It’s Not Our Fault

Greetings.  Traveling is a great way to experience good and not-so-good customer service.  So it seems fitting that our trip to Sweden would begin with some exciting lessons.  The excitement began when we arrived at Dulles Airport to check in for our flight.  As a bit of background information you should know that we always arrive at the airport three and a half hours early for international flights.  It's a great way to avoid traffic on the Beltway and check in before a long line forms.  That way we can sail through security, find seats at the gate, handle a few last minute emails, and then play soccer in the center of the terminal until it's time for boarding.  It also gives us the chance to make sure that everything is okay with the seating assignments I arranged six months earlier and confirmed 48 hours ago.  But this year, when we arrived at the SAS counter we were excited to learn that our seats had been changed due to "a change in aircraft."  It seems that SAS had decided to send a plane with more business class seats and that decision meant shifting around all of us lucky devils in coach.  So instead of the five window and aisle seats we had arranged, we were now moved to the middle of the plane.  And, better yet, it was totally beyond the control of anyone working at the SAS counter or the gate.  In fact, the new seat assignments were made by a computer somewhere else and, as the humans working there were quick to point out, "it's not our fault."  And given that neither the computer nor the computer that supervises the computer that made the new seat assignments were willing to talk with us, we were stuck.

But we survived the flight and arrived safely the next morning.  Which, in the final analysis, is the most important requirement for any flight.  Comfort would have to wait until we arrived at our destination.

And wait it did, because the remarkable power and value of our reservations would rear its funny head again when we went to pick up our rental car at Europcar.  For some strange reason, we arrived at their desk with a sense of confidence and optimism about quickly picking up our car and heading off to the beautiful Swedish countryside.  An optimism fueled by their sign that read "inom 5 minuter ar du pa vag" which means–for you non-Swedish readers–that we would be on the road within 5 minutes.  Now that's a cool promise.  And they came within an hour and 55 minutes of achieving it.  Because as I stood, with our confirmation and my Europcar "Privilege" card in hand, I was told that they had no record of our reservation or us.  And that they were completely out of cars.  They did agree that we had an actual reservation and that we actually existed, but it seemed as though our reservation had been made–and possibly canceled–by a Europcar computer and an international call center in England.  And they were quick to tell us that the mistake was "not our fault."  In fact, their initial response was that it was either our fault or the fault of some alien being posing as part of the vast company they worked for.  That was a pretty amusing answer.  And it wasn't until we mentioned that we were the customer and the call center was part of the very same company that they worked for that they started thinking about the problem with their initial response.

To their credit they then tried to locate a suitable car at one of the other car rental companies at the airport.  And when this failed, agreed to contact another Europcar location in the hope of solving our problem.  They finally found a car at a location in downtown Gothenburg–about 25 kilometers away, and told us that we could go there to retrieve it.  All five of us.  Along with our five large suitcases, four backpacks, a rolling computer bag, and a shortage of sleep.  Yes, we do pack un-light.  But remember, this is Sweden where summer weather has a bit of variation and you wouldn't want to be ill-prepared.  We then suggested, again trying hard to think of ourselves as customers who were about to spend close to two thousand dollars to rent a Volkswagen Passat diesel station wagon (or "combi" as the locals call it), that it might be their responsibility to get the car to us.  Now that sounded like an interesting idea, and after a bit of discussion they agreed to send one of their team members downtown to round up the vehicle.

He returned about an hour later with the car and we were finally on our way.  To their credit, they were quite pleasant and ended up being quite helpful and understanding once they realized that it was part of the responsibility of working for a company that offers and reserves goods and services in different locations around the world.  Even an apparently less than coordinated and collaborative company.  And, they were even willing to give us the rate that was quoted in our written confirmation instead of the new and significantly higher rate that came up in the computer.  Thank goodness for that as I was beginning to think that I might have to talk with the computer that supervises their computer.


We win in business when we put the customer at the center of our business.  And when we figure out how to own and solve the problems we create for them.  All in less than five minutes.


The Semi-Private Room

Greetings.  If you've ever stayed in a hospital or visited someone there, you know that patients (a.k.a., "customers") stay in one of two different types of rooms.  The first type is a "private" room, given this name because it is the temporary home for one patient.  In other words, it's a private place for you to recuperate in the privacy of the appropriate healthcare staff and supported by visits from family, friends, colleagues, and clergy who bring cards, flowers, plants, chocolate, balloons, good cheer and well-wishes during assigned visiting hours.

