Thursday, July 26, 2007

Yes Sir; No, Ma’am

I had Paul the plumber in the other day replacing a sink and vanity in the downstairs bathroom. Paul’s been here before, so we know each other. He’s in his 40s; I’m 55.

Because this job was more involved than just fixing a toilet valve, he had to ask questions from time to time. Invariably, he began with “Sir? I need to ask you…”

After a few iterations of this, I kidded him, “Paul, do I really look that old that you have to keep calling me ‘Sir?’”

“It’s how I was raised…” and he started to say “sir” again, but then hesitated. “Me, too,” I said. “Mom and Dad always made sure we got that one right. None of this yeah and nah. It was always “Yes, Sir” and “No, Ma’am.” I don’t think that’s much in fashion these days.”

Too bad. To me, it’s a mark of respect for other people – particularly those in authority. It’s not kowtowing, fawning or pandering. It’s saying “I respect you.”

Maybe our techno culture doesn’t mesh well with Yes, Sir and No, Ma’am – too formal sounding. Employees are associates or team members and business casual or even less formal styles of attire dominate. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean we should respect other people any less.

I do several things not in fashion these days. I’m not looking for any accolades or honors. Because it’s the way I was raised, I don’t even think much about it.

I’ve always held doors open for other people – men as well as women. The reactions I get are interesting. People older than me seem genuinely surprised. I guess it doesn’t happen that much. The strangest reaction I get seems to be from some young women. They give me a look that seems to say, “Oh, so you don’t think I can open the door myself, you male chauvinist.” Lighten up!

It’s been said that our society has become coarser than ever before in spite of its technological advances. Everywhere from the boardroom to the playground to the halls of Congress, civility seems to have vanished. It’s just a lack of respect. Do I really believe that? Yes, sir, I do.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sign Up Today

Today I drove past a building under construction on the main street of my town’s business district. The crew was hard at work, building…what? I don’t know. There was no sign telling me who or what was coming to the neighborhood. Given the location, it must be a commercial structure, but beyond that, who would know?

Having spent more than 30 years in advertising and public relations, I always thought – and taught this as well – that a business should take advantage of every opportunity to distinguish itself from the competition. What better time to start than when a new building starts to rise… when people driving and walking by this hub of activity are naturally curious – and interested – about what’s coming to town. Yet I see so many new commercial buildings going up with no sign whatsoever.

It doesn’t take much. How about a sign that says, “Future Home of Fenwick & Jones, Attorneys At Law” or “Coming Soon – Main Line Lunch” or “Opening in December: Nature’s Best Health Foods?” Satisfy that consumer curiosity that’s been piqued by the construction and nourish that initial impression with your regular marketing as opening draws near. Don’t even wait for the foundation to be poured – let people know right after the first shovel of ground’s been turned. Get creative – make the sign a countdown clock or put a line in reminding people about a charity – Heart Walk, United Way, or the local volunteer fire company. Sure, once the building is finished, you’ll have a permanent sign; but by then you’ll just be part of the surrounding commercial landscape. Stand out now.

This doesn’t just apply to for-profit businesses; the new home for a food bank or community youth center also should get a head start on spreading the word.

I know: many localities have sign ordinances and there’s already a lot of sign clutter. Most of those ordinances apply to permanent signs, and if you’re creative enough, you won’t be adding to the clutter. It’s not like your immediate neighbors don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve already been through the planning commission, the zoning board and the town council, unless you just decided to start building with the hope that none of them would notice.

What you do see a lot at new construction is a sign trumpeting the bank that provided the money: “Another Project Financed by First National Bank of Somewhere.” It’s nice advertising for the bank, but what good does it do the new business owner?

So what’s being built on the main street in my town’s business district? It could be anything from a house of worship to a house of ill repute. I don’t know. Sign Up Today, guys!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

True Colors

I will never be mistaken for an Appalachian Trail “thru-hiker,” but I do like to have the right kind of equipment for my short jaunts in nearby state parks and conservancies. The other day I decided I needed a new waist pack (You can tell I’m not that much of a hiker or it would be a backpack.).

