Monday, September 6, 2010

"Yeah, I got yer 'Softer Side' Right HERE, pal!" - Part VI - Exaltation

Hello, Beloved Browser.

When I was promoted to the role of Coach at Sears there was no interview.  The staff population was growing exponentially and the powers that be needed a slew of neophyte hall monitors to police the masses ASAP.  A handful of us were knighted on reputation alone.  

Before I go any further here I have to beg your indulgence for a moment to talk about the title of "Coach".  I'm sure it exists because some consultant douchebag made a mint convincing corporations that the term "Supervisor" sounded a bit too...fascist in the ears of a typical plebe.  He probably went into presentation meetings wearing a cap, jersey, cleats and carried a baseball bat.

"Everybody loves baseball, right?" he'd enthuse.  "Right!  Well, what sounds better to you: 'Put me in Coach, I'm ready to play!' or 'Put me Leader I'm ready to play!'  Huh?  C'mon!  Who's with me?   Anybody?
It looks really lame on a resume, like it's supposed to be under the "Interests and Hobbies" section.  F#@$%^& juvenile crap.

So, just like that I was made a LEADER OF MEN.  Well more like I was made a LEADER OF A LOT OF WOMEN AND LIKE, MAYBE, THREE DUDES.  Which is kinda okay with me since I generally find that women sometimes have a better work ethic and are less prone to subterfuge the workplace.

At various times throughout the year our six-person supervisory team would have anywhere from forty to well over one-hundred staff to take care of.  Of that, we each had a segment of the population that we'd regularly interact with.  For example, when feedback, performance reviews and monitoring needed to be done, each one of us had a crew of regulars that we'd cover.

This was good since it allowed us to develop a rapport with own unique crew.  The one thing that I consider when I look back was how ludicrous it must have been for a twenty-something snot to be doing job appraisals for fifty-year-old moms and housewives.  

But I gotta say, I really don't remember any notable hiccups.  Please see prior comment RE: my inexplicable appeal with the over-forty female set.  

At the time I loved the work environment at Sears but with time and some perspective I've come to regard some of the dynamics as pretty dysfunctional.  One thing I can say with all confidence was that you always knew exactly who your enemies were.  Unlike my last place of employ (where it sometimes felt as if your back sometimes resembled a butter knife pincushion) the armed camps at Sears were always clearly drawn.

Most of my fellow Coaches were all allied against the site manager and her commandant, whom I'd describe now as "bad cop" and "worser cop".  

It wouldn't be out of the ordinary for them to tag team certain people fingered as troublemakers by one of their few moles embedded in the coaching staff.  They had no issue at all defrocking these rebel elements and publicly tearing them down in order to crush any dissent.            

But there was considerable Esprit de Corps amongst the allied Coaches and Leads and they would often try to rush to the defense of the accused.  At the time I was still very young and naive so I tried my best to keep my nose clean.  I hadn't been betrayed by upper management in any workplace yet, so I was a bit too Switzerland at the time, a stance that I now abhor.  

I also remember a distinct feeling of disappointment knowing that the behind the scenes machinations of my (hopefully) long-term employer was infected with the same sort of petty office palsy that  I first encountered at "Zellers" (Tale told here: - yer Humble Narrator).

Sometimes, especially during the holidays, things got insanely busy.  In the months leading up to Christmas our head count would often triple and so did the stress factor.  One thing I have to admit in all fairness is that at least upper management at Sears knew how to prioritize.  When it got hella-busy they were much more concerned with our constant presence of floor support versus being huddled in a refrigerated broom closet listening in on our employee's calls like C.I.A. agents monitoring phone calls from Afghanistan.  

One of the worst things about the job was how some of the staff came to rely on us Coaches to do their jobs for them, especially when things got hairy.  I don't know how often you'd happen by and someone would yell out ♪♫"Oh, supervisor!" ♪♫ in an annoying sing-songy voice.  So, like an idiot, you'd turn around to see a TSA holding up their headset like a dead rabbit, dangling it in front of you.

Now, I really didn't mind taking an escalated call when a customer demanded to speak to a supervisor right away.  What used to irk me is that a small coterie seemed to either refuse to help customers or get deliberately chippy with them because they knew the client would ask to speak to someone else.  If that happened it was a like a form of call center "Bingo!"  The TSA could hand their headset off to a supervisor and then wander around to chat with a co-worker as the Coach put out the fire.