The other type of accommodation is called a "semi-private" room, given this name to convey the notion that you are almost alone and almost have privacy.  Privacy created by a remarkably simple curtain that is somehow infused with the magic of privacy.  But, in fact, this room is the temporary home for two patients–you and a total stranger who is also there to recuperate along with appropriate healthcare staff and whatever entourage accompanies them in their time of need.  And while it is possible that this person could end up becoming one of your best friends, it's not likely.  And it's even more unlikely that you will ever receive even semi-privacy in a semi-private room.  Because this marvel of modern marketing is simply that. A marketing concept that obscures the reality that you are sharing a small room with a total stranger and a relatively modest curtain.  And a sick stranger to boot. Complete with coughs, sneezes, moans, groans, screams of pain and delight, and all manner of good and bad habits that are only magnified by their condition and confinement.  It's something you'd never do in a million years if the hospital and your insurance company didn't force you to.  And something your parents always cautioned you against as a child.

If I was only slightly amused by the idea before, I'm quite concerned now after my father's recent back surgery.  It was an operation that seems to have gone very well assuming he survives his time in a semi-private room.  Sure we asked for a private room.  After all, dad is 86 and an extremely light sleeper.  But they were all taken. So we got with the program and actually had a delightful first roommate.  He had also had surgery and despite his pain was kind and thoughtful, had an extremely positive outlook, and was fun and interesting to talk with.  Plus, he was quiet at night and had no disease of the contagious variety.  One could actually imagine becoming his friend under different circumstances.  But he left the next morning, creating the opportunity to test the real meaning of semi-private…

The new roommate had lots of issues, apparently returning to the hospital on a somewhat regular basis.  In addition to physical ailments that were still being diagnosed, he also suffered from some form of dementia that made him quite anxious and even hostile toward the medical professionals treating him.  This resulted in frequent and loud outbursts as they attempted to check his vital signs, take xrays (in the room), draw blood, bandage his sores, and eventually put in a central line.  Outbursts that included an amazing grasp of nearly all the x-rated words found in the English language, along with equally compelling threats to anyone who came near him.  This led to an impromptu meeting with his family members, doctors, nurses, and techs that at one point brought eight additional people to his half of the 12 foot by 18 foot semi-private room.  And given the ever-shrinking quarters, even required a wonderful nurse to climb over Dad and onto his bed in order to connect an oxygen tube for his roommate.  I should note that the room was also filled with two hospital beds, two reclining chairs, four visitor chairs, two tray tables, two night stands, two TVs, two regular waste baskets, and a gigantic red bin for hazardous waste.  Talk about an environment that could challenge the leading feng shui masters!  But the real excitement occurred when his primary doctor called for an infectious disease specialist and we began to imagine the limits of a simple curtain and a bottle of hand sanitizer.  Not that I'm a heartless guy, but this did not seem like the optimal environment for a quick and healthy recovery from back surgery.

Of course, every situation presents an opportunity for innovation.  So during my hours of visiting Dad I started to imagine semi-private hotel rooms–perfect for our troubled economy–and giant misting bottles of body sanitizer that could protect someone from head to toe in a hospital filled with germs.  I also thought about ways to reinvent the semi-private room as a necessary part of someone's return to health.  By changing it's basic design and it's "component" parts.  By doing a better job of matching roommates.  By thinking about the real "moments of truth" in the experience of being a patient and how to make each one of them more meaningful and health-building.  By providing more knowledge and guidance.  By using music, images, and scents to strengthen the environment for healing.  By improving the privacy they afford.  By enhancing the collaboration of healthcare professionals.  By incorporating a sense of humor and optimism.  And that was just the beginning of a world of possibilities. 

Semi-Private Room
We win in healthcare, business, and life when we avoid words that obscure the real truth.  Maybe the real genius of a semi-private room is its total lack of privacy, and the challenge it offers to innovate in our efforts to restore health and well-being to those we have the privilege to serve.

Cheers and stay well!

Accentuating the Negative

Greetings.  I don't watch a lot of television–except for sports, the news, and an occasional show about music, history, or geography.  But when I do turn the TV on, I'm often amused by commercials for products designed to help regular people cope with the very difficult challenges they face.  Products designed to resolve our most "debilitating" personal problems.  You know, the problems that cause us so much personal discomfort and embarrassment.  The ones that subject us to daily, if not hourly, scorn and humiliation…often forcing us to hide or live a public life of shame.  Problems which condemn tens of millions of semi-normal people from all walks of life to live in fear as they search desperately for a solution.

No, I'm not talking about the most serious and life threatening diseases.  Diseases for which we can only hope there will someday be a cure.  Or hunger, poverty, or homelessness.  Those are problems that are also searching for a solution that no one is selling on television.  What they are selling are solutions for dandruff–that scourge on modern civilization, and one of the greatest barriers to self-esteem and personal and business success.  Or so the ads would make it seem.  Because it's hard to imagine, after watching a dizzying array of commercials, that anyone with this dreaded condition could ever make a good first impression, have a successful job interview, enjoy a party or other social gathering, or ever find the one person of their dreams–especially if he or she is an Italian supermodel.

And because we're all on the lookout for dandruff, we have little time left to notice how remarkable people are and what they could add to our lives, our companies, and our community initiatives.  Unable to get beyond the flakes to see everyone's real skills and the possibilities that they bring.

