Archive for the ‘Tone of Voice’ Category

Service of It’s All in the Tone and Context

Monday, September 4th, 2023

A Friend, in his sixth decade, was reminiscing about how his father hit the ceiling when he said “so.” He inspired this post.

At first I thought “what’s so bad about ‘so?’” He explained that if he said “so?” after his father reprimanded him, his dad’s expression shouted, “now you’re really in for it.” I remember getting in trouble with my father if he thought I’d been disrespectful to my mother. It didn’t happen often but he’d misinterpret my tone if not my words. He learned English in his mid-thirties which may account for some of the miscommunication.

On to more examples. When my plumber or dentist says, “no problem,” I sigh with relief. However, as I’ve often complained, if someone is doing their job and to my “thank you” they say, “no problem,” I grit my teeth.

If you use sarcasm around people who take everything literally, you’re in for a pile of misunderstanding. “That’s just great,” you might exclaim after you’ve spilled cranberry juice on your white couch. The literal listener might inquire “what is ‘great’ about ruining your upholstery?” They might also wonder about your reaction “such fun,” after you’ve undergone a two-hour root canal procedure.

Misinterpreting sarcasm is different from hiding behind “I was just joking” when someone has said something mean and you tell them that they’ve hurt you.

Can you share examples of words that mean different things depending on circumstance and tone of voice? What about people who take sarcasm literally or say they’re joking when they’ve insulted you?

Service of The Only Show in Town

Monday, March 19th, 2012


When Greg Smith left a much talked-about billet doux on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs,” he set off enough tongue wagging that Mayor Bloomberg dashed to the banking institution to give management a supportive hug.

I read and heard some of the conversation.  Take-aways: The company was always known for making money and had no reputation for treating its customers either with kid gloves or kindly. Further, as they are currently about the only investment banking company left standing, companies that need their services don’t have a choice.

flashlight-in-darkI thought of this when a client described his experience at a well known convention center, [not in NYC], where there is only one choice of vendor if you want to light your exhibition booth-an essential for visitors to see what you’re selling.

At some trade shows or art, craft and other events open to the public at convention centers, lighting is part of the exhibit space package, but not at this one.

My client followed the procedure and placed his order by fax, before the deadline. It was worth it: After the deadline, the price for the lighting would increase almost 60 percent.

On the second day of the show, he arrived five minutes before the doors opened as his exhibit was set up. He found a letter from the electric vendor in his booth. It noted that since he hadn’t placed an order, if he didn’t pay for the electricity at the show office immediately, they would turn off his lights.

fax-with-copyWith no minutes to spare before crowds swooped down the aisles, he dashed over and explained to two young men at this vendor’s desk that he had sent a fax with his order-even kept a confirmation that the fax went through. They replied, “That doesn’t mean it went through.”

He said he’d pay but as he’d placed the order before the deadline, he’d appreciate the pre-show price. Not possible. One replied, “It’s not up to me.” Client: “So who is it up to?” Answer: “It’s up to the fax machine.”

The young men went on to say that the instructions stated he should receive an email confirmation. There was no such info on the fax sheet-my client checked on his return to his workshop office–though he admitted it might have been in the online instructions.

“They weren’t aggressively rude,” he noted. “However, they didn’t get it and they didn’t care. They probably know that they are the only show in town.”

My client is a successful businessman and entrepreneur-which describes many of the hundreds of exhibitors at this event and thousands if you count all the others. He is so busy filling orders–and does most everything himself–that he hasn’t had time to lodge an official complaint to the vendor and the show management–yet another dynamic that this vendor and others like it count on. [Perhaps he’ll copy this post and fax it in with a note: “She is writing about YOU,” and that he tells them they are lucky because the blog’s policy is not to bash a brand unless it is in the news.]

This is my prediction: Goldman Sachs and this event’s lighting vendor had best watch their backs. Regardless of unpromising odds, I bet that an enterprising person with a better mousetrap and attitude, such as Fredrick W. Smith who founded Federal Express in 1971, will slip in and knock out Goldman Sachs, this lighting vendor and countless others. Who would have thought, some 41 years ago, that the United States Postal Service would have competitors such as FedEx and the Internet?

