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.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Routine

This morning I didn’t go out to feed the horses at their regular time.  I didn’t think that it was important to get out there because they are mostly on pasture now and don’t eat a lot of hay any more.  I figured that being late would not be an issue. I learned a lesson, though. 

About an hour after the regular time, both horses, most especially Sam, became very agitated.  They ran down into the pasture, tore back up, went down again at full speed and then raced back up.  They both ran all the way up to their shelter and Sam started calling out as loud as he could.  The sound he made was a very urgent call, much louder than I have ever heard.  He tossed his head as I quickly put on a jacket and went out.  He kept trotting around in circles, breathing heavily and snorting. 

It took some time to get them both calmed.  I stood and talked to them, opened the barn so that they could see that all was well and finally, they got back to normal.  Once I had filled a couple of unnecessary hay bags for them, they seemed to realize that nothing had changed.  After that it was the day as usual.

I learned that routine is far more important to them than I realized.  For five years, I have gone out every morning at around 8:30 am and either fed them or let them out into the pasture.  They get the same treatment at night.  When I was late today, it threw their whole schedule off.  They were nervous and sensed that something was wrong. 

Routine permeates our lives.  Even those of us who like to take a different route to work every day or travel to different places every year or even have a different breakfast each day practice a routine of some sort.  Time creates them.  We still wake up at the same hour, depending on the day of the week.  We still pack the same clothes for our trips, and I’d hazard a guess that the different breakfasts are eaten at about the same time each day.

Changing it up, though, is a great teacher.  What makes us uncomfortable and what doesn’t matter at all?  A certain changed routine can cause all sorts of anxiety and ruin a day or a week.  Some don’t matter at all.  It makes me wonder if I shouldn’t start doing more observing of my own habitual activities, just to see which ones really don’t matter at all and which ones actually become conscious and necessary. 

Long ago I realized that the same holds true with new customers in the embroidery business.  I suspect that this is a truth for most businesses.  My company does contract B2B work.  Years ago, when we made a decision to grow, the first thing that we did was to list as many of the common complaints people made about other decorators.  We heard that poor service was the primary complaint, either because of a lack of notification, late delivery or a sense that the company did not really care about the customer.  We focused on changing the way that we operated in order to provide the answer to those complaints. 

It was a surprise to learn that the world did not come rushing to our doorstep.  On reflection, though, I discovered the reason that it did not happen.  It was easier to deal with that one memorized phone number even though it led the customer into yet another bad experience.  It was just much less complicated to make that call than go through what seemed to be a major headache in order to start all over with someone else.

I quit trying to fight habits at that point.  If a potential customer already had an embroiderer (which is most often the case), I would only anticipate a single job from them.  My best hope was to give them all of the things that they did not previously have.  If it worked out, they might call again.  And very slowly, they started to do just that.  We began to grow.  We actually began to acquire new customers. 
Changing habits is very uncomfortable.  It doesn’t matter if the habit is bad, unhealthy, or results in constant aggravation.  What is important is that a change is really tough to make.  Sometimes, the best sales technique is to just be good at what you do.  Maybe a new customer will see the difference in service and start the road to changing habits.


Today, I’m going to go practice my routine of keeping my horses company for a bit, just to let them know that I am still around.  It makes me comfortable.  Apparently it makes them comfortable too.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Never Change!

I mean, really.  Change is scary.  It might lead to success or even recognition.  Change does strange things to us.

I’m going to write about my horse now.  Please bear with me, prepare to saddle up, don’t go wandering off into the sunset, try to shoe a pig.  I’ll do my best not to be cliché.

Sam is a draft horse.  Sometimes draft horses are known as gentle giants.  There was a TV show that told us that.  Big draft horses are gentle, kind souls at heart.  They never get upset and are gentle with kittens and small children. 

Sam is a gentle giant.  He is big and strong and gentle with the barn cats all of the time.  He tends to enjoy small children most of the time.  When he is not being a gentle giant, he is being mule-headed, stubborn and obnoxious.  In the time that he has been my companion and friend, he has tossed me from the saddle five times.  Each time was due to a disagreement as to who was directing whom.  We have our moments. 

