customer service

Consistency & Predictability Important for Beginners

Mark is one of the employees who works at the Powerhouse Gym in Saline where I work out. Imagine being him on the afternoon of September 30th. You leave the gym and it’s packed. One of the busiest days since the gym opened about 4.5 months earlier. The next morning, you get up early, like everyday, at 4am to allow enough time to make sure you can make it back to the gym to open it at 5am. It seems like a regular morning, a little groggy, but nothing coffee can’t fix. You get to the gym, unlock the doors, turn off the alarm, turn on the lights, look around and nothing’s there…no equipment, no computers, no files, and even no lockers! You walk back into the parking lot, rub your eyes and wonder if you’re awake or still dreaming. Upon going back in you realize that, yes, the gym is truly empty…completely.

It’s an amazingly true story. On September 30th, the gym was officially sold to new owners (still Powerhouse) and the keys were turned over to the new owners. That night, unbeknownst to the new owners, the previous owners came in and cleared everything out. Everything. No notice, no indications. The keys had already been turned over. Why would anyone expect something like that to happen? Crisis is one of the best times to measure the quality of a person or business, so it has been very interesting to watch how every thing’s been handled. Here’s what they did:

– All customers were invited to the new owners other gym, which, while a less convenient location, was a much more extensive gym in size and equipment
– Personal trainers were allowed to work out with their customers at the other gym, even though that’s apparently is not allowed
– Customers were given individual attention with individual solutions provided to meet a wide variety of issues (even including small things like free locks for the new lockers since the old ones were all digital)

The new owners have handled this the best they could. Probably the only thing they did wrong was mis-set expectations. Originally, they had promised they would be fully up in a week. Then it was two, now three (though they do have some equipment back now). Having done many, many projects and dealing with many crisis, I was willing to bet in the moment that they could have a full gym back and running in 7 days, so it wasn’t a suprise. I give them an A+ for their grace under pressure, individual attention, and flexibility, but a D for overzealous expectation setting. Overall, though, they have done a great job so far.

While that was interesting though, there was also interesting dynamics going on for the members. The newer members who weren’t quite into a routine yet or who had just gotten comfortable with one set of equipment, were thrown into a new environment with new equipment and new people. The Saline gym was more families, college students, and beginners. Ypsilanti had more experienced body builders, business professionals, and people with experience. There were different types of equipment, and even the same machines worked a bit differently. As I talked to the people I knew, most of the beginners said they were just going to take the time off and wait until the old gym had new equipment in place. While they had been regular in Saline, the change was too much. It stopped their progress. It could even be devistating for some who never do pick it up again. Three weeks is a long time to break a routine and then try to pick it back up again. Even for me, 5 months in, the transition was strange and difficult. Routines are very helpful for beginners.

It is an interesting implication for learning. Consistency and pedictability help beginners. Learning the basics and getting a routine are key to establishing comfort. If the environment or the routine is changed before the person is ready to take the next step, they are more likely to discontinue their efforts. After introducing a new topic, sufficient time needs to be allowed for people to absorb and integrate the new skill before adding the next one. The amount of time varies from person to person and skill to skill. I was ready to move and even appreciated getting to try some different things. I’m pretty sure 3 months ago it wouldn’t have been the same.

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New Southwest Seating Plan

OK, so Southwest finally took my advice! Back in early December 2006 I blogged about Open Seating on Southwest Air Pt 1 & Pt 2. I was complaining about the cattle call set up for Southwest and how people will stand in line for hours even when there’s no plane at the gate and it’s been delayed for two hours just to save their place in line for open seating. I gave a bunch of ideas how to fix it, and they actually took one of my ideas!

OK, so it probably wasn’t the most original idea ever, but I think it will make things better. In Pt 2, I suggested they assign numbers to people and have them line up by number. That would eliminate people standing for hours in the cattle gates waiting for the plane and that’s exactly what they’ve done! Check out this quick performance support piece on the new way to board the plane. (Nice visuals too, with the usual Southwest sense of humor). Somebody should have told them that performance support pieces are better when available in the moment rather than hours or days before they’re needed, but, hey, it’s a good attempt.

I’m flying Southwest in a few weeks, so, if they’ve implemented it by then, I’ll report back on how it went.


