Sunday, October 28, 2012

At Your Service

While facing an impossible to-do list this week, I ran through a drive-thru for some much-needed caffeine. I yelled my order as a male on the other end of the speaker asked me to repeat "Medium Diet Coke" several times. When I pulled up to pay, a female stood at the window, talking on a headset, chewing gum, and taking another person's order. She continued talking on the headset as I grabbed the drink and a straw, swapping it for $5. She reached for my change, turning her back to me and saying something to her male coworker, who was also wearing a headset, taking orders as he poured fountain drinks. As he asked the person on the other end of his headset to repeat themselves, the cashier at the window where I was waiting watched him and laughed while simultaneously digging change out of the cash drawer. Turning back in my direction, she handed me a receipt with a few bills and some change, and clicked her headset to take the next order, turning back to the register, indicating the transaction was complete.

Grunting, I drove off with the window still down, saying, "You're welcome!" loud enough for her to hear, but knowing she wasn't listening anyway. Unfortunately I do this fairly often. I find myself sarcastically saying "you're welcome" in customer service settings because more and more frequently, the person taking my order doesn't say thank you at all.

I pulled over to unwrap the straw and toss the change in the console. As I absentmindedly shoved the bills in my purse, I noticed the customer service survey, offering a chance to win $5,000 to share my feedback. Had I not been in such a hurry, I would have called the 800 number to let them know that I had just been through an entire drive-thru transaction without exchanging a single word with the cashier. I would let them know that the transaction required the efforts of two employees; the first one wasn't paying attention at all, the second ignored me completely.

Yet, when I consider the situation further, here is what also happened: Within less than five minutes, I pulled my gas-guzzling SUV through a convenient window, got a Diet Coke in less time than it would have taken me to park and go inside, and received the proper amount of change. Ultimately, I got what I wanted. Right?

But is this what today's customer service is all about? Is expecting eye contact, acknowledgement, a salutation, and a simple expression of gratitude for our business asking too much? Even if our business is only $1.62?

Consider another recent customer service situation. My job requires that I'm a heavy user of For those of you who don't work in sales, or those of you in sales who have been living under a rock and still use a Rolodex, I'll do my best to explain. is customer relationship management software. Its most basic function is to offer salespeople a place to document the goings on with their customers and prospects. The vast majority of our day is spent there, and if we're without it for any reason, we're virtually useless people. is a beast, raking in a staggering $2 billion a year in annual revenue.

Last week, something went very wrong with my main page, so that when I logged in, the top of the screen where the tabs normally appear was all jumbled, and part of what I needed to see was hidden from my view. It was terribly distracting, and because some of the screen was hidden, made me feel like something magical and important was hiding there. I don't like missing out on magical and important things.

I began troubleshooting in the only way I know how, clicking and right-clicking around while cussing like a sailor under my breath, impatient with my inability to achieve a quick fix. From there, I turned to the "help" window, baffled that I got zero results from typing in the following:

Defeated, I turned to the last resort, the "Contact Support" page. The customer care you receive as a Salesforce customer has to do with  all sorts of factors: the level of service your company has purchased/how many licenses you have/Lord knows what. Only because I'm not a designated administrator, determining what level of customer service my company has would have required another two hours of research. All I wanted to do was call a number and get some help, but as we all know, it's never that simple. I forced myself to be patient (when my husband reads this he will howl with laughter), and submitted an online trouble ticket, taking great pains to explain my situation without including expletives.

Immediately, an automated email came back to me letting me know my issue would be resolved within 2 business days.

My head nearly exploded with frustration. I have a coworker who smokes, but also eats boatloads of nicotine lozenges, which is really hilarious to me, because at one point, the lozenges were purchased to help him quit. Now, he uses them to supplement his smoking. At the time I received this infuriating email, my coworker was downstairs smoking an actual cigarette,  so I sat at my desk fantasizing about pilfering through his desk and eating his entire stock of nicotine lozenges in an effort to calm myself down.

A few moments later, another email arrived. I was addressed by name, and was instructed to provide my phone number so the customer service representative could call me. I typed in my number, sent the reply, and waited. I'll be honest, I wasn't optimistic about what would happen next.

Immediately, my phone rang, and on the other end of the line was a woman calling from India.

