The 10 Days of Zappos


Whilst in town today, I ran into… bacon.  I hadn’t the nerve to tell the bloke that I’m a vegan.


Some of my friends at work enjoying Halloween

Growing up in New York, I associated autumn with September, because that’s when the school year started, and with October, because that’s when we drove up to the cider press in New Paltz to look at the pumpkins and lug home bushels of apples for pies and applesauce.

In California, however, you have to reach November before it feels as if summer is really over.  Here and there, a few trees blush into fall color, as if embarrassed by being in such a minority.  There are plenty of pumpkin patches and corn mazes around, but somehow it all seems fake.  Once you’ve experienced autumn in New England or New York, autumn anywhere else seems pale by comparison.

Fortunately, November is the start of the holiday season, and this I can count on to bring me inexpressible joy.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are nearly upon us, lights and decorations are everywhere and I turn on the holiday music to make my spirits soar.  I’ve already been singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the shower for a month.  (The verse about “bring us some figgy pudding” never ceases to crack me up — I’m weird like that.)  Some gripe about the holiday season starting too soon, but I am one of those saps who wishes “peace on earth, good will toward men” would prevail every day of the year.

As we embark upon the holidays, my thoughts turn to all the retail and call center staff working holiday jobs for a little extra cash.  These are the women and men who are the heart of our holiday shopping expeditions, the very ones who make it possible for us to have all those brightly wrapped gifts under the tree on Christmas morning.  I know this kind of work can be brutal, and that harried shoppers who are running out of patience, time and money seldom take a moment to say “thank you.”  So here it is from Uncle Guacamole:  Thank you to all the stockers and cashiers and floor managers and warehouse workers on fork lifts and call center reps on the phones.  Love to every one of you.

And a particular shout out to the customer loyalty team at Zappos, burning up the phone lines in the old city hall in downtown Las Vegas.  These folks are dear to my heart because they know how to both feel and inspire joy all year long.  I am nearly 600 miles away in northern California, but I am with you in spirit.

Last June, I posted a love song for Zappos, in which I admitted that working for the company is my secret desire.  As with unrequited love everywhere, this starry-eyed swooner has learned to be an admirer from afar.

Among the reasons that Zappos continues to command my respect is the Zappos Family Core Values.  Accordingly, as we get started with NaBloPoMo, I will spend the next ten days celebrating these values, one at a time, in this space.  If this bores you into a coma, please return on Veterans Day, when the usual schedule of lunacy that is A Map of California will resume in all its twisted glory.

Zappos Core Value #1:  Deliver WOW Through Service

The word “wow” implies surprise, which in turn refers to the unusual — in this case, unexpected delight.  One may be tempted to say that getting to “wow” should not be too difficult in the realm of customer service, since most of our expectations are set so low.  Of course, you know what the problem is with low expectations:  They are a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It goes something like this . . .

Customer:  Retail employees are either rude or they just don’t care, so I’m going to be realistic and won’t expect much.  Just get me through this transaction and out the door as quickly as possible.

Retail Employee:  Customers are either rude or they’re just clueless, so I’m just going to do the zombie thing and get through my day on auto-pilot.  They don’t pay me enough for this!

See what I mean?  This is depressing.  Fortunately, when you hit bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.  Even as small a gesture as a smile tends to surprise customers these days.

Now, to take it a step further (e-commerce edition):

Customer:  It’s the holiday season, so they always jack up the prices and I’m going to have to pay a lot more than I really should.  With holiday backups, who knows whether my order will arrive in time for Christmas.  When it gets here, the box will probably be smashed or torn open and my merchandise will either be damaged or will be the wrong item, color or size.

Call Center Employee:  Lady, I’m just doing my job.  I have no control over that stuff.  Gimme a break, will ya?

Sadly, I can’t blame the customer for having expectations that all too often ring true.  There is no excuse for the call center employee, however.  This is a classic case of not taking ownership of the situation, otherwise known as “passing the buck.”  It’s a terminal case of I-don’t-care.

My question to you is:  Why should a customer plunking down her hard-earned money patronize businesses offering this type of customer service?  Some may think that it’s just a fact of life, that there isn’t any alternative.  Happily, Zappos and likeminded companies have proven that there is another way.

