Troubleshooting Professional Magazine
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Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist.
There's a way to do it better...find it -- Thomas Edison
It reminded of Steve's Stereo Repair and Pacific Stereo, two shops I'd worked at, both of which had splendidly satisfied customers. Both were clean and built for speed, and offered same day service for a reasonable price.
Being a great Troubleshooter is worthless unless the customer is satisfied. Great troubleshooting is necessary, but not sufficient, for great customer service. The monetary issues must be clearly articulated, and must be stuck to. The shop or department must clearly differentiate between work they do and work they turn away.
Customer service seems like it should be a no brainer. Competence, honesty, value, friendliness, and profit. What more do you need? But scaling those values among several employees, or several thousand, is a challenge. Another challenge is resisting the temptation to make a quick buck by cutting corners. In a world where this quarter's figures mean everything, and next quarter you might be gone, that can be quite a temptation.
The businesses that survive in the long run find ways to scale their values to all employees, and keep the quick buck artists in check. It's called customer service, and it's entirely too rare in this first decade of the 21st century.
This issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine discusses customer service -- how to achieve it, what it means to a Troubleshooting business.
So kick back, relax, and enjoy this issue of Troubleshooting Professional. Learn my thoughts on customer service, and enhance them with your own habits, ideas and discoveries. And remember, if you're a Troubleshooter, Technologist, or free software user, this is your magazine. Enjoy!
A quick search of the Internet found Midas Auto Service Experts at 60 Skokie Valley Road in Highland Park, IL. The web page spoke of same-day service on most repairs. When you're 1200 miles from home, that's important. The web page had a coupon for $10 off the repair.
So I called, and David Dempsey, the manager, answered. Not a messaging system. Not a clerk. Not a harried mechanic anxious to get back to his real work. The manager himself.
I told David the symptoms, which were that it seemed to take inordinate pedal pressure to stop the car, and it seemed like the brake pedal went down a little too far. I explained that I'd recently had the rear drums replaced, but the front discs were worn clear to the rotors and I'd probably need new shoes and rotors. And given the action of the brake pedal, I wasn't too confident of the master cylinder.
I asked him if he had the parts in stock, even for the master cylinder. He said yes. I asked how much for new shoes, hardware and rotors for the front. He quoted $240.00. That seemed lower than what I'd been quoted here in Florida (which supposedly has a much lower cost of living), so I told him I wanted the best parts. He assured me these were top quality parts. I asked if he could do it today, and he said "yes". I drove my car to Midas.
David waited on me right away. No huge line. No crowd of angry customers in the lobby. In fact, I was all alone. David asked me if I'd like to wait for the estimate, and I said "yes". My car went right up on the lift. No waiting for a car to come off the lift. No angry arguments about who came first. It just went right on the lift. Two, countem two mechanics went to work on my car. A few minutes later another car came in for repair and one of the mechanics went to work on that other car. Within 20 minutes I had my estimate. It was the rotor and shoe price he mentioned on the phone, plus $20 to adjust the rear brakes. He told me his mechanics could find nothing wrong with the master cylinder. I OK'ed the estimate, and told him to also do the $25 lube and fluid. David asked if I'd like to wait 1.5 hours for the repair, but I elected instead to take a walk.
Walking down the deserted tree covered bike path behind the railroad tracks, I reflected on the great service I'd just encountered. How different this was from the norm of rude clerks, inept service, and phone systems designed to block accessibility to those with the answers.
I thought about the shop. It was exceptionally clean and organized. There were David, 3 techs, and 3 lifts. There was usually a lift open because they worked so fast. It might be tempting for a bean counter to fire a mechanic or move to a smaller shop. But as I'll describe later, this shop's excess capacity results in considerable profit.
Excess capacity. A curseword among the reengineering and efficiency crowds, but anyone who's read The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt knows that without excess capacity, an enterprise is unstable and unprofitable. The way this shop handled its excess capacity was inspiring. The techs cheerfully cooperated with each other. If one had nothing to do, he'd help the other, thus getting cars off the lift fast and minimizing the chance of lift unavailability bottlenecking the operation.
