Friday, September 21, 2018

For Nine Hundred a Month you’d think that…


I pay $900 per month for health insurance.   For that I get a high deductible followed by a thirty percent co-pay that eventually tops out at $4,000 (in network).   Most years I don’t make the deductible amount because I’m afraid to go to the doctor.  I believe that the word ‘deductible’ has come to mean ‘bend over, this won’t hurt a bit.’

I used my insurance this year.  Ankle surgery was necessary to correct ligament and tendon damage due to ‘chronic ankle sprain’.  It hurt to walk prior to the surgery and the surgery to correct it hurt my pocketbook.  A lot.

The Twin Cities has a lot of good medical and surgical options available and I opted for the surgical clinic that did my hip three years ago.  The clinic is affiliated with all of the medical insurance plans.  I called my insurance helpline to double check, though, just in case. 

“You’ll need a referral from your primary care provider,” they said. 

“But my insurance says that this clinic is in-network,” I said.

“You have to switch to another primary care provider to have the clinic actually BE in network,” they said.  “But we can do that for you as of the beginning of last month, no problem.”

I went through the paperwork by phone and two days later had another insurance card with my new network listed.  The required primary care facility was over an hour away from my home and I did not think to call them for an appointment.  I’ve always seen a doctor at a clinic near where I live. 

I scheduled my surgery and necessary pre-operation physical.  The physical came first.  According to new standards, I now have high blood pressure.  Actually, my BP is about the same as it used to be but they lowered the range of acceptable and I now fall on the high side of the scale.  My doctor looked at her online iPad which told her that I need to be on some sort of med because I am 64 years old.  Having a tantrum did me no good.  I bought have the prescription. 

After a return trip to check on my blood pressure, which went low enough after taking the prescription to actually put me to sleep, I was declared fit.  The surgery was done and I was out of the clinic in a couple of hours.  I looked forward to an uncomfortable and long recovery.

The bills started to arrive.  I paid my portion of the bills and watched as I neared the $4,000 out-of-pocket costs.   One invoice was listed as out of network but I didn’t question it since it was for my pre-op physical.    ‘Big deal’ I thought. 

At least that was okay until I had my colonoscopy that had been referred by my local pre-op doctor.  Suddenly I owed more than a thousand dollars over the deductible.  I called my insurance company.  I questioned their billing tactics and yelled at the first actual person who answered the phone.  Even my prescription-controlled blood pressure blew up.

Insurance companies hire really good and patient customer service reps.  I believe about thirty percent of my premiums go toward their salaries.  Insurers know that every claim that is denied will be disputed by irate, nearly bankrupt old people who probably didn’t follow the instructions.  The rep’s job is to sympathize and empathize and agree with us that the system sucks completely and that someone should go after those execs who write the stupid policies. 

Those guys are good.  I calmed down.  I relied on their expertise to fix whatever problem had occurred.  I have no idea what happened or how the problem got resolved but I now have a new primary care clinic that actually allows me to go to the doctor I already see.  What a relief! 

A few days later, I received a complaint form in my email.  It requested that I detail the issues and asked if I wouldn’t mind making suggestions as to how to fix the issues.  Basically, it said “You whined and now we want you to formalize the whining.”

I couldn’t remember the problem.  Apparently those same customer service reps have the power to make one forget everything that happened.  I deleted the form.  I also received one in the mail, just in case I had deleted the email form.  This extra expense probably accounts for another ten percent of my insurance premiums.

I always try to make a point with my little essays.  Here’s today’s lesson. 

We have managed to screw up our healthcare system, our insurance system and the doctors who are supposed to take care of us.  It now costs more than ever (and, by the way, my insurance went up by six percent this year… it did NOT go down as was propagandized) to insure ourselves and we are afraid of going to the doctor because the premiums and deductibles are so high. 

Somehow, though, the insurance companies have made themselves more powerful, more able and more a part of our lives than ever.  We have to ask the health insurance companies for permission to go see doctors.  It doesn’t always seem that way, but when we have a problem, we are guided toward the right places by patient advisors who make us feel lucky that we met them.  While we do our best to care for ourselves, we are becoming fully dependent on someone else to tell us how we are actually allowed to care for ourselves, what specialists we can see and when. 

