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I have a personal buzz phrase that I use to remind myself of a time when I had a complete fail at communication: Remember the cable guy.

My family had just moved to a small town in Ohio after living in Chicago for 15 years. My husband was away on business for two weeks and I didn’t know a soul in town. The first task was to get a local phone number and transfer my cell number to our new area code. Because of several glitches with Time Warner Cable (TWC) I suddenly found myself without a cell number, without a landline and without any way to get help. My husband couldn’t even assist from a distance because he couldn’t contact me.

I found directions to the TWC office on the outskirts of town and drove over there on a Friday afternoon to remedy the problem in person. It was ten minutes to five and the only customer service person had already locked the door and begun to count money. I ignored the closed sign and knocked insistently. A startled young man opened the door and peeked out. After a short exchange, in which he told he couldn’t help me because he was closed for the day, I asked what time the office opened in the morning. He gave me a blank stare and then explained that they were closed on weekends.

I am ashamed to say that I was so beside myself with the stress of moving and TWC in general that I verbally pummeled the poor kid. I remember my voice echoing across an open field, “I’m going to stand right here until you open this door and fix this situation!” Which he did.

Time Warner Cable hasn’t been a problem since. I conveyed my point and I got the problem fixed. But I treated the cable guy horribly and blew my first impression in that small town.

Two weeks later I couldn’t shake my guilt. I wrote a short apology and tucked a McDonald’s gift card inside the envelope. I drove back down to the TWC office next to the open field and forced myself to go inside. As an added humiliation there were a handful of customers in the office. The cable guy came to the counter.

“I’m not sure if you remember me…” I began.

He interrupted. “I remember you.”

Ouch. I forced myself to apologize in front everyone in the tiny office. I gave him the envelope, got back in my car and vowed to remember that experience.

This is what I learned: Communication should not be confused with bullying. I lost my temper. I used my verbal acuity to victimize. Neither one of us were left with our dignity in place. And even though I apologized later, I can’t ever undo what I did. I also learned that if I own responsibility for my mistakes instead of looking for a place to lay the blame I can use those mistakes to my advantage.

Here is a recent case in point. A few months ago I agreed to help a friend do something I detest. I helped her run a fundraiser. It wasn’t too difficult until we had to set a delivery date/time. According to the company’s practice their Customer Service department takes a requested date from the customer and forwards the date to their Scheduling department. The Scheduling department calls the customer back later that day (or the following) with a yes or no answer. If the answer is no then another request is given to Customer Service and the process is started again. A week later I still didn’t have a delivery date. I called and asked if I could speak directly with Scheduling. They told me they didn’t do things that way. I grew impatient and nearly reverted to handling the situation in the way that previously failed me. Remember the cable guy. Thankfully the humiliation of that episode came rushing back loud and clear.

I took a deep breath and did some quick thinking. My goal was to secure a solution without any bloodletting.  I told the Customer Service gal that the fundraiser was a great idea for our sports team to raise money. I said that everything had proceeded without a hitch thus far but now I was in trouble and I needed her help. She responded with a “that’s policy” answer. Calmly I persisted in saying that Scheduling was the weak link in the fundraising chain and since I was under a deadline I had to decide either to continue to wait on them or go with another company. She said she wasn’t sure what she could do. I put it into perspective.

“When I schedule a dentist appointment,” I explained to the gal on the phone, “the receptionist and I usually go back and forth a few times suggesting dates and times. What works for you? How about later in the month? Can we make that earlier in the week? In a few minutes we find a workable date and time. Now imagine putting that scenario into the way your company does things. If the dentist’s office had to call me back every time one of us suggested an alternate date or time I would look for another dentist to do business with.”

The Customer Service gal could now empathize with me and she transferred me to her manager. The manager confirmed a delivery date over the phone (which was the first one I suggested a week prior) and the fundraiser was a success.

A wise man once said: Calmness of spirit persuades a ruler and soft speech breaks down the most bonelike resistance.

 And if you can’t remember that, at least remember the cable guy.