How do you achieve cheerful cooperation? I'm sure those techs weren't paid commission on their individual repairs. I'll bet dollars to donuts their incentive was based on the shop's productivity.
My thoughts went back to Steve's Stereo Repair, another high quality high throughput shop. Like Midas, I fixed things as fast as possible. Like Midas, I had excess capacity (I was open only 3 days a week, so I had plenty of time to clear any backlogs). Like Midas, I gave clear and accurate estimates. Like Midas, I got customer equipment in and out quickly, meaning I could do a surprising volume of business in a very small space. Like Midas, my shop was neat and organized. Like Midas, my customers loved me.
Another commonality between Midas and Steve's Stereo Repair was that we both knew what we do and what we don't. If you've read many issues of Troubleshooting Professional, you know I turn away unprofitable work and stick to what I specialize in. Likewise, Midas specializes in exhaust systems, brakes, suspension, and light repairs. They're not a transmission shop or an engine rebuilder.
With the breeze blowing through the tunnel of trees surrounding the bike path, this month's Troubleshooting Professional took shape. Soon the 1.5 hours were up, and I returned to Midas.
David showed me a filthy air filter discovered in the lube and fluid, and told me if I'd like it replaced that would be an additional $20 or something like that. I agreed. Finishing the repair took another half hour, during which I observed details of the shop.
Their battery supplier came in and replaced the battery inventory in two different displays strategically placed -- one in the shop and one in the waiting room. Vendor cooperation was at work here. For a shop with so much inventory on hand, everything was clean and organized.
But the real news was money. In the maybe 3 hours between the time I brought the car in and the time I drove it off, two other cars came in. I overheard the charges -- between the three cars it was about $1000. In 3 hours :-) $333.33 per hour in revenue. That's $83.33 per hour per employee. Without breaking a sweat. Without running out of lifts. To the great satisfaction of their customers.
On my invoice, labor was 28.4% of the total. If that's typical, it means that on labor alone they made $23.69 per hour per employee. I don't know their cost of good sold, or their rent and utilities on a per hour basis, but it looks to me like this shop is making excellent money while their customers get quality service for reasonable prices.
You might be wondering about my brakes. I left Chicago at 6 PM on Wednesday evening and got to my LEAP meeting in Orlando at 7:30 PM Thursday night. That's a pretty quick pace to achieve with brakes that are anything but perfect. Throughout the entire trip and now in stop-and-go Orlando (home of the non-timed lights), my brakes are effortless and flawless.
They don't fear idle time, but instead double up employees in order to finish everything and be ready for the next rush. And I'd presume they optimize the compensation of their team members for team production.
If your job or business involves customer service, and if you're ever in Highland Park Illinois, drop by the waiting room of Midas Auto Service Experts at 60 Skokie Valley Road, and watch best practices in action.
I guess we all know about asking for help these days in a retail establishment. Most often you need to chase someone down, and they they say "isle 10" without breaking stride. Or you wait a half hour for the one sales person to finish with the 5 other customers he's helping.
But this was Office Max, and things are different there. I quickly found a sales person named Andy "Elvis" Almanza. Earlier I'd seen him giving detailed advice to someone buying a printer. I asked Andy about the paper, and showed him where the paper was supposed to be, but appeared sold out. Andy checked a few other places and couldn't find it. I figured he'd give up at that point. But instead he looked on the top shelf some 12 feet up, but the names on the paper boxes weren't visible. He dragged a step platform over, climbed up, and turned all the boxes around until he found the one containing the paper I needed.
I found the store manager and told him that Andy provided me with THE best customer service I've seen in a large retail establishment in at least 10 years. The store manager, who was extremely nice and personable, thanked me, and related how Andy had recently been praised by a high ranking Office Max executive who had been doing some "casual shopping" in the store.
A bean counter at a typical large retailer might wonder why Andy spent 10 minutes helping someone buy a $6.00 ream of paper. In terms of immediate profit, Andy's action might seem a loss. But management at OfficeMax is a cut above the "do it cheap and the heck with the results" crowd. As a result of OfficeMax's culture of service, and Andy "Elvis" Almanza's service in particular, Troubleshooters.Com now buys its office supplies and equipment almost exclusively from OfficeMax.
