Sunday, 19 August 2012

CUSTOMER "SERVICE" and the POWER OF ONE


Whatever system gives you pause for concern, a primary step is to understand how it works and why it is the way it is. It may then be more possible to deal with it in a way to optimize the chances for making it work on your behalf rather than being constantly frustrated because it is not working the way you would like.   It is doubtful you will change the whole system but there are ways that you can change how you deal with it, thus the result may be more favorable on your behalf.  You could even effect a change for the way that system responds to you rather than your changing how you respond to it. 

One reason for the existence of a system is supposedly to help you get things done or to get you the things you need in order to get things done.  If it isn’t doing those things, then a group of people need to work together to change the system however they can as long as that change is for the common good and not because of a personal, political agenda.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead.

There are numerous organizations in our society whose main identity may be characterized by the following:  large, bureaucratic, political, self-preserving, dysfunctional and highly frustrating.  You may add more adjectives of your own depending on your experience, such as annoying, painful, and non-productive.  Do those descriptors fit some dealings you have had whether through the euphemism called “customer service” or more directly in the attempt to resolve some issue?

One of my least favorites is a certain monopoly known as the “local” telephone company.  With the advent and popularity of cellular phones, this system, the local phone company, may become obsolete and in fact, you can strike the word local under any circumstance.   Other least favorites include a mobile phone company with a 2-year, no release contract; the whole transportation miasma in this country; the public education bureaucracies; insurance companies; certain large, impersonal banks; big box stores which inevitably have what I need but take too long to find it; and public (?) utilities.

Our local telephone company went from a company called Valor, more of which was required by the customer than the company, to something called Windstream.  You have to love the names!  When we called for service, which routinely went out at least once a month or more often, we were connected with an office somewhere in North Dakota.  Now, with Windstream, at least we are connected to an adjacent state, Texas.

I recall the telephone service from my grandparents house in rural Ohio where I had the pleasure as a child of turning a little crank on the side of a wooden box and received the voice of someone locally that everyone knew on the other end.  She was known professionally as “Central” but personally
as Eileen.  Eileen could connect you with anyone you wanted, local or long distance, didn’t matter. 

The telephone service was a “party line” which meant that several people shared a line but had different rings, two shorts and a long or two longs and a short so you even knew who else was receiving a call and if there happened to be a nosy neighbor, he or she could actually listen in.  It was a supportive community, each farmer helping the other with animals, with the harvest, caring for each other in numerous ways, sharing good news and bad.

When I moved to New Mexico, my bank was Sunwest, formerly known locally as Albuquerque National Bank.  Then it became Nations Bank, or Boatmen’s (where did that name originate?) and finally Bank of America swallowed it up.  I now deal primarily with The Bank of Albuquerque but it is owned by the Bank of Oklahoma and I still like local so I keep an account at Valley National Bank in Espanola!  They still seem to know your name.

My wife, Susan, recently spent almost two full days with customer service people from three computer-related companies restoring various functions on a server that we use for a remote, mobile, wireless internet connection when we travel in an office on wheels, otherwise known as a motor home.  She spoke with four different people at Dell - in India, in Canada, and elsewhere; with Ground Control in California, with Data Storm in Minnesota, and with Linksys from England.  That our computer could actually be controlled from India by someone whom we do not know, have never seen and will possibly never talk to again is in itself common, ordinary and a daily experience for those who work in these fields.  That does not make me feel any more secure but I am usually glad to get a problem resolved with some degree of efficiency whenever possible.

I rented a car recently from Budget, a relatively new car, a Pontiac G-6 with approximately five thousand miles.   As I drove up the highway from the airport, an idiot light came on that said LOW OIL LEVEL so I found a service station, (there’s that word again) checked the oil and discovered that it needed two quarts to bring it to the safe driving range on the dipstick.  When I returned the car to the airport, I mentioned this to the attendant who said that I would have to talk with a manager and needing to catch a plane I did not have time to engage in a customer complaint conversation aimed at resolution and restitution.  Besides, I know a way to get more reimbursement than the two quarts of oil.  However, I did get the local manager’s card and could have written a letter to headquarters or make a phone call and as a loyal customer I would expect to be rewarded beyond the ordinary but just think what I would have to do in order to get even a small compensation.

