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Surreal Conversations


It started around the time they threatened us with a shutdown.

We gathered in a room and sat quietly.

Someone (that would be me) asked about outside work if we were furloughed.

“My understanding is that if you have signed permission from Counsel for outside employment, then you’re fine.”

My response:

“I can’t understand this at all. Can’t we just use our judgment?”

Very honestly, I was busting a gut.

Like, I pay bills. I work hard to pay them. I give everything to my job and then some. I follow the ethics rules to the letter and when I am not sure, I ask or don’t do it. Rationally, how could I possibly anticipate the exact timing of the shutdown, seek suitable outside employment in time, and on top of that get supervisory approval after a Counsel review?

The response came back, sympathetically: “We’ll look into it again.”

I looked around the room. Nobody else seemed to care. Maybe it was like a forced vacation for them. They’re a younger crowd, so I can see it.

I am middle-aged. And all I could see was my bank account, draining. Quickly. Have you been to Trader Joe’s lately? Chop’t? It’s called money. It pays for things. It doesn’t grow on trees.

It wasn’t just the shutdown. It was also the months and months of media coverage. How federal workers are lazy. Overpaid. Proposals to freeze our pay. Cut the ranks. “Encourage retirement.” Etc.

Anyone could see that federal workers were under attack. One doesn’t have to overreact, but it makes sense to be prepared. Who knows what the future could bring?

It occurred to me, then, that I was square in the middle of a surreal conversation. In a regular conversation there would have been a lot of dialogue. But one really couldn’t say much of anything at that particular place and time. So it turned quiet, and felt strange.

I remember that I walked out, totally embarrassed. My face was red. This was unlike me:

A) I don’t embarrass easily.
B) I hate talking about money.

In fact most federal workers I know don’t talk about money. Except in the context of years-till-retirement.

Surreality is everywhere.

Another example.

My kid comes home from school and tells me I have to help her get ready for a test.

Me: Go online and get a worksheet.

Kid: There are no worksheets.

Me: What do you mean there are no worksheets? It’s MATH!

Kid: The teacher doesn’t follow a book.

Me: What?

Kid: You don’t get it. The teacher doesn’t teach.

Me: What?

Kid: The teacher doesn’t teach.

Me: What do you mean the teacher won’t teach?”

You can see where this conversation is going, right?

It all reminds me of this surreal interchange between Steve Martin, playing the bumbling “Inspector Clouseau,” and soccer trainer/killer “Yuri,” in The Pink Panther.

Clouseau thinks he is interrogating Yuri successfully, but the information he wanted is right there in the open:

Clouseau: Is there anyone with you?

Yuri: No.

Clouseau: Are you carrying a pair of high heels in that bag?

Yuri: No.

Clouseau: Not even a small pair of pumps?

Yuri: No.

Clouseau: Who are you?

Yuri: I’m Yuri, the trainer.

Clouseau: And what is it you do, Yuri the trainer?

Yuri: I train.

Clouseau: So, you are Yuri the trainer who trains.

Similarly, I am having this idiotic conversation about a teacher who won’t teach. And as you can imagine, this is after a full day of work and I am coming home covered head to toe in to-dos.

Fast forward to an actual parent-teacher conference with this individual.

I didn’t want to have a conference. But I actually could not find a review sheet online that looked anything like her homework problems. I can’t see any other way.

I walk in to the classroom and the following dialogue ensues. Straight out of an episode of “Seinfeld.” Have you seen this one? It’s called, “The Trip” (Episode #41).

Jerry and George are in a hotel room in Los Angeles just before Jerry goes on “The Tonight Show”. The housekeeper comes in to straighten up and asks how they want the beds made up:

George: Uh, Jerry, you want your blankets tucked in?

Jerry: Excuse me, what?

George: You want your blankets tucked in?

Jerry: What blankets?

George: When Lupe makes up the beds in the morning.

Jerry: I don't know, whatever they do.

Lupe: I tuck in? Yes?

Jerry: Tuck in, tuck in.

George: Alright, so that's one tuck and one no-tuck.

Lupe: Okay.

George: Yeah. One second sweetheart. Jerry, I really think it'd be easier if you didn't tuck.

Jerry: Excuse me, fine, you don't want me to tuck, put me down for a no-tuck.

George (to Lupe): Two no-tucks.

Jerry: Uh, hang on a second, You know what? Changed my mind, make it a tuck.

George: You just said you weren't tucking.

Jerry: I'm tucking! Hello? Hello? They hung up on me. They don't know where Kramer is anyway.

George: Alrighty, so. That's one tuck and one no-tuck. Got that?

Now you are ready to listen in on my bizarre conversation with the teacher:

Me: My daughter tells me that you don’t teach.

Teacher: That’s right.

Me: How can you not teach? It’s algebra.

Teacher (gently): Geometry, Mrs. Blumenthal.

Me (irritated): Oh, sorry. Geometry. Why don’t you teach that?

(I’m thinking, he does teach this. And I’m asking why he doesn’t teach it. This is getting stranger and stranger.)

Teacher: I want the kids to discover it for themselves.

I have seen this teacher’s resume. It’s like I am dealing with the Freud of geometry here. Like a mad genius and I am in the lab.

Me: OK, I don’t understand. They have to learn it don’t they? I requires memorizing. How can they ‘discover’ something they don’t know anything about?

Teacher: It’s simple. I give them the worksheets, they sit in groups, and they ask me if they have any questions.

Wow, I’m thinking. I wish I had a job like that. I could just give the customers blank posters and let them draw in the taglines and ask me if they want to know anything about outreach.

Me: OK then. Well, have a nice weekend.