Owning Your Development Plan

It seems to me that we spend an inordinate amount of time on the administrative functions in our business such as registration, tracking, and grading. We go out and find big technical solutions to problems that actually have little, if any, impact on our actual goal…developing people (knowledge, skills, and capabilities). Sometimes, the simple is the better more elegant solution.

About 5 weeks ago, I interviewed, Maggie Bayless and Stas Kasmierski, the founders of ZingTrain, about their business as well as how their parent company, Zingermans, does training. In the first post, Fun as a Corporate Competency, I described how they strive to create work and learning environments that didn’t just incorporate fun things, but actually were fun at their core. Though it’s been a few weeks, this is my follow-up post I promised on their simple and elegant approach to employee development and tracking.

From the very first day, they put the employee’s development plan in the hands of the employee by giving them their “Training Passport”. Like it’s metaphorical parent, the passport is a historical snapshot of where each person has been, but unlike it’s parent it also serves as a sort of travel guide on the path for their position. Every position in the company has a Training Passport. Often positions have multiple levels of passports for employees new to the position and as they progress to higher positions or responsibilities. The passport (pictured below) contains:

  • The skill or objective to achieve
  • The methodology for gaining that skill (classroom, on the job, handouts, meetings, etc)
  • How the skill or objective will be measured (test, observation, manager signature, etc)
  • Date and manager’s signature confirming successful completion

Employees are self-motivated to complete their passports which represents the opportunity for benefits (for new employees), raises, and promotion opportunities. New employees have 60 days to complete their orientation passport which includes arranging each of the learning opportunities. If, for example, they are getting close to the end of their orientation and the cheese section of the deli hasn’t broken down a wheel of cheese recently (which is a hands on learning experience measured by observation for deli employees), it is their responsibility to work the manager to arrange the experience.

The expectations are clear, ordered, measurable, directly related to success in the job, and the employee and manager always knows how they are progressing. For more details and some employee quotes on the effectiveness of the project, check out this article from Gourmet Retailer Magazine.

Just think how much money Zingermans could have spent on implementing an LMS or LCMS, instead they found a simple, elegant solution that puts learning, motivation, and responsibility into the hands of the person it’s supposed to impact the most…the learner.

Next up (hopefully in less than 5 weeks this time)…who does all of this training?


Gaming gets learning, but…

does learning get gaming? I was really disappointed I didn’t get to go to the Game Developers Conference a few weeks ago. I was really looking forward to it, but, in life, there are trade offs…at least until today. The conference has posted audio from all of the sessions online as MP3s for a charge of $7.95 each. I could listen to half of them for less than the conference fee would have cost! Why haven’t any of our learning conferences done something like this? Even conferences you might expect haven’t done it.

That’s a great idea in itself, since learning designers who probably wouldn’t attend this conference may find some of the sessions pretty useful. It turns out there’s a lot of shared issues between game developers and learning designers. Here are a few of the overlapping topics:

There were plenty also on overlapping topics like sound design, complex project management, and using Microsoft Project, but even that’s not the important thing. What is important? Game developers get learning, even more, it seems, than learning designers get gaming. Look at these topics:

Notice anything interesting? There talking about using games for learning…over and over and over. Look at even our most progressive conferences. Name one that had more than 2 or 3 sessions on gaming. I don’t even remember a session on the “One Laptop per Child” initiative or topics as advanced as behavioral theory or scaffolding. Why is the game development community is more advanced than the learning community?

Watch out…the gamers are coming!


Think Global, Act Local…

…one of my big philosophies actually, and while normally applied to charities and other non-profits, it certainly applies to food as well. There is nothing better than eating food that was taken from the farm that day. Certainly, it’s hard to get some foods fresh in some regions, but when I certainly take advantage of it whenever I can. Thankfully, in recent years the growth of farm markets and local specialty food shops has helped supply us with tons of great, fresh options.

One of those for me is Zingerman’s Deli. Wednesday is their 25th anniversary. For those who don’t know, Zingerman’s is one of the top rated delis and mail order specialty food stores in the world. Through reports from organizations such as Fast Company, NPR’s Splendid Table, and an awesome article in Inc Magazine, they’ve become famous for high quality food and over the top customer service. They’ve even started to take their philosophies out to other businesses through ZingTrain, one of their communities of businesses.

