Who Moved My Aisle Seat?

Each time, almost without fail, I managed to secure myself an aisle seat in long haul flights. I made it a point to get the booking number as soon as possible and to pre select my seat way ahead before the travel began.

The reason is simple: I have a small bladder and in some cases I had to use the restroom almost once every hour. An aisle seat would save me the trouble of having to politely ask a stranger to allow me to cross his personal space just to relieve myself.

Most of the time I was able to get the seat myself. In some other time, I was lucky that I could ask for a seat change when I checked in. The rest of the time I just had to accept a middle seat.

Such is the case when I was preparing for this flight from Jakarta to Atlanta. I started to have a sinking feeling as I scrolled through the seating plan of the aircraft on the airline website. All aisle seats were not available. If it were a short flight, it wouldn’t bother me. I could survive being stuck between two strangers for two, three or even five hours. But it was a thirteen hour leg. Thirteen!

Arriving at the airport, I made some last attempts to request an aisle seat, but it was to no avail. So I braced myself for the worst.

And it was even worse.

Because of some mobile check in mishap, I was not allowed to check myself thru. I was not to get the boarding pass for my next leg until I checked in at the transfer desk in the transit airport.

During security check in transit in Incheon, they saw a suspicious item as they scanned my cabin luggage. They had to go through all my stuff twice, before they dig out a small pocket knife that I forgot to take out from my bag. The officer gave me a long what-were-you-thinking look before he turned his attention to the next passenger.

And for some not so strange reasons, they selected me for a random secondary physical security check. They went through my bag again, and they frisked me. They swabbed a piece of paper all over my bags, shoes, and outfit for explosive residue. As the result, I was among the last passengers boarding.

As I made my way down the aisle to my row, I saw someone else sat in my seat. I had to politely ask him to move. When I looked for an overhead bin space, all has been taken. I tried to rearrange one sparsely loaded bin to make space for my bag when the passenger sitting beneath it stopped me.”FAA regulations. The attendants put that bag horizontally because it doesn’t fit vertically,” she said. “Please put it back the way it was.”

I could feel the stare of the other passengers behind me. I was blocking their way while frantically looking for a vacant bin. I finally turned to a cabin attendant. “Could you help me find a space for my bag please?” She led me back to that same bin, pushed the content aside and said, “Do you want to see if your bag fits in here?” I pessimistically followed her suggestion, thinking that my bag was too big. But it fit!

I settled down in my middle seat, and tried to read a book. Because of snow, the ground crew had to de-ice the Boeing 777-300 ER, and it took a long time. It was already one hour past the departure time when we were finally airborne. The plane slowly climbed to its cruising altitude to avoid bad weather.

With every passing minute I could feel my bladder filling up to the point of bursting. I looked up the flight progress on the personal monitor in front of me and counted every altitude increase. I wished that the plane already reached 30,000 feet.

Suddenly there was a ‘ping’ on the PA, and the fasten seatbelt sign was off. It’s the sign from the pilot that it’s safe to move around the cabin. I quicky turned to my right hand neighbor and poked her awake. “Excuse me,” I said. I rushed past her to the aisle and walked down to the nearest lavatory.

In retrospect, it wasn’t such a bad experience. Revisiting the whole episode, I found some things I could be thankful for. I now understand that the reason I wasn’t allowed a check through was because I tried to do a mobile check in with a new passport when my US visa was on the old one. Unable to match the new passport number with its database, the system automatically rejected my check in and flagged me for inspection. That’s why I had to personally check in in transit.

The lady at the transfer desk was just arriving at her post when she took my case. She was late for work and was embarassed with her supervisor. And my case took some time to solve. She had to re-register my name, my passport and my visa in the system before she could produce my boarding pass. Yet she was all professional, and gave me a polite smile as she returned my documents.

The security officers who had to check my bag were not happy of having to go over my things. If possible, they would rather disregard their suspicion and let me pass. But they had the responsibility over the safety of hundreds of lives. They had to check. Twice.

And the secondary screening officers? I’m sure if they could choose, they would rather do something other than spending the morning running their hands all over strangers. Who knows the places these people have been to? Yet they did their job respectfully to the passengers. I was not at all feel humiliated for being chosen for a random check while other passengers watched as they rushed to board the plane. With halting English a young officer told me nicely that I had to undergo a secondary check. They patiently guided me through the process. They even smiled when they completed the check.

I learned a valuable lesson from this. You cannot really know what surprises life might throw at you. Sometimes what happens is not what you expected. The most important thing is what you get from that experience. And what you get reflects your attitude. When you react with negative thoughts, it will be a harrowing incident. On the other hand, you will get gold from dust with some patience, humility, positivity, and some bladder control.

