Coffee heat rising

Macy’s to Funny: Life Is Good

Well. The Macy’s misadventure turned out better than I imagined possible.

First crack out of the box this morning, I presented myself at the business office in the nearest Macy’s, which happens to inhabit the snooty Biltmore Fashion Square. I will say, I was primed for battle. But through a great effort of will, I determined that I would be…well, at least polite. After a brief search, I found a tall, silver-haired fellow secreted away in a windowless, crowded office way in the back of the third floor.

I explained the circumstances: Charge forgotten after no statements had arrived; bill sent to a collection agency with a Better Business Bureau grade of “F” because of its disastrous complaint record.

To my surprise, this gentleman turned out to be a mellow sort of a guy, the type who probably never gets visibly frustrated or annoyed, even when confronted by an eccentric old bat the first thing Monday morning. Better, as it developed, he was a man with a Rolodex full of direct lines to human beings. And, best of all, he was an area supervisor.

As he’s punching buttons to make his way through a phone-tree maze, he says, “You know, they’ll want a photo ID.” No problem: I produce my driver’s license, which gets added to the mound of paper now littering his desk—including the correspondence from the collection bureau. He gets someone on the phone; then proceeds to call someone else.

“What’s your address?” he asks.

“Nine ninety-nine Erewhon Road,” I say.

“Hm,” he says.

He gets off the phone from another factotum. Then he says, “Here’s what’s happened. They’ve been sending your statements to the wrong address.”


“Yes. Look: the address this credit bureau has, which is the same address our credit department has, is on Erewhon Street, not Erewhon Road. Your driver’s license says you live on Erewhon Road.”

Oh. Em. Gee. My strange neighbor Manny lives at 999 Erewhon Street, two houses away from me. He’s been peeved at me ever since the roofers parked a load of asphalt shingles meant for my house on top of his roof.

It turns out that Manny and his wife have been marking misdelivered correspondence “refused” and returning it to the senders. Cute, huh? Considering that they walk their two dogs past my house to let them shit all over the yard about every third day, you’d think they could bestir themselves to carry a piece of first-class mail over and drop it in the mailbox.

Mr. Supervisor speculates that the reason the physical plastic credit card got delivered is that the post office will not return credit cards, so they probably took the time to look up my real address. As for the dunning letter from the collection bureau: that was raw luck. He thinks probably it fell into the hands of a postal carrier who happened to know the customers on his route, and who also could tell the difference between a road and a street.

Marshaling his vast collection of direct lines to actual human beings, Mr. Supervisor made a couple of calls and within five or ten minutes he had erased the black blot on my records and arranged for me to pay the bill right then and there, in person. Not only that, but he came up with a charge of $23, not $28.

Impressive, eh?

The take-away message here is to resolve issues in the corporate bureaucracy, avoid the punch-a-button maze whenever possible and seek a face-to-face meeting with a live human being.

What a relief! It felt a lot like the way you feel when you finally manage to dig a mean splinter out of your foot.

Much cheered, I decided to take a tour of the Biltmore shopping center, where I used to hang out pretty regularly, back in the palmy days when I could afford to shop in places like Ralph Lauren. Coveted a few iPhones and iPads and drooled on an iMac with a gigantic screen (actually, it’s almost affordable).

The new accountant says the S-corporation can and should be spending a few bucks on business-related items for its proprietor. No question it can afford a new iMac. She even thinks it should be paying for a cell phone (!!). I wonder if it could afford an iPhone.

Over to Williams-Sonoma, purveyor of so many of the now aging accouterments of my nifty little gourmet kitchen. Did I mention that during the past Week in Hell, I destroyed my favorite 8-inch sautée pan? Yesh. It’s pretty much wrecked.

Williams-Sonoma has one just like it, only in All-Clad instead of Cuisinart, the maker of the deceased gem of a fry-pan. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it…that one plus another All-Clad the size of the nonstick 10-inch Calphalon number that’s about worn out would come to around $225. Plus 9.3% tax. For a mere $90 (not counting almost ten bucks in tax), I could get two non-stick Calphalons in exactly the sizes I want. But they have that annoying brushed slate-colored stuff on the outside, which over time collects a patina of grease that will not come off. Oh, covet those shiny All-Clad things!

Frugal Scholar also covets All-Clad and, like me, picks them up at thrift stores and estate sales. And, she notes, at interesting cut-rate sites like this one. Yea, verily: there’s the beloved little pan! As an irregular, forty-two dollah! This outfit has more 10-inch pans than you can shake a stick at, but Williams-Sonoma’s, at $120, comes with a lid, which none of the online models do.