I leave and close the door. I have given up. I bow out gracefully, while I still have my marbles intact.

Surreal conversations.

How do you handle them?

In that case I said to myself, the kid is basically doing very well. Either leave it alone or pull her out of the school. I left it alone.

In the case of the shutdown, I looked for permissible freelance work. That could serve as a cushion in case something happened in the future.

I was fortunate to find two things. One is teaching as an adjunct assistant professor of marketing in a local public university (WOO HOO! No, I don’t want to name it.) The other involves some ghostwriting.

Of course for both of these I had to get permission. Which led me to another surreal conversation:

Supervisor: Counsel wants me to warn you that multiple jobs at the same time could lead you to using core work hours to freelance. Also, you want to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Me: They’re not at the same time, at least not mostly. The teaching is online and it’s one course during the summer. The other one is only a few hours once a week.

Supervisor: Still. Do you see where they bolded the guidance? That means they’re concerned. You do ask about freelancing a lot.

Me: I have asked maybe five times in six years.

Supervisor: Nobody else asks that much.

Me: But isn’t it a sign of an ethical employee that I ask? What am I supposed to do, not ask?

Supervisor: No, of course you should ask.

I am dizzy by now.

I must tell you that my supervisor is incredibly good to me. I adore her. And what she is trying to do is protect me. Because in life, things are decided not only on the basis of fact. They are decided in the context of surreal conversations, where innocent actions can be taken the wrong way, and blow back on the doer painfully, causing irreparable damage.

Like, I learned in this conversation that people wonder why my posts go up on GovLoop sometimes during core work hours. Dammit, I thought, I knew that was going to be a problem. Because the RSS feed gets picked up when it gets picked up – I don’t have control over that.

I am a busy person, driven to write. I write whenever I can. Mornings, mostly, on weekdays and weekends. Right now. Sometimes at night if I have time, energy and am inspired. Sometimes at lunch if there’s something really major going on in my mind. I don’t want to say that I’ve never posted a blog from work – maybe a handful of times, out of 400 posts – but when I am there, I am there. And everybody knows that.

(Even when I am home, I am there…checking in remotely, working to get ahead of a deadline, emailing in ideas and concerns from the news, etc.)

But still, there is the appearance of things.

“Keep a record of when you email the blog in,” she advised me. “I know you don’t blog at work, but protect yourself, just in case.”

That was good advice. Straight. Not surreal. Not couched in a pseudo-message. Direct. I can deal with that. My supervisor did me a favor.

Another misunderstanding about my blog came up, that shouldn’t have surprised me. It is piped to a variety of outlets – GovLoop, Government in the Lab, the Customer Collective, Brazen Careerists, and a couple of others that usually don’t pick it up. And Twitter. LinkedIn. Not to mention whoever cuts and pastes my posts into their blogs, or links to them. And I’ve posted a couple of videos on branding.

When people type my name into Google, it seems like I am sitting on the Internet 24/7 doing nothing else but generating content - and have virtually no time for anything else. That could not be further from the truth. I have about an hour of writing energy a day, maybe two if I push it. The rest of the time I am just too busy with real life.

If I hadn’t had a direct conversation with my supervisor, that perception could have festered and gotten worse. Because now I am working on a book based on all my blogs. I can only imagine the consternation of trying to figure out “how Dannielle has time to write five blogs a day plus write a book plus all the other stuff she does.” It would look ridiculous.

The takeaway lesson from my experience is pretty clear.

Surreal conversations are part of life. You have to turn them into straight ones.

Reality is, most people aren’t direct about what they want to say.

• They may be afraid of coming out and saying it.

• They may not be fully sure of what they think.

• They may not be the best communicators in the world.

It is your job, at all times, to handle the conversation. It’s not always a pleasant job.

Look at the whole scandal over PR firm Burson-Marsteller getting paid by Facebook to ghostwrite negative stories about Google.

We all know that BM (what an acronym) did the wrong thing. And that they’re getting heat all over the place – tarnishing all the rest of us PR folks with the “sleazy” mark again – but looking at them from the outside I am pretty impressed.

They took responsibility immediately:

“Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies.”

When follow-up mini-earthquakes arose, like deleting critical posts on its Facebook page, they continued to take responsibility, saying:

“That was wrong.”

Then again, there is a blog called Burson-Marsteller Watch, “Keeping an Eye on Hell’s Public Relations Firm.” Which actually picked up one of my posts once, which is how I learned about it.

If I were Burson, I would be concerned about the anti-Burson blog. They probably are. And they’ve decided to ignore it. But I’m not sure I would go that route. It might be better if they had a “myths vs. facts” kind of space online where they addressed attacks on their reputation directly. (Maybe they do and I just don’t know about it. They seem pretty good.)

One last surreal conversation…and how it turned into a real one.

Me to supervisor: Why are we wasting money doing things X way. Let’s do them Y way.

Supervisor: OK. Get IT permission.

And then, me to IT:

Me: I want to (described procedure) Y way. It affects nothing. It harms nothing. This is why. Is that OK?

IT: Why can’t you make it work the old way?

I started to feel like Popeye when he tried to punch Brutus but Brutus pushed his head back so that Popeye’s hands were flailing in the air. The point isn’t Y. The point is that the new way is better and safe. It was simple common sense.

What did I do? Of course I am a writer so I wrote a long, detailed email detailing exactly how I felt.

I restrained myself from sending it. 93% of all emails are misunderstood the wrong way. What do you think is going to happen to one that is flat-out hostile?

I showed said email to supervisor.

Me: I shouldn’t send this, right?