While we’ve managed our way through most of the troubles, Sam has a couple of habits that are absolutely unbreakable.  One issue in particular drives me around the bend.  Sam likes to eat grass whenever I am leading him in his halter.  It never fails that, as soon as the halter goes on, his head drops to the ground and he goes after the grass. 

It is not such a bad habit as habits go.  The trouble is, it is something that I don’t want him to do.  I have my reasons.  The reasons are valid so don’t go all judgmental on me. 

I have done just about everything possible to get Sam to stop grazing under halter.  By now, I’ve found that the best I can get is that he will lift his head when I jerk on his rope.  He also pays attention when I say “Stop!” in my dad-voice.  If I say nothing or just keep walking, he’ll drop his head to the ground and stop to grab a bite.  When that happens and because Sam is about 1300 pounds heavier than me, I also stop, often very suddenly. 

They say that horses will change habits within six or seven weeks with steady and consistent training.  Sam has hung on to his habit for five years with absolutely no sign of giving up.  Even for a horse, that’s a long time.

I know a lot of people who are like that.  We have clients who insist on calling with orders, expecting us to just record them.  Each time, we ask for a valid purchase order.  Responses vary but everyone does at least give it lip service.  They are always shocked when they call back a week later and the verbal order has not been started.

My response is always the same.  “I can’t do it without a purchase order”.  Heck, I can’t even remember that we ever discussed the logo if I don’t have a purchase order.  When they finish being upset I will quietly repeat that we can’t keep track of anything without a purchase order.  And their response is typical.  “Well, it’s the way I’ve always done things.” 

In the 25 years Team Mates has been doing business, we have made many changes to our processes.  We have adapted to the requirements of our customers and we have reacted to our growth by streamlining our systems and through the improvement of our processing.  We do this in order to be of better service to our customers.  After all, our goal is to listen to our customers, consider their needs and react through change and adaptation.  That is how we provide service.

Sam will never change.  He is a horse and has a different thought process.  He can’t communicate with me to tell me why he won’t adapt.  He might have his reasons for not wanting to stop eating under halter.  It might be that he just doesn’t understand.  No matter the reason, I don’t ever lose patience with Sam.  He is a horse.  I am not.

My customers, though, are humans (for the most part).  They are reasonably intelligent and we take the time to explain the reason for needing to change our policies and procedures.  We also explain how the changes will benefit them. 

Those customers that see the value of change are usually the most successful in their businesses.  The ones that continue to call in their orders and never change are pretty well guaranteed never to be successful. 


Fortunately, Sam will manage quite nicely.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Heroes


In recent years, the debate over immigration in the United States has been epic.  There are few places in the heavily populated regions of this country where you don’t run into foreign-born people working at jobs.  We see people in all lower-paid areas of the service industry who are ‘not from around here’ and yet they work at those jobs every single day. 

No, they’re not just like us U.S.-born citizens.  They have a different language and culture and they earn substantially less money than we do (https://www.bls.gov/news.release/forbrn.nr0.htm).  They work hard in spite of this and they work every single day just like we do.  The aforementioned report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the jobless rate in 2015 was actually .5 percent lower for foreign-born people than it was for U.S.-born people. 

I emigrated to the Dominican Republic in 1982 from the U.S.  I went there to see the world from a different point of view and to see what it was like to live somewhere else.  It was a learning experience to state the understated.

I found out what it was like to survive in a completely different culture, to not speak the local language and to see how local citizens acted.  I worked hard to learn Spanish and soon became fairly fluent.   Those first months were frightening, especially when I learned that I wasn’t ‘from around those parts.’  People treated me differently.  I didn’t make a lot of friends at first.  I learned about nationality, about survival in a foreign country, about the very different view from outside the United States and about culture.  I learned a whole lot about who I was (a citizen of the United States) and I learned to respect those who found themselves in a foreign place.

