E = mc2

For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

Yesterday I wrote about an outstanding customer service experience at my car dealership; today I’m going to address its alter ego. Sadly, I recently had a hotel experience that was as bad as my car experience was good.

In a nutshell, I arrived late at night at a hotel where I had a reservation. In fact, not only did I have a confirmation number, but upon making the reservation, I had also coughed up a one-night deposit toward my stay. Check-in should have been nothing more than a perfunctory swipe-the-credit-card-hand-over-the-room-key process.

Alas, it was not to be.

As soon as I gave the night clerk my name, she told me that the hotel no longer had a room for me. They had, as she brusquely told me more than once, “a head in every bed.” After a few minutes of flabbergasted and indignant conversation, I had no choice but to move to the alternate hotel where she had placed me for the night. Note that even though said hotel was a 20-minute drive and I did not have a rental car, the clerk did not even offer transportation.

After my night in exile, the hotel manager called me to make amends. She offered an apology and to pay for my entire stay. She said all the right things and even offered to send the hotel shuttle to pick me up when I was ready to check in to my original room.

She worked hard to make sure I knew she was serious about making things right. When I arrived at the front desk for round 2, the clerk was prepared for me. She called me by name and set about making me feel comfortable. I ended up with an upgraded room, free internet access, a fruit and cheese tray, and lots of apologetic smiles. I hadn’t asked for any of it, but I appreciated the effort to make up for the hotel’s mistake and considered the bad situation rectified.

Until the bill came on the day I was set to check out.

The room that was supposed to have been comped was now charged to my credit card. That wasn’t what the manager had promised, so I sent an email to follow up with her once I was back in the office. She politely but firmly told me that I was mistaken, that she had never agreed to comp my room.

I know I wasn’t mistaken. I never asked for a free room, but she offered it. I even repeated it back to her when she originally called me to make amends. In fact, she had even made a point to tell me that I would get my HHonors points, even though I didn’t have to pay. I didn’t make this up.

Throughout the trip, I had planned to blog about the situation as an example of a bad experience turned good in a customer service win. Instead, by not making good on her promise AND telling me (her customer) that I was wrong, the manager unraveled all the good work she had done.

The sad thing is, I doubt she has any idea.

Service with a smile

I may be the only person in the world who enjoys taking her car in for service. In addition to regular oil changes and tire rotation, I do everything the guys at my dealership tell me to do: air filters, power steering flushes, brake pads, you name it. They follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, and I follow them.

It’s working for me. At 130,000 miles, all of which are mine, I haven’t had a single major issue with my car. At this point, I’m pretty sure that when I decide to replace it, it will be because I’ve gotten tired of it–not because it wore out.

Reliable car aside, the real reason I love my service guys is that I trust them. They not only tell me what they’re going to do and then keep their promises, but they also go out of their way to treat me (and my car, of course) right. Whenever they recommend a service item, they make sure to find a coupon to accompany it. When there are rebates offered, they make copies of the receipt and staple them to the necessary forms before they even tell me about them; all I have to do is mail them. They provide a comfortable waiting room with that includes a business center, a playroom to corral exuberant children, and free WiFi. Coffee, donuts, and pastries are free, too. These guys understand that building a relationship is the key to retaining customers.

By the way, I don’t have a luxury car. I have a mid-level Toyota.

Think small

Walking through Madison, Wisconsin, hungry and hot, I stopped in my tracks when I came across what looked like a giant bird house next to the sidewalk. Through its glass door, I saw that it contained a small collection of books. Intrigued, I moved in for a closer look.

The sign on the box said Little Free Library. It offered a simple, grassroots vehicle for sharing books. Borrow one, add one, whatever. What most warmed my bookworm heart, however, was the placard which read, “This Little Free Library is a gift from friends who wanted to PAY IT FORWARD. They hope you will do the same!” Books AND an anonymous good deed? Wow!

I visited the website, littlefreelibrary.org, to learn more about this effort. There’s no big explanation, no grandiose vision for the world–just stories of individuals and libraries, punctuated by how-to tips. It really is just a grassroots effort to pay it forward. There’s even a locator to find all the spots where people have placed Little Free Libraries (more than 3000 around the US!).

You may wonder why people would do this when most cities have their own public libraries. I can think of lots of reasons. It brings people together. It creates a sense of community and a way to give back. It accommodates travelers like me who don’t have credentials at every local library around the country. People can access these whenever they want. They can grab a book to occupy a busy toddler before entering a restaurant or borrow one to pass the time in a park. People can share books they love with others or explore a text they might not otherwise have discovered. Shall I go on?

