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!

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Why We Do Dumb Things With Money

“How could I be so stupid?”  Maybe you’re looking at a bulging credit card bill after over-spending during the holidays, just hoping your tax refund is enough to pay it off.  Or maybe you’re looking at a budget that simply won’t balance—for the 77th consecutive month—wondering how you made it this far in life without being able to master the simple math of addition and subtraction. 

Why is it that informed, educated and even brilliant people can be so dense when it comes to basic matters of personal finance?

I’m reading a book called The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, based on his fascinating article, “The Checklist,” in the December 2007 edition of The New Yorker.  On his way to making a compelling case for the use of checklists to ensure accuracy in even the most multifaceted procedures—like emergency room surgery or skyscraper construction—he gives us some insight into why we’re capable of doing dumb things in seemingly simpler processes.  In his words:

Two professors who study the science of complexity—Brenda Zimmerman of York University and Sholom Glouberman of the University of Toronto—have proposed a distinction among three different kinds of problems in the world: the simple, the complicated, and the complex.

Zimmerman and Glouberman give us a tangible example of each type of problem.  Simple is to baking a cake from a mix as complicated is to sending a rocket to the moon.  The latter requires “…multiple people, often multiple teams, and specialized expertise.”  But once you’ve marshaled the necessary manpower and know-how to send a rocket to the moon, the exercise can be successfully repeated.

This is not the case in complex problems, however.  The example they give for a complex problem is raising a child.  “Expertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient.  Indeed, the next child may require an entirely different approach from the previous one.”  As a parent of two, this news was both heartening and frightening.  But it also helped me realize something groundbreaking, at least to me:

While many matters of personal finance seem so simple on their face, they’re actually quite complex…because WE’RE complex.

Even as a single person with no dependents or pets, our innate proclivity for self-deception is remarkable.  But within the context of a couple or family, it’s easy to see how the “simple” discipline of cash flow management, for example, can become quite complex.

Further complicating the problem is that most areas of personal finance require perpetual decision making, in which each individual decision to save, spend, buy, sell, re-allocate, contribute, distribute, insure, reduce coverage, file, expense, deduct, bequeath, endow, receive or disinherit is its own fertile ground for success or failure that could compound positively or negatively to impact the whole!

So let’s all enjoy a collective “WHEW!” as we momentarily enjoy the fact that making mistakes with money doesn’t mean we’re a complete nincompoop.  Of course, this is an explanation, not an excuse.  We’re still responsible.  Here are three ways we can all keep our financial decision making as smart as we are:

1)     Be cognizant of things financial.  Be present and deliberate when dealing with your money.  Keep these topics at front of mind by reading a good financial blog or two (ha, ha).  And consider reading my friend and colleague, Carl Richards’, new book, The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money.  (It’s the only financial book I know of that is strewn with pictures!)

2)     Develop good habits.  We often need to force ourselves to be cognizant because personal finance either bores us or is loaded with self-deception.  The development of good habits, beginning first-and-foremost with a functional cash flow system, will help us develop the behavior we’d prefer.

3)     Be accountable to someone or something.  Some are willing and able to develop their own system to maintain accountability, but for many, a healthy relationship with a professional financial planner is the key.  In my Forbes post this week, “Hey Financial Planners, Do Your Job!” I gave advisors a gentle nudge, encouraging them (us) to make financial planning a simpler, more client friendly process that eliminates complexity instead of creating it.

What are some other ways you’ve been able to keep from making dumb financial decisions in your life?

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!

Too Complex For Their Own Good?

This week on my Forbes post, “Don’t Outsmart Yourself Financially,” I took issue with an article written by Nobel-winning economist, Paul Krugman, for his rationalizing of the enormous debt load of our country.  But while economists have and will wax eloquent on the past, present and future utilizing brilliant theories well beyond the bounds of common sense (and often practical application), we have no such allowance in the realm of personal finance.  Indeed, YOU SHOULD NEVER PURSUE A STRATEGY YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND.

Here are a collection of financial strategies that sound impressive but may be too complex for their own good:

