business news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday I did a FaceTime video about superior customer service - and cited the folks who work for the federal government, at Medicare and Social Security, as examples of efficiency, effectiveness and above-and-beyond behavior that is worth emulating.

MNB reader Eric Williams wrote:

I wanted to comment on your article on the federal government and add my echo to your comments. You and I are about the same age and I talked to them about nine months ago and had the most amazing experience talking to Social Security. The person was unbelievably kind and amazingly knowledgeable. I left the call with the same experience you did, which was "why can't other companies and or business entities provide this level of customer service.”

I certainly did not expect this from the federal government, but as I have learned, every day I'm amazed at lack of customer service from companies which I would expect amazing service and then find others – like the Federal Government which absolutely blew me away.

Keep up the good work my friend and thank you again for adding insight and a bit of levity to my days.

From MNB reader Rich Heiland:

Really good observation this morning on Federal employees! I am an old fart - 77. I have had several occasions to deal with Social Security and Medicare and I can say I've never had a bad experience. Over a journalism career I had the chance to interact with a lot of government employees and found them to be good folks trying to do a good job.

I do have a bias. Several years ago my daughter had a mid-life career change. She went to work for the U.S. Department of State. She has served at U.S. embassies in Mexico City, Pakistan, Zambia and Prague. When she applied she was told only one percent of applicants would be hired. Her hiring process took close to a year and was one of the most intense I have seen. In all my business and consulting years I never have seen anything close to that vetting process in the private sector. Then she went through six months of intensive training before she ever set foot in an embassy. Isn't it interesting that we laud and celebrate Federal employees who happen to be in the military (as we should) but make the rest of the Federal workforce the butt of jokes, and have for years? We need more dinner table conversations like you and your friends had.

There are way too many people who sit around suggesting that the federal workforce needs to be decimated, that these are people who get paid a lot and are wasting taxpayers' money.  That's not my experience - these are people who are deeply dedicated to public service, and who ought to be respected, not reviled from the cheap seats by people just looking for applause lines and maybe a few votes.

Another email from an MNB reader:

Fascinating you should point to exemplary customer service by those two federal agencies. My wife passed away in June after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. I had to made two calls to the Social Security Administration. Each time I was met with an extraordinary level of compassion and effective service.

As you might imagine, I’ve had to make numerous calls to a range of different organizations including insurance companies, etc. Granted I was (and still am) in a rather fragile state, and each organization starts by saying a version of “I’m sorry for your loss.”  However, there was something about the phrasing and tone of the conversation with the Social Security the employees that felt like real sympathy and genuine empathy. Not only that but the two government employees I encountered were very helpful in helping me deal with the actual mechanics of the issue my wife’s Social Security number and her benefits.

I mentioned how pleased I was with the Social Security Administration at the close of my last call. My voice quavered a bit. After a long pause, the employee said “ Thank you. You are going through a hard time and we try be sensitive to that.”  It was an unexpectedly emotional interaction. Who knew that would or could happen. So when some seem believe our government and its agencies are failing us, think again. My experience proved quite the opposite.

Thank you for sharing your story.  

We took note yesterday of an Axios story about how new government data suggests that "food insecurity spiked last year" in the US.

I commented:

Continuing food insecurity opens a window for discounters and dollar stores to earn a higher market share in the US - a reality with which traditional retailers must grapple.

One of the things that this report also seems to underline is how many different economies are operating in parallel - even as unemployment remains low and wages go up, there are still people in this country who remain hungry.   Which should be unacceptable in a country like the United States.

MNB reader Tess Becker responded:

Agree with this article.  I work in grocery retail pricing for a grocery co-op.  Margins are increasing for various reasons, wages, supply issues and demand, yet the stores are complaining about reduced profit.   Increasing costs/retails are forcing consumers to tighten up on discretionary spending in the grocery store and elsewhere …  Gone are the support systems that were in place during the pandemic. Certainly, those dollars boosted profits for grocers, and they are now gone.

