Sunday Nibble #3

At various points in my professional life, I’ve been a heavy user of spreadsheets, Excel in particular, and as I’ve indicated in occasional pieces on things like using index and match together, or sneaking IF into unexpected places, that I like to stretch what Excel can do so that I can automate data processes as much as possible.

Currently, one of my job functions involves entering commission statements into spreadsheets, and when I got there, the method had been to print the things out and then manually enter the data, and that just would not do — especially not when some of the statements would run to more than 20 pages, with hundreds of entries.

I eventually figured out how to suck the data out of the PDFs, paste it into Excel, use consistent quirks of how that data came out in order to correct it en masse, pass it through Word in order to tab delimit it, then put it back into Excel for a few more tweaks until the data was ready to transfer, either via cut and paste or, as I’m working towards, using a formula to have the destination spreadsheet update directly from the data.

Of course, there’s one very important factor here, and it’s one I build into every single step. I am constantly verifying that the balance of the data I’m working with at the moment always matches the total on the original to the penny. If it suddenly goes off, I know that something didn’t go right, and I can catch and fix it immediately instead of having to go through the tedious balancing process at the end.

And trust me, I’m over that. It used to take me two or three days to go through the entire process of entering and balancing a huge statement. Now? Maybe an hour or two — time much better spent.

But the moral of the story is “Verify constantly.” One time, when that didn’t happen, it led to a very costly mistake. You may or may not have heard of or remember the London Whale. He was a trader who made a little boo boo in his spreadsheet formula, leading to a loss of six or seven billion dollars to JP Morgan, with additional fines in the hundreds of millions.

How did it happen? Forensic analysis showed that he used a series of spreadsheets, and data had to be manually copied and pasted from one to the other. It was a process that should have been automated but never was. Ultimately, a formula was messed up at some point, and it started dividing the difference between return rates by their sum instead of their average.

This figure led to the London Whale making increasingly aggressive trades, causing other traders to place put calls against them — i.e. betting that he was making the wrong decision. Guess which group was right?

And in case that division error seems trivial, here’s an example with real numbers. Let’s say that the old rate was 15% and the new one was 25%. The difference is 10%. But here’s the outcome when you divide by the sum and the average. Ten percent over the sum of 40 is .25. Ten percent over the average of 20 is .50.

In other words, one number is half of the other, and that is consistent for any combination of new and old rates you pick. The error is always a factor of 200%, Imagine that kind of error in construction — “Oh. Your doorways are all three feet wide, but we ordered eighteen-inch wide doors. Sorry!”

“The minimum safe height for skydiving out of this plane is 5,000 feet… Oh, crap. He jumped, and we’re at 2,500.”

As the old carpenter’s adage goes, “Measure twice and cut once.” When it comes to dealing with numbers, always be verifying.

Our best weapon against AI is humor

My day job revolves around health insurance and, because of HIPPA regulations, the office has landlines. We can’t do VOIP because it’s not as secure. The theater I work at some evenings uses nothing but VOIP. I’m sure that the main consequence of this is that the theater never gets robo or sales calls, while the office gets them constantly.

Fortunately, I have absolutely no obligation to be nice to robo-callers or even to listen to their pitches. I’ve hung up on them in mid-sentence. To make it more confusing for them, I’ve hung up in the middle of my sentence. Sometimes, if they’re trying to pitch a service that the boss already has and I know that he did meticulous research before he obtained it or has a personal relationship with the provider, I’ll respond with a terse, “Thanks, but we’re happy with what we have,” and then hang up.

The fun ones are when we get calls trying to sell Medicare insurance. They start out just talking about Medicare Supplement plans, and those are perfectly legal to advertise. Why? Because no matter the provider, each particular plan has the same premium, determined by age, and has the same basic benefits.

These are the plans that cover deductibles, copays, and coinsurance not covered by other plans or Medicare itself. Where they differ is in the extras they toss on. Some of them provide gym benefits, others provide personal emergency systems — i.e. the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” necklace, others provide free over-the-counter stuff, like vitamins and cold remedies, by mail. It’s a mix-and-match, and what it’s really doing is providing people to decide what they prefer among plans that are otherwise identical.

