Wednesday, December 31, 2014


For some, it is an effortless exercise. For others, it is a daily struggle filled with stress and anguish. It is rarely the same for anyone. We each embrace it and deal with it in our own unique manner, doing the best we can to make sense of the extraneous shocks that constantly seem to come our way.

I suppose the concept of extraneous shocks, a term often found in the study of economics, is equally applied to the study of life. In lay terms, it simply means a situation or condition that is exceptional and occurs outside the norm. September 11, 2001 is a classic example of an extraneous shock. September 1, 1939 is another example of something extraordinary occurring outside the norm, although in fairness the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany was probably more reasonably anticipated than the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

But back to life. How do we ever know when an extraneous shock is going to penetrate the shields we erect and bring everything crashing down upon our shoulders? Obviously we don't, which makes life so intriguing and so frustrating, all at the same time. We make plans and then life, with its extraneous shocks intrudes, and everything changes - immediately, and often without any consideration for our needs or desires.

I am working towards my 65th birthday, a milestone for most men and women since it means registration for Medicare, and for those that have planned well, retirement. There are other related milestones, but let's ignore them for the moment. The key, for me at least, is that I am approaching the end of the journey. True, I may have another 20 to 30 years, based on family history. Then again,I could be gone tomorrow since we never truly never know neither the day nor the time that we will depart this good earth. But having lived for nearly 65 years I can honestly say that I feel I have seen enough to make the journey to date more than acceptable. And I feel privileged to still be kicking around in as healthy a condition as I find myself today.

So, why am I being so introspective this last day of 2014: I suppose it is a fair question, especially since my thoughts today are a tad sad and sometimes writing about things make them easier for me.    

The first was the passing of my sister Betty.  She was 79 years old and my Dad's first child. Her mother passed away when Betty was a young teenager and my father then met my mother, who had two children, my sister Judy and my brother Joe.  Once mom and dad came together, they added an additional four children to the roster and my sister Betty became a surrogate mom for me and my younger siblings.  Family legend holds that I actually called my sister "Ma", or something along those lines.  

Betty led a full life and while she fought her own demons (as we all do in one way or the other), she managed to raise four pretty neat kids and was a nurse for most of her adult life, taking care of others day in and day out.  

Attending Betty's funeral was very challenging as it reminded us all that life is precious and we aren't going to be around forever.  I think about that constantly and as we all age, I worry about my brothers and sisters and wish they would take better care of themselves.  Mortality is such a bummer!  

Another tragic event came when we learned that the son of our dear friends who used to live around the corner from us in the Netherlands died under tragic circumstances. He was the same age as my son Joseph and they were friends, despite the distance that separated them since we moved to Atlanta.

A naturally funny kid with a wonderful sense of humor, James was a fun kid to be around. He was 8 years old when we left the Netherlands, although he did visit us in Atlanta on a couple of  occasions. He and my son Joseph remained in touch through Facebook and the odd telephone conversation or text message. They also played "XBox Live" together from time to time. They were in many ways very much alike and there seemed to be a natural connection between them. James lived in Scotland with his Mom and younger brother Timmy. Older sister Emma is at University and unfortunately, his Mom and Dad separated and eventually divorced after we moved to Atlanta.

I suppose it would be fair to say that we were all in shock. I know that I was in tears the night we learned of his passing and found getting to sleep nearly impossible. Joe was being stoic, although I suspect he grieved in private after escaping to the basement. Kate and my daughter Ellisa were also quite upset and so it was a somber evening as we all remembered James, that wonderfully quirky kid who spent nearly as much time in our home as we did in his home.

While James Mom and I traveled across the globe with our respective roles, his Dad and Kate hung out together with the five kids in tow. We often ate meals together - the kids played together all the time and we frequently did things together as families, especially taking walks and going to the beach. Simon (James's Dad) and I were both quite fond of darts and red wine, and we both loved music. The reality is that we were nearly one family separated by the two houses that we inhabited as each evening reached a close.

I cannot imagine the shock and emotional pain that Simon and Elizabeth experienced. How do you comfort a grieving parent, especially one you have not seen in several years? What do you say? What do you do? Send flowers or a donation? It all seemed so trivial compared to the loss that our two amazing friends had experienced. And what could we say to your own children, who viewed Timothy, James and Emma as an extension of our own family, who remember fondly their time in the Netherlands living across the canal from the Brooks family?

Life is challenging folks and we are all subject to extraneous shocks, but the loss of a child has to be the worst possible scenario possible and my heart still aches for the Brooks family even now.

But we have to continue to move forward, putting our grief aside so that we can get out of bed in the morning and do the things we have to do to make our lives work.  I know that my sister's children found it incredibly challenging, especially my niece Karen, who still finds it very hard to deal with her mom's passing - first Christmas without her Mom, first New Year's - and yet, she has to get out bed and go to work and do the things she needs to do to make her daughter's life enjoyable. 

So as we enter 2015, I suppose my advice is to cling to those you love and find every opportunity to spend time with them, because one day they won't be there and you will regret all the times you made excuses for not spending time with them.   