Supe (kindly; sighing): Ask (name of person) for guidance. Give him a call.

I do this. Meanwhile IT has someone call me to find out what the situation is. I know her. She’s pretty good, and I trust her. Now it turns into a real conversation. Now I can start to get some results.

IT friend: What’s the problem?

Me: (Explains situation)

IT friend: OK I see. I think we can handle that. Send me an email explaining.

Me: I’ll send you the email I already sent (everyone else involved in this situation.

IT friend: This is probably as simple as writing a procedure. We don’t have rules yet that cover what you want to do.

Me: THANK YOU thank you thank you.

IT friend: And how is your life going?

Me: Don’t ask. (This is the same day as I find out people think I’m blogging 24/7.)

In unison: Let’s have lunch.

In a way, life is really just a series of ongoing conversations. When they become surreal it’s a waste of everybody’s time.

When you find yourself caught up in a surreal conversation, try to get to the heart of the matter diplomatically. Recognize that if the communication is failing, it’s probably not about you. More likely it’s about something that has people running scared, or confused, or they have trouble saying what it is they want to say.

Like my grandmother Muriel, may she rest in peace, once said:

“Life is short. Be kind to each other.”

Assume the best about other people, not the worst. Most of the time they’re just doing the best they can.

Have a good weekend everybody, and –

Good luck!

Surreal Conversations




It started around the time they threatened us with a shutdown.

We gathered in a room and sat quietly.

Someone (that would be me) asked about outside work if we were furloughed.

“My understanding is that if you have signed permission from Counsel for outside employment, then you’re fine.”

My response:

“I can’t understand this at all. Can’t we just use our judgment?”

Very honestly, I was busting a gut.

Like, I pay bills. I work hard to pay them. I give everything to my job and then some. I follow the ethics rules to the letter and when I am not sure, I ask or don’t do it. Rationally, how could I possibly anticipate the exact timing of the shutdown, seek suitable outside employment in time, and on top of that get supervisory approval after a Counsel review?

The response came back, sympathetically: “We’ll look into it again.”

I looked around the room. Nobody else seemed to care. Maybe it was like a forced vacation for them. They’re a younger crowd, so I can see it.

I am middle-aged. And all I could see was my bank account, draining. Quickly. Have you been to Trader Joe’s lately? Chop’t? It’s called money. It pays for things. It doesn’t grow on trees.

It wasn’t just the shutdown. It was also the months and months of media coverage. How federal workers are lazy. Overpaid. Proposals to freeze our pay. Cut the ranks. “Encourage retirement.” Etc.

Anyone could see that federal workers were under attack. One doesn’t have to overreact, but it makes sense to be prepared. Who knows what the future could bring?

It occurred to me, then, that I was square in the middle of a surreal conversation. In a regular conversation there would have been a lot of dialogue. But one really couldn’t say much of anything at that particular place and time. So it turned quiet, and felt strange.

I remember that I walked out, totally embarrassed. My face was red. This was unlike me:

A) I don’t embarrass easily.
B) I hate talking about money.

In fact most federal workers I know don’t talk about money. Except in the context of years-till-retirement.

Surreality is everywhere.

Another example.

My kid comes home from school and tells me I have to help her get ready for a test.

Me: Go online and get a worksheet.

Kid: There are no worksheets.

Me: What do you mean there are no worksheets? It’s MATH!

Kid: The teacher doesn’t follow a book.

Me: What?

Kid: You don’t get it. The teacher doesn’t teach.

Me: What?

Kid: The teacher doesn’t teach.

Me: What do you mean the teacher won’t teach?”

You can see where this conversation is going, right?

It all reminds me of this surreal interchange between Steve Martin, playing the bumbling “Inspector Clouseau,” and soccer trainer/killer “Yuri,” in The Pink Panther.

Clouseau thinks he is interrogating Yuri successfully, but the information he wanted is right there in the open:

Clouseau: Is there anyone with you?

Yuri: No.

Clouseau: Are you carrying a pair of high heels in that bag?

Yuri: No.

Clouseau: Not even a small pair of pumps?

Yuri: No.

Clouseau: Who are you?

Yuri: I’m Yuri, the trainer.

Clouseau: And what is it you do, Yuri the trainer?

Yuri: I train.

Clouseau: So, you are Yuri the trainer who trains.

Similarly, I am having this idiotic conversation about a teacher who won’t teach. And as you can imagine, this is after a full day of work and I am coming home covered head to toe in to-dos.

Fast forward to an actual parent-teacher conference with this individual.

I didn’t want to have a conference. But I actually could not find a review sheet online that looked anything like her homework problems. I can’t see any other way.

I walk in to the classroom and the following dialogue ensues. Straight out of an episode of “Seinfeld.” Have you seen this one? It’s called, “The Trip” (Episode #41).

Jerry and George are in a hotel room in Los Angeles just before Jerry goes on “The Tonight Show”. The housekeeper comes in to straighten up and asks how they want the beds made up:

George: Uh, Jerry, you want your blankets tucked in?

Jerry: Excuse me, what?

George: You want your blankets tucked in?

Jerry: What blankets?

George: When Lupe makes up the beds in the morning.

Jerry: I don't know, whatever they do.

Lupe: I tuck in? Yes?

Jerry: Tuck in, tuck in.

George: Alright, so that's one tuck and one no-tuck.

Lupe: Okay.

George: Yeah. One second sweetheart. Jerry, I really think it'd be easier if you didn't tuck.

Jerry: Excuse me, fine, you don't want me to tuck, put me down for a no-tuck.

George (to Lupe): Two no-tucks.