Do you know of other companies or services that are the only shows in town that don’t fight to maintain their positions, they smugly take advantage of it? How about those that honor their spot and try to do everything right?


Service of Anger

Monday, February 14th, 2011


In the Greater New York Section of The Wall Street Journal, in “Mayor Hits Back at Parents,” Michael Howard Saul and Barbara Martinez describe Mayor Bloomberg’s reaction to the “raucous display of discontent” and disrespect of Cathie Black, the new schools chancellor.

Saul and Martinez quoted a Brooklyn City Council member, Jumaane Williams, who defended the angry reaction by civic leaders and parents, suggesting that Mayor Bloomberg “retake civics class.” Williams continued: “That is exactly, actually, what America is founded on-the ability to express your opinion to people who are making decisions. It happened loudly and, I think, rightfully so because parents are angry that they’re losing opportunities to be involved in the education of their child.”

anger2Williams is right about the ability to express opinions to decision-makers. But is yelling and taunting and not allowing the “opposition” to speak effective?

I wonder how many of the yellers participate in PTAs and support class projects and try to affect change at each school? A friend, whose high-pressure job keeps her at her desk until all hours when she’s not traveling around the country and abroad, is consistently involved with her son’s NYC public school, its fundraisers, teacher’s meetings and addressing policies she objects to. It’s possible.

frustration1I have a red-hot temper. One of the triggers: Frustration at not being heard so I empathize with the primal screams of parents seeing albeit failing schools close left and right. And they have much to shout about the schools that remain open. WOR Radio NYC morning talk show host John Gambling reported horrific statistics. The state spends $33 billion on public education yet only some 23 percent of high school graduates are sufficiently prepared to either go on to college or to get a job. He noted that in Rochester, the figure was 15 percent.

Anger can give people the energy to take action and do something about what’s infuriating or worrying them.  But is yelling and bullying the schools chancellor the American way and the way out?


Service of Voice

Thursday, February 10th, 2011


I’ve addressed “Tone of Voice” before, but the impact of a voice’s timbre is the focus here. I was inspired to do so by PR pro Elaine Siegel’s description of the presenter at an event she recently attended. She called her “a squeaker, not a speaker.”

sopranoFull disclosure: I am not a soprano fan-I prefer low singing voices so that my comments and reaction to sound are pitched toward my preference. If I feel stressed and my husband is listening to opera and I hear trilling, I clear out [so I don’t start screaming, too].

For starters, two female politician’s voices drive me nuts-a senator and former governor. I cringe when I hear their shrill, little girl voices. It matters to me that they know what they are talking about but I doubt whatever comes out of either mouth because of the childish, whiney sound. I can’t help using the overused “gravitas” word. Their voices give them none. Doesn’t seem to affect how other people rate them. Both have tons of supporters and I’ve never heard them criticized for their voices.

paris1It occurred to me while walking in Paris a few years ago that French women must force their voices up so as to sound feminine and cute. A whole population can’t possibly be born with the collective high pitch. And I wonder if the Valley girl up flip at the end of sentences isn’t related.

I once had a bright, accomplished client, a product manager with umpteen graduate degrees. Her boss asked her a question at the end of my first verbal report at headquarters. The room was full. He said: “How do you think Jeanne is doing?” I hope that my face didn’t reflect my reaction when this woman turned into a squirmy little girl with voice to match. She liked my performance and report, she said, but she shocked me as I witnessed an accomplished businesswoman transform into a little girl in front of the big, bad, all-male bosses.

I’ve met people who, with help, have successfully dropped regional accents and if you saw the wonderful movie, “King’s Speech,” many get over stuttering. You’d think that women could correct their strident, childish tone, except I doubt most want to.

I don’t have the same trouble with men’s voices. Do you? Does a speaker’s voice affect her message? Do you find women with little girl voices off-putting or doesn’t it bother you at all?


