Category: Business

Why I’ve (Sort of) Changed my Opinion on Thank You Cards

A couple of years ago, I wrote a lengthy, expletive-laced tirade about my distaste for thank you cards. In retrospect, the post was arguably one of the worst I’ve ever written for this blog — or any blog I’ve written for over the past 13 or so years. If you’re the type of person that likes getting made at someone on the internet for no reason, feel free to read that post and get mad at me. Even with improvements to the post after I realized that it was hot garbage, it’s still one I cringe while reading.

The strange thing is that I don’t even fully disagree with the primary point I was attempting to make in the post itself. Thank you cards are, as a concept, pretty annoying. Recipients don’t really want them, the sender doesn’t want to put the time into writing it and going to the post office, and the post office isn’t making much money1If any at all. off of a simple card. In general, I still see the thank you card as a flawed and ultimately poor way to show gratitude.

Notice how I specifically called out the thank you card in the last paragraph. This is because I think there’s a far better way to show gratitude to someone who has done something for us — a way that should become the cultural standard for how we handle saying thank you. It’s a way that’s been right under our noses the whole time. I’m speaking, of course, about the thank you email.

I can practically hear my millennial brethren cringing at that last suggestion. The email, the phone call, and the voicemail are becoming antiquated methods of communication among millennials and younger. A former co-worker of mine once2In early 2017. said that they don’t call any co-worker back who leaves them a voicemail because “if they didn’t find it important enough to IM me, it must not be important”. Throwing aside my own disagreements with that philosophy, I get where the person was coming from. Social media has created the need for instantaneous interaction and communication. To provide a delay from that makes the communication seem less valued, at least in part.

The problem with that logic, however, is that it can often take time, as well as careful wording, to show gratitude that seems genuine. That’s not to say you can’t thank someone with a quick “thanks” in passing. But since we live in an interconnected world where most interactions are not occurring face-to-face, most moments where we’re showing how grateful we are for someone’s help are conducted remotely and in real time. So how then do we set ourselves apart from everyone else also looking to show their thanks? Slow things down.

I’ve been on the job hunt for a little while now3As I mentioned in last week’s post, I tend to write these posts well in advance. This post, like the last one, was written in October. That said, I felt like gratitude and saying thank you was a good topic to discuss on Christmas Day., meaning I’ve filled out copious amounts of applications, received more rejection emails than I’d care to admit, and have attended a small handful of interviews. One thing I’ve tried my hardest to do is to write the recruiter, interviewer, or whomever I have contact information for a thank you email after every interview I have. I realize it’s small and, to this point, has meant very little in my job search. That said, I’ve found that my interactions with the hiring staff at the companies I’ve interacted with have been better than any I’ve experienced before.

I recognize it’s not a very deep thought to say “hey…you should be sending a thank you email to the people who interview you, even if you don’t get a job with them”. It’s pretty much interviewing 101. But at the same point in time, I don’t see people doing it that often — both from my own experiences as an interviewer, as well as from what I’ve heard being an interviewee myself. Therefore, in this one case, I think the concept of a thank you card must become more common, even if the literal thank you card itself is left in the sands of time for it.

Effective Managing: A Primer For Newbies

A couple of weeks ago, I had a former co-worker email me out of the blue. Though we haven’t seen each other since I moved out of Arizona((Where he and I worked together.)), he was excited to tell me that he had been promoted at his current job. As a result, he is now in his first managerial role at a company. While I didn’t have much formal managerial experience((I’ve had about 6 months as a true supervisor, though I’ve been in leadership positions of various levels for about two and a half years at various jobs.)), he asked what advice I could give him about being a manager.

After thinking about it for some time, I decided that there were five areas he needed to focus on in order to be an effective manager. While I highly doubt that my ideas are revolutionary, I did decide to put them in a nice acronym.

Communication
Listening
Expectations
Advising
Recruiting

My advice to him was that if he follows the five items listed above, he will have the skill set to be both effective and useful to leading a team of people. I expanded a little bit on each of the points I sent to him, and I thought I’d share the same points I made to him with all of you.

Communication

The foundation of any good managerial relationship is built upon communication. While it’s an understood that managers may not always be able to tell everything that they know to those who they manage, beginning and maintaining an open dialogue with anyone who reports to you. Honesty is the primary component to clear communication, however there are a few other communication items — expectations and advising — that I’ll get to a little further down the list.