Moving on, I visited a few more of my old haunts and realized the place has changed hugely since the last time I idled away an hour or two there. I have got to get out of my garrett. The world is starting to pass me by.

That notwithstanding, I believe I’m going to permit a little passing by this afternoon. I’ve lost count of the number of evenings in a row when I’ve sat down to dinner at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., after having parked myself in front of the computer somewhere between four and six in the morning. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well last night, with thoughts of some shady collection bureau haunting the night. The day is too beautiful to kill in the office.

The journalism students’ papers (both sets of them) are read, and a start has been made on the freshmen’s papers. The little McBoingers don’t have a major paper due for another two or three weeks, and so they can wait a few days to get their present magnum opus. So, I am knocking off the work for the rest of the day.

That decision having been taken on the way home, the minute I walked in the house the phone rang, and lo! There was a prospective client calling from Virginia, seeking a project manager. A project manager for big projects. Technical projects. That would be the sort done by professionals, not self-published tracts by some wretch who thinks the hoodoos in Sedona were put there by space aliens. Did I add paying projects to that?

So between now and tomorrow Tina (who when last heard from was talking about waiting table again) and I will need to organize something persuasive about ourselves and line up some live references. This is the sort of client that, if we can manage to do a decent job, could keep us in beer and skittles for quite a while.

Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona
Space alien artifacts


Macy’s in New York City. Mike Strand. Creative Commons
Attribution 3.0 Unported
All-Clad 8-inch frying pan. Shamelessly ripped off the Internet
Cathedral Rock, Sedona. Tomas Castelazo. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the (Hamburger) Grease

My father always used to say that: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Guess it’s some sort of Texas catchphrase. Well, the local Safeway just made that saying come literally true!

The bargain basement turkey having proved inedible for the human and indigestible for the dog—she barfed up a pile of it all over the office this morning—I went by the store during today’s voyages, by way of picking up some hamburger for her. Figured to have to spend about two and a half bucks a pound, a pretty typical price in that place. But lo! I found some for $1.49, not too bad at all.

On the way to the checkout stand, I stopped at the customer service desk to mention my misfortune with the foul fowl. Really, I didn’t expect them to do anything about it, but just thought they should know one of their products was looking a bit suspect. To my amazement, the manager whipped out a gift card and racked up the price of the defunct turkey on it!


It covered almost all of two gigantic packages of hamburger, which was hugely on sale. The red-card discount knocked a $54 bill down to $29, and thanks to the gift card, I walked out of there with enough hamburger to feed Cassie for the next four or five weeks plus a bunch of other junk and paid $10 for the lot.

I felt really pleased: $1.49 for boneless meat is a much better buy than the $1.29 cost of the bone-in turkey. Though I had intended to use the carcass to make stock, even if the bones had been usable, soup made with onion can’t be used to feed the dog (and wouldn’t go far in that direction, anyway), and besides, I’ve got gallons of home-made chicken stock in the freezer.

So there you are: a$k and ye shall re¢eive. I didn’t even a$k for anything!

Thanks, Safeway!



Daderot. Columbia Expert, 52-inch, 1882. Public Domain.

Motivating People around Us: Six Ways to Better Customer Service

A week or so ago, Financial Samurai posted a thoughtful article on the importance of recognition in motivating workers, especially as they move upward through the organizational hierarchy to take on greater and greater responsibility.

He touches on an issue that was presented to me some years ago. While I was an editor at Arizona Highways, I was sent off to take a seminar in motivating creative workers. To boil a daylong talkfest down to a sentence or three, the gist was that creative people are motivated less by money than by recognition of their skill and talents. It was claimed that graphic artists, writers, and editors feel a great deal less validation from promotions, nice offices, and raises than from awards (whether from inside the organization or from trade and creative groups) and verbal commendations from management.

Well. I recall thinking that sounded like a good excuse to pay creative workers less than accountants, circulation managers, and ad salespeople—as though those folks never engaged any kind of creativity in their jobs. What I took away from the seminar was that all workers thrive on generous recognition of excellence: that positive feedback on good work is more effective than negative feedback on efforts that leave something to be desired.

Weirdly, that idea was recently reinforced by, of all people, a dog trainer.

