How to make sure subscribers don't read your organization's email messages

As an animal-welfare and marketing professional, every week I receive dozens of call-to-action messages from organizations I care about, e-blasts about important social causes, and newsletters I don't remember having signed up for. These communications from organizations other than the one I work for are a good way to keep up on trends, gauge how effective the different media and messages are, and make comparisons which help to improve my promotional and public-relations work.

One thing I've learned from the wealth of messages I receive daily: There are three surefire ways to make sure subscribers don't read your organization's email messages. Sure, subscribers might open it (online marketing pros know that encouraging subscribers to open an email in the first place is quite a feat itself), but once they open it, if you do the following three things, your call to action - whether a request to donate, buy a product, or share with a friend - will go unheeded.

This message lacks a logo, an image related to the text's content, and an immediately obvious message. (Click to view larger).I'll use a message I received from Lifeline Animal Rescue Network as an example. This post is meant to help organizations improve their marketing, and is not meant as an insult or critique of the organization - to the contrary, Lifeline has a noble cause - to help homeless animals. Though I'm still not 100% sure what they do to help.

But that's not the point of this post - the point is that doing these three things in a business or non-profit's email to customers and supporters will ensure that most people won't read a message if they open it:

1. Use Inconsistent Branding

This email has a generic-looking banner and format. The organization's website has a different one (I'm not sure either is a logo.) Since I'm not familiar with this organization in the first place (and how they got my email address is a separate matter), how can I trust that the message I receive is from the organization itself and not an imposter trying to steal my credit card information?

Anyone can grab a company or non-profit organization's logo, slap it into an email distribution program, and send it out as if it's from the organization. But if the message you're sending out truly is from who you say it's from, it's important to cut down on as many red flags as possible for the reader. If I was familiar with Lifeline and received this message, the lack of consistent, recognizable branding is the first red flag that would make my brain slow down a bit and say "Hey, something's not right here..." The second thing to do to turn people off from your email is:

2. Don't Include Images

There's nothing pretty to look at in this message. Besides the blue banner and the easycontact brand footer, there's no color. There's no photograph, no drawing, no icon. I didn't know what this message was about when I opened it; a photograph of animals would have done wonders to encourage me to read the message.

People are inundated with email, and providing one powerful visual in any electronic communication can make the difference between gaining a new customer or turning someone off for good. Most email marketing programs (Convio, ExactTarget, etc.) allow you to brand your message with your logo and include images, even with free versions.

Even with a powerful image, though, many people wouldn't read this message because the author chose to:

3. Write a Large Block of Tiny Text

This is an easy trap to fall into. I know, because I LOVE to write. Even this post is probably longer than necessary. And many people, when given access to email their organization's supporters, think "I'm going to include every single thing in this message that's important to me about this subject because I KNOW it will be important to the person reading this and they won't have as many questions for me once they read it!" Not true.

E-blasts and electronic newsletters need to be easy to scan (there's plenty of research on e-communication effectiveness, especially from usability expert Jakob Nielsen.) And better yet, the message should fit onto one screen rather than multiple scrolled screens. And most importantly, your audience should be able to figure out what the heck you're trying to make them do within the first few seconds of them opening the message - or else they'll probably delete it right away and lessen the odds that they'll open a message from you again.

The only reason I read the Lifeline email was because I didn't know what it was (besides an email message I don't remember subscribing to) and had thought about writing on this topic for awhile. And the problem with this email wasn't only the fact that there were more paragraphs and more tiny-font words than there needed to be - the biggest issue is that I STILL don't know exactly what Lifeline is or what they do. I know they want to help animals, and somehow they want to help animals by having people eat food and donate money, but the correlation between these things is lost on me.

So if you're responsible for using email to bring customers to your business, encourage supporters of your non-profit cause to donate, or even invite your friends and family to your next big party, consider adding appropriate visuals and cutting the text down to only the most important, easily understandable stuff. With that in mind, I'm done writing for now.

Wait, no I'm not: What's the most effective electronic message you've recently received from a company or non-profit, and did they not do the steps above? Leave your comment below.

Top 10 Bands Named After Creepy-Crawly Animals

Update: Download the Creepy-Crawly music mix and get the tracklist here.

The last Top 10 Bands Named After Animals post was dedicated to cute ones. This list, not so much.

Because not as many people like creatures that wriggle or slither as cats and dogs, we'll keep this short & sweet.

