Plan B

If you think it’s hard to get an upgrade on an airline, try giving one up.

As much as I love to receive a bump in status, believe it or not, there are actually times when I don’t want one. For example, there are times when I travel with my kids when I’ll receive an upgrade, but they don’t. As much as they’d love to be out from under Mom’s watchful eye (and I’d like to be taken care of instead of taking care of), I really need to stay with my kids.

That sounds easy enough, but it actually isn’t. Usually the upgrade happens automatically and I’ll either see it when I check in online or I’ll get an email notification. Unfortunately, there is no way on the airline’s website to give up the upgrade. Just as a person with a coach class ticket can’t select a seat in first class, the opposite is also true. There is no way to move to the back, as it were.

Okay, so you’d think it would be easy enough to correct once at the airport. Well, that’s only partly true. If it were simply a matter of giving up my upgraded seat for a coach seat, that would be no problem. The complexity arises when I need a particular seat–one beside my kids. Now, that particular seat was mine-all-mine before the upgrade, but by the time I start to get the mess untangled, someone else has already been assigned to it. With airplanes operating at or near capacity these days, usually that means several rows of separation (maybe I should have stayed in first class) and begging, cajoling, and wheedling fellow passengers to swap seats. And don’t forget; if I didn’t need to sit by someone, I wouldn’t be giving up my upgrade in the first place.

Other people may have other reasons for giving up an upgrade: a company travel policy that doesn’t allow upgrades, personal preference, or even just being contrary. Regardless, it happens.

I think this is an interesting problem. Normally, when do something nice for someone, we don’t even consider the possibility of refusal. After all, who would refuse something better than requested? There are instances, however, when the intended recipient won’t or can’t take our “something extra.” As in every other situation, we should have a Plan B. If we don’t, our intended nice gesture may backfire and leave the recipient feeling frustrated rather than appreciated.

Landry’s Bicycles

I’ve spent enough time lately on my virtual soapbox; it’s time for a success story.

If you’ve been reading my blog much, you know that I’m getting ready to participate in a big biking event in Massachusetts. Logistically, the only part that has the potential to get a bit convoluted is getting my bike there. I had considered driving and hauling my bike myself, but I have a decided aversion to prolonged road trips. The alternative is to fly there, but that means shipping my bike–and then doing the same in reverse after the event.

Last year, I did all the preparatory gymnastics myself. I took the bike to my local bike shop (Summit City Bicycles in Fort Wayne–they always do a GREAT job and are super helpful), where they packed it up and sent it to the friend with whom I was going to stay. Upon my arrival, we waited on pins and needles for UPS to deliver the bike–I had cut it kind of close–and when it came, we loaded the box straight into Sally’s Jeep and headed to her bike shop. They put the bike together for me and had it ready the next day, just in time for the big ride.

In the meantime, I had searched the internet and found a bike shop in Provincetown, where the ride concludes. I called them and made arrangements to ship my bike home, but that meant hanging onto the bike during the after-party and then walking it through the streets of P-town to the shop where I dropped it off. All in all, it wasn’t really too hard, but my novice self was always concerned that I had covered all the details.

This year, the logistics got even easier: I found Landry’s Bicycles.

As one of the PMC sponsors, Landry’s already provides tons of services to this event. This company donates bike mechanics and road support throughout the 190-mile route to keep everyone pedaling. This year (I may have missed it last year), it also offers reasonably priced–and more importantly, SIMPLE–shipping services for PMC riders. It took me a couple of paragraphs above to describe last year’s logistics, which weren’t super complicated, but here’s the outline for this year:

  1. Fill out a very simple form online and arrange payment. (Remember, I said this was VERY reasonably priced. Cheaper than doing it myself.)
  2. Ship my bike from Summit City to Landry’s.
  3. Pick up my bike at check-in for the PMC, delivered and put together.
  4. Leave my bike at the transport truck located at the event finish.
  5. Pick up my bike at Summit City.

Landry’s, who knows this stuff better than I do, takes care of all the details. I don’t have to figure out how to haul my bike around once I get to Massachusetts. I don’t have to figure out who will put it together for me or who will ship it home. I don’t have to take it anywhere–I pick it up and leave it at the event itself. All I have to do is ride.

If I decide to do the PMC again next year, you can bet I’m calling Landry’s. They’ve made things easy for me. Isn’t that what good customer service is all about?