So far, so good. If it’s a slow day and I get one of these calls, I will always push the button for more info, which connects me to a live operator. This is where it gets fun, because it is illegal to cold-call someone to try to sell them Medicare Advantage or Medicare Prescription Drug Plans.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what all those terms mean. I didn’t either six months ago. The gist of it is that selling these in the same way is illegal because their costs and coverages vary wildly, and it all depends upon the person being insured, and which medications they’re taking.

For somebody taking no drugs or with one or two common and cheap generics, Coverage X may only cost $13 a month. For someone with a lot of prescriptions, especially if one or more only come in a brand instead of a generic, Coverage X may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. And for each of them, the price of Coverage X, Coverage Y, and Coverage Z may also vary widely, also depending on whether they have a preferred pharmacy or not, and whether that pharmacy is in or out of network for the provider.

In other words… this is something people need to discuss with a professional who can look at their specific needs, analyze the options, and give the best and cheapest advice. That cold caller is probably only calling for a small number of (or even only one) providers, so they don’t care what your situation is going to cost. They only want to get you to buy what you’re selling.

And that is a big part of why these kinds of calls are so illegal.

Now, when I get a person doing one of these calls on the line, they will usually launch into a fast-talking spiel about how they can save me and my family money on all of our health insurance needs, including Medicare Advantage or Drug Plans, and what would I like to sign up for today?

My reply is always, “Hey, you sell Medicare insurance, too? So do we. My boss is an insurance broker.”

Analogy time: This would be the equivalent of somebody robo-dialing in order to hire a hitman to take out a rival, giving the fully incriminating pitch to whomever answers, and then finding out they’d called the FBI.

When I say this, I can hear the sudden confusion in the silence and the unstated “Oh, shit.” It takes a second or two, but then I hear them hang up on me, and that is the Holy Grail of dealing with these unethical idiots: making them end the call.

Some of them must be paying attention, though, because the other day I got one of these calls during a slow late afternoon, hit 1 to talk to a rep and then instead of immediately being put through, got some hold music, and then after about ten seconds, the call disconnected.

So, other Holy Grail. I think I actually got our office number blocked by a spamming, illegal robo-caller. That’s really satisfying.

However, there’s another trend in these robo-calls that’s somewhat more disturbing on a couple of fronts. First is that it could actually put people out of jobs. And yes, while we all hate these kinds of calls, I still get that for some people, these jobs are their tenuous lifelines. I blame the companies behind them, not the people who have no options other than to work for them.

Second is that this trend is using AI, and it’s getting a lot better. When you get a call that has a voice announcement or is reading off a recorded message, it’s pretty obvious what it is. Beyond the robotic cadence or the message outright stating that it’s a recording, there’s also just a huge difference in sound quality between a recording or digital audio and a live speaker.

Why is this? Simple. Digital or analog audio goes direct through an input line to the headset speaker in your phone. Spoken voice has to take the extra step or traversing a few millimeters of open air between the speaker’s mouth and their microphone, and this creates a completely different quality. You don’t even have to be an audiophile to pick up on it. It’s something we just automatically sense. “Recording” and “Real Person” appear as different from each other as “Mannequin” and “Human Being.”

But then they tweaked the technology, and now I’ve met a couple of AI robo-callers that were obviously filtered to sound like real people with that atmospheric connection. I don’t doubt that this is now a trivial process to add via computer, although to be honest, it could be done really low-tech and in cheap analog by setting up a speaker playing the voice next to a handset picking it up. Either way… these couple of calls got me at first.

Call number one, it was easy to spot after the initial two exchanges, because the voice launched into the uninterruptable spiel so, despite the sound quality, I got it and hung up.

The second and, so far, last time, it was a bit harder. The very human sounding voice started out with, “Hello, how are you today?” I replied, “Fine, and you?” It replied. “Great, thanks for asking. Can I ask you some questions about your family’s shopping habits?” “Sure,” I said, waiting for an opportunity to mess with them, but then also noticed that there seemed to be slightly too long of a pause between their question and my response. Also, every response started with a filler word. And the next response nailed it for me.

“That’s great. Are you responsible for the grocery shopping in your household.”

Trivial thing, but just like we can detect by hearing whether a voice is recorded or on the phone, our brains are also wired to detect whether we’re talking to a human, and this was the point that the bot failed the Turing Test. The responses were a bit mechanical and not keying into my tone at all. So I decided to give it a real test and replied, “I only pay for it, but everyone else decides what they want.”

