Sunday, April 14, 2013
This week I’ve been in Bangkok attending a global summit of influential minds on Disaster Risk Reduction, which is all about trying to prepare communities, governments and countries generally to withstand and recover from the effects of natural and man-made disasters. I was thrilled to be attending the meeting, not only to hear from the world’s leading minds on DRR, but also because I had been asked to present a key note address on the last day, which I was hoping was going to be my big chance to make myself known to these power brokers and who knows, maybe even nab a high-powered, important job in the future.
The discussion topics on offer at the summit have encompassed lengthy soul-searching on setting-up Early Warning Systems which can be operated as soon as the initial signs of a disaster are imminent, so as to alert communities and other parties to prepare for the coming danger. There have also been detailed explanations of working with communities and various groups on Disaster Preparedness and Response, so that they know what to do when the Early Warning System is activated, and Disaster Mitigation and Resilience, which is all about putting things in place to limit the impact of the disaster on people and their livelihoods.
But as is so often the case with these high-level discussions, all the theoretical jargon and technical know-how immediately get thrown out the window when a real disaster hits, as I discovered this week when my world was thrown into utter chaos by a series of unanticipated, catastrophic events.
On the last day of the meeting I was up well before the sun, diligently preparing for my presentation. After finalising the materials and practicing my speech a couple of times, I ironed my shirt and trousers, and headed off to the magnificent hotel breakfast buffet which is a common, essential element of these kinds of global meetings, concerned as they are with improving the lot of those with barely enough household resources to feed their kids.
In the Disaster Risk Reduction biz, when we talk about developing Early Warning Systems, we encourage individuals and communities to look for any unusual events or changes in their surroundings. Hindsight is indeed a powerful tool for reflection, and through this I must concede that my ability to recognise and comprehend a significant change to the breakfast buffet that morning could well have spared me from the debilitating effects of what followed, however I failed to recognise the significance of the bowl of small, ripe cherry tomatoes which had replaced the more common-place, large, pre-sliced tomatoes on offer during the previous four days.
Failing to heed this important Early Warning Sign, I obliviously sat down to my greasy breakfast and with the sharpened points of my unsuspecting table fork, I pierced the shiny outer skin of a cherry tomato, unleashing all manner of damnation and hellfire in the form of bright, red tomato juice all over my crisp, ironed shirt - my last clean shirt for the week – all within a few short moments of the professional and reputational reckoning upon which my future career in international Disaster Risk Reduction was to be built.
Within a nanosecond of the destructive cocktail of juice and pulp being sprayed from hip to shoulder where moments before there had been nothing but sharp, starchy creases, I was on my feet in the middle of the public thoroughfare, absently wiping sticky yellow seeds from my scalp and ears, while my shrinking spleen emitted an involuntary, guttural groan which rose into the lofty chamber before disappearing into the same, intangible locale as my future career prospects.
In reflection, it’s quite possible that all may not have been lost at that point, as there may have been some individuals of influence who’d not yet become aware of the destruction my heedless actions had unleashed upon the early morning diners, however my voluble anguish was released with little heed to the number one rule of Disaster Response planning, which is to Remain calm – DO NOT PANIC!. Instead, I projected a shrill, piercing scream like a couple of over-weight drag queens fighting over a pair of fourteen inch, red sequinned stilettoes, attracting the full attention of every member of the largest gathering of influential minds on international humanitarian responses ever to have been assembled.
Realising my mistake, I made a beeline for the door, only to slip on the organic mess I had created on the shiny parquetry with my clumsy upturning of a breakfast bowl, causing me to land flat on my arse and generating for those influential global minds a close-up view of the world’s first ever edible, indoor tsunami, which proceeded from the epicentre of my soiled behind to the far corners of the restaurant.
Crawling now, I lowered my head in shame and slowly reconstructed a Disaster Escape Route in my mind to guide me out the door and out of sight. Back in my Safe House hotel room a few moments later, I waited for my hyperventilating to subside and began analysing the situation. I had come to Bangkok for a reason, and I was not going to let this incident impede my Recovery to a lucrative, fat-cat position on the international stage. I threw open my wardrobe to take stock of my provisions, only to remember with horror that my Disaster Preparedness for this high-level talk fest had me Stockpiling only the required number of outfits through which to get me through five days of looking as professional as possible, and like I knew what I was talking about, however I had not allowed for Contingencies. Added to this, I had been schmoozing so much with the ‘Big Wigs’ each night … until well into the messy wee hours, that all previously worn shirts were stained with Guinness and sweaty underarms.