Don’t cost nothin’

Yesterday I asked the question, How much does it cost to pay attention? Though not all the responses are visible here, what surprised me most was the variety of ways people interpreted my (so I thought) simple query. Interestingly, most of them assumed a corresponding level of engagement beyond general observation.

Here’s my own answer to the question: paying attention costs nothing–or very little. I’m not talking about diving headlong into every situation you can find. I’m simply talking about taking note of the little things in the world around you. Be observant. I’ve found that sooner or later, those details become helpful in making life run more smoothly.

For example:

  • My company broadcasts personnel changes–new hires, promotions, organization changes–via email documents. We also have a searchable, online directory with title, reporting structure, and contact information for each person. Imagine my surprise when I overheard someone saying to a customer on the telephone, “I’m not sure where you got that information. I don’t believe we have anyone by that name here.” Knowing that we actually DO have someone by that name in one of our other offices, I was surprised that the person I had overheard 1) didn’t know that and 2) that she hadn’t tried to look it up. Had she not paid attention to the announcements? Had she not paid attention to the directory or the fact that we have one? Sure, she was eventually able to help the customer, but not without untangling his information on her own. Had she only paid attention, she would have at least known where to look. She could have asked her forgotten colleague and simplified the process.
  • On the positive side, I have an uncle who takes in absolutely everything. Details that seem inconsequential “stick” somewhere in his brain and he doesn’t even realize it. Colors, street names, storefronts, statistics–you name it, he stores it. Things that don’t seem to matter at the time are planted in his mind and remain dormant until a need arises. He doesn’t even know he plants them there, but more than once I’ve seen or heard him reconstruct a scenario in enough detail that he can make a connection to whatever situation is at hand. These mental associations–derived simply from paying attention–allow him to remember people’s names and details about their acquaintance. Besides being helpful in his line of work, his paying attention really makes people feel special. Who doesn’t need that?

Look around you. Listen and learn, and file those observations and lessons away until you can use them. You never know when they will help you connect the dots. Somehow, some way, those things will make your life richer. After all, in the words of John Belushi as Bluto from Animal House, “Don’t cost nothin’.”

Leave a message at the tone

When I pick up my voice mail at work, certain messages always leave me mildly annoyed. Interestingly, these messages aren’t rude or obnoxious; in fact, they’re very often left quite genially and with the best of intentions. They usually go something like this:

Hi, Tammy. This is Joe Colleague. I need to talk to you about something. Please call me when you get this message.

In case my negative reaction to messages like this has left you perplexed, I’ll tell you why. I have no idea what Joe Colleague wants to discuss. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I don’t know if he needs more information or wants to tell me something. I don’t know if he needs a solution to a problem or a reality check. Without knowing any of these things, I can’t do my homework. In a world where demands for my (and everyone’s) time seem to pile up ruthlessly, I want to make every minute count.

More often than not, I’ll return Joe Colleague’s call, only to find that he needs information about a particular topic. Chances are, that information doesn’t live in my head and I’ll have to find it for Joe. That necessitates a return call. If Joe had included his question–or even a hint as to the subject at hand–in his original message, I could have been better prepared and my return call probably would have been built on answers rather than more questions.

It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people; in fact, I think we all need more personal contact in our electronic age. However, if we can keep the simple things simple and not drag them out, we’ll have more time left for real conversations. Think about this the next time you reach someone’s voice mail. When you leave a message at the tone, make it count.

Don’t forget to have fun

A long time ago, a former company executive had compiled some guiding principles which everyone was to understand and follow in our jobs. They were good stuff, twenty-some entreaties such as the customer is king, dot the Is and cross the Ts, and if it’s not right, it’s wrong. What sticks in my mind as much as any of these is the final bullet on this now-obscure list: have fun.

In the middle of everything–the ups and downs, the relentless attention to detail, the occasional frustrations–we mustn’t forget to enjoy the ride. After all, that’s what makes it all worthwhile. Whether it’s in the job itself, the people around us, or the satisfaction that comes from success, we have to remember to find the joy. If there is no joy to be found, or if you stubbornly refuse to seek it out, it’s time to move on.

There’s a lot I love about what I do, but an occasional reminder never hurts. Next week, my co-workers and I are organizing a lunchtime cookout for the people who share our space. I’m looking forward to enjoying the company of the people around me, without the workday pressures for an hour or so. I’m looking forward to introducing a little fun into the climate. It’s so easy to forget.


