The Failing Desklamp and the Total Blackout

I had packed all my bags (there weren’t that many, really) and I took the last check of the room. It was still dark outside. If I hadn’t so keen to get as soon as possible at the airport, I wouldn’t have waken up so early.

Satisfied that I didn’t miss anything, I reached to turned off the table lamp. As I pushed on the button, suddenly there was a flash of white light from the bulb, and the all the lights in the room went dark. As I recovered from the slight shock, I realized that the burnt bulb must have had tripped a fuse.

I considered for a moment whether I should report the incident to the front desk. I was checking out anyway, and there wouldn’t be much harm if I just walked out of the room. I decided to call the hotel staff.

Luckily, I had left the curtains open, so I had some faint light from the window that guided me to the phone. “Hello, the lightbulb in the desk lamp just blew off, and I think it tripped a fuse in the room. Could you send someone up to fix it, please?” I told the front desk staff. He promised an engineering staff would come to take care of the problem.

A few minutes later, there was a knock on my door. The technician quickly worked, and in a short minutes, the lights were back on.

While sitting in the dark waiting for the engineer, a thought crossed my mind. I knew there was something wrong with the desk lamp as soon as I checked in. After dropping my bag, the bellboy proceeded to show me how to turn on all lights in the room. When he clicked the desk lamp button, it stayed off. “The bulb needs changing, huh?” I pointed out. Of course, changing light bulbs was not in the bellboy’s job description. And apparently, neither was the task to report the problem to the proper authority. He simply excused himself and left.

The lighting setup in the room was dim, and missing a desk lamp reduced the brightness quite significantly. Anticipating the possibility of having to work on the desk later, and being left on my own to take care of the desk lamp, I began to tinker with it. I tried to loose the light bulb a bit, and voila! The desk lamp was on!

The next night, it was off again. I called housekeeping to send an engineer up. After putting down the phone, again I tried to tinker with the desk lamp, and behold! It was on again! I quickly cancelled the engineer, and was happy for the night. Until the fateful early morning when the bulb blew.

Doesn’t something like this often happen in an organization? Somebody noticed something that was wrong. He reported the problem through the proper channel, but no action was taken. So he tried to work the problem out himself, but it did not solve the problem at the roots. It keeps happening again and again, until the problem becomes too big and shut down the entire system in the organization.

This is the importance of having an open communication channel in the organization. And on top of that, it must be equipped with sufficiently authorized personnel who can quickly take action once a problem arises. If the personnel is not able to solve it, he or she must have a direct channel to a higher authority who can, and who is quick to make a decision. Otherwise, the problem will stay hidden until it gets to big and brings down the entire organization.

Learning from the colossal failures of giants like Barings and Enron, ethics play an important role when dealing with problems. When there is no ethics, then whatever chain of command or channel of communication in place will not work.

Being The True You

Yesterday, at the closing of a sales training class for one of our major clients, the host trainer from the client graciously asked participants to say a few words for me, as the external trainer. This is not something that I expected, and being a naturally introverted person, this also put me in an awkward situation. I know that most of the time any participant would be glad to share some appreciative comments, to which I am grateful (though frankly it may prove to be difficult to keep a humble face and not feeling smug at the same time).

But of course some participants chose to differ. They took the opportunity to give me a piece of their mind. Publicly. If receiving praise is somewhat embarrassing for me, then getting a ‘constructive feedback’ in public is almost beyond description. Nevertheless, I appreciate every opportunity to learn and to improve myself. 

One especially critical participant stood up to speak. I could almost feel my heart skipped a beat in anticipation to what he was going to say. He started to summarize some positive words from other participants about me, like ‘is always smiling’, ‘never criticizes’, ‘welcomes humorous interjections’, etc. And with a knowing smile, he added, “But that is the way he is in a class. We don’t know how Stephen is outside the class.’

I wasn’t in any way bothered by his comment. It was actually a good reality check. 

We sometimes put a different face for different audience. At work, we may put on a professional face when dealing with clients and customers. We treat them courteously, we listen to them, and we welcome whatever sharp words customers say as far as they concerned to the services we render to them. 

Once we get back at home, we put on our real face. We get irritated when our spouse ask a question or require our help. We put aside courtesy and criticize our loved ones without regards to what they feel. We may be more likely to pay better attention to the people on TV, who don’t care about us, than to our spouse who want to have a conversation with us.

I consider that comment to be a reminder for me to be genuine, to be the same person wherever I am. 

Jack Welch has this to say about being an authentic person. He says,

“The most powerful thing you can do is, well, be real. As in not phony. As in grappling, sweating, laughing, and caring. As in authentic.”

