Friday, April 29, 2011

We Have the Power...

I was out driving around town, doing some errands the other day, when my low fuel icon on my dashboard came on.  I pulled into a gas station, slid my credit card into the pump and started to fuel up.  As I stood there at the pump, I waited for the meter to get to $50.00 (the normal amount it takes to fill my gas tank)...but then it went to $60.00...then to my surprise $70.00!!...

At first I thought that there must be a hole in my tank and gasoline was spilling out below my car...but unfortunately this wasn't the case...

It suddenly dawned on me that at $4.25 a gallon, I was now spending an extra $25 in order to fill my gas tank or about 150% of what it had been as recently as December.

How can this be?...I was outraged!!

Shortly thereafter, I drove to a convenience store to get something to drink.  A 20-ounce bottle of diet 7-up now costs $1.79.  I thought about this for a moment and did some mental math...128 ounces in a gallon...roughly six bottles of diet 7-up...this came to a cost of $11.00 including taxes and recycling fees.

It definitely made me feel better about the gasoline purchase I just made...especially when I looked over at the bottled water and saw that the store was selling a bottle of water for about the same cost as a bottle of diet 7-up...$11.00 a gallon for what?...bottled water?!

My last stop that afternoon was to pick up a Starbuck's "grande skinny latte" for my office manager.  That afternoon there was a long line and when I finally ordered I found that the price of that cup of coffee was just about $5.00 (including the almost obligatory barista tip).

Doing the same calculation as I did with the suddenly hit me that I was spending nearly $35.00 a gallon for specialty coffee!

Based on my two subsequent experiences, I now thought my gas purchase a short time ago was a down right bargain.

I completely understand that I was paying for "convenience" when I purchased the diet 7-up...and perhaps the "experience" when I purchased the coffee...but was the price I paid really worth the convenience or the experience?

Why is it that we get so upset at the price of fuel and not so outraged at the price of bottled water and coffee?

Is it because we feel that we must have gasoline but we really don't need to have a diet soda or an exotic coffee blend?  Maybe perhaps it is because we can choose to make our own coffee or filter our own water - at a much lower cost - whereas we cannot possibly refine our own gasoline without a lot of very expensive equipment, specialized knowledge and will end up breaking several federal, state and local laws in the process.

Personally I think the answer lies in control.  We are in control of our coffee consumption or water purchases but an item like gasoline is typically beyond our control.  The loss of control is really why we're angry.

It is for this reason that I truly believe that electric vehicles and personal power generation (such as solar cells on a rooftop) are the next great economic booms in our future.

Human beings typically like to be in control of their own destiny (or at least think that they are in control).  Producing their own electricity and using it to power their vehicles allows them to stay in control.

I now have a couple friends who own electric vehicles (and several more who own hybrid cars) who are in elated bliss as they drive past gas station after gas station knowing that they are no longer prisoners of the oil companies.  Yes, they paid a bit more for their cars and have jobs that allow them the freedom of commuting only about 40-50 miles each day (well within the charging range of their electric cars) but I suspect that they would find a way to make it work even with a longer commute. 

For them it's just a matter of principle...they want to be in control of their own choices.

While some will argue that there is a portion of society that wants to be led, I tend to believe the opposite.  I truly believe that individuals want to be in control of their own enjoy freedoms and make their own decisions.  This is the "pioneering spirit" that we all have inside of us.  

Freedom is a great reason to explain why there are roughly 28 million small businesses, accounting for almost one trillion dollars of gross receipts, just in the US alone according to the Small Business Association.  These businesses were begun by those people with ideas and a strong work ethics.  They no longer wanted to be told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.  For them it's an inner desire to be free to choose there own course.

In places across the world, the winds of change are blowing like hurricanes.  People are bravely standing up against the governing establishments and demanding to be heard.  They are fed up with the ruling class and the corruption that it brings. 

They have decided that the time is now to take control of their own lives...if not for themselves, but rather for the generations still to come.  These people are risking their lives to fight for their independence...for their freedom to make choices.