In any case, I think this is a wonderful idea. Not only does it appeal to my aforementioned bookworm heart, but it also shows that it doesn’t take a grand-scale effort to make a positive contribution to a community. Even if books aren’t your thing, I challenge you to use this example to consider ways you can pay it forward. Like the Little Free Library, sometimes thinking small might be the way to get there.

Flying high

In less than two weeks, I will ride my bike a grueling, but beautiful, 190 miles to benefit cancer research. (See my note HERE if you want to learn more.) The price of entry is a fundraising commitment that seems impossible: $4300, and I treasure every gift, whether large or small.

Many, many people support me with donations and encouragement, but no one believes in me more completely than my daughter. In 2010, she begged me to let her set up a lemonade stand so she could have some spending money. At the end of the day, with a sly grin she proudly handed me the entire proceeds, $13.25, for my PMC ride. That had been her plan all along.

Last year, she gave me the only $5 she had in her possession, with a note that said, “Just do it, Mommy!” and she followed up this year with a flurry of organization. In May, she began prodding me to get on the bike, get my fundraising letters out, and get on with it. If it weren’t for her, I’d probably still be procrastinating.

Little did I know, her organization didn’t stop with getting me in line. For months, she has quietly squirreled away every coin, bill, and birthday check that has come into her possession. Yesterday, she presented me with $47.64 that helped push me over the threshold of my fundraising commitment. Stunned at her forethought and planning–not to mention the generosity of giving me everything she had–I had no words beyond, “Are you sure?”

Some part of me feels guilty for taking money from a child, but a bigger part realizes that this is her way to shine. She has long-since thought this through. This is her gift to me and to the cause, and she has worked hard to pull it together. To refuse it would not only be an insult to her efforts, but it would also constrict the very thing I should be nurturing: her generous heart.

As a parent, I struggle daily with knowing when to direct, when to guide, when to suggest, and when to back away. I want my kids not only to do the right thing, but also to identify it and choose it for themselves. That means I can’t always tell them what to do; I have to let them make their own choices. It’s hard, because I think of all the ways they could fall down. What I often forget, however, is how much higher they’ll soar if I remove my tether. Today, my daughter is soaring higher than I ever will.

Blackout

Any of you with a professional football team in your hometown likely noticed that the NFL recently made a change to its broadcast rules. For the past 39 years, the NFL had required local broadcast affiliates to black out home games when they were not 100% sold out 72 hours before kickoff. The league used this policy to “encourage” fans to see game in person rather than resorting to watching in the comfort of their own living rooms.

Whether the NFL finally found a heart or it realized that it risked losing fans (i.e. revenue) in these uncertain economic times, the league relaxed the 100% requirement to 85%. A smart move, in my opinion, for a variety of reasons that you can feel free to discuss with me offline if you’re so inclined.

Unfortunately, even as local fans started jumping for joy, several teams announced that they would stick to the old rule–100% sell-out, or no TV broadcast. Fans of the San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, and my beloved Indianapolis Colts immediately transformed their joy jumping into hopping mad. Even though I plan to watch every home game from my season ticket seat, I’m mad, too.

Besides getting my dander up at this strongarm tactic to sell season tickets (the Colts are about 2000 season tickets short of sold out, and owner Jim Irsay notes this in his letter to fans explaining why he’s sticking to the 100% rule), this policy is just bad business practice. Teams [you can substitute businesses here–it applies equally] should be making people fall in love with them. To do that, they have to be accessible to their fan [customer] base. The more chances those fans have to see and interact with the players and teams, the harder it is to ignore them. If people never have a chance to see a game, whether in person or on TV, how can anyone expect them to become fans?

Give fans a chance to get to know the players. Show them personalities, playing style, rockin’ touchdown dances. Give them opportunities to rally behind the team. Build a community that brings people in, not one that keeps people out.

I have a million other arguments on this subject, but none is as vehement as this one. It’s the people who love you who buy jerseys, posters, stickers, license plates, and yes, tickets. You can’t fall in love with someone you’ve never met.

P.S. You can read Irsay’s letter by clicking the image above.

Flat out

During the summer, I do a lot of long training rides on my bike to get ready for the PMC. Considering that I’m usually on desolate country roads for hours on end, I find it fairly surprising that I haven’t encountered much adversity. No flat tires, no pop-up rain storms, no close brushes with death.

Until last weekend, that is.

Giddy after picking up my freshly tuned-up bike from my local bike shop, I set out on a 45-mile ride. Less than two miles into it, I heard a hissing whoosh of air that could only mean one thing: I had a flat.

Frustrated and indignant, I did what any capable, middle-aged woman would do. I called my dad. I figured that my plans were shot and that he could pick me up and take me home.

