Thursday, January 6, 2011

And The Journey Continues

The journey of life is a funny and interesting trip, and as any experienced traveler will tell you, it's the journey, not the destination. I have worked from early on, when I was just a young boy, mowing lawns and throwing papers on to people's porches. I have worked agriculture, tomatoes, apricots, almonds, walnuts (my dad retired with a walnut orchard)prunes and grapes. I had a great time, though some of the time riding behind a tractor, busting dirt clods is not what I would want to do on a regular basis. The work made me stronger, and a couple of my friends, who were on the football team, came up to work with me and declared that they would rather do a back-to-back workout than try to harvest prunes again. I did it for 5 years, middle school through high school. The man I worked for actually had to sell his place a couple of years after I stopped because his son didn't want to continue in the family tradition... kinda sad actually.

I went on to join the Air Force, out of high school, and sometimes I wonder if that was the right thing to do, or should I have gone on to college. I've had a pretty good and successful life, but yet wonder, "what if?" I did return to school years later, and completed a program with the University of San Francisco, and even now I'm pursuing my PMP (Project Management Professional) Certification, and that is actually what I want to talk about with this entry.

I've been in retail, high-tech, and construction, and have worked with big, medium, small and even start up companies. All of them have had their rewards as well as costs, and early on I found that by not having my degree I always felt intimidated by those that did. I thought that they knew so much more than I did, but found through the years that they really didn't, it was just that they had the opportunity to get to high education, so called, and I didn't. There are many aspects of the education system that allows for the academics to feel very proud of what they have done and become, and they deserve every bit of it, but just because you have a college degree doesn't mean you know what to do, it means you've completed a program. I found this out later, and perhaps it has made me a better person.

I have come into the last part of my working career now, and as a result of the economy I was laid off (3 times). Once from Sun Microsystems, and with that separation I received a nice severance package an it provided me with a nice cushion to fall back on, while I searched for that next opportunity. The next one was with a company called Rudolph and Sletten, a construction company. Well, in 2007-8 the U.S. economy took a serious nose dive and I again was laid off, but this time without much of a package, and unfortunately I had not saved much additional funds, and it was to be over 17 months until my next position. While in the high-tech world I began to learn a bit about project management, and then with construction I was kind of dropped into a position that required running projects, and then a long bit of not working at all. During that down time I did some studying to learn more about Project Management International (PMI) and decided to pursue my PMP certification. I finally landed a position that I had hoped was going to be my final position, with HMS Technologies, and great little company that basically serves the government in different ways through contracts, and I was pulled on one with the Veterans Affairs, and thus my true career as a project manager was to begin. This, unfortunately, was not to be. After being with them for the last 8 months of 2010, the contract that we, there was a team of 8 of us, were on was canceled and suddenly, on December 27, we were told we were out of a job. It was a bit of a shock to most of us, if not all, and on top of that, I was recovering from minor surgery on my right foot. The surgery itself wasn't so bad, but because it was my right foot, and I was in a cast, I was not able to drive, and wouldn't be for several more weeks.

This is where the journey is taking another turn, as I believe it has opened yet another door for me to travel through and see where it will take me. I am looking for my next opportunity and hope it does not take too long to get here, because this time there is almost zero money to fall back on. That previous 17-month stretch did a good job of depleting our funds, and in fact caused us to go a little in to debt. I am, however confident that I won't be out too long, and that something will show up that allows us to get back on our feet (I talking about the collective of my wife and I now), and we will finally be able to work towards building that retirement base we need, so that we don't become a burden to our kids.

As the journey continues I will post again, and see what happens. I have mixed emotions about continued PMP work or go back to high-tech management. Both have good things, and both have challenges. I guess the truly good things about that choice is that they are both good.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Better Support Experience

Why is it that some call centers have better, or higher, customer satisfaction numbers than others; and, call volume doesn't seem to have a great deal of impact on that satisfaction? You can have high volume and happy customer, just as you can have low call volume and have customers who are happy at all. Why is that?

In my humble opinion it is because of the satisfaction level of the folks working the phones, at these call centers. If your workers are happier with what they are doing it will come through in their attitudes over the phones and thus your customer will feel they are being better taken care of and feel better about why they called in the first place.

"How do you get happier employees?" you might ask. Well, that has to do with the environment you have set up for them; the tools being used; the amount of training they get; and, familiarity with the product they are attempting to support. Let's take those areas, one at a time -

The Environment - You need to keep the temperature at a reasonable level, at about 70 - 72 degrees F (21-22 C), they need to have adequate natural lighting (WINDOWS!) so that they can relax every now and again, and look outside (it really does improve the mood). Air circulation, you want to keep the air moving, so that means you need the AC fans going or a floor fan or two. Their desk and chair need to be set up and comfortable for them, so that they don't end up with back or leg problems and repetitive motion is limited. Now, when they are away from the phones, they should be able to listen to some form of music that is not too loud or intense. They may have particular likes/dislikes but this is where they simply need to listen to something canned that is relaxing (like they use in elevators and doctor's offices). This is the type environment that will save you some money in the long run.

