Customer Care

Their horses are swifter than leopards,
    fiercer than wolves at dusk.
Their cavalry gallops headlong;
    their horsemen come from afar.
They fly like an eagle swooping to devour;
    they all come intent on violence.
Their hordes advance like a desert wind
    and gather prisoners like sand.
They mock kings
    and scoff at rulers.
They laugh at all fortified cities;
    by building earthen ramps they capture them.
Then they sweep past like the wind and go on—
    guilty people, whose own strength is their god.”

  • Habakkuk 1:8-11

You have brought your days to a close, and the end of your years has come.  Therefore I will make you an object of scorn to the nations and a laughingstock to all the countries.

  • Ezekiel 22:4b

I hope I can tie the Scriptures with the post title and the story that is bouncing around in my head.  I saw the video that was linked in this morning’s quiz.  The narrator said something about how one of the ports where Paul landed on his return trip from his third missionary journey is no longer a port.  They have backfilled the land and moved the port.

That caused me to think of the reverse.  The Sparrows Point island in the greater Baltimore, Maryland area was once the home of one of the largest steel mills in the country.  During World War II, it pumped out a lot of sheet plate to armor the ships being made for the war.  It was one of the top tin plating mills in the country.  And when it came to hot strip mill operation, they had contracted with the company I worked for and I had the pleasure of working with them to have their union promotion training set up on the computer, training and “written” testing.

Now Sparrows Point is the deep seaport for the city of Baltimore.  Now THAT is one fantastic way of losing a customer!!!

But the guy that I worked with was a character.  I was warned that he would be the nastiest customer that I could ever dream of working with, mean, vicious, demanding.  I found him to be a delight, but with one cringe-worthy quirk.  He told the nastiest, dirty jokes that you could imagine.  I will confess.  I laughed, but the customer knew more about me than I ever talked about.  I often thought about how to change the circumstances of his dirty jokes to clean them up, but it gave me a headache.  Here, years later, I can remember none of them.

We will call the customer Joseph.  That is a fitting name.  His name was not of Hebrew origin, but he was a Jew from Brooklyn, New York.  Just have him say something.  He was a New Yorker.  Since he lived in Baltimore, away from family, Joseph sounds appropriate.

I asked him about how he got lost and found his way to Baltimore.  He said, “One day after a hard day of work in New York City, I took the subway home, and I was so tired that I fell asleep.  When I woke up, I was in Baltimore.  I said to myself, ‘Self, this place ain’t that bad.’  That was over forty years ago.  So, young man, take advice from someone that’s been there.  Don’t fall asleep on the subway!!  You might not find your way back home.”

I told him that I grew up in Mississippi and I ended up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Joseph said, “[expletives deleted] you musta skipped the subway and got on a train!!!”  When I told him that the passenger train had no idea where Mississippi was, Joseph rolled with laughter.

That set the tone between us.  He did not like any of the bosses at our company because they were all business, but I was built from a different bolt of cloth, according to Joseph.  That became obvious as I sat in his office doing my research to build their entire training program into a computer-based system, writing over half of it from scratch, and painfully copying each procedure – then filming or photographing someone performing each procedure.  How did Joseph know that I wasn’t the usual engineer from Pittsburgh?  The operators came into the office to interrupt my work.  They had bizarre questions about what happens when there is a thunderstorm outside and they must adjust the operation of the furnace, or “I know the sequence of buttons that I am supposed to press to do what you just asked about, but I have no idea what is happening inside the furnace when I push each button.”  I would then take their question and explain it in terms that they could understand, even making little models out of sticks, pencils, a modeling clay.  The usual engineer would wave his hand and say that they did not need to know that.  In fact, the engineers that I worked with, most of them, thought that the less that the customer knew, the better our business would be when they screwed something up.  I took the time to help them, working far more than the eight hours that I was being paid to work each day, and using that overtime to get to know everyone on each of the shifts.

One day, Joseph took me out to lunch.  We went to his favorite crab cake place, probably not kosher.  I insisted on picking up the tab, but he said “A crab cake is about five bucks and the drink would put you over five bucks.  Since I cannot accept anything over five bucks from a vendor, are you trying to get me fired?!?!  I tell you what.  This is my favorite place and it’s my treat!  Then you can be the one to worry about the ‘conflict of interest’ thing.”  I think of that exchange every time I see those “Jake from State Farm” advertisements where they are repaying him for the “favor.”  In most companies these days, that gets you fired or, at least, reprimanded.

Then, months later after successful completion of that huge job (3 full CDs, one for each job classification), Joseph called me on the phone.  He introduced himself and then immediately told a dirty joke.  I laughed and asked what he needed.  He told me that he just wanted to make me uncomfortable, and then he hung up.  He immediately called back and said that he wanted me to update the union examinations with a couple of changes that he was going to fax over.  Then he added that they needed some modifications made to their control system.  I offered to transfer the call.  Joseph said, “I wouldn’t talk to that [expletive deleted] salesman of yours on a dare, but you can have him call me, as long as you get credit for the sale.”  If you are following Joseph’s logic, he refused to talk to the salesman if I transferred the call, but if the salesman called him, that was okay.

The [expletive deleted] salesman had the office next to my dungeon (a cubicle of my own design – for privacy, and about three times the size of a normal cubicle).  I walked into his office and told him to call Joseph.  The salesman exploded with expletives of his own.  “Why did he not call me?!?!”

I replied, “He doesn’t like you.  I laugh at his dirty jokes.”

“But you are a Christian and you should not like dirty jokes.  I love dirty jokes, but he calls you?”

I replied, “Exactly.  He tells me dirty jokes because he knows I don’t like them.  He doesn’t like you because you do like them.  Oh, and Joseph wants me to get credit for the sale you are about to get.”

“Fat chance!!  And close the door on your way out!!”

The Scripture from Habakkuk says that the attacking foes laugh at the walled cities because they will simply build earthen ramps.  There were other forms of military engineering that they might try before earth moving, but how that ties in hear is that I conquered the mean, vicious customer with kindness and maybe a little earth moving.  The others might have soared like eagles, with cavalry that was swift and fierce.  They rushed in and got the work done and never got to know anyone at the mill.  But I used kindness.  I used the transfer of knowledge to let them know that I cared.  And my project made a lot more profit than theirs did in the end, plus we had a customer that came back for more.

And to tie in Ezekiel, the all-business engineers who rush in have become a laughingstock.  They have come; they have completed their work; and they have gone, but nothing that they did had a lasting effect.  The steel mill is gone, but I am sure that a few of those operators remember that person whose name they cannot remember who stopped his work to answer their questions.

Customer care could be translated into getting the job done and done correctly.  But in giving the added effort to recognize the humanity in the customer and meeting greater needs than simply what the contract required…  Now that is true customer care; it shows that you care.

Joseph had a heart condition and was already old enough to retire.  He was afraid he might not ever retire.  Retirement was not what he wanted, but the steel mill was shut down, pulled right out from underneath him.  While I tried to make a lasting mark on other people’s lives, quite a few have made their lasting mark on me.

May God bless each person that has been in my path for all these years, and there have been many.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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