To me, the “wow” factor starts with keeping your promises.  Everything advertised should be immediately available, and in the desired style, color and size.  It continues with a positive attitude:  Customer service representatives should have a smile in their voices, deep product knowledge, a willingness to go out of the way to be helpful, a positive attitude and unwavering courtesy.  Find a way to say “yes.”  Respect the customer and the customer may surprise you by respecting you.  Next, the business must come through by delivering the correct item at the correct price on time, or early if possible.  Little treats like a discount coupon for next time are helpful to further encourage repeat business.  Finally, when things go wrong, as they inevitably will at times, sincere apologies must be backed up with immediately making the situation right, whatever that may entail.  The company must take a personal interest in the customer’s satisfaction, whether that involves re-sending the item ordered and refunding the customer’s money, delivering the item in person or, as shown in the recent movie The Intern, providing the customer with the company owner’s personal cell phone number.  If you can make the customer say “Wow!,” not only will you have a customer for life, but your customer will tell everyone he or she knows about the wonderful service experienced.

I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to be a part of a work environment that treats the “wow” factor as status quo.  It has to be empowering to work in a place where, instead of being an exception, providing amazing service is all in a day’s work.  There is nothing unusual about it.

It is well known that happiness is contagious.  Why settle for grumpy employees and customers when it is just as easy to have cheerful employees and delighted customers?  When you enjoy what you’re doing and you have a desire to please, the love shines through and brightens the day of the customers you serve.  And coming to work becomes nothing short of pure joy.

Customer “service” is not just a convenient term for salespeople.  It really does mean that we are servants, whose goal must be to please the customer, not to blindly follow scripts or policy or just get through the day.  The most successful businesses, those who inspire true loyalty, are those who understand that we are here to do the will of the customer, not the other way around.

Of course, taking care of the employees is an important part of the formula.  You have to “wow” them, too, which means lots of fun and frivolity!  At Zappos, this includes things like free food, the ability to bring your dog to work, and a steady parade of ruckus and circus that makes coming to work fun. I guess I’m not alone.  Everyone probably wants to work there.

To reiterate, Uncle Guacamole’s four steps to delivering “wow” through service are:

  • Keep your promises
  • Maintain a positive attitude at all times
  • Find a way to say “yes”
  • Move heaven and earth to make it right, no gesture too grand

Happy holidays!

Tomorrow: Zappos Core Value # 2 – Embrace and Drive Change

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The Breast Rule

Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can
All the same old clichés, is it a woman or a man?
And you always seem outnumbered so you don’t dare make a stand

— Bob Seeger, “Turn the Page”

I consider myself a student of customer service, both as a consumer and as one who has supervised employees for a couple of decades now.  Experience has taught me that providing incredible, amazing customer service (the “wow” factor) involves more than sustained effort; it requires the right attitude.

When I began studying the FISH philosophy years ago, I was surprised to learn that one’s attitude can be chosen.  It was with mouth agape that I watched a video showing businessmen showing up at the Seattle fish market at five in the morning in suits to help the fishmongers shovel ice.  The fact is that a positive attitude is contagious.  Once demonstrated, everyone wants to be a part of it.

I used to believe that one’s attitude was fixed as a matter of personality.  I thought that, like one’s profile or shadow, attitude pretty much follows you around and there’s not much you can do to change it.  I would hear coworkers say “Ooh, don’t mess with her, she’s in a bad mood today.”

What I learned is that it is possible to adjust one’s attitude rather than resign one’s self to the vicissitudes of fate.  So, you had a fight with your significant other, your kids are a bunch of unappreciative no-goods and your car is in the shop for expensive repairs.  With so much going wrong in your life, the last thing you want is to have a crappy day.  The good news is that you don’t have to.  I like to think of work as a sanctuary where I can arrive with a smile upon my face and forget my troubles for a while.  Work can be escape from the less than wonderful aspects of life.

In the customer service world, we expect people to call in because they want to complain, because they have problems that they would like us to solve (immediately, if possible).  I like to treat those problems as challenges.  I encourage my staff to dig into their mental toolboxes and determine what resources are available to make the customer happy again.  This means that you need to have sufficient tech skills to research the issue, but more than that, it means soothing those who would just as soon take out their frustrations on you.  Success requires listening skills and being “fully present.”  It is so easy to set yourself on autopilot by making assumptions because, after all, you’ve heard it all hundreds of times before.  There are few ways of losing a customer faster.

