When I was a child growing up in Missouri my father used to read poems to the family. Mostly they were poems that were funny and sort of told a story. Poems like Casey at the Bat, The Face upon the Floor, and Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed. Dad would really get into it and act out all the parts. It was a riot. One of my very favorites was The Hell-Bound Train. It was the story of a cowboy who'd gotten drunk and passed out and then dreamed he was riding on a train destined for Hell. Everyone on the train, in fact, was going to Hell. The passengers were a mixed bag of people—young and old, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly. But they all had one thing in common. They were sinners. And now they were headed for the Lake of Fire. In fact, their engineer was the Devil himself. Well, when that old cowboy woke up he was in a terrible sweat. He reformed his life, and at the end of the poem we learn he never did ride the Hell-Bound Train.
Today is Monday and I'm a passenger on my own version of the Hell-Bound Train. It's called the Long Island Rail Road. Well, maybe Hell-Bound is putting it a little too strongly. But after five years of this, I can definitely say that I've done my time in Purgatory.
I'm doing what's called a reverse-commute. That is, while most folks are coming into Manhattan from their homes on Long Island, I am doing just the opposite. I'm commuting from my home in Manhattan to my job on Long Island. Don't ask. What really irks me, though, is that most people think it must be an easy commute. “After all, you're going against the traffic, aren't you? You surely must always get a seat.” Big deal.
I could write a whole book just about the perils of riding the Long Island Rail Road and, indeed, at one point I thought of calling these ramblings On a Slow Train to Mineola. Along with my 265,000 daily commuting companions, I’ve endured breakdowns, strikes, blizzards, collisions with pedestrians, mass murderers—you name it. “Thank you for riding LIRR,” they like to say. Oh sure. Like I was thinking about taking that other railroad today.
Lots of people like to work while commuting. Not me. What with all the train’s jerking and stopping, the lights going off and on, and the incessant chatter of the conductors over their static-enhanced PA systems, I find it next to impossible to get anything done other than a little lite reading. Except of course, thinking. I have time to do lots of thinking.
I think mostly about things that bother me. Often it’s of some sort of business-related issue that was triggered by an article I’ve read or something that happened at work. For example, Leadership is a hot topic right now. Everyone wants to be a leader—whether they have any talent or not. Before that it was Quality—remember TQM? And after about five minutes of reflection I usually find myself totally out of sync with the prevailing wisdom of the gurus of these heady topics. More on that a little later.
The Long Island Rail Road’s Web Page, like most organization’s web pages, tells you all the great things about the LIRR. Chartered in 1834 to service the commuting public, it touts 701 miles of track, 124 train stations, 60 Zillion cars, blah, blah and some more blah. What they don’t tell you, of course, is the bad news. Like, that every year X number of people are killed when they are splattered by the trains while trying to cross the tracks. I guess that just wouldn’t make for good web page copy.
But they do make a real effort to remind us of what a great job they’re doing. Like for example, their “on time” record. That’s the number of times the railroad actually arrives at its destination on time. Wow! There’s an interesting concept. “Since our trains are so seldom on time, let’s brag to our customers about it when we do get there on time. Maybe that way they won’t mind it so much when they are late to work.” Believe it or not, they actually publish these figures every month or so in a flyer called Keeping Track that is placed on the seats of the train for the riding public to read. Could I make this up?
What they don’t tell you in these flyers is what “on time” actually means. You would think, for example, that if a train was supposed to arrive at its destination at, say, 8:20 a.m., then its on-time record would reflect the number of times the old 7:39 out of Penn Station arrived in Mineola at—you guessed it—8:20 a.m., right? Wrong! Enhhht! Thank you for playing. What they really mean is the number of times the train arrived within five minutes of its scheduled arrival time. And to make it even more absurd, “arrives” means whenever the train gets to within 200 yards of the station. So a train can be four and half minutes late, get to just within 200 yards of the station, and then stop for 14 minutes because of mechanical problems. And it is still on time!