Just a few thoughts as you are filling up your car or truck this weekend or standing in line waiting to place your order for a tall non-fat mocha.

We can make a choice...we can make a difference...we have the power.

Thank you very much for choosing to support OptiFuse. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Wisdom of Herb

If the employees come first, then they're happy.  A motivated employee treats the customer well. The customer is happy so they keep coming back, which creates profits and pleases the shareholders.  It's not one of the enduring great mysteries of all time; it is just the way it works.   -   Herb Kelleher -  founder of Southwest Airlines

Several years ago I was having lunch with an older mentor friend of mine.  We were discussing a new business I had just started (OptiFuse) and he stopped for a moment, took out a pen and wrote something on a napkin and folded it up.  He then proceeded to ask me a question about my new business. 

He said, "Jim...excluding does your new company differentiate itself from the competition?"

I thought about this question for a moment and responded, "We simply have better service than our competitors".

He laughed as he unfolded the napkin.  On the napkin my friend had written two words "better service".

I was completely embarrassed and felt as though I was standing in the room in front of a large crowd totally naked.  My friend had hung out the bait and I swallowed it whole...hook, line and sinker.  Soon I was laughing along side my friend as I realized that I had been caught.

After a moment, he spoke to me in a quiet somber voice and said, "Every businessperson I've ever met answers that question with the exact same answer.  Everyone believes that their company provides outstanding customer service but most of the time, they really don't.  In the same way, everyone actually believes that they have a sense of humor but in reality many people just don't..."

Since that lunch many years ago, I tried to study successful companies, widely recognized for outstanding customer service.  Many companies that I've written about in the past such as Nordstrom's, The Four Seasons Hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, Lexus, Cabala's, Enterprise Rent-car and Southwest Airlines are all famous for legendary customer service.  

The key to each one of these top performers is not necessarily a great product or the lowest pricing.  The key to their success is simply their employees - from top to bottom.  Each employee feels as though they make a difference at their company and in the end they actually do.

Great customer service companies are built upon caring people - from the very bottom, to the middle managers, up to the top executive management.

Many readers have written to me, explaining that they are not business owners or aren't really in sales so most of what I write just doesn't pertain to them.  I don't blame these individuals for thinking in this manner but rather I blame the top management.  Some people simply believe that they don't have a say in what happens around them so consequently they do not believe that they can make a difference within their organization.

I recently read an article that outlined a great strategy for creating, growing and keeping great employees who can and will make a difference in your company.  Even if you don't have any direct report employees or are a sole proprietor, this is still a good model for helping to build an outstanding organization intent on providing the best possible customer experience.

The "CAREER" strategy for creating better employees:

"C" - Care about all employees and coworkers as people - Ask them about their goals and aspirations and try to find ways to help them to reach these goals.  Work in cooperation not competition.  When the size of the pie grows the size of the piece becomes less important.   

"A" - Advocate for those without a voice - Too many times, lower level workers feel that their contributions and suggestions are ignored by management.  Quality employees at all levels contribute to the success of an organization so it's important for these people to be heard.

"R" - Recognize the contributions (and this doesn't necessarily mean money) - Recognition and appreciation for extra effort goes a long way in making people happy in their position.  If workers feel like their contributions are recoginized, then they will become devoted advocates and will work harder to ensure the success of the company.

"E" - Educate people - Teach everyone within the organization about how the company makes profits and share information freely.  People don't like being kept in the dark.  An educated workforce is powerful so provide training and professional development and promote those who have gone the extra mile to gain new skills and knowledge.

"E" - Engage everyone - Good people want to make meaningful contributions and make a difference where they work.  They want to believe in what they do.  Imagine a worker in front of their child's class on career day.  Will they tell the class that they answer phones, file papers and enter orders or are they going to boast that they help to make a difference to people who are in need of help?

"R" - Remind yourself - This is my employee's or coworker's career not just their job.  I am a custodian of their livelihood and the wellbeing of their families.  The successful company that we build together will be shared by this and future generations.

Great service comes from great people.  Our job is to become a better person and help others around us to become better people. 

You don't manage manage tasks. 

You lead people...