1. The Bug


It's impossible not to list a musical artist with a name like "the Bug" here. Plus, the music made by Kevin Martin, aka the Bug, is simply wonderful: lots of bass, Jamaican toasters and a sinister vibe that can't be beat.

 






 

2. Slug & Ant (aka Atmosphere)


Dunno how they got their nicknames, and don't really care to find out, especially if Slug got his name from the slimy creature and not a lead bullet. At any rate, Slug & Ant, aka Atmosphere, have been making great Midwestern hip-hop for quite awhile and put on a good show, too.

 






 

3. The Beatles


The misspelling nearly disqualified them. But the fact that they're one of the greatest bands of all time - and the fact that they aren't Papa Roach - set them in this list with ease. (Side note: Thursday Friday Saturday's music-production unit, Tiger Shark, considered using the name "The Beatless" before settling on Tiger Shark. Someone else had used it. And we didn't want to be sued by the Beatles or the Beatless.)

 

The Beatles' "Love" is basically an amazing remix album. And a Cirque du Soleil Vegas show.

4. The Locust


If you like goofy, complex, aggressive music, look no further than the Locust. If you like tales of locusts ravaging human foodstuffs as a portent of horrible things to come, look no further than the Bible

.

 






 

5. Bugz in the Attic


Another shoe-in to this list, Thursday Friday Saturday saw Bugz in the Attic in South Beach, Miami's Winter Music Conference one time. And we've seen bugs in our attic-converted-to-bedroom, which has its fair share of creepy crawlies this time of year.

 






 

6. Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars


Yeah, technically this is the name of a David Bowie album. But given the fact that it was a pretty sweet concept album and the band's name was the Spiders from Mars - and we needed to kick Papa Roach off the Top 10 somehow - the Spiders deserve a spot.

 






 

7. White Snake


Unless you drive a 1987 Camaro or heard White Snake's "Here I Go Again" at the bowling alley last night, you probably haven't heard it for years. You're welcome. (And if you were reminded by Great White when you read "White Snake", don't worry: they will be in a future Top 10 Bands Named After Animals list.)

 

Buy the White Snake "Definitive Collection" with not only "Here I Go Again", but classics "Slide It In", "Ready An' Willing" and more. Something tells us that the band had something other than a long, legless reptile in mind when they came upon their name (that's what she said.)

 

8. Adam and the Ants


Adam and the Ants were the type of 80's British band - along with A Flock of Seagulls and Duran Duran - that made us wonder what the heck was in the water across the pond.

 






 

 

9. Iron Butterfly


So butterflies aren't creepy or crawly - when they're adults. But at one point in their life, they're larvae, which is creepy-crawly enough, just like the plastic surgery on the woman's face who introduces their classic song, "In A Gadda Da Vida", in this video:

 

 

10. Deer Tick


Thursday Friday Saturday doesn't know much about Deer Tick, other than they deserve this spot more than Papa Roach, and they get a bonus point for having the name of an animal in their album "War Elephant." And another bonus point for having the coolest desert-themed band visual (on their album below) since the Clash's "Rock the Casbah" video. And yet another bonus point for having the most anti-Web 2.0 site we've seen in a long, long time.

 






Disqualified: Papa Roach


There's a possibility of a "Bottom 10 Bands Named After Animals" post on Thursday Friday Saturday. On second thought, no there isn't: the animals named after bands like Papa Roach have already suffered enough indignity by the music played by the bands named after them.

 

No offense to roaches, but a roach is not the coolest thing you can incorporate into a band name. And preceding it with "Papa" doesn't help much, either.


Next time on "Top 10 Bands Named After Animals": kitty cats! Who do you want to see on future lists?

Trademark Paranoia

Intellectual property protection is important for many reasons, but some organizations take trademarks a bit too far. There's a fine line between reasonably protecting a brand and being paranoid and overzealous with legal tools. For example, the NCAA and American Humane do a good job of protecting their brands and like to remind people of this fact.
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Top 10 Bands Named After Cute Animals

You'll think of bands named after animals as soon as you read this. But how many can you think of, why are they worth listening to, and most importantly, how do they compare to nine other bands named after animals in the same category? For your listening, viewing, petting, hunting, admiring, saving, fearing, riding or frying pleasure, Thursday Friday Saturday presents the most comprehensive list ever of bands named after animals. First in this series of Top 10's: the top 10 bands named after cute animals!
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Pure joy

Unadulterated happiness: what my dogs feel when I pick them up from the vet.