The tools being used. Now the tools are both the ones the person on the phone is using as well as those that are being used by management. You want to make sure their CRM and tracking tool is set up properly so that all the information needed for the call can be obtained quickly and smoothly, and that any of the data bases that it ties into can be accessed quickly and efficiently. Customers calling in with an issue or problem absolutely do not want to be put on hold, because a data base is down or the tracking tool just "hung." There are a number of these tools out there, some are better for the different industries than others, so you need to be sure you have selected the correct one. Along with those type tools you want to have the correct tools on the desk. A note pad (post its work), and a good writing instrument are always nice to have as a back up or jotting down some comment quickly to share. The terminal on the desk needs to have the right network connection, and adequate configuration depending on the type work being done. Obviously if you are doing more graphics or illustrations you're going to need more memory than if you are simply doing text and data entry. On the management side, you want to have good tracking and scheduling software that can help you determine what kind of staffing model you want to use. These help to show when your peaks times come in, and when you have slower times. Again, there are a number of these available on the market and you want to get the one that is best for your industry. You don't need to spend a great deal of money to find out some very valuable information that can save you a great deal in the long run.

The last two areas are effectively tied together through training. Are they getting the correct and adequate training for the products and tools, and have them been given the chance to become familiar with the products they need to support. The training can be done in a variety of ways, with "train the trainer" programs being a very efficient way of getting some of the team up to the "expert" level quickly, and being able to maintain a high knowledge level on the team at all times. If the training has to come from Engineering then send one of your "trainers" to the Engineering folks and have them learn it from them, then have them bring it back to the team to share. You will have a built in expert and reference point. Set up training plans so that everyone on the team can be trained within a time period (1 month, 3 months, etc.) so that they can start taking the calls quickly and efficiently. You also want to have the training done prior to the product being released, so that Engineering doesn't have to provide the support. You want to keep the customer happy, and connecting them to Engineering is not always a good way to do this. Sometimes it works, but frequently it does not. Once the support team is trained and ready to face the customer they can be assigned to a call schedule and EVERYONE will be happier for it.

I have over 20 years of working with Help Desks, Technical Support Teams and Field teams, and have been able to maintain a strong positive relationship with customers. Because of my style of management I have frequently been known as the "go-to" guy with difficult customers and it is rare that I cannot calm an excited customer down, while working with the Technician, showing that person how to bring down the intensity of any given call. Working with people is something I enjoy and hope to continue doing even after I retire and in a volunteer forum. I get great satisfaction of seeing a smiling face or hearing a positive comment. If you follow my advice I am sure you will see the same results. Feel free to contact me if you need some assistance with this, as I do enjoy helping.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Raising a family - Starting a carreer - Following a dream...

Where dose one go when they are about to start out in life and wonder: "What is the next step?" and "Where will it take me?" Am I going to do the right thing, and if I don't will I be able to recover from it, so that I can possibly start over? Well, in my humble opinion everyone is given a chance to screw up to the best of their ability. And, I think just about everyone dose to one degree or another.

You begin life, full of energy and ideas knowing all to well that you have the right idea and "know" exactly what to do and how to set a pat for your life. You make your decision and go with an idea, join a group, or follow someone else's lead - but you're doing something. You even enjoy what you're doing at first, and think, "Wow, I'm even making money with this." Then something happens, something changes and suddenly it isn't as important as it once was. You've been at it for a few years and you want to know if you can make a change, or better still, start over. Well, the truth is that you can't start over, but you can make a change. The beauty of life is that you can always make a change.

I joined the U.S. Air Force right out of High School and selected a training program that would let me do something I wanted to do and learn about electronic things and how they were used in the world of communication - or so I thought. The school was began right after Basic Training and I discovered that what I thought I signed up for was different from what I was suddenly a part of. I really didn't know what to do, other than to try to do my best, so I was in the top 1% of my class and had a superficial understanding of what I was supposed to be doing. I was asked where I would like to go and I went to Viet Nam, the year was 1971. I became a chrypto operator, which meant I got to work a teletype machine and when the time called for it, I worked with another operator and we made the changed to the codes (it always took at least two people to do this). I learned every piece of equipment in the communication center. We hand computers and tape drives, card punch machines and card readers (God help the person who dropped a stack). On top of each machine was a little device that would melt it to the ground if we were ever over run and it looked like we would be captured. Fortunately, it didn't ever come to that.