Don't expect a tirade here, because I'm not that girl. I'm one of the rare Texans who actually enjoys conversations with representatives from Indian call centers. It goes back to when I was an exchange student in Germany some 20 years ago, and several of the students in my program were from India. My Indian friends were awesome, knew more about the history and political landscape of my country than I did, and were from hardworking families who struggled to provide their children with an opportunity to study in a different country. We shared great laughs together, especially when making fun of each other while trying to learn German, or when they would beg me to speak with their accents (I'm actually really good at speaking English with an Indian accent, but I don't get to bust that out often since I risk offending people). It's amazing how getting to know people from other countries really helps a person be less of a jerk about other cultures. But I promised, no tirades today.

So when the Indian call center representative called my desk, I was cool with it. Right away, we engaged in a session where the woman was able to quickly view my screen to diagnose the problem. The representative efficiently and patiently solved the simple fix -- I needed to clear my cookies, not shocking news given that I need to clear the cookies out of my kitchen as well.  Evidently, I have a little bit of a cookie problem.

The entire transaction took less than five minutes. But compared to my recent drive-thru experience, the woman gave me her undivided attention. At least that's how I felt. For all I know, she was troubleshooting my silly little cookie issue while applying glitter nail stickers and eating a samosa. But I don't think so. She thanked me several times and even told me to have a nice weekend. I was so pleased, I actually asked her for a survey so I could document my satisfaction, adding,

"If you were here, I would hug your neck."

I'm from East Texas, and we're big huggers (even to perfect strangers). But since this exchange took place over the phone, it was the only way I knew how to express my sheer delight that this kind woman had saved the day. She laughed uncomfortably (I doubt she gets hug offers from her customers with regularity), and we ended the call.

Comparing the two customer service scenarios I just detailed begs the question: What constitutes excellent customer service? Is it all about how quickly you get what you need? The initial trouble ticket promised a 2-day delivery, but I got a response much faster. The result: expectations were exceeded. In comparison, the drive-thru scenario service was even faster, but I was ignored completely.

A friend of mine, Ray Seggern, does marketing, advertising, and branding consulting for businesses. One of his clients is a car dealership in Canada called Jim Gilbert's Wheels and Deals. If you check out their website, one of their goals is to make the customer feel like they are doing business with family. Now, I have a few relatives that I wouldn't buy a scented candle from, much less a car, but that's neither here nor there. Jim Gilbert is doing something right. His dealership has won customer service awards for the past seven years.

Considering that car dealers often battle negative stereotypes, when I look at Jim Gilbert's website, it makes me want to buy a car from him. It's testament to the good work my friend Ray does as well. But my favorite thing about Jim Gilbert, a man I've never met? He's known as "Canada's Most Huggable Car Dealer." 

So perhaps hugging and business aren't such a bad combination after all! Personally, I go in for hugs at work all the time, and get really cracked up when the result is that half-assed wimpy hug, the hugging equivalent to the dead fish handshake. But I get it; not everyone is open to workplace hugging. I'm all about it as long as the person on the other side of the hug has the wherewithal to wear deodorant. 

So do me a favor. The next time you're breezing through a drive-thru, and the multitasking teenager chewing gum and taking orders ignores you, offer to hug their neck, and let me know if THAT gets you the attention you deserve.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Just Dance

The other night, after a particularly frustrating day, I sat down on the living room couch after dinner, clearly bothered. My 9-year old, who had prepared the living room for some scheduled Wii dancing time after dinner, noticed my expression and and said, “Come on, Mommy, let’s just dance it out.”

I didn't agree to participate immediately, offering up several excuses. I was tired. I had been sick for the past two weeks and my lungs weren't ready for the cardio. I had dishes to tackle. But most of all, I offered up excuses because I’m a terrible dancer.

To clarify, I’m not a terrible dancer if a partner is there to help me. I can waltz like nobody’s business. I’m also fairly good at the two-step, but that comes naturally to most native Texans. And even though I have a tendency to try and lead, a good, solid partner can set me straight pretty easily.