That is how a leader can influence other. Not just by being a great communicator, but also by showing his/her true self and values.

Dale Carnegie had this to say about building rapport to people around you, and to influence others: 

“Be a good person skilled in speaking.”

The first rule in being a good communicator is to be a good person first. Anyone can be a fluent speaker. But can we maintain integrity to be true in whatever we say, or we still tend to put on a different self? 

That is one question I keep asking myself. 

How to Take a Cold Call

I used to let myself fee annoyed when receiving a cold call from a sales person. It could be about a number of things: credit card, life insurance, investment opportunity, collateral-free loan, you name it. I developed a deep dislike of cold calls so much that when my staff buzzed me to get a call through, I would ask them to tell the caller that I wasn’t taking any call.

One thing that I felt strongly about was those sales people who did not seem to understand when to accept a no. Whenever I tried to weasel out of a sales pitch, they would press even harder to close the sale. It seemed  impossible to make them understand that I didn’t not need whatever they were selling, and I was not buying.

I don’t know what they were taught when they signed up for the job. Perhaps their superiors told them things like this:

  • “Close every call!”
  • “When the prospects say no, they actually say yes.”
  • “Prospects are clueless. They don’t know that they need our products. They need us to make them realize that.”
  • “Don’t stop talking or you’ll lose the call.”
  • “When the prospects try to tell you no nicely, they’re sitting duck. Press them and they will say yes.”

Add to that the pressure to make the quota to or lose the job, and you get yourself some hardheaded salespeople who will get on your nerves and make you lose your temper. There is a very thin and fine line between determined and stubborn, and sometimes, being under pressure, some people mistake one for the other.

After an emotionally draining call from a salesperson, I complained to my wife about how infuriating they are. My wife gently said, “Well, it’s their job. They are going to do it whether we like it or not.”

Being a trainer for sales program myself, I came to understand that that’s how salespeople work. Some can do it well, some cannot. And since many sales people took the job out of necessity instead out of love for the work, you have better chance to get a cold call from those who don’t do it well.

It’s like complaining that the sun is hot, when that’s just how the sun is supposed to be. Rather than ranting about it, you had better get yourself under a shade, and let the sun do its job.

So I decided to control my reaction. I stopped asking my staff to screen calls. I now take the call, and I tell the salesperson in a friendly tone that I appreciate their offer, but at the time being I am not interested to take it. So the conversation now generally goes like this:

Salesperson: “Can I speak to Mr. Stephen Siregar?”

Me: “Speaking.”

Salesperson: “Mr. Siregar, I have the pleasure to inform you that you have been exclusively selected by our company to receive our best offer. [And proceeds to describe the product that he/she is selling]”

Me: “Oh so it is an insurance, isn’t it?”

Salesperson: “Well, yes, but this is not just any insurance. As soon as you are hospitalized for any reason, we will pay you a daily allowance to cover your hospital costs.”

Me: [In a friendly and smiley tone] “I see. I already have insurance.”

Salesperson: “This policy is especially created as addition to your existing policy, so you can have better coverage.”

Me: [Still in a friendly and smiley tone] “I know. But I don’t think I’m interested right now.”

Salesperson: “Are you sure? If you have objections on the premium, we have other policies at lower price [and begins to name other products and their lower prices.]”

Me: “Well, that is nice. But no, thank you. Maybe another time.”

At this point, if the salesperson happens to be the stubborn one, and keeps pushing for a close that is never there, I would end the conversation like this:

Me: [Still in a nice voice] “No, thank you for the offer. Good day.” [hangs up]

That may sounds rough, but if I let it to go further than that, there is a good chance that I will lose my patience and I would ruin my and the salesperson’s day. Besides, I have made it clear that I am not interested. So it is out of sheer kindness that I cut the call short.

On the other hand, if the salesperson happens to be well trained to handle rejections and knows that there is no good coming from pushing for a close, he/she usually says:

Salesperson: “I understand. May I call you at a more convenient time?”

Me: “Sure, no problem.”

Salesperson: “Thank you Mr. Siregar. Have a pleasant day.”

Me: “You’re welcome.” [hangs up]

Lately I discovered that cold calls become less and less a nuisance for me. It is very rare that I have to cut a cold call short. Maybe only one in every fifty calls.  I don’t know whether it’s because they get better training, or it’s really because I take the calls in a nice way. The good news is I don’t dread taking cold calls anymore. On the plus side, my staff are also happier that they don’t have to screen calls for me.

So being nice AND assertive can be beneficial both for other people, and for yourself. Almost like shopping when there is a buy-one-get-one-free offer.

