Thoughts about business and economic development in rural areas.


November 2008
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Archive for November, 2008

Can you hear me now?

No this isn’t an ad for a phone company. It’s a reminder of perspective for rural areas. When I worked with the communities in Grant County in Southwestern Wisconsin I was very aware of my responsibility to help get our message heard at a statewide level.

But like all tasks, we have to look at them from the customer’s perspective. In our case, Grant County and the four other counties that we called Southwestern Wisconsin made up about 2.4% of the population of the State of Wisconsin. So there were a lot of competing messages being heard by state agencies and even our state legislature. Everyone wants training dollars, everyone wants transportation improvements, etc.

As a reminder of the challenge we faced I would often conduct this little demonstration. If I had 50 people at a meeting I would have one person stand up and yell, “We want money!” at the top of their lungs. That person represented SW Wisconsin. Then I would have the other 49 stand and yell, “You can’t have it!” And that, I would say, is what the people at the state agencies hear. A loud roar of requests, demands and needs that our one small voice could easily be lost in. Hopefully, my audience would have a little more understanding of the challenges we faced as we all tried to be heard on those levels.

OK, so now we understand a little more about the challenge of being heard, what do we do about it. That’s fodder for future posts. And the answer to the question, “Can you hear me now?” can be ‘YES!’

All alone?

Every job can make you feel a little like the Maytag repairman. All alone with no one to talk to. OK, in economic development there are probably no shortages of people to talk to but even then you can still wind up feeling all alone as most of the people you work with or serve won’t necessarily share or understand your unique vantage point.

So what do you do? Well the first and most obvious answer is to become a member of organizations that are made up of members unique to your profession. In my case that meant being a member of the Wisconsin Economic Development Association. 500 people from around the state who were in the ED field. WEDA had three conferences a year and I attended each without fail for many years. But I recommend going beyond just attending conferences. I also served three terms on the Board of Directors and at various times I chaired the education, membership and technology committees. (They even let me be state president for a year. Now THAT was a learning experience.)

But don’t stop there. Get together with your area counterparts at other times as well. My mentor, Bob Fleming, was my area representative from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce and he would call up every month or so and offer to meet me for lunch in a nearby community. He always invited one or two other folks from surrounding counties as well. Efficient for him and great for us. We could discuss issues with folks who were going through the same things we were and build some good friendships as well. We called these ‘Summit’ meetings. A wonderfully pretentious title for a totally relaxed and comfortable gathering. The one that I was a part of started with just three people and over time grew to a group of 10-15.

I learned a lot from those gatherings. I found people I could share my problems with. I found solutions to problems I was facing. And I could say things out loud that I couldn’t say anywhere else and I could say them to people who really understood where I was coming from. I learned about resources that were sometimes right under my nose but I had missed. (I didn’t know they provided that!) I was reminded that my problems and the issues I faced weren’t really that unique. Others had faced them before me and more importantly, had found ways to successfully address them. 

But most of all, I learned that I wasn’t alone.

Politics and You

Hopefully anyone who reads this will have gone out to vote some time today. Who you vote for is your business but voting itself is America’s business. 

While voting is important, involvement in politics can lead to some rather sticky situations. Especially in the field of economic development. No matter which major or third party you may feel strongly about, public displays of support on your part should be carefully considered. In most ED positions you answer to the public in general even if your organization is a private one. Taking positions on candidates is different than taking positions on issues. In fact, your organization may feel very strongly about certain issues and taking a public stand as an organization may be completely advisable in certain cases. Taking a stand on individual candidates is another kettle of fish altogether and in most cases should be avoided like the plague.

But what about you personally? Do you forfeit your personal right to publicly support a certain candidate or party because of your position? Can you separate your personal actions from your public position? Can the public separate your personal actions from your public position?

There’s no easy answer. My belief is that as an ED professional you should make every effort to avoid the appearance of partisanship in all actions related to your position. But I also just as strongly believe that what you do as a private individual is your business and yours alone.

No matter what you do I can guarantee that someone will be ticked off by your actions. If you do your job in a fair and thoroughly professional manner and make every effort to separate your personal actions from your public ones you should be alright but there are always risks and the line can never be completely drawn. Plus I can almost guarantee that some wingnut who is already out to get you or your organization will always be ready to reach for anything, especially if they are already upset with you over other issues.

When all is said and done the real bottom line is this. You are a citizen of the United States and with that citizenship comes rights, privileges and obligations. Exercising and defending them is not an option, it’s a responsibility. Now go vote if you haven’t already.

Who’s in Charge?

One of the hallmarks of exceptional companies is employees who are trusted and expected to make decisions. It’s one of the keys to exceptional customer service that companies like Disney, Lands’ End, Nordstroms and others not only know, but practice.

The thing that I find most amazing about this secret to success is that these companies don’t keep it a secret. Maybe they should.  If it were treated like a secret then other companies would pay more attention to this when they ‘discovered’ it and rush to practice it. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

I got another lesson in how helpless front line employees can be recently. I placed an order with Amazon and in filling out the shipping directions I included both my street address and P.O. Box number as part of my address since I didn’t know how the item would be shipped. (My local post office doesn’t offer home delivery, just boxes, and they insist on a P.O. Box number according to a nasty letter I received from the USPS a while back. More on that some other time.) I later got an email from the company providing the product stating that they didn’t ship to P.O. Boxes and that my order had been cancelled.

I promptly called their direct ‘customer service’ line and after a brief wait I was actually talking with a real live person. Ned was pleasant to talk to and after giving him my order number he promptly had my order on his computer screen. So far so good. I explained what had happened and he agreed that he could see my street address on my order. Problem solved, right? Ah, not so fast.  You see, Ned wasn’t authorized to do anything about it other than to write up a report to send to someone else in his company to see if something could be done. No explanation of how it was not going to be possible to just ship the item to the street address that I had provided and that he could plainly see. No ability on his part to just delete the portion of the line that referenced the P.O. Box. Just a report that would be sent to someone else and I would hear back ‘sometime’. This for a product I needed right away.

‘Sometime’ arrived in the form of another email that gave me the location of yet another form I could fill out about my order. Pathetic.  So I did what you would expect any good customer to do. I ordered the same product from another company. Problem solved and in less time than I had spent talking with Ned. They lost a sale and all because their customer service rep wasn’t authorized to provide even the simplest of customer service.

Who’s in charge? The customer is and none of us can afford to forget it. Ever!