Friday, September 14, 2012

Someone asked me for advice earlier this week about where to go to create a blog. I of course suggested Blogspot, but then had to quickly point out to them that my own site was woefully out of date, but that I had every intention of reviving it shortly. Funny how time passes. My last post was in February. What? February? How could seven months pass by without at least one post? What has been so important in my life that I haven't found time to write, and we all know that I love to write. Hmmmm. I am going to need to sit down and think seriously about my priorties because I do enjoy writing and I had every intention in February to follos that post with frequent updates. Anyway, I'm back and I will be updating you on the past seven months shortly. A lot of good things have happened since I left that "Customer Intelligence" firm last year. Lord, it has been a year, or at least it will be on the 30th of this month. I can't believe it. I wonder if they miss me? I suppose everyone wonders that for awhile before you finally put it all behind you and move forward. I think it is mostly behind me, except perhaps for the people. I really like the people in that company and I truly enjoyed working with them. But now I've got a new company and a whole new set of challenges, which I will share with you over the coming weeks and months. Let me start with a teaser. "Every day, billions of people and tens of thousands of businesses go about their digital business - sending files, making purchases, banking online and sharing valuable, private information - in the belief that their data is safe and secure. ---------------"They are Wrong"

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

What's Up?

I realized this morning that I have grossly neglected this blog over the past six months, which is sad given how much time I currently have available to write. I suppose part of the problem has been finding the energy to write. Not that physical kind of energy, but rather the mental kind. You know! Getting intellectually geared up to write about things that matter; to me, to my family and to my friends. So much happening in the world today. Sometimes it's a challenge to sort out what's really important versus what is merely interesting. So where to start is often a dilemma.

Today, let's start with my departure from my last position. As many folks know, I was the SVP of Sales for a rapidly growing Market Research firm that focused heavily on Customer Intelligence. A wonderful company, filled with amazing people. So why did I leave? Well, the short answer is my particular usefulness had come to an end. I think we all recognized it, but it wasn't until the Board decided they needed a sales executive with substantially more experience growing VC backed firms from $70m to $100M to $150M that we decided to do something about it. Could I have stayed in a different role? Perhaps. But in my experience it is always better to make a hard change when it comes to Sales Leadership. "There Can Only Be One", my favorite line from the movie Highlander, applies to real life as well. The new leader needs to develop his or her team without interference, intended or otherwise. Loyalty to the former leader is hard to shift when that former leader is still hanging about. Plus, frequently the styles of the former and new leader will often differ, sometimes dramatically. So in the interest of the firm, and my equity in the firm, it made sense for me to exit stage right. That was accomplished without rancor or harsh feelings in late Fall and for the past four plus months I have essentially been on a sabbatical, which leads me into the next paragraph.

So what does one do on a sabbatical? Well, at first there was a fair amount of just doing absolutely nothing. Getting up late, staying up late. Enjoying being in the kitchen, cooking, drinking some lovely wine, catching up on my reading, hanging out at Starbucks, etc. Then comes the "OMG", I don't have a job and one starts to polish one's CV, start combing various job sites like "The Ladders", "Six Figure" - plowing through one's contacts on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media sites. Then comes the breakfast meetings, the lunch meetings, the networking events. Eventually, you start blasting the market with your CV, knowing full well the chances of it ever reaching anyone of significance are slim to none. But you do it anyway because you never know when you might hit the lottery.

Of course, you then realize that you did all of these things last time you were in this position and none of it produced anything meaningful then either. Finally, you return to your strength, which is being an independent consultant and suddenly, things fall back into place and opportunities surface because all those years you spent being a Sales Leader did in fact result in meaningful connections and valuable experiences.

I suppose what I'm saying is that from my perspective, the key is to not panic or get overly depressed by the process of landing a new position. I read somewhere that "the key to success is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances." Yes, I have the luxury of having a few dollars saved, which means I can take a bit more time than the average chap in the same situation, but not so many that I can retire, at least not yet. Having two teenagers, one who will turn 14 in April and the other 16 about ten days later ensures that I will be working in some capacity for quite some time to come.

So what have I have been doing during the past four months and eight days? Well, getting healthy has been one major accomplishment. I joined a gym, engaged a personal trainer, and have been working out at least four or five times a week on average. I'm trimmer and I'm certainly stronger than I've been in the past several years. One positive aspect of being an independent consultant is that you have some leverage over your hours.

I've also been trying to help my daughter Ellisa with her homework, especially her English Literature homework. She has weekly writing assignments and while she is a gifted writer, she suffers from an age old malady called procrastination. My role therefore is to be her coach, the person who gets her motivated and eager to write. It doesn't help that her teacher finds Ellisa a bit of an odd duck. I suspect it has something to do with the stories she shared early on that focused on blood and mayhem. I don't think he would have done well with Stephen King!

Finally, I'm still teaching religious education at Holy Spirit. We recently changed formats and I'm still adjusting from having my own group of 6th graders every Sunday morning to an evening format where we have all the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders together. We went from a classroom setting to more of an auditorium environment and I have to admit it is a lot like herding cats at times. Still, many of the local parishes are adapting to this new format in an effort to make the program more flexible for the kids, or at least that is the party line. We'll see if it succeeds by the end of the school term.