Service of Discipline

Monday, January 17th, 2011


I mentor an amazing graduate student, Ni Yan. She’s enrolled at Baruch College in its MA corporate communication program, is trilingual–Japanese, Chinese and English–and received an A and two A- in her first term. She’s from China. Her spoken English is good, but not as good as many in the class. She impresses me in many ways: her courage to come, alone, to an unfamiliar country and compete at the graduate level just beings to tell the story.

practicemakesperfect1I asked her about Amy Chua’s article in The Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” She didn’t read the whole thing, but got the gist from what I told her and part of the subhead, “Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids?”

In two seconds, she noticed the sidebar on the jump page from a second article, “In China, Not All Practice Tough Love,” where reading, math, and science scores listed Shanghai, China, first in all categories rated by Program for International Student Assessment Tests conducted in 65 “economies” and given to 15 year olds in 2009. Ni is from Shanghai. The US scored 17th, 31st and 23rd, respectively.

Nicholas D. Kristof wrote an opinion piece about the test scores and education in China in Sunday’s New York Times, “China’s Winning Schools?” Here I learned that school starts at the age of two but Kristof doesn’t think much of college education there.

Ni asked me my opinion of such discipline and upbringing. I can’t argue with the results: Hers and those reported by Ms. Chau about her daughters, of Yo Yo Ma the cellist, of the Chinese girl in my prep school class–no. 1 in stiff competition–who participated in none of the extracurricular activities or cultural offerings in the city and became a brilliant physician.

motherbadgeringI can wonder but will never know whether I might have become an A student with hours and hours and hours of practice, review, tutoring and badgering by my mother as described by Ms. Chau. I said to Nikki, “Ms. Chau wrote about Chinese mothers’ hysterics and screaming that happens if a child brings home less than A grades from school. Such a performance would have frozen–as in paralyzed–someone like me.” I added, “I couldn’t function.” Nikki replied, “You’d be used to it if you’d heard it since you were one.”

I was a happy kid, but would have loved being an A student. Would I have been even happier? A more driven and successful adult? Is a child’s “job” to learn and excel in school or to be happy or well-rounded or what?  Has today’s economy [the available jobs] changed your opinion?


Service of How Much Are Your Customers Worth?

Thursday, November 18th, 2010


Customer service was the topic of a segment on CBS Sunday Morning recently. We heard how much more it costs for a live operator to handle a query to customer service–$7+ if the person works in the U.S. vs. $3+ if they’re responding from overseas. The really cheap route, recorded voice accompanied by the dreaded “press one, press two” costs some 35 cents.

To make the right decisions, a business owner has to ask him/herself:

**How much does it cost to acquire a customer? Less than a penny? $10 or $20?

**How complicated is the product to use?

**Is repeat business important?

**Does wasting someone else’s time matter to you?

**Are you impregnable to negative buzz because you are protected–such as investment and commercial banks and mortgage lenders–or because people have no choice about using you if they want/need your service–such as cable or satellite TV in places there are no other options?

prideI’ve left off the list “personal pride in providing the best.” What company doesn’t claim to manufacture or import or sell or represent innovative, unequaled, top-quality products made by inspired, loyal employees? But do all/most?

Here’s one that does-Loft, part of the Ann Taylor family of women’s fashion stores. I thought I’d slipped into another era or maybe I wasn’t in Times Square but in the south or Midwest. On entering, a young woman smiled and sounded as though she meant “hello.” Two associates, in different parts of the store, subsequently asked me if they might help me. They, too, sounded as though they wanted to. They were like well-trained maitre d’s at the finest restaurants who quietly patrol the floor and unobtrusively add value to the experience. One of them approached a woman who was trying on jackets. He quietly pointed out where the nearest mirror was. Preventative retail service, like healthcare, what a concept! [Readers have repeatedly written about similar experiences at Gracious Home in NYC.]

What additional questions should a business ask itself when determining the type/cost of customer service assistance to invest in? How much more would you pay a retail establishment, importer or manufacturer to provide great customer service? Should a business give you the choice and charge more or less depending?


Service of Annoying Customers

Thursday, November 4th, 2010


I was in line at Sam’s coffee cart on 44th and Third Avenue and the man ordering his Joe ahead of me was the kind of customer who’d drive me nuts. It’s not that he wanted anything exotic. But I could tell that he was someone I’d never want to share a restaurant meal with-or to serve.