Diva (pictured) and her sister got into a fight with a raccoon last week. Fortunately, the dogs won, albeit a little worse for the wear.

CMS Fight Club: WordPress vs. Blogger vs. ExpressionEngine vs. Squarespace

You have something to say. But with so many online tools to share your wisdom with the world via the web, how do you choose? How user friendly and flexible are services like Blogger and WordPress compared to newer options like Squarespace? Thursday Friday Saturday presents to you: CMS Fight Club.
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Top 10 Tips for Public Relations Professionals

My intern (or - as she would probably prefer to be called - Communications and Marketing Assistant) asked me last week for my Top 10 Tips for future public relations pros. It didn't take long to come up with worthy ones, as they're second nature after dealing with some sticky situations. Whether you're selling a product, furthering a cause, or trying to keep your job in a time of organizational crisis, the following tips can keep you on the right path.
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Movie Review: Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. posterLive in America? Eat food? Watch Food, Inc. - one of the most important films of this decade.

As American consumers, few of us have any idea how our food comes to be. Food, Inc. details the industrial farming of plants and meat in America, and documents, with unapologetic grit, how a few large companies have come to control the vast majority of what we eat, affecting our health, economy, environment, and society.

Basically a more thorough, helpful film version of Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation, fictionalized in film in 2006, Schlosser, Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore's Dilemma), Polyface Farms owner Joel Salatin, and others share their research and knowledge of industrial farming. Others share personal stories - a mother whose son died of E. Coli earlier this decade; a union organizer questioning why individual illegal immigrants rather than the corporations who helped them come here are targeted by government raids.

The film is rife with disturbing footage and facts - it takes 75 gallons of oil to produce the average cow, which typically spends much of its life in massive feedlots knee-deep in manure - but the filmmaker provides signs of hope and tips on how to eat well while supporting companies that value health and life, including some helpful, easy-to-follow tips at the end of the film:

"You can vote to change this system three times a day.

    Buy from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect.
    When you go to the supermarket: choose foods that are in season, buy foods that are organic, know what's in your food.
    Read labels. Know what you buy.
    The average meal travels 15,000 miles from the farm to the supermarket. Buy foods that are grown locally.
    Shop at farmer's markets.
    Plant a garden.
    Cook a meal with your family and eat together.
    Everybody has a right to healthy food. Make sure your farmer's markets take food stamps. Ask your school board to provide healthy school lunches.
    The FDA and USDA are supposed to protect you and your family. Tell Congress to enforce food safety standards and to re-introduce Kevin's Law [see the movie for details].
    If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us, and the planet, healthy.

You can change the world with every bite."

One of the easiest ways to make change in the food system (check the Food, Inc. site for more tips) is to stop eating so much meat - foregoing even one meat-based meal a week makes a difference; visit the PB & J Campaign for more info. And be sure to watch Food, Inc.

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Movie Review: "The Tiger Next Door"

Dennis Hill and Tiger in The Tiger Next Door

At the Indianapolis International Film Festival, I was fortunate to attend the world premiere of "The Tiger Next Door", a documentary film by Camilla Calamandrei, about the keeping and breeding of captive tigers in the United States. The film is an excellent character study on Dennis Hill of Flat Rock, Indiana, whose biker looks and attitude belie his apparently gentle, naive nature.

Big cats are fascinating, and though the film moved steadily and showed its subjects beautifully, I was disappointed during the first half of the movie that Calamandrei chose not to focus on the bigger picture of the plight of endangered big cat species, but rather focused on a few individuals: Hill, his neighbors (pro- and anti- Hill), Exotic Feline Rescue Center founder Joe Taft, and a smattering of other animal-welfare supporters and government officials. I'd earlier hoped for more of a "Sharkwater"-style film, centered around an individual to tell the story of a global concern.

But Hill's battle to keep his exotic tigers, cougars and other big cats amidst impending government intervention proved to be a story worth telling: how many people know it's legal to keep - and breed - such exotic creatures in half of the United States? Or that a dead tiger is worth more than a live one in the U.S.? Or that there are likely more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than exist in the wild? Or that the rules and regulations on keeping these powerful predators aren't enforced, and even if they were, would be far from adequate in guaranteeing the health of these wondrous creatures, or the safety of the communities living around them?