Remember, for the customer, this is the first time.  This is the only time.  The attitude of the customer service rep, whether at a call center or in a retail store, will be the number one factor in determining the customer’s image of the business.  And there are no second chances.  Blow it and not only will the customer not be back, but the customer will tell everyone he or she knows to do business elsewhere.  I myself will not step foot inside certain businesses as a result of poor customer service that I received years ago.  Customers have long memories and, really, that’s the way it should be.

In light of the above, I will proceed to gripe about one of my all-time customer service pet peeves.

There are two words that need to be eradicated from every customer service representative’s vocabulary.  Those words are “sir” and “ma’am.”

Yes, we wish to be courteous and deferential.  But those terms are so loaded that they need to be banished to the trash heap.  Forever.  You may think that these words express respect, but in many cases they do not.

I have had more than one experience with women being offended when I call them “ma’am.”  Not only does it sound phony, but they have told me in no uncertain terms that it makes them feel like old ladies.  “Only my mother gets called ‘ma’am’,” one customer told me.

And that’s not even the half of it.  When speaking to a customer on the phone, can you really, truly tell me that you can be 100% sure of the person’s gender?  I assure you that you cannot.  I know of few ways to make a customer angrier than referring to him or her by the incorrect gender.  I cannot blame customers for taking offense at such misidentification.  Our gender is a part of our identity and getting it wrong can make an already unhappy customer unmanageable.  This gaffe can unnecessarily turn a little problem into a big problem.

If you deal with people in person, misidentifying a person’s gender is still an issue.  I know this from unfortunate personal experience.

I refer to this issue as “the breast rule.”  Some women have low-pitched voices and some men have high, squeaky voices.  So retail staff often decide whether to refer to a customer as “sir” or “ma’am” based on the presence or absence of breasts.  I realize how preposterous this sounds, but I am not kidding.  To make matters worse, it is often an unconscious process.  The way our brains are wired, we make split-second connections based on past experiences.  Hence, the breast rule.

You can see where I am going with this.  Many men, myself included, have breasts due to obesity, hormonal problems, genetic issues or some combination of the above.  Androgyny has often been ridiculed in the media, perhaps most memorably by the old Saturday Night Live sketch “It’s Pat.”  These days, I hear talk of “moobs” (man boobs) and even the “bro” (a support device that I am told is the male equivalent of the bra).  I have been referred to by many hurtful names, one of the worst being “she-male.”  It goes on and on.  But if you’re after a customer’s business and wish to provide truly exceptional service, it is necessary to stay as far away from this sort of thing as possible.

Yes, I become totally annoyed when shop or restaurant employees misidentify my gender and refer to me as “ma’am.”  I usually fight back by deliberately referring to the employee using the incorrect gender.  Sometimes they apologize; sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes they don’t get it or just play dumb.  My poor wife has been known to pipe up “He’s a man!”

Ironically, this is a customer service error that, unlike a lot of things, is so easy to fix.  The obvious first step in this process is to scrap “the breast rule.”  Make no assumptions.  The next step is to excise the words “sir” and “ma’am” from your vocabulary.

Whatever happened to just donning a big smile and asking “How are you today?” in your most cheerful voice?

No gender identification required.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

A question posted online recently captured my attention in a big way.  It went something like this:  “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

I was surprised when my guts began churning and a flood of emotions washed over me.  So many memories.  So many “what ifs.”  So many “if onlys.”

What would my ideal job be?  Oh, please don’t ask me that.  Ask me anything else, but not that.  It’s just too embarrassing.

It sounds like a warped job interview question, something the production manager or the HR lady sadistically throws at the poor applicant in an attempt to throw him or her off kilter and assess “thinking on your feet” skills.

In fact, I was asked this question during a job interview once, many years ago.  The interviewer added “anything but the job you are applying for, that is.”  Of course.  There would be no point in enduring suck-ups who provide the obvious answer.

As a self-professed “word freak,” I told the interviewer that I have long been fascinated by etymology and would, in my dreams, be the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  What happened after that was not pretty.  Believing I had said “entomology,” the interviewer thought I was into insects.  As far as the OED, he told me that he had one of those on his desk.  I was sure he was lying, as I knew full well that the OED consists of 20 thick volumes.  (I had not yet heard of the compact edition.)  Then he admitted to me that he’s really like to be a rock star.


Need I add that I did not get that job?  I’m probably better off, too.

The loaded question about “your ideal job” has been around just about forever, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.  When I was in college in the 1980s, pondering what the hell I was going to do after graduation with a degree in English and political science, the popular question (courtesy of the Richard Nelson Bolles book) was “what color is your parachute?”  Today, I suppose, we would say (courtesy of young crooner Kacey Musgraves) “follow your arrow wherever it points.”