They kicked off the celebration yesterday with a party for all of their customers by bringing in their top suppliers who were serving tons of free samples. Hundreds and hundreds of people wound their way through dozens of tables each featuring a new delight for tasting. Probably my favorites were the Flavor 70 real Cocoa Nibs from Sweet Riot and the most amazing bacon I’ve ever had in Niman Ranch’s Applewood Smoked Bacon. I could actually taste the layers of amazing flavor. I wish I could eat it every day, but alas it is still bacon.

Even though there were probably too many people for the space and waits (especially for the awesome sandwiches) could be as long as 35 minutes, the attitudes of both the customers and the employees were great. The picture to the right is a very typical lunch time scene, but the picture above may provide a better feel for the space.

I’m a huge proponent of practice as the only means for learning and this occasion was a great example. What better way to learn about cheddar cheese than to try 5 different variations from Grafton Cheese in Vermont, or the 4 goat cheeses made fresh at Zingerman’s. Most of the cow milk comes from Calder, a great local organic dairy. Compare, contrast, experience, and understand…I learn more at those events then I ever could out of a book. The best part is that I can revisit the learning anytime I want by tasting more of the great products.

In a few weeks, I’m going to do an in depth report on Zingerman’s approach to training with Maggie Bayless and Stas Kazmierski, founders and partners in ZingTrain. In the mean time, try some fresh food and support your local restaurants, food suppliers, and businesses.


Password Pains

How many times have I gone to a website and forgot my username or password? Actually, I didn’t forget the password, I forgot which ones I used. Was it one of the ones with less than 6 characters, 8 characters, or more? Did it include numbers? What about case-sensitivity (mixed upper and lower case)? I use many passwords for each category, but which category is it? Each web site follows it’s own rules for password strength.

The stronger the password, the less likely a stranger (or hacker) could guess or discover the password. That’s why using birthdays, anniversaries, children’s names, and other basic information is highly discouraged. Of course, strong passwords are also much harder to remember. In fact the strongest passwords disappear after use and are created new the next time, but that’s a different blog entry.

What makes for a strong password anyway?

  • Longer is better – the longer it is the harder it is to guess or break
  • Use non-sensical letters or words – “treeball” or “xiqjlkr” are much better than “Jane”
  • Mix letters (uppercase and lowercase), numbers, and symbols, if at all possible
  • Don’t use information about you that is discoverable such as names, places, or dates
  • Don’t use sequences such as 12345, abcde, 5555, or qwerty
  • Don’t reuse it – each site or system gets it’s own password
  • Don’t write it down…anywhere – as soon as it’s written it’s available for anyone

Want to test your password strength? Try this site.

In any case, what prompted me to write this entry is the pain of passwords. Every site and system has different rules such as 6 alphabetical characters at most, 4 numbers only, and no more than 8 characters that must include at least 1 number not at the beginning or end. They are more than happy to remind me during registration of their unique rules and not let me move forward until I follow them. However, when it comes time to recall the password the rules are far from sight. If the webmasters are going to require strong passwords (which is good), then at least tell me at the login screen what the rules were. Does it require a number or a length? Tell me that. It will reduce my frustration and has no impact on security.

While I’m on this rant, let me say that any internal corporate system should use any one of a number of Single Sign-on approaches. For example, requiring users to log in to Windows, then into the intranet, then into the LMS, and then into the course almost guarantees that learners are going to drop out before they start the course. The systems should already know who I am from the first time I was authenticated. From there, I should be able to click one link/item/button and be directly into the part of the course that I need right now.

There are plenty of other security approaches that avoid passwords all together, but for now passwords are still the most common security approach. So, as long as we’re still doing security this way, can the programmers and system designers at least help the users keep the system secure by not having to write down all of the passwords? Providing the required format on the screen where the passwords are requested is one step in the right direction.


The Dangers of Clamshell Packaging

Clamshell packages are a relatively new invention that caught on almost instantly it seems, and now they are everywhere. Almost all small electronics, many small toys, and a whole variety of other products are packaged and hung on the racks at our local retailers using clamshells.