The small community around Hill's Flat Rock home spoke often throughout the film, and at times added much-needed doses of humor to an otherwise somber film. Calamandrei told the story from all sides well, though I was disappointed more information wasn't included regarding a neighbor's claim that a severed tiger head and tail were found on his adjacent land.

After the film's debut, Calamandrei took questions from the crowd, who seemed more than eager to side with Joe Taft, whose Exotic Feline Rescue Center looked like paradise compared to Hill's facilities. The discussion's moderator was wise to diffuse potential arguments in the passionate audience by directing most questions to Calamandrei, who, as in the film, was sufficiently fair to all sides. I asked if she was more or less hopeful for the future of endangered species after making this film; unsurprisingly, she's not optimistic, and feels more confused about what's best for these animals now that she's learned more about their story, at home and abroad.

Hill appears to love his big cats because of their power and the difficulty of controlling them - and somewhat selfishly because of the elusiveness of white tigers - and Taft, in the film, is shown to be compassionate about their well-being and quality of life. Neither of these Hoosiers mentioned the more global issues facing these creatures, but I can't blame them: focusing on the few cats they have is more than full-time work, and attempting to ignite positive change overseas in natural tiger habitat is far beyond their abilities. Even Taft admitted, during the Q&A session, that he hasn't attempted to push change on Indiana's state regulations on captive tigers. But he suggested a start (require a strict minimum cage area to allow them to live in). And judging by one of the audience member's enthusiastic offer to support regulation (she's been involved the past several years in puppy-mill legislation), Taft's suggestion might be all that's needed to kick-start a better future for these animals.

After all, if we don't respect living creatures, especially those as beautiful and as powerful as tigers, how can we respect Earth's top predators - our fellow human beings?

(Calamandrei is currently looking for a distributor for her film. For more information, visit TheTigerNextDoor.com.)

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Reasons to be Thankful #1: Life

I don't update my website often. And I don't give thanks nearly as often as I should, either. I hope to rectify these frequency issues with an experiment, "Reasons to be Thankful." (I say "experiment" because if I said "regular blog posts", I might be lying.) Anyway, in one of my previous blog posts ("Top 5 things to do if you've lost your job"), my first recommendation was to give thanks. And though I'm blessed to not have lost my job, I'm planning on following that recommendation as much as possible.

Since high school, I've known that meditation has scientifically proven benefits. I've read various books, such as Jon Kabat-zinn's "Wherever You Go, There You Are" and B. Alan Wallace's "Tibetan Buddhism From the Ground Up: A Practical Approach for Modern Life", which both heavily advocate for meditation, no matter your spiritual affiliation or path in life.

And even though both books were fascinating to me, how many times have I meditated since reading them? Zero, unless trying only a few times for only a few minutes counts. (I even read the former book twice - I shudder to think how many times I could have meditated instead of reading about how to meditate!)

So even though I've yet to meditate, I'm making steps toward relaxing, enjoying life, and appreciating everything. "Reasons to be Thankful" is one of those steps. I don't want it so much to be a diary of things I like, but more of a conversation with other people who are learning to appreciate everything life and the world have to offer. And my first reason to be thankful is an obvious one (especially if you read the title of this post), but one that can't be overlooked: Life.

Life is something we've all been given. If you're reading this, you've been granted the amazing ability to experience sensations, the ability to breathe, the ability to appreciate things. You've been given consciousness, the freedom to love, the freedom to hate, and much more. But how often do you fully embrace everything in your life - the joy, the pain, the suffering, the quiet moments, the chaotic times - everything? No matter who you are or what's happening in your life, there's something to give thanks for and appreciate. And a logical first thing to appreciate is your life.

So here's to life, my first and foremost Reason to be Thankful. Without it, I'd never have the fortune of being able to be thankful for anything else in this incredible universe.

What are you thankful for?

P.S. - I'm thankful for people who read blog posts and comment on them, no matter how short the comment. :)

Songs listened to while writing this post:

John Legend - "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)"

Wrex N Effect - "Rump Shaker"

Girl Talk - "Hold Up"

Vampire Weekend - "The Kids Don't Stand A Chance"

Interpol - "Rest My Chemistry (live)"

Smashing Pumpkins - "Zero"

T. Rex - "Free Angel (extended play)"

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Top 5 things service companies must do in order to survive in this economy

Service companies cannot sacrifice customer satisfaction for their financial bottom line in this economy.

