Archive for the ‘Op-Ed’ Category

Let’s Have Some Perspective

Posted: November 1, 2008 in Op-Ed

Unless you’ve been on Mars in the last month, or you’re a troglodyte, you may have noticed that the whole world has been going through a major financial crisis. (If you haven’t noticed, then remember you heard it here first.) People are, rightly or wrongly, worried about their livelihoods and their futures.

We’re hearing a lot of gloom and doom. This is normal in a period of economic uncertainty, but I think we also have to keep things in perspective. One way to do this is to focus on fundamentals and ensure we have sound plans and flexible strategies and tactics to meet personal, professional, social and business objectives.

When I was in the military, we used to say that a plan is only good until you cross the line of departure. That expression encapsulates the recognition that things go wrong, no matter how well they are planned. In the current period of economic turmoil, governments, companies, organizations, and individuals will be increasingly confronted with rapid change, risks and uncertainty. This will create havoc with preconceived notions and rigid plans. The watchwords are therefore flexibility, adaptiveness, leadership, resiliency, and robustness.

A natural response is to hunker down and adopt a defensive posture, to wait for better times to come back. Instead, we need to make plans and organize our lives so that we get beyond mere survival and thrive. We must avoid sticking our heads in the sand and prepare for various contingencies while staying on the lookout for opportunities and positive changes. It can take a lot of courage and determination to do so, but that is what good leaders do during times of turmoil and crisis.

It’s gloomy now and it may get better or worse. I don’t know and no one else does. But remember this. Movies and radio really took off as industries during the Great Depression. There were also major advances in aeronautical technology, automotive technology, and many of the household goods we associate with the booming 1950s, such as washing machines and refrigerators, were actually invented in the 20s and 30s and their respective industries took off during the Depression. The social and economic turmoil also led to the creation of social programs that we now take for granted and which make the lives of millions better every day. This was because of political leaders who were prepared to take calculated and prudent risks. In some cases, they had to lead everyone else in taking very bold ones, people such as Roosevelt.

No matter what, people will continue to need basic services such as transportation, health care, education, and food distribution. They will seek new forms of entertainment and recreation. They will continue to learn and to develop as people, to read books, and to travel. Individuals and companies will also seek new forms of security, new investments, and new challenges. Quantum computing, communications technologies, robotics, artificial intelligence, genomics, environmental science, to name but a few, will probably have a massive impact on economies and societies. Businesses will be created in the process of what Joseph Schumpeter termed the “creative destruction” of capitalism.

Through all of this, it can be of help to focus on three basic principles. First, we need to focus on our strengths. Second, we need to be ready to reinforce success and to jump on opportunities because they may appear very quickly and be somewhat ephemeral. Third, we need to create products, services and modes of organization that are in tune with the times.

As an example, we need only look at the financial industry. Everything is in turmoil, but the banks here in Canada are in a relatively good position. They appear to be well capitalized, primarily as a result of more prudent and conservative policies and regulations. That’s a strength, because the world, not just Canada, will need strong lending institutions in the months and years to come to underwrite investment in business and infrastructure. Moreover, there are quite possibly interesting assets available that would have been prohibitively expensive only a few months ago. We only have to look at AIG in the U.S., which has many solid underlying businesses, despite its capital problems at the corporate level. The risks are there, but so are the opportunities.

Manulife Financial has been touted as a potential buyer in that market. Which leads me to the next point. Manulife has been advertising its guaranteed income products in recent weeks. Amongst other things, they have taken out full-page ads in magazines and newspapers. Why? Because they are offering a product that is clearly in tune with the times. Are they taking risks? I’m sure they are. But what is the alternative, to retrench and wait for the turmoil to cease? Will it? Will things be better in a year or worse?

I can’t really say if these are good moves or not, but at least it shows a willingness to lean into the wind and to take calculated risks that build on strengths, leverage unique opportunities, and are in tune with the times.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

In last month’s Leader’s Edge newsletter, I mentioned we were moving from Kingston, Ontario to the Montreal area. Having just gone through most of the process (there are still some loose ends to tie up) it is interesting to compare our customer experiences with the great variety of service providers we have. Some companies and governmental organizations make the ordeal livable and even somewhat pleasant. Others, well, I guess it’s meant to be an obstacle course to prove our worthiness to be their customers.

