Closed theaters don’t mean there is no audience

I only had this revelation recently, and particularly because the company I work for hits its busy season beginning October 15 and running until December 7 every year.

Well, actually, our physically busy season starts back in late August with all of the preparation to get everything ready to shoot out of the starting gate on October 15, but prior to the latter date, our phones are pretty quiet.

Regular readers know why, but here’s the explanation again. After a long career during which I spent about 99% of my working time in entertainment that finally went to shit because a certain D-List Celebrity got sucked into Scientology and let his company go down the toilet so that he had to lay off everyone, I wound up jobless for a while, but then landed in the field of health insurance.

Specifically, I now work for an agent/broker who only handles Medicare because he very brilliantly realized a few years ago that Boomers are right now slamming through the gates of turning 65, so he’ll have potential new customers for years — and with Gen X right on their heels.

At about the same time I left the lucrative full-time day job ghost-writing for afore-linked person, I also started doing improv, which went great until everything, particularly live entertainment venues, slammed shut in early March of 2020, at least in L.A.

A few weeks later, our offices also shut down for a while — spring and summer are our slow season — so I was out of work again for about four months, only making tentative attempts at coming back from the start of July, but only then by working remotely and part time.

Eventually, though, I finally came back full-time, initially remotely, but then by necessity in the office once the onslaught began. Fortunately, we’re a very small operation, the other agents do work remotely, and the three of us who are regularly physically on-site work in separate rooms.

It helps that the “office” is actually in the boss’/owner’s house, so that  we literally are in separate rooms — the back office is one bedroom, the boss’ office is another bedroom, the front office (me) is the living room, and the variously shared secondary agents’ office is the den.

Now I started this job in August of 2019, so got thrown into it all right before the madness started, so everything through December was on the learning curve and stressful, and it only felt like I was getting a handle on it when it all shut down in March.

You’d think that a four-month gap in work might totally wreck all sense of what I’m doing, but it really turned out the opposite, and this time around, instead of hating and fearing phone calls from clients — which are almost constant now — a few things happened.

What primed the pump, though, was nearly five months of basic isolation, with my only outside contact via electronic devices or the occasional brief transaction with a store clerk, so I actually found myself looking forward to the ringing phones, because it meant that I got to talk to human beings again!

After that, two things happened.

Number one: Everything I’d learned about how all this works is kind of stuck in my brain, so I don’t need to ask anyone else every single time about everything. I’ve also learned what questions to ask in order to get the info I might need if I’m going to have to pass it along to someone else.

Number two: This is the big flash I had recently: I realized that I’ve started to approach phone calls like improv games and scenes in this sense: It begins when I answer, and we’re going to create the platform of who, what, where, which I’ll either get by listening to how you introduce yourself or by asking a couple of questions.

From there, it’s on to complication/conflict — meaning, really, the reason you’ve called — followed by resolution — I figure out how to route your call or whether I need to take a message — and then tag/punchline/resolution — I tell you what happens next.

The funny part is that in improv, the one thing we really, really want to avoid in scene games is what’s called “transactional,” which means any situation involving an interaction between two people that is about some product or service passing between them when they have no prior emotional connection.

In other words, a scene in which a person comes into a bakery to buy a birthday cake, or someone brings their car to a mechanic, or someone else goes to a florist for flowers… it’s really, really hard to make those interesting without a moment of a-ha, like the customer suddenly realizing, “Oh, wait… didn’t we date in high school?”

Now, admittedly, every phone call I get at work by nature is a transactional scene, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t move it to that personal level, and that’s where the game and the improv comes in.

And it is entirely based on listening and yes-anding. I look for those personal details I can use to connect. A lot of my boss’ customers live in the town I grew up in, so I’ll latch onto that. “Oh, I know that place. I went to [Fat Dead President] High School.”

Or… I often have to ask someone’s birthdate, and if it matches any date relating to me, my parents, siblings, or grandparents, of course I’m going to mention it.

If someone says, “I don’t know how to fill out these forms, they’re so confusing,” then that gives me the ultimate empathy dive in. “Oh, I know,” you say. “Before I started working here, I was clueless, but it’s not as complicated as it seems. What do you want to know?”

And so forth. The point being that once shit got crazy on the phones this year and I was stressing out at the beginning, everything got easier as soon as I realized that every phone call was just a possibility to play a scene game with a stranger as a partner and to “Yes, and” the hell out of them.

That has made this year’s Annual Enrollment Period ridiculously stress-free, and has also allowed me to feel like I’m still doing theater, if only for an audience of one at a time.

Image source: Billy Hathorn, (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Momentous Monday: How to give good service

Also known as “Titles that sound dirty, but aren’t.”
 
I recently reposted an article on how to be a good customer, figuring that, since people in a lot of places have spent the last six months and change away from most of the businesses they used to regularly frequent, they may have forgotten how to customer.