I suppose that is all for now folks. Promise I will try to write more often over the coming weeks and months. We have an election headed our way and my creative juices always seem to get flowing during an election year. Next post will be an update on the family and the past year in reflection.



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jerry Leiber

With the passing of Jerry Leiber yesterday, I thought I would share a paper my son Joseph authored (with a little help from Dad)last year for a language arts project. I read the book "Hound Dog" along with my son and learned so much about these two wonderful artists. Of course, my hat is also off to Nick Ashford, who also passed yesterday............"Ashford & Simpson" - what a wonderful pair of artists they were and boy did they ever influence my musical tastes? Who knew that they wrote "Let's Go Get Stoned" by Joe Cocker?

“Hound Dog”
Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
By Joseph Gaul

I was struggling to decide how to approach this project when my Dad asked me about it and made a suggestion – “you are a British citizen by birth and have spent more than half of your life living in the UK and Europe, so your cultural orientation is as much British as it is American.” Then he suggested I read a book called “Hound Dog”, an autobiography by two Jewish kids out of New York City who moved to Los Angeles at roughly the same time and became famous for writing in the black genre for groups like the Coasters, the Drifters, Sam Brothers 5, DiMaggio Brothers and Dion and the Belmonts. They also produced songs for the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, Ben E. King, Charles Brown, Melvin Sparks and a host of other musicians during the 60’s, 70’s and on up to today. But it all started with Hound Dog, performed first by Big Mamma Thornton and later Elvis Presley, who truly made the song famous.
Okay, so I know what you are thinking. How on earth is this lad going to link his cultural heritage to two Jewish songwriters from New York/Los Angeles? So this is where it gets interesting. You see, my Dad did not recommend the book just because he thought I’d enjoying reading Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber’s life stories, but also because the music that they had written had deeply influenced his life. My Dad was born in rural North Carolina and had it not been for the radio and “Cousin Brucie”, a DJ out of NYC who hosted WABC’s teen-oriented evening shift in the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. slot, he may well have ended-up a Country fan for life. But this particular DJ played a mix of diverse musical genres of the time (late 50’s and 60’s) including Motown, soul, pop, hard rock, and surf music. Then, in August of 1965 he introduced America to the Beatles during their historic Shea Stadium concerts.
My Dad was hooked, and that may very well explain his vast collection of Cassette Tapes, Compact Discs (Nearly 4,000 at last count) and Vinyl LP’s, some dating back to the late 60’s, and all in pristine condition. My Dad loves music and while he can’t sing a lick, he does appreciate multiple genres, especially the groups that came with the “British Invasion”. Starting with the Beatles in 1965 and closely followed by groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, Freddy and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, The Troggs, Donovan, Chad & Jeremy, Peter and Gordon, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark and lots, lots more.
Okay, okay. Still looking for the connection – right? Well, who do you think influenced those chaps from the British Isles? Yes indeed! Mr. Mike Stoller and Mr. Jerry Leiber, whose music had reached across the sea and deeply, impressed the likes of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Mick Jagger, just to mention a few key players.
So my link to Hound Dog, as a loyal subject of her majesty, the Queen, is that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller helped to start the British Invasion, which hit my Dad like a ton of bricks and gave him an intense desire to spend some serious time in the United Kingdom, which he did in the 1990’. And while living in the UK, my Dad met my Mom, who is rather younger than my Dad, but also a person who loves music and that may have been one of the biggest attractions for both of them as they started the process of dating in the summer of 1992. Dad’s musical collection, which had grown substantially in the five years before he arrived in the UK (Dad lived in Tokyo during those five years and spent a ton of money building out this CD collection) fascinated my Mom and my Dad very much enjoyed introducing her to the R&B sounds of the 60’s as well as Motown, which is undoubtedly my Dad’s favorite genre.
Interestingly enough, my Mom’s Dad and Mom, who are about fifteen years older than my Dad, also remember the British Invasion and how the Beatles changed the musical landscape in England. Remember, before the Beatles, we were happily listening to likes of Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Tommy Steele, Guy Mitchell, Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin, Perry Como and Tony Bennett, just to mention a few. And they were all wonderful singers. But they weren’t the Beatles or the Dave Clark Five or the Stones. Music changed forever with Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, and my Dad changed from a kid listening to Eddy Arnold, Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich, Hank Snow, Ferlin Husky and other Country greats, to a kid who was desperate to go to New York City and see the Beatles live, a dream he almost realized one evening while visiting his sister in Brooklyn in August of 1965, but alas, it was not to be. But that’s another story for another day.
The key here is that I would not have been born in the West Midlands of England in April of 1996 had it not been for my Dad’s intense desire to live in the UK, which stemmed in large part from the British Invasion, which was influenced by the music of two kids raised in New York City who met by chance in Los Angeles in 1950 and ended-up being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Their roll call is staggering – from Elvis to John Lennon, Leiber and Stoller created a wonderful portfolio of timeless music that endures generation after generation.
As for this kid from the West Midlands – well, I’m just grateful that they inspired my Dad to put England on his “Bucket List”. Oh yea, I’m also very grateful for his musical collection as well, which will be mine one day!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What is Customer Experience

For the past 2.5 years I have been gainfully employed as the SVP of Sales for Market Force Information, a firm that provides customer intelligence solutions to business-to-consumer companies, giving them the business intelligence they need to delight their customers. We enable our clients to SEE their business through their customer's eyes; to ACT with confidence and make the right decisions to GROW the bottom line.

