Sunday, February 28, 2010

O Canada

I really am ambivalent about Canada's victory over the USA hockey team. I so wanted the Americans to win; they didn't really match up well talent-wise with the Canadians, but seemed to have an endless supply of grit and determination. This was exemplified by the tying goal late in regulation time, a goal which temporarily inserted a dagger deep into the maple leaf on the Canadian team sweaters. But a lightning-fast overtime ended with a quick wrister from Sidney Crosby and Canada's relief was palpable.

The United States will survive. We have NBA basketball heading toward playoff time, major league baseball in spring training, and American Idol going strong. We are extremely proud that our team almost won the gold medal in a sport that is still something of an anamoly in the country.

Canada needed this victory much more than the U.S. I've only been north of our border twice, but each trip has convinced me that those hardy folk up there are fiercely proud of their country. One of our trips coincided with Canada Day and I must say I have never seen so many flags so ardently displayed...on houses, from buildings, street lights, and wrapped over shoulders. And nothing is imprinted on Canada's consciousness more strongly than hockey.

I guess it has something to do with the ever-present frozen ponds, cold weather, and short days, but Canada has to have something to divert their attention from the severity of life up there. That's not a knock on those fine folk. I admire them for leaving the comfort of their homes, cabins, and igloos when the wind chill is -50. There had to be something to bring joy and vigor during the long winters and hockey was it. And the hockey players they have produced are almost without fail model citizens, polite and respectful, unassuming, and tougher than an angry rattler.

So from down south, we tip our hats to the Canadian hockey team and to their devoted fans. We almost gotcha, but not quite. There's no shame in barely losing to the best. And oh, by the way, your national anthem is better than ours.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

More quality businesses...

Since my last post, I have thought of two more businesses I'd like to give props to.

1. Costco. One defining quality that all great companies seem to have is a happy workforce, and Costco's people act like every day is Christmas. Now all this joy would be meaningless if the rest of the shopping experience was a dud. But Costco has great prices and quality stuff. Also, it's so great to get through a checkout line in less than two minutes...and Costco pulls this off as well. Yesterday, Carole and I bought one of those items where you simply take a ticket to the cashier, pay for the item, and then wait around for somebody to go to the back and find one. Well, literally one minute after paying for it, an employeed handed it to us. Service. You can't beat it.

2. Milestone Electric. This applies only to DFW denizens. Here's a company whose prices are competitive and spelled out prior to the work beginning. The work is done right. But it's the guys who show up from Milestone that set the company apart. It's as though Milestone hires only former Boy Scouts. They are freshly scrubbed and have eyes that twinkle. They're all in their 20's (it seems) and all sport that All-America look. They are polite to a fault. Indicative of how the company's approach is this example: on their last visit to our house, we presented them with a $50 coupon of unknown origin and vague expiration date. Mr. Boy Scout allowed it even though I got the feeling he was bending the rules a bit.

Again, chime in with businesses that you've found to be customer-friendly.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Quality...hard to find

Since quality products and quality customer service is so hard to come by these days, I thought I'd give some credit where credit is due. After all, sloppiness and apathy has become prevalent in current society, leaving us with inferior merchandise and frustrating encounters with customer service reps. And I say "service" with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

So let me toss a few bouquets to some folks and products who deserve our plaudits...and our business:

1. The Honda Corporation. I started buying Honda lawnmowers in the 80's and my sons and I wore out 6 or 7 of them by mowing 25-30 yards a week, year after year. (That's how we got the funds to put our kids in Dallas Christian.) The mowers were fabulously reliable and produced great-looking yards. Then, in 1990, I bought my first Honda Accord. Since then, Accords have been a mainstay in our lives, never failing (never, I said!), and getting excellent mpg. Now, I'm driving my first Honda Ridgeline pickup, and it's a marvelous vehicle.

2. Tul pens. I'm extremely picky about writing instruments. Put the proper pen in my right hand and I can toss out some superb penmanship, a rapidly disappearing art these days. I found Tul pens at Office Max and decided to give them a try. Excellent. They come in colors and have a very narrow felt tip that gives a smooth, even stroke. My former employer, Dallas Independent School District, should have provided them to my students to counter the chicken-scratching homework that used to cross my eyes.