Motivated creative worker

Cassie the Corgi and I were attending an agility training class. The trainer was trying persuade everyone that the key to convincing a dog to do what you ask is effusive praise. In the middle of his harangue, he stopped and said, “How do you feel when the boss says to you, ‘Great job, Joe! You really did exactly what was needed!'” He mimed a handshake and a pat on the back.

“That makes you feel like doing the same thing again, right? Maybe even better the next time.

“But what if he just grunts ‘Nice work there’?” He made like a guy walking past the cube, waving a coffee cup in the air. “How does that make you feel? Not so enthusiastic about the job.”

You don’t have to be a boss (or a dog trainer) to profit from this advice. One obvious application is to customer service reps and sales clerks. Ever think about how you behave affects the way they feel about their jobs? Imagine having to put up with some chucklehead who can’t even make eye contact while she yammers on the cell phone as you’re toting up her grocery bill. What must it feel like to be on the receiving end of a call from a customer who has just spent ten, fifteen, or more minutes listening to infuriating Muzak, advertising, and “we value your patronage” pseudomessages while trying to get a simple answer to a simple question?

We can “motivate” all sorts of employees around us. Even though they’re not strictly “our” employees, they’re our employees in that they’re trying (in theory) to please us with various products and services. It’s in our interest to motivate them, because happy employees provide better services and may even go above and beyond the call for us, in one way or another.

Here are some ways to build better morale and promote better service among the employees we run into every day:

Refrain from yakking on your cell phone while the checkout clerk is charging up your purchases (that is so rude!).

To keep the edge out of your voice after navigating an endless phone tree, turn on your speaker phone so that annoying ads and muzak aren’t pumped straight into your ear. Try not to take out your frustration at having to fight to reach a human on the human being who finally does answer the phone.

Thank people for their efforts, even if they’re just doing their job.

When people do something you like, compliment them on their professionalism, helpfulness, or special effort.

Even if the person is doing just an adequate job, compliment him or her on something or make some empathetic remark. Recently a tired-looking bank teller perked right up when I observed that her manicure looked lovely.

When a talking machine asks you to comment on a telephone representative, say “yes” and leave a positive comment—most people only comment when they’re complaining, so these devices serve mainly to add stress to an already stressful job.

What strategies do you use for getting the best out of the people around you?

Image: Pembroke Welsh Corgi on an agility teeter-totter. Elf. GNU Free Documentation License.

Good Corps, Bad Corps…

The other day, Budgeting in the Fun Stuff remarked on Frugal Scholar‘s rant about the excruciating customer service emanating from Virgin Mobile. Both bloggers asked readers which corporations are best and worst in the customer (dis)service department.

Apparently they touched a hot button. They each got a slew of responses. Among them, we see that Comcast is roundly hated. Free Money Finance is locked in combat with that worthy organization—as his saga unfolds, it’s hard to tell whether Comcast is merely incompetent or deliberately obnoxious.

Yesterday while I was driving up to the optometrist’s office, what should I hear on NPR but this interesting story. It suggests a new tool for hacking through thickets of bad customer service, at least in some instances: small claims court.

Dartmouth Professor Charles Wheelan was subjected to United Airlines’ latest insult to passengers, a $25 charge for checking his bag. When they lost his luggage, they refused to refund his money. So he took them to small claims court. So far, he has yet to see either the bag or the refund, but, as he notes, even though the action cost him $72 in court fees, revenge is sweet:

Turns out that it’s [the $72 trade-off] actually really important in terms of economics. It’s essentially vengeance, and vengeance has a technical definition, which is you’re willing to harm yourself in order to impose harm on somebody else. Now when we do that, what the behavioral psychologists have learned, is it makes us feel good. It lights up the pleasurable parts of the brain just like doing other things that make you feel good. So vengeance might actually be quite rational.

United crossed the wrong guy when its baggage handlers threw musician Dave Carroll’s expensive guitar across the tarmac, with predictable results. His revenge came in the form of a hilarious (and infuriating) YouTube video that, says he, “became one of YouTube’s greatest hits and caused an instant media frenzy across all major global networks and sources (including the likes of CNN, the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone Magazine & the BBC to name a few)” and spawned two more videos. He may never have extracted the $1,200 it cost to repair his guitar from United, but the resulting publicity boosted his career, probably returning that much and more in increased revenues.

Well, most of us don’t have Dave Carroll’s talent. But it’s not hard to put up a talking-head video on YouTube describing some egregious example of customer disservice, and the idea of taking the SOBs to small claims court over money owed has its charms.