Yes, they make the product easier to see than boxes and I’m sure it costs a lot less than the old packaging using boxes or blister packs. They are apparently even designed to deter theft which they do so well that the items are nearly impossible to remove even once I get them home. The plastic is too hard for all but industrial strength scissors. I actually broke a pair of scissors on one particularly nasty package. I’ve even had to break out my box cutter on occasion to get into a few of these. Even more dangerous than trying to open these things are the amazingly sharp edges of the plastic once they’ve been cut. Yesterday, I was trying to open one and nearly sliced my finger open. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lawsuit on this yet.

A few months ago I was opening one and was struggling even more than usual. I made it through the thick outer edge, but couldn’t make any more progress. As with most of these packages, sandwiched between the exterior layers of plastic were two layers of thin, glossy cardboard sheets containing basic branding on the front and product details on the back. I couldn’t see why I couldn’t cut through these. Turns out, they placed a CD containing instructions and other related materials between the layers of cardboard. Nowhere on the packaging did it mention a CD or software, and it couldn’t be seen through the packaging. I had cut so hard, I actually took a chunk out of the edge of the CD. No wonder I couldn’t cut through it. Thankfully, the CD still worked.

I don’t have any numbers, but I would suspect that injuries and environmental impact are both up. I do know that my own frustration level is certainly up. I doubt it’s a good to have the customer frustrated as the first impression of the product they just bought.

Restaurant Lines and Community

Recently I went to a restaurant for brunch on a Saturday morning, and as usual for this place during brunch, there was a line out the door. It’s quite a feat since they have a huge waiting area with benches and all. I hadn’t been there in a long time, but my friend new the place well. Turns out they have several “community” tables where we could be seated immediately. At this restaurant, they had 3 tables that sat 8 people each. Certainly, if a group of 8 came along they would be seated there when one cleared. However, rather than making us wait the 45-60 minutes that it was supposed to be for a separate table, they were seating various groups of strangers at those tables. So, we had brunch with 6 other people we had never met. The conversation was vibrant, interesting, and I think we all walked away knowing a little bit more than when we sat down. Plus, we didn’t have to wait in line and saved a bunch of time. What an efficient use of resources on the restaurant’s part!

Wouldn’t it be interesting if more restaurants had the same feature? Think of all of the great conversations and interesting people that could be met. Yes, it’s true that a bar at a restaurant offers some of the same things, but at most there are only 2 people (one on the left and one on the right) that can easily participate in a conversation. A round or rectangular table is much better suited to conversation. It’s also true that some restaurants offer game nights, trivia nights, and other such events, but even those encourage friends to come rather than conversations with strangers.

What if we expanded this concept for corporate cafeterias? Rather than sitting with the same lunch crew every day, one day a week (or maybe some tables everyday) would display a sign with their own topic. Here are a few table ideas:

  • Work-life balance
  • The new company strategy
  • Raising kids
  • Using Word
  • Handling difficult customers
  • Learning Ciruit’s monthly Big Question
  • Yesterday’s episode of Lost (or 24 or Heroes or whatever)

Yes, there are some approaches for this already including brown bag lunches and the ever famous watercooler, but these tend to bring people together who already hang out together or know each other. What if we were able to get more people in the organization to talk to each other? Even if the discussion is not related to their job at that moment, people have just made a relationship, expanded their network, and may know just the person to ask when a job related need does come up.

A little over 5 years ago, I was in a room with the top 120 executives at a Fortune 500 company. Most of the executives fit the standard profile including having worked at the company for 25-35 years. When they walked into the room, a good portion of them were introducing themselves to each other! None of them lived or worked more than 250 miles from headquarters and had been leaders at the company for decades in some cases. If these leaders had sat down for conversations over lunch with a few strangers earlier in their career, just think how many walls would have been broken down and how much more potential could have been gained.

I for one can’t wait to go back to the restaurant again to see who I meet this time.


The Concept of Concepts

The favorite part of the auto show for almost everyone is the concept cars. Sure, it’s good to be able to go to one place and try out all of the cars on the market without having to endure the Michigan cold spell that always hits just in time for the auto show. However, the concept cars always draw the largest crowds.

