Friday, April 30, 2010

A Lesson In Poor Service

Earlier this month, during a trip to Washington DC, I received a lesson in the importance of good service. Not that I felt I needed it, mind you. It's just so easy to forget how big an impression poor service can make that it's healthy to experience it once in a while. It started straight away upon reaching a full-service hotel in downtown DC just two blocks south of the Smithsonian Castle at the National Mall.

No Trash Cans!

Here we travel five to six hours through heavy traffic and fast food drive-throughs and when we get to the hotel there are no trash cans outside the building. Do they think we're just going to let all the garbage from our trip sit in the van for the next three days? Eventually this crap is making it into their waste disposal program, so the least they could do is position some heavy-duty, deluxe-size, aesthetically pleasing trash cans under the porte cochere to keep us from having to schlep it up to the room with our luggage.

As we checked in, my lovely wife handed across a half-empty soda cup and a Wendy's bag full of sandwich wrappers to the front desk clerk who stared at it like we had bare-handed her a pile of dog poop. Instead of pitching it in the trash can under the front desk, she placed it on the counter next to her. A few seconds later she was muttering angrily because she knocked over the cup and spilled the remains of the soda all over her keyboard. Do you know what would have helped her avoid this problem? Trash cans outside the building, that's what.

Then our room wasn't ready for us to check in, so we had to stick all our belongings in the bellman's closet while our vehicle remained outside because the valet attendants were too busy to park it in the garage. Our van stayed in front of the hotel well into the evening. However, this did offer the advantage of easy retrieval of forgotten items, so I really shouldn't complain.

Also, complaining about the condition of the facilities isn't really necessary. A busy, downtown hotel is entitled to show a few bumps, bruises and scrapes. Of course, it would be nice if the carpets were cleaned once in a while. My home carpets might not always be the cleanest but at least the soles of my feet don't turn black when I walk around barefoot on them.

On our first evening in DC, we decided not to brave the Metro and opted instead for the lobby restaurant. The food may have been over-priced but thank goodness its utter mediocrity made it easy for us to justify avoiding future dining in the hotel. The lackluster food paled, however, in comparison to the complete disregard of the wait staff to whether or not we enjoyed our dining experience.

All these issues aside, one person stands above them all. One person sealed the deal and helped put me over the edge -- the pool lifeguard.

This particular hotel boasts a year-round, rooftop pool, and our children were very excited at the idea of swimming in a pool so many stories up. Our first night at the hotel, immediately following our under-impressive dinner, we headed up to the pool. First problem? No towels. How did we find out? The lifeguard sat in his plastic chair next to his plastic table and said "No towels." I went down to the front desk and complained and, within fifteen minutes, a housekeeper entered with a stack of towels. I suspect, at this point, the lifeguard started disliking me.

The next night, same thing: no towels. This time, the front desk proved unhelpful and we made due without them.

On the third evening, I took the children to the pool following a quick dinner at Subway. With two half-filled paper cups in my hands, I entered the pool deck and the lifeguard immediately motioned to me. When I reached him, he pointed over my shoulder and asked "Do you see that sign?"

I knew which sign he meant. "You mean the pool rules sign?" I asked without turning around.

"Did you read it?" he asked. "Read the sign."

"Does it say 'No Drinks,'" I asked, still looking directly at him.

"Yes," he said.

"Well all you had to say was 'no drinks.' You don't have to be an ass about it."

I walked away, threw the cups in the trash and sat near my children who were playing in the water. Once settled into my seat, I took out the camera and snapped the shot included here, showing the lifeguard at his table with a glass bottle of Arizona Tea.

Some people might have complained to the manager but that's not typically my way. It's much too confrontational. No, instead I chose to silently seethe, vowing never to return.

When completing the e-survey that arrived the following week, I detailed my experiences and highlighted the poor service we received. From the front desk, to the lifeguard, to the bellman who couldn't be bothered to move aside when my family and I exited the elevator, the entire experience could not have been less satisfactory. The general manager apparently cares so much that I have not received a response.

