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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

CUSTOMER SERVICE, Part 2

Steve Van Houten manages operations of the Ford Racing motorcoach -- and is one of the automaker's best ambassadors. He's pictured above at Phoenix International Raceway two weeks ago.

I've witnessed tremendous growth in the Valley of the Sun in the 12 years I've called Scottsdale home. Growth has its pluses but the negatives are BAD. Traffic headaches, once a seasonal occurrence when the "Snow Birds" come here from Canada and the Midwest for the winter months, now are a daily challenge.

And, as I got into last week, customer service has become more of a lost art than Andy Warhol's missing portrait of Lenin. The excuse I constantly hear from local managers is they don't have the staff to keep-up with increased demand. It's one thing when I've been told in a Fry's supermarket to come back in an hour for two pounds of ground sirloin (!), but the true wide-eyer came when I went in to my Chase bank branch just after opening, only to find no teller windows were staffed -- a fact the receptionist and back-office managers didn't bother to talk about with those of us in line. (!) In the last year I've endured unacceptable lack-of service at high-end Hamra Jewelers and even at an auto dealership where a top selling point is "unparalleled" attention to the customer. (!) From personal experience, I advise begging the government for help before turning to John Alden or First Choice Health Insurance, where employee training seminars apparently include demonstrations on the proper technique on how to thumb your nose at someone seeking service. (!)

Shame on our society for acquiescing to lesser standards applied by lesser people. (A product, I say, of poor parenting, the dumbed-down public school system, and a rejection of the principle of personal accountability.) After all, millions would have watched O.J. Simpson's (now wisely canceled) If I Did It TV show. The motorsports industry reflects this. Earlier this year, a young PR person asked me for career advice. My answer: Return phone calls, reply to E-mails, and do what you say you'll do. The comparison with far-too-many others will be noticed!

This Thanksgiving week, let me acknowledge five people who understand customer service, and who know those qualities also apply to personal friendship. I'm thankful for them:

+ Steve Van Houten. The Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway wrapped another season on-the-road for Van Houten. He drove the Ford Racing Prevost motorcoach over 60,000 miles this year to 35 events. Steve's been doing this for 15 years and worked as a relief driver for John Madden's bus. In an era where lazy people commonly dismiss errors as "not important," Steve pays attention to the details. His welcoming smile and handshake and positive attitude makes Steve a tremendous ambassador -- and asset -- to Ford, especially valuable during these troubled times for the automaker.

+ Dusty Brandel. Dusty has served as executive director, and then president, of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association for more than 30 years. (AARWBA is the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals.) Let me attest, from first-hand experience, that it can be a tedious and frequently thankless job. (There's nothing glamorous about routine but essential paperwork like processing membership forms.) AARWBA would have ceased to exist long ago without her committed efforts. (The 37th AARWBA All-America Team dinner will be Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis.)

+ Kelly Butz. She's the revenue manager at the Indy Hyatt and a key reason why the AARWBA dinner will be staged there for the second consecutive year. As chairman of AARWBA's 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2005, it was my call (along with Dusty Brandel) to move the All-America Team dinner to Indy and the Hyatt. That's one decision I've never regretted. I've been involved in countless such functions over the decades of my career and no one has ever provided the level of customer service and attention to detail Kelly knows is essential to make any project a success. I can think of a lot of people in our business who should come to the AARWBA dinner if for no other reason than to see Kelly's work and learn from her example.

+ Mike Harris. He's been AP's national motorsports writer for more than a quarter-century, and my friend for almost that long. A lot of us consider him the most important media person covering racing, but you wouldn't know it dealing with Mike, whose ego is a fraction of that of many lesser journalistic lights. Mike has served the AP, its members, and the sport with great professionalism. I value his straightforward approach and common-sense advice.

+ Mike Hollander. As I've often admitted, I'm not the best when it comes to computers and the Internet. Mike, on the other hand, is the brightest person I know when it comes to these things. He's been kind -- and patient -- enough to help me through many high-tech crises, even when I knew he knew my questions were really dumb. I also respect Mike as a pioneer motorsports on-line journalist, currently via http://motorsportsforum.com and Racing Information Systems. He's brought these skills to AARWBA, as webmaster, All-America Team ceremony producer, and national VP.Homestead Rear-View Mirror:

* Jeff Gordon proved again he's the savviest driver in the garage area. How? He was the only one to make it a point to thank NBC for its six years of NASCAR coverage. Jeff's post-race comments reminded me of May 1, 1994, when Dale Earnhardt got out of the No. 3 Chevrolet in victory lane at Talladega, and the first thing he did was offer sympathy to the family, friends and fans of Ayrton Senna, killed earlier that day. No other superstar of that time would have thought of it.

* NBC's NASCAR finale was fine, but highlighted (again) two issues that MUST be addressed come the 2007 ABC/ESPN, Fox, TNT and SPEED race telecasts: 1) Pit-road reporters have to sharpen their questions. Dave Burns' contributions to our understanding of what was about to happen amounted to asking Jeff Gordon what role he hoped to play in Sunday's championship event, and how Kasey Kahne thought he'd do. As if Jeff and Kasey were going to say, "Hey, I hope it blows-up on the first lap, so I can leave early!" (Both, of course, said they wanted to win.) With NASCAR and its network partners looking to address the ratings issue, they should realize focused questions which lead to interesting answers helps keep the remote control on the table. (!) There are announcer coaches: It's time for some money to be spent on interview coaches. 2) The (thankfully) last installment of "Wally's World" was nothing but an exercise in egoism. That was time that should have been spent on legitimate news (of which there was no shortage, including driver and team changes, the battle for 35th in owner points, etc.) This kind of segment should be parked -- permanently.

* It was Winston's ace sports marketing department that created the championship celebration ceremony as we know it, although NASCAR has now assumed full control of its staging. The championship jacket has been a traditional element, even though it covers the ID of the driver's team sponsors, and usually is so garish no one would consider wearing it away from the track. So, I found it interesting that the jacket put on Todd Bodine Friday night appeared to be a standard Craftsman Truck Series coat, with a logo so small as to be unreadable by TV viewers. Why did they bother? The Busch Series jacket presented to Kevin Harvick Saturday night was of the full-blown big-and-bold graphics style that corporate marketers have come to love. Strangely, though, Jimmie Johnson didn't receive a Nextel Cup jacket Sunday.

* Jenna Fryer, at Phoenix, and Mike Harris, at Homestead, used the AP blog to bemoan the unsatisfactory size of those track's media centers. It's a fact that NASCAR's "major league" status brings with it the necessity of "major league" media facilities. However, I'm reminded of a long-ago Eastern Motorsports Press Association convention, during which a panel session with local speedway operators decended into complaints about credentials, parking and even the lack of free food. My friend Nick Nagurny, then assistant sports editor at the old Philadelphia Bulletin, ended this by standing up and providing some much-needed perspective. "My readers don't care if I have a seat in the press box, where I park, or if I get lunch. They care about what happens in the race." Amen. Such issues are legitimate but best addressed within the industry and through professional organizations like AARWBA.

[ There's lots more to say about NASCAR and the Chase, plus other topics, and I'll do that next Tuesday . . . ]