And let me tell ya, it could be pretty gross using someone else's headset at times.  There was one sweet woman (who I'll refer to as THE LITTLE OLD LADY FROM ANOTHER COUNTRY) who habitually wore pounds of makeup.  Eventually layers of the stuff became caked on the mouthpiece.  As it stratified, it eventually cracked up like the soil in the Gobi desert.  I won't lie to you, folks, when you had to strap that bad boy around your melon it was often a bit of a challenge to keep your lunch stationary.  It was friggin' vile.        
Eventually a dedicated "Customer Service" team was created for the purpose of dealing with most escalated calls.  They began to keep a record of what TSA did the transfer and how often, which helped us drill down on the abusers.  It didn't completely eliminate it, but I have to say, the powers that be were often quite good at promoting innovation as opposed to changing shit just for the sake of change.  That always pissed me off as terribly wasteful.  .  

Training became a regular requirement of the job.  Now this wouldn't be an assistant gig like before when I was a TSA.  No, now I'd be asked to facilitate new hire training and refresher courses for veteran staff.

For those of you following along at home you're likely already familiar with my stark fear of public speaking.  I'd gotten over it somewhat by this stage but the prospects still scared the bejesus out of me.  Mercifully, upper management didn't just throw us to the wolves.  They gave us seminars on how to be an effective public speaker, organize training materials and properly facilitate meetings.   

You'd think a lot of this would be common sense but you'd be surprised. At my last job if someone whispered a question in the front row of a packed room during a big department meeting rarely would anyone have the foresight to repeat the question so the entire room could hear it.  Also no facilitator ever bothered to, oh, I dunno, actually move away from the front of the room every once in a blue moon to try and keep people visually engaged.  Half the time the meetings weren't even miked properly.  

We learned a lot of good tips and tricks.  One of the most terrifying tests we had to endure was to talk for one minute straight about a topic we had some sort of knowledge of in front of a gathering of our fellow coaches.  One minute.  Sounds easy, huh?

Well, it ain't.  Just try it yourself.  Spontaneously pick a topic you know something about (sport franchises, alternative rock history, Kat Von D's poor taste in men) stand up in front of a baker's dozen of your peeps and then start a-babblin'.  You'll be amazed how quickly the "umms" and "ahs" pile up.  I assure you, one minute can feel like an eternity when you stand in judgment (whether real or imagined) in front of your peers.

I eventually became resolved that if I was going to be forced to do this with a gun to my head I'd was going to do it right. Every time I tried to be flawlessly researched and prepared.  I pondered every possible question and contingency.  And most importantly, I routinely bribed people with Timbits.  

I got a lot of positive feedback from my training.  One of my co-presenters wrote this after we did a class together: "After having the opportunity to present one of the Customer Contact workshops with David, I have to give thanks.  You were a joy to work with making presenting a breeze.  Here's hoping I get to have the same opportunity again in the future.  You're a real team player, Dave!"

One of the staff I trained submitted the following nice words: "Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the workshop on March 31'st, 2000.  David Pretty was one of the coaches and he really made the workshop enjoyable and seemed very well prepared.  Thank you David!"

My immediate manager seemed to notice this as well.  On one of my reviews at the time she observed: "Your communication/teaching skills have blossomed.  I know the associates enjoyed the focus groups you held and found them very informative.  I can tell that you really enjoy that part of your job."

My heart goes out to educators.  It's amazing to me just how much endurance is required to teach people things.  Physically it's a challenge since you're on your feet all day but the mental gymnastic you're forced to do are really Olympic. 

I also was proud of the changes I spearheaded.  I created several step-by-step quick reference tips sheets to allow new hires to easily bring up hard to find answers involving credit questions, bonus offer number data and catalog expiry info.  

In addition to that, before I came on the scene, coaches often picked arbitrary scores for staff performance reviews based on "best guesses" and comparisons to teammates.  It was hardly an exact science and if we were ever challenged on it during performance reviews, we had very few solid stats to back up why we picked a certain score for them.

