Customer Service and Survival

by Jim Stovall

Customers are like teeth.  The only ones you need to maintain are the ones you want to keep.

I hear news stories and ongoing news media coverage about how bad the economy is and how consumers are not spending money.  You wouldn’t know this from going into the average retail establishment today.  The majority of businesses you might enter to purchase a product or service do not provide a level of customer service that you would expect from someone that is not having enough retail revenue.

There is a local establishment near my office where we purchase sandwiches for lunch.  They do not deliver, so we go across the parking lot and pick them up.  They have asked us to fax our orders to them.  This was acceptable, except they explained that they don’t often hear their fax machine receive an incoming order, so they asked if we would call them after we fax in the order.  We set up an account so our staff can simply sign for the lunch when they pick it up.  I mistakenly assumed they would bill me monthly, but when I did not receive a bill for close to a year, I contacted them and had to go through an accounting nightmare simply to pay for all the sandwiches.

One day it occurred to me that I’m working way too hard in a bad economy to spend my money.  If I have to write down the order, fax it in, call and alert them they have an order, and provide them with accounting so I can pay my bill, I’m doing everything but making the sandwich myself.  This situation would be laughable if it wasn’t so commonplace.

I travel often for speaking engagements and movie or TV business.  A polite and professional flight attendant is rare enough that you really notice it when you get one.  This is unfortunate because, due to rising fuel prices and the economy, the airline industry is struggling.  Most airlines’ flight routes and fares are just about the same from one airline to another.  The real differentiating factor they have to offer would be great service, but this is not the case.

In most customer surveys, good service and a polite, professional staff rank high in the criteria prospects use to make buying decisions.  In most cases, great customer service and polite, professional attitudes don’t cost anything but a little effort and energy.  In fact, it is invigorating and enjoyable to serve others.

If you want to succeed, you’ve got to make it easy for people to do business with you, feel good about spending their money, and want to tell others about their experience.

As you go through your day today, determine to separate yourself from the crowd by providing stellar customer service.

Today’s the day!

Persistence and Procrastination

by Jim Stovall

Down the street from my office is a very large media complex containing a TV station, several radio stations, and a large conference center.  At one corner of the massive building, there is a large fenced area where several radio and TV broadcast towers soar hundreds of feet into the air.  Thousands of people drive by this complex every day and have seen the towers so many times they don’t even notice them any more.

Several months ago, a troubled young man—for reasons of his own—decided to scale the fence and begin climbing one of the towers.  By the time anyone noticed this young man perched on a precarious ladder hundreds of feet in the air, it was too late to stop him.  Police, ambulances, and emergency rescue workers were called to the scene and began efforts to persuade the young man to climb down from the tower.

The young man either ignored them or periodically threatened to jump.  As will happen with any large gathering, the media was soon on the scene.  TV, radio, and newspaper reporters began around the clock reporting of the ongoing activities of the young man who became known as The Tower Guy.

This went on for days and, somehow, the reporters found things to talk about.  The young man became dehydrated, sunburned, and appeared to be disoriented.  Finally, one heroic rescue worker was able to communicate with the young man and talk him into coming down.

The final media reports described how persistent The Tower Guy was in remaining on his perch for many days.  It’s important that we don’t confuse persistence with procrastination.  It is easy to think that persistence is doing something repeatedly or constantly while procrastination might be thought of as doing nothing at all.  In reality, too many of us are like The Tower Guy in that we persist in doing nothing of importance which, in reality, is procrastination as it relates to the things in life we know we should be doing.

Practice does not make perfect, in spite of the old adage.  Practice makes consistent.  Only perfect practice will make something perfect.  Persistence is only a virtue if we are persisting at doing things that matter to us and make the world a better place.

Most people perform activities today because they performed the same activities yesterday and will do it all over again tomorrow.  Before you do anything as a regimented part of a routine, make sure you know why you are doing it, what it will accomplish, and when you will be done.

