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.
In English, Personal Experience, Travels and Places, Uncategorized

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?

In English, Personal Reflection, Uncategorized

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.

In English, Lessons, Personal Observation

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.

In English, Passion, Personal Reflection, Soul Searching

Looking Out

I often think about what it will feel like not having to spend a big chunk of the day working. Or even going to school. I remember when I was in elementary school, I discovered how funny the education system was. I was sitting in my classroom, wondering aimlessly while my class was immersed in some kind of an exciting activity. I could not recall what it was, but it must be exciting or the teacher would have seen me daydreaming and thrown something at me to wake me.

But I remember how beautiful the sun was that day. How bright the morning was. I remember thinking how inviting the schoolyard was. But somehow the teachers and the headmaster and the majority educators in the world think being stuck in a room while listening to a teacher was a better method of learning compared to playing and having fun outside. I wouldn’t say that the education was bad. I was just thinking what a waste it was for God to create such a beautiful world, which was meant for man to enjoy, but instead they chose to stay indoors and did something they which they believed to be more useful.

How come? How can being stuck in a room with two dozens of other kids be better than playing outside in the sun? How can it be that mornings are better spent indoors than outdoors? Is it true that learning can only take place in a classroom?

Thirty years later. When I had the opportunity to teach a class in our training center, I would roll up all blinds and let the sun shone through the glass windows into the room. As the room grew brighter, so did the hearts and the souls of the people. Some other trainers chose to let the blinds rolled down to keep minds from wandering to irrelevant things outside.

But I’m sure there is not a day goes by without us yearning to be free. Free from our cubicles, free from work hours, free to spend the day doing something else than working. That is why we are often tempted to daydream. That is why the one thing we want to do when standing in front of a window is to look outside. That js why we are so keen to escape the city and go to find beautiful sights in the country side.

To be free.

So why keep people from doing what I myself would want to do?

Last Thursday I just could not help myself. The blinds had been down since Wednesday morning because we were using the projector to show visuals. “Are you planning to use the projector today?” I asked my co-trainer. “I want to roll up the blinds.” He gave me a perplexed look and said, “No, I won’t use visuals. But isn’t opening the blinds detrimental to concentration?”

I just chuckled and began pulling on the plastic chain. The blind slowly rolled up and the morning view materialized from behind the thick glass of the ninth floor window.

It was a glorious morning.

In English, Observation

What Hard Work Means

“Sorry, I’m taking my toilet break,” the hairdresser told her waiting customers as she was sweeping locks of hair away. She just finished the fourth customer since I got there, without stopping. Although it was my turn to have my hair cut, I understandingly nodded to show my agreement to wait.

The barbershop had 6 chairs, but never in my visits have I seen 6 barbers working. The most number I could remember is 4. The last time I was there, I saw only 2. Today, there was only 1 barber on duty. And it was a holiday. Customers never stopped coming, and she had to serve everyone alone. On top of that, she had to clean the shop, answer the telephone, and receive payments. I could imagine she had been on her feet for hours with no break. I could understand if she took her toilet break for somewhere between 5 to 10 minutes.

She politely asked everyone to step outside the shop because she had to lock the doors. A wise precaution since she was alone, and there were considerable amount of money in the shop. I decided to stand near the door, took out my smartphone and began reading my Facebook timeline to kill time. I was ready to give her at least 10 minutes.

It was less than 5 minutes later when she was back to open the doors. I hurriedly pocketed my phone, and take my seat on one of the 6 chairs.

“How would you like your hair done?” she asked me as if I were her first customer.
“Spike, please,” I said.

She began to work. In 10 minutes, she was done. It was a perfect cut. I gave her double the tip that I usually give. Partly because of her doing a great job, and partly because of my admiration of her commitment in giving her best under a tough situation. And partly because I saw the customer before me giving her double of what I gave her, while patting her on the shoulder with a heartfelt thanks.

Up to this day, I had difficulties in defininf hard work. What does it really mean when you say that someone is working hard? Does it mean the person stay at work until late at night? Complete all of the required tasks? Produce more?

From observing my barber today, I could say that work hard is doing everything you can to keep your commitments. Although she never verbally promised anything to her customers, she was aware of the written sign outside the shop that says “10 Minute Haircut” and she strived to keep that regardless of the circumstances. She might be working alone on a holiday, when she could have taken a leave herself. She could take rests between customers if she wanted to. Her limbs and fingers would need them. She could use myriads of excuses to give herself a break. Her customers would have understood.

But she didn’t.

Instead, she ploughed through.

To work hard is to stay committed, no excuses, no complains.

In English, Observation, Opinions

Taking Charge

I’ve been learning, applying, even teaching Dale Carnegie’s principles for years. And it is not until the past few weeks I began to understand the underlying philosphy.

A co-worker spent about 10 minutes complaining to me about her boss. As I was listening I began to wonder why she didn’t do something about it. It wasn’t something that’s beyond her influence. Even obstacles that she said might be keeping her from doing so, were actually things that she could overcome. She only needed to stop assigning blame, and to use the time to find ways by which she could correct the situation.

Looking into other people’s problem provides me a mirror to look at my own situation. Are there situations where I wait for somebody else to do something? Have I been blaming others without taking responsibility to do my own part?

Embarassingly, the answer is a loud, resounding ‘YES!’