Turn the dial on the ol’ Wayback Machine a few years earlier.  Everyone from my grandparents to my aunts and uncles to my parents’ friends and our next-door neighbors posed the same question to me at one time or another:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Every kid gets asked that question.  I used to think it was a way of testing the kid’s mettle, to find out how big he or she can dream.  Or maybe it’s just a way of making small talk, an adult’s way to start a conversation with a child when the adult doesn’t really know how to relate to kids and has no idea of what else to say.  It’s the old tried-and-true.  It’s the question that’s expected.  Now that I’m an old guy, and more jaded than I like to admit, I suspect that many adults ask kids this question to get a good laugh at the outrageous response they might receive.

If a shy kid greets this question with silence, the follow-up may well be something like:  “Policeman, fireman or Indian chief?”  (In the upper middle class suburban world in which I was raised, the question would more likely have been:  “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief?”)

Seriously, what is it with Indian chiefs?  I was born much too late to have heard of Tonto and the Lone Ranger, although I have vague, fuzzy memories of watching old westerns with my grandpa when I was four or five years old.

It seems like a humorous anachronism now.  Today, if you used the phrase “Indian chief,” the image that would come to my mind would be of a CEO in Mumbai.  Not a bad career choice, come to think of it.

Well, what I wanted to be when I grew up was really rather boring.  I wanted to be a librarian.

I was enamored with books and retain vivid memories of an embarrassing incident in which I walked right into the office of the director of the public library and asked him for a job.  I was ten years old.

To the guy’s credit, he quizzed me on the Dewey Decimal System, a test which I summarily failed.

“Being a librarian doesn’t mean you get to read books all day,” my mother patiently tried to explain.  Duh!  Everyone knows that.  Librarians get to push the little cart around and tell people where the periodical room is and shove library cards under that little machine with the bright light that makes a copy with the due date stamped on it.

I started telling people that I wanted to be a teacher like my Dad.  It was safer.  Also, it was less of a sissy answer.  Everyone knew librarians were old ladies with their hair put up in buns.

What I do for a living today is far more boring than being a librarian.  I am a manager in the government service.  Pass the white bread and the vanilla ice cream.

I’ve spent years as a supervisor and manager in both the public and private sectors, during which time I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect upon career paths, recruiting and the interview process.  On several occasions, I found myself in the position of reviewing stacks of job applications and then conducting dozens of interviews.  I learned to take good notes, because after a while it becomes difficult to remember one candidate from another.  Perhaps someone stands out because they tell me a funny joke, once worked as a lion tamer or show up at the interview with really big hair.  But mostly it’s just a chorus line.

These days, I consider myself reformed.  I am rarely involved with hiring anymore, and when I am, I don’t ask candidates what their ideal job would be.

For one thing, it’s too painful.  That is, the ridiculous answers you get are too painful to bear.  And you can’t even laugh!  You have to keep your serious supervisor’s face on, nod and say something profound like “Well, that’s different!”

Mostly, however, you just get boring answers about wanting to work “in the helping professions” (Query:  Is there such a thing as “the hurting professions?”) or wanting to give back to the community or to make a real difference in society.

Sigh.  My eyes grow misty as I recall the many times I’ve spewed out such chewed-over platitudes to prospective employers.  Even when it’s true, it always comes out sounding just a little bit insincere.

Okay, I’ve put it off long enough.  It’s time to fess up.  My ideal job, what I’d really love to do more than anything else I can think of, is to be . . .

A customer loyalty team representative in Zappo’s call center.

Yep, you read that right.  I want to don a headset, surf the Net like a wild man in search of bargains and answers and make customers insanely happy all day/night.

And much as this is the object of my desires, I can unequivocally guarantee that I will never have this job.  More on that in a little while.

Now, why would I want such a job?  I’m glad you asked.  It’s not out of some goggle-eyed fantasy, I assure you.  I worked in a call center for years, so I know the drill.  Most of my coworkers hated it and got out as soon as they could.  I stuck around for nearly nine years.  It’s where I met my wife and it was one of the best times of my life.  I’d do it all again in a minute.

My niece works in a call center and often makes vague references to the difficult customers she is forced to deal with, the time constraints she faces on each call and the constant threat of Quality Assurance listening in with a critical ear.

