MonthJanuary 2016

Service Smiles: Beauty among the garbage

Service Smiles is an answer to the question What did I learn about Customer Service this week?


The Montgomery County Division of Solid Waste Services has an email list. They give updates to trash and recycling pickups.

Their notifications are clear and concise. It keeps me informed to any variations in the pickup schedule due to weather or other issues.

This is the most mundane of updates. There’s nothing sexy or exciting about trash and recycling pickups. Each new notice comes with a poem.


Alone, walking purposely uphill toward the bus stop,
Heavy grocery bags pulling your arms straight down.

So cold. Six degrees. They call it the Siberian Express.

I see you, and I gesture for you to climb into my back seat; I’ve replaced two regulators now, trying to roll down a frozen window.

“Where to?” “The bus stop.” “Where to, after that?” “The county road,” you say.

I make quick calculations of miles, of time, of traffic, of the dreaded round-about, And, against my cautious self, say I will take you home.

We travel together to get you there, and you tell me

You’re an unemployed social worker,
Your car is no longer useful,
You have health problems,
And you have grown children.

Now, in your 70’s, you live alone.
And they are doing well, so far away.

“No jobs around here, if you want to get ahead.”

Of me, you know nothing, except that I, too, am alone, With children doing well, so far away.

It seems enough.

—Patricia Simoni, “Timeshare”, recommended by subscriber DM


It’s nothing exciting. It’s not big and flashy and it won’t change minds or win hearts. But it made me smile.

The first few times I didn’t even read the email down far enough to see the poem. I saw it in the last one and went back and checked and there’s a poem in each message.

This mailing list is great customer service work. It fulfills its mission quickly. It says here is the current waste pickup schedule. And it adds some fun, ending with a poem.

This is great work and I salute whomever started this trend and hope they keep it up.

Event Planning Rule 5 – Write Things Down

Rule 5. Write things down. (You think you can remember everything. Right up until you can’t.)

Every event has some details I need to remember. I started out thinking I would always know have them at hand. But the more events I ran and the busier I got, I was forgetting things. Every event is the sum of its parts.

The Parts

  • Event Date
  • Event Time
  • Local or Remote Event
  • If local, room number
  • Which account was hosting the event? (Of the four WebEx accounts I had)
  • Phone number for teleconference
  • Host Access Code
  • Participant Access Code
  • Closed Captioning link (optional)
  • Is the event being recorded?
  • Are we using a webcam?
  • Are we including remote video?
  • Is there a slide deck? (Do I have it?)
  • Is there any video or audio content? (Did we test it?)
  • Will there be a Question and Answer session?
  • How will remote participants ask questions?
  • Is anyone from senior leadership going to attend?
  • Is this event open to the public or agency-only?

I had to remember everything I needed to run the event successfully and answer questions the organizers would ask as we were starting. I also needed to work around any late changes or additions. Which included saying no to people who weren’t usually told no. (Which is a whole different topic in itself.)

Writing Is Remembering

I always carry a pocket notebook for any note-taking on the fly. But I also kept an event notebook with pages dedicated to the current events I plan. And yes, there was always more than one. Sometimes in the same day I’d have three or four to manage. From running the meeting to starting and handing it off, each event needed time and attention.

I also make good use of Post-It Notes. They were easy to keep phone numbers and codes on. I could jot down which camera angles I had preset to this particular event. I could write notes to people helping me. Those little sticky notes are a vital part of my work.

When I forgot something, the event suffered. If I needed a webcam and didn’t have it we’d have no live video. If we needed closed captioning for a transcript or reasonable accommodation and I didn’t book it, someone who needed it wouldn’t be able to enjoy the event.

Memory Fails

It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you’ll remember anything. I won’t forget the phone number. I will remember to make the change you asked about as I was leaving my desk? Sure, I’ll take care of that edit to your slides and fix that typo?

But I won’t. I’ve forgotten to fix your typo on every version of the slides we used. I forgot you were going to have someone else speak mid-way through the event. I didn’t remember to book closed captioning despite you requesting it. Were we recording this event? The last thing I have in my notes was wrong. I’m sorry.

Memory is fallible. I write everything down I want to get right. And I want to get it all right. I want to get it right every time. I’ve talked about all the ways you can fail. I don’t want to be the source of failure.

Event Planning Rule 4 – Know your Trump Cards

Rule 4. Know your trump cards (who can push meeting or take scheduled space.)

Now that you are ready to fail let’s talk about one of the way you can get thrown for a loop. Scheduling issues and people who can push you out of a space.

While scheduling issues can affect anyone in any event. Knowing who can push you from a meeting space apply to larger organizations with a hierarchy.

Senior Leadership

For me, it was the Secretary of Labor. When his office schedule an event in a space, they could push anything already scheduled there. This happened to me a few times and we either had to scurry around to try to find a replacement space or postpone the event.