After a short walk from the parking structure to the visitors desk to sign in, we were sent to the department in question and then to nurse station. All three places were within 50 feet of each other, and there were no lines at any of them. Elapsed time -- maybe 10 minutes. The changing room was right there, and the examining room was just outside the changing room. From there it was a simple trip via wheelchair to the diagnostic procedure. The doctors took the time to talk to me. Everything was easy and went off without a hitch (and the results came out well, by the way).
Why can't all healthcare be like that?
The nice lady behind the counter took 20, countem 20 minutes to register me. Toward the end I was thinking "oh my gosh lady, it's not rocket science, please let me sleep". But the lady was so nice, and smiled at me so genuinely, that I didn't have the heart to be critical. In fact, all things being weighed, it was pretty good customer service.
Lessons learned? A smile goes a long way. If the lady had shown any impatience, or frowned, or wisecracked me, or any of the other things so regularly done by "help", I'd have found another motel, 12:30 AM or not. But she was so nice I stuck it out. The motel got their $40, and I got a great night's sleep.
A fast food restaraunt near my home in Florida often makes customers wait upward of 20 minutes for their food. Even drivethrough customers. At that local restaraunt, arguments between customers and staff are a regular thing. If this McDonalds was anything like the aforementioned restaraunt in my neighborhood I'd be 20 minutes late to my meeting. These were my thoughts as I pulled into the drivethrough line, which was empty.
The instant I pulled up to the speaker, somebody said, in clear English, "may I help you?". I ordered. They understood my order and got it right. I pulled up to the first window, where they took my money and made change. At the second window they handed me my order. Elapsed time? Less than 2 minutes. Now THAT's the way to run a fast food restaraunt!
A bean counter might argue that the fact there was no line meant they were doing no business. I beg to differ. Once again, the fact that they worked so fast meant that the line never got the chance to accumulate. I really believe this McDonalds could have served over 100 drivethrough customers per hour in a rush. At an average of $5.00 per customer, that's $500 per hour during heavy periods. Ahh, now the bean counter's smiling.
Here's a hint. This is the first ever Troubleshooting Professional Magazine that was designed using an outliner. I suppose I could have used MS Word's outlining capabilities to design former TPM's, but Word's HTML conversion tools are pretty lame, especially since Word hardcodes fonts. So I designed and wrote at the same time, using Netscape Composer.
Now I use Vim version 6 for all my outlining needs. I have a very simple Vim script to convert my tab indented outlines to equivalent HTML heading structures. So I designed this TPM in Vim6, then ran my little conversion script, then wrote the actual prose in Netscape Composer. I found this much easier. Score one for Linux.
So I'm wading through this box of diskettes, every one a driver for some piece of hardware that gets autodetected and autoconfigured by Mandrake's HardDrake utility. Every diskette bears a copyright notice telling me I better not cheat and use it where I'm not supposed to. At this point I'm already homesick for Linux. So I put the diskette in and aim Windows' "Install new driver" to "Have disk" and aim it at A:, and half way through it asks me for my Windows 98 CD. Why?
All I can think of is that Microsoft is calling me a crook. After all, the install CD has all those numbers (better not forget em) in the back of the jewel case to prevent illegal installations. Using Windows is like shopping at a bargain basement electronics store -- the security guards at the door check you every which way and somehow manage to imply that you're a crook even if you paid for it.
So I put in the Windows CD, and everything works right. But Windows must get one more lick in -- please reboot to have your new settings take effect.
With that unpleasant chore completed, I went back to Linuxland, where there are no numbered keys on jewel cases, where all the drivers are on the 'net if not on the CD, where there are no driver floppies, and no installation reboots. Here in Linuxland, it's summertime and the livin is easy.
I got out just in time. I can use my Win98 system to hold legacy apps and their data forever. I can reinstall forever (but only on one machine at a time). I bought it, it's mine.
If I'd upgraded to more modern Windows software, I'd need to continue paying "subscription" fees just to host my legacy software and the data it services.
I understand from a ComputerWorld article called "Microsoft asks PC builders to help stem 'naked' system order" that Windows XP and Office XP will have "forced registration technology". Do you think they'd let you reregister a 5 year old version? Or would they force you to upgrade to something incompatible with the rest of your software.