On the other hand, if a fast song comes on and I’m supposed to dance by myself without assistance, it’s a pretty tragic scene. Part of the problem is that I dance from the waist up, while my bottom half steps gingerly from side to side in a weak attempt to join the party. While that odd situation is happening, I become extremely self-conscious and fret over what my dance face should look like. Should I try a serious, somewhat sexy expression? Can I even get by with that? Or, should I flash a big, toothy grin like Julia Roberts when she’s laughing obnoxiously? After all, shouldn't dancing be fun? I try to radiate confidence, hoping when people observe my paralyzed hips and gentle side to side stepping that they will find my dancing acceptable, or, at the very least, resist the temptation to point and laugh.

Lucky for me, my husband offers the male equivalent to my dancing style, so we’re a good pair, especially at weddings, where we get a few drinks in us and dance waist up while the rest of the young kids grind around on each other like feral cats.

My issues with dancing started early, but became most prominent at 7th grade Social Dancing. For those of you who grew up outside of Tyler, Texas, let me tell you about Social Dancing.

Social Dancing was an extracurricular series of evening classes for 7th and 8th grade students designed to teach the basic concepts of boy-girl dancing, but its secondary and less obvious mission was to teach the kids some basic etiquette. It was a brilliant business plan. On Friday nights, delighted parents dropped off carloads of giggly girls in dresses and uncomfortable boys wearing jackets and ties to the dance studio at Green Acres Plaza. Looking back, I'm sure these delighted parents all met for stiff drinks at Bennigan's across the street to celebrate two hours of teen-free  fellowship. While the parents relaxed, the kids were left in the care of Carolyn Hardiman, a small, feisty Southern woman who deserves sainthood for devoting decades of her life to working with scores of kids in that horrendously awkward age group.

Back when I took Social Dancing, we learned partner dance classics like the box step, the waltz, and something very basic I only remember as the “forward, back, side together.” We also had many opportunities to do freestyle dancing to the fast songs, causing some of my earliest anxiety attacks. Imagine, if you will, a roomful of sweat-soaked 12 and 13-year-old kids dancing the box step to such classics as Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You,” and transitioning into freestyle dancing to Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love.” There was some serious preteen jamming out going down in that dance studio thanks to Ms. Hardiman’s rather unique taste in music. Given that Tyler was almost 100% segregated by race (and still is), it’s pretty ironic that on Friday nights, Ms. Hardiman's dance studio was nothing short of a Soul Train dance party featuring skinny white kids, many of them Southern Baptist. It was a little shocking, really.

The partnering of boys and girls was heavily orchestrated because Ms. Hardiman sincerely wanted to make things fair. She we would divide us up, girls on one side of the room, boys on the other, and instruct the boys to go over and ask a girl to dance. But because there were always more girls than boys, some of the taller, more awkward girls -- yours truly and a few other poor ostriches—had to dance with the other tall and awkward girls left over after the boys picked everyone else. I must admit that I found some solace in the arms of those girls, not because they were great dancers, but because unlike the short boys I danced with on rare occasion, the girls didn't spend an entire Pointer Sisters ballad staring at my chest.

Ms. Hardiman had all sorts of rules she took very seriously. The rule I remember most was her cardinal rule: Never, under any circumstances, do you say no when someone asks you to dance. Always say yes.

I didn't really understand her rule at the time, given that I was thrilled beyond words just to be asked to dance by a member of the opposite sex. Saying no wasn't really an option for me. In 7th grade, I was as tall as I am now, only I weighed about 62 pounds. Add to it the situation that happens when I dance, and let’s just say Social Dancing was a bit of a nightmare.

I would wait, sweating buckets, while the short boys passed me by. Eventually one of the two boys who was taller than me would come over and ask me to dance. The boys were taught to extend an arm, and we would grab onto their blazers as they hurled us onto the dance floor. One of those boys was a handsome boy who was blessed with grace and some mad dancing skills. He had a twin sister, so I assumed he could dance well because they practiced at home. This kind, shy boy helped me feel somewhat graceful as I clomped around, stepping on his feet to the seductive strains of Whitney Houston. But as soon as I let my guard down and began to enjoy the mere act of dancing, the song would change, and the other boy who was taller than me would arrive, and I would spend the next excruciating 80's ballad trying not to bump into the frightening condition that was taking place in that poor boy's pants.