Every year the railroad likes to do a customer satisfaction survey of its riders. Of course this is nothing new. Everybody is surveying everybody these days. This year I’ve been surveyed by my employer, my bank, my long-distance phone company, every hotel I’ve stayed at--even the cafeteria where I usually eat lunch. But the Long Island Rail Road’s is the mother of all customer satisfaction surveys. It contains 88 questions. Again, could I make this stuff up? I guess they figure those who miss getting their New York Times for the morning commute can work their survey instead of the crossword puzzle. How thoughtful.
Filling out these surveys is a knee jerk response most of us have to authority figures. Sort of like being back in school. We’re conditioned from kindergarten on to answer any set of questions that even slightly resembles a test. And we actually angst over the questions! Let me see, am I getting this one right? How many time did I order room service this week? Was it three or was it four times? Geez, I don’t remember. I hope they don’t take away my bonus travel points if I answer it wrong. I wonder if they will check my answers against their records.
The problem is, nobody does anything with the results of all these surveys. On the LIRR, for example, things just go from bad to worse every year. It’s pathetic. Not only do the trains rarely run on time, but the seats are broken, the floors are sticky, every other light is out, people are allowed to get drunk on their way to the ballgame and put their feet all over the seats, and the conductors wear pony tails and earrings—and that’s just the men. All this while management keeps saying they hear you. And look how hard they’re listening to you. If railroad management really wants to know how things are going on the railroad I have a suggestion—ride the railroad!
I’m settled into my seat now and have just opened the lid on my coffee that I bought in Penn Station. It's not what I ordered. I asked for decaf dark. What I have here in my hand is definitely not dark—it’s black. Now in case you don’t know, there's a difference between decaf dark, and decaf black. Dark means there's a little bit of milk in it. Black means it's straight out of the pot. Subtle difference, I’ll admit. But I can't stand the taste of plain black decaf coffee. Now I'm starting to wonder if it's even decaf at all.
What we have here, of course, is a communications breakdown between me and the person who fixed the coffee. When I first came to New York 20 years ago I learned very quickly that what I drank back home (before switching to decaf) was called "coffee regular" by New Yorkers. Put simply, it consisted of a 6 oz. paper cup of coffee with a teaspoon of sugar and enough milk to turn the whole thing a nice caramel color. As over the years my taste changed to a preference for less milk, I learned to order “coffee dark.” Coffee dark was simply coffee regular with a little less milk in it. It was a short-hand that everyone seemed to understand.
How can it happen that a simple little transaction like ordering a cup of coffee gets screwed up? I mean, what all is involved here? It doesn’t seem it should be that complicated. I ask for something and you give it to me. Am I at fault? Is it that I wasn’t clear when I ordered my coffee? Did I mumble my words? Did I point and grunt? Perhaps I did. But I don’t think so. After all, I’m a professional communicator. I know that it’s not enough to speak so that you can be understood. You must speak so that you can’t be misunderstood.
But the other guy did misunderstand. And that’s why it’s my fault. We live in a world where if the customer is dissatisfied it is his own fault.
So why is it that we can’t get any satisfaction? Well, I know the answer. But it’s a secret and I’m not going to reveal it you. If I did I would be just like all the other idiot gurus, consultants and celebrity wannabe CEOs who claim to know everything. No, the secret will remain undisclosed. You will have to discover it on your own. But I’ll give you a clue. It’s right in front of your eyes. The answer is on this page, for those who really want to find it. In fact, the answer is in every chapter in this book.
Just as Rodney Dangerfield can’t get no respect, I can’t seem to get no satisfaction. Dissatisfaction is the number one rock in my shoe. Why can’t there just be a simple way to get over this—to ensure that I’m always satisfied? Some simple rules to follow, for example. You know, like the Ten Commandments of Consuming or the Seven Habits of Highly Satisfied Customers. Well, I’m not a satisfaction guru, so I don’t have any rules or habits for you follow in order for you to become a well rounded satisfied person. What I can reveal to you, however, are the “Rules for Ensuring Customer Dissatisfaction.” These are the enemy’s marching orders. There are thirteen of them, of course. At least if you are aware of their strategies you will be better prepared to defend yourself. Ready? Turn the page.
1999 Richard Bradley. All rights reserved.