So how do we do all of this? Well, we evaluate the customer experience from two viewpoints: first, the customer's perceptions and second, the operational realities that create those perceptions. (Remember these two because we are going to return to them shortly.) Finally, we identify actions required at the store level to improve customer loyalty and financial performance.

Okay, so let's talk customer perception. Not too long ago I was visiting our local GameStop, which is located in that small shopping complex just off of Roswell Rd. by Atlanta Ballet and Public's. You know the one - the one right between Papa John's and Starbucks. I was with my 12 year old daughter (Ellie) and she was looking at the "SIMS" line of games, but unfortunately at the ones that were age inappropriate. Brian, the store manager, helped me to convince Ellie that the games she was looking at were in fact not appropriate and confirmed that no other parent was buying those games for their 12 old daughters, or sons. He aligned with me and was my partner in helping me to keep my daughter aligned with the right level of games for her age. What do you think my perception of Brian and GameStop are as a result of that experience?

Another example: I walked into my favorite Panera Restaurant this morning at 6:30 a.m. to purchase a cup of coffee and a pastry. Pretty early in the morning, but I was met with the biggest smiles and hello's that you could ever imagine. Now I go in there on a fairly regular basis and I can tell you that this morning was no different than the first morning I walked into that restaurant over two years ago. They simply choose to be extraordinarily friendly and as a result I always find myself walking out of there with an equally huge smile on my face. What's that customer experience feel like?

You see, I've become very aware of what happens when I walk into a store, a restaurant, even my Doctor's practice. Let me give you an example of a retail store where my experience is often driven by one single individual. Joesph A. Banks on the corner of Weicua and Peachtree is a pretty typical men's retail clothing outlet where bargains and discounts are often the order of the day. I don't purchase a lot of things there, but I really like this one chap who always treats me like an individual, who always takes the time to chat and catch-up on family and how things are going with business. Yes, he is there is make a sale and he can always depend upon me to purchase from him, exclusively. I walk out of the store if he is not working at the time I visit. Two years ago during the Christmas season I purchased a leather jacket for my son Joseph. The jacket was $700 marked down to $450. I also purchased a couple of casual suits for myself, but when I went to check out I discovered the bill was significantly less than I had anticipated. Why? Because my favorite retailer (let's call him Andy) had slipped in an extra 50% off coupon on the leather jacket. Did he have to do that to close the sale? Was I even expecting him to do it? No, but in exchange for being a "loyal" customer (another term we need to examine)Andy took the hit on the sale. Guess where I still go today for my casual suits, and who I still exclusively deal with when I go into the store? An exceptional customer experience is what Andy strives to provide to every one of his customers, and believe me when I say that there are a cadre of customers who only deal with Andy when they visit that store.

So customer experience is both personal and emotional. It's that feeling you get in the bottom of your stomach when you know that you are being treated exactly as you want and expect to be treated when you frequent an establishment. It's the person in Starbucks who knows what you typically order when you walk in the door. It's the bartender who knows your favorite drink. It's that guy at the Marriott Courtyard in Louisville, Colorado who always remembers your name and always has the room you like to stay in reserved for you!

Notice I haven't mentioned any unpleasant experiences. Why? Because we all have them and they are just simply too easy to focus on. I would rather you focus on the outstanding experiences and think about how you nurture those experiences. Do you fill out the web survey and tell the company that you had a great experience? I do, every chance I get. I look for names and try to write them down so I can specifically call out an individuals extra care. We live in an "Experience Economy", but we often fail to appreciate the extra attention and care it takes to make an experience exceptional. Interestingly, we are equally reluctant to take the time to articulate unpleasant experiences as well, as least not to the stakeholders that care most about understanding what happened. Instead, we post to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Linkedin, etc. We tell our friends and business associates, but we don't complain to the landlords.

So at Market Force we help the landlords understand what is happening inside of their retail stores, their restaurants, their banks, their petrol stations and their motion picture theaters - we evaluate the customer experience from the perspective of the custoemr and then we examine the operational realities that created those perceptions; for example: were the toliets clean? Were the staff smiling and helpful? Was the popcorn hot? Was I offered a receipt? Did the young woman walk me to the asile that contained the product I had just inquired about? How long did I wait in the queue? Was my food hot when it arrived? How long did it take for a server to appear to take my order? Was my favorite ice cream in stock? Was the water clean when I went to clean the windscreen on my car? Operational realities!

