Author Archives: David

Customer Disservice

Customer Service 2

 

Last week, I wrote about the art of twisting words for advertising. This week, I want to write about the art of language in customer service or, in many cases, the lack there of.

Most people in their 40s or older, I’m sure would agree that customer service has devolved over the years. With the invention of recorded messages, holds, phone menus and transfers, the customer is no longer treated with respect or, for that matter, as a human being.

On the phone, we are routinely bounce around and expected to be patient during the process because, we are “a valued customer.” Even in person, we are asked to be understanding as we are bumped from department to department and instructed, like children, to wait patiently before we are allowed to give them our money.

But, what gets me is that we, as customers, accept the abuse and are looked upon as deviants and an annoyance should we dare to complain. The customer service people always have a way of explaining how we, the customer, are wrong and how we need to be more tolerant, especially when they are understaffed – which always seems to be the case these days. I love, for instance, how company phone recordings state that they are “experiencing unusually high call volume” every time I happen to phone in.

Just this week, I walked into a storefront of a large phone company to ask about starting service with them. For at least 10 minutes, I tried to get a representative to answer my questions. But, even though they have been busy, they directed me to someone else. Once I got to the right person and started waiting until he finished with the person before me, the representative did not even glance at me to acknowledge that I was in the right place or that he would be right with me. So, I stepped away to ask another representative who wasn’t busy. Anyway, they ended up skipping over me and were annoyed that I was not standing in the right place, to begin with. The fact that I threatened to leave could not have mattered less to them, so I did. I mean, how dare I not know or follow (their) company procedures, right?

What makes it worse, however and as I get back to my point, is how language is perverted into an Orwellian-type of double talk to place blame on the customer. With a few surviving exceptions, the customer is usually blamed for their service issues.

In fact, just to wrap things up for this posting, I used to work in a customer service phone center for a major airline from 1989 to 2004. At the beginning of my tenure, we were trained to do all possible to help each caller and that the customer was always right. During just those 15 years, the direction from management had changed to “get the caller off your line as quickly as possible to take the next call.”

 

Sales Speak and Trick Terminology

“What do you think of this ad?” my elderly cousin asked of me this past weekend. I won’t get into the product itself, but I could understand her interest, as the verbiage used ambiguity and well-chosen qualifiers to entice her, the reader.

“I’m not a lawyer,” I told my cousin, but the advertisement seemed to ride the fine edge of legal boundaries in order to be published in the magazine. I suppose some publications, more than ever these days, are desperate enough to do anything for a buck, as long as they are reasonably protected from litigation.

I know businesses have done this for many years, but this was a relatively respectable senior magazine, so I thought. Instead of using words implying any sort of guarantee that it would actually perform as expected, this advertisement used sales speak and trick terminology, such as “may,” “can” or “possibly” to describe the capabilities of their intriguing, but worthless product. In fact, reading it carefully, they actually made no promise or guarantee that the device would work at all. Even the four paragraphs of fine print – very fine print – at the bottom of the page disclaimed any “guarantee of performance” in a sentence of 96 words.

To further insulate themselves from liability, the company advertising their “wonderful” product, threw in the phrase, “based on proper usage and assembly.” I suppose the definition of that was clarified somewhere in that fine print too.

Of course, my cousin, as she read it with her nearly 79-year-old eyes, saw it from the opposite perspective. To her, she understood it to be a miracle device that would change her life and it was only $99.99. “Very affordable,” the advertisement read, “and now for under $100.” It should have technically read “for less than $100,” but that was just my journalistic arrogance emerging and, of course, beside the point.

For $150 or even $100, my cousin said she probably would not buy the product, but that one penny’s difference apparently placed it magically within the bounds of her budget, despite my own expectation that it would break within an hour after unwrapping the slick packaging which they had illustrated, again, if it ever were to work at all.

After explaining the verbal dog-and-pony-show to her, my cousin seemed to understand what I was expressing. Yet, after reviewing the advertisement on her own a second time, my cousin seemed more doubtful about my explanation as opposed to what she saw in print. In the end, I can’t be sure whether or not she placed an order and I sensed that, if I did ask, she wouldn’t tell me anyway, especially after our chat.

 

Another Experience to Write From

Ship

Late last month a friend and I were discussing Mediterranean cruises that she was interested in taking. Today, there is a large selection of cruise ships in the region for her to consider, but my friend became really interested when I told her that I had sailed the Mediterranean back in the ‘70s. That, of course, was when ships were significantly smaller and there were a lot fewer of them.