This was truly an unanticipated, catastrophic disaster of career-limiting proportions, but despite the dire circumstances in which I now found myself, I took a couple of deep breaths, gulped down my rising panic and I resolved to make something of this. “Hadn’t I spent the last twenty years working hard and building my reputational Resilience?”, I reasoned, “Sure I had. I have what it takes to impress these people with my skills, Knowledge, Attitude and Practice”. I impressed upon myself that these brilliant DRR practitioners weren’t interested in how I was dressed; they’d carved out their careers through the sweat and tears of responding to some of the most severe humanitarian disasters in recent history: working twenty hours a day for weeks at a time while living out of military-type barracks with limited water and supplies. They knew what was important in this industry, and it wasn’t the cut of a man’s Armani trousers. I was going to show them that I too was like them; Responsive in the face of a Disaster. I grabbed what I could from the closet, and boldly headed for the auditorium.
The Inaugural Global Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction is unlikely to be remembered for anything other than the Global Head of UNDRR, demonstrating the military precision upon which his reputation as a leader of international Disaster Responses was built, directing the Conference Facility Security personnel to chase down and brutally apprehend a scruffy, scab-faced maniac dressed only in a stained Singha Beer singlet, a pair of yellowing y-fronts and army boots, who had burst into the opening session of Day 5, shouting like a lunatic about Dyslexic Rock Renditions.
Attack of the Career-Limiting Tomatoes: Donkey comes a cropper to a pesky fruit at a Bangkok breakfast buffet. Pic: http://www.bigmike-productions.com
Sunday, April 07, 2013
Anyone whose worked in corporate customer service in the last 30 years has probably had to sit through a couple of those Gawd-awful, John Cleese-type training videos featuring starving, D-grade actors who’ve sold their Oscar dreams down the river for a couple of bucks performing two-dimensional skits for brain-dead desk jockeys and call centre clerks.
My introduction to this was straight out of school, when I took a job serving watery pots out of greasy glasses to hardened criminals in one of the Outer East’s more notorious bikie bars. For me it was just a job; sure, I’d not learn anything useful, but provided I didn’t get glassed, king-hit or have a chair smashed over me in one of the weekly brawls, I would collect a steady, minimum wage pay-check with which to advance my own liver-destructing activities, and as an added bonus, catch front-row views of my topless colleagues between 4 and 6 on a Friday.
But that all changed when, shortly after commencing my employment, the pub was bought-out by a swanky, well-established real estate firm reading the urban expansion auguries and speculating on avant-garde gentrification of the establishment ahead of the arrival of an entirely new, upwardly mobile residential market.
Within days of the takeover, we were being drilled with phone-answering hooks which were so long and grammatically complicated that they would send our regular clientele packing long before they’d had a chance to talk,
“Good morning, welcome to The Astoria! My name is Donkey and I am your friendly, enthusiastic and ready-to-help customer service agent on this bright, sunny morning. Please take a moment to press 8# to hear about all of our amazing services and products, or feel free to simply request anything specific from me as soon as you are ready” [CLICK – beep-beep-beep].
Ahead of its time it certainly was! And so too was another customer service approach which was strongly advocated for in the training videos, and soon adopted and directed by the new management. This approach dictated that if there was to be even the slightest delay in meeting a customer’s demand, the staff were to communicate directly and often with the customer to update them on the progress of their product or service.
You can just imagine the response this got from ‘Crazy Shit’ McCauley, one of our friendly regulars, during my first shift after customer service training;
Donkey: “I’m sorry about the delay in delivering your beverage, Sir. We are having some trouble with the turnover of barrels in the chilling facility below stairs”.
CSMcC: “Well why the f**k don’t you shut your poncey, pretty-boy d**k-trap and get on with swapping the f**king barrels over so I can get me f**king beer. Stupid, lazy c**t!”.