There may be a good result in some ways.  Maybe the insurance companies will guide us toward losing weight and ultimately be our perfect caretakers.  Wonder how much of a premium I’d have to pay for that kind of service?

Gotta go.  I have to call my customer service rep and ask for some investment recommendations.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Are we done yet?



A friend and I were discussing the Bible recently.  I wondered why nothing has been added to it in so many centuries and suggested that perhaps it was time for another chapter or two.  She told me that it was complete as written and that there was nothing left to add.   When I said that I found this hard to believe, her response was that everything from the beginning of time until the End Times is included, forecast and chronicled.  It’s all we need.  There is nothing more to tell.

Progress is an interesting phenomenon.  Take a somewhat closer look at the last two thousand years and you’ll find that humanity and society have made tremendous leaps in science or technology or philosophy at a few points in our known history and also have shown absolute stagnation a few times.  We had the Dark Ages followed by the Industrial Revolution.

Most recently, the invention and development of computers and telephone technology has proceeded at a very fast rate.  There were several years during the 1990’s when I was hesitant to buy a computer because every few months there was a new model that made everything else obsolete.  Changes happened so fast that by the time I’d get a computer home I had a compelling reason to go buy the next generation. 

Technological innovation is geared toward making our lives easier.  Windows started out as a clunky, horrible program and has evolved, like Apple’s operating system, into a self-teaching set of interactive programs that make it simple for us to get any information we need.  Spreadsheet work is intuitive and spell-check handles not only our spelling errors but even some of our grammatical mistakes.  Phones are just simply amazing today.

Here’s the thing, though.  We are getting to the point where we have just about everything that we want.  New cell phones advertise ‘Better Cameras and More Pixels!’  Most other improvements are not at all earth shattering.  I just traded my eight-year-old laptop on a newer model and see very little change in the operation.  Technological change is slowing down.

My personal observation is that when you provide a certain level of comfort to a person or group of people, they stop looking for more.  At some point, it requires ‘too much effort’ to improve something that already does most of what you want it to do. 

I used to be very excited about the very cool stuff we were going to have, according to all of my favorite Sci Fi authors.  Heinlein, Asimov and many of the others worked very hard to project advancement to a point where they could create believable futures.  Those futures had flying cars, advanced limb regenerators and all sorts of matter transmitters.  I was completely absorbed with the fantastic but realistic future we were going to have.

Science Fiction has changed a lot since I first started reading it.  It doesn’t seem as much like fictional science and it really shares a lot in common with what we used to call fantasy.  I wonder if this means that writers themselves are not able to look into a farther future and make further predictions about where we are headed.   

Most importantly, these very same writers today are something of an indication that we’re already there.  Development is slowing.  Engineers are needed but the call for actual scientists is on the wane and in many cases, we talk quietly about what ‘real science actually means and ask what happened to peer review. 

I worry about that.  Humanity should be curious.  We should want to know everything.  We should always be challenged by the things that we don’t have and by the future that we don’t know.  If we actually lose that momentum, we stagnate and the Bible won’t require another chapter at all.  We’ll hit End Times pretty quickly and will disappear without so much as a whimper.
Wow.  That’s depressing.  I’m going back to dreaming some more. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Hard Sell


After graduating college I was hired as a department manager for a large retail chain that no longer exists.  Our store was not terribly successful so we experienced a certain amount of manager turnover. 

During my final week as a department manager, we welcomed a new general store manager who viewed credit card applications as a road to success.  I hated asking customers for them and the new store manager saw that as a complete failing on my part.  It led to my immediate demotion to commission sales in the appliance department at a different store.

The transition was pretty easy.  I learned how to recognize buyers versus browsers and I learned how to sell appliances that I had never used and couldn’t possibly afford.  It was really fun.

The competition in that department was fierce.  There were usually three or four people on the floor hunting for customers.  The goal was to snag a buyer and then wall them off from the rest of the sales crew.  We all developed our own techniques for doing this.  It was a daily competition that only the truly hungry could survive.

I learned a lot about closing sales during that time.  First, I learned how to read reactions to statements about price, delivery and product.  Second, in order to sell something, you needed a person’s full attention.  If the customer likes you, they listen to you.  They also are much more likely to buy from you. 

