Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Fall of An American Icon

If there’s a poster child for what’s wrong with American business, it must be Eddie Lampert, the CEO of Sears Holding Company, based on my recent experience and Lampert’s own history as the head of the company. To review, I first contacted Sears to repair my washing machine 17 days ago. It took a week for the repairman to show up, and when he did he still couldn’t fix it because he needed to order a part. I paid for the part and a package from Sears arrived six days later, only it was the wrong part. Fortunately—I mistakenly thought—I had the foresight to open the package immediately and inform Sears of its error that Monday. I told them if they overnighted me the correct part I could still have it in time for the next appointment on Friday when the repairman was scheduled to return.

But on Thursday I received an automated call (because nothing soothes an aggrieved customer better than a robo-call) informing me I had to call Sears back to reschedule the appointment. Obviously, the part would not arrive on time and I’d have to readjust my own schedule (nothing says “You are a valued customer” like wasting two entire afternoons of your customer’s time). I dialed the number given to me by the robo-call and got a recording telling me this Sears phone number was no longer in service.

I called the Sears Home Repair phone number I had used in the past and was connected to a call center in the Philippines (because nothing says “We care about our customers” more than hiring people who don’t even live in the same country to speak to them). It was a difficult conversation because the heavy accent of the Filipino Sears representative made it hard to understand what he was saying. I would think corporate phone etiquette would include representatives who could enunciate clearly in English, but perhaps that was the whole point of hiring someone who couldn’t. He pulled up my record on the computer and told me what I had already guessed: they did not have the part yet. However he offered to schedule a new appointment for the following Wednesday.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You don’t know where the part is. You don’t know if it’s in transit, in your warehouse, or possibly even out of stock, and yet you want me to block off an entire afternoon on Wednesday to wait for the Sears repairman when you have no idea if the part will have arrived by then?”

I asked to speak to a supervisor. Naturally, I was placed on hold. Ten minutes later, I was speaking to a Filipino woman with an equally thick accent. For all I know, she was another rep sitting in the next cubicle. She had no idea when I might receive the part, either. She suggested I call back in two days. I explained I had already been waiting 17 days. That was when I called Eddie Lampert.

I assumed no matter how messed up a business may be, the executive at the top would be a capable businessman eager to set things right. But I didn’t get to speak to Eddie Lampert. I didn’t even get to speak to Eddie Lampert’s secretary. I got a recording. That’s right; the CEO of Sears, an iconic American company with $25 billion in annual revenue and $11 billion in assets, and whose personal compensation package runs between $4-and $6-million per year apparently can’t afford a receptionist. Maybe Eddie doesn’t get a lot of calls; there may not be many people who want to speak to him. One business article’s headline reads “Sears’ Edward Lampert Is the Most Hated CEO in America.”  Based on CEO ratings and employee satisfaction reviews from Glassdoor, 24/7 Wall St. found only 19 percent of Sears employees approved of Lampert. Sears’ shareholders probably aren’t too fond of Eddie either, since its stock price has plummeted 80 percent during his tenure. Gee, I wonder if that might be because my experience with Sears is not the exception but the rule. Forbes describes Sears as “bleeding cash”. Ironically, Eddie Lampert writes a blog about how to improve the ailing Sears business he’s running.

I called Sears Home Repair again. Sure enough, the call was routed to the Philippines again. A different woman told me the part was in stock and had been reordered for me the previous day. I asked why the part had only been reordered on Wednesday when I’d inform Sears of its error on Monday. “What did the Sears employee I spoke to do for 48 hours before logging onto her computer and ordering the part?” I asked. I guess she wasn’t in any hurry; she wasn’t the one with nearly three weeks of unwashed clothes accumulating. But at least I knew the part would now be on its way.

“When will I receive it?” I asked, naïvely assuming Sears might wish to overnight the part to make up for its error. She told me it would take at least seven days from the time the order was placed. I pointed out the previous Sears representative I had spoken with minutes earlier tried to make a new repair appointment for six days from now. Had I not called back, I would have wasted a second afternoon. “What’s the point in scheduling an appointment the day before the part arrives?” I asked.

