Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘service’

Bobby, The Extra We Lost

The Extras. OUR Extras. That’s what Dilly (my daughter-in-law) calls all of the kids who were not our natural born children but who nonetheless lived a substantial percentage of their lives in our house. All three of our own had several friends who became Extras. Over time Beth and I morphed from Mr. (or occasionally Dr.) and Mrs. to Mama and Papi for these kids. Many of them are still very much a part of our lives, reunited with our odd little extended family by weddings, christenings, holidays and the like.

Tragically, one of our favorites is now no longer.

My oldest son Dan and I attended Bobby’s memorial service yesterday afternoon. Bobby was once so close with my two older kids and so comfortable in our home that I vividly remember coming home one day to find him at our kitchen counter doing his homework. All alone. No one else in the house. He lifted his head, smiled his trademark goofy smile and flicked the largest, heaviest bangs in the history of banghood out of his eyes, said “hey Papi”, and went back to his books. Neither one of us thought there was anything remotely odd about it at all. Bobby was not one of the Extras who stayed in touch. He drifted away from us as he fell further and further into his addictions and died of an accidental overdose last week.

It’s hard to describe how awkward, how awful the service was yesterday. We recognized almost no one. Dan only knew Bobby’s parents, and I’d never met either one of them. What could I say to them at a time like this? I was really only there for Dan (and by proxy “Lovely Daughter” Megan). There is not a single language in the world that has a word or a name for what we would call a parent who has lost a child. Nothing like “orphan” for the parentless, or widow/widower for the surviving spouse. I’m not sure if either of Bobby’s parents even know that he was our Extra, or knows how much we cared about him once upon a time.

Have you been to a funeral or a memorial for a young one who succumbed to his addiction? To the great credit of everyone in Bobby’s family they didn’t evade the issue at all. Three significant figures from his unsuccessful attempts to leave that life spoke. All of the happy memories were of his very young childhood, as if the Bobby who’d lived so much of his life at Casa Blanco had died at high school graduation. What can you say about a life that was 10 years shorter than the number of years one had lived? The other funerals of youngsters who have died have been filled with the lament of potential left behind. There was none of that for Bobby, only the memories of the child and the struggle of having watched 10 years of pain.

What is it about opiate addictions in our country now? We have had other substances that have been a scourge on our society, notably crack cocaine in the 80′s and 90′s, but this is different somehow. For one thing, while crack destroyed lives it didn’t end them. 30,000 people died from inadvertent opiate overdoses in the U.S. in 2016, most of them under the age of 30. For whatever reason 1/9 of them occurred in Ohio where we live. It seems like rather a bad business model–don’t you think?–to pump up the purity and strength of your product to the point that you kill off a meaningful percentage of your customer base. And yet here we are, more and more people dying each year from overdoses.

What is in the news on a daily basis is the problem of addiction created through the prescription of opiates by physicians, addiction which must then be addressed on the street if or when the prescriptions end. While that scenario is certainly real and needs addressing, we hear more about it because of the irresistible angle of big Pharma companies and their profits, and the equally irresistible urge to find someone or something to blame and punish. This is not Bobby’s story. Bobby, like so many, many of his peers today and for literally centuries of todays, fell prey to an illness that could only have been treated by prevention. There are those among us who cannot resist the siren song of any number of substances once they’ve had their first taste. I do not know what gateway drug it was that walked Bobby into that world; it was an opiate that escorted him out of our world in the end. A pox on the cretins who opened the exit door.

I am left grasping at straws. What can we do to prevent these senseless deaths? While I am a physician and a student of health policy, nothing in my training or experience is helpful here. Why is there so much “hot” product out there on the streets? What is it about this substance that makes it so difficult to leave behind once the addiction sets in? Our society is one in which we are convinced that someone is always to blame, hence the vitriol directed at the manufacturers of the legal version of the opiates that so many young people are abusing. I’m sorry, but it’s not intuitive to me that going after them is going to help the Bobbys of the world stay alive. The feeling I have is one of utter helplessness.