The ship I was on, I explained to my friend, didn’t carry more than a couple of hundred passengers for the three-day cruise from Haifa to Pireaus with stops at Limassol and Rhodes. In fact, it was sort of designed as a half car ferry and half passenger ship. That was ideal for my family and I, as we were able to bring our car with us. I still recall, with vividness and a degree of trepidation, as it was hoisted off the pier by the ship’s crane, swung over and then lowered into the cargo hold. What a relief it was once our swinging car was safely on the deck below.

I bring this up, because I realized shortly after speaking to my friend that this experience will more or less fit into a story I began writing several years ago. I am still puzzled, in fact, as to why I didn’t think of applying this experience sooner.

Plus, there were a few other experiences from the ship that will not only enhance the story, but with a few revisions, will automatically resolve a couple of nagging loose ends.

The really nice aspect about the ship was that, even though it was technically a car ferry, we had our own cabin, there was galley with table service and real waiters and even a swimming pool. The water in the pool, I vividly remember would slosh back and forth as the sea became a bit rough. I was amazed at how rough the Mediterranean could get for such a relatively small sea. The crew even had to lower the pool’s water level a bit to prevent it from splashing on to the deck.

The most memorable part of the trip, however, was being able to visit the bridge while enroute – something I assume is forbidden in this day of hijackings and terrorism. I met the first officer, a rather hospitable fellow, who was in command, because the captain was in the sick bay, having slipped and fallen on a banana peel during port call.

There is a lot more I can add about this point-to-point trip, but will hold on to them until I can properly arrange them for the chapter or two of the story I have set up. As I keep saying, personal experience, at least for me, seems to make the best contributions to my stories, as I can actually picture the experience, complete with the reality of the detail.

 

“Creative News”

Newspapers

In my previous life, as they say, when I was a journalist writing news articles, everything had to be to true – whatever that means anymore – and it had to be backed up with documented facts and/or quotes. Every detail had to be accurate.

However, even back then, I had the fiction bug. So, every so often I exercised the liberty of combining journalistic fact with my emerging passion for fiction. For the fun of it, I would twist and pervert the rules and write fake news articles, backed by fake attributions and fake quotes.

I would write articles that possessed just enough truth to gain the reader’s attention, but plenty of fiction and sometimes humor so they would know by halfway through the article it was all a bunch of garbage.

Below, for example, is one of my short “creative news” articles I wrote several years ago, complete with a fictitious newspaper name. It was when American troops were still fighting in Afghanistan. I just adjusted the date to make it current for this posting:

KARACHI TIMES HERALD – Karachi, Pakistan, July 30:      The two-day terrorist strike crippling the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region has been directly attributed to the drop in death and destruction by more than 50 per cent along of normal rates.  Official sources in Islamabad claim that while an eerie, peaceful tone has engulfed that border region, the national economy has already developed signs of weakness, especially in smaller towns, reliant on “terrorist projects” and “anti-Western initiatives.” Estimates of a two-week strike is the consensus from both sides of the bargaining table.

“Even the flow of black market goods has slowed to a trickle,” Interior Minister Insaad indicated.  “Without the terrorists and militias along the border,” he said, “American and Afghan troops are more easily able to close smuggling paths and regulate border check points.”

Ahmed, a mid-level terrorist operative, wishing to withhold his full name, agreed with a half dozen colleagues rolling cigarettes outside a Peshawar smoke shop, saying that faith and conviction alone do not put food on the family table.  “We risk our lives every day,” Ahmed said.  “I have seven to feed in my family and others here have as many as 10 or 11.”  He claimed that attacking villages, battling the American invaders and bombing cars is not just risky, but is heavy and exhaustive labour that deserves better pay and working conditions.

With more than 2,500 terrorists and recruits estimated to have joined the picket lines since Monday, surprise has been the response by authorities to the reduced number of attacks and high crimes throughout Pakistan and even in neighbouring regional centres, such as Kabul, Kandahar and Delhi.

 

Toning Down the Drama

“I’ve got a great story for you to write!” a friend pitched to me this past week. I won’t mention any names, but he knows who is. “It’s got overlapping government conspiracies, spaceships and lots of explosions, he continued, as he tried to sell me on his “fantastic” idea.