As you go through your day today, make sure you’re investing every moment wisely and not just repeating mindless activities because that’s what you’ve always done.

Today’s the day!

The Victory In Failure

This past weekend, my seven-year-old son, Kieran, got beat up.  Worse yet, I was forced to stand by powerless, watching the whole thing, unable to intercede on his behalf.  Thankfully, everything’s fine.  He sustained no lasting physical injuries although it may take a while for him to recover emotionally…from his very first official wrestling tournament. 

Believe it or not, at seven he’s two-to-three years behind most of the other kids his age, so he spent the majority of his three matches getting his 60 pound frame slammed and twisted into the mat.  After spending weeks building his skills and confidence, he realized within 10 seconds into the first bout that he was outmatched.  At the end of the second (of three) 60 second periods his disappointment crescendoed and erupted into tears, doubling his embarrassment.  He spent the third period struggling to keep from getting pinned with tears streaming down his face.

Personal Failure

The worst part was that he still had two matches to go, and having seen the other two kids wrestle already, we knew it wasn’t going to get any easier.  He wanted to quit and go home.  What was I to do?  Parents in the movies always have the right thing to say, but I was searching and finding nothing; that is, until I remembered Tim Tebow.

We live in Baltimore, and that means we root for two teams—the Ravens, and whatever team the Steelers are playing—but over the course of this season, our household also admittedly got wrapped up in Tebow fever.  We’re suckers for underdogs and comebacks.  But what impresses me the most about Mr. Tebow is not his ability to win, but his grace in failure and his impervious defense against capitulation.  Whether deified in victory or discarded in defeat, he seems to maintain the same sincere posture of positivity, even after Denver’s 45-10 loss to the Patriots.

Kieran indeed lost his final two matches, but got successively stronger in each.  In the third, his dedication even earned him a couple points against a far superior opponent and a small cheering section of coaches, parents and teammates anxious to affirm his courage in the face of sure defeat.  He carried himself with respect and a sincere smile on his face to the fourth place (out of four) podium.

Financial Failure

Kieran’s story has little to teach us about money, but much about failure.  In no period since the Great Depression has financial failure been so widespread and felt with such impact.  There are those, like my son, who did everything they could to improve their chances of success, but lacking a certain level of experience or knowledge found themselves pinned down by the weight of decisions that turned on them.  Even many of those eminently qualified and gifted—like my friend and financial planning colleague who bared his soul sharing the story of his real estate blunders during the crisis—were humbled in defeat.

Losing your home, losing your job, or losing your ability to retire due to market losses is harder to handle than losing a football game or a wrestling match.  Failure of this magnitude can be absolutely crippling.  But it is, indeed, possible to gain something from losing.

The Depression Baby generation became the best savers in U.S. history (see Beyond Our Means, Princeton University Press, 2011).  Foreclosure and bankruptcy have spawned inspired financial counsel that has changed the lives of millions for the better (see Dave Ramsey).  Many job losses have imbued the aggrieved with enough frustration towards corporate hierarchy that they’re becoming our next wave of innovative entrepreneurs (see report by the Kauffman Foundation).  And market losses have encouraged the first generation of early retirees to pursue meaningful vocations they’re happy to perpetuate over occupations they were racing to end.

I’d love to know what you have gained through loss or failure, so please share in the comments section if you’re willing.

(This wasn’t the only emotional experience I had with Kieran this past weekend relating to sports and somehow, in my mind, things financial.  I wrote about the other in my Forbes blog this week—you can read “What Do NFL Playoffs And Money Have In Common?” by clicking HERE.)

10 Ways Budgeting Saved My Marriage

Eleven years ago, my wife and I sat across the table from an experienced married couple squirming in their seats uncomfortably as though they feared we were about to deliver some terrible news.  But the source of their discomfort was the bomb they were about to drop on us.