After Viet Nam I went to Omaha, Offutt AFB and became an operator for a paper tape reader and these very large FAX machines. We would run prints for the National Weather Service - Oh there were the occasional teletype messages and we did a few other things, but in general it was a pretty boring post. I did get to see a part of the country I don't know that I would have taken the time to get to know, if I had not been sent there. Shortly after that it was announced that we were getting out of Viet Nam and that Uncle Sam was going to be reducing the sizes of the military. And that's with a Republican in office (I won't mention Nixon's name). I was offered an early out so I took it and ended up in Arizona.

Actually, when I came back from Viet Nam one of the first things I did was to get married. Her name was Shelley and she was my girl friend from High School. She had some emotional problems, but I wasn't smart enough (mature enough?) to recognize that. We went to Nebraska together and when I told her about the possibility of getting out early, she couldn't wait to have me leave the Air Force. We ended up in Arizona because there was Guard Unit there that needed my skills and she had family there that she wanted to get back to. I had the GI Bill to fall back on so I started to go to school and work part time. This plus the Guard time kept me kind'a busy. I did this for about a year and a half. I noticed the emotional issues much more pronounce now, and we tried to get some help for her. I guess it didn't work well as she ended up in a hospital for a few weeks; shortly after she was released she effectively disappeared and then came back about a week later (yeah, I found out where she had gone and thought it would be ok). She burst into our little apartment and stated that I needed to get out and that she couldn't stand having me around. At this point was was emotionally worn down and simply said, "okay, I'll be gone first thing in the morning." Then she left again.

I called a friend of mine the next day and asked him if he thought he might be able to come get me, since I wanted to come back to California. I didn't know when because I would have to get a transfer from the Guard, and he said he would be happy to help. Two weeks later I was on my way back to California, Bay Area, where I had no idea of what I was going to be doing, or where I would be staying. Kind'a dumb really, if you think about it. Steve, my friend, said I could stay with him, and he let me know that he heard about some jobs opening up at a grocery store. I ended up going to work for nine years with the grocery store.

I ended up getting a divorce after almost two years of marriage. I knew it was the best thing to do for both of us. I only heard from her twice after that, and the second time was over 20 years ago, so I have no idea what happened to her. I hope she found happiness somewhere and with someone. I remarried after about a year of being single, actually met my wife (second one) after only a few months. She was perfect - okay, perfect in my eyes anyway. I was working at grocery and she was working at Taco Bell. I became a food tester for them... ;-) My career with grocery was going okay, but I felt as though I was missing something. I had made it to the top of the Union scale, with the next step going as store manager. That isn't a bad step, but it wasn't where I wanted to be. I stared going back to school.

I started taking classes in layout and design of electrical circuits. I found it relatively easy to do and I enjoyed working with Boolean Agebra. I pretty much completed all my lower division classes when I was provided an opportunity to go to work for National Semiconductor. I had a wonderful time while there, and would probably still be there had it not been for some economic down turns and challenges at National. I was a father of three small boys (our fourth had not been born yet) and I couldn't tolerate another pay freeze. Another company offered me more and I went for it. I began working at yet another company.

Funny thing is that I really wasn't there that long when situations were such that I had a chance to make another change. Again it was for more money, and the current company was looking like there wasn't much of a future, they were being acquired. This turned into a common happening for many of us in the valley and I ended up working for a few companies that either had financial challenges or were acquired by other companies and my opportunities seemed limited. Anyway, my career went from an Applications Engineer, for National Semiconductor to Computer Operations, to Customer Service and Help Desk, to Field Operations, to Technical Support Manager at Sun Microsystems.

When Sun began experiencing financial challenges (something I thought would never happen) I thought perhaps I can ride this out with the company. I really didn't want to leave yet another company. However, I was laid off from Sun and didn't have anything lined up. I was unemployed for a few months when another opportunity came along in the construction field. They needed an IT person for a project they were doing up in Vacaville and I had the skills they needed. It was a great union (I thought). Then 2008 came along and the struggling economy collapsed. Several of the contracts the company had dried up and suddenly they had too many people. Because my skills were limited as far as construction was concerned, I was one of the first group of folks to be let go. Fortunately, over the years I was able to put away some money and that has helped up to stay afloat, but that money was supposed to be for retirement. I have been unemployed for over a year now, and the money is starting to grow thin.

On the bright side, the economy is starting to show signs of getting going again, and I have found some opportunities that turn into employment. I am also working with InsourceUS to help me with my business thinking and helping me to keep my mind a little sharper. I also have gotten more into project management, and think that I might be able to start a new dream direction with that. I have done projects over the years, but now I am officially becoming a Project Manager, and have even joined Project Management International (PMI) and will be seeking my PMP Certification before the year is out. I believe this is the way to go for me, and more companies are starting to see the value of using project managers. Well, that's my life in a nutshell, and it has been an interesting one. Who knows, perhaps I can add more to this as I go along, to fill in some of the gaps, but I think that would take me multiple visits to my blog. If you have gotten this far in reading, thanks - I truly appreciate you taking the time to go over this.