“I know I’ve used an explosion to start off at least one of the stories I’ve been working on,” I responded, trying to cool his jets, as I wanted to let him down easy. “But,” he begged, “You also like conspiracies.”

Yes, he had a point. I do like to periodically base a storyline on a conspiracy, but on a smaller, more subtle scale. I do like a good mystery and I suppose a conspiracy is just a mystery on a larger scale. In fact, I suppose, a conspiracy is a form of mystery, but is a mystery a type of conspiracy? To some extent I would think it can, indeed, work both ways.

But, my friend was talking about Area 51, in Nevada, in his vision of the story and brought in the higher echelons of the Pentagon, combining it with a full array of spaceships and aliens from neighboring planets around the galaxy. So, while I am somewhat familiar with the workings of the defense establishment, his plot for multi-level conspiracies sounded too large and too involving for me to attempt to tackle. The research, alone, would have wiped me out.

Despite his certainty and enthusiasm for his plot concept, it simply involved too many balls in the air for me, especially with two other stories I have on the front burners.

Then, there is the science fiction genre, which I’ve mentioned a few times that I have had trouble with. It is not the story development itself, I expressed to my friend, but the need to create – from head to toe – multiple races of aliens, along with descriptions of their spaceships, technologies and cultures. Despite his pleas, I still don’t think he understands how much time and effort needs to be dedicated to his 30-second idea proposal. I got the sense, though, that he was already envisioning his name in the movie credits.

Although it seemed like a futile attempt, with his head stuck in the lofty clouds of riches and fame, I tried to explain further to him that I prefer to keep my stories somewhat more grounded on earth. I prefer, I told him, to connect more with reality and everyday life. “There’s already so much to write about,” I intended to convey, “just talking about daily life and the plot twists it offers.”

After all, sometimes a good story is just down the street or in the backyard. These days, anyway, I have got more drama in my real life than I care to deal with and using writing can be a means to escape to a more serene world. I don’t need the excitement of high-velocity spaceships and grand galactic battles, like I did when I was a kid, I emphasized. Instead, I would rather write myself into a story of small-town America where character interaction drives the story and not explosions and hyper drive alien space ships.

 

The Future of the Past

Pluto

Several Fridays ago I mentioned my aborted attempts at writing science fiction, which I am reminded about with this week’s news that the photo-snapping New Horizons spacecraft has reached, and even passed, Pluto.

Back in the 70s, when I was in grade school, I remember studying the planets. We had already reached the moon with Apollo and had sharp, clear pictures of it. And, other than earth, of course, we didn’t have pictures yet of the other planets. But, we had some fairly accurate depictions of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Pluto, however, was so far away and beyond even the most powerful telescopes available at the time that pictures of the then-“planet” were a bad guess. In fact, the diagram of planets that I had hanging in my bedroom showed Pluto to have surrealistic stone arches, similar those near Moab, Utah. And, who would have thought it would be binary and that such a small body would have moons. We didn’t have a clue.

Today, however, it feels as though we are living in a new age – a dramatically different age. In many ways, life today has surpassed our predictions and future perceptions from the 70s and 80s.

Digital photography, with this week’s flyby of Pluto, has brought home most of the larger bodies orbiting throughout our solar system. Notice that for Pluto’s sake, I didn’t use the word “planets.”

Short of “warp speed,” the velocity of space travel with New Horizons, according to NASA, has accelerated by eight fold since the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. Pilotless drones have lowered the costs, increased the efficiencies and reduced the risk of going to war. Cell phones have revolutionized communications, allowing teenagers and, yes, even adults, to never have to hang up on each other. Alternative energies, such as solar power, have gained efficiencies greater than we imagined 40 years ago.

I recall watching episodes of Star Trek, The Next Generation, where they used laptop computers about an inch thick that the show’s producers envisioned a couple of hundred or so years in the in space-flying future. It was amazing, I thought at the time, how small and thin computers could conceivably get. Of course, laptops now, barely two decades later are a quarter of an inch thick and have evolved, in many cases, into devises that easily fit into the palms of our hands.

The differences between now and 40 years ago are tremendous, which leads me to be overwhelmed as I attempt to predict the future 40 years and even just 20 years ahead.

So, what is next?