Our companies are not a stock symbol, buildings, websites, corporate logos, or products and services that we sell.  Our companies are defined by us...the people...together who in turn will help other people to get what they want...when they want it...

This is what outstanding service is all about...

Thank you very much for supportng OptiFuse as we try our best to provide outstanding service to our customers but recognize that there is still plenty of room to improve...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Questions and Answers

As competition intensifies; the need for creative thinking increases.  It is no longer enough to do the same thing longer enough to be efficient and solve problems" - Edward de Bono
I was driving down the freeway the other day.  As I looked at all the cars passing me on both sides at a high rate of speed (I typically drive close to the speed limit so it must appear as though I'm almost parked to other cars), I thought to myself that the only way I can tell one car make from another was to look at the logo on the back.  Every vehicle seemed nearly undistinguishable from another.
There must be some new edict from the Department of Transportation that reads that only 3-4 body templates can be used when manufacturing vehicles.  I guess being the same has now taken precedent over being different.  Safe versus extraordinary...
Creativity has two basic components - Inspiration and Innovation. 
Inspiration is coming up with new ideas... Innovation is doing new things.  Both are equally important and both are equally difficult.
Creativity is the ability to see what is not there...and making it a reality.  It is the ability to ask the right questions.
One of the most important life lessons I ever learned came from Dr. Wilson, an engineering professor of mine back in college (and later a trusted mentor).  I remember vividly sitting in his class one day, in a complete fog as to the topic he was discussing before the class.  I recall raising my hand to ask him a question.
When he called on me, bashfully I said, "Professor Wilson...I am so lost...I can't even formulate a competent question to ask".
At that point he stopped his entire lecture about Boolean algebra (or some other mundane topic) and spent the remaining class time on the subject of formulating quality questions.  Dr. Wilson took the time to explain to us that day that anybody can be hired to solve difficult problems but the power lies in asking the difficult questions.  The key to the creativity vault was in developing quality questions not answers.
If inspiration comes from asking the right questions...innovation comes from doing the right things...
Another great life lesson was taught to me many years ago by a friend and long-time senior manager at AT&T (since retired).  He explained to me that whenever a large undertaking was being considered by AT&T they would ask themselves three important questions: 
·        Why do it at all?
·        Why do it this way?
·        Why do it at this time?
Bell Labs (a division of AT&T at the time) is one of this country's greatest private innovation centers.  They helped to create the first transistor in 1947, created and installed the first cell phone technology in Chicago in 1970, and demonstrated usable facsimile technology as early as 1929.  They developed and created DSL, touch tone telephones, the first laser beam, digital signal processing (DSP), Unix and C programming languages, and launched the first communication satellite (Telstar I) in 1962.  
Whatever they did...they wanted to do it right.  Bell Labs embodies the concept of innovation like no other company (yes...including Apple)...they are idea people...they ask a lot of the right questions...they create, develop and innovate.
I need to confess that I'm truly worried about the generations that will soon be graduating from our schools and universities.  Today we are teaching our children to take tests (some kids are now starting to study for the SAT test in the 8th grade!!...this is just wrong in my opinion). 
We have all but eliminated the creative outlets in the schools:  art, music, woodshop, and industrial arts and replaced those subjects with more math and science.   
Perhaps we should stop trying to teach our children how to be better computers, memorizers, and serial processors.  Rather we should be teaching them to be better thinkers...better at asking quality questions...better at being creative...better at trying to change the world and making it a truly better place to live...
Any skilled artist could be hired to reproduce the Mona Lisa...maybe even better than Leonardo Di Vinci himself...but Di Vinci was the one with the idea...he's the one who changed the world forever...
Perhaps we should be asking questions to we want a technician or do we want an artist? 
There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask "why?".  I dream of things that never were and ask "why not?" - Robert Kennedy
Thank you very much for supporting OptiFuse where we believe that asking right questions means more than having the right answer...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Do You Get It?

Not too long ago I needed to book a flight from San Diego to New York.  I went to my favorite website to search out my options. 