The third thing I learned was that if I had to stop in the middle of a sale to ask someone else a question about a product, or if I had to glance at the owner’s manual, the sale was almost always lost.  There would be no more customer when I got back.  Worse, someone else would step in, ‘help me out’ and take the sale. 

I spent time studying the washers, driers, stoves and refrigerators I was selling.  I learned how long a cycle took, how much water was consumed and how much power each one used.  When customers asked questions, they could count on my confident answers.  Sales were easy and upsells were absolutely assured.  


Today, I spend a lot of time talking with salespeople about the best way to adjust logos for embroidery.  I try to suggest alternatives and edits when possible in order to get the logos to sew most accurately and clearly.  A few of my customers pay attention and when they move on to their next customer, they apply what they have learned in order to advise the new buyer.  They tend to close their sales much more quickly and profitably.  Their customers generally have more realistic expectations of the appearance of their apparel.  Sales are faster and smoother and ultimately very profitable.  They take the time to learn their product.

On the converse are those salespeople that send a design with no instructions and who expect me to just know what the right answers will be.  On the one hand, this allows them to slide away from any responsibility regarding design or quality.  If they can blame mistakes on the decorator, they never lose any money.  On the other hand, they are not keeping their customer’s attention, they are not closing the sale and they are certainly not going to get value added sales. 

The sales profession is a tough one in many regards.  It requires a very tough skin and a willingness to have doors slammed shut.  Beyond that, a little bit of knowledge and the willingness to advise a customer, ask questions and show some interest in what they are selling. 

I learned to sell things a long time ago.  Our culture has changed a lot since I started selling and yet the process remains pretty much unchanged.  The very best salespeople make their customers into experts, provide them with honest information and deliver as promised.  In order to do this, those very same salespeople have to know their product, advise their customers and have a genuine interest in what they are selling and to whom.
 
Of course it’s much easier to take no interest and rely on someone else to do your thinking.  I just don’t understand where that could be a very fulfilling way to pass the day. 
   

Friday, June 22, 2018

Who's there?


We have been so busy making every child college ready that we neglected to provide those budding managers with one important thing.  We forgot to make sure that there were enough working employees who could be managed.

I have had a help-wanted ad on Craigslist for the past couple of weeks.  I have hired three people, interviewed ten and left dozens of messages.  Of the three people that were hired, one worked three weeks, missed four days and sent a text on the fourth of his missed days saying that he got this incredible job offer and wouldn’t be returning. 

The second came in for one day, cost us over $200 in incorrectly addressed shipments, left for lunch the following day and sent a text saying that “The job does not meet with my expectations.”  Yes, that is an exact word for word quote.

The third accepted an offer on a Thursday and told us that he would be in the following Monday morning.  And on Monday he was a no show, no phone call, no message, I couldn’t even get an answer from his references. 

I learned that ‘ghost’ has become a verb.  It means, “I am gone, disappeared and not available.  I won’t answer your texts, calls or emails and I’m going to pretend that you can’t even see me.”  Look for it next year in Webster’s.

One of the interviewees was asked back for a second interview.  She sent an email on the Sunday before her Monday second interview saying that her car was broken and she needed to take it in on Monday so would not be able to make her appointment.  I sent an email back and tried phoning on that Monday.  Another ghost.

Who does this shit?  Really.  Who does this?

I have a theory of course.  It starts with us.  That is ‘us’ the older generation.  The blame rests on us.  You see, we’re getting older and soon enough will be dependent on the kids.

Our government has done a fabulous job of scaring the hell out of the youngsters.  Baby boomers are retiring and the shrinking population of laboring children has to support them.  Social security is a big tax and may not be around forever (according to our government) and yet all those poor children still have to pay into the system.  It is a huge burden.  So yes, we older folks caused the problem.
I have a couple of comments about how the younger generation is handling this issue. 

At least half of you have never learned the value of showing up.  I’m not kidding about the half, either.  I recently discussed the situation with a temp personnel agency.  The operations manager said that his agency had reduced the number of interviewee no-shows from fifty percent to thirty percent.  He was proud of his agency for having done so well! 

