Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Common Sense is Not Common

by Tom Hinton

In his classic book, A World Waiting To Be Born: Civility Rediscovered, the late author Dr. M. Scott Peck, noted that today’s society suffers a serious and disruptive illness -- incivility. Dr. Peck believed our destructive patterns of self-absorption, callousness, manipulativeness, and materialism are so ingrained in our routine behavior that we cannot recognize them. Like Dr. Peck, I believe incivility is fatal to companies, government agencies and politicians who treat people with contempt or indifference.

During the past few weeks, there have been numerous cases of incivility that cause me to wonder how people in important positions can act so callously or dim-witted? Regrettably, the examples of incivility range from President Obama labeling the Cambridge Police Department as “acting stupidly” to sports and, not surprisingly, the whipping boy of consumer dissatisfaction -- the airlines industry.

Unfortunately, for President Obama, his choice of words was less than presidential. To label the Cambridge Police Department for “acting stupidly” before Mr. Obama had all the facts left him open to criticism and derailed his health care reform efforts while his critics crowded the airwaves dissecting his ill-chosen comments. It took a few beers and photos at the White House with Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates, Jr. to clear the air and get the president out of the Cambridge dog house. It was a tough lesson for Mr. Obama on civility and choosing one’s words more carefully.

Next, consider the bonehead decision by the management of Continental Express to allow 47 passengers to sit for six hours on a deserted tarmac after flying from Houston to Minneapolis -- only to be diverted to Rochester some 90 miles away. After nine hours, the all-night camp-out on Continental Express Flight 2816 took on the smell of soiled baby diapers and a backed-up toilet that was over-used by the stranded passengers in the regional jet. You would think that after JetBlue committed a similar blunder two years ago -- stranding thousands of passengers on planes that sat within spitting distance of the JFK terminal -- that Continental Express would not make the same dumb mistake. What should have been a 2 1/2-hour trip from Houston to Minneapolis became a nightmare for those 47 passengers. It also provides us with a new definition for incivility. After all, what civil-minded person would confine 47 passengers in a foul-smelling airplane without ample food and water for nine hours? It borders on torture let alone stupidity.

But, common sense is not common in the airline industry. Just ask, United Airlines which continues to suffer stock losses and the disdain of consumers who watched guitarist Dave Carroll’s YouTube video saga entitled, United Breaks Guitars. Passengers sitting aboard a plane in Chicago witnessed UAL baggage handlers tossing Carroll’s guitar like a football. When Carroll retrieved his expensive Taylor guitar at his destination, he found it had been broken. Carroll’s efforts to have United Airlines fix his instrument fell on deaf ears for 9 months. So, Carroll wrote the widely popular song, United Breaks Guitars, which has been viewed by 4 million people. Is it simply a coincidence that many stock analysts believe the Mr. Carroll’s United Breaks Guitars sage has cost UAL millions in stock losses? If so, that’s an expensive lesson in civility and disdain for your customers!

Another example of incivility concerns Tiger Woods, who was fined by the PGA Tour for his public criticism of a rules official after winning last week’s Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. In this example of incivility and a lack of common sense, Tiger is being unfairly punished by the PGA for criticizing the referee, John Paramour, who told Woods and Padraig Harrington they were being “put on the clock” for slow play at a critical time in the final round of the tournament. At the time, Harrington clung to a slim one-shot lead at the par-5 16th hole. The comment by Mr. Paramour rattled Harrington. Tiger Woods said afterwards said the intrusion by Paramour caused Harrington to rush three difficult shots that led to his devastating triple bogey on the 6th hole. Harrington never recovered and Woods went on to win the tournament by four shots. Woods said he told Harrington after it was over, “I’m sorry that John [Paramour] got in the way of a great battle.” This is why the PGA fined Woods.

While Woods and Harrington lagged behind the players in front of them, their pace seemed steady for a competitive two-man duel. While the PGA will argue that Paramour was within his right to put Woods and Harrington “on the clock,” his timing was terrible and, thus, lacked civility. Even well-intentioned people make bonehead plays that confound common sense.

Finally, I’m sure Dr. Peck would be troubled -- as I am -- by the recent incivility at the various congressional town hall meetings as the merits of a proposed health care reform plan are debated. Certainly, such a sweeping proposal will draw many different ideas, comments and opposing viewpoints. But, in watching the news coverage of these town hall meetings, it is both disgraceful and undignified how so many Americans are conducting themselves. Whatever happened to civil discourse and allowing one person to voice their opinion before an opposing thought is expressed? Instead, I see angry old men yelling and screaming at women and children. For what? If this is political theatre, shame of those who would defame America’s prized ritual of debate. Is this the image of American society we want to project to the world that is watching America discuss health care reform? This is how we earned the distasteful label, “Ugly American.”

It should come as no surprise that many of our children hold politics, politicians, and various television news commentary programs in contempt. In their minds, our generation is not a role model for civility. We are a generation that represents everything negative, spiteful and perverse in American society. We lack common sense, self-respect, and a sense of decency and fairness not only for ourselves but for other nations as well. We have, as Dr. Peck feared, become a discredited society that is self-absorbed, callous, manipulative, and completely consumed with material things.

Can it be that we have become a nation without feelings and emotions? As one college student remarked to me last week, “America has lost its soul. I’m disgusted with all of you.” Frankly, she’s right… I’m disgusted with all of you, too!

About the Author: Thomas Hinton is president of the American Consumer Council, a non-profit consumer education organization which administers ACC’s Green C™ Certification Program. He can be reached at tom@americanconsumercouncil.org

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Free Doesn't Always Mean Free

By Bill Kalmar

Our cable provider, AT&T, just offered us one month of free service for Encore and Showtime. Two months ago, we took the free HBO offer for two months. After two months of “Caddy Shack” and “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” reruns, we decided to cancel. Now after just two days of Showtime we are ready to cancel again. What pushed us over the top was a rerun of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”... in July. So come tomorrow we will return to our regular programming. Frankly, we don’t need 300 channels anyway.

What I learned from previous experiences with cable companies is that if you fail to cancel within the allotted time of your free subscription, your account will be charged and it may be difficult to obtain a refund. In the case of AT&T, I canceled the HBO subscription within a week of the free deadline, however, our statement recycled prior to that date and thus we were charged a monthly fee. It was easily reversed but I think it points out that many companies are in a financial bind and may look for unusual ways to increase their cash flow.

One case in point is our health care provider. Our payments have been due the first of the month since my retirement in 2003. Then on July 16th we received a notice that our payments are now due the 25th of each month starting with the July payment—a nine-day window for payment. This was done unilaterally without notice to subscribers. I have written to senior management concerning this and hope to receive a response before my next column.

I pointed out to management that before decisions are made the question should be raised: “How will this affect our customers?” This is a basic quality concept that is often overlooked and one that generally results in adverse reaction from customers when ignored. What makes this decision so impractical is that our prescription coverage from the same company is still due on the first of the month.

It seems companies that have reduced their staffs are having difficulty with quality control. I wonder if anyone has weighed the cost of replacing defective merchandise with the cost of having an experienced staff on board who verifies the quality and proper response to orders. I would bet that having trained staff costs less than all the miscues that are occurring.

We just unpacked a ceiling fan for installation in our family room and as luck would have it, two of the light fixtures were shattered. A call to the fan company had replacements sent to us but when the new lights arrived, the wrong ones were in the package. Another call to a different rep caught the error and new lights are on the way. I’ll let you know if the second time is the charm, but normally it takes three times, doesn’t it? Also, a sports chair we ordered has a rip in the fabric, so back it goes.

Have you seen that some of the bailed-out companies are now prepared to pay extravagant bonuses to staff members? Senior management reconciles this idiotic practice as a way to “prevent talented people from leaving the organization.” If these people were so talented, why was the company in financial trouble? I say, prohibit bonuses and let these people leave. Then let them find a job, especially in Michigan where unemployment is at 15 percent and rising. When these so-called brain-trusts leave there will be thousands of qualified people seeking those positions.

Speaking of people leaving, here is where some of you will be counting me for sure among those dining on loco weed—but understand that I'm immune to criticism and am bullet proof. Just as in the business world where CEOs are obliged to retire at a predetermined age, most likely at 65 years of age, the same should be done in the political world. Do I really want some senator or representative in his or her 80s or 90s making decisions that will effect me or my children and grandchildren? Absolutely not!

It's time for these dinosaurs to pack up their orthopedic underwear and hit the road; and I say that as a senior citizen myself.

Now go ahead, write me, and tell me that I am discriminating against the aged. Candidly, anyone who is making laws in their 80s and 90s is discriminating against me, because he or she no longer identifies with reality and the world I'm living in.

Speaking of senior citizens, how about the run 59-year-old Tom Watson just made at the British Open? He forced a playoff after leading most of the time in the four-day event and then lost on the final playoff hole. But he provided loads of excitement and certainly outplayed many younger players. Maybe some of our octogenarian senators could caddy for him.

Well, time to give cable TV another try. They're showing “The Maltese Falcon” with Humphrey Bogart. Now that’s real moviemaking