I've recently had two important and extremely frustrating customer-service experiences, one dealing with a vehicle purchase and the other with a home-warranty company in charge of fixing my home's broken furnace (I'm sitting at my computer in a 50-some degree room heated only by a tiny spaceheater.) Read about my experiences with Plaza Motors AZ and HWA (Home Warranty of America) below, or jump to the Top 5 things service companies must do in order to survive in this economy.

2003 Infiniti FX35I purchased a used vehicle on eBay through a company called Plaza Motors AZ. Polite on the phone and quick to reply when I asked them questions before the purchase, I trusted the company's nearly 500 positive ratings. They arranged shipping from Phoenix to Indianapolis with a company whom they said they knew trustworthy, and told me it would be delivered within a certain amount of time.

Plaza didn't give me a tracking number (they laughed when I requested one), so I called the shipper the day before the window in which the car was to be delivered to me, but couldn't get in touch with them. I called over and over, day and night, over the next few days and still hadn't heard from them about the status of my car.

Mad Max  pirates

I called Plaza several times asking for any and all contact info for the shipper. They told me they'd given me everything they had. But a day after the delivery window was over, I called one more time in a desperate attempt to contact the shipping company. They gave me a phone number they hadn't given me before, and it actually worked. They should have given me this number in the first place. To make a long, frustrating story short, I finally got my vehicle, albeit a few days late, after worrying that it had been shipped overseas for parts or stolen by Mad-Max-style road pirates.

The hauler who had my vehicle was apologetic, but told me that Plaza shouldn't have told me my car would be delivered as early as they claimed. I was simply happy to have received my car at that point. But as I was driving home, I heard a banshee-style high-pitched squealing: the serpentine belt was loose, even though the dealership said it had just been replaced.

2003 Infiniti FX35 side viewI paid $70 a few days later to have it tightened - not a lot of money, but it was enough of a hassle after having gone without my car for several weeks to be irritating. (In full disclosure, Plaza just sent me a $70 check to pay for this - though it's made out to a scribbled "Tristan T" and I'm not sure the bank will let me cash it.)

I also discovered some other problems with the vehicle: they weren't major engine or drivetrain issues (not yet, at least), but they should've been disclosed. There's a 1" rip in the side of the driver's seat; the passenger-side rear door has been poorly repainted; the motorized side mirrors don't work; and the vehicle arrived with 500 more miles on it than what the eBay listing claimed. On this last point, the dealer said he couldn't control that, as he was selling it for his friend. But if he didn't want to take responsibility for the mileage, or the mirrors, or anything else, why was he selling it for his friend under Plaza's listings? I've sold a few vehicles online before, and have learned the importance of full disclosure - listing everything you know that's right and wrong with a car is the honest thing to do, even if you end up making less money from the sale.

Anyway, I love the vehicle, but the company's unreliable communication was a source of frustration and stress.

Ditto for what I'm going through right now with HWA, or Home Warranty of America. We paid over $400 for an HWA warranty on our current home when we bought it last August to cover major appliances, like our heating/cooling system, refrigerator, dishwasher, and washing machine. We were happy to pay this, after the furnace at our last home died on one of the coldest days of 2008 and we had to pay for the replacement. We didn't want to be left with a several-thousand-dollar problem again.

Nine days ago, I had Northern Heating and Cooling (whom we've used in the past and have been quite happy with) come out for regular furnace maintenance. They discovered that the heat exchanger was cracked, and since this is a carbon monoxide hazard, they shut the furnace off while I called HWA. HWA requires customers to call them as soon as a problem's detected, rather than calling a service company first.

Cracked heat exchangerHWA gave me the name of a service company who would come out to verify the cracked heat exchanger and give an estimate to them to replace it. The company couldn't come until the next morning, but they showed up on time and verified the problem. Like Northern, they said the exchanger would be difficult if not impossible to find, and that even if the exchanger were replaced, other parts would likely go out soon and require the whole system to be replaced.

HWA wasn't happy to hear that the entire system should be replaced, and they were determined to only replace the exchanger. So they sent another service contractor to the house, who told them what they wanted to hear: the exchanger needed to be replaced and a full-system replacement was unnecessary. This was Friday afternoon, and by then it was too late to order the part, as the warehouses were closed on the weekend. HWA ordered the part on Monday, and I called them several times throughout the week to find out the status, as our house was frigid and basically unusable for anything but sleeping in (our bedroom has a heat pump which has been running non-stop in an attempt to heat the entire house.) HWA pointed fingers at the company providing the exchanger, saying the wait was simply due to the shipping of the item. The furnace service company pointed fingers at both Carrier and HWA, saying it was their fault for not expediting things.

