What's all this "Mother, May I?" Stuff Anyhow?

Aug. 5, 1996
No, this is not another "Bob's Mailbox" column. But for reasons that will become obvious, this is a letter I just had to write. And I did so-on June 7, 1996: XYZ Photo Lab 14...

No, this is not another "Bob's Mailbox" column. But for reasons that will become obvious, this is a letter I just had to write. And I did so-on June 7, 1996:

XYZ Photo Lab
14 Berry Street
Hayward, CA
Attention: Marie, Customer Service Manager Dear Ms. Marie,

I went down to National Semiconductor's Company Store on June 4 and turned in 10 envelopes of 45mm Negatives to get large color prints made. Specifically, I wanted to get 25 large prints, 8 in. x 12 in. each.

I came down to the Store on Friday, really expecting the prints to be ready. But the Store Manager said, "No, there must be some kind of problem, because there are no large prints, just the negatives, with some kind of message inside."

I opened the envelope and found this note:

"Dear Customer: Your order is being returned incomplete because of the following cost verification: The total for 25 8x12s is $77.25.

"If this amount is agreeable, please sign in the space below and return your order with this letter to Customer Service to assure proper handling."

Then as a final insult, the note apologized: "We regret if this has caused you any inconvenience... Sincerely, Marie, Customer Service Manager."

I asked the Store Manager if she had ever seen anything as silly as this before. She said she had not. I asked her if she had ever seen this form letter before. She said she had not, in her 12 years at the store. I said I had brought in orders for $100 of photofinishing before and nobody ever delayed my work, or questioned whether I could afford it, or whether I really wanted what I said I wanted. She said she often sees people bringing in orders over $100, and nobody ever questions the order.

So, first, I signed the stupid letter: "YES, please do make all 25 Big Prints as requested," and I turned in the form letter.

Then I decided to try to find out what is going on. That is what this letter is about.

FIRST of all, Marie, you did NOT have to send me a form letter. I put my phone number on the order envelope. You could have called me and I would have instantly approved the order. That would have saved a lot of time.

SECOND, even if you did have to write me a letter, you did not have to send the negatives back with the form letter. You could have held onto the negatives, and as soon as I got the letter, I could have phoned you to go ahead-on Thursday. But no, by sending the negatives back, you could not start this work on Friday-you had to wait until the negatives got picked up on Monday. That is ANOTHER unfortunate waste of time.

THIRDLY, YES, this HAS caused me some inconvenience. I was hoping to show these prints to some friends on Thursday and Friday and Sunday. Obviously, since you did not have the prints ready on Thursday or Friday, I could not do that. Your poster in NSC's Company Store says that one can get one-day service on big prints from 35mm slides. If this is not true, you should not promise it.

BUT the real problem seems to be your policy of asking a customer to say "Yes — I — REALLY — WANT — what— I — said — I— wanted. Yes — Mother — May — I — Please — Have — What — I — Want." We are having too many cases here at work where we have to DOUBLE-CONFIRM that we really want what we say we want, and it is getting silly. I am working on my work problems as a separate matter.

In YOUR CASE, I have to ask, "WHAT IS YOUR POLICY?" If you decide to ask any time the order is over $1000 or over $500, or over $200, or if it looks like a typo error, or if you cannot read what was requested, then I can see that you have to protect yourself from the possibility of doing unwanted work. If you can't be sure I want 3 prints or 30 prints, it's reasonable for you to ask. I am a businessman, and I understand that.

BUT NOTE: You did not ask, "I am not sure I can read what you wrote." Your form letter said: "cost verification."

The poster at our Company Store plainly says $3.09 for 8 in. x 12 in. prints. If the price were to change, I would complain that you changed the price but did not change the posted, advertised price. But I would still pay the price of the order. Of course, I still have to pay tax on top of that, even though much of the $77.25 is for service and labor that ought not to be considered taxable, and not for materials that ARE taxable.

So it boils down to this: "Can the customer afford to pay $77?" I can assure you that I can afford to pay $77, and the $0.25, too, quite easily, PLUS the tax on top of that. In fact, it's already obvious that I paid a great deal more than $77 to get those 10 rolls of film developed and printed in the small size. In fact, I could probably afford to buy your whole plant, and fire any or all of the company's employees, including you. So I am amused that you ask, "Can the customer afford to pay $77?"

Now, you MIGHT be asking, "If I make you $77 worth of prints, will you stiff me and refuse to pay?" Well, if I didn't pay, you could hold my negatives, and those are a LOT more dear to me than a mere $77.

I could also observe that I just came back from Kathmandu, Nepal, where the average wage for a whole month is about $77. And I never had any problems or hassles getting photofinishing done there.

So, I just want to know-what is your policy? At what point do you decide to question an order for "cost verification?" What makes you decide? If I sent in 4 separate envelopes for $30 each, you would not ask for "cost verification?" But if I put it in one envelope you would? If I asked for 20 or 30 copies of ONE PRINT, would you raise a FLAG? If so, why? Is your computer programmed to question whether your customer will be permitted to do business?

Marie, I shall be happy to talk with you and your supervisor to find out what is your way of doing business. That's because I NEVER have seen such a poor way of doing photofinishing business as you did.