Win Customers By Sending Them to A Competing Business

This took place about 13 years ago, before ‘mobile phone’ became ‘mobile device’, before the word “iPhone” was coined, and before people adopted the habit of uploading pictures of their lunch and tweeting trivial thoughts.

It was an overcast day, like many other days, in Seattle. I wanted to call home to Jakarta, and I needed to get a calling card. Lucky for us, just across the intersection from the hotel was some kind of a general store. It was not a big supermarket nor a chain drugstore, but you can find most of your needs in there. In the narrow aisles in the low-ceiling and medium lighted space were stacked snack, soda, food, medicines, beauty and hair care products, magazines, newspapers, and a sundry of other daily necessities. Almost every nook and cranny was filled merchandise.

When I got there, there were customers standing in line in front of a counter. Standing behind the counter was a tall blond young man who, I think, was not older than 19. His slender torso was covered by a white polo shirt, protected by the store’s dark green apron, and his thin, pale complexioned face was framed by a crew cut hair.

When my turn came, he greeted me with the usual store clerk courtesy. “How can I help you?”
“Do you carry calling cards?” I said.
Instead of directly giving me a yes or no answer, he replied with another question.
“To what country do you wish to call?”
I lost my thought for a second at the unexpected response. Why does he need to know the country I want to call? Any calling card can call to any country, right?
“Indonesia,” I finally answered.
“Unfortunately the calling cards that we have charge high rates for calls to Indonesia,” he said, matter of factly. “You can find cards with lower rates in the ‘Blue Moon’ store just a few steps down the street.”

I was taken aback at his reply for two reasons. One, I never met anyone who was willing to promote a better price in another store. For all I know, a salesperson like that will soon earn his termination for sending customers to a competitor. Reason number two, how on earth did he know that the cards in the other store had better rates? Did he have a habit to compare callling card rates?

Seattle is one of the gates from Asia into mainland US. If you take a stroll in Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, you can meet many Southeast Asian men and women, young and old. According to demographic data, in 2010 Asians and Pacific Islanders make up 13.6% of the population of the City of Seattle. That makes them the second largest population by race in the city.

Come to think of it, it was really not a big surprise if someone in Seattle can know so far about making calls to Indonesia.

He then proceeded to give me directions to the ‘Blue Moon’ store. I thanked him, and walked to find the place. It was a bakery owned and run by Chinese proprietors, and they did sell calling cards. I never found out whether the rates were better than the ones sold at the General Store. All I knew was that when I left Seattle, there was still some credit left in the card, even after I used it to make calls half a world away for hours.

The young man taught me valuable lessons when serving customers:

  1. Always think in the customer’s best interest, even when it means directing the customer to another business who can give a better service. That is the price for gaining customer’s trust, and to build long term relationships.
  2. Hoard as much as possible knowledge and information that you know can help you serve customers. It will help you going the extra miles for your customers, and win the  goodwill to return the favor to you.

Humor Is The Best Enhancer

I gave up hoping for a quick check through the immigration when the officer from the Department of Homeland Security put my passport into a red folder and motioned me to step aside and wait. Out of thousands of passengers arriving in LAX that day, I was one of the lucky ones who had to go through a secondary screening.

The first time I was selected for screening was two years before in Minneapolis-St Paul airport. It was quite a stressful experience. Instead of stamping my passport and welcomed me to the United States, the DHS officer kept my passport and told me to go to a waiting room. When I got there, there were dozens of frazzled people with cluelessness in their tired faces, and a stout, middle-aged, stern DHS Officer who was over his head trying to maintain order in the room. When I came up to him to ask whether I was in the right place, he turned to look at me, point a finger to a row of seats, and in an angry voice said, “SIT!”

It must have been difficult for the officers, too. They had to deal with hundreds of screened passengers, most of who might have difficulties to communicate in English. Looking back at that day now, I understand why the officer had to speak to passengers in short, monosyllabic sentences. It was easier to say with authoritative tone, and easier for foreigners to understand.

But in that day, that was enough to send my adrenaline level way up, and changed me from confused to distressed.

So two years later, when I was told to wait for an officer to interview me, all the harrowing memories came back to my mind. My heart rate began to climb up in antiipation of what was coming at me.

And then, I was surprised.

The DHS officer was a young man, probably in his late 20s, with a unconcerned air about him, and an easy attitude. He greeted my with a smile, and began to check through my data in his system. “Sorry, the system sometimes freezes up on me,” he said apologetically when he had to wait for a few moment for the computer to respond. And while waiting, he made a Donald Duck voice.

Suddenly I felt the tension inside me dropped like a stone.