That there is a whole field of work under the title of customer service shows how far we have come.  What used to happen is that the person providing the service supported the customer and you were not transferred two or three times to get to the right “help desk.”  Size does matter and in many cases, smaller is better in my estimation.  Why?   Because it can be more personal, and direct and the results are in the hands of those providing and receiving the service, not relegated to others removed from the issue at hand.

Most of those whom I know and with whom I work would agree readily that dealing with technical issues related to all the varied and complicated electronics that supposedly serve us and make things easier can, at times, be unduly frustrating and time consuming.  The sharing of information over the internet super highway seems to be like rush hour on the freeway (?) of most major metropolitan areas – clogged, overloaded, very slow and even at times dangerous.  

I wanted to find an example which to me might serve as a parallel for understanding how a bureaucratic system could affect us. Here is a supreme example of a system that regulates us, often without our knowledge or consent. According to the Office of the Federal Register, in 1998, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the official listing of all regulations in effect, contained a total of 134,723 pages in 201 volumes that claimed 19 feet of shelf space. In 1970, the CFR totaled only 54,834 pages.  Our lives and those of our children are being constricted daily without our recognition or approval in every area from food and drugs and agriculture to planes, trains and automobiles right down to the label on furniture that says it is illegal to remove it and each of us has probably taken great pleasure in doing so. 



The General Accounting Office reports that in the four fiscal years from 1996 to 1999, a total of 15,286 new federal regulations went into effect. Of these, 222 were classified as "major" rules, each one having an annual effect on the economy of at least $100 million. [Source: Costs of Federal Regulation, the Heritage Foundation]

While they call the process "rulemaking," the regulatory agencies create and enforce "rules" that are truly laws, many with the potential to profoundly effect the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans. What controls and oversight are placed on the regulatory agencies in creating the federal regulations?

The Clean Air Act, The Food and Drug Act, The Civil Rights Act -- examples of landmark legislation requiring months, even years of highly publicized planning, debate, compromise and reconciliation in Congress. Yet the work of creating the vast and ever-growing volumes of "federal regulations," the real and enforceable laws behind the acts, happens largely unnoticed in the offices of the government agencies rather than the halls of Congress.

What are federal regulations? Where do they come from and under what oversight are they written, enacted and, at least once so far, de-enacted? Federal regulations created by the regulatory agencies are subject to review by both the president and Congress under Executive Order 12866 and the Congressional Review Act of 1966.

Executive Order 12866, issued on Sept. 30, 1993, by President Clinton, stipulates steps that must be followed by executive branch agencies before regulations issued by them are allowed to take effect.


For all regulations, a detailed cost-benefit analysis must be performed. Regulations with an estimated cost of $100 million or more are designated "major rules," and require completion of a more detailed Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA). The RIA must justify the cost of the new regulation and must be approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before the regulation can take effect.

Executive Order 12866 also requires all regulatory agencies to prepare and submit to OMB annual plans to establish regulatory priorities and improve coordination of the Administration's regulatory program.

The OMB publishes this Report of Regulations Pending and Reviews Completed - Last 30 Days. The report is updated every weekday. 
While some requirements of Executive Order 12866 apply only to executive branch agencies, all federal regulatory agencies fall under the controls of the Congressional Review Act.

The Congressional Review Act (CRA), passed in 1996 as part of the   Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, allows Congress 60 in-session days to review and possibly reject new federal regulations issued by the regulatory agencies.

Under the CRA, the regulatory agencies are required to submit all new rules to the leaders of both the House and Senate. In addition, the General Accounting Office (GAO) provides to those congressional committees related to the new regulation, a detailed report on each new major rule.

Should any member of Congress object to a new regulation, he or she can introduce a "Resolution of Disapproval" to have the regulation rejected. Should the resolution pass both House and Senate by simple majority votes, and the president signs it, the regulation basically vanishes.