Listening

Even more important than communicating with someone by speaking to them is taking the time to actively listen to those who report to you. You’ll get two valuable pieces of information by doing so. First and foremost, those who report to you will typically let you know at least a portion of the things that they feel like they’re struggling with. Combine those items with the things you feel like they need work on and you’ll be able to make action plans that allow the employee to feel like they have input in. The second piece of information you’ll get is feedback as to how you can improve yourself as a manager. While there may be someone who says you need to work on something and they’re the only one who has that opinion, if you’re hearing the same feedback over and over, perhaps that’s where you have room to grow.

Expectations

As much as communication and listening are vital skills to leading a team of people, setting expectations for what should be done by those you’re leading is equally important. It’s great to have rules and policies about various items, including attendance, performance, and attitude. That said, if you don’t make those expectations clear…and by extension hold people responsible for those expectations…what you say begins to have little weight. Being transparent and consistent about your expectations will help you to build credibility as a manager.

Advising

I’ve had a few managers over my time in the working world who felt that the best way to lead was to teach someone what to do, then let them do it on their own with no feedback. If that employee succeeded, great. If that employee failed, too bad. Managing people is just as much about coaching people as to what they can do to improve their performance as it is making sure they show up on time((If showing up on time is what they need to work on, awesome. You can kill two birds with one stone here.)). The role of a manager is best viewed not as a boss, but as a teacher or adviser. You don’t have to be completely hands off to help someone succeed. If anything, the opposite should happen.

Recruiting

While not a direct management technique, per say, an effective manager uses their recruiting efforts to improve their team within the vision and ideals that they want to see exhibited in their personnel. Though I generally dislike the concept of a vision statement(Or similarly cliche items.)), a manager should work to build a team that has the traits that they feel will best help their team and department to succeed. Seek out people who have those qualities — and make sure you actually find people with those qualities instead of those who are lying about having them((I recommend using behaviorally based interview questions. They’ll give you a more clear picture as to someone’s future behaviors.)) — and work to improve your team as it grows and changes.

Are there specific skills that you feel are important for managers to have? Sound off in the comments.

The Job Jumping Dilemma

Note: The following post is a guest post written by a gentleman named Mike. Please enjoy Mike’s post below.

Throughout high school, we were promised that going to college would get us a good job. That we shouldn’t worry about student loans, as our job will allow us to pay those back quickly. That by going to school, we were making something of ourselves, and would excel in life. Are we REALLY sure that any of that is true?

I sit here myself only one year removed from graduation, yet like many people in my position, I feel helpless. I have student loan debt, with the need to repay it. More than that, I know it’s the right thing to do, and while it’s never easy, it’s something that must be done. However, the opportunities our elders promised us seem to be few and far between. We sit here, tucked away in our cubicles in the corner, still faced with the problem of being “the new guy” and feeling like it’s impossible to get ahead.

For many of us, we had to take the first job offer presented to us after graduating. It felt like an impossible challenge, to step away from campus and the college life style, and into the real world where real expectations and real problems exist. No longer was our hardest choice which bars to hit up, which cheap beer to drink this weekend, which flavor of Ramen noodles to eat. Our choices now impact real people and real lives, and often come with bullshit TPS reports and printers that say paper jam when there is no paper jam.

When those jobs get tiring, exhausting, depressing, and mentally draining, what are we supposed to do then? Do we risk looking like job jumpers, as we yearn for a new opportunity? What if we make the wrong choice and end up in the wrong field? What if we’re already in the wrong field?

You see, for me, this is a choice I’ve been struggling with lately. I know that I’m not alone, and also recognize the weight a decision like this could carry. For some of us, we were forced to sign contracts that ran up to a few years. Once those contracts near the end, and there’s no guarantee of tomorrow, we are put in an awkward position both personally and professionally.

For those of us who hate what we do, it can become draining on all aspects of life. Work depression can trickle over into our personal lives, affecting our relationships with our partners, friends and parents. The mental toll on those stuck in cubicles in front of a computer screen for 8 to 9 hours a day becomes increasingly difficult. The constant wondering about what other jobs and careers are out there becomes a pounding drum of war in our heads. We dream to move forward, to make a difference, to get that promotion or that raise. We feel like our jobs are literally holding us back from our future.