For others, it could be any of your Senior Leadership team. Always be aware you could get bumped from your space the day of the event.

It may not always be a person who bumps you from your space. There could be another higher-profile event happening that could take your space. Or another smaller event could grow with more interest than anticipated.

Scheduling Issues

No matter how carefully event space is juggled there are always mistakes. A room can be double-booked. A booking can get lost or an event can get bumped.

Of all the things that can go wrong, the loss of a space is almost always a deal killer. If the event has no remote participants it’s easier, but if there’s a reliance on technology and remote participants, a venue change is almost always a death-blow.

I say almost because every event is different. What cancels one event may move another back an hour. What one event needs to succeed my not matter to another.

Auditorium Roulette

I’ve run a couple of events that have gotten pushed at the last second. One was scheduled for the Auditorium and we had tested and worked out all the kinks.

As I was leaving my desk to set up for the event and do one last test, I got a phone call putting our weeks of work to an end. The Secretary of Labor needed the space for another event. So our event was cancelled and there was no rescheduling it because the person booked to speak wasn’t available again any time soon.

That was a heart-breaker because we had put a lot of work into it. All the planning meetings, testing in the Auditorium and working out the video and audio components in addition to the presenter’s slide deck. We had it all working beautifully but we never got to use any of it.

All the World is a Stage

I treat each event I put on like a stage show. We have the players and we have the set and venue. There’s an audience to please with our performance. When an event gets cancelled it feels like our rehearsals are for a show that never goes on. It’s disappointing. Even if the event is an All-Hands Meeting or a State of the Union meeting.

Knowing who can push you out of a space is just another thing to plan around. It’s another point of failure for a meeting. You can do your best but it may still happen and when it does, be ready to think on your feet because there may be a way to save the event, or it may be cancelled.

The Great Dig Out

“The DC area is far enough North to get snow but far enough South to not be ready for it.”
– Unattributed quote I saw on Facebook this weekend

Buried car

Winter Storm Jonas

(My wife’s maiden name is Jonas. So all the talk of Winter Storm Jonas has made me giggle.)

After receiving a little over 30″ of snow this weekend with Winter Storm Jonas we are dug out. We didn’t go anywhere but we are able. We spent about four hours today, in two-hour intervals. Today was also about finding parts of our house like the sump pump drain pipe, power box and dryer vents. It was also about removing the snow from around, next to and under our cars.

This was the first storm in a long time I can remember shoveling the show our from under the cars. I don’t know how much snow we moved today, but my back, arms, legs and shoulders are feeling it tonight. But through it all, it was the most gorgeous blue sky outside today. Until later in the day it was cloudless and perfect. I couldn’t help but stop and notice how beautiful it was, despite being covered in snow.

Snow hanging off roof

Houses are nice

I’m thankful to have a dryer in the house (as opposed to one down a hallway that takes quarters). I’m thankful to have neighbors who were out shoveling and keeping out morale up. It’s an exhausting, thankless job but we all needed to do it.

We did not lose power (thanks buried power lines!) and fared well through the storm. I saw Pepco trucks driving around our neighborhood over the weekend. I have yet to see or hear of a snow plow getting to our roads.

But we did have someone with a bobcat our clearing our parking area today. If he hadn’t been out there, we wouldn’t have dug out because even if we dug around the car, there was still 30″ of snow between us and a road.

Snowy Sunset

A mini-rant about snow clearing

There are some people very angry about their roads not being plowed today. And I understand that. We’re all frustrated with the huge amount of snow. It’s going to be a problem for the week to come.

It’s going to be piled in parking lots for a month. Side roads and neighborhoods are going to be clogged this week. We are all in this together. Snow plows have buried your intersection with a major road. Your road hasn’t been plowed yet. Your driveway has a new snow wall defending it. Try to be patient.

I know it’s infuriating and you feel like the state is doing this to you personally. They aren’t. They’re trying to clear main roads first. This is why Maryland’s Governor closed down two major interstates yesterday.

Once main roads are clear, secondary and neighborhoods roads are next. There are thousands of miles of roads to clear and millions of feet of snow to move from them. It’s going to take time.

The main roads need to be cleared to get emergency services out and able to respond. The main roads need to be clear for you to get anywhere once you get out of your neighborhoods.

I grew up in the country and getting snowed in was a way of life for me. We had a neighbor with a tractor we’d pay to clear our driveway. But the roads always took many days to clear.

This storm, named Snowzilla, ranks as the snowiest on record for Baltimore, second snowiest on record at Dulles, and is tied for fourth snowiest on record in D.C.

It’s a huge amount of snow that will take time to clear. We all think our roads are the most important. And they will be cleared. Just give them time to work. These guys have been out working all weekend trying to keep up with the storm.

They’ve worked long hours, they’re tired. They’re doing a thankless job. Give them time to work. They’ll get to you. Until then, have a drink.