Jerry: Uh, hang on a second, You know what? Changed my mind, make it a tuck.

George: You just said you weren't tucking.

Jerry: I'm tucking! Hello? Hello? They hung up on me. They don't know where Kramer is anyway.

George: Alrighty, so. That's one tuck and one no-tuck. Got that?

Now you are ready to listen in on my bizarre conversation with the teacher:

Me: My daughter tells me that you don’t teach.

Teacher: That’s right.

Me: How can you not teach? It’s algebra.

Teacher (gently): Geometry, Mrs. Blumenthal.

Me (irritated): Oh, sorry. Geometry. Why don’t you teach that?

(I’m thinking, he does teach this. And I’m asking why he doesn’t teach it. This is getting stranger and stranger.)

Teacher: I want the kids to discover it for themselves.

I have seen this teacher’s resume. It’s like I am dealing with the Freud of geometry here. Like a mad genius and I am in the lab.

Me: OK, I don’t understand. They have to learn it don’t they? I requires memorizing. How can they ‘discover’ something they don’t know anything about?

Teacher: It’s simple. I give them the worksheets, they sit in groups, and they ask me if they have any questions.

Wow, I’m thinking. I wish I had a job like that. I could just give the customers blank posters and let them draw in the taglines and ask me if they want to know anything about outreach.

Me: OK then. Well, have a nice weekend.

I leave and close the door. I have given up. I bow out gracefully, while I still have my marbles intact.

Surreal conversations.

How do you handle them?

In that case I said to myself, the kid is basically doing very well. Either leave it alone or pull her out of the school. I left it alone.

In the case of the shutdown, I looked for permissible freelance work. That could serve as a cushion in case something happened in the future.

I was fortunate to find two things. One is teaching as an adjunct assistant professor of marketing in a local public university (WOO HOO! No, I don’t want to name it.) The other involves some ghostwriting.

Of course for both of these I had to get permission. Which led me to another surreal conversation:

Supervisor: Counsel wants me to warn you that multiple jobs at the same time could lead you to using core work hours to freelance. Also, you want to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Me: They’re not at the same time, at least not mostly. The teaching is online and it’s one course during the summer. The other one is only a few hours once a week.

Supervisor: Still. Do you see where they bolded the guidance? That means they’re concerned. You do ask about freelancing a lot.

Me: I have asked maybe five times in six years.

Supervisor: Nobody else asks that much.

Me: But isn’t it a sign of an ethical employee that I ask? What am I supposed to do, not ask?

Supervisor: No, of course you should ask.

I am dizzy by now.

I must tell you that my supervisor is incredibly good to me. I adore her. And what she is trying to do is protect me. Because in life, things are decided not only on the basis of fact. They are decided in the context of surreal conversations, where innocent actions can be taken the wrong way, and blow back on the doer painfully, causing irreparable damage.

Like, I learned in this conversation that people wonder why my posts go up on GovLoop sometimes during core work hours. Dammit, I thought, I knew that was going to be a problem. Because the RSS feed gets picked up when it gets picked up – I don’t have control over that.

I am a busy person, driven to write. I write whenever I can. Mornings, mostly, on weekdays and weekends. Right now. Sometimes at night if I have time, energy and am inspired. Sometimes at lunch if there’s something really major going on in my mind. I don’t want to say that I’ve never posted a blog from work – maybe a handful of times, out of 400 posts – but when I am there, I am there. And everybody knows that.

(Even when I am home, I am there…checking in remotely, working to get ahead of a deadline, emailing in ideas and concerns from the news, etc.)

But still, there is the appearance of things.

“Keep a record of when you email the blog in,” she advised me. “I know you don’t blog at work, but protect yourself, just in case.”

That was good advice. Straight. Not surreal. Not couched in a pseudo-message. Direct. I can deal with that. My supervisor did me a favor.

Another misunderstanding about my blog came up, that shouldn’t have surprised me. It is piped to a variety of outlets – GovLoop, Government in the Lab, the Customer Collective, Brazen Careerists, and a couple of others that usually don’t pick it up. And Twitter. LinkedIn. Not to mention whoever cuts and pastes my posts into their blogs, or links to them. And I’ve posted a couple of videos on branding.

When people type my name into Google, it seems like I am sitting on the Internet 24/7 doing nothing else but generating content - and have virtually no time for anything else. That could not be further from the truth. I have about an hour of writing energy a day, maybe two if I push it. The rest of the time I am just too busy with real life.

If I hadn’t had a direct conversation with my supervisor, that perception could have festered and gotten worse. Because now I am working on a book based on all my blogs. I can only imagine the consternation of trying to figure out “how Dannielle has time to write five blogs a day plus write a book plus all the other stuff she does.” It would look ridiculous.

The takeaway lesson from my experience is pretty clear.

Surreal conversations are part of life. You have to turn them into straight ones.

Reality is, most people aren’t direct about what they want to say.

• They may be afraid of coming out and saying it.

• They may not be fully sure of what they think.

• They may not be the best communicators in the world.

It is your job, at all times, to handle the conversation. It’s not always a pleasant job.

Look at the whole scandal over PR firm Burson-Marsteller getting paid by Facebook to ghostwrite negative stories about Google.

We all know that BM (what an acronym) did the wrong thing. And that they’re getting heat all over the place – tarnishing all the rest of us PR folks with the “sleazy” mark again – but looking at them from the outside I am pretty impressed.

They took responsibility immediately:

“Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies.”

When follow-up mini-earthquakes arose, like deleting critical posts on its Facebook page, they continued to take responsibility, saying:

“That was wrong.”