As crazy as it sounds, we live in a dandruff-centric world…too often focusing on the insignificant "defects" in people at the expense of appreciating their special gifts and all the stuff that really matters.  Conditioned by commercials to believe that hair, or weight, or the way someone dresses or speaks, or the music they listen to or the food they eat, or the part of the world they come from, is the best surrogate for their worth and ability to be brilliant.  


We win in business and in life when we focus on the things that really matter.  On the magic and potential for genius in everyone.  Maybe it's time to get beyond the superficial to the real heart of what it takes to innovate, collaborate, and grow.

Cheers and enjoy the weekend and the World Cup!

“Worst Company in America”

Greetings.  The votes have been cast, and the 2010 "Worst Company in America" is Comcast according to Consumers Union.  The decision was announced during a press conference yesterday, and came as no surprise to most Comcast customers and industry watchers.  After all, the company had placed second for the past two years and it was only a matter of time before its blatant abuse of customers would earn it the top prize.  

The award itself is a bit of a publicity stunt, but it's also a serious attempt to shine a spotlight on corporations that seem to have little or no regard for those they have the privilege to serve.  And by practically any measure, Comcast seems to be a most worthy recipient.  In fact, the company's "track record" of poor quality, installation nightmares, inadequate technical support, unresponsiveness, deceptive marketing and pricing schemes, and failure to listen to its customers is almost legendary.  So its defeat of Ticketmaster, last year's winner and the company that has singlehandedly made every live event significantly more expensive than it should be, was well-earned.  Though one might question how they defeated AIG, the company that gave rise to the phrase "financial meltdown."  Could it be that this Wall Street giant was old news?  Or, as one leading blogger noted:  "It all goes to show that irritating individual consumers is a really bad idea." Needless to say, Comcast officials did not attend the award ceremony or make themselves available for comment.  

At least they are thoughtful enough to lead, or retreat, by example.  Showing other companies how not to provide a valued customer experience must be their way of raising the bar (or at least the red flag).  But if you've had a great experience with Comcast, I'd love to hear about it.  And I'd even be willing to spread the good word. Even if it's the only good word.  After all, I have high expectations for companies based in the City of Brotherly–or Customerly–Love!

Golden Poo 

We win in business by treating the customer with the highest regard. And when we don't, we still have the chance to win an award.  It's just not an award that our mothers would be proud of.


Embracing the Obvious

Greetings.  A new week has started, filled with challenges and possibilities.  But before you find yourself driven by your calendar, in-box, "to do" list, PDA, and all of your regularly scheduled meetings and responsibilities, try to find at least a few moments to take a fresh look at the most important things on your plate.  Maybe not today, but some time during the week ahead.  And make sure to put those moments on your calendar.  Then use that time to get off of your bottom and out into a world around you filled with ideas and inspiration.  A place where other companies, organizations, and people from all walks of life might know something that could, when combined with your own insight, greatly enhance your success.  

To give you a clearer sense of why this is vital, think of our friends at the Census Bureau who are responsible every ten years for counting all of us in great detail and using that information to allocate our representatives and influence public policies and programs.  It's a big job, especially given that there are now over 300 million of us, and one can only imagine the importance of technology in doing it well.  That's why it was surprising in April 2008 when the Census Bureau decided to pull the plug on a major initiative to automate the collection of data for the 2010 census.  The specific project, which was to create a handheld device that would be used by census takers, had already cost over $600 million and was not close to being ready for prime time.  And the government contractor, Harris Corporation–a company probably filled with its share of geniuses, was requesting more time and money to complete the job.  Not a perfect result.  Not to mention the direct hit in the taxpayers' pockets.  

But it didn't have to be that way.  In fact, there is reason to believe that the insight and inspiration needed to find a better solution was always in plain view of the key decision-makers in the public and private sectors.  They simply failed to notice it. Because we can only imagine that each and every day men and women wearing the most stylish brown apparel were regularly visiting their offices, dropping off packages, and carefully logging detailed "tracking" information onto cleverly-designed handheld devices.  Probably not much different, in the most important ways, from logging information that "tracked" the people who make up the United States.  And yet, no one ever asked: "What can Brown do for us?" 

UPS Driver

More often than not, we fail to realize that the answers to our challenges–or at least a better starting point for the answers–have probably been thought of by someone else.  Often in another industry or walk of life.  Often just outside our door.  And being curious about what others know could be an amazing tool in efforts to deliver compelling value on time and at a reasonable cost.  But for many government agencies and contractors, the thought of starting from scratch is appealing.  That is until they screw-up big time!

We win in business by assuming that we aren't the smartest people on the planet, and by looking around for powerful ideas and solutions that can be adapted to meet our needs.  So once again, please bear with the census takers and their pencil and paper forms.  Even if it is, according to our kids, "so last millenium."

Cheers and have a curious week ahead!