But it works on the other side of the register/desk/window/counter/whatever as well. Giving good service to good customers will just make everything a lot more pleasant.

Oddly enough, during the first couple of months of pandemic lockdown, it felt like everyone had been on their best behavior. Well, not counting a few insane Karens, of course. On the bright side, one of them did inadvertently make Starbucks Barista Lenin Gutierrez a lot richer.

General

  1. It’s a clichéd business adage, but only because it’s true. A customer isn’t an interruption of your job. It’s the reason for your job. Yes, you may be stuck restocking shelves when someone asks for help, or doing office paperwork when the phone rings, but look at it this way: It’s not an interruption of your work. It’s a valid break from what you were doing, so do it with a smile and focus on the customer.

And, trust me, a lot of customers actually are aware of having caught you in the middle of something else, and at least in a real-life setting, I think that people, particularly introverts, have an aversion to asking for help unless they absolutely need to, so if someone approaches you in a retail setting, they probably really have looked everywhere already.

Think of it as an opportunity to play detective and solve their problem — a mini Sherlock Holmes adventure as it were or, if you prefer more noir fare, instant Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.

  1. Greetings are important. Always ask a customer how they’re doing, make eye-contact (unless you’re on the phone) and — the most important part — listen to their answer, and answer any questions that they ask. If they don’t seem like they want to make small talk, don’t push it on them, but don’t avoid any chit-chat, either.

I have an interesting story from the customer side of it from the early days of lockdown. I went to the Rite Aid next to where I live as I’ve done for as long as I’ve lived here (that’s a long time), and checked out with one of the clerks who I’d see regularly. It was a particularly low point because I didn’t know yet whether I would be getting unemployment after both of my jobs had gone away.

So, I put my stuff on the counter and he started ringing it up and he asked, “How are you doing?” I started to answer, “Fine” — you know, the automatic thing everyone is supposed to say.  But, instead, I said, “You know what? Not really fine, everything kind of sucks right now, doesn’t it? How are you doing?” And this led to a short but fairly personal conversation on what was going on in each of our lives, and ever since then, whenever we’ve seen each other in the store, despite being masked, that connection is there.

Oh yeah… when a customer asks you how you’re doing, The answer is always, “Great! Thanks.”

It’s really kind of like having found that moment in the foxhole of bonding with someone from half your country away while the bombs are exploding overhead. Of course, one of the things I remember most strongly from my childhood is that my parents were on a first name basis with a lot of the checkers and department heads — liquor, meat, deli — at our local grocery store, which was a Vons.

Sorry, Vons, I’m a Ralphs guy now, despite having gone to LMU.

  1. Give specific and detailed answers to the original question, and options if you can’t fulfill the request right now. If it’s a person in a store looking for an item that’s not on the shelves and it isn’t in stock, look up or ask someone who knows if it’s on order or can be ordered, and when it’s likely to arrive. You can also offer to contact another store to check if they have it, although don’t be surprised if the customer declines this offer.

If it’s some question about a service your company provides that you can’t answer right now, then tell the customer exactly what you’re doing. If you’re taking a message, tell them who it’s for (by name) or whether you’ll be calling them back, and give a time-frame.

A lot of customers seem to assume that if they call you at three o’clock on a Friday, they’ll hear back before five that day — but we all know how likely that really is.

And do your coworkers a favor — no matter what they’re doing, there are only two acceptable answers when you can’t get ahold of them immediately — they’re on the phone right now, or they’re unavailable. Only use the phone reason if it’s absolutely true. Use “unavailable” for everything else.

Sure, you may know that Cathy from Accounting is currently in the loo, taking her massive morning coffee dump; or that the CEO and President are touring an old college friend around the office; or Steve in IT just couldn’t be arsed right now because he’s hungover as fuck.

All of these things, along with lunch, in a meeting, or whatever, are considered (say it with me) “unavailable.” The only alternate third answer is if someone is on leave of vacation, but presumably someone is handling their duties for the moment, so then you can say, “Barbara will be out of the office until [date], but Samantha should be able to help you with that.”

This gently keys your customer into the fact that they might be getting someone who probably doesn’t know everything Barbara does so they may not get resolution today, or (if they’re lucky) Samantha is Barbara’s direct report, and did the same job for ten years prior to getting promoted.

But it’s probably the former.

  1. If your business involves writing emails, then for fuck’s sake, leave your Business English 101 at the door and write like a human. And this doesn’t just involve avoiding jargon — in my business, I could stuff my email with as many AEPs and MAPDs and PDPs and Med Supps and HIPAAs and whatever and only people in the industry would understand.

That does no one any good, but the other part of it is avoiding like the plague that “nobody gets the blame” bullshit use of passive voice that is way too common, particularly in memos from higher-ups and the HR department.