While I waited, however, it occurred to me that I had a tire-changing kit in my saddle bag. I had never changed a tire, but I flipped my bike onto its seat anyway. I grabbed the new tube and the tools and tentatively set about making the swap.

Having only a vague idea as to what to do, I was thankful to find instructions on the tube box (instructions!). Although somewhat more difficult than the box led me to believe, my inexperienced hands had the new tube in place and the tire almost completely reinstalled by the time my dad pulled up in his truck. Under his watchful eye, I finished the job and put the wheel back on my bike. Giddy with accomplishment, I decided to continue my ride.

Alas, the adversity continued. Though the tires rode well, the black cloud over my head turned out to be more than figurative. Just before the halfway point where I was meeting some friends, the skies opened and drenched me, thundering menacingly all the while. I made it to our meeting place, waited it out, and eventually rode home on wet, steamy roads.

Bummer of a day? Nope.

Even though I certainly didn’t wish for it, I faced down two of my biggest bicycling fears that day. First, I’ve always been petrified of “flatting” when I’m out by myself. What would I do? Well, it finally happened, and I was forced to deal with it. In that exercise, I now know that I CAN. The idea of flatting no longer seems so daunting. I rode, I flatted, I conquered.

Second, the idea of riding in the rain with smooth, skinny road tires has always left me shivering with dread. Besides the gritty, oily goo that sprays my legs from the tire, the pavement just plain gets slippery. In fact, the painted road markings might as well be a biker’s version of a Slip ‘N Slide. With no other options on Saturday, I had to face down that fear, too. I rode in the rain and I survived.

I wouldn’t have chosen to flat my tire or to ride in the rain. Given the choice, I would have avoided both at all costs. Fate had other ideas, though. I couldn’t cut and run; I had to face down my fears, and I DID IT. I felt like the master of my universe.

Flat tire + thunderstorm = one great day. Who knew?

You’re important

Yesterday I dropped off 42 pieces of clothing at my dry cleaner. That’s right, 42. The fact that I have anything at all left to wear astonishes me, and I’ll probably have to take out a loan just to pick up all that stuff. Ouch.

In any case, I don’t usually do that. My normal routine entails dropping off about 10 pieces or so every few weeks–not enough to get me noticed. That, coupled with the fact that I clearly hadn’t been there in a while, made me all the more surprised when the lady at the counter called me by name as I walked through the door. She even proceeded to tell me that she and The Boss had very recently discussed my absence and that I was on her call list. (This was substantiated by the $20 credit that The Boss had placed on my account.) They frequently discussed their top customers, she said, and wanted to be sure they remained satisfied. She missed me.

This entire conversation took place before she looked me up in the computer. I’m pretty sure it was the real deal.

I left what I thought would be nothing more than a drop-and-run feeling unexpectedly buoyant. I was on someone’s top customer list. I–as an individual, not a faceless customer–was important to someone’s business. I was worthy of tactical discussion with The Boss. Maybe it’s ridiculous, but that short encounter made me feel important for a few minutes afterward.

As I ponder my dry cleaning event, I come away with two important insights. First, businesses should be having conversations ABOUT their customers regularly. They should be asking questions like Who are our best customers? What are their names? Why do they choose our products/services over others? What can we do to make/keep them happy? How can we connect with them?

Second, businesses should also be having conversations WITH their customers. They should tell them what they think of them. Get personal. Call them by name. Acknowledge their importance. Tell them they matter.

This second insight gets put into practice a lot less than the first, I suspect. Maybe more companies than I think are having the internal conversations, but I’m pretty certain that they aren’t extending those to the people who matter. It’s such a simple step, but it’s one that is all too often forgotten.

People like to feel important. Telling them that they are will go a long way toward building lasting relationships.

Say what?

Several years ago, I participated in some company focus groups that were designed to test a new insurance concept. The premise we worked from was that people who exhibited certain behaviors would have to pay more for health insurance. As an average sized, non-smoking employee, I didn’t readily fall into the group of “The Punished”, but the concept nonetheless felt uncomfortable to me. Apparently others shared that opinion, because the idea never matured into reality.

Fast forward a dozen or so years.

In a conversation earlier this week, a colleague told me about a program in which his daughter-in-law participated at work. Clearly intrigued with the idea, this colleague told me that his DIL’s employer had issued her a precision pedometer to measure her daily step activity. Periodically, she would plug it in to her computer and upload the data to the company system. As long as she maintained a certain average, she qualified for a discount on her health insurance rate. Best of all, he said, it was completely voluntary.

I found myself nodding along, liking the idea of a discount. That could work, I thought to myself. I’d certainly do what I could for a discount.

As I thought about this scenario later, I realized that it was exactly the same idea I had shunned years before. The only difference was the language.

