Sunday, April 19, 2015

Short Story: To Get to the Other Side

Miles looked up from his phone in just enough time to see the car that was going to kill him. He gripped the phone tightly—he was standing in the middle of the road and needed something to hold on to. Also, he paid a lot of money for that phone and wanted to protect it. It was a gift to himself from his annual bonus. He worked hard; he deserved it, but he couldn’t afford another one.

If I die, then Emily can use my phone. Hers is so old. I’ve asked her a million times to get herself a new one but she hasn’t. She’s always so stubborn about it. If I can just protect the screen from shattering, then she can use it. Do you think she will? Probably not. It will remind her of me, and she’ll refuse to turn it on. She’s so sentimental. What a waste of a phone. I’ve only had it for a few weeks.

The car’s fender inverted his knee and Miles doubled over. The three protective shields of the Buick logo plowed into his groin.

At least it’s American. I’d hate to get run over by a Japanese car. They’re everywhere. Cheap imports are killing the economy. We have to do something about that. Anyway, weren’t we at war with Japan not too long ago? Now we buy their cars? I guess there’s a dying minority of patriots who still refuse to buy them. The irony is that all those American war films are probably shot using Japanese cameras.

The Buick’s hood scooped him up and rolled underneath Miles at tremendous speed.

There’s dried bird poop on this car. That’s disgusting. Doesn’t the owner ever clean this thing? That reminds me, I need to wash my car. I probably won’t ever get to wash it again. I knew I should have done it yesterday when I had time, but I was too lazy. Maybe it's time I listen to the advice I give the kids: never waste an opportunity. Well, yesterday I had the opportunity to relax and do nothing, so I was kind of taking my own advice. Someone else will have to wash the car now. Emily won’t do it. She’ll probably pay some kid down the block to wash it, or worse, she’ll take it to a drive-through. I hate those things. The car never gets a proper clean, the pink, gluggy soap they use smells something terrible, and I’m sure the rotating brushes scratch the paintwork.

Miles tried to lift his arm to protect his head. He glimpsed the driver’s white knuckles on the steering wheel, and smashed into the windscreen. It didn’t quite give way, but Miles left a spectacular impact where his elbow and shoulder slammed full-force into the glass.

Man hands. The driver is a man. Or a woman with man hands. Probably a man. What was that statistic? Oh yeah, 5,000 pedestrian deaths a year in the US. Imagine that, 5,000 people every year get up in the morning, perfectly healthy, drink their morning coffee and then, boom, dead before reaching the other side of the street. Did I have a coffee this morning?

Miles’ body splayed out in mid-air and smacked down on the edge of the car’s roof. The trees flipped over and the sky was where the ground should have been. He felt the metal roof depress uncomfortably under his weight. His back cracked.

How is that woman’s handbag suspended in the air like that? Is she upside-down, or am I? Oh, look, she dropped her papers and they’re blowing all over the place. She’ll never find them all again. That’s so inconvenient. I hate it when that happens. Maybe the papers were important. Maybe it was her PhD thesis, or the manuscript for her first novel. Nah, that’s ridiculous. Nobody prints manuscripts anymore. She would be carrying it on a disk-on-key, or have it saved on the Internet somewhere. Everything is digital. Why do we even need bags?

The gushing air suddenly calmed and Miles descended quietly through it. The Buick fishtailed elegantly past, its tires leaving inaudible skid marks behind them.

This is just like when I was a kid and built ramps for my bike using a couple of old bricks and a plank of wood. I’d ride really fast up the ramp and fly off the other end. Being completely airborne even for that one moment was freedom. This is that feeling.

Hey,where’s my phone? Oh no! I dropped it! Maybe they’ll find it. Will they still be able to identify me without it? Do I have my wallet? I don’t remember putting it in my pocket this morning. Is it still on the dresser? There’s $100 in there for Emily. She asked me to take out some cash, but I forgot to give it to her. I should have given it to her when I had the chance. She’s not going to be happy with me when I’m dead. Yes, I know it was my fault. Just because I didn’t look up at the right moment I’ve become a statistic on an Excel spreadsheet, saved to an aging PC in a joyless, grey government office somewhere. I’m a pie chart.

The blood had barely started to pool around Miles’ head before the woman with the papers reached him at full gallop. She gesticulated wildly while yelling into her phone.