The next question is, “Why?” Why do we choose to blame others instead of taking responsibility? Why do we wait for the other person to do something?

1. Because we feel it is not within our power to take action.
2. Because we feel helpless.
3. Because the situation is already there when we first arrived.
4. Because we don’t want people to dislike us.
5. Because we would rather let someone else do something and if anything goes wrong, we won’t get blamed.
6. Because we would rather let others do the difficult thing.
7. Because it’s not our problem.
8. Because we are afraid things would backfire.
9. Because we don’t like to take chances and endanger our position in the constellation of the office politics.
10. Because we are afraid.

It’s like arguing who should pump the water as the boat is sinking.

Participants in a management leadership program that I had the privilege to teach, complained about their current boss and reminisced about their former CEO. They said, “He’s got guts. He would take risk and say, ‘The worst thing that can happen is I got fired.'”

Of course people are eager to stand in line behind the person who is willing to take the bullet. The question is, are they themselves just as willing? Are we?

I began to see the value of taking charge of our situation, instead of waiting for other people. Yes, there are probably things that we cannot influence directly. But why bother about stuff that we can do nothing about?

In a selling skills class that I co-taught last year, I asked the participants to list the challenges they were facing in making a sale. Some of the items they mentioned were ‘lack of management support’, ‘need better promotion program’, etc. Things that were externally controlled. As the list got longer, I could almost feel the Sales Manager, who were sitting in the back of the room, shifting in his seat, trying hard to keep himself from cutting into the discussion.

I then asked them to identify from the list the items that they could control. And they picked almost half of the items on the list! “These are what we need to focus on in this program,” I concluded.

Taking charge is not taking control of everything, but of things that we can directly influence. That, in Dale Carnegie’s philosophy, means people. We may not have power, but we can build relationships which can produce bigger effect that if we try to do things ourselves.

We were evaluating the first session of our Saturday weekly class when the discussion focused on one participant who asked to be re-registered in a workday class because he felt attending a class on weekends cost him his time with his family. A senior trainer in our team said, “That’s out of the question. He must remain in this class because his boss asked me to give him my personal attention.” We could not ignore the fact that the guy lived in a city 600 miles away and only had time to return home every weekend.

The senior trainer said, “I will talk to the boss. I am his godfather when was baptized. He listens to me.”

Our senior trainer was able to pull this off not because he had the power, but because he had strong bond with the person who had the power to make it happen.

We may not have the power to take charge, but we can take charge of the relationships we have, and ultimately, we can influence any situation we are facing.
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Personal Experience, Personal Reflection

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.

Personal Experience, Personal Reflection

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?

In English, Personal Reflection

Different Point of Views Are Inevitable

I am often surprised at how different other people’s opinions are from mine.

11 days ago, I was beside myself with glee when I found that “Star Trek” (2009) was on TV! I have seen it in the theater, and I was quite impressed with the movie. And I was happy that I got the opportunity to see it again. It being in cable means I will have many more of the same opportunity in the future. Yay!

I took the time to look it up on IMDb.com to find out three things. First, how the movie did in the box office. Second, its full cast and crew, and third, what other people thought about it.

I was pretty surprised at some of the user reviews. It was pretty normal that big fans of Star Trek would compare the movie with the original TV series. Although many felt the movie was able to maintain the integrity of the original Star Trek, some others found dozens of faults with it.

One particular user was very critical with the storyline. In the user’s opinion, the storyline did not make sense. If the Romulans had seen their planet destroyed by a supernova, and by a freak luck they were sent back 154 years back in the past, why didn’t they go to their planet and warn the leaders about the impending future catastrophy? It didn’t make sense that instead of doing that, as soon as they realized they were in the past, they went after the one individual they thought responsible for the loss of their planet?

The user lists at least 10 other things he found to be at odds with common sense about the movie. I will not list all of them here. Suffice it to say that his criticism made me think about the credibility of the story.

Last Saturday, Star Trek was on again. I watched it again, and I realized that many of the insensible things were actually misunderstandings and misinterpretations. There were good reasons why the movie makers made the storyline as such.

Which reminds me when I first saw “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull” (2008). My reaction to the movie was almost as negative as a cat’s reaction to water. I could think of a string of words that I could use to make other people think that the movie was as bad as I thought it was.

But the movie is now the 35th highest grossing movie of all time, making $786,636,033 (which is, by the way, a number that “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” (1982) took years to achieve). Put that number against the $6 that I paid for my movie ticket (yes, here in Indonesia it costs just a little over the price of a Big Mac Value Meal in Manhattan to see a movie in a comfortable theatre with plush seats), and it’s like I’m facing over 100 million people who think otherwise.

I fretted about the fact that “Indy 4” featured alien technology as central theme of the movie, and the fact that the scene where the alien ship broke out of its hiding place and flew back to its star system was a copy of a similar scene in “The X-Files” (1998). My best friend gently broke it to me that long before the movie was made, many had suggested in the Indana Jones fan sites that encounter with aliens should be the theme of the next Indiana Jones adventure.

When I saw the movie again, I found it to be not as bad as I thought, and I tended to agree with the 100 million plus people.

There will always be people whose opinions are different from ours. We just need to be more careful in expressing ours, lest our opinion carries too much weight that makes it difficult to make an admission when we realize that we are wrong.