She recognized the logical fallacy and said rather than make a new appointment I should call back when I received the part. The problem, of course, is that when I do call back a week later they’ll tell me it will be another seven-to-10 days before they can fit me in on their calendar. So I suggested she email me the tracking number of the package as soon as it became available. She said she couldn’t do that, and I’d have to call back over the next two days. Why? How am I supposed to know when they receive the tracking number? Once again, rather than offering customer service, the Sears representative wanted me to waste my time making a series of hit or miss phone calls over several days when it would’ve been much more logical for them to send one email when they received the tracking number. The message is clear: Sears does not value its customers’ time any more than it values its customers.

Tomorrow will be Day 18 without a working washing machine. I know from the above conversation my washing machine will not be repaired before Day 25 at the earliest. The repair saga may continue into the next month. Ironically, on the first day I contacted Sears the employee tried to sell me a Sears warranty to cover all of my appliances for $600 a year. If this is an example of what a Sears customer has to go through to get a single appliance repaired, I’m glad I didn’t purchase the Sears warranty for all of them.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Broiled and Baked Laundry

It’s two hours since my last blog post. Someone is ringing my doorbell at 7 pm. It’s the UPS deliveryman and he’s left a package at my doorstep, scurrying off into the night like a brown-clad Santa Claus. I see from the return address that this is the control panel Sears has sent me to present to the repairman when he returns in five days to fix my washing machine. But it’s less than a month since Christmas and I can’t resist the urge to open the package. So I do.

The control panel looks a little different from the one in my current machine, but I suppose one must expect a few design changes after 31 years. I scan the labels on the panel: “Start,” “Clean,” “Warm,” “Broil”… Wait, back up. Broil? I know it’s been a long time since I last bought a washing machine and I’m sure the newer ones have lots of new bells and whistles, but somehow I don’t think my washing machine should be broiling my clothes.

I phone Sears and explain the situation to the woman on the other end of the line. “I think you sent me a control panel for someone’s oven,” I conclude. She remains skeptical. Perhaps she’s thinking I should wait five days for the repairman’s expert opinion. But I’m persistent and resolute. She asks me to read her the part number so she can look it up and confirm it is indeed not a washing machine control panel. That’s when I notice a slip of paper inside the box. It’s the packing slip, clearly stating the object in my hand is an “oven control with harness” which sounds like some kind of appliance kink accessory.

As I peruse the slip, I see the “ship to” address is a Mr. Charles Smith (name changed) in Buford, Georgia, more than 650 miles away. Ironically, it had been shipped from College Park, Georgia, a mere 50 minutes from Buford. As I read the packing slip to her, she grudgingly accepts her company has sent me the wrong part. She tells me she’ll send out a replacement and is about to hang up when I point out they need to expedite the shipment since the repairman will be showing up at my house in five days expecting the part to be there. Otherwise, we’ll be wasting both his time and mine and would need to reschedule the appointment. She dutifully notes this and is about to hang up again, when I point out another obvious problem: Sears has another customer patiently waiting in Buford, Georgia for a part that’s sitting on my kitchen counter. Shouldn’t she either have a replacement sent to Mr. Smith as well, or if she intends to send him the one on my counter to at least advise him there will be a delay and he should reschedule his repair appointment?

See, that’s just common sense. If I received another customer’s order, then that customer’s repair will be delayed and he will be inconvenienced too. The difference is, he’s waiting for a package that I know will never arrive because I’m staring at it and the Sears clerk is ready to hang up without making any arrangements for me to return it. I assume the repairman will take it with him when he comes five days from now, but that’s five extra days Mr. Smith will have to wait. And he doesn’t even know it. When he finds out, he’ll have to reschedule his appointment; and the next available date may be weeks away. Shouldn’t Sears be more concerned about its customer than I am?

I suggest to her that I might call Mr. Smith in Buford, Georgia to let him know I have his oven controller. Perhaps I might even mail it to him, I say, somewhat facetiously. “That would be a good idea,” the Sears clerk says. I nod as I hang up the phone. It’s a shame American businesses don’t come up with those anymore.

Got your own "American business" story to tell? Share it below.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Another Problem with American Business

Last time, I began a discussion of what’s wrong with American business. I’d like to follow-up with a few more examples. I’ve just started using Windows 10 and I’ve discovered some of my software that worked on the old operating system won’t work on the new one. Case in point: Acronis, an essential program for backing up all the data and programs on your computer. I learned a long time ago not to assume anything, so I decided to call Acronis and simply ask if the latest version of their software would run on Windows 10. Turns out, it wasn’t so simple.