That’s funny, I have the same phone. Wait, that’s not mine, is it? No, mine’s black. Hey, can you call Emily? I think she has a similar handbag, but she has so many, who can keep track? She’ll want to know where I am. We were supposed to have dinner tonight at a restaurant to celebrate something, I forget what. That’s why I was looking at my phone when the Buick hit me. I really liked that phone. If you can find it, that would be great.

The woman bent down over Miles. She turned frantically to the gathering crowd and shouted something.

Look at all these people. Lots of brown and black shoes, but not many other colors. I wonder what’s more popular, brown or black? I always wanted a pair of brown shoes, but black is more practical. I only have four pairs of shoes: a black pair of day-to-day shoes, a pair of dark-blue hiking boots, my running shoes (also black), and sandals - black. I can’t really justify buying another pair of shoes. If I did buy a brown pair of shoes, I’d have to make sure that I have the right pants to wear with them. Not everything goes with brown, right?

The ambulance arrived. The woman with the papers backed away. Miles lay motionless and his head was angled awkwardly to one side. His eyes were half closed. His mouth was half open. The paramedics knelt by him and searched for signs of life.

Hey, buddy, can I get up now? Listen, I’ll be okay. Give me a couple of day’s rest and I’ll be back to my old self. Really. I promise not to use my phone while crossing the road again. Deal? Can’t you just let me go home? I’ll chug down a well-aged scotch or two, take a long, hot shower, and all’s well that ends well. What do you say? I guess you don’t get hit by a poop-covered Buick, driven by a white-knuckled man-hands driver and live to tell the tale. I’m kidding. Come on, seriously, that’s for other people. We’re talking about me, here.
========
Dennis took a step towards the curb. The mildly bitter after-taste of coffee luxuriated on his palette. The sunset cast a quiet glow over the high-rise buildings. The cars pushed softly through the orange shadows on their way home. He loved this time of day. He usually didn’t work the night shift, but he agreed to cover for Will at the last minute. Something about his brother being in an accident. The street lights flickered on and Dennis had just started to cross the road when a glinting object near the gutter caught his attention. As he bent down to pick up the phone, a calendar reminder for dinner with Emily slid onto the screen.

Fancy that, I’m off to work and this guy’s at a restaurant enjoying his anniversary dinner. New phone, this. Nice screen.

Dennis looked up from the phone in just enough time to see the Toyota that was going to kill him.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

4 Things I Would do to Improve Retail Customer Service

I went to a sports store today to buy soccer shoes for my son. After about ten minutes of perusing the footwear, we decided to go to a different store to compare prices. Not once during that ten minutes did a store employee approach us - they were too busy talking in the corner about something obviously more important than making sales.

As it turns out, the competition wasn't much better in terms of service, and their merchandise was more expensive. Upon returning to the first store, I hoped that the sales staff would notice that we had come back and help us choose the right pair of shoes. Instead, they continued to stand off to the side and chat among themselves.

We asked for a pair of shoes to try on and it was my turn to stand off to the side and chat. I whispered to my wife that if I was the store manager, I wouldn't have been pleased with their apathetic attitude. She replied that they probably don't feel that they get paid enough to be helpful.

It was then that I remembered an article that I had  read in the Atlantic in 2014 about what it is like to work in retail. The upshot is that the workers are on their feet for the entire day, they are distrusted by their employers, they have to be nice to customers who aren't nice to them, and they are paid very little.

While all that might be true, what is the point of being a retail sales person if you don't try and sell? How do you justify your salary? What excuse should a sales person give to their employer if a potential customer walks out of the store to go to the competition?

It boils down to attitude. It is a failure of the store manager, the chain, the franchise executives, and whoever is in charge that the sales people don't care enough.

So if I was in charge, what would I do?

Training
First and foremost, I'd give my employees the tools to be better at their jobs. I would teach them how to make customers feel that the sales person is there to help them. Sometimes customers will be willing to pay a higher price if they are sure they are buying the right thing.

Environment
I would improve the work environment and culture to encourage a more customer-focused attitude. If everyone working in the store is similarly highly engaged in their jobs, the culture will change for the better and the work ethic will improve.

Incentives
I'd offer incentives for reaching sales targets and give bonuses to employees for solving customer problems that result in sales. Being penny wise and pound foolish is, well, foolish. The basis of economics is incentives - what's in it for me? Make it worth their while to go the extra mile.

Consistency and Improvement Programs
Lastly, I'd engage a Mystery Shopping service provider, like Glassfish Customer Service Professionals. Companies like these can help to obtain measurable data and implement programs and systems to improve customer service and maintain it at a consistently high level.


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