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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.

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?

Am I, Really?

It was time for the morning break. I concluded the session, and sent the participants to get some refreshment. As they were filing to leave the room, one of them came up to me.

“You remind me of so-and-so,” he said, naming one of our former senior trainers. “What is your relation to him?”

I was quite taken aback by this unexpected statement. One, the person he mentioned was a trainer well known for his humorous way in teaching, Two, I only had one opportunity to teach with him, so there was no chance for me to imitate or take one or two ‘trainer tricks’ from him. Three, I never considered myself to be a humorous person. For all I know my specialty was to put the class to a relaxing slumber during my delivery.

“I’m afraid I don’t have any relations with him,” I admitted.
“But your teaching style is somewhat like him. Are all of you guys are like that? I mean, smart?”
“Well, we trainers were similarly trained,” I said.

He was one of the class joker, so I couldn’t say whether he was being serious. But since he said that personally instead in the middle of a session, as jokers are apt to do to get a laugh, I suppose it wasn’t meant to be funny.

Looking back to that moment, I am more concerned with how I mentally responded. Why was it difficult for me to believe what he said? Am I such a bad trainer that it would not be possible for me to be seen as equal to a more experienced person? Why is it hard for me to believe that I may have achieved a higher level of teaching skills?

I know I still have a long way to go to be an exceptional trainer. And to be frank, I am not so sure that I want to make it a professional goal in the first place.

But I suppose it’s OK to give yourself a little pat in the back once in a while. Celebrating some achievements are important, whether it’s a big, small or even unwanted, just to let yourself know that you are really doing something useful in your life.

So I will take it as a compliment and revel in it for a while.

In Your Face!

It was just a little before 3 PM when my 4 o’clock appointment walked into the lobby of our training center where we were holding interviews. She was a lot taller, a lot bigger, and a lot different than the person I perceived from the photo on her resume. But I wasn’t wrong about her being direct, although I didn’t expect her to be opinionated, as I would later discover.

She refused my offer for a drink, and directly got to work to fill out the application form. Expecting her to be Action-Intelligence in her approach to communication and to be a Dominant in her personality, I carefully planned my opening for the interview.

As soon as she completed the form, I began by complimenting her on the way she meticulously structured her resumé. She responded with a sheepish grin and a polite disbelief.
“No, it’s not that good, really.” She said with a pleased smile.
“It is still a lot better than most resumés that I have read the last couple of days,” I insisted.

We continued to talk about her past accomplishments. She turned out to be more open and less dominant than I expected. The conversation went well, and we finally reached the end of my part to ask the questions.

“Now it’s your turn to interview me,” I said, giving her the rein for the rest of the discussion.
“I only have one questions,” she said. “I noticed that you have put out an ad for this position several times. Why do you think the past people did not last long in this job?”

I knew she would not buy any BS, so the best course of action would be to be directly and brutally honest.

“The last person did her job excellently. She had good initiatives, she took actions, but because she failed to build rapport, she got bad responses from the rest of the team.”
“Everybody hated her?”
“No, just some people. But they were the loudest lot. I should have given her more support. I should have sent her to a training program so she could cope better with the situation. At the end of the day, I guess it was my fault. Yes, I was so busy, but that is not an excuse for failing to support her.”
“How long have you worked here?” she asked.
“Thirtheen years.”
“You own part of the company?”
“I do.”
“Then you’re right. It was your fault. You should have shown her more support.”
I must have shown some sort of a shocked expression because she was quick to explain her opinion.”
“You know this in this job, the person is sandwhiched between employees and management. As soon as the pressure is too strong, one will be quick to find an opening in another place.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I admitted.

I already suspected that she would be the kind of person with a nothing-to-lose attitude. I guessed as much that she would say whatever in her mind, regardless of what other people would think. And I must say, I admire her guts.

What I shared with her was something that had been simmering on my mind for a long time. I have never talked about it with anyone before. It took a nonchalant stranger to get it out of my system. Instead of a job interview, the meeting had become a confession.

I know I could use someone like that in the organization. Can the rest of the company accept her?

Believe in Your Dreams

This is an experience that I have kept to myself for over two years. In a selling skills class that I recently co-facilitated, I thought it would make a good illustration for a point that I was getting across, so I shared it for the first time.

I suppose I might as well share it here.

It was in 2008. I was on a trip to the Dale Carnegie & Associates Annual International Convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Before leaving for the trip, I made quite an extensive research on Vancouver and its surrounding areas, fully intending to make the best of the trip.