The pause was slightly longer, and then came the reply, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” Of course, the human response would have been a laugh at a thing that AI hasn’t mastered yet: A joke.

Bingo, busted bot. So lots of points for the realism of the voice, delivery, and sound quality, but there’s still a long way to go on making it believable, and this is a very, very good thing, indeed. If you think it’s a bot, engage it with non-sequiturs and humor, and see how fast it falls apart.


Image: Alan Turing Memotial by Bernt Rostad, (cc BY 2.0).

More stupid Excel tricks: a secret power of IF

The hardest part about working with data, especially in large sets, is the people who input it in the first place. The reason they make it so difficult is because they’re inconsistent, not only in their day-to-day habits, but between one or more different people all entering info into the same database.

When you’re creating something solely for yourself, then by all means be as inconsistent or idiosyncratic as you want. But if it’s a group project creating information that someone like me is going to have to derive useful information from at some point in the future, inconsistency can make my job infinitely more difficult.

This is the reason why things like style guides were created — and they don’t just exist for the written word. Accounting and data management have their own style guides. So does computer programming, although that field has the advantage, because the program itself won’t let you get it wrong. Excel is the same way, although it won’t always tell you how to make it right.

Little things can cause problems and cost a business money. Sally may prefer to spell out words in addresses, like Avenue or Boulevard, while Steve likes to abbreviate with Ave or Blvd. Sam is also big on abbreviations, but always with periods. Seems innocuous, doesn’t it?

It does until the only way to make sure that a massive mailing doesn’t go to the same household at the same address twice is to compare the addresses to each other. That’s because, to a computer, 1234 Main Street, 1234 Main St, and 1234 Main St. are all completely different addresses. There’s no easy way to fix for that because computers don’t have a “kinda sorta look the same” function.

Garbage in, garbage out

It’s also important that a database be designed properly. For example, names should always be entered as separate units — title/prefix, first name, middle name, last name, suffix. They can be combined later when necessary. A lot of good databases do this, but it’s completely worthless if somebody enters the first and middle names in the first name field or adds the suffix to the last name. You may have heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out,” and this is a prime example of that. All of the right fields were there, but if used improperly, it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the proper fields aren’t always included. One example I’ve had to wrestle with recently is a database showing the various insurance policies people have had with the agency. Now, that is useful and necessary information, as well as something that legally needs to be maintained. And it’s all right that a person gets one row of data for each policy that they’ve had. Some people will have one or two rows, others might have a dozen or more.

So what’s the problem? This: There are no data flags to indicate “this is the policy currently in effect.” This is doubly complicated since it’s Medicare related health insurance, so someone can have up to two active policies at a time, one covering prescription medications and the other a Medicare supplement. Or a policy may have expired after they decide to drop an MAPD and go back to “original” Medicare but the only way to know that is to look for an ending or termination date — if it was ever entered.

The secret power of “IF”

This is where one of my “stupid Excel tricks” came into it. You may or may not be familiar with some of the numeric functions dealing with columns or rows of numbers, but they basically operate on a whole range. They include functions like SUM, MAX, MIN, and AVG. The usual usage is to apply them to a defined range or series of cells and they have no operators, so you get things like:

=SUM([Range])
=MAX([Range])
=MIN([Cell1],[Cell2],[Cell3],...[Cellx])

Here’s the fun trick, though. If you add one or more “IF” statements within any of these functions, you can perform the operation on a sub-range of data defined by certain criteria. In the example I’m giving, it would look at all of the insurance effective dates for one person and determine the most recent one, which is usually a good indicator of which policy is in effect.

Generally, each item you’re evaluating is in the form of [DataRange]=[CellValue], or in actual Excel terminology, it might look like “$A$1:$A$470=A12” for the version entered in row 12. After the criteria ranges, you enter the range that you want to perform the operation on, close out the parenthesis, then enter.