“It has been decided that…” Really? Decided by whom? Or, an old favorite of collection agencies (and I used to do collections, so know this one intimately): “It is imperative that…” It’s a bullshit scare phrase that means nothing because it’s a statement that comes without a consequence.

“It is imperative that you call us immediately.” Or then, what?

The non-passive and meaningful version would be something like, “If we do not hear from you by [date], then we will [specific action].”

See the difference? Likewise, for the first one, “The Board of Trustees has determined that…” is one option. So is “I [upper management in one department] have decide that…”

It identifies the person or persons doing it, and also assigns weight to it.

When you’re dealing with customers, this is kind of imperative. And yes, that was intentional.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to go totally informal in your emails, like you’re posting to social media, and you should still avoid contractions. What it does mean is that you should take a more casual and familiar tone. Use “I/We” and “You.” Write in clear and complete sentences.

And for dog’s sake, if writing emails is a part of your job, invest in learning spelling and grammar, and how to express yourself coherently. I can’t tell you how many customer service emails I’ve gotten that read like somebody tossed a dictionary into a wood-chipper and caught the results on flypaper.

Telephone

Find your “telephone voice.” Yes, this is a thing — Tim Curry even based Frank-N-Furter’s unique pronunciations and elaborately diphthonged vowels on a combination of the Queen and his mother’s own telephone voice.

And I don’t mean speaking like some posh person who over-enunciates. Rather, speak slowly, clearly, and in an upbeat tone, and try to smile when you answer.

I know that I have a telephone voice because, back in those days when we actually spoke to friends on the phone, more than a few of them who were talking to me that way for the first time (instead of in person) remarked, “Wow. You sound really different.”

What they really meant was, “I can understand you.” Of course, IRL, I have this weird funky mongrel accent that combines Southern California lazy-mouth with my grandmother’s Kansas twangy flat Midwest and my mother’s Scranton exurb syllable-dropping, vowel-bending mélange.

Fun examples of the latter: She pronounced the words Saturday and towel as “Sirdee” and “tal,” and a dog was a daag. And there were others. Since she was the one at home during my formative years, boom — me talk weird.

Except on the phone. Well, and onstage, too — but I think they’re connected. When you’re on the phone, you’re really just performing, so own it.

My greeting shtick at work now involves twelve words, divided 4-3-5. Or, if you want to go by syllables, 9-3-5 — three iambs, beat, one anapest, beat, dactyl, trochee. And yes, I do it in a sort of sing-song, but always smiling.

On top of the phone voice — which should be slower than your normal speaking voice, as well as more carefully enunciated and in a deeper register than you normally use if you can manage it — all of the rules on specifics apply, but more so.

Always inform the customer of exactly what you’re going to do, whether it’s taking a message, putting them on hold until you get back to them, checking to see if someone is available, or offering to transfer them to someone’s voicemail.

And if you’re going to transfer and someone says “Yes, but give me a second,” then go back and tell the caller, “[Person] will take your call in just a moment or two.”

Finally, always, always, always confirm the spelling of names and phone numbers, and never be afraid to tell someone, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Can you repeat it again, please?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone tell me that their name is, “[Corgi farts into a blanket],” so I’ve gotten quite used to asking them to repeat it until I can at least get it phonetically.

Clerk/Checker Specific

Finally, we come to those stores where we’ve been standing six feet apart and then staying behind Plexiglas shields as we buy our stuff. And while our checkers have mostly been doing phenomenal jobs, when they haven’t been infecting or killing staff, there are a few giant pet peeves.

Number one is this: If I pay with a debit or credit card, don’t go shoving the damn receipt in a bag. Put that mofo in my hand, or at least extend it toward my fingers for a no-contact exchange, because I’m going to need that to go balance the books.

Number two, although who knows when this one will apply again, since coins went away in the before time in the long, long ago… but if you’re counting out someone’s change, here’s how it works: Coins in the hand first, bills on top.

This became a lost art form once registers started doing the math, but FFS do the physics. Metal slides off of paper, and it just makes it tons harder for someone to quickly stuff the bills in their wallet or wherever and then pocket the change.

And why did registers change it? Well, once upon a time, checkers could math, and it was the only way to assure the customers that they weren’t getting short-changed.

So, for example, I spend $7.31 at the store and give the clerk a ten. She counts out the change like so — drops two quarters, a dime, a nickel, and four pennies in my hand, and says, “$7.31 and 69 cents is eight…” then either counts out two singles or plops a paper Jefferson on top of the change and says, “And two is ten.”

Of course, even though two dollar bills are still legal tender, don’t be surprised if you get shit for using one, on either side of the transaction.

Image: Daderot public doman via Creative Commons licence (CC0 1.0).