As an example of reasonably good customer service, I cite Starchoice, one of Canada’s two national satellite TV companies. We have been customers of their’s since June 2000 and, apparently, that counts for something with them. For the move, they hooked up our first decoder set for free, as per the stated company policy. But, they also hooked up our second decoder line for free because we were such “good and loyal long-time customers.” Was the process completely smooth? No. Did they at least try to be nice to us and show some appreciation? Yes. Maybe that has to do with the fact that there is actually competition in the field of satellite TV, to whit, Bell Expressvu, owned and operated by none other than our beloved Bell Canada, the local telephone monopoly.

Given our experience trying to get our new residential line, however, I wouldn’t be very quick to change from Starchoice to Expressvu, something which I actually briefly considered during the move. Unfortunately, for telephone service, we are sort of stuck with Bell, although there is Internet service in our neighbourhood. During the move, we learned that Bell Canada operates two completely independent divisions in Quebec and Ontario. Moreover, the business and residential services are completely separate from each other both nationally and in each of those provinces. I won’t even get into the fact that the Bell Mobility cell phone services are a subsidiary and that the most someone in the land line divisions can do is put you on hold with Bell Mobility. Brilliant.

I had to individually cancel residential and business lines through the Ontario division, and then activate these same services – again independently of each other – with the Quebec division of Bell Canada! Not only that, but they managed to not show up on the appointed date to connect our residential line. When we inquired (on our cellphone and despite the very weak signal in our area, purportedly covered by their network) about this, it took nearly an hour for them to track the request we had made one month earlier and to realize that a work order had never been issued.

When the technician finally came on the new date (naturally, we had to expect him anytime between 9 am and 5 pm – and bully for us if we weren’t there to greet him) about a week later, it took him about two whole hours to get the line up and running. Even better, the phone number they had originally promised was ours turned out to be for a city about 45 minutes from where we live, and then was subsequently changed twice during the time the technician was at our house.

When we asked why everything was so screwed up, the technician was quite talkative, and we didn’t even have to administer sodium pentathol (you know, the truth serum). It turns out that our “adventure” was quite typical, and even sedate compared to some of the other ones. He told us about being dispatched to Hull, Quebec, two hours away from his home base in the Montreal area, while technicians based in the former location were dispatched to the Montreal area for service calls. He also claimed that the back office dispatch function was being performed in India. I don’t know whether his claims were true or not, but it did appear that the people doing the dispatching have no knowledge of Canadian geography.

I’m just hazarding a guess here, but maybe the fact that Bell has fallen to third place in the Canadian cellphone market may also have something to do with that. Maybe the moribund stock price was a recognition by the stock market that Bell Canada can’t exploit its obvious starting advantages. Now Bell Canada is being bought and taken private by the Ontario Teachers pension fund and two U.S. based private equity funds. I bet they know something that the current Bell management doesn’t and that it has something to do with the fact that the company is so disorganized that it can’t offer decent customer service. If they can get it running better, they are bound to make it more profitable and to recapture market share. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

They could start by offering a streamlined – and efficient – customer experience. For instance, Bell has been trying to implement one billing system for at least three years, and they still have not integrated Bell Mobility into it. I realize it’s arcane computer stuff and all, but how hard can it be? Also, how about integrating their Quebec and Ontario divisions, as well as the business and residential offerings. With so many people operating home based businesses or with home offices, surely there is some kind of cross-selling and mutual technical support available. When I call for residential technical support, I can get through 24 hours a day. When I call for business technical support, I can only talk to a human being (after being put on hold of course) between 8:30 am and 5 pm. Huh?

Customer service isn’t about slogans and marketing, it’s about internal organization and performance. It’s about making everyone and every process in the organization function as if the customer really were the most important thing for the company. Given my experience in dealing with Bell Canada over the last few months, of seeing the enormous waste, duplication, and inefficiency, I think adopting a customer-centric attitude would go a long way to making Bell Canada a leader in telecommunication services again as it once was. I might make them more profitable too.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.