Saturday, March 26, 2005

Managing the Customer's Expectations

1 Samuel 10:17-19 (New International Version)

17 “Samuel summoned the people of Israel to the LORD at Mizpah 18 and said to them, "This is what the LORD , the God of Israel, says: 'I brought Israel up out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the power of Egypt and all the kingdoms that oppressed you.' 19 But you have now rejected your God, who saves you out of all your calamities and distresses. And you have said, 'No, set a king over us.' So now present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes and clans.”

I took a fellow blogger’s advice yesterday and spent some time concentrating on local issues. Last night we went to the visitation of a sixteen year old boy, the grandson of a good friend, who had died tragically in an automobile accident about a week ago. I’ve known my friend, Jim, and his wife Ida, for five years now. We’ve prayed and broken bread together. Last night was the first time we’ve shared tears. This past week’s tragedy comes on the heels of losing their daughter to cancer shortly before Nancy and I moved to Emporia. They’re not strangers to sorrow. As the Book says, they’re acquainted with grief.”

Nancy and I, along with many from our church, offered as much consolation as one can at such a tragic time. The touch of one hand on another, a gentle hug, the nervous fumbling for the right words, even a bit of casual conversation – they’re all ways of saying, “I care and I’m with you.”

I never met their grandson, but the visitation taught me a lot more about this young lad than I expected. He was “laid out” at the Olpe High School gymnasium. In the hallway just outside the basketball court there were several displays commemorating his life. There were photographs of him from the time he was a little child right up until recent times. He was a baby faced kid and he looked a lot like my youngest son, Michael. There were also three our four long tables filled with memorabilia about his life that was, until a few days ago, in process. There were some time cards from his workplace (Long John Silver’s here in Emporia), some hand written notes from girls who “admired” him, a grade card or two, and lots of stuff about cars, which he loved. In talking to Jim I found out that he and his grandson had plans to go to McPherson in a few weeks to learn more about restoring cars, which was his grandson’s passion.

His casket was displayed at one end of the gymnasium floor, underneath one of the basketball goals. He lay in peace. There with him on his left shoulder was a hand-written poem on a tattered piece of three by five paper from a girl who loved him and what appeared to me to be the inner rim of a mag-wheel just above his neatly folded hands. The expression on his face belied the violent end he had endured. On the day of his accident he was on his way to work. Apparently just south of Emporia’s Municipal Airport he realized that he had forgotten his uniform hat and shoes (they were found on the living room floor of his home). Being of good conscience he must have decided to turn around and go back to Olpe to get them. As he tried to negotiate a u-turn on the two lane highway a semi loaded down with steel crested the hill near the airport and slammed into his car. He never regained consciousness and died a few days later.

So, Jim and Ida, their grandson’s immediate family, are grief stricken. It is going to take some time for them to get through this. I doubt they’ll ever “get over” it. But they’re strong people, hardy stock. Their faith is alive and vibrant. They’ll get through this.

Earlier in the day I had to take care of some mundane local issues. About a week or so ago Nancy noticed some pockmarks on the doors of our car. “Has there been any hail recently?” she asked. There hadn’t and the only thing we could figure out was that someone had decided to have some fun at our expense and also to openly express what had been only hidden rage. We own a Volvo and here in Emporia that kind of car probably symbolizes the eastern elite or all that’s wrong with America. A few strategically placed blows, we assumed, and the anger was vented.

I took the car to my insurance agent, who in turn told me to take the car to the Ford (Volvo’s parent company) dealer just down the road. The fella’ from the body shop looked it over and said, “This wasn’t some kid having fun. This was someone trying to break into your car.” He then showed me why he believed this was the case, going into great detail, pockmark by pockmark, about his theory of the dastardly deed. I listened, transfixed. I occasionally interrupted his explanations with either a “wow” or “you’re kiddin'” and he just kept on. When he was finished I asked, “So this sort of thing even happens here in Emporia?” “Oh yeah,” he replied. “Not long ago a guy got out of jail and figured he needed transportation. Came by the dealership at night and stole a Ford Focus. They caught him somewhere up in Iowa. He robbed a convenience store up there and they nabbed him.” In keeping with my naivete I asked why he’d taken a Ford focus when there were lots of other, bigger, jazzier cars sitting around. Why not a Mustang or a Thunderbird? “I guess it must have been a fuel efficiency thing,” he responded. “He didn’t have any money and needed something that would get him a long way without refueling.”
“Seems like it might have been a blessing in disguise,” I posited. “If he’d taken the Mustang or the T-Bird he’d have had to rob a lot more convenience stores. In the end it was the difference between one count of robbery and three our four, three years in Lansing and fifteen or so. Mighty providential, I’d say.”