So why am I rambling on about customer experience? Because it's important that we don't dismiss postive expereinces as being unimportant. You are loyal to certain businesses because of the experiences you enjoy when you visit those establishments. Why do people stay with the same Doctor for years? In fact, the reason that I go to Holy Spirit Catholic Church instead of the Catholic Church that I first attended when I arrived in Atlanta is down to the fact that my family and I find the "experience" at Holy Spirit more satisfying. It's not a spiritual thing, but the sense of community and belonging at Holy Spirit is powerful, and that is the experience that makes it more comfortable for us. And that sense of loyalty we feel towards Holy Spirit is something we share with every new Catholic we meet who is moving to our community. The same goes for you because loyalty drives word of mouth as well as return business. That is why it is such a powerful driver in business today. As Jeffrey Gitomer said in his book, "Customer Satisfaction is Worthless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless!"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tragedy in Tucson

Listening to President Obama last evening was an interesting experience, especially since I was surrounded by my British wife and her parents, who are visiting us at the moment from the West Midlands of the UK.
On first reflection, I thought the President did an amazing job of keeping the focus on the victims and those around them that displayed remarkable courage under fire. He could have taken the opportunity to point fingers, to assess blame, to campaign for gun reform, etc. Instead, he spoke like the leader that this nation wants him to be. Marcus Buckingham wrote in his book, “The One Thing You Need to Know”, that “Great leaders rally people to a better future”. I believe that is exactly what President Obama attempted to do last night. He spoke about this country in terms that resonate with me and I suspect many Americans. We are a much better nation than we have acting over the past few years and we can raise the bar again if we collectively decide to put the rhetoric and divisiveness aside.
I remember as a child listening to President Kennedy’s inauguration speech. As he addressed those nations “who would make themselves our adversary”, he offered not a threat, but a request that we all look for “what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems that divide us.” He said that “civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” It is a speech that transcends time and one that I keep printed and close to me because I believe Jack Kennedy demonstrated extraordinary leadership that day in setting out a course for the future with a clear vision around what he believed this nation needed to do over the coming years.
Barack Obama is not Jack Kennedy – but that isn’t the point. Our President attempted last evening, under the most tragic circumstances, to reset the tone. To ask that we all take a moment to pause, to reflect on the dialogue, and to move forward with conversations that heal and not wound. Can we do it? Are we willing to take a step back and look at what happened in Tucson and agree that we don’t want to ever raise the discourse to a level of violence?
We don’t know what caused that young man to go off the deep end – to reach a mental state of mind that motivated him to purchase a gun and then randomly kill and wound a dozen innocent bystanders. I can’t point my fingers at Sarah Palin or anyone else and say that person was responsible for this horrible event. Nor can you, although many of you will try.
The point is not to dwell on what occurred, but to think seriously about what can be done to prevent another occurrence; i.e.: how do we as a nation raise the bar on how we engage one another? Throughout the history of our government, people have disagreed, and yet they found ways to communicate. Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George Bush Senior, Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton are just a few who come to mind. These are/were men who believed that compromise was not a sign of weakness, but the normal “give & take” expected of a government leader. What drove us to the current environment of “take no prisoners?”
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the issue of guns; especially given I was surrounded by folks who long ago gave up the right to own handguns to ensure the safety of the majority of Brit’s. Yea, I know the argument. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But when over 14 million plus guns are sold in the U.S. in 2009, which is more than 21 of the worlds standing armies combined, and over 14 billion rounds of ammo are purchased and stockpiled, you got to wonder if this is exactly what our founding fathers envisioned when they wrote the Bill of Rights!
Amendment 2 of the Bill of Rights, which was written at the same time as the Constitution, reads that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” I certainly understand the context at the time the Constitution was written – we would fight another war with the UK in 1812 and it was won by citizens bearing arms. The West was won by citizens bearing arms. Jessie James and his gang were defeated in the streets of Northfield, Minnesota by citizens bearing arms. In fact, our history is filled with stories about courageous men and women who defended their homes and the homes of their neighbors. Guns are part of our history – no doubt. But do they have a place in our current history, especially when millions of them are finding their way into Mexico and literally arming the drug cartels there?
I don’t pretend to have the answer. I grew up with guns. I got my first single shot .22 cal when I was 11 or 12 years old. There were four boys and we all had rifles and shotguns and there always seemed to be plenty of ammo on those occasions when we actually fired our weapons, which actually wasn’t very often. We will spend hours in the woods or down by the river, but mostly guns were just something we carried because it was sort of cool to do so. We played lots of war games when we were kids and sometimes we would remove the bolt and use our rifles as our war guns. Don’t forget, I was born just 5 years after WWII ended and there was lots of surplus army gear to be had at the local Army Surplus Store. We had helmets, uniforms, tents, first aid kits, c-rations…………the store was like a warehouse and you could buy just about anything there for a buck or less. The guns were just part of our playtime, although we had all attended gun safety courses and would get our ears boxed severely if we did anything to violate the basic rules.
Vietnam and nine years in the Marines eventually took their toll and I lost my fascination for guns. I don’t own any today and haven’t since the day I got out the Marines in 1976. I can’t say I’ve ever missed them or felt a need to have one. Just not part of my personality I suppose. When I used to take Joe to the annual Scout camping trip where the kids got to shoot all sorts of older weapons, I never had an urge to participate. The old timer who used to bring the guns to the river for the Scouts to fire once asked me if I wanted to shoot a few rounds from an M14 he had on the table. He had heard that I was in the Marines in the late 60’s and knew that I would have qualified on the Rifle Range with the M14. I just smiled and said no thanks. He looked at me for a few moments and then moved on the next adult in the line. But I think he knew what was swirling about in my head and he understood.
If it were up to me, we would ban the sale of all handguns starting yesterday, and we would require all rifles and shotguns to be maintained at gun clubs. Not practical of course and it will never happen. Still, it would be nice to see some tighter regulation around the requirements for acquiring a handgun – things like requiring a permit, requirements for gun safety courses, background checks, registration of the serial numbers, etc. I would also like to see a requirement that anyone who purchases a handgun must first demonstrate that they have a secure place to maintain once it gets to their home or office. And finally, only folks with a need to carry a gun would be given a permit to do so, and carrying a gun without a permit would result in a significant fine and jail time, depending upon the circumstances.
Okay, enough of that rant.
Back to Tucson, and what we are going to do to raise the level of discourse. How would you suggest we get back on track? Love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 - A Year in Review

