Monday, August 29, 2011

Rediscovering My Happy Place

Back in January of 2004, my life was pretty much a mess. I was enduring my first career failure and changing jobs, unsure what my long term future held and debating on leaving my California life completely behind and just moving back to Delaware to start over. My dear friend Tanya saved me from making a hasty decision and dragged me to Mexico for a vacation instead, giving me a much needed break to get away from my troubles and gain some perspective.

We were using a timeshare that belonged to a friend of Tanya's, so we got the royal treatment because the resort was hoping we would buy our own timeshare. The room was enormous and included a hot tub and outdoor shower in addition to the huge bathroom inside. The resort was all inclusive, so we got used to 24 hour room service, cocktails on demand and all the other amenities paradise could offer two single ladies.

But the part I remember most was the view from our room.

When I came back from vacation and worked to piece my life back together, I remember discovering the concept of having your own personal "Happy Place." It's a place you go in your mind to relax, get away from your problems, quiet your thoughts and focus. At that moment in time, the spot I photographed from my hotel room was the happiest, most peaceful place I knew so it became the one I used. I had copies made of the photo and hung one on the wall I faced in my office, I even carried a copy in a small album in my purse. Every time I looked at that photo, I felt a sense of peace and calmness that always helped me get through the negatives I was dealing with at the time.

I thought of that happy place again today. I've been nursing a headache for 3 days amid the stress of non-working DSL lines, non-functioning car transmissions, worries about friends and families safety and not enough hours in the day to deal with it all. Sadly, this spot in Mexico seems to have lost some of it's magic for me, so I'll have to put some thought into my next happy spot. Or more likely, the perfect choice will become clear to me just like it did before -- right at the time I need it.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How "But" Can Help You Turn A Negative To A Positive

I am a pessimist by nature. When bad things happen to me, my first reaction is always wondering how bad it will get next, who I have to fight to avoid being taken advantage of or how much the situation will cost me in terms of money, time or other resources.

I think that pessimism is part of what makes me so controlling at times. If I can just organize enough, prepare enough or manipulate a situation enough, I'll somehow see the trouble coming, or at least have the resources to battle it. Better yet, hopefully problems will avoid me altogether because they don't want to deal with a controlling, pessimistic witch.

It would be great if life worked that way, but it doesn't. Nothing you do can prepare you enough to completely prevent bad things from happening. Life is a zero sum game in that respect, the outcome of a balanced equation that ensures for every plus there is a minus, for every yin a yang, every up a down. The only thing you really get to control is how you manage your emotions through the ups and downs, and a big part of that control is finding perspective wherever and however you can.

My car broke down today. It was the most recent headache in a week fraught with them. Because I'm hard-wired for pessimism, my mind immediately started with the "why me, what did I do to deserve this" thoughts. I began focusing on the massive monkey wrench in the plans for my day, worrying about what the problem could be and what it would possibly cost me and how many other things would be turned into a mess in the coming week because of massive dip in the roller coasted track I didn't see coming. I even had the irrational thought that somehow this is my fault, some grand karmic payback from the universe that would strike me with the only freakish problem NOT covered under warranty that could possibly happen to a two year old car with only 30, 000 miles. I almost had a Sally Field-style breakdown.

Then voices of reason gradually crept back into my head. I was reminded that many of the people I love most faced a hurricane in the past 24 hours and made it through with no serious damage or injury. Other friends were still without power from the storm while I sat in comfortably in my air conditioned 73 degree apartment. I wasn't sitting in a hospital day after day watching my daughter fight for her life like another friend. I'm not fighting a terrible disease and I'm not dying -- and I know people doing both right now. In the grand scheme of things, my problems are so small I should be embarrassed at being so upset about a little thing like a car.

As I listened to all the negative voices in my head, I put a "but" at the end of every statement and continued my mental sentence with a counterpoint argument. It's a little trick I learned some time ago that when you use the word "but" as a transition between two thoughts, the "but" negates the first statement so the only thing you hear is the second part. Here's how it works:

"I can't get to work without my car, but I can work at home from my laptop like I did on Friday."
"I'm completely out of food, but I'm in walking distance to plenty of places to eat so I won't starve."
"I don't have much flexibility to go out right now, but I really have everything I need here at home."