Linux is like a breath of fresh air. Multiple installs, even on multiple computers, is perfectly legal. There is no forced registration, or even a registration key to remember. No checking your disk to see if you have qualifying upgrade products. With Linux, I register if I wish, upgrade when I wish, with whatever I wish.
I got out just in time.
Now it's 2001. Dot bombs litter the landscape, reducing revenue opportunities for Linux companies. The Antitrust case goes nowhere, with the new administration removing scrutiny from monopolies. The fickle trade mags have all but abandoned Linux, heaping the lions share of publicity on Microsoft's new (and so far nonexistent) .Net, Passport, Hailstorm, Windows XP and Office XP, and their new licensing models. And we're not so young anymore, you and I. We advocate less and use Linux more. Microsoft has never seemed stronger, while Linux seemingly has retreated into a niche.
Before exploring what this all means, let's discuss a boxing match dating back to the start of the Disco era -- one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
Foreman was unbeatable. Undefeated, he had knocked out or TKO'ed almost everyone in his path. The odds against Ali were either 4 to 1 or 7 to 1, depending on whose Internet accounts you read. Ali was toast. Nobody could stand up to Foreman's atomic punches.
And therefore nobody asked what would happen if somebody did manage to stand up to Foreman's punches.
October 30, 1974. For several rounds, Ali leaned against the ropes, covering his face and allowing George Foreman to use Ali's body as a punching bag. It hurt, but Ali took it. Foreman couldn't knock out Ali, and he tired himself out trying.
His massive offensive advantage nullified, an exhausted Foreman was knocked out in the 8th round. Ali's unique strategy in defeating the most powerful boxer of the time (and maybe all time) was called the Rope-a-dope, named after the ropes upon which he leaned. Ali's rope-a-dope answered the question "if you have only offense, and your offense fails, what happens?".
Now comes a new challenger named Linux, and this challenger needs no revenue. Linux lives on, even absent a revenue model. Individual distros may fall, but Linux is GPL so somebody will always pick up the pieces and continue. Most Linux developers are unpaid, so revenue is not a requirement. At the very least, the Debian distro will always exist. Debian is from the Free Software Foundation, and that crew certainly doesn't need revenue to continue.
Microsoft can hurt Linux. Microsoft can take away Linux's press publicity, spread FUD about Linux, and even slow users' experimentation and conversion to Linux. But Microsoft cannot kill Linux. Today Microsoft hits Linux with its hardest punches and Linux groans and takes it.
Even in these days of beating, Linux continues hitting Microsoft with flurries of jabs. The recent spate of "How I converted to Linux" articles is one such flurry. IBM's continued adoption of Linux is another. The naming of Linux as an alternative during Microsoft's embarrassing Passport TOS information confiscation clause debacle was another.
Absent a need for revenue, Linux also has no need for "product differentiation". This means that Linux can "knock off" Windows features at will, and in fact does. If UCITA passes in Washington State, UCITA legislation will slow this "knocking off", but won't stop it. Reverse engineering will simply move offshore.
Linux can lean against the ropes, take Microsoft's hardest punches, let Microsoft tire itself out, and then jab at will to Microsoft's face.
Until now Microsoft has won all revenue sieges because it had more money in the bank. But now Microsoft faces an opponent who doesn't need a nickel to continue the fight.
Microsoft's core competency is monopolization. It's what they've been doing best for the last 15 years. Gates and Balmer know one tool, monopolization. They don't have the knowledge, skills and guts to create a good product and market it as such. Take away their monopoly power and they're powerless.
Linux is doing what Judge Jackson couldn't quite do -- taking away Microsoft's monopoly. Linux takes it away one user at a time, one small business at a time. You don't read about it in these days of Linux hibernation, but people desert Windows daily. And once they go Linux, most never come back.
To prosper in this era of multivendorism, Microsoft must get new management. Gates and Balmer, and their "lieutenants" Allchin and Mundie must be purged, if Microsoft wants future profits.. And Microsoft just doesn't have the will to do this.
Instead, Microsoft's management unwittingly shambles toward defeat.