The seemingly endless Friday nights of Social Dancing culminated into a Spring Formal held at our local convention center, Harvey Hall. I have a few distinct and gut-wrenching memories from that event. The first is that my mother gave me $20 to pay for dinner after the dance. My BFF Christi Cole’s very cool parents had offered to take a carload of the girls to dinner afterwards at Chili’s. Chili's was a big deal in 1980's Tyler. We loved the low lights, the giant glass mugs of Cokes, and the cheerful waiters who split our checks 25 ways to accommodate a gaggle of preteen social dancers. 

The night of the Spring Formal, I wore a pale blue taffeta dress with the tell-tale puffy 80’s sleeves. The dress was tea length and had some tasteful lace embellishment on the torso. I felt awesome in it, and wore it with a completely unnecessary bra. Because I couldn't be bothered with a purse, I shoved the $20 in my bra and went off to the dance, ready to bust out my best box step.

Thanks to my BFF Christi Cole's dedicated parents, I own photographic evidence of this event. It's blurry, but you get the idea. I believe that's Michael Horsley getting a nice shot of my non-existent cleavage. Either that, or he's concentrating fully on not getting stepped on by my gigantic white shoes.

The highlight of the night was the awards portion, when Ms. Hardiman announced the winners for Best Dancer. There were several winners in the category, and I clapped and cheered as my graceful friends stepped up for their awards.

So you can imagine my surprise when Ms. Hardiman announced my name. In a blur, I walked up to accept the award, and stood frozen as friends clapped and clapped. Part of the honor was a feature dance with the small group of Best Dancers. Ms. Hardiman turned on a Motown hit, and our small group danced, showing off our sidestepping skills while the others looked on in awe. I should have enjoyed it. But the entire time, I was completely and fully mortified, not believing for a second that my award was real.

I hope you can see the sheer misery in my face as James Greer gets down in his khakis and country club blazer, while I dance waist up while fighting back tears. Also notice the girl in the pink dress, my gorgeous friend Anna Taylor, who, in 7th grade, already looked like a young Marilyn Monroe.

There’s a reason preteen girls are drama queens. Combine all of the hormones with a tight taffeta dress, and drama is bound to take place. As the applause died down, I made a hysterical beeline to the bathroom of Harvey Hall, where I burst into sensitive, self-absorbed tears.

“This is all a big joke! They’re making fun of me!” I wailed, as mildly concerned girlfriends tried to console me while looking at themselves in the mirrors, puffing up their 80's bangs and reapplying blue eyeliner. “It’s because I can’t dance!”

As preteen dramas go, the tears didn't last very long. After all, a piping hot plate of mozzarella sticks was on the evening's agenda. Before I knew it, I was enjoying the evening over a late-night dinner at Chili's, somewhat convinced that I wasn't such a terrible dancer after all. I even manged to convince myself that I’d probably won the award because of my personality. All in all, the night was a success, at least until the bill came, and I realized that the $20 that was supposed to be resting in my non-existent cleavage had made a great escape, more than likely while I was dancing. After another dramatic bathroom scene, my BFF Christi Cole’s father bailed me out and paid my share, saving the night from being a complete disaster.

So let’s go back to the other night when my lovely 9-year old offered me a chance to dance out the drama. I thought about Ms. Hardiman, and how you can never, ever say no when someone asks you to dance. So of course I said yes. I got up off my miserable butt, grabbed a Wii controller, and shook it waist up like nobody was watching. And even though my daughter was watching, and was laughing at me instead of with me, I learned another valuable lesson: dancing it out works. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Lordy, Lordy, Amy's 40

It's official. I'm 40!

Yes, that's an exclamation mark, or, as I called it for an embarrassingly long time, and "explanation mark." But since I'm also the person who thought that The Rolling Stones song "Brown Sugar" was a gambling song called "Crap Shooter," that shouldn't be much of a surprise. 

To celebrate 40, I wanted to reflect on how I got here, and went digging through old photos. The picture above is one of my favorites. It was taken in Bowie, Texas in 1975, more than likely before my sister was born and I was a spoiled only child and granddaughter of this fantastic woman, Mabel High. It's actually one of a few rare photos of the two of us, because Grandma was usually in the kitchen. This shot was taken at my paternal grandparent's house, which means Grandma was taking a back seat to my other fabulous grandmother, Dorothy. I'm clearly soaking in the attention that is coming from multiple directions. My hair is following suit.