P.S. If you can’t find the joy in your job, read this post from fellow blogger Anthony Juliano.

Rules of the road

Since I started biking with minor seriousness a couple of years ago, I’ve really learned a lot. For the most part, I ride on quiet country roads with little traffic, but I still have to be vigilant. Where and how I position myself on the road makes a big difference in my ride. When I first took to the streets, I tended to hug the edge of the pavement. I thought that it would be safer for me and less disruptive/frustrating to motorized traffic. That turned out to be unwise.

Scrunching myself into a tiny track on the far right side of the lane presents a lot of problems. First, there’s a lot of junk over there, an amalgamation of road trip detritus that often consists of loose gravel, bits of glass, rotting animal parts, and general trash. I’ve even seen an open box cutter. Also, the pavement on the side is often pocked and crumbling, particularly in the country. Any of these things could pop a tire and send me spinning into traffic.

Besides that, when I’m way off to the side, people either don’t see me as well or they don’t think they need to move out of the lane to pass me. While giving a biker a few extra inches without slowing the speed may feel perfectly safe in a car, let me tell you, it’s pretty scary on a bike. I’ve had people speed past me in the same lane while they’re doing 50+ miles per hour. They were so close I could have reached out and touched the car.

Finally, hugging the edge severely limits my ability to maneuver. When it’s time to make a left-hand turn, for example, I often get stuck waiting for traffic behind me to pass, since turning left from a right-hand position is fraught with foolish danger. I’ve learned that when I’m approaching a left turn, I need to move to the left side of the lane, wait for the oncoming traffic to pass (not the following traffic), and then complete the turn. This sounds pretty simple, but try it sometime on a bike and you’ll see what I mean.

So here’s what I’ve learned, and like yesterday’s softball analogy, these lessons can be applied to many life situations:

  1. Don’t hug the edge; let people know you’re there.
  2. Take your rightful place in the lane. That may not always be in the middle, but it’s generally not on the fringe. The fringe is hazardous; you might get run off the road.
  3. If people need to go around you, make them do it consciously, with thought and intent. Don’t let anyone pass you by without effort.

Of course, these lessons are useless if I don’t follow the traffic rules of the road, too. I have to be respectful of others in order to have the credibility to take my place in the lane.

I got it!

If you’re trying to field a softball, you can’t get out of the way, close your eyes, cringe, or hesitate. The only way to make a play is to keep your eye on the ball and get in front of it, putting your body squarely between the ball and where it is trying to go. My dad drilled that home to me when I was a kid by repeatedly aiming ground balls between my knees and ankles. I got really good–really fast. (And no, I never got hurt.)

It seems to me that there’s an important life lesson entwined in my softball experience. If you want to be a player (i.e. someone who’s in the game, who matters–not a playa!), you can’t run away from the ball. In fact, you have to actually throw yourself in front of whatever life throws at you in order to make things happen. Don’t close your eyes or turn your head, or it will hurtle past. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to use two hands.

It’s not magic

Years ago when I first joined the communications department at my company, one of the first things my boss told me about creating collateral materials, planning trade shows, and the job in general was, It’s not magic. I initially found that somewhat perplexing. I wondered if he was disparaging the job or what else he could have meant. Soon enough, it became clear.

Communications/advertising/PR–whatever you call it–is sort of like producing a play. The audience arrives on opening night and the curtain opens to what is hopefully a dazzling production of perfectly timed lines, convincing performances, and beautiful scenery. One day the stage is dark, and the next it is full of people and color and sounds. Poof! Like magic.

Except it doesn’t happen by magic. The journey to opening night involves hours of rehearsals, set construction, and costume creation. More than once along the way, there are likely detours for hoarse voices, tired feet, and teary frustration. In the end, it comes together with perfect timing for a fantastic performance, and it looks like magic. Now you see it; now you don’t. Or rather, now you don’t see it; now you do.

It works the same in my field. Someone needs a big trade show display or an eye-catching brochure or a new web feature. While the tools used to create these things become more sophisticated every day, they still need good, old-fashioned hard work and talented people to fuel them. A lot of prep work goes into each finished product, and most of the time that work isn’t visible to the world at large. Even though the really good people make it look easy, it’s still not magic.

Regardless of the field in which you work, I’ll bet the same holds true for you. It may be blood, sweat, tears, and talent, but it’s not magic.