Another MNB reader wrote:

Thank you for surfacing this report for debate. I sincerely hope that you don’t hear from the ‘they (the poor/disadvantaged) just need to go out and get a job’

That anyone has to go without food in this country is unconscionable. And surprise, it’s often because our neighbors have to pick between paying for their meds or paying food – or rent, gas, their phone etc.

We’re too wealthy of a country to allow third world conditions to exist in our borders.

Yeah, well, that ship has sailed.

Yesterday we referenced a New York Times story about how, since civics no longer is being taught in many schools, some companies are trying to fill the void and teach their employees about the workings of democracy.

I commented, in part:

I hate to say it, because I'd like to think that any education in civics would be positive, but it is hard for me to see how this could work in the US, considering the climate of polarization, suspicion, grievance, recriminations and hostility that now pervades the culture.

This is conceptually noble, but I fear it would be unworkable in practice, because there always will be someone - likely a person running for election or re-election - who will seek an electoral advantage in stoking grievance.

That said, I also referred to a line from a recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that observed:

"Economic growth is higher in stable democracies."

And I added:

Clearly we have to find ways to re-stabilize our culture in a way that stabilizes our democracy.  Teaching civics in school would be a good start - but at the moment, I'm not sure that teaching civics in the workplace is a viable solution.

If civics is a tough sell, maybe, though, we could start by insisting on civility.

One MNB reader responded:

First – Amen!

Second – the worst is that too many of our schools are being managed by political ideologues and they tend to benefit from an uninformed voter.

I went to elementary and Jr High school in the 60’s in New Mexico and learning how the government works was just part of the basic curriculum.  I remember the feeling of community when we volunteered for local candidates. We were fired up and anxious to see the results! Now people are scared to even work in poll sites. It’s sad.

I agree with you about the folks managing some schools.

Mrs. Content Guy was an elementary schoolteacher for two decades, and she had one basic rule for how she taught:  the kids come first.  She believed that as long as everything she did was in the best interests of her students, helping them to learn and engage in critical thinking, then she could deal with any of the other noise.

I have another rule:  If a district wants to or is willing to ban books, then they probably have an agenda other than education.

Yesterday we cited an Associated Press story about how "the food delivery business Yelloh - formerly known as Schwan's Home Delivery - is cutting 750 jobs nationwide and closing 90 delivery centers … 'Facing economic headwinds, rising business costs and the post-pandemic world, our teams across the country have worked valiantly to transform our company into a modern category leader,' the company said in a news release. 'Despite those efforts, and like many retail businesses, we must now close locations and face a difficult reality'."

I commented:

I know from some of my non-MNB work that Schwan's had the opportunity to reinvent its business in recent years, and best I could tell, simply couldn't get out of its own way.  It seemed to be unwilling to make the bold, innovative moves necessary to reinvent the business, which led to a kind of paralysis - changing the name of the company was what passed for innovation.  (Because it was the name of the service that was the real problem.). The company may attribute its problems toi outside factors, but at last some of the damage has been self-inflicted.

One MNB reader wrote:

I totally agree with your comments. Schwan's had a chance to be on the leading edge of home delivery. They already had distribution in place, they (a bit late, but still) had an on-line presence for ordering. The big issue in my mind was not leveraging these advantages before Amazon and others could get in the game and price. The pieces were there but they (IMHO) were too enamored of the legacy and not interested in moving that legacy forward. Very sad and I hope my Schwan friends, especially those in Marshall who don't have a lot of job options, were not affected by job loss. They will still be affected because lay-offs are not easy for either side.

Like I said.  Self-inflicted wounds.

And finally, this note from an MNB reader:

While I am uninterested in NFL for many reasons I have been getting a kick out of the Taylor Swift vs NFL brouhaha. Last night, I’m told, Denver played Swift’s "Shake It Off" after beating the Chiefs. Great sense of humor in Denver.

First of all, they've had to have a sense of humor.  The Broncos are 3-5, and have a coach with a big mouth.  (I'm a Jets fan, and we have to have a sense of humor, too.  Though we did beat the Broncos 31-21, if memory serves.). But good for the Broncos playing a Taylor Swift song.

As for beating the Chiefs, let's see which team has a better record in about six weeks.

Maybe the Chiefs will be playing "Karma."