Showing up is a lot of the job, by the way.  If you did that, you might discover the value of working.  At least you might discover that the income you generate pays for your stuff.  Otherwise, where the hell do you get your stuff?  After all, your parents eventually stop paying for everything although a lot of them seem to be involved in paying off your student loans.  I suppose that’s okay, though. 

After all, they are the ones who worked so hard to make you college ready and then prepared you for that cushy job you didn’t get. 

Oh, another thing.  More than a few of us old people realize that the burden you carry is tough.  You have no guarantees about retirement or pensions and the companies you work for don’t offer them these days.  We have been watching the news and we realize that you might benefit from our experience.  More than a few of us want to help and we find it disconcerting that you ignore us.  I’m talking about your grandparents.  Your parents, who taught you that it’s okay not to show up, need to be put into a corner for a time out. 

While you are busy not showing up, the government is busy taking over your life.  Do you realize that each time you step away from the process, someone steps in and limits your reentry?  The door gets narrower each time.  Pretty soon, you’ll be wondering how in the hell you found your way into the jail that your life has become. 

Look, I realize that all the good jobs are taken.  There are no more CEO positions out there and the chairs with footstools are all gone.   You don’t get a bonus for showing up at an interview and you also don’t get applauded for coming to work.  In fact, someone may tell you that your work needs improvement or, heaven forfend, you are not getting the job done.  Those are all good things, by the way.  They mean that someone is paying attention to you.

Okay, I’ve said my piece.  Time to move on and write something for next time.  See you at work. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

I have no words

I’ve been struggling for the past two months to write a blog on expectations.  I’ll finish that one sooner or later.  In the meantime I was just handed a subject for a blog last Friday.  It was dressed in a tuxedo, given a brand new haircut and freshly shaved.  In short, it was quite the beautiful subject.

Team Mates is in an industrial building.  We are located on an easy access road and have enjoyed our last 11 years, growing at a fairly average but successful rate during that time.  We are not a glamorous business.  At present, we employ 22 wonderful people and me. 

A new taproom moved next door to us a year ago Friday.  They sell their own beer and have made quite the hit in town.  I met the owner early on and he’s a great guy.  The head brewer also is a wonderful person and overall, I know they put a lot of effort into their beer and promotions.  This week, they are celebrating their first anniversary.  They did a charity golf event today and have big plans for the whole weekend.  Great marketing is a good thing.

The result of this is that the parking lot around our complex started to fill up early on Friday morning.  We, as next door neighbors, have three permanent signs that say “Team Mates Parking only from 8AM until 6 PM” in front of three spaces, right in front of our offices.  These are reserved for customers who arrive to pick up their goods each day, or come to consult on embroidery issues that they have.  While we aren’t retail, we do have a fair number of visitors. 

Friday was quite the madhouse next door and as a result, all of the parking spaces near the taproom were occupied.  People actually had to walk around the building to get to their watering hole of choice. 

This led to people wanting to park in our three marked spots.  Mostly, they arrived late in the afternoon, around 4:30 which is very near the end of our work day.  I watched several start to pull into our spots and then back right out.  Finally, one car pulled in, stayed for a moment, apparently reading the sign, and then two younger people got out of the car and locked it.  They looked at a couple of us in the office, turned and walked to the taproom. 

Okay, I’ll admit.  It made me angry to see someone completely ignore the signs.  I dashed off a quick note, saying “Do you have trouble reading?  Did you notice the people who were looking at you from the office window in front of you?  The sign says “No Parking”.”  I’ll admit.  My anger forced me to name calling.  I wrote “Ass hat” and put the note on the guy’s windshield.

The couple came out to their car about a half hour later.  I was getting ready to leave, went to check the shop area and finally locked up and walked out.  My truck was parked next to their car.  They waited for me to finish closing up the shop. 

“Did you leave that note on my car?” asked the young male. 

“I did,” I replied. 

“My daughter was in that car and she could read it,” he said very angrily.  The car doors were open at that point, so his daughter could hear the conversation.

“Okay,” I said.  No, I’m not the best at confrontation.  I don’t think that quickly and really didn’t want to see him start around the car as he did.  “There is a sign that says that this is reserved,” I said quietly as I put my bag into my truck.

He stopped in front of his car.  “It’s not my fault that your business is so irrelevant that no cars are parked in front of it,” he said, still angry.