3. Lowes. Every suburb has matching sets of Home Depot and Lowes stores. Here's a hint: avoid Home Depot. I imagine that their merchandise and pricing policies are quite comparable. The difference boils down to how the customer is treated. At the Depot, it often seems the customer is an afterthought, someone to be avoided. At Lowes, the word has apparently come down from corporate suits that the customer needs to be treated with respect and friendliness. Employees actually seem to seek out puzzled-looking patrons to offer assistance. After the sale, Lowes is rock-solid in standing by their products and if the customer is dissatisfied, will bend over backwards to make sure the experience becomes a happy one. I'm sure there are occasional exceptions, but in the main, Lowes stomps Depot handily.

4. Walgreens. Since I've been a chronic-pain patient for decades, I've purchased many a prescription in my time. The decade of the '80's was a horrible one, because I was almost forced to use a now-defunct chain known as Eckerd's. Their pharmacies were staffed by highly-qualified pharmacists and highly-acned high school dropouts. Since the dropouts answered the phones and dealt with the customers, mistakes were as common as wobbly wheels on Wal-Mart grocery carts. Fortunately, Walgreens and CVS came along and filled the void when Eckerd's disappeared. The folks behind the counter at Walgreens are unfailingly cheerful and competent. And they don't screw up the prescriptions. Makes life worth living, eh?

5. Cotton Patch restaurants. For those of you who aren't in Texas, this is a home-cooking chain that tries to cook food like Aunt Bee. They succeed. The food is flawless every time. The wait staff is friendly but not smothering. The managers are great about wandering by and checking on customer satisfaction. And they know how to put a mean batter on chicken-fried steak and chicken-fried chicken, two mandatory Southern food groups.

Got any places or things you'd like to laud?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

His Majesty's Service

I was reading today and came across the story of a Catholic friar named Abbe Pierre. Pierre was assigned to work with homeless beggars in Paris after WWII. He found that many were freezing to death in the city during the winter, not having a place to flee from the cold. He tried to interest the community in the beggars' plight, but had no success. He decided the only option was to show them how to mobilize themselves.

First, he taught them to do their everyday tasks better. Instead of sporadically collecting bottles and rags, they banded together in teams to scour the city. Next, he got them to build a warehouse from discarded bricks and start a business in which they sorted out vast amounts of used bottles collected from around Paris. Finally Pierre inspired each beggar by giving him responsibility to help another beggar worse off than himself. That is when the project really took off. An organization called "Emmaus" was founded to carry on Pierre's work, with branches in other countries.

A few years went by and presto! No more beggars in Paris! And Pierre believed his organization was about to face a serious crisis. "I must find somebody for my beggars to help", he declared. "If I don't find people worse off than my beggars, this movement could turn inward. They'll become a powerful, rich organization and the whole spiritual impact will be lost! They'll have no one to serve."

Pierre eventually went to India and found leprosy patients to fulfill his desperate search to find someone worse off than his beggars, and when he found them, he was overcome with joy. He returned to France, and Emmaus worked to donate a ward at an Indian hospital. The beggars had found people who needed their help so the spiritual motives of their lives continued on.

For us, the lesson is clear. Has there ever been more opportunity than right now to be there for the less fortunate? With our economy struggling and unemployment rising, the gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots" becomes ever more obvious. Christ spoke a lot about this, about clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving cups of cool water to those in need. He instructed us to consider others better than ourselves. If we do this, we will have to go against the flow of society. Advertisers constantly urge us to think of ourselves first, pamper ourselves, and reward ourselves. For sure, there was a great outpouring of American aid and effort for Haiti...but most probably ignored the opportunity.

For a nation of individuals that increasingly struggles to "get in touch with your real self", Christ's admonition that "he who loses himself shall find himself" rings very true. This Pierre fellow had it all figured out.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The dangers of assigning status...

The secular world wants us to believe that our mission on earth is to attain enough status to earn the love, recognition, and plaudits of others. Advertising execs, of course, get paid the big bucks to entice us into this dangerous web of artificial importance, much like the hunter lures the prey into the waiting trap. You are familiar with the various items that we admire: good looks, youth, education, wealth, wit, and so on. Next thing we know, we're acting in a condescending manner to the custodian and getting sweaty palms before shaking hands with F-16 pilot.

Sadly, Christians like me find ourselves playing the status game. It affects how we choose our friends, our purchasing habits, our manner of speech to those less fortunate than we, how we dress, and our attitude about our current level in society. Often, these things subtly become engrained in our mind and habits and pretty soon, we're indistinquishable from those who never darken a church door.

James 2 talks about the dangers of seating an obviously rich man up front for all to see while shoving a shabbily-dressed guy to the rear. Very strong language is used to show God's disgust with such preferential treatment. Don't know about you, but I'd rather not tick God off. We all should jettison any kind of people-rating system. I'll work on myself, that's for sure.