For the most part I was welcomed.  I am from the Latino world’s view of heaven on earth, the home of the American Dream and the two car garage.  I was seen as rich, even when I found myself unemployed and nearly penniless.  There is, by the way, no unemployment net in the Dominican Republic.  You either survive and pay the rent or you find yourself on the street.  It is frightening for someone like me.  Latinos (and I am sure, many others), just live with the risk.  Eventually, by the way, I came back to the United States because I could not live in a country that had electricity 5 to 10 hours a day and expected its citizens to buy generators to make up the difference.

People who come to the United States are looking for work.  They are looking for opportunity.  Legally or illegally many people work to get here and work to stay here, to take the most menial jobs if that is what they have to do.  In the Dominican Republic, I met a lot of Haitians who had gone to the Dominican Republic the very same way, in order to find a slightly better opportunity.  They worked as maids for barely survivable wages because Haiti is even worse economically than the Dominican Republic.  There are simply no jobs in Haiti.  Conditions are horrible.  Haitians are hated, though, and still they go. 

The U.S. citizenry has a long history of treating its immigrants poorly and yet, without that supply of new people, we would not have anyone working in the jobs that we think ourselves too good to perform.  Eventually, those very same people have families, children who become acclimated to our culture and who become assimilated.  Those children become doctors and executives and pillars of our communities.  In short, they become like us.  Then it is their turn to be U.S.-born and to take better jobs, and treat the new arrivals exactly as we have treated those children’s parents.

I think of immigrants as heroes.  I was once in a similar position.  I know just how hard it is to go to another place, not speak the language and to eventually receive the sideways, sarcastic comments directed toward the new arrival.  Immigrants work, they celebrate their culture and they grow families that become Americans in every sense of the word. 

A week ago, we were informed that the United States would have ‘A Day Without an Immigrant’.  I told my staff, the majority of whom are Hispanic and Asian, that I would not penalize them for taking the day off.  All but 2 of the 20 or so folks that work at my company came to work that day.  I thanked them.  I continue to thank them.  They are the heroes to me.  Regardless of the social pressures exerted on them, they said that working that day was more important.  Why?  First, yes, they need the money.  Second, they see themselves as a team, a group of individuals who work together to make a company grow and prosper. 

Their logic was that this whole thing is a non-issue to them.  They live here.  They work.  Who, after all, would they be showing and what would they be proving?  That they had power?  They know that.  I tell them all, every chance I get, that they have that power.  I can’t replace our staff.  That makes them valuable and important both as individuals and as a group. 


The people who make up the fabric of our country are important individuals who are respectable, who work for a living and live for something that they probably could not have in another place.  There is a good reason for people to want to move to the United States.  I know that immigration won’t stop for any reason at all, regardless of who is doing what to whom.  And I know that the people who come here to make a better life for themselves earn the right to be heroes an awful lot of the time.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Promises


I was recently elected to the board of our wine makers’ club.  The meeting was held while I was on vacation and it was suggested that if I wished, I was welcome to send a campaign speech to be read by one of the members. 

My speech consisted of two paragraphs.  First I said that it would really be a pleasure to serve on the board.  The second was my “campaign speech” where I promised wine in the drinking fountains and free pony rides when we hosted the board meeting at my house.  Board meetings are, by the way, open to the entire club and are generally social gatherings.  We do, however, do quite a bit of work at the meetings.

In the past six months, I’ve actually honored both promises.  I gave rides to at least one member, although they were offered to everyone.  The trouble was that my ‘pony’ is actually a large draft horse.  I think that Sam, the large pony, intimidated a few members, even after wine was consumed. 

The second promise was honored, at least to some extent, when I put on a wine blending class.  Instead of fountains, I had pumps in glass bottles that dispensed measured amounts of different wines so that people could measure what they created.  It was a fun class and in the end, I did dispense the wine out of, well, sort of fountains.  I guess that it depends on the definition of a fountain. 