Then again, there is a blog called Burson-Marsteller Watch, “Keeping an Eye on Hell’s Public Relations Firm.” Which actually picked up one of my posts once, which is how I learned about it.

If I were Burson, I would be concerned about the anti-Burson blog. They probably are. And they’ve decided to ignore it. But I’m not sure I would go that route. It might be better if they had a “myths vs. facts” kind of space online where they addressed attacks on their reputation directly. (Maybe they do and I just don’t know about it. They seem pretty good.)

One last surreal conversation…and how it turned into a real one.

Me to supervisor: Why are we wasting money doing things X way. Let’s do them Y way.

Supervisor: OK. Get IT permission.

And then, me to IT:

Me: I want to (described procedure) Y way. It affects nothing. It harms nothing. This is why. Is that OK?

IT: Why can’t you make it work the old way?

I started to feel like Popeye when he tried to punch Brutus but Brutus pushed his head back so that Popeye’s hands were flailing in the air. The point isn’t Y. The point is that the new way is better and safe. It was simple common sense.

What did I do? Of course I am a writer so I wrote a long, detailed email detailing exactly how I felt.

I restrained myself from sending it. 93% of all emails are misunderstood the wrong way. What do you think is going to happen to one that is flat-out hostile?

I showed said email to supervisor.

Me: I shouldn’t send this, right?

Supe (kindly; sighing): Ask (name of person) for guidance. Give him a call.

I do this. Meanwhile IT has someone call me to find out what the situation is. I know her. She’s pretty good, and I trust her. Now it turns into a real conversation. Now I can start to get some results.

IT friend: What’s the problem?

Me: (Explains situation)

IT friend: OK I see. I think we can handle that. Send me an email explaining.

Me: I’ll send you the email I already sent (everyone else involved in this situation.

IT friend: This is probably as simple as writing a procedure. We don’t have rules yet that cover what you want to do.

Me: THANK YOU thank you thank you.

IT friend: And how is your life going?

Me: Don’t ask. (This is the same day as I find out people think I’m blogging 24/7.)

In unison: Let’s have lunch.

In a way, life is really just a series of ongoing conversations. When they become surreal it’s a waste of everybody’s time.

When you find yourself caught up in a surreal conversation, try to get to the heart of the matter diplomatically. Recognize that if the communication is failing, it’s probably not about you. More likely it’s about something that has people running scared, or confused, or they have trouble saying what it is they want to say.

Like my grandmother Muriel, may she rest in peace, once said:

“Life is short. Be kind to each other.”

Assume the best about other people, not the worst. Most of the time they’re just doing the best they can.

Have a good weekend everybody, and –

Good luck!

Skype: A Great Brand, But No Demand

Got the news this week that Microsoft is paying $8.5 billion for Skype. Wow.

 

Initial reaction: Good marriage. Skype is "the" free-Internet-calling brand (though Google Voice does the same thing) but it doesn't have a partner to make it ubiquitous. Meanwhile Microsoft is the ultimate brand partner – because nearly everybody uses their technology – but they lack the "friendly factor" that Skype has mastered.

 

Second reaction: Not going to work. Microsoft is just not good at being a friendly company. They're a very serious brand. Skype and Microsoft are just too opposite, from a brand symbolism perspective, to mesh well. If I had to put the attributes into words, Skype makes me think of "light, fluffy, creative and free," whereas I associate Microsoft with being "harsh, metal iron, stifling and greedy."

 

The meshing of the brands isn't the real problem though.

 

The real problem is that Skype is a brand without a business model.

 

There are two big problems with Skype. The first is easier than the second.

 

Problem #1 is that the technology isn't there yet. It should work "right out of the box," and yet there always seems to be some sort of glitch. The video lags, it's confusing which parts are free and which are paid, the advanced functions (like conference calling) are not intuitive. Especially from the cell.

 

Plus it makes your keyboard light up by turning the phone numbers to auto-dial-by-Skype, and you're never sure if that costs money or not, or how to use it. So you don't.

 

Problem #2 is far worse. And I don't know that Microsoft can solve it.

 

Video and phone don't go together.

 

Some subpoints here.

 

A – When you use the phone, normally you hold it to your ear. Now all of a sudden you have to look at it? Oh wait, Skype isn't really for regular phones, it's for phoning by computer. Which is strange. It feels strange to talk to the machine you type on. You sort of don't know how to think about it.

 

B – Having to be on video all the time is intrusive. Damn intrusive. It goes against the very nature of being on the phone. Do you look your best all the time? I don't. That's why I prefer to talk on the phone, not do a webcast of every conversation. That's why email is good. You can hide.

 

On video, you're not hiding. There is your face, for all to see. And the unorganized space around you, unless you are a compulsive neat freak. Your coffee cup. Your papers. Your cords. Undermining all attempts to seem composed. Undermining your personal brand.

 

One time I had to do a one-minute video on personal branding. A homemade one. Do you know that I recorded that video 36 times before I got it right? Even then I didn't like the way I look. I was embarrassed.

 

This is the problem that Skype confronts. Most of us look bad on video.

 

Try it out for yourself. Test the monitor. You do not look good.

 

Why then would you voluntarily use Skype?

 

The technology factor and the human factor are business problems not yet solved. Fundamentally, the product is not yet ready to meet the needs of the customer.

 

With one exception.

 

Do you remember on Star Trek when they sat in the control chairs and interacted with other species as if they were on TV?

 

That would be an outstanding use of Skype. Bringing live teleconferencing to the people in an affordable way. Saving the money and the hassle of plane travel. Undercutting the price that vendors charge for fancy teleconference rooms right now.