All three groups are at fault. We've been without useful heat for nearly 9 days, and almost every day has been below freezing. We can't run more than 2 or 3 small space heaters at once, or our electric circuits overload and shut off.

When I speak with people at HWA, they offer sympathy and then promptly blame Carrier, the heat exchanger company, saying we're just waiting on them. I've left messages for the HWA folks I've spoken with throughout the week, and they rarely call back.

My wife also filed claims with HWA to fix our dishwasher and washing machine, neither of which are working properly. No service contractors have called us back to schedule a time to fix the machines, but what's worse is that HWA has sent us three surveys, one for each of our claims, asking us how our service "went." Granted, they ask us not to complete the survey if service hasn't been completed, but it's ridiculous that in 9 days, nothing has been fixed, and they have the nerve to ask us how things have gone.

HWA is fighting to save money - it seems they're hiring the cheapest help to do the cheapest work possible, at the expense of customer comfort and happiness. The workers they hire have been unreliable for us - the furnace contractor has been even worse at communicating than anyone else I've mentioned in this message, and he was supposed to be at my house half an hour ago to fix the furnace, but he hasn't shown up or called.

Customers do have an important role in hiring and tracking responsible companies to perform service. But when doing so becomes a part-time job, the service company loses all trust, future business from that customer, and risks terrible word of mouth, which in today's economy is worth more than ever. Plaza has risked a negative eBay rating, and HWA and the service companies they've hired will be receiving poor ratings from us on Angie's List, a service which itself knows a thing or two about good and bad customer service.


Without further ado, the Top 5 things service companies must do in order to survive in this economy:

1. Communicate. Give your customers the most important information they need to know. Be honest with them about delivery dates, arrival times, contact people, costs, problems, EVERYTHING. Avoiding the truth will get you nowhere in the end. And even if a customer leaves a message about their dissatisfaction and frustration, return their call and talk to them rather than avoiding them completely.

2. Be flexible. If problems arise, think of new ways to make your customer happy, and don't be averse to change. Is negative word of mouth and the loss of a customer really worth the money you save now for sticking to your traditional guns? Or is offering alternatives, spending a little extra money now, or providing new solutions or temporary fixes worth a happy customer? The dealership I bought my car from should have provided me with all the contact information for the hauler, and offered to refund some of the money for shipping or fixing the car's mirrors. Home Warranty of America should have sprung for a more reliable furnace service company and faster part shipping, if not a system replacement, which was recommended by 2 of the 3 service people. But they've lost a future customer - I won't buy a warranty from them again, and I'll tell my friends and family about this negative experience.

3. Don't point fingers. Blaming others, whether it's your employees, shippers, parts providers, or God forbid, your customers, makes you sound like a kindergartner. You're responsible for your actions and your customer's service, so if someone has failed your customer in the service you're providing, apologize to the customer and tell them you'll resolve the issue. Blaming everyone but yourself only makes you look even more irresponsible and at fault.

4. Care. Even if you aren't a mission-based non-profit organization, your company was probably started by someone who cared about its customers and wanted to find and provide solutions for them. Your company may have been started 100 years ago or one year ago, but either way, it was started for a reason: to help customers who have problems. If you forget this fact and worry more about your bottom line than your customers' satisfaction, pretty soon you won't have to worry about a bottom line because you won't have one. And consider the difference between empathy and sympathy: expressing empathy shows your customer that you truly care and can relate to the problem and want to do everything in your power to fix it, but simply expressing sympathy will likely be seen as being cold and uncaring. Every person I've talked to at HWA about our furnace that's been out of service for 9 days expresses sympathy when they say that they understand our house is cold and uncomfortable and they're working on the solution. But if they were empathetic, they would go to their boss, say "Is there ANYTHING we can do for these people? They're nearly freezing!" And if their boss couldn't do anything about it, they could go to THEIR boss and do the same.

5. Follow through. When I took golf lessons as a kid, I got sick of people telling me to "follow through" on my swing. Once I learned what they meant, though, I got better (well, relatively speaking - my game's still poor.) The service companies I wrote about above didn't follow through: they didn't return calls, they didn't provide requested information as promised, and in HWA's case, they haven't followed through on their whole premise for existence: to quickly fix homeowners' difficult mechanical problems. Following through, even if it's with something as simple as a phone call, shows that you care, that you're empathetic to the customer's concerns and situation, and that you're a company that's in business for the customer, rather than for greed.

