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An Adventure in “Customer Service”

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Today I dealt first hand with why the US is not doing as well as we want in the global economy.  We push for “volume” and “efficiency” and “lower cost per unit” and forget the point of doing anything in the first place–serving a customer.  This time around, it was UPS.  Tomorrow it may be Safeway.  (Come to think of it, a year ago it was Safeway.)

This situation occurred because the second print run of Supercharged Retirement had a problem with the cover.  Everything was shifted off center and looked incredibly amateur.

I let my publisher know and they were great about taking responsibility for getting the problem resolved.  The next step was for me to overnight them the copy I had reviewed so we were sure they were looking at the same thing I had.  They gave me their UPS account number to use for the transaction.

Piece of cake, right?  There’s a UPS Store eight blocks from my house.  I was there five minutes later.  When I explained what I was trying to do to the woman behind the counter, things started to unravel.  “We’re not allowed to generate shipping documents for specific accounts.  You have to do it online.”

So I drove home and went online.  Not so fast.  You need the ID and password to get into the account online.  Great.  I called the 800 number listed on the website.  After mashing the “0” persistently, I finally got to a human–Robert, who had a heavy hispanic accent.  When I asked bluntly where he was located, he told me “Central America” quite proudly.  Robert had no clue was what going on in Tacoma, Washington, but he was supposed to “help” me.

He advised me to go to the nearest drop box for the shipping document I needed and gave me the location and the name of the bank at which it was located–except that bank does not exist anymore.

I found the drop box in front of what is now a Wells Fargo branch and searched the shelves that held shipping supplies.  Lots of “2nd Day Air” forms but just one that said “express” (among other things).  I needed to get it to the publisher overnight, so I took the form that was not “2nd Day Air. It looked like it had been there since 1997.

Just to be sure I returned to my local UPS Store to confirm I had the right form.  Nope.  She had no idea where to get one and suggested I call the “800” number again.  Back to Central America.  This time “Sheila” told me I needed to go to a UPS Customer Service Center.  The counter clerk had no idea they existed.  The nearest one is ten miles from where I live.

If I had simply wanted to be done with the task, I would have just put it on my own account with FedEx and considered the cost worth the avoided brain damage.  But I was curious.  How ridiculous would this get before I actually got it accomplished?

I drove to the Customer Service Center and, ta dah!  They had the right form, and they knew how to use it.  I got the package shipped with no further hassle.  (The clerk also suggested a glass of wine might make the whole experience seem a bit funnier. )

This is not a unique experience.  You can probably regale me with horror stories far worse.  The reason I write about it is because this is all we have to look forward to until companies start to recognize that using people who can only answer questions from a cheat sheet aren’t a satisfying resource when the problem isn’t a cookie cutter one.  And having people staffing your retail outlets who don’t have a clue about how to solve a problem is even more ineffective.

This time around, I was only sending one book overnight express.  But I never know what I’m going to be dabbling in next.  I may invent some kind of exotic dirt that has me shipping tons of stuff, literally.  I promise it won’t be via UPS.  I also described this adventure in detail to the the publishing house.  Their reply:  “The whole point of these account codes is to avoid all the run-around!”  Perhaps they will ship all the stuff they send out everyday a different way, too.  That would be just.

Why do I write about this here?  Because the superstars of customer service are the boomers.  We grew up engaged with people rather than texting to the friend standing 3 feet away.  If UPS…and Safeway and others…want to get this right, they should be looking at older workers who understand what “customer service” is really about to staff those positions.


The “Foolishness” of Not Preparing for Retirement

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

All those boomers who can’t afford to retire may not be the losers the “experts” make them out to be.  Another big study just came out reporting that millions of people on the brink of retirement don’t have the money saved to pull it off.   That may not be a bad thing.

Perhaps it’s the people making the predictions who need to stand back and take a better look at what’s going on. If it was all that important to those people to be able to retire, they would have prepared for it. But even before the financial meltdown of the last few years, baby boomers were not seeing the retirement years as the extended vacation it’s being painted as by financial planners and real estate developers.

In a study of over 3000 boomers in 2005, the Met Life Foundation found only 17% wanted to never work for pay again once they retired. Six percent wanted to go to work full time at something else. Seventeen percent want to work part time, 16% want to own their own businesses, and 6% want to do “other” things like join the Peace Corps.

For those of you who’ve been keeping track of the arithmetic on this, that leaves 42% still unexplained. What do they want to do? Cycle in and out of work. What better way to be sure you do that than to not have the money to “stay” retired? Many who do have the money do that same thing when they retire simply because it’s more enjoyable.

As a nation, we would be wise to look at how to use this immense temporary talent pool effectively instead of lamenting the “unretireability” of the masses. If we actually put some effort into using the potential of this segment of the population instead of shaming them for not trying to be what they never wanted to be in the first place, we would all win.

Economic boon
People who are actively earning are more willing to spend money than those living on passive income–even if there’s plenty of passive income involved. Even wealthy retirees adopt frugal behaviors, partly because it’s a way to demonstrate competence. If we gave these people the chance to work even a quarter of the time, the  loosened purse strings would have a startling positive effect on the economy.

Government cost containment
People who are engaged get sick less. They don’t dwell on their health problems because they have more interesting things to do. Both of those things mean trips to the doctor, the hospital, and to the medical lab will go down for those on Medicare. Let these people work some of the time and they will take better care of themselves simply so they can keep on doing that.  “First you retire and then you get sick” is true way too often.

Social hat trick
Work is one of the best sources of self-worth on the planet. When people get paid, they know they are good at something and that translates into a more positive attitude overall. A postivie attitude has been linked to better health, plus they are more effective contributors to the common good because they believe they can still make a difference.

In addition, getting retired workers involved on a part time basis can cut down on the workload of those in their prime work years who are stressed into illness and poor performance because of there is simply too much that they are expected to do in how we are going about it now.

Third, putting retired talent in the same place as the newest generation of workers will help develop work habits that are currently lacking in younger hires. The “old hands” can also pass down the knowledge needed to solve problems without creating new ones–knowledge there is no “ap” for.

Boomers have not saved for retirement because it’s retirement itself that needs to retire. The old cultural set-up simply won’t work with such a disproportionate number in the “retiring” generation and so few in the one that follows. (There are 77 million boomers and only 40 million in Generation X.) Instead of lamenting what individuals aren’t doing, we need to be building bridges to a whole new version of this time of life.

Once you are “old enough to retire,” the desire is for flexibility, not pure leisure. If we can harness the talent available in that pool and use it to make our for profit and not-for-profit efforts more effective, we all win–again and again and again.

This notion that boomers are stupid for not “getting ready to retire” is itself stupid. What the experts are urging them to get ready for is not, and was never, what they want to do. Let’s run with reality and shape some of the work that needs to be done so it replaces retirement.