So let’s say that we have last name in column B, first name in column D, and the dates we want to look at to find the latest are in column N. Our formula would look like this, assuming that the first row has the field headers and the data starts in row two:

=MAX(IF($B$1:$B$525=B2,IF($D$1:$D:$D$525=D2,$N$1:$N$525))

If you’ve entered it right, the formula should be displaying the right number. In effect, you’ll have created a column down the far right side in which the value opposite any particular person’s name equals the maximum date value, meaning the latest. Then you can do an advanced filter (oh, google it!) to pull out just the unique name data and date, then use that to do an INDEX and MATCH to create a dataset of just the most recent plan and effective date. (I covered those two functions in a previous post.)

Or… the original database administrator could have just put those current plan flags in the data in first place, set them to automatically update whenever a newer plan of the same type was added, and voilà! Every step since I wrote “This is where one of my “stupid Excel tricks came into it” 396 words ago would have been unnecessary. Time and money saved and problem solved because there was never a problem in the first place.

The art of improv in Excel

On the other hand… solving these ridiculous problems of making large but inconsistent datasets consistent with as little need as possible to look at every individual record just lets me show off my ninja skills with Excel.

It’s really no different than improv. Badly entered data keeps throwing surprises at me, and I have to keep coming up with new and improved ways to ferret out and fix that bad data. In improv, this is a good thing, and one of our mottos is, “Get yourself in trouble,” because that creates comedy gold as things in the scene either get irredeemably worse or are suddenly resolved.

In real life, not so much. It’s a pain in the ass to have to fix the curveballs tossed at us by other people’s laziness and lack of diligence — unless we approach it like a game and an interesting challenge. Then, real life becomes improv again in the best sense.

And I’ll find it forever amusing that the same rules can apply to both a spontaneous, unplanned, free-wheeling art form, and an un-wielding, rigid and unforgiving computer program. They both have their rules. Only the latter won’t allow them to be bent. Okay, some improv games have rules that are not supposed to be bent. But half the fun is in bending those rules, intentionally or not.

With Excel and data-bashing, all of the fun is in following Excel’s rules, but getting them to do things they were never intended to.

Image source: Author, sample output from a completely randomized database generator in Excel used to create completely artificial test data for practicing functions and formulae without compromising anyone’s privacy. Maybe I’ll write about this one some day, if there’s interest.

Don’t make it rocket science when it’s not

So many tools

It never ceases to boggle my mind when people don’t jump on the chance to learn and fully take advantage of the amazing modern tools we’ve been handed and which are ubiquitous. If you work in any kind of office environment at all, whether it’s some stodgy traditional business or a bleeding-edge industry like tech or gaming, at the very least you’re dealing with either Microsoft’s Word, Excel, Outlook, etc., or the Apple equivalents.

If you’re using the Open Office or Chrome/Cloud versions, then this piece probably isn’t directed at you because you definitely get it. But, otherwise… really, people? These are literally the things that you use every day, and yet I constantly see very few people ever progressing beyond the merest basic ability to use any of the programs.

That is: Open document, type shit with defaults, save or send as-is.

If I open a spreadsheet you’ve worked on in an older version of Excel and see three tabs at the bottom named Sheets 1, 2, and 3, I will know that you’re an amateur. Likewise if the font is set to that hideous Calibri. Same thing in Word minus the tabs, but same crappy font, ragged aligned left, with auto-spacing before paragraphs or lines.

Word to the wise, people. The first thing you should do in Word is go in and set your default formatting so that the autospace before lines or paragraphs is 0, and line spacing is single.

Why is paper still a thing?

But this is just an intro to some recent heinous, and it’s this. I’ve managed to stumble into a situation where a lot of coworkers prefer to do things on paper, and it makes me nuts. Simple question: Why? Physical files can only be in one place, usually aren’t in the place where they’re supposed to be, and there isn’t a magic search function that can find them other than somebody maybe remembering that they worked on it recently, and where they put it. There’s also no standardization of fonts, so if someone scribbles a note in that file, there’s no guarantee that someone else will be able to read it six months later.

Not to mention that it’s just wasteful. Especially wasteful when there are so many ways to avoid it and so many resources to make that easier.

Case in point: One of the things I do regularly is enter and reconcile commission statements from various vendors, but I’ve had to do it by printing the things, manually entering the data into a spreadsheet, and then doing a careful audit to fix the inevitable errors, since some of these run to hundreds of entries.

