in a store line may well exaggerate their sense of being wronged and thus be moved to ask for the world on a platter.  You might be surprised to learn that, more than anything else, customers want to be listened to, to be understood and to experience a bit of human empathy.  And if you “throw them a bone,” so much the better.

Remember, no matter how polite your CSRs are, “no” is still “no.”  Much better is finding a route to “yes.”

 

The Peppermint Purse

peppermint purse

We were out to dinner at a popular family restaurant chain a few nights ago when we happened to sit near the front door, in view of the “claw game” that kids play to try to win a plush toy or other trinket.

Playing this type of game, which is rather ubiquitous throughout the United States, involves inserting coins and then using a joystick apparatus to first move the claw over the desired prize and then lower the claw to grab onto it.  At that point, the claw picks up the prize, raises it over the delivery slot and drops it to be received by the player.  The claw then resets by moving along its track to return to its initial position.

The only problem with this game is that it takes both luck and skill to get that claw to grab the prize firmly enough to successfully carry it to the delivery slot.  More often than not, the claw brushes over the prize, grabbing only air and delivering exactly nothing to the player.

Those who have played this game on the midways of carnivals and county fairs know that the apparatus is often set to virtually guarantee that the player does not win the prize.  Both on the midway and in truck stops and restaurants, I have seen players who have not been kids for some time plow a roll of quarters into these games in an effort to “win” the one prize on which their hearts are set.  More often than not, they come up empty handed after paying for the prize that they did not receive several times over.

These mechanical amusements are legal in public places because they are considered “games of skill” rather than gambling.  I would suggest that one could dispute this assertion.

There were quite a few families with children eating in the restaurant the night we were there, and of course many of the kids wanted to try to win a toy.  While we were enjoying dinner, we were treated to quite a show.  It seemed that every family approaching the game won a prize.  If they tried two or three times, they won two or three prizes.

We were smiling as giggling kids and happy families trooped past our table on the way out to their cars, children proudly bearing their stuffed toys.  As it was just a few days before Christmas, we could not help but wonder whether the vendor had reset the apparatus to aim perfectly straight and true.  Surely all these families didn’t happen to possess just the right eye-hand coordination needed to perform the difficult feat of hooking a toy.

As if that weren’t enough, we were flabbergasted when one couple not only successfully grabbed the desired toy for their child, but also managed to cause the claw to knock over a second toy so that both of them were dumped into the delivery slot.

The lucky family started to leave with their booty when my wife began admiring one of their prizes, a plush purse colored and shaped like a peppermint candy that she thought would be perfect for our little grandniece.  She accosted them as they walked by our table, asking if she could buy the prize for three dollars.  They generously said we could have it for one dollar, as that’s all it cost them to win it.  My wife was delighted with their generosity.

As fate would have it, the restaurant manager observed this little transaction.  After the winning family left the premises, he walked over to our table and gave my wife back her dollar.

After all my years as a manager, I consider this tiny gesture to be one of the finest examples of customer service I have witnessed.  I have no doubt that the manager played some part in ensuring that the claw game delivered to the holiday shoppers coming through.  But to take the extra step to refund the dollar paid by my wife goes above and beyond.  And it only cost him a dollar.

I am willing to bet that the manager took that dollar out of his own pocket, not from company funds.  As a result, he has earned a repeat customer for his (frankly) relatively low-quality establishment.

I fully plan to use The Peppermint Purse as an example the next time I have an opportunity to train employees on principles of customer service.  I never cease to be amazed about how the smallest things can have the greatest impact.

Then, on Christmas Eve, it happened again.  My wife had ordered two pair of shoes online and they arrived in the mail.  To our surprise, when we opened the package, we found that both pair were defective.  One of those “pairs” consisted of a right shoe of one size and a left shoe of another!

My wife went online to complain.  The company has a policy that the purchaser must pay the postage for returning any goods.  Well, I’m sure you can understand our position that we shouldn’t have to pay the return postage when the goods were defective.

On the company’s website, my wife was able to live chat with a customer service representative.  When she explained the situation, the rep offered to have two new pair of shoes sent out immediately.  As for the defective shoes, not only were we not asked to pay the return postage, we don’t have to return them at all.  The rep suggested that we donate them.

So, let’s summarize what the company accomplished here:

  • In light of its own error, the company relaxed its return postage policy so that the wronged customer would not incur any expense.
  • Immediately offered to make the situation right by replacing the defective merchandise.
  • Furthered its positive image by suggesting that the defective merchandise be donated to people in need.