Bring it on, I say!

Satisfying the customer at the other end of the phone line, even the one who has a beef with the company and decides to cuss me out, brings a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I am the weirdo who glories in turning the frown upside down.

But why Zappo’s?  Oh my goodness, where do I begin?  Sorry, I’ll try not to gush too profusely.

First, Zappo’s operates on a holacratic model, which basically means that it’s about the work, not about the person.  There are no titles; roles overlap and morph with business needs.  Employees get to use their skills in a variety of areas rather than being stuck doing just one thing until they get “a promotion.”  It’s about getting things done, not stroking egos.  The idea is entirely refreshing.  You can read more about holacracy here.

Then there are Zappo’s ten core values.  I will list them here so that you can get some idea of why I’ve gone a little bit gaga over selling shoes and apparel:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Embrace and drive change
  • Create fun and a little weirdness
  • Be adventurous, creative and open-minded
  • Pursue growth and learning
  • Build open and honest relationships with communication
  • Build a positive team and family spirit
  • Do more with less
  • Be passionate and determined
  • Be humble

I’m told this is not for everyone, but I find it a bit difficult to imagine why anyone would not want to work for such a company.

Pursue growth and learning:  Yes!  I consider myself a lifelong student, I always want to obtain more schooling, I read omnivorously.

Be adventurous, creative and open-minded:  Yes!  No more being a square peg wedged into a round hole.  Try your latest idea without fear of failure!  Then try something else!

Be passionate and determined.  Be humble.  They’re talking about me!

There are other little things, too.  Zappo’s has a 24-hour call center, and I am an inherent night owl who enjoys working weird hours.  Switching shifts every so often to meet business needs doesn’t faze me.  I find it exciting!

The fact that the staff is always up to fun stuff like parades through the call center and silly games and contests — That’s what adds joy to one’s work life.  It’s what keeps people forever young.  That’s what builds the same kind of loyalty to an employer that the employees wish to instill in their customers.  It’s the WOW, it’s what makes their day.

So why haven’t I packed up and moved to Las Vegas yet?  There are a number of obstacles to doing that, but only one that I simply cannot overcome and will never be able to overcome.

I cannot survive on $11 per hour.

Even on $15 an hour, I simply couldn’t make ends meet.  I only wish Zappo’s had been around when I was fresh out of college, 21 years old and back home with my parents, wondering what on earth to do next.  No rent, no utilities, no food bills, nothing but putting gasoline in my rattletrap old car.  I started working for $5.50 an hour on the night shift, which even then was very little money.  If I could transport myself back to that time, and transport my parents’ home to the Nevada desert, I could happily indulge in the job of my dreams.

Those days are long gone, of course, decades in the past.  All that remains is the edges of a dream, a dream fueled by monthly “Zscoop” email reminders from Meli Gonzalez, social recruiting and engagement specialist at Zappo’s.  Like a junkie, I lap up these e-newsletters as a much desired fix.  And I try not to let it break my heart.  But it’s tough.

I know you don’t read this blog, Meli, but if you’re really out there, give an old guy a break and leave a comment telling me that a Zappo’s job paying a salary on which one can pay the bills just opened up and has my name written all over it.

Back in my day, there were all kinds of pop songs about unrequited love.  And this one is mine.

So good night, sweet Zappo’s. I’ll see you in my z’dreams.

End of an Era


The only K-Mart in this area is closing down on December 7.

I suppose I shouldn’t care very much about this.  After all, neither my wife nor I am much for shopping.  We get ‘er done and get out as quickly as possible.  Yet there is something vaguely disconcerting about a local institution passing into history.

The store itself is nothing to write home about.  It is more or less your typical box store, with a garden center at one end.  But this K-Mart has at least two strikes against it.  For one, the store hasn’t been updated in some time.  It reminds me for all the world of the S.S. Kresge/K-Mart in the old Garden State Plaza (before it was enclosed back in the 1970s) in Paramus, New Jersey.  For another, its location on a back street several blocks off the main drag doesn’t attract the kind of business that an establishment of that size requires to survive.  Sears seems to be closing a lot of K-Mart stores all over the country in an attempt to remain profitable in an economy that has changed considerably since the days of the mid-20th century in which I grew up.


My wife likes to browse the K-Mart racks for discount clothes.  You never know what gems may show up at any given time.  When we took a walk through the store on a recent weekend, there were “30% off” and “store closing” signs everywhere and many of the displays were just about empty.