To rectify this I created a quantifiable series of criterion which would allow us to confidently assign ratings to our staff in different categories (such as prompt phone log in time, log out time, break adherence, calls per hour, talk time, and time spent not available) without resorting to guesswork.  We only had a chance to use it for one year and it was to great effect.  Who knows what other innovations me and my fellow Coaches would have come up with given more of a chance. 

Despite the odd psychotic customer and paranoid member of upper mangement, we still had a lot of fun.  We'd constantly run contests and goofy theme days just to try and break up the monotony for our people.  

One time we did a theme day contest based on popular movies.  Our team picked The Wizard of Oz and we promptly decorated our little piece of the center with a taped down cardboard yellow brick road, a hastily cobbled together Emerald City mural and some good sport fellow Coaches who dressed up as the Tin Man and Dorothy., supervised and saw that it was good.  

As nutty as these affectations were the contest winner was out resident Scottish-born former women's prison guard who'd gotten her team to pick Braveheart, the William Wallace biopic that had done some boffo box office just a few years prior (but will now forever be tainted by the presence of Mel "Now With 30% More Crazy" Gibson.) 

Well, she didn't just take Braveheart as a mere theme.  She mounted the equivalent of an off-Broadway stage adaptation right on the floor.  I shit you not, folks, I'm pretty sure it got nominated for a "Tony" award that year for "Best Scenic Design for a Play".  

Unable to play William Wallace herself (compelling evidence still exists that she had to be talked out of it) she volun-told a new hire that he "got the part", much to his supreme confusion and consternation I'm sure.  

I remember meeting some of my fellow gawkers at the "Battle of Sterling Bridge" set (just a few quick strides away from the Quick Answer Help Desk who kept assuring us they they did not know first aid) and watched in a mixture of awe and horror as this poor, scared little waif was prompted to scream "And they'll never take...our SWIPECARDS!!!" in a voice not dissimilar to the Pimply-Faced Teenager from The Simpsons ("Whoops!  I dropped your taco in the deep fryer!  Here, let me get it out for you...OWW!!  OWWWWW!!!!").


I also remember engaging in my own share of inexplicable behavior.  I loved trying to goad my fellow Coaches into doing crazy things during those rare quiet times, just to blow off some steam.  This typically involved some sort of musical number.  One time I printed off the lyrics to the theme song from Shaft, retained a willing back-up singer and then systemically went from one team's desk to another to warble out our own bad-ass version of it.  I also managed to, persuade another game coworker to help out with a rollicking version of "Dragula" by Rob Zombie.

There was just something oddly gratifying about going up to some of the older Coaches and yelling "Dig through the ditches/And burn through the witches/And SLAM in the back of my...Drag-U-LAAAAA!"  Some of their baffled facial expression were just priceless.     


All the Coaches and our immediate manager got along swimmingly.  Although we sometimes had gobs of staff to keep an eye on, our six-person operation meshed together nicely.
Our boss (or "Lead" in a refreshingly non-baseball reference) was a hip, smart and sassy gal who I loved working for.  Woe to the moron who would underestimate her just because she was young, blond and attractive.   Yeah, she might not pick up on some more obscure references but who the f#@$% cares?  She had loads of common sense and empathy, which are traits becoming all to rare in the modern workplace.

Like a good superhero team, my fellow Coaches had all the skill sets covered.  We had a nurturing and emotional mom, an organized proponent of discipline and stats, a charismatic comedian of the people who kept everyone's spirits buoyed, an earnest and energetic workhorse and me...someone with the sensibilities to relate equally to young people with an equally warped sense of humor and older ladies who thought for some twisted reason that I had a cute bum.  

If pressed to cast myself in a Star Trekkian type role I eventually became the "Communications Officer".  Anytime a directive or information came down from on high my co-workers often elected me to be the official team spokesman.  I was fairly well written and I always tried to involve some sort of humorous angle to make sure what we were asking people to do didn't come off as illogical, preachy or demanding.  

In the next episode I'll show you a few of those ancient communiques and see how it often functioned as an ersatz creative outlet.  

'Til next time, good night and may all the good news be yours!

EPIC:   I also wore the same outfit featured in this concert footage just to lend authenticity to my performance, by the way...



No comments: