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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

Have You Heard the One About . . .?

Stories revisited

Published: Monday, August 6, 2007 - 22:00

How many times have you viewed a compelling story on TV, or read a newspaper or magazine account of an investigation of wrongdoing and then never discovered the outcome? Mass media tantalize us with sensational reports, and after the hoopla the stories just fade away.

As I lay here recently in my hammock, iced tea in hand and a summer breeze drifting over my receding hairline, it occurred to me that this might be a good time to revisit some of the articles I’ve written over the last two years and to determine their outcomes. In addition, some of the stories might just have morphed into something more interesting. In the opening words of The Lone Ranger radio program, “Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.”

Back in March of this year, Ford Motor Co. announced the largest loss in the 103-year history of the company. A new CEO was hired, and a renewed commitment to quality announced. That strategy seems to have worked, as just recently J.D. Power and Associates in their annual new-vehicle survey, announced that Ford had racked up four “Best In Show” awards, the most of any major automaker. Ford also placed 12 vehicles among the top three finishers across all 19 categories in the survey, more than any other automaker. This is the type of news quality professionals enjoy hearing. Hats off to Ford.

On a related topic, I suspect that many readers of QualityInsider are in the automotive field and constantly looking for ways to enhance the customer’s experience. As a result, we now have heated and cooled cup holders, rain-detecting windshield wipers, and radios that adjust volume when traveling through tunnels, to name just a few superfluous accessories.

Now BMW has introduced the Lane Departure Warning System, which uses a small camera mounted near the rearview mirror to keep track of the markings on the road ahead. If the vehicle strays without a turn signal, the system gently alerts the driver by vibrating the steering wheel. I suspect the intention is to alert a drowsy driver who’s drifting into another lane. I don’t need this option—my passengers’ screams will be sufficient warning.

Not long ago, Harry Hertz, director of the Baldrige Program was the subject of an interview for my November 2006 column. The Baldrige Program, in my estimation, continues to be the gold standard by which all other programs are measured. Based on the number of applicants for this year, it seems numerous organizations agree. This year, there were 84 applications, and the breakdown is interesting: two manufacturing, four service, seven small business, 13 nonprofit, 16 education, and 42 in health care. Site visits will be determined in September, and I imagine that a fair number of health care and education organizations will be represented. It’s interesting to see the shift in applications from manufacturing and service to health care and education, which have embraced the Baldrige process. From my perch as a former Baldrige examiner and member of the Baldrige Board of Overseers, I’m encouraged by this shift. Applicants from health care and education have recognized the value of the process and the richness of the criteria in improving internal processes. Both disciplines have approached this not so much to publicize their decision to the media, but to use it to strengthen and improve their operations.

The decline in business applications, though, is disturbing to me and to Hertz. In a recent conversation I had with him, he hoped that it “Wasn’t a function of where CEOs are not placing their attention.” He further indicated that “The 2007 Baldrige criteria are as relevant to current business challenges as the 1998 criteria were to the challenges of 1998.” I’d be interested in hearing your take on this. Remember, it’s not a contest; it’s a performance-excellence journey.

While we’re on the subject of health care, there continues to be competition among hospital emergency rooms in advertising that the patient wait is no more than 30 minutes. In fact, many hospitals in our area are offering theater tickets or a pizza if you aren’t waited on in less than 30 minutes. We all appreciate quality in health care, but I would rather it be correct than just fast. Just today, a hospital advertised that the 30-minute wait was passé—its ads now offer, “no waiting.”  What’s next? Maybe some hospital will promise that a full-service emergency room on wheels will be permanently parked in my subdivision. Now that’s an attention getter! Come on, can’t we just have sensitive, knowledgeable, professional health care without the gimmicks?

Speaking of recognition, have you noticed the number of newspapers and magazines that conduct their own programs to highlight quality and great customer service? You know the ones—the ballots where we’re supposed to list our favorite restaurant or dry cleaners. There’s nothing scientific about these programs, it’s just your everyday ballot stuffing. Yet, the winners always purchase space in the paper or on large billboards heralding their success as “The Best Hamburger in Texarkana,” as proclaimed by the Toadsuck Arkansas Daily Gazette. I knew the contest was rigged when our local Coney Island Hot Dog Emporium won for “Most Romantic Dining Place.” Maybe that’s where Joey Chestnut trained before he won the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest with a record 66 dogs, but for me it lacks a certain panache. Seriously, these media-driven events detract from the legitimate quality organizations that infuse their strategic plan with real customer-driven practices.