I was speechless, could do nothing more than put my workout bag into the truck.  He was not done and I muttered “You don’t want to fight.”

He wasn’t done.  “You don’t get to do that, you fat fuck!” he shouted.  Oh, the door was still open and his daughter, who had been locked in the car while he was inside the taproom, heard his tirade.  His girlfriend joined in and called me names as well.  All I could do was mutter, “Wow, words hurt.”  I should have been on my game.  Ah, well.

He popped into his car as I quietly put the rest of my gear away.  Finally, he and his young girl friend got into the car and pulled away.

For my part, I guess I’m just slow.  I really didn’t see that one coming.  I guess I’m supposed to be hurt.  Irrelevant?  Do they teach those words still?  Does he understand the meaning?  And of course I’m overweight.  I sit at a desk a lot, even though I work out really hard twice a week, ride a horse, throw hay.  I like those activities.  Oh, last week when I turned 63, the 22 year old who worked out with me was comatose when I went back to work.  But yeah, I’m overweight. 

I won’t stereotype.  They were young.  I’m slow and not one for debates.  I need to ask the obvious, though.  “Did you know that it’s illegal to leave a child locked and alone in a car?” or “If your daughter was able to read my handwritten note, did she also read the sign that says No Parking?   Maybe she could have helped you sound out the words.”  Sadly, I didn’t. 

I am shaken.  Not by the words.  They really don’t hurt at all.  I am shaken because up to now, the young people that I have known have been more respectful, less entitled and they actually seemed to take responsibility for their actions.   

Of course I do have a closing lesson. 


Mommies, pay attention.  Inform your children and teach them to never, ever start a sentence with “It’s not my fault” no matter what they are going to say.  We old fat fucks really don’t listen after we hear that phrase.  

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Employment

We celebrated the 25th year of Team Mates with a big party last month.  I invited all of our local customers, many of our suppliers and some colleagues within the ASI industry.  I enticed them with the promise of my homemade wine, some fabulous barbecue and the chance to embroider their own shirt.  The embroidery theme won the day.

We came up with the ‘learn the art of embroidery’ concept at our 20th anniversary party.  We felt that this would give our customers a better idea of the skills involved in decorating a piece of apparel and we also wanted a chance to introduce customers to the staff at Team Mates.

A lot of people compliment me on Team Mates’ success.  My answer is that it is the people involved in this company that make it a success.  It is also our customers and suppliers.  It is not ‘my’ company.  I just work here. 

I spent several years as a consultant to small businesses.  It was not glamorous or fun, at least in my experience.  The first instruction that every owner gave me was to ‘make the company pay them back’.  It was always the same.  In each case, the owner felt that his or her investment of time, labor and money entitled them to a big return and that whatever they were getting was not enough to justify the years of work.  I only lasted about five years as a consultant.  I got tired of telling owners that they were wrong.

A business is a living, breathing entity.  It reflects its owners and as it grows, it is transformed by the employees.  It changes and adapts if it is going to survive.  It stagnates if attention is drawn from it.  If an owner demands that the business provide more cash than is actually generated, by, say, pulling out what might be considered a fair return on all those years of investment, the business will die.  The personality of a business, often confused with its 'culture' is affected by every single person who comes into contact with it.

The owner of a successful small business understands this personality. The business is capable of growth because there is ample credit and cash available.  More importantly, there is an openness and friendliness that welcomes customers and suppliers alike.  The employees work at it with energy.  The owner and managers and staff communicate. 

Several years ago, I asked our staff to help define what Team Mates is.  Yes, we do embroidery.  My questions related to what we are.  Does Team Mates have a good personality?  How do our employees view the company and what can we do to make it better?  What effect does a good customer have on our business and what happens when we have a poor customer?

The result was that we defined our relationship with the rest of the world.  We identified our ideal customers and suppliers.  We created a model for them and then actively sought them out.  Internally, we helped our employees define their relationship with the company as a whole.  

The process worked.  Team Mates transformed into a better company, at least in our employees' eyes.  No, I am not a believer in having all of us sit around and do meditation.  I do not look at any of this in some sort of New Age way.  We did these things in order to create our business in a way that reflected the people who work here and at the same time, allowed us to build a business plan that we actually fit.  Yes, growth, sales and profitability are part of the plan.  The definition part, though, is done with the goal of actually building a business that retains employees, takes less risk and builds long-lasting relationships with customers, suppliers and staff. 