I admit, when I brought in my film on Tuesday afternoon, I knew they wouldn't be back on Wednesday. But I did hope they would be ready by Thursday. And at least they would be ready by Friday. Now I gotta wait until they are picked up on Monday, and with some luck they will be ready on Wednesday. THAT is SLOW SERVICE. There are MANY ways you could have done it faster, and I hope in the future you will learn to be more efficient. I mean, I am a businessman, and I do like to do business in an efficient and business-like way.

For example, if at a certain $$$ level of order-such as $200-we should provide, in advance, along with the order, a statement that we DO know what the bill will be, and we DO want to pay this. Then we will sign off on this form-in advance-so as to avoid delays. I mean, I KNEW the cost of my order would be around $85, including tax, and I KNEW I could pay for this with plastic or a check or cash, which ever was most convenient at the time. I just did not imagine anybody asking, "Do you really want to pay for these prints?" Or, "Are you able to pay for these prints?"

Yours truly, Robert A. Pease / Engineer

Just as I was typing this, I hit Alt F7 F9, which means, "Delete All Page Breaks." The computer responded by saying, "Do you really want to remove All Page Breaks? Press F9 again." So I did.

Sometimes when I go to the bank, I put some checks in the ATM, then enter the amount, and then hit OK, and the stupid machine displays a request, "Are you SURE that you REALLY want to deposit $2123.28?" And I have to hit OK a second time.

Sometimes at work, I want to get Permission to Write on a certain computer file. I type a note requesting Write Permission, and I send it to our System Administrator. In an hour or two or three, I get a message telling me that I do have Write Permission. And then when I log on to that file, sometimes I get the message that I do NOT have Write Permission. I am still working on this.

A while back, we got a new, improved "CallUp" system for our computers. I can list all my personal work information, such as my name, phone, fax number, e-mail, office location and Post Number, etc., and then any employee can call up my name and get any information they want. However, this system has a few little enhancements. I can go in and change SOMEBODY ELSE'S information.

For example, if there's a guy who is having trouble putting in his info, I can do it for him. Then he will get a message saying that I was helpful and changed the information for him. This worked pretty well until one guy got curious and decided to go in to Gil Amelio's CallUp file, and he modified it to say some strange things! At that time, he did not know that a report would be issued to Gil stating exactly who had made what changes. Obviously, the poor guy was embarrassed. But, eventually, the guys who gave us this system added one interlock, so if you did not provide blanket permission, nobody else could change your CallUp information. But, at least you did not have to ask permission to change your own data.

Recently, our Payroll Department changed to a wonderful new system, System O. It had a few dozen things wrong with it. It was quite hard to figure out what to do or how to use it. The owners of this system said, "This new system is Very User-Friendly." But it wasn't. The only thing that WASN'T wrong about it was you didn't have to ask permission to use it, just enter a normal password. However, if the system ever crashed, you had to reinsert all of the information, INCLUDING your boss' Employee Number. Then after you inserted his Employee Number, the computer told you that you now had to get permission from another person to proceed.

At that time, everybody's Employee Number was a secret, and nobody was supposed to know what anybody else's Employee Number was. When System O crashed, my boss was out of town, and nobody knew his Number. We could not log on, and our technicians got paid a couple days late. In retrospect, we should have been able to go into CallUp and find his Employee Number-but that wasn't working, either.

There certainly are a lot of places where foolish, mindless systems require us to get special permission to do some little thing, which really is ridiculous and childish. Sometimes these decisions are required in computer systems-and sometimes in systems where people make absurd decisions.

When I take in my car for repair, I have to sign a form on an estimate, such as: "Front brakes, Parts and Labor to re-line, $160." Fine. I sign that estimate. Then if the estimate changes because the mechanic finds the drums have to be replaced, or if the rear brakes have to be re-lined as well-then I have to approve the new estimate. I can do that by phone. At least the guy doesn't have to send me a letter for me to approve the work. But that's fine by me. I'd rather have this than just an automatic go-ahead.

Emmy Denton asked me, "Bob, do you remember the time you erased my whole Hard Disk?" I groaned, yeah. She said, "That would have been a good place to have a `Mother, May I?' permission." I agreed.

But I am sure that there are MANY other places where foolish "Mother, May I?" procedures waste a lot of our time....

The day after I typed this letter, an engineer at a different company said he begged for a month to get a password. Finally he got it. Then he had to plead to get the procedure to make the password work. When he got it, it did not work. More begging....

Well, I finally got my prints. They were more than a week late, by my reckoning. They sure were nice, though. Now I can stop singing Yes, someday my "prints" will come. But, oh yeah, it's been 12 days since I sent in that letter. I had not gotten any reply from Marie or her supervisor, so I called her up. She said that her lab's policy is that any order larger than $50 requires a signature on a form letter. If I had sent this order in as two separate orders, each for $40, they would have sailed right through. Or if I had sent in 40 rolls of film (as I sometimes do), each costing $10, no problem. But if I want 20 copies of the same print, I will have to send a Mother-May-I form, signed in advance, to avoid silly delays... Sigh....

Well, it is about time for me to order some more Big Prints. But before I place my order, I think I will send Marie's supervisor a little form letter, asking him/her to sign it, and acknowledge my gripes, before I permit THEM to do business with ME....

All for now. / Comments invited! RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer

Address: Mail Stop D2597A National Semiconductor P.O. Box 58090 Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090

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