My search concentrates primarily on three factors: 

  • Departure/arrival times,
  • Layover duration (or better yet non-stop options)
  • Overall cost (including all those little/not-so-little fees the airlines now feel they need to charge to make a profit)
After some time, I am armed with all sorts of flight information, but before I make my final choice I need to make one last stop on my internet journey... where more than likely my purchase will ultimately be made

I like to think of myself as an experienced traveler.  I estimate that I've traveled some 1.5 million miles in my lifetime, which is a lot considering I didn't leave the State of California until after graduating high school.  I've now traveled to some 56 countries and 43 states; almost all with some sort of business connection.

These days, I don't fly as much, mostly due to mental health reasons caused priamrily by the TSA, long lines and horrendous service but there was a time when I was on an airplane several times each month.

I figured out early that if I wanted to be treated just a bit better by airline personnel, I needed to accumulate most of my miles on one particular airline.  After a long search I decided upon America West.

I chose America West for several reasons, they traveled to a lot of places I needed to go, they did not have a huge pool of frequent flyers so my gold card status might actually get me a first-class seat every now and then, their main hub was in Phoenix with hourly flights to and from San Diego, and most importantly they were a bit smaller so they needed to treat people a little nicer than the mega big airlines like American, United, Delta or Northwest.

At first, I loved this new relationship.  The airline treated me well and I, in return, chose to fly America West, even if it meant paying a slightly higher fare or flying at times not necessarily the very most convenient for me.  I purchased a membership at their airport club lounge so I could relax a bit between flights.

Then one day something changed.  America West announced that they had purchased US Air.  I at first thought this was a good thing.  There were more destinations that I could travel to, there were now additional hubs shortening my travel times, and additional club lounges available to me.

But the good times didn't last long...

Soon after the merger, there were numerous flight delays...lost luggage...missed connections...higher fees...and a much larger pool of frequent flyers who possessed many more miles and who received those upgrades that I used to get.

In the beginning, each time something bad happened, I would give the airline a free pass thinking that it was just growing pains and that the airline would soon get itself back together...but it just never did.

The service levels began to deteriorate significantly.  Many of the airline personnel were overworked and underpaid as the airline began to bleed red ink. 

Soon thereafter little fees began to sprout.  Box lunches were now available for just $5.00.  Paper tickets had a $10.00 fee attached.  A first check bag was free but a second checked bag was $15.00.  A few months later, a first checked bag was $15 and a second bag was $25.

The service provider that I saw as my friend was now a corporate behemoth who seemed to care more about shareholders and airline executives than customers and frontline workers.  The same workers who now herded people like cattle and showed complete indifference to the plight of customers who were trying hard to make connections or re-ticket due to delayed or cancelled flights.

I was once a avid supporter and raving fan of America West...and like a jilted lover, I've vowed never to fly the airline again due to poor service and an attitude of complete indifference.

 Their loss is Southwest's gain.

How many more service related companies are following in the same footsteps as the airline industry?  How many phone calls will go unanswered or be rerouted to far away lands where English is a secondary language?  Where the employees are underpaid and over worked?  Where management doesn't really care about customers because they offer the lowest price in town and know that you'll shop in their store with or without good service?  Where their products are made cheaply, not just inexpensively, and fail prematurely.

Not everyone follows this same path

Apple Computer gets it...Amazon gets it...The Ritz-Carlton gets it...Nordstrom's gets it...Enterprise Rent-a-Car gets it...USAA Insurance gets it...and Southwest gets it...

These companies all have raving fans and apostles who go out to convert the world...they are not cheapest in their market...but they are thriving in a bad economy...

What do people say about your company?...your customer service?...your products?

We need to always remember that EVERY company is a service company regardless if we sell products or services.

My America West experiences are lessons I need to constantly remind myself of as OptiFuse continues to grow and prosper.  We never want to get so big or grow so fast as to forget about our customers and trying to find ways to put their needs first.  We're not perfect...but we need to show our customers that we truly care...
Today I fly with Southwest Airlines...not because they are perfect...but rather because they get it...and they make me feel like they care about me and my needs...

How many people would say this about you?