The end result, for me, was to discover something important about me and about Team Mates.  I work for the company.  I took risks and worked hard at the beginning.  At the end of the day, though, I did not make this business.  Our employees did that.  Our customers did that.  People who walked by and noticed the company name did that.  Our suppliers helped us out.


I know that while it would be nice to get rich from all of this, it is not going to happen.  At the same time, and at very least, I have a place to work that rewards me with a little bit of money and a lot of satisfaction in knowing that I work with a really great group of people.  When we had our party, I wanted our customers to meet our employees.  I wanted them to talk, to get to know each other.  What better way to demonstrate that it isn’t just me showing the face of the company.  The attitude and dedication runs all the way through.  I think that we got the message across.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Language!

I just sent a text message to my friend.  “What tome is jut?”  That went over well.  How about “Happy Bitch Day”?  That one worked well, too. 

When I read the text exchanges that people post on Facebook, I laugh along with everyone else, and then sit back and contemplate my own embarrassing moments. 

As is normal, I tend to think in long, run-on sentences that meander along a very poorly defined route that occasionally leads to an undetermined destination.  In this case, it has led me to an actual set of thoughts.  Prepare for a lecture.  Got your pencil sharpened?  Ears open?  Good.  Let’s begin.

Writing is a form of communication that dates back a really long time in human years.  At first, I am sure that mostly nouns and verbs were used.  Eventually, someone came up with the idea that we could modify nouns and verbs.  They added adjectives, adverbs, articles, and a whole lot more.  Latin was really big on conjugation in order to express present, past and future.  At some point we gained the ability to express ourselves in written form.  Spellcheck and grammar check arrived a lot later.
Okay, enough made-up history.  We’ll work on where my rickety trail of thought took me.

During the course of my business career I have met a lot of people face-to-face who have later written me.  It is often easier to write a quick note, especially with email being such an integral part of our lives, than it is to try to hunt someone down by phone. 

I wish that people would focus, edit and read what they write.  Their letters are terrible!  Some of them make no sense at all.  Poor grammar and spelling (spellcheck does not care if there is their way of getting enough capital to go see the capitol) contribute to misunderstandings and a poor overall impression of the writer.  While I know a lot of the people who write me emails and I know that they are pretty darned intelligent people, I also maintain a very bad impression of their overall education when they write me. 

A business email is the same as a job interview.  If you are serious about getting a job, you’ll dress properly and practice good manners and communication.  An email is even more critical because I can’t see you and my only available data from which to draw the conclusion that you are a complete moron, a demanding pain in the rear or a good person with whom I would like to develop a rapport is via that very same email.  Once a negative opinion is formed, it will never be completely erased.
I have trouble with the answers to emails as well.  Years ago, one of our managers would fire off responses to my emails that didn’t answer the questions that I asked.  We went round and round on it and finally she realized that she needed to read the emails slowly, or maybe twice in order to slow down and give her enough time to compose a good response.  Of course, I learned from it too and that lesson serves me well.  My job, as ‘interviewer’ or respondent to an email is to answer the questions asked and provide the information requested.  More than that is useless and less than that subjects me to another email.  Time is wasted and communication is hindered.

It is important to provide exactly what is requested.  Again, an example.  I had a friend call in a panic because he was being audited by the IRS.  He had received a letter requesting justification of his mileage for business purposes.  He was being audited!  He panicked.  When I arrived at his house and saw the ten or so boxes of receipts, returns, prior and subsequent years’ information that he wanted to bring to the audit, I stopped him.  “What does the letter request?” I asked.  “They want to see my mileage for work,” he began.  He went on to say that they were ‘going to catch him, and he’d be in jail or something’. 

I asked if he had kept a log of his mileage, which he had in a small diary.  We took that to the audit, where they told him how impressed they were with his record-keeping.  End of audit.

Too much information, long wordy comments and answers to unasked questions and just plain too much does us no good these days.  We don’t have time to read and certainly can’t absorb everything.  It is best left to long letters to family.


Go write your mother.