They can't make enough on upgrades either. First, there's only so often you can issue upgrades. Second, Microsoft's upgrades have a less than stellar track record.
Microsoft can't sell to many more customers, and they can't sell much more product to their existing customers, so what's left? Squeeze more money from existing customers for the same amount of product. Microsoft management is so accustomed to making "offers you can't refuse" that they don't see the danger in this strategy.
So they force their users to do audits to find unpaid-for copies. They consider introducing subscription pricing forcing customers to pay for the same software, year after year. They put forced registration into installation programs, further hassling customers. I've heard rumors of Microsoft's limiting same-box installs of software, and requiring extra payment if the customer goes over that limit. This is especially insulting given that the number two diagnostic activity in Windows software is reinstallation.
Microsoft gets away with this because many customers believe they have no alternative. But some customers see Linux as an alternative. Microsoft is driving away customers in their attempt to gain revenue.
Most people hearing this are incredulous that anyone could be so stupid as to advocate banning the act of giving away of one's own software. My bet is that Gates and Ballmer used Allchin as a pawn to appeal to the stupider members of the legislature (I think we all believe there are at least some stupid people in the legislature), without dirtying Gates and Balmer for begging Congress for protection. I don't know what the effect on Congress will be, but among the general populace this was a black eye for Microsoft.
Next came the Passport License Debacle. Without boring you with the details, Microsoft made a grab for its subscribers intellectual property, regardless of patent or copyright. You can read about this on the Microsoft Passport License Dangers website at http://www.troubleshooters.com/passport/index.htm. It wasn't until a huge number of people changed their copyright notices and precluded viewing their materials through Passport enabled services that Microsoft backed down and changed their confiscatory contract language. Even then, they left that language on their foreign language licenses for quite a bit longer.
Finally, another Microsoft pawn, Craig Mundie, issued a public tirade about Open Source. This time he had the good sense not to sic Congress on Open Source.
I don't believe Microsoft has had any goodwill since 1996. Nevertheless, their recent gaffes have made them even more hated...
Microsoft has no friends. They have millions of sycophants doing their bidding out of fear, but no real friends. When the tide turns against Microsoft and they reach out for a friendly hand, what they'll get instead is knives in the back. This is always the final chapter in the life of a tyrant.
Perl's a great one. Let them learn on Windows, and it works the same when they get to Linux. The Vim VI clone is equally adept on Windows and Linux.
Every time IBM puts Linux on a new mini or mainframe, it's a jab to Microsoft's face. IBM, the very people whom Microsoft demoted from the top dog position a decade ago, use Linux as an anti-Microsoft weapon.
Imagine fighting a little bunny. Imagine you can hurt him but can't kill him, and he keeps coming back. How long can you fight? When you rest, he's on you. When you sleep, he's at your throat. When you give up and say uncle, he's still coming at you.
Open Source and Linux have been created by the natural selection process to be Microsoft-immune and Microsoft hostile. Indeed, Microsoft killed all the software that might have otherwise attracted the Open Source developers' time and attention.
Microsoft seems especially mighty right now, but most of that appearance
stems from acts of pure desperation. Desperation is usually followed by
a rapid fall from power. The scenario might go something like this:
|Microsoft loses revenue and can't pay their developers, so they can't improve their software to compete with Open Source. Their licensing policies begin to drive away customers. Their stock goes down. A huge layoff follows and all they have left to offer is proprietary licenses to software that doesn't work too well.|
When will it end? Nobody knows. But I suspect that once the final act starts, the crash will be rapid, billions in the bank or not.
And of course there's always the chance that Microsoft will get new management who know how to compete using quality, not monopolism.
But the well informed know Linux can never be knocked out. Linux is just doing a rope-a-dope, absorbing punishment and jabbing where it can. The well informed know this fight has no round limit -- it will continue until there's a knockout, and Linux can't be knocked out. The well informed know that Microsoft is wearing itself out.
So ignore the pundits, sycophants and trend followers. Continue expanding into Linux, and learning Linux. Make Linux part of your business and career. You'll have a much better operating system. And when Microsoft takes the ten count, you'll be the guy with the hot skills.
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