Where will I stay next time I go to DC? At the Red Roof Inn in Chinatown. I've never had a problem there, the front desk always seems happy to see me, and the Irish Channel Pub off the lobby has really good food and friendly service -- even live music some evenings. The best thing about the Red Roof? No pool.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Welcome Home

This week I traveled to Tampa for a mandatory training. The travel schedule required my departure from the house early on Tuesday but with just enough time to wake our three children and kiss them good morning before leaving.

The Italian, having recently started coming out of his room after being tucked in to bed at night, caused me the most concern. Knowing that I was heading out of town must have been weighing on his mind, for each time he came out he was whimpering about missing me when I travel. The last thing we needed the morning of my trip was for him to break down in tears.

Fortunately, no tears flowed and the kids barely noticed I had gone. During my trip, we spoke a couple times a day by phone. The first day they provided interesting details and were willing conversational participants. The second day, the interest waned slightly. By this morning I could barely get them to pay attention to me.

Arriving at the Tampa airport this afternoon to check in, I was pleasantly surprised to find I could make an earlier flight and land in Charlotte ten minutes before my original flight would even be taking off. Though the drive home from the Charlotte Douglas International Airport took slightly longer than the normal two hours, I managed to arrive home short before 10:00pm.

When I entered the house, it took all of a few seconds to survey the situation. My lovely wife was surely sleeping because she would have called "hello" had she been awake. Our daughter was lying in bed with her, having fallen asleep waiting there for me to come home. And the Italian and the German were no doubt deep asleep in their room. Walking quietly into the house from the garage, trying to make as little noise as possible, suddenly the "chickety-chick-chick" noise of toenails on hardwood rushed toward me and before I knew it I was being lovingly attacked by Lily, our small white poodle. For a solid five minutes she jumped, bumped, licked and nibbled, occasionally backing away excitedly only to come back for more.

Eventually, I kissed everyone on the cheek and kicked our daughter from our bed to her own. It's wonderful being home, sleeping in my own bed, surrounded by the family I love. It's soothing to return to a calm and quiet house. It's comforting to know that life continues as it should when I'm away. But it's also nice to know that, no matter how sleepy and calm the homefront may be, there's always one member of the family who's never too tired to jump for joy at my return.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Protecting Precious Memories

This week started with our family in DC visiting monuments and museums, bonding over outrageously over-priced government-approved cafeteria food and taking long walks across the National Mall.

We took hundreds of photographs on our new fancy camera -- after all, it can hold 2,500 hi-res images. Pictures of pandas at the National Zoo, Kermit the Frog at the Museum of American History, and my Lovely Wife's excursion to the Tidal Basin complete with a ride on a rented pedal boat.

Upon returning home, one of the first things I did was to download all those new memories to our iMac. They downloaded as they normally do and I deleted them from the camera, as I also normally do. By the following morning, however, our normally reliable iMac was taking thirty minutes to boot up and a further twenty minutes to display any icons. Sitting there, starting to sweat at the thought of the computer crashing, I swear I heard a single church bell ring in the distance.

A Sunday trip to the Apple Store in Durham turned into a day-long exercise in waiting as one of the resident Geniuses backed up our data to a newly-purchased external drive and then reformatted our hard drive, wiping it clean and reinstalling the operating system. Eight hours after leaving for Durham, we returned home and I plugged in the reconstituted iMac.

It didn't start. It sat there, glowing at me, refusing to boot. Only a small gray apple appeared on the screen as if to mock us for our efforts.

Oh well, at least we have the data backed up, I thought. Unfortunately, when connected to our laptop, the external drive whirred and chirped like a cricket on crack and also defiantly refused to boot. That single distant church bell became a full funerary march. No longer sweating for fear of having to purchase a new computer, I was now coming undone emotionally at the thought of having lost the nine years of photographs that had been stored on the iMac.

I could care less about Word documents or Excel files or music and movies purchased through iTunes. It might be problematic but I can always recreate files and re-purchase media. But how do you replace photographs? I imagine I felt like people who have lost their personal belongings in a house fire. My mind raced through the catalog of 12,000-plus images as though it might help me recall them later.

In the end, the external drive had backed up everything properly, it's just that our older laptop didn't have the right USB ports to support the peripheral device. Back at the Apple Store in Durham the very next daty we confirmed the data existed, I bought a new computer, and the very first thing I did when I got home was to ensure the photographs made it onto the new machine. They now reside on two separate hard drives and I will religiously back up new pictures on a regular basis.