When presented as a premium or a punishment for bad behavior, I found myself thinking terms like unfair and judgmental. When presented as a discount or a reward for good behavior, I reacted much more positively, mentally sifting through all the ways I might earn it. Sign me up! I thought.

In case you’ve forgotten, words can be powerful change agents. Words matter.

Fight or flight

Somewhere way back when, I know I wrote about the propensity some people have to do the exact opposite of the action that will actually help them. When they feel threatened, they get all prickly and uncooperative when they should really use the opportunity to prove their worth.

I see this a lot in business. When people think their job is in jeopardy, for example, they hunker down and guard their territory with bared teeth. They get nasty and uncooperative instead of going above and beyond to show that they’re flexible, progressive, and important. Looking from the outside in, it all seems so clear.

But I’m only human.

I recently found myself in the throes of destroying a relationship that is precious to me. When faced with changing circumstances, I assumed a fight-or-flight posture and landed heavily on the “fight” part. Rather than adapting to those circumstances, I lashed out and almost erased any chance of a continued partnership. If I couldn’t have it my way, I was going to make everyone miserable.

I know better. I really do.

The main problem with my approach is that it almost caused me to lose a friend. Even though I had no control over the circumstances that drove my reaction, I did have control over my choice to adapt–and initially chose not to. I behaved in such an ugly way that I got dangerously close to not being able to maintain any kind of relationship at all, let alone being able to redefine our friendship. I gave my friend reasons to avoid me rather than reasons to want to be around me.

Besides that, I’m part of the everyone I mentioned. I was making myself miserable, too.

Thankfully, I gradually saw the light. I put aside my hurt and frustration and realized there was another part to the fight-or-flight proposition: unite.

In threatening circumstances, you get to choose your response. You can:

  1. Fight. Hold your ground and defend your territory. Just make sure you really have something to defend. If the rules have changed and your territory doesn’t exist (job, relationship, etc.), then fighting really only hurts you.
  2. Flight. Get out while the getting is good. Sometimes it makes sense to move on, but don’t do it simply because you’re scared. You may miss a huge learning opportunity–and a chance to grow.
  3. Unite. Change sometimes feels threatening, to some people more than others. There are times, however, when even though the New Way may look big and scary, the very best thing to do is to join the team and dive in head first. Look your challenge in the face and make friends with it.

Only you can make that choice. You have to evaluate your circumstances and decide the best way to proceed. Just be sure you’re actually doing that, that you’re ACTING, not REACTING. And don’t forget to consider option #3.

P.S. Never, ever underestimate the raw power of feelings. They will cloud these decisions, so be ready for them. And when you’re not the person choosing fight, flight, or unite, use that knowledge to be understanding.

Wandering aimlessly

I traveled to New Jersey last week to recoup a training session I had missed in early June. It was a one-on-one session, so we flew through the material and wrapped up by 2:30 in the afternoon. Since my return flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until the next morning, I found myself staring at free time–and the NYC skyline.

Faster than you can say “Big Apple,” I jumped on a train bound for Penn Station, giddy at the prospect of spending not just any evening, but Friday evening, in Manhattan. I had nothing but time, bustling sidewalks, and city lights stretching in front of me.

Somewhere in the getting-there process, I had the fleeting thought that I should have a plan–not a rigid plan, but at least some vague idea of what I wanted to do and see. Quickly dismissed by my urgent need to GO, I found myself on the sidewalk in front of Madison Square Garden faced with endless possibilities. Quite literally, I didn’t know which way to turn.

My foodie self decided to head to Chelsea Market to poke around the food and cooking shops. (Secretly, I also hoped some famous chef would stumble out of the Food Network studios located on the building’s upper floors.) I pointed my feet south and started walking.

I spent more than an hour in Chelsea Market just taking it all in. I loved smelling the freshly baked bread and handling exotic produce. I was delighted to find a few fruits I couldn’t name. I even texted my brother that I thought I would die from joy.

Then I came to the end of the market–and the end of my so-called plan. I still had five glorious hours left to spend in the city, but the sheer number of possibilities shut down my brain. So I turned my feet south and headed farther downtown, with no clear idea of where I was going.

I rambled through Greenwich Village and poked around Soho. I eventually ate dinner and wandered back to midtown and up the Empire State Building. Mostly, though, I just walked. For all those hours, I walked. Without a destination. And while I loved soaking up the sights and sounds and smells of the city, eventually it began to wear on me a little. I couldn’t help thinking that if I had added just a couple more destinations to my dance card, I might have had a little richer experience. I didn’t need a tight schedule, but a couple of anchor points wouldn’t have hurt.

They would have transformed wandering aimlessly to walking with purpose.