Still, the store was crowded with bargain hunters.  My wife and I each managed to score several shirts in our respective sizes.

Once K-Mart closes, I am certain that the storefront will remain empty for years.  The less than ideal location is unlikely to attract another box store.  Perhaps someday it will be cut up into small retail spaces that will house more schlocky dollar stores, Chinese restaurants, taquerias, rent-to-own shops and payday loan operations.

Until then, it will remain a beached whale decaying in the sun, an eyesore serving as a painful reminder of California’s glorious economic past.

Meanwhile, we still have Wal-Mart, and very few alternatives to challenge its dominance.

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Suspended, and Standing on Its Head

When we were kids, my parents would occasionally take us to play in a park that had a jungle gym.  My sisters, two and four years younger than myself, would love nothing better than to mount the monkey bars, traversing from one end to the other, hand over hand, swinging like orangutans all the way.  Fat and lazy, I had no interest in any activity remotely athletic, and would look about for somewhere to sit and watch.  My father would record the action on black and white film or with a Super 8 movie camera, occasionally swiveling around to zoom in on me, sitting at a picnic table and staring off into space.

At home, we had a standard issue suburban swing set in the back yard.  My favorite part was the glider, because the bench was wide and I didn’t have to perch as one must on the swings or teeter-totter.  Big plus:  It was nearly impossible to fall off the glider.

My sisters, by contrast, preferred flying as high as possible on the swings, preferably in a standing position, or grabbing the top bar to perform all manner of one-handed and two-handed flips and gyrations.  When not on the swing set, gymnastics was their thing.  They could do cartwheels and somersaults and walk on their hands, but our mother wouldn’t allow them to do the split, claiming it would damage their insides and give them trouble when it came time to have babies.

When my grandparents came to visit, Grandpa and I would sit on the back deck or descend the stairs into the yard, watching my sisters’ acrobatic antics all the while.  “Can you do that?” he’d ask me sarcastically upon observing some gravity-defying flip.  I’d glare at him with hatred.  If only I’d had enough guts to ask whether he could imitate my sisters.

Among my sisters’ most amazing feats, at least in my opinion, was the headstand.  They’d often ask me to hold their legs so that they could get into the proper position without tipping over.  Then I’d step back and they’d be able to hold the pose for longer than I thought humanly possible.

I was reminded of this recently while playing with my little grandniece, holding her legs up so she could stand on her head on the soft couch.  I guess I’ve always found something appealing about flipping upside down, standing on one’s head to view the world from a different perspective.

One thing I’d like to invert and stand on its head is the Suspended Coffee movement that has gained some press in recent years.  The idea is to help the poor by performing a particular random act of kindness, namely paying for an extra coffee so that someone who cannot afford one can later come into the coffee shop and get a drink for free.  It’s supposed to be a feel-good kind of thing, not unlike paying for the order of the car behind you at the Starbucks drive-through.  Even though this costs businesses nothing (the “free” coffee being given out has already been paid for), most coffee shops won’t have anything to do with suspended coffees.  Certainly the big chains, such as Starbucks Coffee and Peet’s Coffee and Tea refuse to get involved.  I’ve read that coffee shops complain that it is takes too much time and effort to keep track of how many coffees have been paid for in advance.  Even in the shops where suspended coffees are available, I can’t help wondering whether a homeless person dying for a cuppa joe must settle for plain black, or whether he can actually glom onto a caramel macchiato.

Today I looked up the nearest location at which I might purchase a suspended coffee for someone in need.  The place is 116 miles away.  Despite the fact that some businesses around the world have latched on to the suspended coffee movement, the fact is that in most places it simply is not available.

Considering that the coffee is paid for first and poured later, the reticence of coffee shops irks me more than a little.  After all, we’re not asking them to donate anything.  Not that asking them to donate to the poor would be out of line, when one realizes the obscene profits that the coffee chains earn each year.

I say let’s stand the suspended coffee movement on its head, much as my sisters loved to do as kids.  Let the coffee be given out to those in need, and let a mark be made on a chalkboard or in a ledger for those who wish to contribute to pay for it later.  After all, there are a few establishments where those with little money can have a snack or a meal and pay what they are able.  Panera Bread has done this successfully in some locations, giving the lie to the notion that huge corporations must necessarily value profit over community.  Those who can afford to pay more than the cost of their meal do so, which offsets the cost of the food of customers who can pay little or nothing.  Some economists insist that this model cannot work in the long run, while others shy away from the pay-what-you-can idea as “socialism.”