But then I figured out how to pull the data directly from the statement, slap it into Excel, format it, and then use a few formulae to pull the new info into the old spreadsheet. The great advantages are that it uses the original data directly, so there are no entry errors to deal with. Also, the second pass just involves pulling out a copy of the original statement data and the target input by formula data, putting them side-by-side, using a few more formulae to spot errors due to differences in how names were spelled, making a few tweaks, and reconciling the thing a lot faster than before.

Pre-paperless innovation, a big statement could take me a few days (interspersed among all the other office duties) to finally balance it to zero. New method? I made it through four statements in one day, each one entered and balanced in two steps instead of about six.

The thing is, this isn’t really all that difficult, and anybody could learn to do it. One of the big helps in this process were the Excel functions INDEX and MATCH (which I’ll explain in a future post), and it took all of a two minute Google search and then reading the first good link to figure out how they worked in order to figure out how to do what I needed to do. What I needed to do: Compare the client’s first and last names and insurance plan type in one table in order to pull out a specific number from another. And this is literally all you need to do to learn how to make your office tools work for you.

Try it. Google “change the default font in Word,” or “turn off auto-correct in Word,” or “alternatives to VLOOKUP in Excel,” or any one of a number of other topics, and you’ll find the answers. It really isn’t any more complicated than reading a cookbook and making food from a recipe. Really, it’s not.

Using computers made easy

There is too much of an aura of mystery put around computers, but trust me, they are more simple than you think — and I’ve been working with them since… well, since most of my life, because I was just born at the right time. All that they ultimately understand are “Off” and “On.” “Zero” and “One.” Those are the only two states a switch can be in, that is what digital computing is, and it only gets two digits.

Maybe someday I’ll write a bit about how the electrons inside do what they do and turn it into intelligible information for humans, but for now suffice it to say that they pretty much only do a few things — input, store, and retrieve data through various devices; allow you to manipulate that data with various software programs; then allow you to re-store and output that data, again through various devices.

The nice thing about graphical user interfaces (GUIs) like Windows, OS, Android, Linux, etc., is that they tend to standardize across programs written in them, so that every program tends to use the same convention for the basics: Open, Close, Save, Save As, Print. Programs of the same type will also follow the same conventions — Format, Spellcheck, View, Layout, etc., for text editors; Image, Layer, Select, Filter, Effect, etc., for graphic design programs; Inset, Formulas, Calculate, Data, Sort, etc., for spreadsheets.

Finally, almost every program will have a Help function, whether it’s invoked via the F1 key, or by some combination of a control/alt/Apple/shift-click plus H move. Help menus, when well-done are great and, guess what? They were basically the hyperlinked documents we’ve all come to know and love via the internet, except that they’ve been around since long before the internet. Most of the time, they’ll answer the question but, if they don’t, you can always google it, as I mentioned above.

How to create job security

You may be wondering, “Okay, if my job is just doing data entry, or writing emails, or accounting, or… etc., why do I need to know so much about the software when no one else does?”

Simple. As the economy moves more and more toward service, knowledge becomes value. If you’re the one in the office who gets a reputation as the computer expert, you will get noticed, and you will save a higher-up’s cookies more than once. You’ll also earn the attention and gratitude of your co-workers if you become the one they come to when “I did something and something happened and I don’t know how to fix it,” and you know immediately upon looking that they accidentally, say, set Word to Web Layout instead of Print Layout. It’s called creating job security by taking that extra simple step that too many people refuse to. Try it!

Image Source: NASA, Apollo 11.

How to be a good customer

I’ve been doing a lot of customer service again recently in two different jobs with very different customer bases, but the issues all boil down to the same things. Now, a lot gets made about whether a business has good or bad customer service, and that’s how it should be. If a company provides things to the public, then it’s on them to make sure that the public has their questions answered and needs met.

But, sometimes, customer service can only be as good as the customer, and I’ve seen many a bad online review ripping on some company’s customer service that, in its own internal vagueness and clear misinterpretation, turns out to be proof of its own opposite. That service wasn’t awful because the employee was bad. It was awful because the reviewer was a bad customer.

My current perspective is from two POVs. My day job is with a small company that provides a professional service to people, one that’s very important and necessary to them, is often time-sensitive, and involves a lot of complicated and legally mandated stuff which can often be totally incomprehensible to the layperson.