 

If Microsoft can figure out a way to set people up with video monitors at work, to facilitate remote meetings and telework on a local, national, and international level, then they will be able to hit this one out of the park.

 

However – and this is a big however – to do this well they will have to modify or perhaps chop up the Skype brand a bit.

 

The initial, bubbly part they should leave intact at the consumer level. Let it be free, let us muck around with it, there will always be people who can figure out a use from day to day. Who don't mind being on camera.

 

For example people traveling who want to connect with loved ones in a closer way than the sometimes off-putting telephone, text or email.

 

Microsoft should devise a brand architecture that takes a piece of the Skype brand identity – maybe the blue color, maybe the S, an element of it that makes it recognizable to the consumer as accessible – and integrate that into a more businesslike offering. The kind that people know and trust Microsoft with. The businesslike offering should be a business-to-business model. One that helps businesses cut costs and increase productivity by integrating telework and tele-meetings via ubiquitous video-conference calls.

 

I think that Microsoft can realistically do that. I think that Skype can become useful that way. I even think that I could bear being on camera if it meant reducing my commuting time and travel.

 

It will be interesting to see how this one turns out, and whether Google interrupts this grand plan with a version of Google Voice that is just as appealing.

 

As you fight it out, Microsoft and Google (and whoever else) –

 

Good luck!



“Bad influences” are everywhere. Deal with it.

Jewish people disagree – in fact we are torn – about what to do with the modern world. The issue, particularly for those who believe in following tradition, is "bad influences," which lead one to be tempted to sin.

In the olden days, the community could excommunicate bad influences, a.k.a. "heretics." Their parents mourned them as if they were dead, ripping their clothes in grief.  (A la "Fiddler on the Roof.")

Today, these same people are alive, in a community sense, because they are established community presences and are not going anywhere soon. They can't be squashed.

We have to deal with them.

The government is in a parallel situation when it comes to social media.

In the past you could silence dissenters simply by ignoring them or denying them access to official channels of communication.

Today they have laptops hooked to the Internet and free subscriptions to Blogger, Wordpress, Facebook and Twitter.

Unfortunately, though, these people are too often seen as "bad influences" because they speak in "disrespectful voices" saying things that are "offensive."

I'm not talking about criminals now. Not slanderers, not traitors, not liars or people who want to harm the government in any way.

No, these people are simply challenging the government version of things and the government way of doing things. They are demanding accountability and transparency.

And they have loud microphones. And listeners.

We have to deal with it. We have to deal with them.

The perceived dangers of modern life are extremely intense for the observant Jewish community nowadays. Sometimes they go too far. Like in the much-discussed altered photo published by a Hasidic newspaper, where they showed a male-only version of government leaders watching the Bin Laden capture.  

There are other practices too, that would make the modern person's hair stand on end. Like clothing store supervisors who check that the clothes being sold are modest (similar to the practice of supervising food supervision to ensure it is kosher). It so extreme that it borders on the paranoid, compulsive, bizarre.

But I come from Hasidic background (Satmar) and I can tell you – this is a very spiritual and very devoted population. And they are damn scared of becoming as spiritually degraded as they think the modern world is. They don't think they're better at all. Rather, they know how tempting and how easy it is to fall.

This fear is not limited to the Jewish world. If you ever saw the movie "Footloose," where the pastor tries to keep the high school seniors from having a (to most people) ordinary dance, you know what I am talking about.

The other day I did carpool and gave a Muslim student a ride home. She covers her hair – in high school – something Jewish girls do not do. We passed a woman on the street with her entire body shrouded except for a little slit for the eyes.

I couldn't help but say something. Basically I was gasping mentally in horror, but didn't want to offend the student, so I asked her about it. She said something to the effect that she personally disagrees with the head-to-toe covering. That it is supposed to keep attention away from the woman in theory, but puts her at the center of attention in practice.

In the olden days I would not have had this conversation with this young woman. We would have been completely isolated from one another. But we spoke to each other in real voices, a real conversation. A conversation more powerful than anything an official channel of communication can generate because it's honest.

There have always been real conversations between people that serve as a counterpoint to what comes out of official channels. The "problem" for government today is that these conversations have gone from the private sphere to the public one – they are taking place online.

What the government does not seem to understand is that from a consumer point of view, "official" sounding talk is a failure. People today don't care about titles and hierarchy. In fact they don't trust them. What they do care about is real information. Who they trust is – friends and opinion-leaders who are either unbiased or have strong values that resonate with their own.

So people today, and I think more and more in the future, will get their news and information not from the government so much, and not from the conglomerate-owned media, but more likely from the people around them. From influencers whose voices sound honest, and credible, and objective, and reliable. From people who have no stake in the game other than to communicate "what's really going on."

If the government views social media as a "bad influence," inherently offensive, objectionable, disruptive, disrespectful, undermining, and so on, then a huge opportunity for communication has been missed. Worse, all the money we are spending to reach out to people is in danger of being wasted.

What we need to do is accept that the playing field has been absolutely leveled. We are now on the same playing ground with everybody else. We have no advantage, or maybe we have a disadvantage because we are biased toward the policies, programs, and organizational structures that we have and want to promote. 

In the real world of communication, this means that we have to change not only the tools that we use to get out there, but also the attitude toward the kind of people who normally use those tools. People who use their cellphones to take a picture of something unjust, then share that picture on Twitter, are social reformists. They're not passive sharers of information.

We must respect that social media users have strong views, are passionate about the power of information, and demand nothing less than total transparency (to the greatest legal extent possible) and a simple, honest, clearly understandable voice.

Very specifically, here is what I suggest.