2010 – A Year in Review
Just a few days remaining before we put a lid on the year 2010, the first year of my sixth decade running around this planet in this body, which seems to be holding up remarkably well given the abuse it has taken over the years. I will remember it as the year that my Ellie started her transformation from a young girl into a young woman, and the year that my Mom made her transition from life on earth to what I sincerely believe is a peaceful and joyful union with God. Suffice it to say that I miss my Mom and I think of her constantly – last night I was having a snack with Joe and Ellie at the food court in Phipps Plaza before we entered the movie theater to watch “True Grit” and Ellie said something that created this tremendous visual image of my Mom. But as I tried to explain it to them, they just looked at me with puzzled faces because they could not grasp the image that sat so vividly in my mind’s eye. Oh well, I suppose that is natural given how much longer I had spent with my Mother over the years. I just hope the kids don’t think I’m having some weird flashback from the 60’s!
Anyway, back to 2010. So much happened this year across so many spectrums – geographical, political, financial, ecological, religious – where to start? I suppose the key player from my perspective has been the continued financial meltdown for so many people across the globe. People have lost their jobs, their homes, and in many ways, their very identity. So many of us think about ourselves in terms of what we do for a living, who we work for, how much money we have invested and what’s going on with those investments – where our kids go to school today and where they will go to school tomorrow. We create these identities that are tied to money and material belongings, and suddenly all of these creature comforts are removed from our lives. People are living with relatives, with friends, in their cars and on the streets. People are reduced to worrying about where they are going to find the next meal for their children and all the other worries that used to keep them up at night have evaporated along with any concept of stable employment or a right to work. Companies are sitting on hoards of cash, not hiring…………..just sitting on the sidelines waiting for some financial miracle to occur, some sudden recovery of the housing market, the job market, the global market. Just sitting and watching instead of being the initiators, the creators of that miracle. As I’m sitting here writing this missive, I received a note from a friend in NYC who has just been turned down again – a brilliant young woman who well educated, is well traveled, who has incredible experience across a multiplicity of disciplines, and yet she can’t get a job! What’s does that say about our future when an extraordinarily talented thirty-four year old woman can’t find a position in NYC? What part of Economics 101 don’t people get? If we don’t create jobs that create paychecks that get spent in the economy that create jobs that create paychecks, then this thing is never going to get kick-started! Hell, you don’t need a PhD in Economics to know that people have to work to survive and if corporate America doesn’t stop sitting on the cash and start investing in our national future, then there will be no national future. Don’t even get me started on China and how far ahead they are in so many areas, but especially Education.
We continue to fund two senseless military engagements that are bleeding us of essential funds needed to help launch a nationwide recovery. We just reconfirmed a tax concession for the wealthiest one percent of the national wage earners who allegedly create employment, which is why we reconfirmed the tax concession for them as well as others who could have easily withstood the reinstatement of the Clinton era tax rates. Remember the Clinton era – the one where we had a significant budget surplus and the unemployment rate ran in the mid-four percent range. The impact on me would have been around $7,000 on an annual basis, which isn’t a small amount of money – about $136.62 a week, but a tax rate that I would have gladly accepted if it would help the country get on track.
What happened to the concept of “asking not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?” Isn’t there anyone left who still believes that this country represents the best possible form of government available to us today? Are we all so jaded and so insular that we can’t see that there are times when the needs of the many outweigh our own individual concerns?
I know, I know – you think I sound like a bleeding heart liberal, or worse, a socialist who wants to divide everything equally regardless of personal effort. But folks, I’m not either. I’m a moderate conservative and what I trust with all my heart is my faith in God, my faith in my family, and my faith in this country.
These are serious times folks and we need serious measures if we are going to pull ourselves out of this misery. We need corporate America to take those cash reserves and invest in America. We need government leaders who have the courage to stand up for what is right, not just what is politically expedient. And we need to take this year and put it behind us – far behind us!
I don’t know if we have elected leaders with true courage. I guess only time will tell, but hopefully these new leaders along with those leaders returning for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and longer terms will understand that time is not on our side at the moment. We need decisive action and we will be evaluating every move, every decision, and every vote.
In 2012 we will be electing a new national leader or reconfirming our faith in President Obama. Two years is a very short time, but we can do some much as a nation if we make up our minds to turn this situation around. What are you willing to do?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Customer Experience Matters