As I said, ‘ahead of its time’. These kinds of responses went on for well over two years, by which time I’d gotten jack of the daily abuse, projectile mucous and physical threats and took up a job sweeping the floor of a gay men’s hair salon (while dressed in red hot pants and with only a dustpan and brush to work with – obviously another story all together, but I can assure you the tips were incredible).
But the point is that while the customer service training videos and executive-level research might suggest that customers want to know the minutiae of why their meal/their bill/their statement is taking too long, my experiences at The Astoria suggest otherwise. So too does another example which I experienced today, this time as the customer.
This afternoon, I was sitting aboard a jam-packed airliner awaiting take-off, fuming over delays which had us sitting motionless in the sweltering, tropical midday sun as the tarmac around us slowly baked into a sticky black mess. The delay, we came to understand from the enthusiastic young Captain, was due to a malfunction in the air-conditioning system, which had been blowing-out scorching hot air for the better part of an hour.
In his best FM radio jock voice, the Captain went into great detail about the debilitated cooling system, and ‘assured’ us that the service crew had all the parts out of the plane and strewn across the baking cement in an effort to isolate and fix the problem. If the Captain’s intention here had been to make me feel more disposed to forgive the airline for the uncomfortable delay, then blowing the lid off my mistaken beliefs relating to meticulous airline service procedures wasn’t quite getting me there, and my anxiety was soon mirroring the cabin mercury.
About thirty minutes later, we roasting passengers were revived by the initial waft and later firm blast of cool air coming from the vents. Our Captain then publically thanked John the Engineer for “…coming all the way out here on his day off to single-handedly fix the problem – you may not realise it,” confided the Captain, “but this is a job normally reserved for a team of three”.
Again, admission of sub-regulatory airline safety protocols wasn’t helping me to excuse the yawning gap in our departure schedule, but the customer service pitch didn’t end there. A short while later, the Captain again spoke over the intercom, “Sorry for the further delay here, folks; we’ve been having some trouble with the flight computer. We’ve been trying a few things here and there, and wouldn’t you know? It seems the best way to fix these things is the ol’ Control-Alt-Delete combination … Ha! So we’re just re-booting the system and we’ll have the flight plan up in no time, and we should be right for take-off in about two minutes…”.
Are you getting my point here? And just when one thought that all that might seem just a little unnerving to an anxious passenger, this near-final clanger from our Staff-Member-of-the-Month of a Captain, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I apologise again for that being the longest two minutes of your life; that’s because we had developed a different flight plan when we thought the air conditioner wasn’t going to work, but when it was fixed – thanks again John … that man really is amazing! – we were back onto the old flight plan but we accidentally sent the new one to Air Traffic Control and now we’re trying to sort it out.”
“Right, that’s it!” screamed every fibre in my body, “I do not want to be here … disarm those bloody doors and get me the hell out of this thing”. But my desperate attempt at escape proved unnecessary with the Captain’s next words. By this time, we’d taxied onto the runway, and had been waiting in poll position when the Captain announced, “This seems to be taking too long I’m afraid. We’ll have to taxi back to the apron now to make room for the Air Solomons plane to depart, and then we’ll have another go. It won’t take long and we’ll soon be off.” With that I gave a sigh of relief and looked forward to getting out of this ageing tin can, but at that moment, for the first time all afternoon, the Captain decided to act without passenger consultation, and in a complete contravening of his latest communication we hurtled down the runway and were off into the big blue!
As I clung to my seat for the next four hours, my knuckles getting whiter and shinier with every turbulent bump or shake, I reflected that I reckon the customer service industry R&D teams have got it completely wrong. No customer really wants to know the whys, the wherefores or the what ifs. Customers and service users choose to have others pour their drinks, fly their planes or re-insert their haemorrhoids because they are either too lazy, or prefer not to be bothered with the technicalities. They choose not to be in the driver’s seat, and therefore they simply do not need to be part of the minutiae of decision-making or output progression. Too much information just puts people on edge, or else highlights the service provider’s incompetence … and there’s no way in the world that either of those two outcomes are going to be good for business.
The only info that we passengers didn’t get was seeing this guy when he boarded the plane and took to the flight deck - all would have been instantly clear. Pic: ww.123rf.com/photo_7259367_crazy-wwii-bomber-pilot-saluting.html