The friendly Acronis help number on their website leads callers to a not-so-friendly automated call system. “Press 1” for this, “Press 2” for that, ad infinitum. Each selection leads you down a maze from which you cannot return without hanging up and re-dialing. One “helpful” selection ended by directing me to the Acronis website where I had first gotten the phone number I dialed. Another informed me if I were calling for technical support with their product that was a paid service and I should have my credit card handy. This made me a bit concerned about purchasing their product, realizing if I had any difficulty installing it there would be an additional expense. Eventually, after five separate phone calls over a 25-minute period, I was able to get a human being on the phone. I’d like to say the sacrifice to the gods I made in between calls had something to do with it, but more than likely it was just happenstance.

This is where it should get really simple. Windows 10 is the latest version of the operating system used by more people in the entire world. Acronis makes software. “Does your company software run on Windows 10?” should be the easiest question for any employee to answer. Besides the fact they probably run the program on their own computers, it’s a simple question of product knowledge. When I was a student washing dishes at Steak and Ale I was required to learn everything about the company from its history (founded by Norman Brinker) to the price of each item on the menu, even though I never stepped out of the kitchen. Employees were expected to know about the company they work for and the product or services the company offers. That’s good business sense.

Not so with Acronis. The young lady I spoke to told me she had no idea whether their company’s software product would run on the world’s largest computer operating system. She also told me she had no access to that information and no one at the company whom she could ask. Acronis employs 700 people, but apparently not one of them could answer my simple question.

So she outsourced it. She gave me a number to call. “Who is this that I’ll be speaking to?” I asked.

 “It’s one of our third-party vendors.”

“So this is not a phone number for Acronis?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “but we send a lot of people to them when they have questions.”

So I called the number. I found myself speaking to a nice young man at a company called Cleverbridge. He was sympathetic to my problem but admitted he didn’t know anything about Acronis software. Cleverbridge, you see, is a company that handles billing for many businesses selling hundreds of software products. If I had an issue with a bill I had received from Acronis then he could resolve the matter, but he only dealt with invoices, not the actual product. He did offer to email Acronis and ask that they get in touch with me directly.

As of this writing, I haven’t heard back from Acronis. I’m glad I wasn’t trying to contact them about a technical support issue. But what’s amazing is that I’m a customer who wants to give a business money and I have to spend two hours attempting, unsuccessfully, to find even one of its 700 employees who can answer the most basic question about its product.

Got your own "American business" story to tell? Post it below.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Problem with American Business

American business used to take pride in doing a job well done. I grew up watching TV commercials of the poor, bored Maytag repairman who had to sit around with nothing to do because Maytag washers and dryers rarely broke down. Then, American corporations were struck by the epiphany that if they built products so well then consumers would wait a long time before purchasing new ones. When a new product was introduced to the market, manufacturers sought to stress quality and reliability. But as the potential pool of customers shrank once everyone in the country had one of those newfangled washing machines or televisions or VCRs, manufacturers realized their dilemma. They had succeeded too well. Now the goal was no longer to make sure every American purchased their product; the new goal was repeat business.

For many years, manufacturers rolled out the marketing mantra “New and Improved” as a way to encourage consumers to part with their hard-earned cash to replace something they already owned with something quite similar, but tweaked a little. Of course, “New and Improved” is an oxymoron: one cannot improve something unless it already exists, and if it already exists then it’s not new. The marketing mavens would spice up the ad copy with a snappy name like “Zylofabro” as the new ingredient or mechanical process that had been added to the staid product. And for many years, it worked.

But as the economy hit a downturn and the American Dream now required two wage earners, consumers became more skeptical. Did we really need “Zylofabro” added to our product that we had been assured for years by the same manufacturers was so wonderful, and which we had survived so well without?

Marketing wasn’t going to cut it. Manufacturers needed a new way to get American consumers to replace their existing products. It was a dilemma, but the bottom line was at stake. They thought long and hard, brainstorming until finally they devised what had been the obvious solution all along: planned obsolescence. In other words, stop making high quality products built to last. Establish a limited lifecycle for each product and build it only to last the length of that lifecycle.

What a great lesson for our kids: don’t try so hard and aim for a shoddy result. At least the Maytag repairman would be kept busy, you might think. But no, the manufacturers had that covered too. Their new mantra was “Replace, not repair”. Take my Epson printer, for example. One day, it just stopped working. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, but I got an error message which I looked up online. It turns out, Epson had coded software to make the machine stop functioning after it had printed a certain number of copies. There was no way to override the software, just as there was nothing wrong with the machine; Epson had merely decided it was time for me to buy a new printer by setting an arbitrary finite lifecycle and enforcing it through software.