Message? Lesson? Sadly, I’m afraid, I have neither to offer. Bobby is gone and I am sad. Had he not been lost to us, had we remained a part of his life would there have been a different ending? Well, the story arc would likely have been different, but history has shown that the ending would likely have been the same. You never know, though, and that makes me sadder, still. You never really know, right? We would have tried, Beth and I, because he was one of ours. He was one of our Extras. For many years, he was one of mine.

It seems only yesterday that he’d found us, and we, him. Now his is lost to all of us. Forever.

How You Treat the People Who Serve You

In my day job I work in the ultimate customer service business, medicine. Ever listen to how people address folks on the providing side of the customer service continuum? Do you ever stop to listen to yourself, or think about how you will sound before you speak? Fascinating. In North America we are moving ever more swiftly to an economy that is majority a service economy; we don’t really make stuff so much anymore, we help people use stuff someone else made, or provide assistance based on a knowledge base or skill set. Listening to people on the receive side of the customer service equation is fascinating.

I’m prompted to this line of thought by three interactions at my day job, SkyVision. Three individuals not so much requesting a service but demanding it, doing so with a tone that implies not only a deep sense of entitlement but also a deeper lack of regard for the individual who will provide that service. Both in tone and content, the to-be-served make it clear to the service provider that he or she is there to serve only them. In fact, the server’s only reason to exist is to serve, as if the to-be-served were some kind of different, superior version of the species. It’s quite loathsome, actually.

I spend every waking moment of each working day on the “serve” side of the equation, whether I am at SkyVision plying my profession or CrossFit Bingo coaching. Having achieved some measure of expertise in both it’s very rare that I am on the receiving end of this type of behavior, but it does happen. More often is the case that it is someone lower on the org chart who gets this. The receptionist, phone operator, or check-out person who gets this “lower life-form” treatment, not the doctor or business owner.

Life can be hard for these front line people in a service business. There’s not only a “customer is always right” mentality on the other side of the interaction but also a sense that being a customer who will get what they want is as much a human right as Life or Liberty. That’s what it sounds like, anyway, if you are off to the side listening. No matter how frustrated one might become from a service situation gone wrong it’s important to remember that there is no continuum in the relationship when it comes to the inalienable rights, nor is there any evolutionary hierarchy across that desk or over that phone line. Being served if you are the customer is not a right at all, not even one up there with the pursuit of happiness. Server and served both have the right to life, liberty, etc.

In a funny little side note, the more effort I (and my partners and staff) make to be better at the whole customer service thing, the less tolerant I am when I am on the receiving end of poor customer service. Actually, I should be a bit more specific on this point: I am much less tolerant if I am being served by an organization that openly preens about its excellent customer care but won’t deliver. Heaven forbid if I detect a cynical lack of effort, either institutional or on a more personal level, when the expectations that I’ve been led to have are mis-met because of this. The harder we try and the better we get at providing an excellent customer experience at SkyVision the less likely I am to choke down indifferent service or a lack of effort when I’ve been lead to believe (and paid for) something extraordinary. The difference, though, is that I initially engage with the expectation that all I have to do is be polite and kind to those folks charged with taking care of me; my first shot across the bow is not to treat them like serfs.

Danny Meyer, the great NYC restauranteur, is probably closest to correct when he says “the customer is not right all of the time, but mostly right most of the time. A customer [only] has the right to be heard.” How you express yourself when you are on the “receive” side of the customer service experience is not only an important measurement of how you value the person across from you providing the service, but frankly is probably also a predictor for how likely you are to be successful in being heard. It’s instructive that none of the three SkyVision clients who made difficult (bordering on unreasonable) requests in an unpleasant manner were accommodated because doing so would have required an extraordinary effort which may not have been successful in any event. After being treated a some sort of sub-human primate, who would make such an effort?

Sorry, no pithy statement to wrap this up. In the end we all want what we want, and we all need to be heard. It helps to look at the person on the other end of the service divide as if you were looking in a mirror. Would you say that, like that, to the person in front of you then?