He asked for two Splendas in a medium size decaf and a large coffee with skim and three sugars, and then he changed his mind on size or sweetener and….Sam was his usual cool, calm, pleasant self and didn’t skip a beat. [This eavesdropper was ready to scream.]

ordering-foodI’ve eaten with people who have nary an allergy but want to know every ingredient in each of six dishes before they will commit to a main course. Three minutes after they’ve ordered they wave wildly for the waiter because they’ve changed their mind.

And it’s not just the questions that get me, because maybe the person loves to cook and is curious about how the chef prepares short ribs; it’s the selfish demand for attention and time without regard to companions who might have places to go and customers at other tables who need wine, water or song.

Most of the posts on this blog are written from the customer’s viewpoint. What do your friends, colleagues and strangers do to aggravate staffers in retail or food businesses? If you’ve had one of those jobs, how do you handle these annoying types or don’t they bother you?


Service of Compassion in Medical Care

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010


Just how much empathy and compassion should a doctor feel and exhibit? I’m of two minds.

Dr. Sally Satel, who wrote “Physician, Humanize Thyself” in The Wall Street Journal, spoke of the White Coat Ceremony for medical students that she claimed Dr. Arnold P. Gold of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons popularized. The symbolism of the ceremony, according to the Columbia University chaplain, is for doctors to consider their coats “cloaks of compassion.” Medical schools all over the country now conduct these ceremonies.

And I’m all for it. Having witnessed a top-rated specialist [according to a yearly listing in New York Magazine] treat my husband, who was suffering and weak, with less compassion than a plumber would feel for a pipe, I question the man’s reason for becoming a doctor. We see misfits in all sorts of professions, which is no excuse, but this fellow was all sorts of things he didn’t have to be: Rude, offhanded and wrong to the extreme in his approach to a diagnosis. Turned out my husband did have something in this person’s specialty, generated by a nasty tick bite, causing two+ months high fever and eventually the inability to get out of bed. [Husband is fine now.] A person like this doctor wouldn’t understand the significance of this or any other kind of compassion-related ceremony.

wheelchair1On the other hand, when confronted with horrendous disfigurement and frailty or facing a tricky operation with scalpel in hand, a doctor whose empathy makes him fall apart isn’t of much help, either. Referring to “respectful attentiveness and a genuine commitment to a patient’s welfare” Dr. Satel wrote: “It happens not in the classroom, of course, but ideally on the wards and in clinics under the watchful mentorship of seasoned physicians.” Maybe the nasty doctor spent all his time in the classroom.

Dr. Satel points to government intrusion, at junctures in recent history, as the cause for lack of compassion. As doctors are increasingly robbed of options by insurance companies and/or time–because of paperwork required by government regulation in combination with the numbers of patients they must treat in order to meet budgets and satisfy what Medicare will pay for-they can’t squeeze in anything else, much less compassion. [Medicaid seems to have an unlimited bank account and my advice is if you get really sick, sell everything and go on Medicaid, but I digress].

jugglingSatel concludes: “Juggling the timeless injunction to all doctors-be a mensch-with concepts like ‘Medicare metrics’ and ‘standardization’ (the new watchwords in health reform) will make it even harder for the newly coated students to become the kind of doctors that they themselves would like to have. An induction ritual acknowledging as much wouldn’t hurt.”

Wouldn’t a compassionate person still be compassionate under any circumstances? Is it the patient’s fault that a doctor must see 30 patients in the time she/he used to see eight to 10 or that the doctor has a pound of paperwork to fill out after every visit?

What can the public do about changing this increasingly unreasonable turn of events?


Service for Women and Children Last

Monday, August 2nd, 2010


Neither women nor children are welcome in some restaurants. We addressed the topic in March, 2009, in “Exclusion’s Service in Sales.” That incident, which involved a well behaved little girl, happened in New Jersey.  This isn’t a condition exclusive to New York City.

A reader and friend, Nancie Steinberg, shared this happening in a well known Manhattan restaurant. On a sweltering summer Saturday about a week ago, she arrived for lunch with her three and 12 year old sons and a stroller. Her sons have excellent restaurant manners–they travel extensively and frequently both overseas as well as around the US. In all the years I’ve known her, Nancie has never been so irritated by a restaurant experience with her children.

fancyrestaurantAs the three entered the restaurant, the first words out of the hostess were, “We don’t allow strollers inside the restaurant.” No “Hi,” or “Hello” or “How are you?” Nancie was then told they could eat outside where the stroller was welcome. [Sure-in 95° with high humidity?]