Concept cars are an important part of the show. The manufacturers use the concept cars for several key reasons:

  • Ideas – Get feedback on an idea to see if the public thinks it is worth additional Research & Development. Rarely, can consumers come up with truly innovative ideas for a given product, but they can almost always respond to an idea. In this case, the test is on one feature of the vehicle rather than the whole car. For example, a few years back one car could turn it’s wheels completely sideways to ease parallel parking. Buzz can determine whether a pet R&D project ever sees the light of day.
  • Cars – Get feedback and sales projections on an actual car before it goes into production. Sometimes, the concepts are so developed that they are actually ready or nearly ready for production (often with a few tweaks) in less than a year. However, production of an untested idea can be expensive. Market and consumer feedback can determine whether a product ever makes it to market. The Chrysler PT Cruiser is a classic example of this. It received huge buzz one year and was on the market before the next auto show. I have a feeling (maybe it’s just being hopeful) that the Chevy Volt may fit in this group too.
  • Design Cues – Sometimes, it’s just the high level feedback that they’re looking for…long hoods and big curves around the wheels were prominent in this years show. While the cars may not make it, the style might start appearing on other models if the feedback is positive.
  • Brand Image – Frankly, maybe one of the biggest reasons for the concept cars is managing the brand image by creating a perception of coolness and innovation. Dodge did this with the Viper a few years back. Not only was it a concept car that was near ready for production, but it also was a hint of the design cues and new brand image for Chrysler. All of the other cars in the line, followed the Viper design cues for many years from the Avenger to the Neon. DaimlerChrysler has definitely maintained the lead in innovative design and they’re ability to hire designers certainly has benefited. This year, GM is finally back in the design business with several new cars, and it shows in both the consumer buzz and the critics awards. Ford, I’m sad to say, still has a ways to go…with maybe one or two exceptions.

As we come down to the last 24 hours of the auto show, I thought I would share a glimpse of the possible future for the automobile in my final post on this topic. Here are a few that stood out to me:

Acura Advance – Notice again the sweeping line, passenger compartment set very far back, and the soft lines across the hood and down the sides. Here are some more pics and info from one of the press previews.

Chang Feng – They were relegated to the basement, but they were the first entry ever at the auto show from China. I would doubt they’ll be in the basement long. Although, I just hope they don’t come upstairs with this model. Exactly how does it turn? The front and back wheels (yes, there are 4 wheels) don’t have enough room. I guess this one’s really a concept. Here’s their official website.

Chevy Camero – This is one of the cars that I think will help bring GM styling back from the brink. They finally are building a true muscle car again. It looks like a whole lot of fun. I hope one of my GM engineer friends buys one soon. Get more pics and info here.

DaimlerChrysler Smart fortwo – OK, this feels more like a golf cart than a car, but it is legal. It even includes changeable door panels, so the fashion conscious can match their wardrobe or mood. It’s no slouch either with a top speed of 90 mph with a fuel economy of 40 mpg. It may look like a concept, but it’s scheduled to arrive in the U.S. in less than a year. Here’s their official website.

Dodge Viper – I know I said the Camaro is a muscle car, but the Viper still makes it look wimpy. This car is car looks part race car, part Batmobile. Get more pics and info here.

Ford Airstream – What were they thinking? I know futuristic crossover with links to a classic road trip memory. Nice thought. A little too out there for my taste. This definitely fits int he categories of testing ideas and looking innovative, because the car itself is a long way from production with no seat belts, uncomfortable seats, and a very strange cylindrical TV. Get more pics and info here.

Ford Interceptor – This one Ford got right. Powerful, strong, long hood, mean look. Any self-respecting mafioso or gang leader would look great in this car. The brushed chrome grill is an excellent touch. Get more pics and info here.

GM Holden Efigy – Here’s another note on a GM design comeback. This one is retro and modern all at the same time. Chrome, brushed chrome, slick styling, very cool. Note the integrated tailpipes in the rear. Here’s their official website.

Mazda Ryuga – Notice the sweeping lines, the all glass roof, the curving fenders, and the huge wheels. I’m also really glad the detailing on the doors came out so well. Get more pics and info here.

Saturn Sky Redline – Another great design for GM. Who would ever imagine Saturn coming out with something like this. I think this may be the coolest car they’ve ever designed…though that’s not a big hurdle. In any case, it’s definitely worth a long look. Here’s their official website.