You see, we were not yet married, but engaged, and the couple across the table was our mentor couple in our pre-marital class.  Upon review of our personality profiles and piles of personal baggage, they felt it their duty to discourage us from further pursuing the sacred vows of matrimony.  They’d never seen a hopeful couple more innately disparate, more inevitably destined for failure. 

We are indeed vastly different, but one thing my wife, Andrea, and I share in common is a penchant for resisting authority.  So with the blessing and support of family and friends, I’m thrilled to report we’ll be celebrating our eleventh anniversary this April with our two wonderful boys, Kieran and Connor, ages six and eight.

We have never forgotten, however, the well-intended admonishment of our mentor couple; indeed, we see much of life from vastly different perspectives, foremost among them our view of things financial.  And apparently, we’re not alone. Over 50% of marriages end in divorce.  Over 50% of those splits cite financial disputes as the primary reason for the break-up.

100% of marriages deal with money as a daily necessity.


This thought occurred several times when preparing my recent posts on budgeting on Forbes.com (How To Spend $1 Million At Starbucks) and TimMaurer.com (A Burdensome Yoke…Or A Path To Peace?).  It struck me that budgeting ranked right up there with prayer and counseling as a precious few factors that have helped keep us together.  Here are the top 10 ways budgeting has saved, and continues to save, our marriage:

10)  Budgeting forces us to collaborate.  It seems that as parents of young children, the level of commitments between work, school, church, sports and the arts leaves us functioning more as independent business partners than spouses.  We’re almost always in short supply of adult conversation and genuine collaboration, and (strange as it may seem) budgeting gives us the context for both.

9)     It offers healthy accountability.  Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify,” and while 100% verification of trust in our marriage would be stifling, we’ve found periodic accountability to be a healthy way to build faith and trust in each other.  Our joint budgeting effort means all of our expenditures are accessible to the other.  Scrutinizing every penny spent would be unfair (a-hem, note to self), but knowing everything is visible is likely to encourage us each to spend more responsibly.

8)     It humbles us.  I’ve not found a more helpful tool in the pursuit of a successful marriage than humility, and since the use of money is so pervasive in our lives, small mistakes are the norm, not the exception.  Rarely a weekly cycle goes by in which we don’t each humbly acknowledge that we erred in some capacity, humbly submitting our mistake to the other.  And of course, a good budget is designed to withstand these small mistakes.

7)     It provides an opportunity for reconciliation.  The prevalence of small errors in our budgeting, however, provides fertile ground for a destructive tendency: that we’d develop a scorecard, real or implied, and shame the more regular offender (because there normally is one in most households).  So for us it’s very important that a humility ground-rule is established: Any time an offending spouse submits in humility to an irreversible mistake, forgiveness and reconciliation is the only way forward.

6)     It gives us reason to celebrate.  For each mistake, there are several successes in each budget cycle.  The long-term success of our marriage is often built on a series of small victories, and we should never withhold an affirmation for completing a project under budget or enjoying the security of a buffer when an emergency arises.

5)     It cuts down on surprises.  So many aspects of our life are subject to variability and volatility.  We can’t necessarily reduce the number of those surprises, but we can certainly reduce their negative impact by being financial prepared for them.  Financial strain, and especially shock, pushes many marriages to (and over) the brink.

4)     It makes us better parents.  All of us parents could probably agree that it’s possible to spend too little OR too much on our children, right?  We’re responsible to determine what the right levels of spending are for our children, and budgeting allows us to deliberately set aside appropriate levels of funding for education, clothing, sports, music and fun.

3)     It shows our dependence on each other.  Andrea and I do think very differently, and this inevitably leads to divisive thoughts like these: “You know, I think I could do this better on my own!”  But this decries the very essence of marriage as an institution in which each partner’s primary objective is to serve the other.  The process of budgeting puts our (literal and emotional) dependence on each other on full display.  That makes us vulnerable, but it’s good.