I noticed that Vancouver was not so far away from a winter vacation village of Whistler. I heard about the village during my network marketing days from my diamond uplines. In motivational meetings for the independent business owners in their network, they shared their experiences enjoying award trips to Whistler. They spoke about snow, skiing, dining in Whistler in great details that I became pretty curious about the place.

I once watched an episode about yam cha tradition in Hong Kong. It is a custom of Hong Kong people that is somewhat similar to English high tea. While in England it is customary for people to have tea and bite sized snacks and cakes in afternoons, in Hong Kong people have tea and dim sum, whenever they feel like hanging out in tea houses. The program was so interesting, I could not help wanting to have yam cha in Hong Kong. Of course you can get a decent serving of dim sum almost anywhere in the world. But there is something special about having it in a Hong Kong yam cha.

Based on my research, I found that Whistler was about 2-3 hour bus ride from Vancouver. That means it would take 4-6 hours just for travel time, not including exploring the area. No matter how dying I was to see Whistler, it was not the practical choice of sightseeing.

Since our flight from Jakarta to Vancouver transited in Hong Kong, I was hoping that we could spend a few hours in the City, to enjoy a yam cha. Unlucky for me, our itineraries only allowed a short time in Hong Kong, not enough for a short trip to the city.

Here’s when things got strange.

Since our flight would not leave until midnight, and the entire convention was scheduled to be concluded the night before, we had an entire Saturday free. We planned to use it for a long tour. In lieu of visiting Whistler, Adam, my colleague and travel companion, suggested that we took a tour to a nearby destination, about an hour drive from Vancouver. I was all up to it, and we reserved two seats in the tour.

The day before the tour was supposed to take place, Adam got a call from the organizer. Due to low number of participants, the tour was cancelled! Since we had hours to kill, we decided to take the Whistler tour. So I got to see Whistler after all!

Adam (left) and I on the Peak to Peak Cable Car station in Whistler

We returned to Vancouver from Whistler at dusk. After a few hours of rest, we did a final packing of our luggage, and checked out. When we emerged from the hotel lobby into the street, we found that it was snowing. The snow was heavy enough to line the roads with thin ice, making them very slippery and dangerous to travel on.

It was already difficult to find a cab that was willing to brave the elements and take us to the airport. It was even worse because at the same time, we were competing for taxis with people who were leaving a party at the Convention Center across the street.

With the help of the hotel doorman, we finally got a cab. After piling our luggage into the trunk, giving a generous tip to the doorman, we got into the cab and started to the airport.

A few minutes into the drive we could see cars, SUVs, jeeps, that were slipping off the icy road into the ditch. Our cabbie was visibly upset. “This is dangerous. It’s wasting my time. I had better take you back to the hotel,” he said.

Adam and I had this sinking feeling inside us. “Please, sir, we need to get to the airport. We will pay you extra,” Adam persuaded. Still grumbling, the cabbie turned the dial on his radio to check for clear routes to the airport. He took the Prius off the main road into residential areas.

After a few minutes of darkness, the cab returned to the main road, and a few minutes later, we could see the airport! I was dancing gleefully inside. In gratitude we paid the cabbie more than double the fare.

We made good time, and we still had time to grab a bite at Burger King, the only outlet that was still open in the airport food court at that hour. We boarded the plane on time, but the aircraft had to sit for an hour or so on the apron to wait for the snow to lessen, and to give the ground crew the chance to de-ice the plane.

Nearing Hong Kong, the pilot announced that the flight would arrive late, and missed all the connecting flights. The passengers were advised to contact ground crew for change of flights.

Getting off the airplane, we found a row of tables where passengers could get new boarding passes to replace the one for the missed flights, and hotel vouchers to clean up and rest. When we checked our flight, it was still hours away. Adam called his friend in Hong Kong, and it turned out that there was a shopping mall halfway between the airport and down town Hong Kong where we could find a dim sum restaurant!

We cleared immigration, took the high speed train and arrived in the shopping mall that Adam’s friend told us. We found the dim sum restaurant. After a few minutes of figuring out the menu and how to place an order (since nobody in the restaurant could speak English), we had the precious dim sum served on our table, along with a pot of tea. We commenced our yam cha.

Ready for yam cha!

I could not believe it! I already gave up hope of ever seeing Whistler, and somehow the circumstances changed that gave us, or actually forced us, to detour to Whistler!

I thought we would not get the opportunity to enjoy a yam cha in Hong Kong due to the very short conneting time between flights. Thanks to the snow storm in Vancouver, we missed our connecting flight to Jakarta, and got extra time to have dim sum!

Providence? Divine intervention?

Looking back to this experience, I learned two important lessons:

  1. Never give up on your dreams.
  2. When plans don’t work out, sometimes better things may come out.

Keep believing!