Personal, Stories Told

The best customer-service experience I’ve ever had

I applied for a job that asked me to write a few short essays on topics germane to the role. One of them, as this post’s title says, was to tell about an amazing customer-service experience I’ve had. You might enjoy the story.

I had an amazing customer service experience with the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Yes, you read that right — the BMV. It showed me that persistence and savvy can solve a thorny customer problem.

It was 1994. My license was due to expire so I went to the nearest license branch to renew it. The clerk said, “Mr. Grey, the computer says you renewed your license at the Lawrence branch last month.” That was 90 miles from where I was standing. I’d never been to that town.

Dog in the wayback

This happened long before the phrase “identity theft” had been coined, long before data security was any kind of concern. We were all incredibly careless with our personal information then. It was common to have your Social Security number printed on your checks! Mine was. Heck, until just a few years before this story happened, your SSN was your driver’s license number in Indiana. Clerks at Kroger used to validate the checks I used to pay for my groceries by making sure the SSN on my check matched my driver’s license number. It was madness.

This problem was beyond the clerk’s authority, so she gave me a number to call. The representative who answered lacked the authority to help me as well. “I’m not even sure who can help you with this,” she said. “But I’ll find out. Give me a number where I can reach you. Here’s my number in case you don’t hear from me in the next day or so.”

That day-or-so stretched into a couple weeks, with that rep and I calling each other every few days to check in. She tried office after office at the BMV until she found someone both with the authority and the willingness to take on my case.

The woman who now had my case was some sort of upper-level manager. After I mailed her documentation that proved my identity to her satisfaction, she told me what she knew. “We think someone walked into the Lawrence branch claiming they were you and that they had lost their license card, sweet talked a clerk, and walked out with a license in your name but with their photo on it.”

License plate

“This is not going to be easy, but I am going to do everything I can to resolve this for you,” she said. “I will take this all the way to the BMV Commissioner if I have to, and I may have to.” She advised me to check my credit reports and criminal records in several Indiana counties to see if my impostor was doing dirty deeds in my name. She gave me her phone number so I could stay in touch.

It took her weeks to sort it out, working with various BMV offices to coordinate the solution. She authorized an entirely new driver’s license number for me and put an alert on my old record that the license was fraudulent. “You need to know that we’ve never done anything like this, not in all the years I’ve been here. But we allowed this problem to happen and it is on us to fix it for you. By the way, if the police pull the impostor over for speeding,” she said, “he’ll find himself in handcuffs!”

I was lucky; my credit did not get torched and the sheriff did not appear at my door because of something my impostor did. There was an upside for me, though. The BMV’s ancient computer couldn’t transfer my driving record to my new license, which made two speeding tickets disappear. Poof!

What made this a great customer service experience was:

  • Persistence. Everybody I encountered worked hard on this problem, jumping hurdles and removing obstacles, until it was resolved.
  • Savvy. The BMV was a giant state bureaucracy, with miles of red tape. The customer-service rep and the upper-level manager both knew how to navigate it expertly.
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Stories Told

The ultimate car for the man who hates to spend money

My dad pinched his pennies so hard he had Lincoln thumbs. It had galled him deeply to borrow money to buy his 1983 Renault Alliance (read its story here). Knowing Dad, he paid off that note very early. He submitted to those payments only because Mom fell in love with the Renault on the test drive and insisted he buy it. She knew she could play that card only so often – like, once each decade. But the Renault was, to her, a slam dunk: attractive, comfortable, well equipped in top-line trim.

Then in 1987, when Dad was driving 50 miles round trip to work and the Renault piled up the miles, Mom fretted. “I don’t want you to be stranded on some back county road!” So Dad went car shopping – and didn’t take Mom along so he could get what he wanted. Dad returned to his first love, Ford, and found the biggest bargain on the lot: a leftover new 1986 Ford Escort as the 1988 models were about to be delivered to the showroom. He got it for a song and paid cash. He was so tickled by that deal that he talked about it for years.

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It wasn’t a bottom-of-the-line Pony, as the pictured Escort is. But it might as well have been: the same utility white color, manual transmission (though a five speed rather than the Pony’s standard four), steel wheels, AM radio. It had cloth seat surfaces where the Pony was all vinyl, but it had the same plain interior door panels with the most perfunctory armrests I’ve ever seen. It did have air conditioning; Mom told him not to come home in a car without it. But that was a mighty stripped-down car even for the late 80s. No wonder this pig had languished on the lot so long.

I drove Dad’s Escort a few times. It had good power for the time. I remember the shifter being vague and rubbery but the clutch being sure. I always turned off the radio with its tinny center-of-the-dash speaker as it would give me an instant headache. You could hear the gas sloshing around in the tank when you made a turn.

Dad drove that Escort until 1993. He’d have cheerfully kept driving it, but it had racked up the miles and Mom began to fret anew. So Dad returned to his Ford dealer and came home in a well-optioned Escort LX four-door hatchback. It was so much better a car than its forebear – more comfortable, more fuel efficient, more lively – that even Dad had to allow it was worth spending the money.

I originally shared this story on Curbside Classic, back in May. It’s a good memory of my dad and I wanted to share it with you, too.

