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Reasonable Man

"Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold."

--Leo Tolstoy

I happen to know an unreasonable man. I remember one too, myself. Neither was the poetic version George Bernard Shaw referred to when he talked of the unreasonable man’s link to all progress.

In my younger days, I lived a life in conflict with all the rules and the governing forces of life. In those days, I thought my “rebel without a cause” attitude made me appear strong and independent. As life marched on and I kept getting doors slammed in my face, I realized there are two ways to do something--the smart way and the dumb way. A little later, I realized that, since I kept getting the same empty result time and again, I must have been doing things the dumb way. Luckily, I realized my lack of progress was no one’s fault but my own--the first step in making a progressive change.

The unreasonable man I know is well over 50 years old. He’s still swimming upstream every chance he gets and wears his nonconformity on his sleeve. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

Killing The Messenger

In a recent conversation, my unreasonable friend related his latest upstream swim. Apparently, one morning last month, he called the company that held his car lease and asked for his last three months’ statements because he was applying for a loan and needed verification of his assets and debts.

The company representative cheerfully said he would put them in the mail that day. My friend said, “Well, I want them now, my appointment is today. Please e-mail them.”

The representative said he could not. Policy was to send them by mail.

“O.K., then, overnight it!” was my friend’s response. Again, he was told it could not be done.

Then, it really got going.

“So, what you are telling me is that the same technology that was in place when the car was invented is the same technology that will bring me my statements, today?”

“Well, yes, sir. I guess so. We have no other options,” said the representative.

“Do you think maybe that’s why your stupid company is financially going down the tubes? Is there anyone in your information systems department that’s still using an abacus?”

“Sir, I’m only an operator and am authorized to hang up on people who insult me. Please stop being so sarcastic, I have no other options. Do you want me to send them or not?”

“Well, let’s see, what time does the Pony Express leave for my city?”

The operator hung up. My friend tried to call back but his number had been caller-ID’d and there was no response. One hour later he called on a different line, made his request, and kept his cool, and two days later his statements arrived. He had to cancel and reschedule the appointment, one that he was actually unprepared for anyway.

In his mind, I am sure he thought he did nothing wrong because when he told me the story, it was slanted to make me think he was the right one, and the clerk was the uncooperative, ignorant underling.

Using The Messenger

About a week later, my wife and I went to one of those well-advertised tax preparation places to complete our income tax return for 2006. I’ve been enrolled in the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) for 25 years now, and we have been doing some financial reconstruction to make sure the investment reserves are getting plumper. Because of that commitment, sometimes the available cash was a little tight. So, having enjoyed a generous holiday, we decided we would apply for one of those quick-turnaround tax refunds and pay all the holiday bills as well as some others in one quick shot. That would set us up nicely going into 2007.

We had about a two-week window on one or two bills we wanted to pay off in full, instead of making minimum payments. Our thought was the advertised two-day turnaround would allow us to pay the bills well before the due date.

We met a considerate employee and wrapped up our business within two hours. We signed all the proper papers and headed home. She said we could pick up a check in two days.

Two days later we called to ask about the status of the check, and the scene was equivalent to the moment when the chain stops pulling the roller coaster up the first big hill and one is teetering on the brink of descent. It went something like this:

“This is Ron Ciancutti calling. Is our income tax check ready yet?”

“Ciancutti, Ciancutti, hmmmm, oh, that should be here in eight to 15 days.”

“Uh, no, we applied for the two-day option.”

“No, you didn’t. It says right here eight to 15 days.”

“But that’s wrong. Your preparer must have hit the wrong key.”

“Well, it’s already in the computer, nothing we can do now. Sorry. We’ll call when it is ready.”

And with that, he hung up.

Let The Games Begin

Obviously, this young man didn’t know me very well. I called him back and said, “We must have gotten cut off.”

Nervously, he replied, “I guess so.”

As quietly and firmly as I could, I said, “Are you telling me you have done all you can do?”

“Yes.”

“May I have the manager, please?”

“That’s me.”

“May I have the proper spelling of your name and the district office number, please?”

He obliged.

I said, “Thank you” and hung up.

District Office Shenanigans

Guess what I got at the district office for four straight hours?

Yep--voicemail. I left three messages that went unreturned.

Undeterred, I pulled up the Web site and found the main customer service office headquarters. A nice woman answered the phone. I explained the dilemma, but she also said her hands were tied. I said, “Thank you” and asked to speak to the manager.

The manager came on the line and was very curt. At one point she said, “Sir, you should have never signed the papers if you didn’t know what they said.”

“I do know what they said.”

“Then you should have a two-day turnaround paper in your hand and you don’t, it’s an eight to 15 day paper!”

Calmly and quietly and firmly, “No, it’s not.”