That’s why I’m here to say, stop it. This message goes out to not only me, my friends, but to all of those in my generation, and in my position. Worrying will only do so much for our situation, until we take the leap of faith and follow our dreams. Who cares if you have multiple jobs on your resume in just the last few years? Competent employers would see a student who was trying to get ahead in school. Employers who scoff at it are likely terrible companies whose work environment would crush your soul even harder. So take that risk. Apply for that job. Change careers if you want. Ultimately, do what makes you happy, and as long as you’re not harming anyone, don’t regret it. It’s become pretty clear from any news story about government and business for the last..decade or so that these people are out for their interests only. So screw them, it’s time to look out for our interests too. Maybe one of us will be the next major CEO, board member, or president of a company. Maybe one of us will be the Governor or Senator that shakes the whole system up. None of us will ever find that out unless we go and do it.

Customer Service Secret 1: Selflessness

Time for a little bit of backstory before I get into today’s post. I graduated from college in December 2008 with my bachelor’s degree in telecommunications (essentially broadcasting,  but the terminology used here is important). During my last 4-5 months of school, I had spent a good bit of my free time cold calling every non-religious radio station I could find within a 300 mile radius of the university I attended. Nearly every one of them gave me the same answer.

“We have no open positions for you, unless you want to work in sales.”

I worked in sales twice during college and twice more since. Sales is a cutthroat world where kind-hearted, well-meaning people like me get chewed up and spit out like nothing. It happened to me every time. The longest I lasted in any sales position was a year, and even then, I didn’t consider the position to be sales. After all, anyone with even remotely reasonable ethics would never turn university admissions into a sales game — and yet that’s exactly what the university I worked for did((Not to mention the fact that they let me go for not having a salesman’s mentality, among other reasons that ultimately led to their undoing.)).

It was because I detested sales so much that I decided to work in customer service. I’d worked in customer service at some level since I was 14. My first job was doing kitchen and lobby work for a local pizza shop. I held that job part-time or better all the way from my freshman year of high school until five days before I left for college. I held a myriad of random jobs at various points in college, but with the exception of head cook in a restaurant((I had started out as a waiter at said restaurant. One day, literally the entire kitchen staff walked out ten minutes before we opened. My boss offered to promote me on the spot if I could have dinner ready within the hour. It was my favorite paid job of college.)), nearly all of them were customer facing positions.

My first post-graduate customer service gig came with an outsourcing company who did work for a certain cell phone company whose logo is totally not a small moon. The hours sucked. The expectations of employees sucked. The pay was even worse than the hours and expectations combined. The burnout rate was so bad that of a typical training cohort of 25 people, only 1 would make it to their one year anniversary. My class performed better than expected, with four of 28 making it to 18 months. When your job requirements to provide customer service are so strict that a 14% success rate from a class is considered stellar, you’re doing something wrong.

In the five or so years since I left that company, I’ve scoured my brain trying to figure out exactly what made it such a shitty place to work. Some of the things I mentioned — stress, poor pay, expectations, hours — certainly played a factor into it. Yet there were people who had been there since the call center’s opening who were getting paid lower wages than new hires who seemed to tolerate their jobs. I say tolerate because nearly no one there actually loved their job.

One of the main reasons people lost their jobs from this particular call center (as well as others like it) is because of a metric known as AHT, or Average Handle Time. The all-powerful telecom giant who had outsourced their workload to our company’s call centers had very strict metrics as for how long you could talk to a customer on the phone. Calls for a general employee were to be between 5 and 7 minutes((Approximately. There were minute/second values to these, but it’s long enough ago that I don’t remember those)), while escalations call backs (my team for about half of my time there) had an AHT expectation of 11 to 13 minutes per call. If you, as a general rep, got a person on your line who wanted a supervisor, you hoped and prayed they’d take a call back. If they didn’t, good luck working down a 20-60 minute call off of your AHT.

If you failed to make AHT once in a 6 month period, you were given a written warning. Twice in six months or three times in 12 months meant a final written warning. Three AHT failures in six months or 4 in 12 months, and you were gone. Period. It was non-negotiable. Third shift employees like me were particularly susceptible to write ups, as AHT rose by nearly a minute and a half on average between 10pm and 5am. I was lucky to only receive one written warning in 18 months. Nearly everyone I had started on third shift with in the spring of 2009 had either quit or been fired when I left in the fall of 2010.