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Yellow flowers

Yellow flowers
Minolta XG 1, 50mm f/1.7 Minolta MD
Agfa Vista 200 (at EI 100)
2018

When I was 22 I broke up with a young woman who I still call my first great love. We were such comfortable companions. Our favorite thing was to watch bad movies together on cable well into the wee hours. She was brilliant at heckling them. Her dry, nerdy humor kept me laughing. I don’t laugh easily. She was a real gift in my life.

Yet we couldn’t make other things about our relationship work, important things. I don’t think she ever felt like I really loved her. I showed her in the ways I knew how, but she needed to feel loved in ways I didn’t understand and couldn’t give.  And when I was tired or overwhelmed or irritated I was prickly and difficult. Still am. She never knew how to deal with that and she took it hard.

Sometimes a relationship can’t last because you’re not right together in some ways that really matter. Yet you’re reluctant to end it because it’s otherwise so comfortable. But after awhile comfort isn’t enough, and after a longer while the places where you don’t fit start to grate. More of your needs must be met. We ended our relationship, and it hurt, and we missed each other. But it was necessary.

My many Minolta SLRs have all been lovely and felt great in my hands. Their lenses are sublime. My heart leaps over the images these cameras give me. I want to shoot with them forever.

But they have been so unreliable. I just can’t keep one working for the long haul. There may be photographers out there who enjoy taking their gear apart and keeping them working smoothly. I’m not one of them. I just want my gear to work, period. And that’s why I’ve just sold my last Minolta body and am running right into the arms of reliable Pentax and Nikon.

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Film Photography, Stories Told

single frame: Yellow flowers

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Stories Told

I posted on my other blog today, and you might like to read that story.

I make my living leading software engineers, and like to write about it. Today I share a story about how taking good care of the people who work for you can sometimes come back to you richly.

You can read it here. I hope you’ll take a look.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

A story from the software salt mines

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Personal, Stories Told

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now he’s weeks away from his final year of college, and I’m thinking about this message again.

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record

On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 10,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

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The safety to express our anxieties

I’ve written before about how my dad always needed to be in control in our relationship and how never really were able to relate to each other just as men.

There was one time when he did it, and it was through seeking my advice about whether to buy what turned out to be his last car.

Dad was a Ford man. He owned eight Fords in his lifetime, turning to other makes — Chevy, AMC, Renault — only during the ’70s and early ’80s when Ford’s build quality had taken a serious nosedive. When quality became Job One at Ford again in the mid ’80s, Dad went right back to his first automotive love.

Dad had driven his 2006 Ford Focus to about 70,000 miles. Being a product of his time, he thought this was a lot of miles and that the car was nearing the end of its useful life. But I knew that his Focus easily had 100,000 miles left in it, especially because he had taken very good care of it. I was ready for a new car myself, so we negotiated a price for his car. After he bought his next car, I’d write the check and drive the old Focus home.

Looking Over my Car

Dad soon found the car he thought he wanted, a one-year-old 2012 Ford Focus. I waited patiently at the dealer while he and Mom test drove it, in case it was “the one” and we’d complete the deal on his old Focus.

When he came back from the drive I asked how it went. He said it had good room, power, and handling. He wished it were a hatchback rather than a sedan. He also thought the car had high mileage for its age.

Then he looked straight at me and asked it: “Do you think I should buy this?”

The wavering tone of his voice, and the unsure look in his eye, and the very question itself all startled me. I noticed that he was fidgeting a little and sitting crooked in the chair. He had always seemed so sure about everything. He had never asked my opinion about a personal matter before.

He needed to be pushed off the fence, and it was clear that my word was going to do it. “Do you like the car?” I asked. “I mean, can you see you and Mom being comfortable and happy in it as you drive around town and on your trips downstate?” He didn’t hesitate in saying yes, but he still worried about the car’s mileage. “Oh Dad,” I assured him, “you put 5,000 miles a year on your cars, tops. That’s far less than most people. In a couple years the car will be at the right number of miles for its age. You’ll get lots of years out of it. And I’ve checked online: this car is priced fairly. If you negotiate a little, you should get it at a very good price. There’s no reason to hesitate.”

Dad loved a bargain. He stopped fidgeting and sat up straight. He bought the car.

Then I drove home in his old car. I drove it daily for five and a half years, commuting to work, taking road trips, and even driving my sons on a Route 66 vacation in it. It has been the most fun-to-drive little car I’ve ever owned. Despite a couple expensive repairs, I’m happy I bought it. It’s been a good car.

But now it has rolled to 150,000 miles. Little things had been going wrong and I was getting to know my mechanic a little too well. After a failure last winter that required a tow, I knew it was time to put this car out to pasture. The Focus is still in our fleet on light duty. One of my sons currently uses it to drive to his summer job.

My wife and I have two newer cars now, a 2013 VW Passat for me and a 2017 Kia Soul for her. I certainly felt my own anxiety over these two major purchases! Will we like it long term? What if it’s a lemon? Wow is that a lot of money to spend. It’s normal to feel this anxiety, and it can be helpful to talk it out with someone.

I wish my dad could always have felt safe in expressing his own anxieties. But at least this once he was willing to share his with me and let me offer a perspective.

Thanks to Paul Niedermeyer for this article over at Curbside Classic, a Father’s Day memory of the one time his dad took his carbuying advice, which reminded me of this story.

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