When my dryer broke, I asked the repairman if I should replace it. After all, it was 24 years old and had served me well. He pointed to a part inside the dryer. “See that metal piece? It’s plastic in all the new dryers. Plastic will last five, maybe eight years and then you’ll find yourself buying a new dryer.” Planned obsolescence. I kept the dryer and repaired it instead. That was seven years ago; it still works and hasn’t had a repair since.

My washing machine of similar vintage broke two weeks ago. When I say broke, I mean the connection on the circuit board that turns on the machine when the “Start” button is pushed needs to be replaced. The rest of the washing machine, including all the other circuit buttons, is in perfect working order. When it was manufactured 31 years ago, it was made to last. All it needs is a minor repair. But even a minor repair is not a straightforward proposition when it comes to modern American business.

Since several of my appliances had joined in a mutual suicide pact that weekend, I decided to contact a repair service to see if they could be brought back to life. I prefer to repair rather than replace them because the newer models are built with planned obsolescence and will only last five-to-eight years, whereas these models were solidly built and have lasted me more than 30 years. So I found a local appliance repair service listed on Yelp that amazingly had two full pages of nothing but five-star reviews from customers. I emailed them Sunday night, and when I hadn't heard back from them I started calling them at 9 on Monday morning. No one picked up their phone despite the recording that they would reopen at nine on Monday. So I continued calling back, every ten minutes, until after 12:30. It's one thing to be short-staffed and away from the phone, but not for four and a half hours. I'm scratching my head wondering how this business could have received two full pages of nothing but five-star reviews when they don't even answer their damn phone.

Meanwhile, I needed to replace my computer, too. I found one online and was ready to order but I had one question to resolve first. The memory was upgradable so I wanted to know if I could purchase the unit with the full upgraded memory. I submitted the question on the website's form. It was a yes or no question from a customer ready to commit to a purchase as soon as the answer was received. No one got back to me for 36 hours… and when they finally responded, the answer was an automated reply “we can't process that request.”

What is wrong with American businesses that they are so unresponsive to customers trying to pay them for their services or products?

I attempted to call the company but it was ten minutes after 5 o'clock and they had closed. So I called them today before five... And was informed my wait time would be 51 minutes. When I finally reached a human being, she answered my question. However, the price on the website had now increased by $20. By waiting to receive accurate information before making the purchase, and because I could not decipher their cryptic response, the company would financially penalize me if I bought its product. Let’s review the American business model: don’t respond to customer questions in a timely manner; when you do respond, make it a cryptic automated response; put the customer on hold for nearly an hour; and raise the price while he’s waiting.

I ended up buying the computer; however, I immediately received a text from my credit card company asking me if I did, in fact, use my credit card to make that purchase, and to reply with 1 for “Yes” or 2 for “No”. So I replied with “1” and instantly received another text back that said “Thanks. The transaction was not completed. If you want to make the purchase with this card, have the merchant reprocess the transaction.”Huh? I had typed “Yes” to verify, yet they canceled the transaction anyway? So now I should call the company again and go through the entire process, including the hour-long wait on hold? Oh, wait a second. It's now 5:10 pm; the business is closed until tomorrow. Welcome to business in America as usual.

Got an American business story to share? Post it below.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

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Cops and Robbers
A pair of FBI agents set up a bogus movie production as part of an unlikely sting operation to snare a mob kingpin. They buy the worst script in Hollywood and hire a failed movie producer whose career is on the skids; a third-rate aging actress whose claim to fame is having performed Shakespeare… on a cruise ship; an amphetamine-enhanced screenwriter; a hooker; a Yiddish-speaking accountant; a black, flaming gay actor; and a Native American actor who insists on dressing like an Old West dime store Indian.

However, throughout the course of the film, the mobsters and one of the FBI agents become so enamored by the glitter and glamour of Hollywood that they actually end up working together to try to make the movie a success. Our hero is a hitman in search of the redemption he doesn't believe he deserves. He realizes the fake film was never meant to be produced and develops a conscience believing it's wrong to allow the innocent actors and film crew to spend months of their lives working on a movie no one will ever see, despite the delusions of everyone else involved. Knowing their hopes and dreams will be dashed, our hero sets about trying to do the right thing.