Rather than putting social media on the sidelines of our communication with the public, and using it as a one-way interaction tool – we must put it at the center of our communication strategies. Not hide behind press releases. Not hide behind website jargon that has no space for comments.

The public is on Facebook. On YouTube. The public is in McDonald's. The public is at the mall. The public is sitting in their cars.  The public is working, if they're lucky, at badly paying jobs all day, and they play the radio to give them a respite from the thankless tasks they must do. They read the news too. And they like to see the "Letters to the Editor." Sometimes more than the "news" itself.

Everything we do to get through to the public must be social, must be shareable, must be from the perspective of a trusted friend.

It's time to stop pushing away the "bad influences." It is time to start learning what to do, and how to communicate, directly from their successes.

Times have changed, and we in the government have to change too.

I hope we can do this soon, because we need to.

So for all of us who are trying – a collective –

"Good Luck!"

*As always, all opinions are my own.


“Bad influences” are everywhere. Deal with it.

Jewish people disagree – in fact we are torn – about what to do with the modern world. The issue, particularly for those who believe in following tradition, is "bad influences," which lead one to be tempted to sin.

 

In the olden days, the community could excommunicate bad influences, a.k.a. "heretics." Their parents mourned them as if they were dead, ripping their clothes in grief.  (A la "Fiddler on the Roof.")

 

Today, these same people are alive, in a community sense, because they are established community presences and are not going anywhere soon. They can't be squashed.

 

We have to deal with them.

 

The government is in a parallel situation when it comes to social media.

 

In the past you could silence dissenters simply by ignoring them or denying them access to official channels of communication.

 

Today they have laptops hooked to the Internet and free subscriptions to Blogger, Wordpress, Facebook and Twitter.

 

Unfortunately, though, these people are too often seen as "bad influences" because they speak in "disrespectful voices" saying things that are "offensive."

 

I'm not talking about criminals now. Not slanderers, not traitors, not liars or people who want to harm the government in any way.

 

No, these people are simply challenging the government version of things and the government way of doing things. They are demanding accountability and transparency.

 

And they have loud microphones. And listeners.

 

We have to deal with it. We have to deal with them.

 

The perceived dangers of modern life are extremely intense for the observant Jewish community nowadays. Sometimes they go too far. Like in the much-discussed altered photo published by a Hasidic newspaper, where they showed a male-only version of government leaders watching the Bin Laden capture.  

 

There are other practices too, that would make the modern person's hair stand on end. Like clothing store supervisors who check that the clothes being sold are modest (similar to the practice of supervising food supervision to ensure it is kosher). It so extreme that it borders on the paranoid, compulsive, bizarre.

 

But I come from Hasidic background (Satmar) and I can tell you – this is a very spiritual and very devoted population. And they are damn scared of becoming as spiritually degraded as they think the modern world is. They don't think they're better at all. Rather, they know how tempting and how easy it is to fall.

 

This fear is not limited to the Jewish world. If you ever saw the movie "Footloose," where the pastor tries to keep the high school seniors from having a (to most people) ordinary dance, you know what I am talking about.

 

The other day I did carpool and gave a Muslim student a ride home. She covers her hair – in high school – something Jewish girls do not do. We passed a woman on the street with her entire body shrouded except for a little slit for the eyes.

 

I couldn't help but say something. Basically I was gasping mentally in horror, but didn't want to offend the student, so I asked her about it. She said something to the effect that she personally disagrees with the head-to-toe covering. That it is supposed to keep attention away from the woman in theory, but puts her at the center of attention in practice.

 

In the olden days I would not have had this conversation with this young woman. We would have been completely isolated from one another. But we spoke to each other in real voices, a real conversation. A conversation more powerful than anything an official channel of communication can generate because it's honest.

 

There have always been real conversations between people that serve as a counterpoint to what comes out of official channels. The "problem" for government today is that these conversations have gone from the private sphere to the public one – they are taking place online.

 

What the government does not seem to understand is that from a consumer point of view, "official" sounding talk is a failure. People today don't care about titles and hierarchy. In fact they don't trust them. What they do care about is real information. Who they trust is – friends and opinion-leaders who are either unbiased or have strong values that resonate with their own.

 

So people today, and I think more and more in the future, will get their news and information not from the government so much, and not from the conglomerate-owned media, but more likely from the people around them. From influencers whose voices sound honest, and credible, and objective, and reliable. From people who have no stake in the game other than to communicate "what's really going on."

 

If the government views social media as a "bad influence," inherently offensive, objectionable, disruptive, disrespectful, undermining, and so on, then a huge opportunity for communication has been missed. Worse, all the money we are spending to reach out to people is in danger of being wasted.

 

What we need to do is accept that the playing field has been absolutely leveled. We are now on the same playing ground with everybody else. We have no advantage, or maybe we have a disadvantage because we are biased toward the policies, programs, and organizational structures that we have and want to promote. 

 

In the real world of communication, this means that we have to change not only the tools that we use to get out there, but also the attitude toward the kind of people who normally use those tools. People who use their cellphones to take a picture of something unjust, then share that picture on Twitter, are social reformists. They're not passive sharers of information.

 

We must respect that social media users have strong views, are passionate about the power of information, and demand nothing less than total transparency (to the greatest legal extent possible) and a simple, honest, clearly understandable voice.

 

Very specifically, here is what I suggest.

 

Rather than putting social media on the sidelines of our communication with the public, and using it as a one-way interaction tool – we must put it at the center of our communication strategies. Not hide behind press releases. Not hide behind website jargon that has no space for comments.