2)     It preserves a healthy level of independence.  The income production in most households is almost never perfectly equitable.  Andrea sacrificed a successful career in the financial industry when she chose to stay home with our young children.  This has been an incredible blessing in our family, but it’s also a breeding ground for insecurity and manipulation as I might have a tendency to overestimate my contribution to the family’s finances and underestimate Andrea’s.  It is imperative, then, that part of our budget is the preservation of a certain amount of financial independence for each spouse.  To offset this income inequity, we’ve established “His and Hers” accounts with unilateral privileges.  Many shun budgeting as too restrictive, but properly implemented, it actually gives us room to breathe financially, and we all need room to breathe.

1)     It preserves date night!  One of the interactions I’ve enjoyed most throughout my career was with a client who is a generation or two my senior.  He and his wife have five kids(!) and appear to be more in love today than they’ve ever been.  So at the close of one meeting, I got up the nerve to ask this gentleman what his secret to marriage and parenting was.  His answer?  They never fail to set aside time—and money—for each other as a couple.  He made a convincing case that we are better parents when we deliberately setting aside time to be together, away from the kids, and not just for date nights, but also long-weekends and even week-long vacations to remind ourselves that before we were parents we were lovers.  This proved especially difficult for Andrea and me because by the time we got to the end of most months, we’d already spent our discretionary cash on the rest of life and felt like we were taking funding away from other things to line-up a babysitter and enjoy a night or weekend out.  So now, much as we have preserved His and Hers accounts, we also have an Ours account.

Budgeting is not the slightest bit romantic, but it has the ability to promote and preserve the romance in our marriages and keep us on the right side of that daunting 50% divorce statistic.  There are as many good ways to manage this process as there are couples, and I’d love to hear some of the ways budgeting has helped preserve YOUR marriage also, so please share your story in the comments section!

The Articulate Incompetent

by Jim Stovall

The Internet and digital age have given rise to a new phenomenon.  There are people whoknow enough to be dangerous, not only to themselves but to you and me as well.  Beware of the articulate incompetent.  These are people who can talk a good game but have little or no experience at applying the newly-found knowledge they espouse.

With the ease of accessing a search engine and a brief period of focus, anyone can begin to convince you that they are an expert on anything.

Our grandparents would have had to travel to several libraries and universities and talk to a number of experts over several months or even years to have access to the information you and I have at our fingertips via the web.

To succeed in the 21st century, we must learn to differentiate information from knowledge, and knowledge from wisdom.  Information is nothing more than random data or facts that have no specific application until they are internalized.  Knowledge is the intake of that information.

A person who becomes knowledgeable has sought out a source of information, and by mastering that information, has gained knowledge, therefore becoming a source of information.  Wisdom is the practical, successful application of knowledge.  Wisdom is never gained solely by sitting in front of a computer screen or by occupying a seat in a classroom.  It comes through hard work, generally accompanied by trial and error.

Wisdom allows us to avoid painful, frustrating, and time-wasting situations.  Unfortunately, this wisdom is usually gained from going through painful, frustrating, and time-wasting experiences.

A person with knowledge may have a diploma, book, or computer program.  A person with wisdom often has bruises, scars, and a bit of gray hair.

As you are trying to reveal and, therefore, avoid the articulate incompetent, it is important to realize they will want to tell you what they know while you will want to inquire about what they’ve done.  An articulate incompetent may just know slightly more than you do about any subject.  You can usually derail an articulate incompetent by allowing them to spout off their knowledge and then just simply ask them, “How have you applied that in the real world, and what were the results?”

We still live in a world that, when it’s all said and done, there’s a lot said and very little done.  We don’t succeed based on what we know.  We succeed based on what we do.

Knowledge is a wonderful thing if it is obtained on the road toward wisdom that can benefit the traveler and the whole world.

As you go through your day today, separate information and knowledge from wisdom, and avoid the articulate incompetents.

Today’s the day!

Exciting News!