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Monday, January 2, 2017

Hair - the Age of Aquarius

I was at the barber shop the other day and I ran into a guy who...  what's that? OK, you're right. I admit it: I haven't been to a barber shop since I turned 14 and had my last 50-cent haircut. The Vitalis, greased back wet look was on the way out and the blown-dry "dry look" was in vogue, so with the start of junior high, I convinced my mother to do what all the cool kids at school were doing and have my hair not cut by Sam the barber but instead coiffed by a men's hair stylist.

The storefront bay was dimly lit and filled with the scent of burning incense. Jimi Hendrix's guitar reverberated through the eight-track system's carefully arranged speakers. Blacklights eerily illuminated posters on the walls and lava lamps adorned the reception desk and several coffee tables. Copies of Rolling Stone magazine, Zap Comix, and the Daily Planet (an underground newspaper the local hippies hawked on street corners for a quarter) were scattered across the tables, along with a few roach clips. I didn't think my mother knew what a roach clip was, but I nonchalantly covered them with the newspaper anyway. Why take a chance of getting barred from such a cool place?

My hairstylist introduced himself as Mister Lucky, or Lucky for short. I never knew his real name. Not that it mattered. He was a persona, not a person. That's how he wanted it: a virtuoso coiffeur, larger than life. He had ego, he had flair, and he had panache.  More importantly, he had talent when it came to cutting hair, so I traded in the Opie Taylor look for the David Cassidy style. It cost $10 and even Mister Lucky’s tip was twice the cost of a barber shop haircut, but when I look back on those days and recall my tie-dyed shirt, bell-bottom slacks, and Peter Max sneakers, I can thank Mister Lucky that at least he made my hair look cool.

I found another gray hair today. I keep pulling them out, but they’re like hydras: for every one I yank, two more sprout elsewhere. Mister Lucky would know what to do. I guess I’ll just have to accept aging gracefully. The years go by so quickly as you get older. And now, another has passed. Happy New Year.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Janus Effect

One of the factors that makes writing difficult is the uncanny ability of the English language to be filled with words that mean completely contradictory things. If I DRAW the curtains, am I opening or closing them? I can CLEAVE two pieces together or separate them with a meat cleaver. When you DUST, you could be adding particles, as in dusting crops; or removing them, as in dusting furniture. One might be an UNQUALIFIED success, which is very good; or UNQUALIFIED, meaning lacking any qualifications, which is not good at all.

You can SECURE something from someone, which means taking it; or SECURE something to prevent anyone from taking it. A FIX can be a predicament or the solution to one. OFF can mean deactivated, as in turning OFF the light; or activated, as in the alarm went OFF. When you SEED a lawn you’re adding to it, but when you SEED fruit, you’re taking something out of it.

Any chef will tell you to GARNISH means to add something, but a lawyer will say GARNISH means the court will be taking away your wages. If the court ENJOINS you, it may be directing you to do something or forbidding you from doing it. It could also SANCTION you, which means allow you to do something, or punish you for having done it. STAY can mean to continue or to postpone.

OVERSIGHT can refer to a watchful eye; or an inadvertent error. ROCK can be used to show firmness (“solid as a rock”), or conversely, swaying motion (“the waves rocked the ship”). SCREEN can mean conceal or display. SPARE can mean meager or extra. OVERLOOK can mean to inspect, or to miss something during an inspection.

If you TRIM a cake, you’re adding decorations; but TRIM a tree and you’re removing part of it. If you WEATHERED a storm, you came through safely and are looking good; but a building that was WEATHERED is worn away. One who is LEFT might be remaining or departed. RESIGN can mean to quit or sign up again. CLIP can mean to attach or separate. CULL may mean to select or reject. If something holds FAST, then it’s not going anywhere; but if one is FAST, he is moving quickly. If a project is a GO, then things move forward; but when your old car starts to GO, it will come to a halt.

And you thought being a writer was easy. These types of words are called contronyms because they’re so darn contrary. They’re also called auto-antonyms since one word means the opposite of itself, and more colloquially, Janus words – Janus, you may recall, was the two-faced Roman God of beginnings and transitions, simultaneously looking in opposite directions. The beginning of the year, January, is named for Janus, which makes today’s New Year’s day blog post all the more fitting. Happy New Year!

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