The fear of possibly losing all those precious memories got me thinking. Being a fan of crunching numbers, I assessed what the loss of those 12,000 images might have meant to our family.

Gathered over the course of nine years, those pictures represent roughly 21% of my life in pictures. They are 58% of our married life, 72% of our daughter's life, and 100% of our sons' lives. Imagine the thought of losing the entire photographic history of your life due to a parent who didn't properly back up the computer and a faulty back up drive purchased as a Hail Mary effort to catch everything before it disintegrates into digital oblivion.

Call me a wuss or a wimp or whatever you like but I can tell you that a tear rolled down my cheek when I finally restored all the photographs. I was so ecstatic I couldn't even sit at the computer. I literally skipped down the hallway like a giddy child, and I am pretty sure that I shouted "Whoopee!" just like they do in those old black and white movies.

Even more than learning a lesson about backing up my hard drive, I learned that nothing makes you appreciate your family more than the simple act of casting your mind back through time to recall precious moments you took for granted were safely filed away for future perusal. As much as I cherish all the pictures we saved this weekend, they are just static glimpses --reminders of the moments -- and the memories they help call to mind are the real treasures.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Few Words On Public Speaking

“Never tell people you don’t know an answer to a question.”

This advice was given to me in the early 1990s when, unfortunately, there were many questions to which I did not know the answers. The advice was given – or rather commanded – by a boss attempting to prepare me for my first big presentation.

More than one hundred people had gathered in a hall to hear a presentation about a research project I had spent the better part of a year completing. I took great pride in the project but was petrified about speaking publicly. Although several years of reporting for a daily newspaper had hardened me to public scrutiny, it had not prepared me for speaking to a room full of people all seasoned in their field.

I was a charlatan and I knew it. They would see straight through me. I would shame the company (which, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been too worried about). They would laugh at my presumption that I could possibly offer them any information of value on a subject they had cut their teeth on years, if not decades, ago.

Droplets of sweat weaved paths along my scalp and down the back of my neck. Halitosis ratcheted up to an all-time level of putrescence. Consonants and vowels slurred together in an unintelligible blend of nonsense as I bulled through the 20-minute presentation.

Slides clicked in evil progression through the projector as I tried not to vomit, sick at the fear that I might not have my notes in synch with the graphics.

No noise came from the audience while I spoke, which I took to mean that they hated my presentation, hated my hairstyle, hated my tie, hated the way I slouched, hated the way I overcorrected for my slouch, hated my acne that had flared that morning, hated the background color of the slides, hated the uncomfortable chairs in the hall, hated the people around them, hated they way I spoke, hated my dog, hated their own dogs, hated my car, and hated, hated, hated me.

The second hand on the oversized cafeteria-style clock at the back of the hall tocked along as if dragging a lead weight. As the last slide appeared on the screen, my brain and body turned to jelly. The last few words sputtered out at the audience.

“Does anyone have any questions?”

A kindly looking gentlemen near the front of the room stood and, in a voice as calming and soothing as the sound of the ocean surf, asked the simplest of all possible questions. He had offered the kindness of a slow-pitched softball and in the matter of seconds I grew to love that man like a grandfather.

Relaxed now beyond the point of reason, I stared at him and smiled. After several seconds, I realized I was still staring and smiling. Smiling stupidly and staring blankly at that grandfatherly old man, a single thought came echoing through the cavernous void of my skull.

“I have no idea what that man just said."

Having not heard his question at all, I had no foundation from which to build an answer, correct or otherwise. I might have asked him to repeat his question, I don't remember. Fortunately, a coworker stepped forward and took over the Q&A. I shrunk into my suit and stood silently behind him, trying to blend into the screen. If another question found its way to me, I don’t recall.

The lesson learned from this adventure in public speaking was, of course, not the lesson the boss had tried to teach me. His lesson of never letting on that you don’t know the answer to a question I have since discovered is not worth learning unless you aspire to sell used cars.

The lesson I learned instead has served me much better: Never speak in public.