Sunday, October 30, 2011

A superior customer experience

My old friend Jack Telfer, the editor of the Midland Daily News, wrote a column today pointing out how drastically things have changed since he (and I) were teenagers. I’m actually older than he is. He wrote it with what I took to be an air of disapproval at how many things we took for granted have been replaced by new and different ways of doing things.
All these new and different things entered the capitalist marketplace and were accepted. They might just as easily have failed, except they were better than the systems they replaced.
Jack looked askance at how his daughter told him to just recycle a 4-pound telephone directory, because she and her family looked things up online. He was surprised that she would rather “do the work herself” than allow the directory to do it for her.
It doesn’t work that way, Jack. My wife can take her 4.9-ounce iPhone and look up any business, anywhere. It will tell her which location is closest. She can put the address into Google Maps and get directions. She can call (or e-mail, or instant-message) the shop and find out if the product she wants is in stock, if the website doesn’t already tell her. She can carry all this in her purse, something she can’t do with a 4-pound directory.
In short, it’s a superior product and a superior customer experience.
Jack also waxes nostalgic over full-service gasoline delivery. I much prefer self-serve, and have for more than 30 years. My own gas tank is a little quirky; when the automatic shutoff kicks in, there’s still room for 3.5 gallons of unleaded. I know this. I can fill it to where I want it and save myself a trip to the service station.
My wife’s car, on the other hand, is absolutely full when the shutoff kicks in. Don’t even try to top it off to round it up to the next dollar.
No gas jockey would know, or would be expected to know, these things. And I’m old enough to remember the smeary, ugly jobs gas jockeys did while “washing” my dad’s windshield. Thanks, I’ll do it myself for a superior customer experience.
Automatic tellers? A lifesaver. For nearly 30 years, I’ve pulled cash from the bank after hours. Even when the bank’s open, it’s simpler, faster and more secure to get cash while in my car. I still use tellers for deposits or anything special, but there’s no reason to waste their time and mine – and the time of the person behind me in line - if it’s a routine stop for pocket money. It’s a superior customer experience.
Self-serve scanning and bagging at the supermarket? I’ll do it when I can. The lines are shorter, I’m at least as good at scanning as most cashiers, and not once have I put the bleach on top of the bread. Now, I can even bag my groceries according to where I’ll put them away.
And weirdly enough, the robot voice saying “Thank you for shopping at Meijer” sounds more sincere than most human cashiers. It’s all part of a superior customer experience.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dad

Monday would have been my Dad’s 98th birthday.
Dad’s been gone a long time, and I’m only now beginning to get a handle on what kind of a person he was. His life was so very different from mine, and I’m now starting to realize that good part of that was his doing.
I’m now the age Dad was when I started high school. The poor man.
Dad was driven by duty: duty to God, duty to family, duty to country. It was so much a part of his being that even asking why that duty existed was heresy.
I started ninth grade three weeks after Woodstock.
Dad didn’t think much of rebels. Dad didn’t think much of people who were hip and cool. Dad didn’t think much of the Revolution of the ’60s. Dad really hated rock-and-roll.
His son knew nothing else, loved rock-and-roll, and desperately wanted to be cool. The idea of a career in the media? Heresy.
It was a good thing Dad a duty to family. I might have been family, but without that sense of duty, I would have been out on my behind about, oh, 1970.
It wasn’t until near the end of his life, when my boss exuberantly told him that I was the best thing that had ever happened to the boss’s radio station (the boss was drunk, but what he said had an impact on Dad) that Dad finally thought maybe I might have known what I was doing.
Dad never sat at a computer, but he insisted I learn how to type. That, in and of itself, changed my life. He was a U.S. Navy storekeeper in the South Pacific in World War II, then came back to civilian life and worked the rest of his career as an accountant. I suspect he would have loved Excel and Access, but I have no idea how he would have reacted to the world of the Web, iPads, iPods, mobile phones and satellite video.
I can't even imagine what he would have thought of a world where major players are called Google and Yahoo.
Dad was something unusual in his generation: A university graduate. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1940, at the age of 26. He wasn’t too unhappy when it took me until 26 to graduate from Central, although he never understood the appeal of “that teachers college” I fell in love with the first time I walked onto the campus.
It was a great place to meet girls, Dad.
And even though he was a U of M grad, he didn’t think much of college professors. I think it was from him that I first heard the term “overeducated fool.”
We were so, so different. I learned from him that I had to accept my own children as being very different from me, as well. That wasn’t something Dad tried to teach, but I learned it anyway.
Funny thing. I don’t think he told me he loved me until after I graduated from college. I think he maybe, maybe, accepted me. But I’m not sure he ever liked me.
I don’t know if I ever would have or could have been friends with my dad. Maybe that was the whole point.
I’m glad Dad did his duty to his family. It got me here.
Happy birthday, Dad.