“Now, I will ask you some quetions to update your information in the system,” he said, in a serious tone. “Okay, first question: are you a man?”

I must have given him a funny look, because the other officer in the next cubicle turned to him and chuckled. “Hey, what if he said ‘no’?” the officer asked with a laugh. Then my interviewer replied earnestly, “In that case, we’re gonna have a biiiiiiig problem!”

I never had a more pleasant time with any other border inspection officers anywhere. I was still smiling when I joined my fellow travelers beyond the gates. And I am still laughing whenever I remember that incident.

I learned two things from that experience.
1. You can have fun while doing a very serious job.
2. When you have fun at your job, other people will be more willing to cooperate with you.

And one bonus lesson:
Have a sense of humor. Life is difficult enough as it is. Why not live it with a happy heart?

Life Without Borders


When in a new place, I make an effort to try something new. For example, when traveling to a new place, I would veer off the familiar, and try local food. This is the reason why I rarely go to a Starbucks, McDonald’s, or any of the well known global brand when visiting a city. I would look for a local restaurant or local coffee house for a different taste.

Like this bowl of ramen that I just had for dinner. I’ve been wanting to try the restaurant for a long time, but didn’t get the opportunity to do so until now. And even then, the reason that I finally chose this ramen house was because other places were full with saturday-nighters. Even then, I was so glad that I ate here because the ramen, especially its broth, was exceptionally rich and delicious.

Trying new food can really widen your horizon. Before I visited Seoul, I had reservations regarding Korean food. I heard about kimchi, bibimbap, and I’ve seen some korean specialty restaurants in Jakarta, but I barely had the interest to try one. And after three bibimbaps in three different occasions (two of them as airline meals), now I look at Korean restaurants with a curious, almost a longing, attitude.

Imagine what trying an entirely different experience and meeting new people can do.

I remember the first time I held a live firework tube in my hand. Before that, whenever I wanted to light a firework, I would put the tube against a solid thing, like a brick or a flower pot, lit the fuse, and ran to safety. Until one new year’s eve someone (I truly forgot who it was, but I must say I’m thankful for the forceful persuasion from the person) told me to lit the fuse, hold it high above my head, and aim it at an empty part of the sky that was free from electric lines and trees. I counted each blast with a racing heart, fearing that the next one would explode in my face. After the final fire, I found that I was still alive and unscathed. I stopped fearing firework since that day.

Mark Twain, the famous author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer once said, “Do the thing that you fear most, and the death of fear is certain.” Dale Carnegie, the bestseller author of How To Win Friends and Influence People said, “If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

I think would count anyone as fortunate if he could spend each day to conquer one thing that he fears. The more fear we defeat, the wider the boundaries of our lives become. And one day, our lives may become simply boundless with possibilities.

The Importance of Being a Good Person

During Dale Carnegie & Associates 67th Annual International Convention in Honolulu last December, I had a conversation with a colleague from Taiwan. I complimented him on the success of Taiwan team in the past fiscal year. With great enthusiasm I recounted some facts about their achievements (which in retrospect should be something that he already knew).

Of course behind all my excitement I wanted to know how they managed to make it happen. To be honest, I was expecting something in the line of, “Well, our team got together, we drew a strategy, and in the execution everyone chipped in their best effort.” Something that shows camaraderie, team work, hard work, focus, and so on.

Instead, Arthur gave me the biggest smile and said, “We have a good boss.”

At that moment, the doors were opened and everyone in the foyer began pouring into the ballroom for the morning’s General Session. I did not get to ask him what he meant by that. I wish I had pulled him aside and grilled him more on that. Since I didn’t, so I was left to myself to figure it out.

I know his boss. Although John Hei is a popular public figure in Taiwan, the first impression you take on him will not show that. He speaks with a soft voice, and he smiles a lot. One thing that truly leaves a strong impression on me is his humility. He is already in his 70s. In Asian culture, he is considered a senior to whom people pay a great respect. People will understand if he would choose to stand in the sidelines and let the younger generation do the hardwork.

Despite of that, he is not beyond sitting in a classroom with people half his age, to learn from a trainer 20 years his junior, as evident in a program that I had the privilege to be part of in 2011. He did the same exercises as the rest of the class, he took part in small group discussions, and the most amazing thing for me was he was willing to be coached in front of the younger people.

I am sure that is not where the list stops. If I were to interview his team members about him, I think I can get at least 100 more reasons why he is such a good and inspiring boss.

For me, this is where leadership plays an important role in an organization. All the management knowledge remains important to run a successful business. But in the end, what drives people is their leader. What the leader does, what the leader says, how the leader relates with others, will be the driving force behind a great organization.