My side gig is at a live theater, mostly running the box office but sometimes taking over as house manager, which means running the theater and supervising the ushers as well (and sometimes it’s both jobs at once, oh joy!). This theater has two venues in it — a large 360 seat main stage, and a smaller 99 seat performance space. The company I work for has the smaller space.

So I’ll call them DJ (for day job) and Theater from here on out to distinguish. My distant past customer service gigs were for a webstore selling stuff for a minor celebrity, so I’ll call that eTail. Finally, way back in college and just after, I did the obligatory working in retail shtick, for both a major (now defunct) kind of Target-like (but not them) store, and a family owned chain of pharmacies. Well, chain of two back then. It’s a lot bigger now. I’d call the first one Hell and the second one Really Fun, but they probably aren’t going to enter into this. If I do refer to them, they’ll be simply Retail.

Damn. “Retail” is one of those words that looks like it’s spelled wrong the more you think about it, and it sounds more like a veterinary emergency procedure than anything else. But I do digress. Anon, here are some hints and tips to help you be a better customer; and there’s a funny thing that happens when you do this. You get better customer service.

Be prepared

This applies whether you’re making a phone call, going to a store for a specific product, or going to a live event. Gather your information, write it down or memorize it, and try to anticipate the questions you’re going to be asked. For example, if you need a particular toner cartridge or replacement water filter or other whozits or whatsamajiggy for your jimjang, check your manuals or look at the old ones or search online, and get those part numbers. Barring that, at least get the model number of the thing you’re sticking it into and the name of the thing you’re sticking into it. “I need a toner cartridge for a Balzamo BR-521 laser printer” is a lot more helpful than “I need the thing you stick into a printer so it can print.” Hint: depending on the type of printer, that can be anywhere from one to five different things.

If you’re going out to see a show, then take a moment to learn the exact title of that show. Also, it’d be nice if you’d take a moment beforehand to check out the venue and see if they have multiple shows at around the same time. In my Theater job, I can’t count the number of times we’ve had audience wander over to my box office instead of the clearly marked mainstage Will Call, and initiate a conversation that goes like this:

Them: “I have tickets for the show.”

Me: “Which show?”

Them: “Um… the 8  o’clock show.”

Me: “We have two shows at 8. What’s it called?”

Them: (Blank stare.) “Um… something?”

By the way, as soon as they say “8 o’clock show,” I know they’re here for the mainstage, because our audience always knows the name of our show.

The other rather amusing bane of my existence on the unprepared front? There’s a movie theater across the street and a block south of us. Now, we happen to be in a building that was built as an Art Deco movie palace in the 1920s but has been a live theater since the late 1990s, and it’s even got the name on it, which is not the name of the movie theater at all.

The other one doesn’t even look like a movie theater either. It does have a huge sign with its name on it but, unfortunately, it’s conveniently blocked by a badly placed tree that the city really needs to move. Of course, buildings have street numbers for a reason — and yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people rush in, come up to me, and say, “I have two tickets to (latest stupid comic book movie.)” Sure, you do, but not here.

Meanwhile, if you’re calling my DJ or any similar sort of entity, take a moment to write some notes to yourself. Be prepared to answer these questions or just state these things simply. “I’m calling because… (thing),” thing being you have a question, you got an email or letter from us (please have it in front of you), you want to know the status of something, you want to confirm something, you want to talk to a specific person, you’re returning a call from (person), or something else. Your life and mine will be a lot easier if you start out with simple and specific. If you have a question, then elaborate slightly. “I have a question” is useless. “I have a question about… (specific thing)” is much more useful.

Your opening should be no more than “Hi, (statement),” and that statement should be a single sentence covering one of the above. The exception is the statement, “I’m not sure what I need to ask,” which is fine, more on which in a moment. The point is, if you give me a clear, concise, and succinct statement, then odds are about 95% that I’ll know what to ask you, what to tell you, or how to direct you next to make the process go quickly for both of this. And this is even true if you tell me you don’t know what you need to ask for, because then I can go through all the above and find out whether you got a call or email or are a new referral or just have a question about something.

Fast example: “Hi, I got an email with the subject line, ‘We need to update your zoiberflaster.’ What’s that about?” Ooh, a specific. And, in this case, I’ll probably know about the email, will pop open a spreadsheet, and say, “I can help you with that. What’s your last name?” I look up the info, ask you a question, get an answer, boom, done, quick.