 

The public is on Facebook. On YouTube. The public is in McDonald's. The public is at the mall. The public is sitting in their cars.  The public is working, if they're lucky, at badly paying jobs all day, and they play the radio to give them a respite from the thankless tasks they must do. They read the news too. And they like to see the "Letters to the Editor." Sometimes more than the "news" itself.

 

Everything we do to get through to the public must be social, must be shareable, must be from the perspective of a trusted friend.

 

It's time to stop pushing away the "bad influences." It is time to start learning what to do, and how to communicate, directly from their successes.

 

Times have changed, and we in the government have to change too.

 

I hope we can do this soon, because we need to.

 

So for all of us who are trying – a collective –

 

"Good Luck!"

 

*As always, all opinions are my own.

 



Customer Service: Fanatics Required

Fifteen years ago I started a freelance writing business. I didn't know anyone at all.


I bought a copy of Writer's Market, found the publishing houses in midtown New York City, and cold-called company after company. Not by telephone. Just literally walked in off the street and asked for work.


Believe me when I tell you that it was a long fall from the ivory tower of the sociology department to drum up customers. But G-d smiled on me and eventually I had a business.


What I didn't know then, that I am starting to appreciate now, is that the glamorous part isn't the "look at how hard I worked" tale of getting the customer in the first place. The real achievement is in keeping them. It's all about customer service.


Recently I called on an internal customer whose job I was no longer working on. I asked if it had gone well, if there was anything I could do to help. Not because I'm such a genius at customer service but more because I'm trying to get organized. I went down the list of outstanding jobs and saw that I hadn't closed the loop on this one - hadn't asked for an after-action review or feedback.


Turned out we were in the middle of a crisis. Not a horrible nightmare of a crisis. But a glitch bad enough to give multiple people bellyaches for a good 72 hours.


Did I know what the hell I was going to do to fix it? No way. But something told me to keep pushing. To make sure that the customer was satisfied and well-served.


It is tempting to walk away from the job when your part is done, for sure. You want to say that you did your best and now it's up to them.


But the truth is, the job is not done until the customer has everything they need. Whether you are responsible for it or not.


To take this kind of attitude you have to be a complete fanatic. A lunatic, even. Because you are asking for headaches where before you had none.


So here is what is so odd to me.


If I, in my little world, have to look at customer service like this, why don't huge megabrands I buy from do the same? Instead of little "comment cards" and hyperlinked customer surveys and difficult-to-find customer service webpages that emphasize self-service - why don't they chase me down and make sure that I am happy with what I bought?


Seems like for most companies, the customer service function is treated just like an individual treats a New Year's resolution to exercise: Exciting to talk about, boring to implement, and questionable whether they can maintain it on an ongoing basis.

In a tough economy, where everyone is competing for the customer's business, and the customer expects not only instant gratification but gratification of needs never expressed - that is crazy!


Customer service is what builds the brand. It attracts the customer in the first place, maintains their loyalty, builds the brand network through word-of-mouth, and retains the customer over a lifetime.

Maybe customer service is not as exciting as proclaiming a new big win. But it is definitely lucrative. Repeat buying, upgrading, up-selling and cross-selling is the equivalent of recruiting a new customer many times over.

Everybody knows this. Management gurus stand on their soapboxes and proclaim its importance. Nevertheless, and despite all the fanfare and hoo-ha about service, many companies don't even bother to do a good job of customer service. Instead they see the function as:


* Generally, a pain in the rear – literally a source of nothing but problems.

* Something that "anyone" can do, as long as they are conscious (and sometimes not even fully that…if you have ever faced the typing lag when interacting with a "live chat" operator)

* Difficult to do well because customers are impossible to satisfy, frequently abusive, and sometimes even make complaints up to get compensation;

* Nearly impossible to measure or generate visible ROI from; and

* Difficult to keep people excited about over the long term – especially when they get paid lousy wages to listen to all these complaints, get no respect form the rest of the company, and are monitored and measured to the enth degree.

Why do companies look down on customer service?


Two problems.


#1 is elitism. Customer service is a grassroots function. A "people" function. Not elite at all. And too many leaders, the people who get paid to run the company, are distant from the ordinary folks and humble rabble-rousers who buy the products and services they sell.


#2 is sexism. Customer service is seen as a girl's job. Like teaching. Like nursing. Like - mothering! Not "real" work because it's "instinctive." Enough said. (Seriously - If I see one more cheesy stock photo of a happy smiling telephone operator I am going to lose my lunch.)


Not every company does a bad job with customer service. Some of them make a true art of it. The ones that do, have five practices down pat:


* Customer service is everybody's job. If somebody sees something going wrong or even potentially wrong for the customer, they ask about it.


* Complaints are treated as normal not "shocking" and the customer's unexpected expressions of need, concern, unhappiness, etc. are welcomed as feedback rather than silenced as irritating.


* There is always a "supervisor" available to resolve complaints at a higher level.


* The customer service representative provides their name and ID number at the start of the call to help the customer document the problem. Optimally a transcript of the interaction is sent, or at least detailed notes are kept for the future. The interaction obtains a case number.


* Last but not least (this list could really go on), the conversation ends with a question asked sincerely: Is there anything else I can help you with? (This can't be delivered like a line from a script - it has to be sincere.) And then there is a short survey (very short) where the customer can provide feedback on the interaction.


There is nothing degrading about serving the customer well. It doesn't feminize you to serve the customer well. What it does is bring you down to earth. Honestly, the country runs on entrepreneurship - on the obtaining and keeping of customers. This is a noble calling and it helps to make our nation and our world work better.


So be proud to be a customer service fanatic - and chase that car down the road to get their business if you have to.


Good luck!