Slogans for the pay-what-you-can movement include “take what you need, leave your fair share” and “so all may eat.”  The idea that food should be a right, not a privilege, is an old one.  That this is viable within a profit-making businesses, courtesy of generous customers, is what is new.

And yet food service businesses balk and scoff.  Why give out a free coffee and hope that someone else will pay for it at an unspecified later time when such time may never arrive?  This attitude indicates a lack of faith in our fellow man.

National chains (and small local establishments, too) justify their actions by claiming that they engage in charitable giving annually and that it’s their choice to stay away from the pay-what-you-can “gimmick.”

But what do you expect?  When coffee shops refuse to join the suspended coffee movement in which products are paid for in advance, I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect them to stand on their heads and give out food that may or may not be paid for by others.

The bottom line is that it’s just so much easier to simply say “no” to those in need.


Jumping Through Hoops

Applying for management positions is not for the faint of heart.  I sometimes think that prospective employers make applicants jump through so many hoops just to see how badly you want the position.  Or maybe they put us through this just because they can.  And believe me, they can.  It’s a buyer’s market right now in the United States and employers can have their pick.  Middle managers are a dime a dozen.

Each time you apply for a management position, you can know with confidence that you will be competing with hundreds of other applicants.  You want your résumé to stand out from the crowd, but if it’s too flashy or trashy it will end up dumped in the circular file.

Pastor Mom has a friend visiting with us this week; she asked me whether I am able to send out the same cover letter and résumé for each position for which I apply.  No, no, no… That would be far too easy.  Employers want us to jump through hoops, remember?  Get ready to perform a circus act for their amusement.  For example:  Even though the years in which you started and left each job are clearly listed on your résumé, one employer wants you to list the exact number of months for which you’ve held each job (apparently they can’t be bothered to do the math), while another wants you to list both the starting salary and the ending salary for each job and a third wants you to list the number of employees supervised at each job.

Then you’re supposed to list the name of each of your direct supervisors, along with an address and a phone number at which they can be reached.  This may seem like a simple request, but if you have a lengthy work history as I do, it’s not.  I worked for one company for 8½ years, during which time I must have had at least five or six different supervisors.  After all, different companies were involved.  Although I stayed put, state law required that the work be put out to bid every few years, giving me a new boss and a different color paycheck each time the contractor changed.  Even if I could remember the names of all my supervisors from fifteen years ago (which I can’t), how am I supposed to get them all to fit in that little bitty space?  Continuing with the circus theme, now we’re moving on from jumping through hoops to stuffing 23 clowns in a VW Bug.  And, come on, you know that most of these people are no longer with the company.  Who knows where they’ve since gone or how to contact them?  And do you think they’ll really remember me?  I know for a fact that some of them are retired or dead.  Should I provide the address and phone number of Queen of Heaven Cemetery as if I were trying to brush off some creep ogling for my digits?

This doesn’t even begin to account for my former employers that have since gone out of business or have been bought out by other companies.  I started keeping a notebook with the addresses and phone numbers of my old jobs (because I got sick and tired of looking them up online all the time).  Many of those addresses are different than the locations at which I worked way back when.  Building leases run out, cheaper rental opportunities turn up and next thing you know, the company has moved.  Now that I no longer look up addresses each time I fill out an application, I don’t even know whether the information that I am providing is current.  Imagine my shock when I recently learned that a county in which I lived for a couple of decades now has a different area code.  So even though some of these places were still in the same physical location, their phone numbers had changed.

And if you apply for a job that requires a government security clearance (and many of them do due to federal contract requirements), applicants must list every home address at which they have resided since the age of 18.  Um, let’s see now:  There was New York, then Rhode Island, then back to New York, then Massachusetts, then back to New York again, then three different places in Connecticut, a couple of addresses in California, then Connecticut and Massachusetts again, then finally back to California for good, where I moved around the state oh, maybe six or seven times?  “If you need more space, use additional sheets of paper.”  No shit.

Of course, there is a large box in which you’re supposed to write a description of your duties at each of your previous jobs.  Most applications include a bold warning “DO NOT write ‘See résumé.’  A résumé will not be accepted in lieu of a completed application.”  This means that, although you’re supplying a résumé that already contains all this information, it is necessary to retype it.  However, the box never contains enough room for this purpose.  This leaves the applicant with the choice of adding additional pages and attaching them as a separate file in Microsoft Word (or converting them to Adobe), or printing out the page, filling in the details by hand and scanning it.  Either way makes for a lovely way to spend a pleasant evening.