I recently made arrangements to rent a car from a second tier agency; i.e.: not Hertz, Enterprise or National. The rate seemed particularly appealing and given I needed it for a week during one of my jaunts to Denver; I figured I would give them a try as I’m always trying to save the firm a buck if I can.
I arrived at Denver International on time having been upgraded to first class by my friends at Delta. My bag was on the carousel by the time I had navigated the train to baggage claim and so I walked to the rental car bus island in a pretty chipper mood.
All of happiness slipped away however as I listened to the rental car agent describe the terms and conditions for the car I had arranged. First, I was “upgraded” to a mid-size although I had reserved a compact. There was no conversation or rate adjustment – I was simply told that I would be in a mid-size and quoted the rate, which was of course higher than the rate I had arranged through our corporate travel agency. I was then asked if I need to take the toll road. I replied that I did and was told that a toll pass was $32 for the week, even though I would only be on the road twice during the week. The cost for a one-way journey from Denver to Boulder is $8.00, which means they were charging me twice the fee. Enterprise by comparison charges a tiny admin fee plus the cost of the toll and adds the charges to my credit card after they receive the bill from the state.
I was then provided a multiplicity of terms and conditions, all designed to add to the overall cost of the rental car. For example, I must provide a receipt for petrol from a station no further than ten miles from the airport or incur incremental charges. If I return the car more than a day early or a day late I incur an additional charge of $25. If I do this or do that, then there are incremental charges. It was the most incredible dialogue and for a moment I thought that surely Ashton Kutcher was hiding behind the wall and I was being “punked”.
As a Senior Vice President with Market Force, a firm that focuses on helping some of the world’s largest Business to Consumer companies identify the most important issues associated with customer experience, I am constantly tuned in to my own experiences, and this one truly rates high on the all time worst customer experience list.
So what is the recipe for a good customer experience? How do you ensure you provide an experience that encourages your guests (notice I did not say customers) to not only return and do business with you again, but also tell their friends and colleagues to engage your services, purchases your products, etc.?
Well, I'm fairly certain that it does not begin with an agent who is paid a minimum wage and could care less about your experience. It also does not begin with policies that are punitive and designed to extract the maximum amount of cash from the unsuspecting guest.
After my own experience, I went into Goggle and explored the number of complaints against this firm and wasn’t surprised to find that there were a fair number registered. From overcharging for insurance coverage that wasn’t requested to insane charges for petrol, this firm has done it all.
The Business-to-Consumer environment is extremely competitive, especially the rental car market. I am especially fond of Enterprise because of their focus on the customer experience – I can honestly say I have never had a bad experience with Enterprise. Their prices are always the most competitive however and so like any consumer I shop around from time to time to find the best rates. Unfortunately, this time I managed to shop myself an unfortunate set of circumstances, but I can correct this next time by eliminating Dollar Rental Car from the list of companies that I will engage going forward.
Bottom Line – Customer Experience is the only thing that matters if you want to stay in business in the B-to-C world. How you measure and manage it is critical to customer loyalty, and customer loyalty is critical to your financial success. It isn’t rocket science, but some firms just don’t get it!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Comcast Experience

Most folks who know me also know that I work for Market Force Information, a leading Customer Intelligence firm headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. Well, actually, the headquarters is in Louisville, which is just outside of Boulder, but Boulder always seems a tad more impressive. A good deal of Customer Intelligence is wrapped around the customer experience, and the customer experience is based on the customer's perception of the experience and the operational realities that create the experience.

I want to share a story about my customer experience with Comcast, including my perceptions of the experience and the operational realities that created those perceptions. It is fundamentally a story about gross incompetence, which may or may not surprise you depending upon how much interaction you have had with Comcast. For those folks that I have spoken with who have Comcast as their Internet, cable television or telephone service provider, this story is not particularly surprising. For folks who have not engaged Comcast, they are mostly amused by the comedy of errors that have beset me and my family as we have struggled to finalize our service installation. I suppose when I think about the overall experience I also have to laugh at the comedy, but I can assure the frustration is not funny and the time that I have had to invest with Comcast trying to sort out the situation has also not been amusing. Still, when you are dealing with the Three Stooges you have to laugh a bit even though it is painful to watch them.

So my story begins nearly six weeks ago when I decide to cancel my DirectTV contract and move to Comcast cable TV and VOIP to go along with the Comcast High Speed Internet Service that I'd been enjoying for several years. I made the call into the sales department, spoke with an absolutely delightful young lady by the name of April and arranged for three television points to be installed along with the VOIP service. It was explained that porting the existing home telephone number from AT&T with take a couple of weeks, but we found a Saturday that worked for my schedule and finalize the arrangements. So far, so good.

