Tom Peters

“Hey-hegggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” So goes the sixth bit of spoken dialogue in Tom Wolfe’s book, The Bonfire of the Vanities. And it’s the way I feel as I sit down to write.

I just got off the phone with my local GTE office in Vermont. Last year I built a guest house and had phone lines put in. The work was done while my wife, Kate, and I were away. The lines end in two open switch boxes inside the house, with an indecipherable mess of loose wires dangling from each.

I decided not to hook up the phones until I completed writing my next book. That just happened, so I called to get the wiring job done. The approximate conversation with GTE, in abbreviated form, adds new meaning to the idea of Catch-22:

Me: I’d like to have some phone work completed. Could you send a service person out?

She: Exactly what do you want done?

Me: I’m not sure, because I don’t know what was installed last summer. I’d like a service person to help me sort it out.

She: You’ll have to tell me exactly what you want done.

Me: But I can’t. I don’t know.

She: Then I can’t initiate an order.

Me: Why can’t you send a service person out?

She: It would be inefficient.

Me: OK, I’ll make something up to get us started.

She: You’re being sarcastic.

Me: No, just desperate.

On it went. I ended up talking to a supervisor, placing a “pretend” order for something I’m quite certain I don’t want Then it was time to schedule the visit.

Me (on a Thursday): Can you get someone out here on Friday or Monday? I leave for the Far East on Tuesday, and a guest is arriving for a long stay as soon as I get back.

She: I think we can send someone out on Monday or Tuesday.

Me: Tuesday won’t help.

She: We can try for Monday.

Me: OK, what time?

She: Excuse me?

Me: What time?

She: Monday.

Me: But what time on Monday?

She: I could put down morning, but I certainly can’t guarantee anything.

Me: My wife and I work and can’t hang around all day.

She: I can’t help that.

Me: But we can’t give up 16 combined hours of working time on the off chance that the service person will show up.

She: Sorry.

Sorry indeed! The whole thing is a sorry mess. At one point, the service person said I had an “attitude problem.” (I’m sure I did sound frustrated, but I purposefully never raised my voice an iota, nor uttered as much as a “gosh,” “golly” or “darn.”) I said, “You’re right, I’ve got an ‘attitude problem.'” And I do:

– I expect to be treated like an adult.

– I expect some flexibility on the part of the other person (e.g., just send someone out and we’ll figure it out on arrival—hey, that’s what’s gonna happen in the end anyway).

– I expect my time to be treated with the utmost respect. Time is all I have. Time is money. Time and tide wait for no man. Etc.

– I will not act like a sheep and be taken for granted in these situations. I am a living, breathing human being. Moreover, “they,” in this case, are monopolists to whom I have temporarily granted the right to serve me well.

Oh, if only we could see ourselves as others see us, comprehend the ways we dehumanize, demean, and demoralize our customers.

The great news is that such insane—literally!—stuff makes the teeniest good deed stand out in bold relief:

– A screw in a pair of my wife’s glasses came loose. We were subsequently driving down our optometrist’s street in Palo Alto, Calif., and Kate popped in unannounced to get the screw adjusted. She emerged three minutes (!) later. The clerk had tightened the screw, then commented that the wire-framed specs were slightly bent—and voluntarily fixed that too.

Recently, I bought an Odwalla fresh fruit drink. As I was knocking back the last, luscious drops, I noticed the expiration date: “Enjoy by March 12.”

Why fuss over “Enjoy by” instead of the normal “Expires on”? Simple. It’s the very essence of humanness—and superior service and quality. “Enjoy by” brought a flicker of a smile to my face—and that flicker could mean hundreds of dollars of lifetime business for Odwalla on my behalf, plus 10 times that via word of mouth (thanks to this column, for instance).

Kate summed it up best. When I recounted the GTE story, she replied, “It’s getting like China, isn’t it?” I had to admit that my past decade’s importuning about delighting customers have mostly come to naught. OK, I’m a modern-day Don Quixote when it comes to service. Yes, I’ve got an attitude problem. And it’s not doing my hypertension a bit of good. Perhaps I should just chant my mantra and follow the sheep watching our competitiveness go down the tube. … But don’t bet on it.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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