(Lest you think I'm simply a whiner, let me assure you that I reward great companies and service contractors with good word of mouth, tips, repeat business and positive online ratings.)

So, what advice would you give to businesses or service contractors who've frustrated you?

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Top 5 things to do if you've lost your job

Lost jobWhat should you do if you've lost your job? There are a million things you can do, but it's difficult to know where to start. Even if, like me, you're blessed enough to be employed in spite of the global economic turmoil, it's important to know how to rebound if you're sent packing without warning.

1. Give thanks. Whether it's to your higher power, your friends, your family, your pets, or yourself, there is something for you to appreciate and be grateful for. No matter how bad you feel that you've lost your job, things could be worse - you're well aware of the suffering many humans have gone and are going through. This first step might be just the thing you need to kick-start your deflated ego's motivation to go out and find the next great thing in your life.

2. Do what you love and be different doing it. You know you have skill, knowledge or passion that gives you an edge over others who are competing fiercely in the job market. Can you create something useful, beautiful, or just plain silly? Sell it on Etsy. Have you kept a journal? Publish it as a memoir on Lulu. Passionate about helping the homeless, furthering animal welfare, or ending cancer? Get involved and volunteer - you never know who you'll meet or what positive changes you'll bring about in others' lives and your own.

3. Communicate. Starting a blog; joining Facebook, LinkedIn, and "real-life" networking groups like Rainmakers; calling old buddies, coworkers and teachers - that's all great and might generate some good leads toward a new job or career. But don't overlook the power in the simplicity of talking to your neighbors, folks you see regularly at your local haunt, or heck, even your supposed enemies. No matter how you get in touch with people in our high-tech times, having a good conversation is as powerful as ever. Unfortunately, we often rely too much on our email, Facebook or text messaging to communicate instead of having simple face-to-face conversations. Plus, conversation is a good reason to have a cup of coffee or good meal.

Metal worker4. Learn. The world is based on change, and you won't get anywhere if you aren't open to new experiences. Though the cost of learning can be quite high, it's likely to pay off, especially when you need every advantage you can get with the number of skilled, well-educated people hunting for jobs today. Learning doesn't have to mean going to college. Use your local library, the internet, or find professionals who are willing to have you as an apprentice. Into woodcarving, cooking, marketing, or pretty much anything else? There are more ways than ever to educate yourself, gain experience, and profit for your own well-being, as long as you have the will to do so. Don't have the will? Go back to #1 and start again.

5. Be different. Lots of people are in the same situation you are. Lots of people have the same experience, education, lack of money, desire to succeed as you. But are they all different in employers', investors', purchasers' or supporters' eyes? Probably not. There's a good chance someone else has your name (I know you've Googled your name!), and there's an infinitely better chance that in this world, someone's competing for the same space in life that you're vying for. But there is a way for you to stand out, and you know it. Exploit it. Share it. If you haven't found it, go back to step 3 and ask someone how you're different - you might be pleasantly surprised.

Jack of many tradesBonus tip (sorry, I lied when I wrote "Top 5"): Be a jack of many trades and also a master of one. Many people know a little about a lot of things - do you know a lot about one thing, too? If not, learn how to apply everything you know and everything you enjoy to doing what you love. You'll not only be a more well-rounded person, you'll be more marketable in the job market, more happy, and you'll make the world a better place.

Songs randomly played in my iTunes library while writing this post:
"Give Thanks" - Bob Marley
"It's a Shame" - the Spinners
"The Days" - Eliot Lipp
"Somebody" - Depeche Mode
"Tchaparian" - Hot Chip
"Revolution" the Beatles
"You" - Marvin Gaye
"Had to Cry Today" - Blind Faith
"Don Gon Do It" - the Rapture
"Fit You Haffe Fit" - Black Uhuru
"No Rain" - Blind Melon
"Side 8" - Tobacco
"Take This Job and Shove It" - Dead Kennedys
"Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" - James Brown
I'm not kidding about the last two!

What tips can you offer about those who are out of work and searching for employment?

A bonus bonus tip: Don't dwell. What's done is done, and thinking about what you coulda shoulda woulda done gets you nowhere but further into the hole you're in. Look forward to positive changes, and good things will come.

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