At my company, I have two very important philosophies.  First, tell the truth.  Customers call often and ask if we can do certain jobs and we will give them honest answers.  Also, if we have a problem with any bit of work, and it was our fault, we tell our customers what happened.  Honest answers serve us far better than anything else.  This also applies to our employees.  We will not misrepresent any part of the company’s operations nor will we allow for our employees to do that. 

The second part is that we honor our promises.  When work is promised, we take it very personally if it is not complete at the proper time.  We can’t control every aspect of our surroundings, and know that.  We take the responsibility for our commitments though. 

I have no control over snowstorms that stop all shipments.  While this year has not been terrible in that regard, we have had a lot of people out with illness, sick children and other issues.  It seems as though our staff is never all at the shop at any given moment.  And yet, we take the responsibility and not once have I blamed staff shortages for any job to which we have a committed due date.  The thought that this might be a good excuse is foreign to me. 

After several years of practicing the two policies, our staff also tends to work together tocreate successes.  We didn’t always do this.  The changes took place back in 2008 when I started asking customers and what was required of Team Mates in order to set us apart from other embroidery companies.  The answers were clear and repetitive.  “Honor your promises and tell us the truth” were repeated so often that even a stubborn guy like me actually started to listen.  We changed the way that we did business, learned to track the progress of our orders and tell the truth to each other and to the public at large. 

The result has been that people began to trust us.  Over eight years have passed and the idea that we do this has become so ingrained into the company and to the people that work here and to our customers in general that we generate few complaints and more often than not, we are able to create great successes even through failures.  People understand that if we didn’t deliver on time, something catastrophic and beyond our control has happened.  Usually, rather than penalizing us, we are given help.


It thrills me how well people work together when we deliver on a promise or two.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Really?

They met in college and dated for their final two years.  He was a long way from home.  His parents didn’t have enough money to visit during the school year so he never got the chance to introduce her to them.  Consequently, the surprise was even bigger, the disappointment greater. 

They fell deeply in love.  They studied together and were rarely apart, except on weekends when she went home to work.  She never mentioned him to her family, afraid that they would ask her about him and knowing how they would react.  They would want to see pictures and she knew that they would demand an immediate breakup.  He learned about her and about her background.  He worked to understand her beliefs and her culture, how she had developed her opinions.  They adored each other in spite of their vast differences.

He told her of his own childhood and how his had only first been exposed to her culture at sixteen, how he had kept shaking the young boy’s hand, fascinated, wanting to touch him, to see how his skin felt, trying to discover a difference.  His family was deeply embedded in its own culture and he had rarely had the chance to get to know a different one.  And now, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with someone so completely outside of his own world.

Graduation day arrived.  His parents and grandparents came to the ceremony, so proud to see their son in cap and gown.  Her parents were there as well, excited for their girl who was the first to get a university degree.  Their families still had not met, or heard of the relationship.   

They decided to spring the wonderful surprise of their engagement on graduation day.  Both were nervous, knowing that they might face some negative reactions and yet forever hopeful that everything would go well.

The plan was to meet at a local restaurant, sit at adjoining tables and introduce each other.  He arrived last, family in tow, and took the table next to hers.  He brushed her shoulder as he walked by, smiling at her.  His parents noticed and shook their heads as they sat.  In a loud whisper, his grandmother asked “How can you know someone like that?  And why are they allowed in this restaurant?”  He was shocked at her disgust.  His parents nodded in agreement, barely containing their anger.
Finally, though, he signaled to her that it was time.  They both stood and moved together, ready to make the announcement.  Both family tables became silent as they watched them take each other’s hands.  “Mom, Dad,” he said.  “This is Sarah.  I’ve been dating her for the last two years and we are engaged to be married.” 

A shocked silence followed.  His grandmother stood, almost knocking over the table.  “You will NOT do this as long as I am alive,” she shouted.  “My grandson will never have a Liberal as a wife!” 
Her family stood.  Her father sneered at his grandmother and said, “Don’t worry.  It will never happen.  Your kind will never share our table, our home or a scrap of food with us.”