Continuing the theme of bogus recognitions, there seems to be a disturbing trend of fake resumes surfacing. I would hope that all of us, as quality professionals, have never overstated our credentials, but when a high percentage of college students admit that to secure a job they would cheat, it seems that some of these cheats may have entered our world. Recently, the director of the Detroit Zoo was found to have lied about his doctoral degree. The board of directors unfortunately decided to retain him, because of his “excellent work history.” This sends out a poor message to all the legitimate candidates for this position who may have been more qualified, but who lacked a doctorate. As it turns out, the board stated that a Ph.D. wasn’t a requirement for the job so it was really superfluous for him to list it. How convenient. As quality professionals, we should never tolerate dishonesty in any aspect of the job and those who practice deceit should be fired on the spot. I’m confident you agree. Heck, the coach at Notre Dame was fired before he unpacked his bags for lying about his education and football experience.

Last month’s column—The Ritz-Carlton Mystique—elicited a record number of comments. Many readers appreciated being able to review the Baldrige application for the hotel. Others indicated that the “Service Values” would now be a part of their own strategic planning, and some discussed their own positive experiences when staying at a Ritz-Carlton. As an aside, a reader indicated that a stay at a Ritz-Carlton several years ago was not up to his and his spouses’ expectations, and I forwarded that information to Ritz-Carlton management. As I expected, the management team put on a full-court press to win back the loyalty of their guest. This is how the Ritz-Carlton treats everybody. It’s rooted in their deep-seated caring for guests.

Several months ago, I wrote about organizations that discontinue a particular product or service without first interviewing customers. You know the program, you enter the store and ask for your favorite shoe style only to discover that it’s been discontinued. The clerk says that many others have also asked for the same product, and you respond by saying, “Then why has it been eliminated?” Recently, we traveled across the country and, as is our custom, we stopped at a Cracker Barrel for lunch, where I always enjoy a fresh turkey sandwich on toasted sourdough bread. The turkey is always served in generous slices from a real bird in the kitchen. To my surprise and disappointment, the generous slices have now been converted to crumbled turkey meat. When I inquired about the change, management informed me that “Everyone is asking about it and expressing disappointment.” He suggested that I return on Thursdays, which is when the special is the turkey dinner, and then just ask to have the dinner slices placed on a sandwich. So the story about changes in product lines without listening to customer feedback still has legs, so to speak.

As a follow-up to keeping in touch with customers, how about the headline, “Sprint Ditches Customers Who Complain Too Much.” Evidently this telecommunications giant keeps records of recalcitrant customers. Recently, it sent out service termination letters to between 1,000 and 1,200 customers who had called the company about 40,000 times a month in total. How many of you were part of that total? The flip side of this came out a couple days later, when a lawyer for one of the hung-up-on customers stated that his client only continued to call because of inadequate customer service. I guess this takes the adage "No shirt, no shoes, no service" to a whole new level. Customer feedback must not be part of Sprint’s strategic plan. On the other hand, it sure makes the $5 refund and 300 free minutes I extracted from Verizon last month a monumental coup.

My Neiman Marcus article certainly had an effect, at least on me. Recently, I went in search of a product that an exemplary clerk in Chicago had informed me by letter was to go on sale. This was the same clerk I wrote about in an earlier column. I went to the Michigan store and tried to explain to the clerk what I wanted, but found that showing her the Chicago letter was easier. The Chicago story of great customer service and my name must have reverberated throughout the company, because when the clerk saw my name she immediately stated that I would receive the sale price and some extra free items along with that. Her goal as she stated was to “Win me over as a customer, so I wouldn’t have to travel to Chicago anymore.” Now that’s service!

Well, the sun is beginning to fade, and my tea needs more ice cubes, it’s time to go, and I’m thinking about my forged-credentials comment. Perhaps I should go to the secretary of state’s office and have my driver’s license information updated. Actually I’m 5’ 9 ¾", and not 5’ 10" as indicated on the license. I didn’t lie and fabricate it—now that I’m a senior citizen I’m shrinking. Yeah, that’s the ticket, as George Costanza from the “Seinfeld” show once said in another context, “Don’t you know about shrinkage?”

See you next month, from the hammock!


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.