Then there’s the “education” section of the application.  Providing the names, locations and dates of graduation from each college you’ve attended is fairly standard (although I object to this because it then becomes a simple matter to determine the applicant’s age and discriminate accordingly).  But you will hear me let out an audible groan when a form requires that the applicant list not only major subject studied, but also grade point average and class standing.  This is no small feat when you consider that I have attended six different institutions of higher education.  I had to order transcripts from each school (I mean, get real, who remembers this stuff?), which is not free of charge.  Finally, I got tired of consulting six transcripts and just made up a little grid from which to copy.

Well, I thought I had the “education” section all locked up.  Until last night, that is.  I completed an online application for employment that required applicants to list the number of credits completed in each subject studied.  So there I went pawing through the transcripts again, using a calculator to add up credits for sociology, psychology, political science, law, mathematics, English, business, economics and a bunch of other stuff.  I was extremely grateful that I was not asked to list the fact that I received passing grades in both badminton and tennis in my freshman year of college and that I successfully participated in both the choir and woodwinds.

Then you come to what is always my favorite part, the essays.  Some employers require applicants for management positions to write as many as a dozen of them, detailing such things as philosophy of management, experience with conflict resolution, knowledge of production statistics, contract negotiation skills, experience in writing white papers and delivering persuasive speeches, and projects worked on that required assembling a multidisciplinary team and achieving consensus.  Better block out a few hours for writing these.

Well, I’d better go now.  You see, I have an application essay awaiting me.  It may only run to a maximum of two pages in an 11 point font with one-inch margins.  In the space allowed, I am to describe the details of how it is that I meet each of the dozen qualities required in the candidate selected for this position, including “sense of humor.”

Yeah, right.



My wife tells me that lately she has been waking up in the mornings dreaming of French fries.

Not just any French fries, mind you.  Well-done, crispy French fries from the taqueria across the street.

French fries at a taqueria?  You read that right.

There is a tiny mom ‘n pop taco shop on the corner, the kind of hole in the wall where you can barely take two steps from the front door to the ordering counter.  There are three tiny round tables, tall ones with high chairs to match.  They somehow managed to wedge in a soda fountain.  And that’s it.

Oh, yeah, they stick a wooden picnic table out front when the weather is nice.

When we lived in southern California and would drive up here to visit my mother-in-law, the place was either a coffee shop or an empty building.  I’m told that, at one time, it was a print shop.  I can’t imagine how they managed that one, as you could probably fit this tiny eatery into a typical Kinko’s twenty times over.

The taqueria has been quite successful, despite the fact that the staff consists of one cook and a counter guy whose runs the register and bags the orders despite having a broken arm immobilized in a cast.  Talk about quirky!

I’m not sure what this business’s secret is.  They have a large sign in front of the building that lists some of their wares (tacos, tortas, veggie burritos, breakfast burritos, nachos, quesadillas, even hamburgers).  Their list of twenty or so items is also printed along with their phone number on half-size flyers available at the counter.  Their prices are low; they have a daily special for three or four bucks.  And they have a Facebook page.

The place sits on a busy road, less than a half-mile from the freeway.  There are a couple of mini-marts, a pizza joint and a Subway just up the street, but no Mexican food unless you go a few miles into town.  I guess you could call the place “homey,” which may account for their popularity as a local lunch choice.  Not that they’re ever short of customers at dinnertime, either.  There’s usually at least one law enforcement cruiser or orange utility crew truck parked out front.  If there’s no room inside, you can take your food home or eat in your vehicle.  And if you call in advance, your food will be ready when you arrive.  The place has enough parking for maybe three cars; after that, customers leave their vehicles at our church and walk across the street.  We really do need to erect a “no taqueria parking” sign.

But I know we won’t.  We’re not about to do anything that might encourage this place to expand and move elsewhere.  Their food may be just standard Mexican fast food, but all the locals, including my own family, love it.

I once asked them for black olives on my taco, and that’s when I learned that they don’t carry them.  They also don’t make guacamole!  What kind of a Mexican place is this?

I don’t know, but they sure do keep the customers coming back for carne asada, lengua and al pastor.

And my wife dreams about their crispy French fries.


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  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.”