“It’s not?”

“No, I have it right here. She gave me the right paper but must have hit the wrong box on the computer.”

“Well, my hands are tied; we can’t help you any further. Sorry.”

I paused and sighed and delivered this:

“Miss, I know you have a job to do, and I know getting me off the line is part of that job. I also know you have options a, b, c to choose from to pacify me. I am calling to tell you this is letter “d”. To solve my problem you will need to step out of the box and come up with a unique solution. You can hang up and walk away, thinking you dealt with it, but really you just avoided it. So we can conclude this conversation, and I’ll go on my merry way, but you must know I have investments with your company that I will be pulling out as soon as possible, and I will tell anyone who asks that this company is terrible to deal with. I refuse to shoot the messenger, miss, but I will be damned if I won’t give you a message to send back.”

“We would like to offer you a $100 gift certificate towards your next business with us.”

I laughed quietly.

“Do you think I would actually accept that? I’ll never do business with you again. Save yourself the stamp. I apologize for being so direct, but in all honesty, you were no more help than your clerk. I would think that a company with such a high profile would have people at the top who can construct creative solutions, not read from a book. Good luck to you. By the way, I attempted to work this out at a local level, but your district manager is not in today and has not returned my calls all morning.”

“Sir, this is our busiest time.”

“It’s supposed to be. This is your business. If you are too busy at this time of year, your planning department should be collectively fired. I doubt if I will ever look at another commercial for your company without laughing out loud. Your voice mail said, “’This call may be monitored for quality control.’ I beg you, if it has been taped, please play it for your top people. All I asked for was what you advertised and what I had a right to expect. Thanks for meeting none of my expectations.”

And I hung up.

An hour later my phone rang. It was the fellow from the local office we had begun this search with. He was very nice now. He told me the company would send my check within 24 hours. “I’m awfully sorry, Ron.”

“It’s OK, Dick, you found a solution and I am grateful.”

“Well, you were really mad before.”

“No. I was really firm. I just challenged you to do your job beyond the routine pat answers, right?”

“Well, yes, I guess so.”

“Dick, if I called ranting and foaming at the mouth, what good would that serve? We had a problem. We pursued the path and found a solution. Problem solved, I’ll be in tomorrow at 6 p.m., if that’s okay?”

“That would be fine, and thanks for giving us a chance to rectify this.”

“You’re welcome, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

When we went in the next day, we were greeted warmly and received our check without conflict. I haven’t decided if we’ll be back yet next year, but no need to burn that bridge now, in case I need that same option next year. I also received my $100 discount coupon for next year, even though I refused it over the phone.

Lessons Learned

Most of us choose the path of least resistance, especially conflict. The goal of most clerks is to get me off the line. Sometimes they finish telling me how it is and I just let silence speak volumes. When they see that I am not going away, they fill the air with words and eventually say something that I can hook onto and point out their deficiencies. Don’t be in a hurry to hang up. Hang in there and wait for solutions to develop.

If you pay for a service from a company, you are doing business with one entity. That means everyone, from the lowest-level clerk to the highest-level executive, owes you a certain level of service. I said this several times in this challenge. As in, “Miss, the commercials tout the personal level of service your company provides. They even say how impersonal the other methods are. I paid for that personal touch, and I ain’t seeing it here.”

That got a response each time.

The reason it got a response was that I touched on something personal. I reminded the employees that the reason they had a job was to be creative and do something about problems, not just sit there and stamp papers “done” and “undone.” By the time they hung up with me, they remembered that customer service was their job.

I recall reading in Lee Iacocca’s memoirs that his father became really irritated when a waitress was sloppy in serving his family. If she had a bad attitude or was short with the family, the father would ask her to sit down. He would introduce the whole family, one by one, to the waitress and explain that they didn’t get to eat out very often, and when they did they wanted to enjoy the experience. He reminded the waitress that she was critical in their pleasant dining experience, and then cheerfully said that if she were indeed having a bad day, he would be glad to have her switch tables with someone. But, for the Iacocca family, her problems were not to be taken out on their evening out.

Iacocca recalls that this short time-out always provided bountiful results and his father would crystallize the moment by leaving a generous tip--intended to remind the young lady the results of a job done properly.

In his adult life, Iacocca wrote, “We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems.” I think that lesson was learned through his calm, cool father years before Iacocca became the famed industrialist.

There’s an important distinction to make from my experience. Being cooperative, friendly and willing does not mean you are weak. You can exhibit all of that and still be strong. Conversely, being stubborn, angry and uncooperative may make you think you look strong but, frankly, it makes you childlike and easy to beat. The key is to realize the success of the above experience was not only a lesson to the company but a reminder for me of the right path for getting to “yes!

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com

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