I may still be a pessimist, BUT I still have some good things going for me.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

How NOT To Provide Customer Service

Customer service is a critical piece of every successful business, so it's always surprising to me when otherwise successful businesses treat their customers poorly. When I came home earlier this week to a suddenly non-functioning DSL line, I was reminded once again what an art good customer service really is -- because even a company with resources like AT&T can't manage to do it well.

Sadly, the communications giant and I have a history. I could have written a book on all the customer service mistakes they made trying to get my DSL service connected. To be fair, they don't always screw up. But when they do, they make the mistakes huge.

My first step was pulling out the instructions for my DSL modem and rebooting it. After three times without success, I called AT&T tech support and spent almost 20 minutes on hold getting to a live person who could check my line remotely. When they couldn't find the problem, the call got a lot longer.

Needless to say I wasn't happy spending that much time to work on a problem with no resolution.

I work in a customer service driven industry and understand full well that problems happen in the course of doing business. I also know what it's like to be on the receiving end of dealing with an angry customer. If I've learned one thing from those experiences, its that just because a customer is angry doesn't have to mean irreparable damage to the relationship -- if you manage the complaint the right way. The true test of a business is how they treat their customers when things aren't working well. By that measure, AT&T fails miserably in my experience.

If I could give advice to AT&T -- or any company for that matter -- on how to avoid providing poor customer service, here are some places to start.

Avoid repetition whenever possible. 
Information like a name, address, account number and so on are obviously important to ask at the start of the process, but nothing is more maddening or impersonal to a customer than asking for the same information over and over. The same goes for having people explain their problem again to every new person who becomes part of the complaint process. It makes them feel like nothing is moving forward AND you don't care enough about their problem to listen and comprehend the problem. If you have to transfer a customer to another department or involve someone else, do a warm transfer and provide the next representative with the account number or any other information your company needs to do your job.

Repeating unnecessary steps to troubleshooting the issue is even worse, especially when it didn't work the first time. Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome. Don't provide insane customer service.

Give your customer options to communicate. 
Many customers still prefer traditional phone calls, but I find them the least efficient way to get things done. I'm on the go and often in environments where taking a call isn't feasible. Missed calls are frustrating, as is having to make multiple calls to address an issue.

Email is a great option for more and more customers, but I think many companies are hesitant to use it because it creates a paper trail, which means they have to be accountable. Companies that provide bad service (and know it) don't want to be accountable. The important thing here is to ask the customer what works for them.

Don't try to engage your customers via social media of you aren't prepared to do it well.
During my disastrous experience getting my DSL hooked up initially, I took to commenting on Twitter about my difficulties and promptly became acquainted with @ATTCarolyn. We took our "relationship" from Twitter to an actual phone call, which then put me in touch with a complaint management person who eventually got things done for me, but not without a whole lot of effort. This time around, Twitter got me no response, making me wonder if I'm on some kind of AT&T Twitter "blacklist."

A friend of mine suggested I try AT&T's Facebook page, so I posted on their wall and got a response from "Robert G." He provided me his email and requested I send some information about the problem, which I did -- including my case number and a recap of the hour long phone call process I started with. He then responded by asking me to email my account number, address, etc. I responded by asking if he had access to the case number which should include all those details. No surprise that he did not.

In the end, both of AT&T's social media engagement strategies failed because the people managing them don't have the power to solve the problem. They were just another middle man passing along information without any real result -- AND no positive impact on my customer experience. Customers in the internet age are far to savvy for this kind of behavior. Do social media well or don't do it at all.

If you set an expectation, you have to deliver.
I finally got a service appointment the morning after I initially called about the problem (why it took THAT long is a whole other story). After arranging to work from home for the day, I waited. And waited. When the appointment time came and went, I called and spent another 30 minutes on the phone only to get excuses in response. "We're running behind. We're very sorry. We might get to you later today, but more likely it will be tomorrow." I was obviously not happy my Saturday was getting ruined, but I was even more upset AT&T didn't care enough to be more proactive when they knew there would be a problem. Reaching out to a customer to reset expectations when things go wrong is always better than forcing them to follow up and reacting later.