We shared a laugh or two about or intrepid thief’s adventures and the world encroaching on the Kansas Flint Hills, about how even the products of Swedish socialism seem desirable enough to steal here in small town Kansas. Then he printed out my estimate. Two thousand big ones! “More encroachment,” I complained. “More socialism.”

My next step was back to the insurance agent, who in turn told me that it would be good if I got a police report. About five minutes later and I was back at the insurance agent’s office. “The cop told me that you could call him in a little bit and he’d have the report ready for you. Said that there’s been a bit of this around Neosho Street lately.”

I was about ready to leave and the agent mentioned that she might need to have someone from Kansas City come and look at the car. That piqued my curiousity. “Why?” I asked. “Well, we just want to be sure,” she responded.
“You mean you may not cover the damage?
She smiled knowingly as she responded. “I’m sure it’s all okay. We just need to be sure that we’re managing customer expectations.”

“More encroachment,” I thought to myself. I told her that I’d spent forty years in business and had come to understand that the euphemism “managing customer expectations” meant nothing more than finding some way to get the customer to do what you want or need him to do and make him think it was all his idea to begin with. Any salesman worth his salt knows that. “I’m misunderstood,” she pleaded. “It’s just that I want to be sure to….” I interrupted her. “Meet the customer’s expectations? Meet mine?” “Precisely,” she said. “I feel better already,” I said, as I left.

I started driving home and heard a train whistle to my south. It’s a pretty familiar sound here in Emporia. I opened the car window and listened as the train wheels ground out their staccato sound against the tracks. “Clickety-clack…..Clickety-clack.” It only took an instant and I was transported to the broader world. My mind wandered back to a Saturday years ago Nancy and I spent on a local train from Munich to Dachau. There on Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas, it was as if the moments from far away and long ago were glued together in my mind. It was as though I could feel the “clickety-clack” beneath my feet as the train from Munich pulled into Dachau. What should have seemed so far away was as close to me as my own feet.

I’ve read that back in the forties, long, long ago now, at a time I can’t remember, rolling stock with human cargo passed from hamlet to hamlet along the beautiful European countryside. There was the “clickety-clack” of steel against steel as the wheels of the trains met the tracks, that same sound that I hear in Emporia as the Burlington Northern passes through my home town. It’s the same sound the City of New Orleans or the Wabash Cannonball make in the musical tributes of balladeers to the romanticized travel of America. But inside the boxcars there were competing noises, moans, screams, cries, pleas for help. I’ve read somewhere that as the trains passed by village churches along their journeys the cries and moans could even be heard over the clatter of steel against steel. As they listened, the parishioners must have felt some of the same sense of encroachment I often feel when outside events invade my quiet, peaceful space here in the Kansas Flint Hills. What response did these good folks offer? They sang. They sang louder to drown out the noise of desperate people passing by. I’ve never read what great hymns they must have sung to comfort themselves. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” perhaps?

The train passes by a few blocks to my south and so does the “illusion.” It’s on its way to some other, far away place. As I turn west toward home a thought strikes me, “Have your times managed your expectations?” “Pinellas Park and Terri Schiavo are both far, far away, far from the things you need to be concerned about.” “Think local.” “Sing louder.”

It’s now Saturday morning. The bird feeders sitting on the Mulberry tree outside my window are almost empty. My feathered friends are noisily complaining for sustenance. In the distance, about a mile or two south, I can hear a train whistle as more cargo makes its way through my neck of the woods. I can’t hear the “clickety-clack” from here. It’s too far away. Yet I know it’s still there. The sound, like the sound of the train from Munich to Dachau, like the death train that’s moving along the Florida rails, still lingers in the distance, in the recesses of my mind. It stubbornly refuses to give up. It’s bringing me a message. “Encroachment?” I muse. The world is encroaching on me. I’d like to make the sound go away, but I can’t. The sound of the forties and the sounds of this new millennium are married, Emporia, Pinellas Park, Munich, Dachau. Can you hear them along with me? “Clickety-clack…..Clickety-clack…..Clickety-clack.”

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