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!

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!

Horse Sense

by Jim Stovall

More than virtually any other animal, horses have impacted the way we humans have lived throughout most of recorded history.  Many of us who have lived in the 20th and now the 21st centuries, have no direct connection to horses, but there is still much they can teach us.

Recently, I was reading about draft horses which are very large, muscular animals that, throughout history, have been used for pulling great loads and moving very heavy objects.  A single draft horse can pull a load up to 8,000 pounds.  The strength involved in this is hard to imagine.  So then we can speculate what would happen if we hooked up two draft horses to a load.  If you instantly thought two draft horses could pull 16,000 pounds if one draft horse can pull 8,000 pounds, you would be wrong.  Two draft horses pulling together cannot pull twice as much as one.  They can actually pull three times as much.  The two draft horses that can each pull 8,000 pounds alone can pull 24,000 pounds working together.

The horses are teaching us a very clear lesson in teamwork, but they still have more to teach us.  If the two horses that are pulling together have trained with one another and have worked together before, they can’t just pull three times as much working together as they can by themselves.  The two trained horses in tandem can actually pull 32,000 pounds, which is a load four times as heavy as either of the horses could pull by themselves.

The powerful lessons that these magnificent draft horses can teach us involves not only teamwork but coordinated and trained collaboration.  No one lives or works alone as the proverbial island unto themselves.

I have many friends and colleagues who telecommute.  This is a phenomenon that has gained popularity in the last few decades.  Many people avoid lengthy and expensive commutes and high-priced office space by simply working from home.  This can be very effective and efficient for some people; however, just because there is no one else around doesn’t mean that these people work alone.

The very technology that allows us to work independently requires the coordinated efforts of more people pulling together than has ever existed throughout history.  We now work regularly with people whom we have never met.

Recently, I co-authored a book with Tim Maurer—www.TheUltimateFinancialPlan.com.  Co-authoring a book involves tremendous coordination and constant communication.  Throughout the process, it was vital that both Tim and I fully understood and agreed upon very sensitive areas and directions within the manuscript.  I’m very pleased to report, thanks to Tim Maurer and our publisher Wiley and Sons, the co-authoring of the book The Ultimate Financial Plan was a very productive and enjoyable process.  I think we have a far better book than either of us could have written alone, but the ironic fact is that Tim Maurer and I have never actually met one another.  I have been on his radio show, we have done teleconferences, exchanged video messages, and edited one another’s manuscripts, but we have never been in the same place at the same time.  Unlike the draft horses, we can multiply the power of one another’s efforts without having to physically be in the same harness.

As you go through your day today, harness the power and productivity of teamwork, but be willing to expand your definition of collaboration far beyond your own time and place.

Today’s the day!

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!

Are Our Gifts Worth Anything?

On my Forbes blog this week, I shared the story and video of the Best Gift I Ever Received and how it surprisingly helped me navigate life and money.  Because that gift has continued to increase in value throughout my life, it led me to this difficult question: Do the gifts I give appreciate in value or depreciate?  I was challenged further, wondering: Do I give gifts out of compulsion—just to check something off my to-do list—or am I really putting my heart into it, making an investment in my loved ones?

My honest answer to both of those questions is less admirable than I’d hope.

So, with Christmas literally upon us, I’d love to learn from YOU: 

What are some of the gifts you’ve received—either tangible or intangible—that, like the best gift I ever received, have continued to accrue in value and pay dividends throughout life? 

And what are some of the best gift ideas you’ve devised that you’ve seen bless others tremendously?

 Please comment below, and have a very MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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.