Apologizing isn't enough. You have to mean it.
When AT&T missed my appointment, I received an automated call later than evening apologizing for the delay and confirming the rescheduled appointment for the next day. By automated, I mean pre-programmed robot voice. As a customer, I can accept that mistakes get made and expectations have to be reset, but the fact that a company doesn't care enough about our relationship to have a live person call tells me a lot about the value they place on relationships. This isn't one that will be continuing much longer.

The one positive about my currently horrible customer service experience? Plenty of material for the next customer service class I teach! Maybe I should invite some AT&T employees to sit it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Not Every Recipe Is A Winner

I made plans with a girlfriend of mine for dinner this week, and rather than go out like we normally would, we decided to cook at my place. We hadn't had the opportunity to shoot the breeze in a while and we wanted to be comfortable and just hang.

I've been trying to build up my main dish recipe repertoire, so I cracked open a new cookbook I hadn't really looked at since I got it and found what looked like a light and appealing main dish. In some cases I get nervous cooking for someone else when I'm not sure how the dish will turn out, but my guest was a friend who's seen me through much worse stuff than a failed dinner, so I wasn't worried. Plus she brought a great bottle of wine so I knew there was no way the evening would be a total loss.

The protein choice of the evening was chicken breasts stuffed with spinach and ricotta. Here's the recipe as written.

8 single boneless chicken breasts, skin on
1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 package fresh spinach, chopped
2 cups ricotta cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
pinch of pepper

1. Heat butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add onion and cook until soft (about 4 minutes). Add spinach and cook for about 2 minutes, just until spinach has wilted and moisture evaporates.

2. Combine spinach mixture with ricotta cheese, salt, pepper and basil in a food processor and pulse four or five times to blend.

3. Trim excess fat from chicken breast. Loosen the skin from one side of the breast and stuff 1/4 cup of the ricotta cheese mixture under the skin. Tuck the loose skin under the breast, forming a round dome shape. Repeat with remaining breasts. Put the stuffed breasts close together in a buttered baking dish. Brush with melted butter.

4. Bake breasts in 350 degree oven until golden brown (about 35 minutes). Chicken breasts can be served whole or cooled to room temperature and sliced into 4 pieces each for a pretty presentation.

The result was a resounding.....meh. It was just bland. Ricotta is very light, but it also doesn't have a ton of flavor, and there wasn't quite enough onion, basil, salt and pepper in the stuffing mixture to really give it any oomph. I was also hoping for better crispiness in the chicken skin, but it ended up not having much of a purpose in the dish other than holding the filling in place. It probably would have been just as effective without the skin by just cutting into the chicken breasts and stuffing them the old fashioned way.

I did the panzanella recipe Leah discovered as the side dish so at least that was a hit. Making it was slightly bigger adventure than I expected when I discovered my vegetable peeler was missing. My knife skills are mediocre at best, so let's just say it's good the salad tasted awesome because I quite frankly butchered one poor cucumber trying to peel it the old fashioned way.

But the chicken dish still bothered me. So much potential, but definitely in need of tweaking. What did it need? Garlic? A more robust cheese? Stronger onion? Bacon? Bacon DOES make everything better....hmmmm.....

How would YOU make this bland chicken recipe sing?

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Downside of Birthdays in the Facebook Era

Celebrating your birthday has positives and negatives in the age of Facebook.

On the plus side, you get hundreds of messages from people who, under normal circumstances, would never even know you were having a birthday, much less do anything to recognize it. But the downside is significant if you're old fashioned like me and still appreciate birthday cards.

It's a bit of work to send someone card, which is part of what makes it special to receive. The sender had to plan in advance, choose the right card with the right words and even think of a personal message to write in their own hand. They need to be close enough to you to care about having your mailing address and organized enough to find it. Then they need to find stamps. That's a lot to ask, even for a day as special as a birthday.

Sending a quick electronic message is easier. We're all busy, and using tools to gain efficiency can still allow us to be thoughtful towards our friends. And while an email, social network message or e-card is thoughtful, it just isn't the same.

A card is an ongoing message of joy for the recipient. Because if that person is like me and saves things like cards, it's a gift that will keep giving one day in the future when closets are cleaned out or drawers are reorganized. It gives when that card is opened again for the first time in years, and the memories and emotions you feel reading it are as fresh as yesterday.

Unlike Facebook messages, birthday cards have a timeless quality. And in certain areas of life, quality still trumps quantity any day.