  • Equity Indexed Annuities—EIAs are actually fixed annuities, but if you ask one of their passionate purveyors[i] how they manage to offer market upside with none of the downside, I hope you’ve set aside some time because you’re in for a very long conversation…if the agent even knows enough about their inner workings to  educate you.  In short, insurance companies buy bonds with your investment and use the interest payments to purchase stock options to materialize the upside of the stock market.  They hedge their bets—I mean, positions—by handcuffing you with some of the biggest (7%, 9%, even 12% and higher) and longest (10, 15 or even 20 years) surrender charges in the business.  Like too many financial products, these instruments are sold, not bought, and I don’t recommend tying up your money in one of these financial experiments.
  • Life Insurance As Primary Retirement Vehicle—There’s a wow-inducing sales system (called the LEAP system) that was built for life insurance agents seeking to increase their sales in one of the best-paying commission products on the market, permanent life insurance (whole life, variable life and universal life).   After an hour of mind-numbing chart-flipping, you’ll be ready to divert your 401k savings into a brand new life insurance policy![ii]  But unless you make over $250,000 per year or have millions in net worth, you simply don’t need to worry yourself with the variables in permanent life insurance.
  • “Option Arm” Mortgages—The landscape of mortgage products has dwindled significantly from the pre-crash days when you could literally pick the payment on your mortgage in the now infamous option arm mortgages.  A mortgage broker in Pennsylvania at one point pitched me on a joint collaboration in which I would lend financial credence to his recommendations for clients to take on these crazy mortgages and they would, in turn, invest all the extra money they didn’t have to pay towards their mortgage in accounts I would manage.  I laughed at first, thinking he was kidding.  Then I realized he wasn’t.  Especially with rates as low as they are today, there are very few reasons to take on any mortgage other than a fixed mortgage, but there is NEVER a reason to take on a mortgage that increases your debt instead of paying it off.
  • Exchange Traded Funds—This one may surprise you, and I should be quick to point out that ETFs can be very wisely and properly utilized in a diversified investment strategy.  But you’d better fully understand what you’re buying.  Much like a mutual fund, an exchange traded fund is a single investment representing a basket of securities.  For example, you can purchase an ETF that will track the S&P 500 index or commodities like gold or oil.  But the question remains, what exactly is inside of the ETF?  Sometimes it is actual investments, (like stocks in gold mining companies, for instance) but often the underlying properties in an ETF are derivatives—options or futures—and subject to market forces beyond the commodity or index itself.  If you don’t understand how the investment is built, you may be in for a surprise when you see how it actually reacts to market stimuli.

There are many other examples out there, and I’d love to hear what you’ve run into in your financial journey.  Please share your good or bad experience, or ask any questions, in the comments section!


[i] Why so passionate, you ask?  These products have some of the biggest commissions in the business.  Up to and over 12%!

[ii] I worked with one agent in a prior professional life who regularly pitched a “Roth Look-A-Like,” an alternate retirement savings vehicle designed to give you all the tax advantage of a Roth IRA, and more…except that it was nothing more than a whole life insurance policy.  I saw one unfortunate 20-something guy who wasn’t even married and had no dependents buy a look-a-like when his money would’ve been better served in a true Roth.

Wet Paint

by Jim Stovall

There are several ways we can learn lasting and significant lessons.  Some people learn as an ongoing enjoyable part of life, while others have to learn everything the hard way.

If you find a painted wall somewhere around your home or office and put up a sign that says “Wet Paint,” without realizing it, you’ve created a perfect laboratory for observing human behavior.  If you simply stand by and watch, you will see human nature and the learning process take several forms.

Some people will come by, see your “Wet Paint” sign, glance quickly at the wall, and go on about their way.  These people are generally well-adjusted, reasonably trusting, and non-confrontational.  If you remove the “Wet Paint” sign, these people will often make it a point to avoid touching the wall for several more days and even go so far as to alert others that the paint on that wall may still be a bit wet, so they should be cautious.

If you continue your observations long enough, you will observe another kind of human behavior as it relates to your “Wet Paint” sign.  A person will come by, clearly see your “Wet Paint” sign, and immediately touch the wall to see if the paint is actually wet.  These are people who would not have touched the wall if you had not put your “Wet Paint” sign there in the first place.  Even though this person has damaged your paint job and gotten wet paint on themselves, if they come by later, whether your “Wet Paint” sign is there or not, they will actually touch the wall again and continue this same behavior for hours or even days until they learn, through their own experience, that the paint is no longer wet.

All of us have the potential of learning very valuable lessons each day.  Some people can learn by reading or hearing the words of others; other people need to observe the outcomes of other individuals; while many people have to learn the lesson the hard way every time or, worse yet, never learn the lesson at all.  While we may think these learning styles are innate or inbred, we actually have more control over how we learn and what we learn than we might realize.

In our ever more complex, fast-paced world, it becomes more critical than ever that we develop the ability to learn lessons from others who have gone before us.  You don’t want to be among the sorry souls that learn, the hard way, that the surgeon general’s warning about cigarettes or the pleas of financial planners to plan for your retirement years were valid.

With all of the multimedia opportunities around us and constant access to the Internet, we should be able to learn from others’ words or at least their actions without having to get a handful of wet paint every time.

As you go through your day today, commit to learning the most lessons you can in the easiest manner possible.

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!