Or, “Hi, I got an email from (person).” Also cool. “Great, let me see if they’re available. And, your name?” Boom, boom, done. Yay!

Compare and contrast to:

Them: “I got an email from you.”

Me: “Okay, about what?”

Them: “Oh, I don’t know. It’s on my computer, and I’m on my phone.”

Me: “Do you remember who sent it or the subject?”

Them: “No.”

Me: (Silently mouthing curse words). “Can you find the email right now, or would you like to leave a message and we’ll call you back?”

Remember: If I didn’t send the email, I can’t just magically open Outlook and see who did. Email doesn’t work like that unless you’re an admin. (Hint: 99.9% of people who will answer the phone are not.)

Other things you should not do: Launch into a monologue and not let me ask you anything, which happens far more often than not. And sorry, but, “Hi, I’m (mumbles name) and (five hundred word autobiography with no pauses)” does neither of us any good because once you’re done I’m just going to have to ask you to repeat the important parts, which I didn’t get because they were the lost croutons in the word salad you just served up without letting me get a fork in.

And be prepared continues beyond that first exchange. Please have everything I’m likely to ask a question about written down and in front of you. Always. Hell, if you have to write a script for yourself on what and how to ask, go right on ahead. I will not judge you if you sound like you’re reading stuff to me provided that it’s the right stuff. I’ve had to train myself to do this when making these kinds of calls, and it’s worked wonders.

When you’re calling any business entity you have an account with, have that account number right in front of your face. The way things are set up, just saying, “Hi, I’m Betty Smith at 1234 Main Street” won’t cut it, because just about anyone can go online and find out that this is Betty Smith’s address, which could lead to all kinds of mischief, especially if John Jones across the street decides he hates her and gets his wife to call up the power company, pretend to be Betty, and get the electricity shut off.

That’s why you can’t do things like that without knowing that the account number is whatever ridiculously long and complicated thing is printed on your bill or statement or policy or wherever.

Listen and focus, my eyes are up here

On the phone, this most frequently manifests itself as people trying to go on and add extraneous information while I’m trying to ask them a question or give them an answer, so serves as a corollary to number 1: Ask your question, then shut up and listen. I often get people on the phone who will keep going on when I try to ask them something which would make their babbling unnecessary. When you’re calling in, try this trick. Speak one sentence, then stop. The rep on the other end will either explain something more or ask you for something more. Either or, pan comido, easy peasy.

In real life at the Theater, it’s a bit more frustrating, because I’ve frequently had customers who engaged with me to want to buy tickets, but then they’re suddenly texting on their phone or chatting IRL with the friends who came with them. This is the reverse of that bad customer service move I’ve seen happen in retail checkouts, when the clerk ignores the customer to have a conversation with another clerk or to text on their phone, and it’s just as annoying. You’re here to complete a transaction, IRL, and it’s gotta happen with me, so focus and pay attention to the guy you’re talking to, because I’m going to be asking you questions in order to complete the transaction. How many tickets? How are you paying? What’s your name? Should I email you a receipt? Yeah, if you’re yapping to the other Karen you brought with you, I can’t do my job without being rude and interrupting that shit.

Starting out angry never works

It’s a cliché but it’s true: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you start any customer service transaction in full-on loaded for bear mode, you’re not going to get very far for one simple reason. The first person you deal with isn’t going to be all that inclined to help you, and when you become too demanding and unreasonable, they’re just going to kick you up the food-chain, but you’ll have no pull at all and won’t be any threat to the first, because the second level is going to quickly realize what they’re up against. Why? Because the first level who referred them is going to say, “Hey, Jerry, this person on the line is total nut-bag who demanded to speak to a supervisor, but I already explained X, Y, and Z.”

Jerry will sigh, roll his eyes, briefly empathize, and then say, “Okay, got it,” and will proceed to cut this customer off at the knees.

In customer service circles, people like this are known as Flaming Assholes, and they are the ones that give all of us at every level great joy in applying all of our policies and rules in the most legalistic way possible. Hint: If you approach us nicely, treat us like people, and are polite and deferential, then you are probably going to get more than you asked for if it’s a case of something didn’t quite go right — disappointed with this thing but nice about it? Bam! FREE STUFF! But if you fly in like Queen Bitch/Captain A-Hole on Steroids, basically slapping down the help from the get-go, then you’re going to get nowhere and nothing, and every last clause in the fine print is going to be used to shut you down.