 

Hand Delivered Story Ideas

NYSE

Wow, what a blinding great story we had this week with a simultaneous triad of crises on a single day! At the same time that trading on the New York Stock Exchange came to a screeching halt Wednesday, the jet fleet of a major airline was grounded by a computer glitch and the website of a major national newspaper was disabled. Although not the first time, it certainly is a rare occasion for an event of such economic significance to occur, especially at the largest stock exchange in the world. But, it is even more notable when, at the same time, the system-wide operations at United Airlines was halted and the Wall Street Journal’s website was taken offline.

The official reasons provided for the temporary shut-downs were stated as technical issues and had nothing to do with hackers or terrorism. Okay, I suppose I believe that – well, more or less. I suppose I have to, since I don’t have much of a choice. After all, in the scheme of things, who really cares whether I believe it or not?

But, without knowing for sure –without positive proof in my hand – my mind quickly began racing with conspiracy plot lines. What a great opportunity this is for a mystery story or a novel of international intrigue and economic upheaval. And for credibility, I could even base the central premise on Wednesday’s real-life event. Isn’t it great when story ideas are hand delivered; when “truth is stranger than fiction?”!

If I wasn’t already working on another story and I had the time, I would have been spending the past day or two developing that plot. What first came to mind involved a group of hackers, starting with the Chinese or ISIS terrorists. However, it could also have been a rising Mexican drug cartel or a European billionaire investor causing upheaval in the NYSE toward global economic and political domination.

But, that’s all too easy. I think I would rather dig deeper and make the reason more subtle and shrewd. I think I would want to sit down for a few days and really think it through so I could add a few twists and turns beyond the obvious for a more original read before revealing the twisted truth. Of course, the reason would still have to be earth-shattering to justify all the cunning work of shutting down a major stock exchange, airline and newspaper. But, it would also have to be something realistic that people can generally relate to and not some wild, out-of-this-world storyline.

I would want to start it offshore, in an exotic location. For me, that would likely be Europe, since I have some familiarity with the continent. I would look for secondary news events that have the potential to lead to such a dramatic climax, but don’t usually make the international headlines. It would be something that people could look back on and say, “Yes, I never thought of that, but should have seen it as a possibility.”

So, while I stash this idea in my files for possible use in the future, where would you want to take this story?

 

A Bicentennial Memoir

Philly Bicentenial

Forty years ago tomorrow was the 199th anniversary of American independence and, for me at least, it was the start of the Bicentennial year. Still in grade school at the time, my history studies focused on the American Revolution and, because of the timing, it meant it was all a big deal. But, growing up in Philadelphia also brought the Bicentennial to life. Therefore, it was a really big deal! Well, at least it was supposed to be.

For the 1975-76 school year, we learned in history about everything from the Boston Tea Party and Liberty Bell to that oppressive summer in 1776 when John Hancock and the other members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, having Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell within a half-hour bicycle ride, practically brought the Bicentennial to our doorstep. Back then, when it was in Independence Hall, I was even able to touch the Liberty Bell. But now, the Bell is in its own pavilion and is roped off from anyone getting near it.

As “The Bicentennial City,” Philadelphia had grand plans that year. It was scheduled to host the World’s Fair, just like they had for the Centennial, back in 1876. With budget cuts and, I suppose, other problems raising the funds, the World’s Fair extravaganza was cancelled that year. Even plans for a compact version fell through, leaving the city with a large Bicentennial public relations campaign, but little substance. As I remember it, basically there were lots of Bicentennial flags and banners complimenting an array of small events throughout the year with a huge fireworks finale on July 4th (of 1976).

Today, the Bicentennial is relegated to history, but at the time, signs of it were everywhere from post offices to street signs and we were at ground zero in Philadelphia, no matter what Bostonians may have claimed.

Frankly, it is hard to believe we are approaching the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and just a little more than a decade until we hit the landmark of 250 years since 1776.

So, however you are planning to celebrate tomorrows 239th, have a wonderful holiday!

Some Memories Never Die

Since I keep talking about writing from experience, I thought I would write this week about an episode of my life that has been on my mind lately. I can’t explain why it just happened to pop up this past week or two, especially since it took place more than 40 years ago.

The year was 1971 and I was in my single digits, but old enough – at least back in those days – to get around town on my own. My family and I were living that summer in a flat in Bucharest, the-then capital of “communist Romania,” well behind the Iron Curtain. Bucharest, of course, is still the capital, but as this was a different time, it may as well have also been a different place.

