Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Some Unfinished Business

by Bill Kalmar

When finalizing my plans for a new year, it’s always gratifying to realize that all previous plans have been completed. As I recently went through this annual process, I noticed several issues affecting customer service and quality that I’d inadvertently left on the back burner. Consider this an early spring cleaning. With 10 inches of snow on the ground here in Michigan, it also prompts me to dream of warm weather and green, luscious golf courses.

Maybe it’s symptomatic of my being a senior citizen, but little things are beginning to aggravate me. As a starter, traipsing through the whole Medicare registration process is a calamitous journey that isn’t for the faint of heart. One needs a cadre of physicians, pharmacists, and legal beagles to assist in the navigation. It’s similar to a take-home exam, except most of the answers are not in the book. One can only hope that when the complicated package is completed, the road taken is a clear path to reduced health care costs and not some side road to confusion and refusal to provide reimbursement. Evidently meeting and exceeding the expectations of customers has yet to reach the Medicare process.

To make matters worse, it’s virtually impossible to contact any of the health care industry so-called “customer service centers” by phone to guide you through this process. Let me explain.

Several weeks ago, my wife, Mary, and I were at a local shopping center when I decided to contact one of these customer service centers. I called an 800-number and spoke to a delightful young lady who gave me the address of a center that was in the vicinity of the mall. Asking for the phone number presented the first impasse—I was told that the center doesn’t accept phone calls. Fair enough. Just give me directions from the mall to the service center because I had no idea how to get there. The delightful young lady had no idea on directions so I again asked for the phone number. This presented the second impasse.

I was politely informed that she wasn’t authorized to release the phone number and neither was anyone else in the office. I then asked for a supervisor and was told that a supervisor would call me shortly on my cell phone.

Mary and I then left the mall and went to a local restaurant for lunch. There we received a phone call from a health care supervisor who reminded me that not even supervisors were allowed to release phone numbers of these customer service centers. Being the politically incorrect person I am, I suggested that the governor’s office has a listed phone number, the White House handles calls, and I even have a 13-digit phone number for the Vatican. “Are the people in the customer service center more important than the Pope?” I asked and was given a polite “No,” but still no phone number. “Don’t the people who work in the office receive phone calls from spouses, children, and relatives?” Again the polite answer was, “I can’t answer that.”

Here’s where it gets zany. The supervisor asked me for the address of the restaurant where we were dining. When I inquired about the reason, she stated that she would provide me with Map Quest directions. After getting the address from a curious hostess who wondered why I needed the address of a location where I was already ensconced, I provided it to the supervisor. Sure enough, five minutes later I received a call back. Her opening words were: “First of all take a right hand turn out of the driveway. And there are eleven other instructions I will give you”.

Wouldn’t you think that just giving me the phone number would have avoided all this? My caustic comment stating “Is this what you do as a supervisor—preparing Map Quests for customers” didn’t sit well with her, but frankly I couldn’t blame her based on my condescending air.

I suggested that maybe a phone number could be provided for all these customer service centers in the state with a recording that states: “We do not accept phone calls but here are our hours and we are located between American Way and Customer Drive just north of Quality Street.” She took it under advisement.

When we finally located the office, the people were personable and professional. Guess what? All of them had phones. Go figure!

While I still have a burr in my saddle blanket, let’s discuss the issue of magazine subscription renewals. For years I have religiously renewed my periodicals after receiving a notice in the mail. I just assumed that it was time to renew. Some of the offers were too enticing to pass up, such as “pay for one year and receive the second year free” or “pay for one year and send a complimentary subscription to a friend.” I guess during these renewal times I neglected to thoroughly examine the mailing label to determine the expiration date.

Just recently I performed this tedious task on several publications I subscribe to and what a shock. One subscription doesn’t expire until the year 2012. It might just outlive me! Maybe I should make it part of my will so that I can pass it on to my children. Whatever the case, you can be sure I will be meticulous in reviewing expiration dates in the future before succumbing to another renewal notice. I realize that this is just part of good customer service but receiving a monthly copy of American Girl long after our children have flown the coop is a bit over the top for me.

Then there are restaurants putting cutesy monikers on restroom doors just to confuse us senior citizens. This seems to happen more frequently in themed restaurants. For instance a recent visit to the restroom in a seafood restaurant became an adventure. One door was marked “grouper” while the other was labeled “tilapia.” I opted for the “grouper” and fortunately made the correct choice.

I have been in restaurants in northern Michigan hunting country labeled “buck” and “doe” or “mallard” and “drake” and that doesn’t distress me. Or a country-dance emporium with “gents” and “gals” is fine. But when I’m under some pressure to enter the confines of commode headquarters is it necessary for me to understand the sexes of other species? I sure hope not.

Several months ago, I was at a restaurant that had clearly labeled the restroom doors as “men” and “ladies.” Just to confuse me, the other side of the door facing into the restroom was labeled “ladies.” Maybe some type of magical transformation was to have taken place inside, and for a moment I was discombobulated and looked around to make sure I was in the presence of other males. In any event, as a senior citizen it may be time to circumvent all these mind boggling choices and just bring a supply of Depends. When I’m searching for a restroom I really think that expecting me to take a quiz is unreasonable. The next time I’m in that situation, maybe the health care supervisor I mentioned previously could provide me with Map Quest directions.

I saw something interesting the other day about my favorite airline—Southwest Airlines. It seems the airline took a third-quarter pretax charge of $25 million for an early-retirement program. Here’s what caught my attention: Of the 8,500 employees eligible for retirement, only 606 accepted the offer. Having followed the culture and accomplishments of this airline for many years, I’d like to think that the majority of employees are extremely satisfied with their jobs and decided to stay on. The other option is that the offer was stingy, but until proven otherwise I can’t fathom that. In my estimation it’s still the best managed, most customer-friendly airline in the skies.

That pretty much clears off my back burner. I’m currently reading two new books: The Three Signs of a Miserable Job (Jossey-Bass, 2007), by Patrick Lencioni, and Jacked Up (McGraw-Hill, 2008), by Bill Lane, who was Jack Welch’s speech writer at General Electric for 20 years. The latter book has some interesting comments about why Welch ushered out Gary Wendt, the former head of GE Capital. Suffice it to say that “flatulence at meetings” isn’t an attribute that was high on Welch’s wish list.

Blog Note: This article appears courtesy of the Author. It also appears in Quality Digest.
Copyright © 2006 QCI International. All rights reserved.
Quality Digest can be reached by phone at (530) 893-4095.

About the Author:
William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director. He has been a member of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Board of Overseers and a Baldrige examiner. He’s also been named quality professional of the year by the Detroit Chapter of ASQP. Now semi retired, he’s a freelance writer for the Detroit News; writes a monthly column for Mature Advisor newspaper; is a mystery shopper for several companies; is a frequent presenter and lecturer; does radio voice-overs; and competes in duathlons.

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