No, you’re not always right

The phrase “The customer is always right” was coined a hundred and ten years ago, in 1909, by Henry Selfridge, founder of Selfridge’s Department Stores, but you have to look at it in context. British society at the time (and even now) was very class conscious, so of course the lowly classes who worked as shop girls and stock boys could not possibly know more or be more correct than the rich fops and knobs who shopped there. It was also a marketing slogan with snob appeal.

In reality, though? Nah. In fact, in my experience over all those jobs, I’d say that customers maybe bat about .250 when it comes to getting it right, if that high at all. In any case, refer back to the sugar/vinegar paradigm. No, you’re not always right, and in particular when dealing with things like my DJ, you’re probably about 95% guaranteed to be wrong if you’re just guessing. We told you a thing for reasons, you probably didn’t remember it or write it down properly, please don’t question us when we tell you that thing again. Thank you. We’ll gently correct you and steer you on the right path if you’re nice, and leave you to figure it out on your own if you’re not.

Be aware of the signals I’m sending

One of the things I enjoy about customer service with people is when I can converse casually, connect on a little deeper level, and swap jokes or empathize, as necessary. But I can’t always do it. It depends on current workload.

On the phone, I’d hope it’d be obvious from whether I’m being casual or terse. In person, especially at the Theater, it should be obvious by whether there’s a line of people standing behind you.

So… if you call up and I sound brusque and business-like, play accordingly, and don’t try to lighten it up with jokes or make conversation. On the other hand, if I seem a bit chatty or jokey, then by all means engage, because it means I’ve got time for that and, believe me, when I can get chatty and show personality with a client, it really does make my day better. But if I don’t, please don’t take it personally.

Likewise, in person, if it’s a slow night, then feel free to make bad Dad Jokes (trust me, I’ve heard them all), or start a conversation, or whatever. But, again, if the lobby is more crowded than the International Terminal at LAX the day before Thanksgiving or I seem otherwise occupied, please just do your business, smile, and go. I won’t take it personally! (Exceptions, of course, for all the regulars I’ve gotten to know, but, ironically, they already know not to take up my time if it’s nuts.)

Never try an end-run — we will block you

This one is a common trick tried by sales people, but self-important clients try it too, and I only run into it on the DJ. The conversation typically goes like this:

Me: “Hello, (company name) this is (me), how can I help you?”

Them: “Yeah, I want to talk to (boss).”

Me: “Can I tell him who’s calling?”

Them: (First name). [Never last name; alarm bell]

Me: “And your last name?”

Them: “He knows me.”

Me: “Right, but I still need your last name.”

Them: [Huffy] (Last name.)

Me: [Looking up in system, finding nothing]. “So what is this regarding?”

Them: “Is (boss) there or not?”

Me: “What company are you with?”

Them: (Names company that I quickly google; it’s a sales call.)

Me: “Okay, let me check.” [Put on hold, count to ten] “Sorry, he’s on the line right now, can I get your name and number?”

Them: [Either] (Name and number) or “No, I’ll call back.” Either way, circular file.

Seriously, sales dudes (and it’s always dudes; sales dudettes are honest), if you want to get through, try this: “Hi, I’m (name) from (company) and have this (product) I think your boss might be interested in to increase his sales. Can I talk to him?”

My reply, “No, because it’s busy season, but please give me your info, because if it does increase his sales, he would definitely be interested.”

And see how that becomes a win-win?

The self-important client version follows the same first few steps, until I have enough info to explain to them how what we do works, and that’s usually enough to mollify them and assure them in a positive way that they are not special and don’t get to jump the line just because they called us before we called them.

The golden rule applies here too

Simple, but stupid. Do unto others. So, whether you’re calling customer service or working customer service, treat the person on the other end of that communication the way you’d want to be treated on yours.

Patience is a virtue that can be necessary whether you’re a customer or customer service, but patience can be very easily tried if either the customer or the service — or both — is bad. Whichever one you are, try to be you best.

Image source: Alpha Stock Images, http://alphastockimages.com/