Since going into effect in 1996, the Congressional Review Act has been successfully invoked exactly once. On March 7, 2001, Congress gave it's final approval to Senate Joint Resolution 6 disapproving the controversial final regulations on ergonomics created by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's (OSHA) and set to take effect in October, 2001

I do not know what motivated the movement of opposition, but someone, somewhere got sufficiently organized to mount a campaign to support the disapproval.  While viewed by many among labor organizations as a worker health and safety issue, the ergonomics regulation is an illustration of the ongoing debate between external control and personal responsibility.   Why do so many people believe that they need someone else watching out for their interests instead of being able to do it themselves?   The creation of a welfare state, mentality and attitude goes way beyond making monthly payments to people who are economically disadvantaged.

Regulatory Agencies: Agencies, like the FDA, EPA, OSHA and at least 50 others, are called "regulatory" agencies, because they are empowered to create and enforce rules - regulations - that carry the full force of a law. Individuals, businesses, and private and public organizations can be fined, sanctioned, forced to close, and even jailed for violating federal regulations.

I recall being introduced in 1994 to ADA – Public Law 101-336, enacted July 26, 1990, which regulates, among many other things, accessibility to buildings for Americans with disabilities and in my particular case the issue surrounded remodeling a building for use as a private school.   Were we going to have to put in an elevator to accommodate any student who could not use the steps?   Was that, according to the law,  a “reasonable accommodation?”    And who is going to determine the answer to all the questions?

Would we also have to provide designated parking places for people with special physical needs?  Would all the required signs need to be posted in all the required places?

This regulation was on top of all the local building code requirements for a certificate of occupancy which had to be issued after inspections by the fire department, the city building inspector, the state environmental agency, and numerous others.   Frustrating, time consuming and expensive?  Yes.   Impossible?   No.  Did we get it done?    Yes.   Was each requirement fulfilled to the letter of the law?   No.  Did we open the school anyway?  Yes.  Were we fined or jailed?   No.  Did we have lawyers to help us?   Yes.  

In addition to all the Federal requirements legislated and imposed upon us, without so much as a vote or voice from the populace, you can add a myriad of regulations that come down from state, county and city offices as well, all the way down to such minute requirements as those for parking.  If you live in New York or London, try figuring out all the various parking regulations and various signs posted indicating those restrictions.   Or try dealing with some of the state licensing requirements for different kinds of businesses.


And then there is the famous Reg Penna Dept Agr which in my mind became symbolic for all the food labeling requirements.  These are not necessarily regarded as undesirable in terms of intentions but taken as a whole, this society seems to be one of the more externally controlled, restricted and protected of any that I know.  Many would say thank goodness that big brother is looking out for their best interests but you should also know that underneath much of this is the fear that many people harbor that allows them to be manipulated by others even without their knowledge or consent.

I am not talking about any conspiracy theory or paranoia, simply trying to observe a level of awareness or the lack thereof.  How much do we really know or care to know?  What makes sense?  Sometimes all we can do is sit back and laugh (or cry) at so much foolishness and really, so much waste. Waste of time, energy and resources that could all be put toward other things that would be a lot more useful and productive.

The fear is the same kind that allows an inept security system at airports to spend gazillions of dollars with little improvement in real security.  The fa├žade of security is intended to help people believe that they are more secure when in fact, they may or may not be.  The point is that once again we have turned over the control to an external source, much the same as we do with the governmental and other institutional regulations.

The power of the individual rests quietly inside one’s own belief that one can make a difference.  There are many ways to make a difference, to
raise a voice in protest, to say that you will not allow foolishness to
over rule reason, to actively not accept less than what has been promised and finally, to engage relentlessly in setting things right.

It is not easy and it takes time.  You have to be willing to overcome a bureaucracy and do whatever it takes to hang in there, cut through the jungle of nonsense and come out refreshed and renewed on the other side of success.   Good luck and godspeed!




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