The end result:  A satisfied customer is a repeat customer.  And I now have yet another example, which I shall call Left Shoe, Right Shoe, to share with my future employees.

I believe that those who say that customer service is horrible in this country have got it all wrong.  Sure, there will always be employees who don’t care and who are merely going through the motions.  I blame this on employment mismatches (faulty recruiting practices and ineffective or nonexistent employee development programs), insufficient “soft skills” training and squeamish management who use every excuse to avoid the disciplinary process.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Managers tend to latch on to the horror stories, much like the claw reaching for the plush toys, expending all their energies on finding ways to correct errors after they occur.  This is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.  Better results, with fewer customers lost to agent errors, could be obtained by following the examples of those who are doing it right.

Mr. Peppermint Purse and Ms. Left Shoe, Right Shoe have valuable lessons to teach us.

 

Emilie

black ribbon

What a lovely Christmas Eve at my sister-in-law’s house.  My 17 year old niece and her friends played Twister out in the garage and then got on the karaoke machine to do their best rendition of “Mary, Did You Know?” and a number of popular country songs.  Two of my niece’s friends are sisters, and they brought over a kitten who, surprisingly, was not too panicked with all those people about.  Our tiny feline friend managed not to get her tail stepped on until she finally decided that discretion is the better part of valor and squeezed under the TV cabinet, where she hid for the remainder of the evening.

Aside from bite-sized Hebrew National hot dogs wrapped in pastry dough (I can’t bring myself to refer to them as “pigs in a blanket” since they’re kosher) and a ton of sweets, my sister-in-law made her excellent guacamole again.  We watched the movie “Elf” while we passed around microwave popcorn and the two babies in attendance.

My nephews spent part of the time assembling my grandniece’s Christmas gifts.  A large number of presents sat under the tree, and I suspect that most of them have the little one’s name on the tag.  Opening of gifts will proceed in the morning.

I was so glad to be able to enjoy this very pleasant antidote to an experience earlier in the day.  WordPress saw fit to Freshly Press what I consider to be an important blog, but one that is difficult to read without becoming overly emotional.  It is jarring indeed to realize that while we are enjoying our merry Christmas, there are families for whom that opportunity has been violently yanked away.

I highly recommend the blog The Parker Five, particularly the post Evil Did Not Win.  I won’t give away all the content here, but I will say that this blog is written by the parents of one of the children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut this time last year.  Please take a few moments to watch the video at the link above.  Have a box of tissues handy.

I cannot forget my personal associations with Newtown, as irrelevant to the tragedy as they are.  I had never heard of Sandy Hook School prior to the horrific events there, nor did I know anyone involved, but I did live about ten minutes away for several years before moving to California.  In fact, you could say that Newtown was something of a hangout for me, particularly the C.H. Booth Library on Main Street and the Newtown (Blue Colony) Diner, just off Interstate 84.  When I made a last-minute decision to leave the area in 1995 (to escape an unhealthy relationship), I had to leave most of my personal belongings behind.  Among the few prized possessions that I have retained until this day is a novel purchased at a book sale at Booth Library.  The diner served me countless breakfasts at three in the morning after I got off work.  And after I relocated to Waterbury and Hartford, I always appreciated the free coffee and pastries passed out by Newtown residents at Exit 10 to help keep travelers awake and alert.

Even though I had already been gone from the area for a lot of years at the time of the murders, I still get a spooky feeling that is hard to describe when I hear the place names, streets and landmarks associated with the Newtown tragedy.

I can’t begin to imagine the experience of losing a child in an instant, nor what it is like to have Christmas come around with an integral piece of your heart missing.  I’m not sure whether I agree with the authors of the blog that evil did not win this time around.  But even if evil took the battle, it has surely lost the war.  The support that has flooded into Newtown and the memorials throughout the world are proof of that.

Now that a year has gone by and the events of December 14, 2012 no longer make headline news, it is easy to forget.  We have experienced so many violent tragedies here in America in recent years (from Columbine to Virginia Tech to the Aurora movie massacre and beyond), that it is easy to become jaded.  We seem to have no choice but to harden our hearts to prevent going totally insane.

And so I respectfully suggest that there is a cure for this.  Subscribe to the Parkers’ blog to find out the real effects of gun violence on a family and a community.  Let them take you to a place from which there is no return.

In memoriam – Emilie Parker, age 6 (2006-2012)