The hostess continued, “Can’t you store the stroller in the trunk of your car?” Jeanne and Nancie to hostess of this NYC restaurant, 1) Most New Yorkers don’t have cars. 2) Those that do wouldn’t have to be told to store the stroller in the trunk. Some might not want to because the stroller might not be there when they return. Others might not want to because they had to park 10 blocks away from the restaurant which might be too far for a 3 year old to walk on a boiling day.

strollerNancie’s husband soon joined them inside as Nancie, a very persuasive person, noted that the stroller was collapsible and took up little room. They were ordering dessert when a woman came in with a child in a stroller, sat at the bar–the child still seated in the stroller–and nobody said a word to her. Nancie pointed it out to the waiter and was told that the woman is a manager. Hmmmm. If you are thinking, “The restaurant doesn’t want a bunch of little people who don’t eat because they won’t spend enough money,” the bill for lunch was $90+.

Our conversation then veered to the fact that still today, when two women eat at certain restaurants, service slides precipitously. And ask women where they are often ushered to sit: Next to the bathroom or in some other undesirable spot.

twowomeneatingIt happens to me. At one place I used to visit several times a year either with other couples and/or my husband, I went with another woman who had been seated when I arrived. She was in an ugly part of the restaurant I didn’t know existed and our subsequent service was horrendous. I’ve never been back.

On a weekend afternoon, a friend was waiting for his host outside a trendy Madison Avenue bistro that opened to the street. Having nothing to do but observe what was going on around him, he saw a well-dressed woman, who had been made to wait forever for a table, eventually tucked way in the back [so as not to be seen]. She asked for a better table and there began an argument.

Wouldn’t it be easier if restaurants posted conspicuous signs that clearly note: “We invite men or women with men; Women alone or in pairs or with children would be happier elsewhere.”?

Is this attitude an east coast thing? Is it related only to fashionable establishments or wannabes?


Service of Guilt

Monday, February 15th, 2010

When it comes to feeling guilty, I don’t need any help. I was raised around sins of omission.

I feel guilty when I owe phone calls to see how people are [some don’t have email] and when I’ve let time go by and I haven’t approached companies to fund raise for one of my [too many] volunteer commitments.

I am sufficiently haunted by these feelings which may be why I resent it when salespeople try to raise the ante on a purchase by flaunting the guilt card.

We went through the drill of choosing a casket at a well known NYC funeral parlor. It so happens that we knew that if we spent ten cents more than necessary, the deceased would have had a fit. In life, we’d shown each other respect and love. So when we saw casket samples starting at $12,000, I asked to see less expensive ones without hesitation.

The dramatic face of shock on the funeral parlor director was low-budget-movie-quality and made me laugh, although I was grief-stricken.  His expression and shrug as he took us across the hall to another room shrieked, “You sure didn’t love/respect that person, did you?” along with a dash of “C h e a p!” As we were leaving the fancy room to cross the hall to the one decorated in early neglect, I checked out one of the caskets with a $26,000 price tag to feel the velvet that lined it and in a loud voice said, “I had to see what a few thousand dollars worth of velvet feels like.”  The funeral director energized my touchy juices and triggered anger, not remorse or shame.

A friend of mine is researching venues for her son’s bar mitzvah and although I’ve not been with her to meet the caterers or hear their voices on the phone, from what she tells me, I think she’s getting similar treatment. Why would any sane person graciously accept prices of $400 per adult and $165 ++ for the children for a roof and some food and not blink an eye even if their wallets were in pre-economic downturn shape?

Maybe I should open a branch of my business to offer different kinds of exercises from the kind people get on treadmills. We’d teach how to parry such inappropriate sales pressures.

Can you share similar examples of where a salesperson counts on guilt  to close a bigger sale or to get you to buy something you may not even want or need to begin with? Have you ever played the guilt card to sell? Did it work?

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