Grandma was all Texas, and had hysterical country phrases and many of her own. She had enormous boobs, and "complained" about them constantly. She hated seat belts, and would put hers on and then moan, "I hate these things! They make me feel like a big ol' tit wrapped up in a brassiere!" And then she'd light up a cigarette with the windows up and we'd drive off, laughing so hard it hurt. 

I learned to realize her boob complaints came from a constant need for attention and praise. But she deserved it. She grew up dirt poor in the Depression, and had some serious hardships along the way. When we would go to her house to visit, it always smelled like bacon and cigarette smoke, but somehow that wasn't gross. She was constantly cooking or washing dishes by hand in scalding hot water, and she would lean down on her elbows while doing it, her large chest weighing down her tiny body. If she wasn't talking to the people shoved into the kitchen to be with her, she'd wash dishes alone, singing old Methodist church hymns. When I got skilled enough to crack open a Methodist hymnal and play the hymns on the piano, I would play the piano in the living room while she sang along from the kitchen. If a YouTube time machine existed, I would love to see one of those sessions.

You can't tell it by this picture, but Grandma was amazingly stylish. She had an organized closet with tons of purses and shoes. She had piles of crazy costume jewelry. Her bedroom was decorated in rich jewel-toned blues and greens, and my mom and sister and I would ALL sleep with her in her huge king-sized bed, where we would discover wads upon wads of Kleenex in the folds of the sheets, and we would throw them at each other and laugh hysterically.

Growing up poor made Grandma sensitive to waste. Once, she ordered fried chicken at a restaurant and folded up the leftovers in some napkins and put them in her handbag for later. Because she was so stylish, she changed bags frequently to match her shoes, and when she changed the bag, the chicken remained. Time passed, and Grandma's bedroom began smelling like a dead animal. Needless to say, that handbag (and the rotten chicken) got tossed. But she saved everything else.

She wore dentures that she removed at night and placed in a glass. I would sneak into her pink bathroom with the hot pink fuzzy rug and matching hot pink fuzzy toilet cover and stare at her dentures. I wanted to try them on, but luckily knew better. I had fantasies of hiding them so Grandma would run around looking for them, screaming through a mouthful of gums. We would beg her to flip them out of her mouth with her tongue, as she scared us and delighted us all at the same time.

Grandma doted on me (if you can't tell from the photo). Because she'd grown up poor, she was constantly throwing $20 bills at her grandchildren. I heard a rumor that when she went on road trips, she kept $20 in her bra, and $20 in her hubcaps, just in case. 

My grandfather died tragically when my mother was a teenager, and Grandma managed to keep things together. She kept on cooking, but she also temporarily took over my Grandfather's oilfield construction business. She was savvy, sharp, quick-witted, and didn't take crap from others. 

Grandma taught me how to cuss (she was a professional), to enjoy washing dishes just by singing, and how to have a great time just throwing bread crusts at the birds outside. She didn't teach me how to cook (she didn't teach her daughters, either), but she taught me that feeding people in your home and surrounding yourself with great people makes for a happy, fulfilled life.

When she got older, Grandma started a new catch phrase (she had a ton of them). "Oh, I'm a dyin'!" she'd say. At first, we believed her, and she got lots of attention from it. But after a while, we knew that Grandma announcing she was dying was just Grandma wanting some attention.

When I was a teenager, Grandma made good on her promise and died. She died from complications from a life spent smoking (and possibly from a life spent eating fried chicken). I was on a youth trip to California, and determined that while I was on Space Mountain, screaming and full of life, Grandma's life was ending. She died too soon, but the life she lived was rich, full of crazy drama, and full of laughter. 

I'm going to think of Grandma Mabel as I dive head-first into my 40s. It's a wonder I got here, given that in this photo, I'm rocking a pretty fantastic 1970's nightgown that not only could have suffocated me from its sheer bulk, but was probably nowhere near fireproof.

When Grandma prayed (and she did a lot of that in her lifetime as devoted member of the Methodist church), she would face her head toward Heaven. I remember being embarrassed by this, and once, as a gawky pre-teen, watching her face the ceiling when we were sitting in the front pews of church, and tugging on her sleeve and whispering, "Why do you do that?" 

"If I face up, I'm closer to God. There's no sense in looking down at the other guy." 

I look forward to facing my 40's looking up, knowing Grandma is looking down, laughing.