I located a Marmot Excursion pack in a Dick’s Sporting Goods Store. It’s a nice pack, hopefully worth the $40 it cost. In addition to it being highly functional, I thought it looked sharp – a nice dark blue with contrasting light blue highlights. Or so I thought. Looking at the tag, I saw the true colors in Marmot’s eyes were “Tempest” and “Stellar.”

“Maybe,” I thought, “that what makes this pack so special – and lets Marmot get away with charging more for it than if they said it was dark blue and light blue.” After all, a company named after a rodent has to enhance its products somehow. (Actually, they’re a company with a top-notch reputation).

A whole lot of folks are getting into exotic-sounding colors…blue, green or red are just too pedestrian. You need to justify that price tag. Some of the colors of items in the J Jill catalog that my wife buys from are: stone, dark mineral, shale, beach grass and bay leaf. It sounds like they’re running a quarry or lawn and garden store. Somehow, I don’t see a dress in “Stone” as having sleek lines. But an equal number of the colors are foods: Honeydew, Chocolate, Nutmeg, Latte, Cinnamon and Oatmeal. Would you like to buy an oatmeal top or skirt, dear? Is that the color or the material? Is it edible?

Other clothing and furnishings companies seem to be serving up the same menu: at LL Bean, you can get a Double L® Polo in Butter or Chili if you’re a guy; for the ladies, you can choose the polo in Spearmint. At Lands End, women can buy a scoop neck tank top in Persimmon. At Maryland Square, the shoe catalog, some of the models come in: Tootsie Roll, Coffee Bean, and Cream Soda. They also feature items in these fine colors: “Luggage,” “Tuscany” and “Tobacco.” It turns out “Luggage” is a shade of tan – my wife’s luggage is blue, so I guess it’s not universal.

The car companies are into adult beverages: you can get a new Ford Taurus in “Merlot,” a Chevrolet Trailblazer in “Bordeaux” or a Lexus SC in “Chardonnay Pearl.” Now there’s a dangerous mix – cars and alcohol.

What’s with all the food and drink references? I can only guess they’re trying to make customers hungry – and thirsty – for their products.

P.S. Back to hiking – if you’d like to read a book about one person’s hiking adventures – funny and serious – try Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Did Anyone Tell The Animals?

We recently had a one-day government shutdown in my home state of Pennsylvania – due to our bloated state legislature and the governor being unable to agree on a budget prior to the new fiscal year.

It wasn’t a complete shutdown; those services deemed essential for “health and safety” – like the State Police – continued operating. But other things were closed. I remember reading a news release from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) which solemnly stated, “All state parks and state forests will be closed.” What I wondered was, “Did anyone tell the animals their homes would be shuttered?”

Ever wanting to do my part, I tried my best to inform the wildlife my sister and I encountered on a hike in Lackawanna State Park the weekend before the shutdown. We couldn’t catch the attention of a soaring bald eagle – we didn’t look enough like prey, I guess. The three deer we encountered scurried away before we could get close enough to relay the news. A series of large spider webs were unoccupied; we would have left a note, but we didn’t have anything to write on. Finally, we got close enough to a red salamander, but the creature mutely professed indifference to our warning. I wonder if DCNR had the same results.

I think it odd that with the criteria for deciding what parts of state government would remain open being “health and safety,” the state liquor stores (ask me about those another time), the state lottery and the five slots casinos remained open. (The latter took a court order to accomplish.) Here’s how I look at it: the shutdown occurred on one of the hottest and most humid days of the year – with excessive heat warnings issued. For many people – particularly in urban areas – the only relief from the dangerous heat would be a nearby state park pool, beach or forest. But they were closed. What happened to “health and safety?” I suppose they could take comfort that the lottery was still in full operation. Oh, and one other thing: the state Revenue Department was shut down. Now there’s progress.

The Great Pennsylvania Government (Partial) Shutdown of 2007 is history, and like the Federal government shutdown in late 1995, the cause was the same: a sandbox fight between two children who haven’t yet learned how to play nicely together yet. What a state! What a country!