On the Saturday in question, the service technician who had been scheduled to visit my home called me to ask me what he was actually going to be doing when he got to my house. Okay, I said: "Don't you have a service order?" "Well yes sir, but I just wanted to confirm with you." Okay, I thought.....this isn't that strange and so I explained what he was supposed to do. He then explained that there were no VOIP modems available and therefore he would be unable to install that service. Okay I said, how about coming over and installing the television cable service. "No problem, be there in 30 minutes", which he was, but of course without the right equipment or tools, so he ended up doing a rather terrible job and it was obvious he was in way over his head. Of course, it didn't help that he could not get his supervisor on the phone or that his dispatch kept calling him wanting to know why he had not checked-in, what happened with his previous visit, and when the hell he was going to make his next appointment. The net/net is that he left without finishing the job, but promised someone would call me to set-up another appointment to address the gaps. Oh yea, and he also managed to un-hook our Internet service while he was in the garage, which he freely admitted when he returned much later that day after I spent over two hours on the phone with Comcast fighting to have someone return to address the Internet outage. He said he was never told there was Internet service at our location - of course I had told him that morning, but it clearly wasn't on his service order, which he shared with me. In fact, there was nearly nothing on that service order, which is why he called me to begin with; i.e.: he really didn't know what he was supposed to do when he arrived at our home.

Days go by and no one calls, so we call back and to make a very long story short, we have now had two additional service calls and we still don't have the VOIP service and the cable is still running across the floor in the den and the cable point in the home office still doesn't work and no one at Comcast seems to be able to sort things out. I have written to their VP of Customer Service, and his message reader appointed an "Escalation Person" to my case. He/she sent me an email asking me to contact him/her, which I attempted to do about 30 minutes ago, but without success. Voice Mail rules at Comcast and he/she had not updated his/her voice mail since June 18th, which gave me considerable confidence in this person's ability to fix things.

So I just don't get it! An initial problem or two is not the end of the world, but this has to be the most incompetent group of people I have ever encountered in over 30 years of working in the technology sector. They can't spell Customer Service and to give anyone at the firm a title that suggests they actually understand the concept of customer service is simply self-serving and ultimately stupid because they don't have a clue about what it takes to serve customers. And the sad part of all of this is that I don't even know any anyone really cares. The service technicians slam customer service who slam sales who slam the whole eco-system. I had a technician stand in my house and tell me that he completely understood my frustration with Comcast because he was equally frustrated with their lack of process and quality management. Wow! A service technician slamming the firm really gave me tremendous confidence in my decision to switch to Comcast.

So, the saga continues and eventually I'm confident that either the service will be sorted or I'll cancel everything and start over with another service provider. But I'm still baffled that in today's economy companies like Comcast still don't get it.
Can anyone explain Comcast to me?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"A Sense of Urgency"

A couple of years ago, John Kotter published a book entitled “A Sense of Urgency”, which I recently found on my bookshelf and managed to read over this past weekend. I was particularly struck by the relevance this book has to the current debate around a National Health Care Program. Mr. Kotter describes true urgency as a “gut level determination to move and win, now.” He describes the enemies of true urgency as complacency and a false sense of urgency, which is typically driven by anxiety and anger. He also notes that a sense of complacency results in avoidance, and a false sense of urgency drives a lot of unproductive activity; i.e.: busy work that usually results in frustration and resentment.
Like many Americans, I tuned in to President Obama’s Health Care Summit held in Washington last week, and I must admit that I was equally unimpressed with both sides as the “conversation” evolved during the course of the day. My primary reaction to the debate was that I felt there was a genuine absence of “true urgency” as defined by Mr. Kotter. There were indeed many references to various data and so-called facts, but both political parties failed to tell a compelling story that reached out to all Americans.
Instead of looking for the compromises that could deliver some immediate wins and begin to establish credibility for a broader program designed in the spirit of what serves the national interests over the longer term, both parties held to their ideological self-interests and ultimately gained very little, except perhaps to reinforce their helplessness and inability to advance the national interests, which is ultimately why they were sent to Washington.
I suspect Mr. Kotter would find an interesting case study for his book by dissecting the Health Care debate – complacency by those who would do nothing, and a false sense of urgency by those who would follow the path towards measures that would frustrate the masses and accomplish little in the sense of true Health Care reform.
Americans face an impending crisis with Health Care increasingly absorbing more and more our GDP. But as Mr. Kotter points out, there are upside possibilities in every crisis, but one must be selective and apply great care to avoid creating a false sense of urgency, which ultimately sends people running about doing things that produce limited results.
In the final analysis, it’s incumbent upon all Americans to communicate their dissatisfaction, and their real priorities to the folks that represent us in the Senate and the House, as well as those that sit in the Executive and Judicial branches. How do we most effectively help them to understand that we want them to assume a “true sense of urgency?” First, by communicating where you want them to focus, and second, by directing your political contributions only to those elected officials who demonstrate they are listening by behaving accordingly. Campaign contributions speak volumes to those who wish to remain in office come this November.
The technology community in Georgia have had to find a true sense of urgency over the past two years as we have weathered this economic storm. Hard decisions have been taken in the wake of financial realities – priorities have been carefully reviewed over and over again. Some firms have assumed a bunker mentality while others have been more aggressive, seizing opportunities as they have surfaced. But all understand that making the wrong decisions could result in financial disaster.
Perhaps it is time for our national leadership to follow our example. Perhaps it is time to set aside party ideologies and focus on a select list of national priorities, because the decisions made over the coming weeks and months could very well dictate the financial health of this nation for years to come.
Assuming a “true sense of urgency” that creates a national determination “to move and win, now” must become the national agenda and I urge everyone to join me in communicating that message today.