I get why companies institute policies of holding their employees accountable for average handle time. Every minute that an employee is talking to a customer on the phone is a minute they could be spending talking to a different customer who is currently holding in queue. During busy days, there would be someone yelling over the intercom telling supervisors which employees they should force to log back in. During slow days, supervisors would pull groups of people off of the phones so that other groups could make sure they had no more than 10 seconds between calls.

As a customer, the very concept of AHT as a metric with which an employer can choose to fire an employee scares the hell out of me. By its very nature, making AHT a fireable metric means that some level of quality is going to suffer in order for numbers to be met. That could be rolling of the call queue in order to limit when you receive calls, that could be rushing customers off of the phone in order to shorten calls, that could be “accidentally” hanging up on a couple of calls per day right after they ring in so that your AHT goes down. There are numerous other ways I’ve seen people manipulate data just to make sure their AHT was in a position to keep them employed.

As a customer, none of the why the employees are doing that matters. What matters is that the employee is more concerned about meeting their metrics than helping me.

Think that’s not a reality? I pose the following story to you, which actually occurred in an interview I conducted.

Shoe and apparel retailer Zappos is wildly known for its non-standard approach to customer service. Employees are given no minimums or maximums for their call time; they’re just told to help the customer. One Zappos service rep took this to an extreme, holding a 10 hour, 29 minute phone call with a customer. A typical question I’ll ask in interviews is to present this specific scenario and have the interviewee analyze whether or not the call was an example of good or bad customer service. A recent interviewee stated that the call was terrible customer service. That answer itself didn’t bother me…but the answer than gave to justify why it’s bad customer service alarmed me.

“Customer service is making your metrics first, then making customers happy only after you’ve done that.”

Is it really? Isn’t the entire point to customer service to make yourself there to help a customer and solve their every need, regardless of that call takes 10 seconds or 10 hours? I would argue that yes, it absolutely is. If your job is customer service, you should always make every effort to not only solve the problem at hand (within the scope of your capabilities, that is), but also to try to make whoever you’re speaking to feel like the only customer you’re working with that day.

It’s a beautiful idea. I recognize it’s not always a possibility to be selfless on every single call. But by implementing policies where AHT decides whether someone keeps their job or not, call centers are systematically eliminating the selfless nature of customer service.

Misleading Marketing

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Nashville, Tennessee. My trip to Nashville was for a work conference, and while I was excited to travel for work (as I usually am), I was not exactly excited to be going to Nashville.  You see, the first thing I think of when I think of Nashville is something like this.

Image credit to Celine on Flickr.
Image credit to Celine on Flickr.

There’s a joke I tend to make reference to when a friend of mine brings up their affinity for country music. Ere are many iterations of the joke, but it goes a little like this.

Q: What do you get when you play a country song backwards?

A: A happy man who gets his wife and dog back, as well as a functional truck, all while overcoming alcoholism.

Nashville strongly markets itself to be the country music capital of the world. As they rightly should. After all, the city is home to the Grand Ole Opry, numerous country music stars, and the largest volume of sweet tea per capita in the world((No idea if this is actually true, but it felt true. And it was delicious.)). But beneath the surface, you have a city that is completely not country music like at all. And by that, I mean it doesn’t suck.

The above table and food remnants are from a dinner we had after our event. The restaurant in question is a place by the name of Sambuca. The sky loft area that we were in was swanky enough that the above picture prompted my fiancée to ask me if I was actually in Nashville or in a club in Miami. I sent her the following picture of the Nashville skyline to assure her that I was not, in fact, clubbing with Pitbull((No one wants to party with Pitbull. Even Pitbull.)).

There’s wonderful entertainment in Nashville. They have a NFL team that’s not terrible, a NHL team that’s pretty good, on of the most prestigious universities in America (Vanderbilt), and a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Ignore the fact that Nashville is like Athens, Greece in the same way that ice cream is like Tabasco sauce. There’s some really cool shit in Nashville.

And yet…this is what Nashville markets itself as.

Image credit to Celine on Flickr.
Image credit to Celine on Flickr.

It’s a shame too. Nashville could easily market itself as Little New Orelans (due to its reputation as a party city) or a less drug-infested Miami. That said, the city seems content sitting on its roots. That’s fine for some, but to me, it seems like a giant waste of potential.