They turned and hurried out of the restaurant, their daughter in tow.  She looked back with tears in her eyes.  That was the last that they saw of each other for many years.

“Seriously?” you ask. 

Think about it.  In our haste to make sure that everyone has to get along with everyone else, we seem to have forgotten that we are all essentially human, that opinions divide us far too often.  In fact, they divide us far more often than race, culture and country.  Amazing, isn’t it?  And sort of silly in my own personal universe. 


With that in mind, I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and happy holidays.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The American Dream

I have listened to a lot of radio since the election.  I’ve read a lot of articles online and heard all sorts of opinions too.  It helps to have perspective.  Sometimes, it even helps to have a little knowledge when forming an opinion.  I also have the rare but welcome inspiration that allows me to propose the occasional hypothesis. 

I was reading about strategic mistakes made by the DFL Party during this past election cycle.  One of the proposed errors caught my eye because it was a comparison between the two candidates’ core message.  On one side, it was “Make America Great Again”.  The DFL proposed a series of ideas regarding jobs creation, education, and getting more people into the middle class.  The proposal centered loosely around the idea that the DFL would build “an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top.” 

Yes, the most outstanding problem is that the message was way too complicated.  It’s far easier to grab onto a slogan.  Regardless of your political leanings, slogans work. 

Today’s brilliant inspiration derives from the more complicated message.  It seems to explain some things.  Or maybe I had too much wine last night. 

The real message here has to do with the disappearance of the American Dream.  In fact, I doubt that many people actually hear those words these days.  My baby boomer generation grew up with tales of rags-to-riches business types.  If those didn’t hold our attention, there were still plenty of retirees around who were living just fine off their savings and a social security supplement. 

What always fascinated me, though, were the stories of people who put their hearts and souls into their small businesses and then one day sold them for a good sum of money and retired to live a wonderful life in some nice tropical place.  The hours of labor and the small salaries during their working years paid off.  Even more plentiful were the stories of immigrants who took whatever menial job they could find, saved carefully, raised children who became doctors and lawyers and eventually retired to enjoy the rest of their lives with their grandchildren.

That was the American Dream. 

The Dream disappeared during the past thirty or so years.  About five years ago I discovered that my business would not be worth enough to allow me to sell it and retire.  There is no more capital gains reduction, no more income averaging.  Selling a business has become complicated and is worth a whole lot less than it used to be. 

This led me to realize something about the current generations going into the workforce.  Young people are being educated.  They are being encouraged and they are being told that we need them.  They are not being given a Dream.  They see their working life as something that won’t be a joy.  When we of my generation run into snags or start getting burned out because of the long hours, we look ahead with some small remainder of that wonderful Dream and say ‘Don’t stop now.  Retirement will bring a great future.’ 

These days, our children know that Social Security will be running out, that there is very little profit sharing happening in companies and if there were, they’d be taxed to death on it.  Instead of working long and hard for an employer, they are mobile, not loyal and they tend to see work as a means to a pleasant trip, enough money for the weekend’s entertainment, or some other personal pleasure.  It is absolutely no wonder that less effort is put into the day’s work. 

It is no surprise that we allow manufacturing to go overseas.  I no longer wonder why I can’t find reliable young people of U.S . origin who might be interested in the embroidery business.  It’s simple.  I have nothing to offer but work.  I can’t make them rich, give them a share of a very slim profit, promise them the end of a rainbow.  All I can do is tell them that we have schedules to keep, minimums to produce and that we need to run fast to even pay for ourselves.  For them, there are easier and better ways to make money.  Machine embroidery is no one’s passion.

Millennials and so many others do not deserve to be blamed for their attitudes.  We tried to give them a work ethic.  We forgot to tell them that there could be fun at the end.  Or in the middle.  Instead we suggested that life pretty much sucks these days. 

Maybe we should try a slightly more positive approach to our grandchildren.  Maybe we should try figuring out how to recapture the American Dream.