While these next few cars aren’t really concepts, they still invoke the same inspiration since for most of us they will remain just concepts and never reach our market. Here are a few of the best luxury showings at the show including a Bentley, Lamborghini, and Rolls Royce:

If you see a car or idea you like in this group, be sure to contact the manufacturer. The more feedback they get, the more likely they are to build the car you want. With enough feedback, the concept may actually become real.


Who Killed the Electric Car?

Apologies to Chris Paine and the other makers of the movie of the same title. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but it is in my Netflix queue.

Did you know?

  • 100 years ago there were more electric cars on the road than gas.
  • Among the many other things he did, Thomas Edison built an electric car in 1889.
  • The car pictured at right, one of the early electric vehicles, won a race lasting 185 miles in the early 1900’s. 185 miles! Just think what technology would have been like today if all of the research had gone into that battery.

Back in the mid ’90s, I worked in Beaumont hospital’s IT department. We had recently moved into our new, state-of-the-art computer center just south of 15 Mile & Stephenson in Troy, Michigan. Shortly after moving in, a flurry of activity started happening at the building just north of us on the corner. Only a parking lot separated us. Overnight a couple strange devices appeared in the parking lot. Then, eventually, these very strange looking cars showed up. Saturn (another innovative project that GM squandered) had been founded less than 10 years before, and these cars looked like Saturns that had been squashed. We watched with anticipation trying to figure out what we were seeing as they drove around the parking lot testing handling, acceleration, and braking. Then, they pulled up to the new installed devices…and plugged them in! Eventually, the EV1 was introduced and we got to watch some of the late-stage testing and development. GM had the global lead. Performance was actually pretty good. Quoting from the movie website, “A prototype set the land speed record for electric cars in 1994 at 183 miles an hour. EV1s accelerated to 60 mph in under 9 seconds and to 30 mph in under 3 seconds.” What would have happened if GM had advanced the research? They had the lead. They squandered it. They missed the somewhat obvious trend (at least obvious to those normal people who were getting hit hard at the pumps). Instead, the were in a battle to see who could produce the biggest cars and trucks ever…Hummer, Escalade, etc. Looking back through history, each time gas prices have jumped, electric vehicle demand and research has increased. Maybe high gas prices is exactly what we need to reduce our dependence on oil.

Anyway, now they’ve lost significant market share in the global automobile industry, and are playing catch up. At this year’s auto show they announced their concept vehicle, the Volt. Concepts are a tricky thing and I’ll post on them in a few days. Some concepts are really to show ideas that are a long way from production and others are to test reaction to vehicles that could be released in some cases in a few months if demand is good. Apparently, the Volt falls somewhere in between. There seems to be some concern about the battery’s power and safety. Of course, we heard these same things about the EV1 and those cars had great performance and lasted 7-10 years before GM removed them from the roads and had them crushed. Now, don’t get me wrong…I don’t want my car melting down like some giant laptop battery gone bad. (They use the same types of batteries now, on a different scale of course). However, I’ve got to believe that if the market reaction is positive (and it seems from all of the press that it is over the top), that a relatively small amount of R&D money can solve the relatively minor problems they’re describing.

Technically, the Volt is actually a hybrid…at least sort of, but not really. Apparently, it can last long enough to get most Americans to and from work. However, if the battery gets close to dying before being recharged, the gas engine kicks in and recharges it. I suppose to be a true hybrid the gas engine would have to power the car. Instead this one charges the battery which powers the car. Even if the gas engine does have to run, by charging the battery and not powering the engine itself, it gets about 150 miles per gallon. Now that’s cool!

The interesting thing about the electric and electric hybrid cars is that they get around the problem of the network. Hydrogen, Natural gas, and even E85 need a network of filling stations that are convenient and ubiquitous. Given the investment required and the obvious resistance of the oil companies, creating or adapting a network is a slow and painful process. The network for the electric vehicle (our oh-so-reliable electric grid) is already in place. They can be plugged in almost anywhere and don’t actually consume that much power. Even the electric/gas hybrids have this benefit because both networks already exist.

Decreased impact on the environment, decreased dependency on oil (especially foreign oil), and lower consumer costs are just some of the tremendous benefits of alternative energy vehicles. There time has finally come. I hope.

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