Snow cup
Snow drink

Event Planning Rule 3 – Be Ready to Fail

Rule 3. Be ready to fail. (You will. It is inevitable.)

You’ve tested. You’ve re-tested. You’re ready for the event. You’ve done everything you possibly can to make it a success. But it’s not.

You’re going to fail sometimes. Accept it now. It’s part of the job.

Sometimes no matter how hard you work to succeed, you will fail. It could be a last-minute change or late addition. It could be miscommunication. It could be something out of anyone’s control like the power going out or a total loss of internet access.

I’ve had my fair share of failures. There are a few things that make a failure more tolerable.

Tell the organizer immediately.

Tell the organizer when something fails. Don’t try to hide the failure, it’s going to come out. Try to have an alternative to workaround the failure or at least a plan in place to mitigate it.

Have Options.

It’s bad when you say this is failing. It’s better to say this is failing, but we can do this! If you are having a partial failure and can workaround or resolve it without the attendees noticing, do it. If your fix requires rebooting a computer or having people rejoin a session, ask the organizer first. It may not be worth it like in the case of the missing recorded video I detail later.

Work Quickly and Call for Help.

If you can’t fix something, don’t hesitate to call for help. Nothing gets a faster response than being in a live event that’s having problems. Don’t be afraid to name drop executives. If the CEO or the Secretary of the Department is present, use them to get the white gloves you need to help you succeed.

Keep your Cool.

Don’t freak out. You are still the expert in this situation. Your organizer will look to you for help. If you’re losing your mind, you won’t be able to help. Be professional and keep calm. You can look back over a drink that night about how freaked out you were. But in that moment don’t let on. Even if you’re screaming inside, think through your options and do the best you can.

Below are two events that failed in various ways. One was due to poor planning and a bad setup. The next was a technical issue that showed up mid-event.

No planning. No infrastructure. Meeting is tomorrow. Go!

One failure that still sticks with me is one that was doomed from the start. I got word of an event happening in our Hall of Honor. This is a small part of a wide open ground floor. It has no walls and even with the curtains there’s no way to properly damped outside sounds.

This event featured a discussion panel of four people. One Congressperson, a couple of CEOs and one high-ranking staffer. I didn’t know most of this until the day before. Because it was scheduled a few days out. Which is usually not a problem, but I couldn’t get any firm details from the organizers.

I didn’t know how many people were presenting, how many people were attending in person or remotely, or even rough estimates. I didn’t know how we needed to setup our sound and video. Did they want the webcam or just audio? Do they want a WebEx or just a conference call for audio? Is there a slide deck or anything visual in the presentations?

I didn’t know any of this until late the day before the event. Worse, it was in a place that does not have its own network or phone connections meaning we would have to run this completely over the network as a Voice over IP (VOIP) event. Normally we would offer a telephone line for people to dial in and listen. But this time we had to run all audio over WebEx itself.

I was at work until 8pm the night before with the events team lead trying to see if we could even make this work at al. And we got it working. Sort of.

We had audio. We had video. Neither were ideal and there as a lot of outside noise because of the venue. But the next morning we got the event up and running. About 30 people joined remotely and even less than that showed up in person to listen.

All in all it was a ton of work for an event I considered mostly a failure. The people who attended enjoyed it and the few who logged on remotely said they had a good experience despite some issues where our audio cut out part of the way through the event.

Technology is great until it breaks suddenly.

Building a Trauma Informed Nation was a huge joint event I ran with Health and Human Services. It was a two-day event talking about trauma and how we handle it.

The event went great. The speakers were interesting and it was well-attended in person and we consistently had a couple of hundred people logged in. Many of those people were “amplifier sites” where others were gathered to watch and listen to the sessions so the reach of the event was even greater.

There were some great speakers and every session was recorded. And this is where the failure came. I had run two in-depth dry run test sessions and spend the morning testing every part of my setup before the 11am start-time.

It started well enough. The WebEx and phone came up with no problem. Our mics were all dialed in and sounded great. Good volume. No feedback. The opening keynote speaker was fabulous. The second speaker took the stage and everything continued to work.. right up until it didn’t.

After the first two speakers, the recording lost video. I still have a live webcam up and running and everyone who participated live was able to see, as well as hear the presenters. But the recording would not capture them.

I immediately notified my point of contact and let her know what had happened and ran through some options. But we couldn’t stop the event so when the afternoon break came up, I killed the entire feed and rebooted the computer, tried a second computer and got on the phone with our vendor.

It turns out it as a known issue and there was no workaround or documented cause.

Once I learned this, I let the organizer know and we briefly discussed a few options including capturing video outside of WebEx entirely but in the end decided to keep going with the live video with the understanding the recordings would only capture the audio and the presenter’s slide deck.

So while the event was a success, the recordings were missing a major part. Because it’s nice to see who is speaking and to put faces with voices, especially if you’re watching a presentation after the fact.