When we were not touring the beautiful Carpathian Mountains or enjoying the beaches of Romania’s Black Sea, we pretty much got caught up in the city life routine of Bucharest.

I know this all sounds more like a story in itself, but the event I want to highlight occurred one morning in the courtyard, in the rear of our building, where I liked to play.

So anyway, during that particular morning, one of the neighbor women who I got to know, came out carrying a live chicken. She had, apparently, maintained a firm grip on the legs all the way home from the market, as it hung upside down squawking in her right hand.

If you have already figured what was about to happen, don’t spoil the “surprise.” Remember, I was just a young child from a big, modern American city, who wasn’t quite sure what the woman’s next move was going to be and certainly did not want to believe it.

Oh yeah, I suspected what was about to go down, but it all happened so fast, that I didn’t have time to digest it until it was all over. Even if there had been time, which there wasn’t, I couldn’t ask what she was doing, since my Romanian vocabulary encompassed little more than “good morning” and “thank you.” It did not include, “What the bloody hell are you doing with that chicken and cleaver?!”

The deed was done in only a second, but the main event had just begun. The chicken’s severed head flapped around, bobbing up and down, clucking wildly, as if it had taken on its own life and personality. I’m sure this was all a weekly routine for the woman, but up until then I had never seen anything like it, especially as a small kid from “big city America.” Had I mentioned that? After all, it was enough of a shocker to have to stand in long lines for fresh milk; that is if you could even find a market that had it in stock in this country where most farmers didn’t have the luxury of a tractor and still used a horse and cart to get produce to the market.

But then, over in “ring number two,” the chicken’s headless body did its own act, running – not walking – around the courtyard in a circle and in a state shock, as if it could see where it was going. It was as if it, too, had taken on its own personality, not realizing the cleaver across the neck deal meant it was supposed to drop dead.

Okay, so even though I have yet to use any part of this particular incident in any of my stories, this is the type of personal experience I draw on when I type away on my keyboard. It is an event that, 40-plus years later and for better or worse, remains vividly imprinted in my mind. And, while it is rare that I will use an entire event in a story, I will take bits and pieces to combine and embellish to fit my needs.

It’s Elementary, and Only the Beginning

showing

Good morning. As we make it through Friday, a time when us weekend warrior writers look forward to letting loose and exercising our alleged talents – we know who we are – I want to follow up on Jesi’s posting from Monday about “showing” descriptions in our stories, as opposed to “telling.”

In writing fiction, in particular, the basic concept is rather elementary, yet I have found lately that a significant segment of emerging writers do not understand what it means or how it works. Of four writers I specifically have in mind, as I sit down to write this, three of are more mature – well into their 60s and 70s.

I was lucky, I suppose, having picked up the notion of “show, don’t tell” in high school English. Although, I do have to admit, it took a while before I understood even the basics. At first, I was frustrated because I could not get how writing, alone, could lead to creating some picture or visual setting.

But, when I finally caught on to what my teacher was talking about, it all seemed so magical. I felt like a new world had been opened and that I had been bestowed with a fantastic new power of insight. It truly became a new dimension of writing for me.

Jesi’s example of taking a few sentences of a description about a tree that reads more like “stage directions,” really hits the problem. You can see her example in her posting, as she shows the modified three sentences of dry description and, using the vehicle of a third-person perspective, brings it alive for the reader’s imagination. It makes all the difference between falling asleep out of boredom and having the curiosity and motivation to read on.

To me, using a rough description from one of my own stories, it is the difference between listing the attributes of a mountain valley with its green trees, small creek and tall mountains, as opposed to having the reader step into the picture to discover a creek with its overflowing winter’s runoff, meandering through the lush greenery of its aspens where a family of sparrows is playing. The birds get scared off by an approaching wolf and takeoff toward the heights of the sky-reaching snow-covered peaks.  Again, it is just a rough draft version, but hopefully it helps illustrate the point.

Sorry Jesi if I’m riding the coattails of your topic this week, but I think you have hit on a critical point of writing that I think is worth repeating, because some people are just a bit challenged, as I was, as they attempt to grasp the concept.

From there of course, the goal is to strive to perfect “show, don’t tell,” which is the lifetime challenge of the art. Personally, I’m always looking at fresh variations to try to experiment with, as I strive to draw the reader through the story. I know some writers have come close to perfecting the art, but so far, I have a long way from being one of them.