The past few weeks have included some exciting happenings, so I wanted to take this week’s Conversation to share the news with you:

First, on Wednesday, November 30th, I was up pretty early poking around on TimMaurer.com to prepare an upcoming post when I saw what I thought was a mistake.  It appeared that by 7am eastern that morning, the site had already enjoyed a flood of viewers—almost 1,500, shattering any past single day record, before most people have even had their morning coffee!

It turned out that USA Today had released a review of the book I co-authored, The Ultimate Financial Plan, which, of course, filled me with anticipation wondering whether or not the review was actually…positive.  Practically covering my eyes, I navigated to the online review, overwhelmed to see the headline: “Ultimate Financial Plan lives up to name.”  Jim Stovall and I have believed in this project since its inception, but I must admit my eyes started welling up as I received the hearty affirmation from one of the world’s most prominent media voices.  You can read the full review by clicking HERE.

One of the new realities in publishing, however, is that even after getting positive reviews in The New York Times and U.S.A. Today, we’re not guaranteed any level of success in spreading this entertaining education we believe to be so vital to individuals and households across the country, especially in these difficult financial times.  As you are probably aware, Amazon.com is now the primary driver of the dissemination of books, with and without covers, so I’m going to ask you a rare favor to help us further build momentum for this project: If you’ve read and enjoyed The Ultimate Financial Plan (or its “first edition,” The Financial Crossroads) would you please consider sharing your thoughts by reviewing the book on Amazon?  If you’d be so kind, you can do so by clicking HERE.

Second, that same week, I had the privilege of forging a new relationship with one of my favorite media outlets, ForbesForbes may have published its first magazine issue in 1917, but along the way they have also become a leader in new media, including blogging.  So when they asked me to begin blogging as a Forbes contributor, it was an easy decision for me.  You can check out the new blog by clicking HERE, and if you click on the picture bearing my mug, it will give you the opportunity to “follow” me, receiving updates when I post new content.  Initially, you’ll recognize some similarity between the content on TimMaurer.com and on Forbes, but I will also be creating wholly new content, like this week’s post, “It’s 10pm…Do you know how your advisor is getting paid?”

I’m very thankful for these new opportunities, but especially for YOUR support of my mission to change the way people view and interact with money.  Thank you for reading, commenting, questioning and sharing.  And as always, I look forward to your helpful suggestions about how I can make this correspondence better serve you. 

Financial Death

“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

Steve Jobs was not the first to say this, but apparently the most famous[i].  He mentioned it at the Stanford commencement ceremony of 2005, and he didn’t leave the quote merely hanging in the philosophical ether.  He personalized it further:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Jobs was initially diagnosed with cancer in October 2003, told first (mistakenly) he had less than six months to live, so he did have a chance to contemplate his thoughts on death prior to these eloquent words spoken at Stanford.  But according to his life prior to cancer, he seemed to live with this same blend of urgency and peace with prospective failure.[ii]

What keeps you from living life with a sense of urgency?  What keeps you from an impassioned pursuit of whatever it is that you feel created to do?

In entirely too many cases, the answer is fear not of physical death, but instead fear of our financial demise…which is often rooted in a fear of lifestyle reduction…which is often rooted in a fear of relative lifestyle comparison with our peers…which is especially ironic when you consider the millions of unemployed workers, bankrupt households, foreclosed homes and underwater homeowners.  Most stricken with these seemingly terminal financial illnesses actually “followed the rules.”  They didn’t take big chances, but instead followed the crowd.

What would it look like in your life, work and finances if “all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure” were cast aside, as Jobs suggests?  And is it possible to do this responsibly within the confines of a financial plan that supports “what is truly important” to you?


[i] I say that because try as I might, I’ve not been able to find any other reference to this quote other than Steve Jobs!

[ii] For those not versed, he dropped out of college because he didn’t want to waste his parents’ life savings, co-founded Apple in a garage at the age of 20, got fired from Apple at the age of 30 for a vision that conflicted with the board’s, started Pixar and was subsequently invited back to Apple to leave a legacy that few would argue will ever be surpassed in the realm of technology and business.