Sunday, June 06, 2010

No More Hiatus

During my twenties a decade ago, I worked at a wholesale ophthalmic lens warehouse in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn. It was my job to open as many accounts as I could nationwide via telemarketing as well as troubleshoot customer complaints. It was a tough way to earn a living but I gave it everything I had. Anyway, one of my favorite all time work colleagues who ran the stock lens floor had this saying:
“It’s an imperfect world and we are very much a part of this world.”
He sagely repeated this to me often as I struggled with mishaps that occurred daily and impacted my commission. All kinds of things would go wrong and it seemed I had dissatisfied customers screaming at me every hour. Lenses would be picked wrong, mishandled, or the messenger services were late with their deliveries. Our customers were mom and pop size opticians and optometrists competing with large chains such as Lens Crafters that promised instantaneous turnaround at discount prices. So whenever we screwed up (which happened frequently) I heard about it.

Earning the trust and loyalty of these customers tested my patience and endurance. The wholesale ophthalmic lens industry is intensely competitive with respect to pricing and when shipping charges are factored there is hard bargaining over pennies. We were competing with services far more local to these customers nationwide and simultaneously vying with larger operations than ours to maintain our own client base in Brooklyn. So the customers had plenty of alternatives if they were dissatisfied with us. However, mistakes in the industry among wholesale operations such as ours was common and our competitors were hardly superior. So if a relationship with the customer could be maintained, the rough waters were easier to navigate.

Adding to the challenge was that quality of our customer service was contingent upon the conscientiousness of people who barely earned more than minimum wage with no health benefits or seemingly any stake in the company’s growth. Meanwhile, the two owners of the company I answered to were often fighting each other and had no patience for excuses (such as their polycarbonate lenses being overpriced). I also didn’t have health benefits and there was no pension plan for any of us. One of the owners even tried to motivate me one day by saying that if I consistently hit certain sales targets he could retire. Why he thought that would inspire me I can’t say.

And yet, the education from the experience of those years was indispensable to me and even resembled politics. I learned early on that both the customers and the lens pickers I relied upon respected sincerity and despised phoniness. Being glib, over promising, making excuses and trying to cover your butt with untruths when mistakes were made never worked.

So I found my voice and played it straight with all the constituencies I dealt with: customers, bosses and my frustrated overworked colleagues. When we screwed up an order I acknowledged it and persuaded my bosses to make amends to the customer. If I couldn’t offer a better price on a particular product I admitted it but offered to help the customer on something else they bought frequently. With my colleagues on the lens floor and billing departments I was with them in the pits, sharing their gallows humor and owning up to my own mistakes which made it easier to get a better performance from them. They didn’t have a commission stake like I did but their work ethic was real and treating them with respect went a long way.

My bosses were tough to handle, as they sometimes wanted me to compromise my integrity with clients or co-workers but overtime they realized it was an asset to have somebody that everyone trusted. Maintaining my credibility became integral to their bottom line.

The experience was often humbling, as I didn’t have all the answers or solutions to every crisis of the moment that emerged. It was also a challenge because as anyone who knows me can tell you, I am hardly a social butterfly. Often I wished I could just retreat from the whole thing and bury my head in the sand. As the years went by though I had a loyal customer base. One of my customers, an optometrist from Indiana said to me one day that,
“I appreciate how you listen to what I need more than you try to sell.”
I think about those years working in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn as I observe today’s political discourse and reflect upon the art of political blogging. Alas, our political conversation today is more about “branding” than listening, learning or dealing with challenges truthfully. The right, left, middle and everything in between are stuck in this loop of over the top shouting and equivocation.

Years of blogging and activism burned me out on the whole thing and retreating seemed preferable to trying to shout louder than the Tea Partiers, the Birthers or anarchists who claim there is no daylight between George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And then you have those elitist institutional pundits such as David Brooks and David Broder, who believe it’s OK to split the difference on reality in the name of centrism.

Shouting won’t get it done and neither will silence.

So, I’m going to resume posting again from my corner of the universe when I have the time and inclination. And I like I did in Sheepshead Bay, I’ll plug away in my own way. Some will follow. Some will be persuaded. Some won’t give a damn. Some honest well minded folks will point out when I’m wrong. Others will gratuitously shout.

We live in a very imperfect world and our country is very much apart of that world. Problems and challenges abound in all directions.

Hopefully, overtime I’ll reach enough sane and decent people who can make a difference.


Bradley Phillips said...

Glad to see you back in the saddle.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back Rob, your blog is an important part of the civic debate that is imperative for our future. We are fortunate that your take away from Sheepshead Bay was not to (rape and pillage) be a “Captain of Industry” but to participate in the Ontological dialogue that reflects the essential values of growth and democracy. I hope it isn’t too late for us or my newborn. This big blue marble is actually a beautiful thing; I hope we can somehow keep it from tilting into oblivion.