My own strategy is first to bypass the CSRs by tracking down the names of upper management at the corporate headquarters and firing off a dear-sir-you-cur letter. Often this will get results, or a simulacrum thereof.

If the go-over-their-heads gambit fails, then I head for a regulatory agency or an attorney general. Many of these customer service fiascos amount to fraud or theft—when they stonewall you or outright lie to you, they’re ripping you off. The trick here is to go to the AG in the state where the company is headquartered and send a copy of your complaint to the AG in your own state.

When a company operates across state lines, as most of the faceless monsters that have developed immunity to customers do, then a fraudulent action becomes…yes…a federal case! Corporate America, as we have seen by the vast corporate donations to doctrinaire Kill-the-Beasters’ political campaigns, really dislikes dealing with federal regulators and attorneys general. So if you can’t get any action from a state attorney general, kick it up to the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, or the U.S. Attorney General. You’d be surprised how fast a call from any of these entities will settle your complaint.

Frugal and Budgeting ask readers what are their choices for best and worst customer service. My all-time worst customer service nightmare is Qwest, an outfit with whom no one should ever do business. Videlicet:

Back Again—Temporarily?
“We Value Your Business”
Unbundled! Qwest Strikes Again
What Happens When a Live Qwest Guy Shows Up
Qwest Redux: How Do These Companies Stay in Business?
Qwest: The Saga That Will Not End
Qwest Update

The best? It’s hard to think of many, since retailers and service providers now will openly tell you that the old saying to the effect that “the customer is always right” is dead wrong. CSRs apparently are encouraged to be rude and trained to bounce off complaints like tennis balls hitting a concrete wall. In my experience, the only outfit that’s consistently shown excellent customer service is the Mayo Clinic.

My question to you is this:

What has worked best for you to cut through a customer disservice fiasco?

How to keep the customers coming back

Awesome customer service! That’s how a small business keeps customers coming back in the door, year after year. And it’s the way a specialized hardware store beats the big boxes.

• A human being answers the phone.
 Employees treat customers as they would like to be treated themselves.
• Skilled workers really are skilled.
• People go above and beyond the call of duty.

Doors in progress
Doors in progress

While we were renovating the downtown house, I stumbled across an amazing windfall: in my neighborhood, a great old house on horse property was being demolished to make way for a cluster of McMansions. The guy who was pulling it down had salvaged the doors: two sets of huge solid mahogany French doors, a matching single back door, and a solid mahogany front door. I grabbed the entire lot, including all the hardware, for $300. 

These magnificent pieces of workmanship now reside at the little house downtown, where they have transformed the place. 

The hardware, as it develops, was all made by Baldwin, one of the most expensive lockmakers on the planet. All of it except the front door’s lockset was in perfect working order. The hardware on the front door never worked right, and the level handle on the interior flopped down like a broken paw. And, as it also develops, Baldwin locks are very hard to repair: not just any locksmith can work on them. To complicate matters further, the hardware dates back to about 1950.

A couple of months ago, the deadbolt broke. I called a locksmith whose name I lifted from Angie’s List while the Phoenix-area list was still free. He came by, looked at it, and said it was beyond his ken. He referred me to an outfit called Anderson Lock and Safe, and said if anyone could fix it, they could. 

Amazingly, these folks will send a locksmith within an hour or two after you call. Even more amazingly, they have a whole crew of locksmiths who seem to know what they’re doing. Soon we had learned that the deadbolt was broken because Eric the Fly-by-Night Contractor had installed the strikeplate wrong, so the bolt was hitting metal; eventually that’s what broke the lock. As for the handle: that was a challenge. A spring on the inside had worn out, and Baldwin no longer made such a spring.

One of the men took the lockset apart and showed me the complicated interior. It was fashioned, he said, like a Swiss clock. All the interior parts were hand-milled. Today, even Baldwin uses mass-produced parts, to keep costs down. Although a Baldwin lock sells for upwards of $300, no one makes anything like the lockset we had. He estimated its value at around $400; his boss thought it was worth more like $700.

This guy repaired the deadbolt, fixed the strikeplate, and got the handle to sit horizontally, but without the spring it had to be manually placed in position. It didn’t really work: it just looked like it sorta worked.

Then along came Bila the Painter. He needed to remove the lockset so he could sand and refinish the outside of the door. He couldn’t figure out how to get it off, so I paid to have Anderson come over and remove it and then paid again to have them come back and reinstall it.