Do you get it?

Thank you very much for supporting OptiFuse where we take our customer service seriously...

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Face of Reality

Every so often several friends of ours get together on a Friday evening to celebrate the week just past.  We drink wine and martinis.  We laugh, giggle and share stories reserved for close company.  We all take turns hosting and everyone is responsible for bringing delectable goodies to share among ourselves.

One of our regulars is Amy.  Amy is recently divorced from her husband of 20 so years.  Her ex and she share custody of a teenage son and have spent a grand total of approximately $400.00 to file divorce paperwork (attorneys were purposely never asked to attend their legal party, saving both their son's college fund and some semblance of civility).  Today, the two of them are still wonderful friends.

Recently Amy has started to think about moving on with her life.  She is seriously considering trying to find a new man to share time with.  On this occasion, she mentioned to the group that she would like to engage the use of an Internet dating site to possibly explore her dating possibilities.

We thought it was a great idea and in fact, due to the close proximity of a computer, decided it would be fun to peruse a well-known site to see what lurks.

We entered all of the appropriate data and clicked on "search".  Page after page of potential mates appeared before us.  As we eagerly took turn in reading a different profile aloud, one thing suddenly jumped out at overwhelming super majority of the men wanted a women who possessed one distinct attribute.  They wanted a woman who they deemed to be "extremely physically fit" even though many of these same men seemingly had not seen the inside of a gym for at least a decade (or more).

My friend, who is fit for her mid-40's, was taken aback by this display of shallowness by almost the entire selection of men before her.  

Not to be discouraged so easily, Amy decided to switch to the women side of the website just to assess the competition for these idealistic men.

After reading through several of the women's profiles it became apparent that middle-aged women were not interested so much in a man's physical attributes but rather were focused, almost solely, on the man's ability to make them laugh.

I kept thinking to myself that this little experimental exercise proved beyond a doubt that there is a distinct line drawn in this battle of the sexes.  On one side there are the men, who want a 20-something nymphomaniac and on the other side are the women who want a high energy comedian.
Ideals versus reality...

The reality is that no matter how beautiful we once were on the outside, it fades with age and no matter how much enthusiastic energy we once had time exacts a toll.

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor -
Born: February 27, 1932 - Died:  March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor was known in her youth as one of the most beautiful and glamorous women in the world.  Men wanted her and women wanted to be her.  She appeared in more than 50 films winning two academy awards along the way.  

She had beauty, fame, and fortune.

Then something happened...she started to grow older...and soon her radiant outer beauty was in decline.

She battled addictions, depression and obesity.  It appeared from her actions that she had a hard time accepting the person she was.  

She was married 8 times to 7 different men (Richard Burton was a 2 time loser).   Perhaps her husbands just couldn't make her laugh any more.

Later on in life, she did find some sense of purpose.  She was a successful entrepreneur selling jewelry and fragrances.  Liz also found helping others served a greater purpose as well as she helped to raise millions of dollars for HIV / AIDS research.

She died at the age of 79 due to heart failure.

I didn't know Elizabeth Taylor, but I do know many people like her.  These are people who live with grand ideals of how the world should be...rather than embracing the world for what it is.

The perfect mate isn't someone who comes with a precise set of measurements, possesses a certain IQ, or has the canny ability to make us laugh when we need them to. 

Our ideals cause us to pre-judge a new relationship, a new product, a new idea.  When opportunity knocked, did we look out through the peep hole, didn't like what we saw, and kept the door shut?  Or did we open the door and greet whatever was standing before us?

OptiFuse encounters this same idealism each and every day...people unwilling to give us a shot because they've never heard of us...or because our market share is tiny compared with our primary competitors...or because our advertising and/or packaging isn't as beautiful or sexy as the next guys...

Never mind that we have exceptional products, or outstanding customer service or extremely competitive pricing.  

...but that's the reality we face.

Hang in there Amy...there's a guy who'll be ringing your door bell soon enough...please resist the urge to look through the peep-hole and just answer the door... 

Thank you to our valued customers who have chosen to open their doors to OptiFuse.