In the course of this project, the handle ended up flopped back down again. Pretty quick, Anderson sent over Bill the Locksmith. This guy, who seems to have the best time in the world playing with locks, took everything apart, did some more repair work on the thing, but said he couldn’t fix the handle without a spring.

I said, well, the other guys had said that spring is no longer being made.

True, said he, but he figured there had to be something like it somewhere. He promised to keep an eye out. He went off. M’hijito and I gave up.

So yesterday the phone rang out of the blue, and there was Bill the Locksmith! He had found a spring he thought would work in the lock. So I threw on some clean clothes and raced down to meet him at the house. 

Half an hour or forty minutes later, lo! The lock worked, the handle stood cheerfully at attention, and the entire assembly operated like new!

Not only that, but he planed down part of the door frame that Eric the F-b-N Contractor had left crooked and sprinkled powdered graphite on the ill-fitting weatherstrip that Greg the Handyman installed. So, when M’hijito got home from work last night, he found a front door, deadbolt, and fancy lockset that actually work!

Says he, by e-mail:

This is most incredibly fantastic.


I am sitting here and I am very, very pleased.  It’s probably hard for someone else to understand the degree of my pleasedness.

Yeah. Absolutely. So that’s two people who will tell all their friends to use Anderson Locksmiths. One of them will broadcast that message to the population of the world. And that’s how small businesses can fight big box chains.


Your megacorporation “values” your business

Why do faceless corporations work so hard at being faceless? And why do they veil their facelessness behind messages that claim to “value” their customers’ business? The fact is, if they valued your business they wouldn’t treat you the way they do.

For the second time in three months, Cox has failed to send a printed statement. When you call, the customer service rep gives you a scripted story: “We printed it on the 26th of last month. If you didn’t get it, you need to talk to the post office.” Understand: they’ve already wasted a significant slab of your time and tortured you by forcing you to listen to the most hideous Muzak turned to high volume, and now they want you to waste even more of your time trying to get through to an even larger and even more understaffed bureaucracy, the U.S. Postal Service, whose fault this clearly is not!

I will say, they’re better than Qworst. At least you can get through to a human being, and at least the human being has a sense of humor!

Customer: “You know, your bosses need to know that real musicians actually make real music, and they record it. You can get real music to put on the phone.”

CSR: [laughs] “Well, if it’s any comfort, sometimes we have to listen to it, too!”

Customer: [laughs] “You poor kid! What an awful job!”

[CSR and Customer laugh at Cox’s unholy treatment of its customers and employees.]

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, it’s possible to get your hands on the names of living, breathing executives of faceless corporations, and on the addresses of their corporate headquarters. Ergo:

Jimmy W. Hayes
Chief Executive Officer 
Cox Enterprises
6205 Peachtree Dunwoody Road
Atlanta, Georgia 30328


RE: (666) 123-4567 
Acct. No. 098-765-432101234 


Dear Mr. Hayes:


Once again, no statement from Cox has arrived this month. This is the second time in three months that a Cox statement has supposedly been sent and “lost.” I mailed your company a check for $71.65, the amount your spokesperson says is due, but of course in the absence of a statement I have no precise understanding of what I’m paying for or whether the bill is accurate.


I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy your customer service rep’s canned line that it’s all the Post Office’s fault and that because you guys didn’t send the statement I have to go waste still more of my time (it took over 10 minutes of listening to truly painful Muzak to get through to a human today!) by hassling the postal service. All my other bills appear on time. None of them ever goes missing. It seems highly unlikely that the U.S. Postal Service has something against Cox Communications and so is failing to deliver Cox’s statements and only Cox’s statements.


What seems more likely is that the statements aren’t being sent as a way to trap customers into missing a payment and being gouged unfairly with a late fee.


Please ensure that your staff sends statements in a timely way. The reason I asked Cox to send paper statements rather than dorking around online is that I’m getting on in years and do not remember things well. And I can’t afford extra dings on my bills for late payments.


Thanks for your consideration.


                                                                        Sincerely,  (etc.)

The “go talk to the Post Office” line is an obvious runaround. Even though these companies have monopolies or near-monopolies, you’d think sooner or later their customers would either find other ways to get what they need or simply abandon that service or product. Really. Will I die if I don’t have high-speed Internet? (Hmmm… Probably.) Can I get high-speed Internet somewhere else? (Evidently: a Google search brings up seven competitors on the first page!) Do I really need a land line? (Nope.) Can I get cell service with some other provider? (Indubitably!)

What is the matter with these companies that they can’t spare a little common courtesy for their customers?