I had thought about posting this in December and entitling it A Christmas Story, or perhaps A Success Story. Or perhaps An Ounce of Prevention. The life, career and business lesson is not complicated, but it takes setting the stage. I’m sure you will recognize, by experience, elements in this situation.
Being semiretired but not comatose, I gladly “work” at a number of enjoyable endeavors. One of them is working for a faith-based non-profit organization (we call it a church) in various capacities that might benefit from my years of experience in the School of Hard Knocks. In this role I have been occasionally referred to as “Moses” and once as “Gandalf,” both I believe because I have white hair and a beard (although no staff or cane). Since they still talk to me, I consider those as positive references.
In late October we closed on property and buildings we had purchased and began renovations to occupy it quickly. Everything was running smoothly until one Monday morning in late November during a freezing spell I received a panicked message that our “local utility monopoly” was on the property to turn off the utilities. In rapid order we discovered that we could not simply roll over our “current account” as this account was in our landlord’s name where we leased office space, and our actual “old account” was inactive and therefore could not be simply activated (!?). Getting a valid account at the moment was more important that discovering how a smooth transfer of utilities to new owners had slipped through the cracks.
The good news was that the utility technician, let’s call him Fred, was concerned about the consequences of loss of power in freezing weather and was willing to leave the power on if we could confirm that new account paperwork had been filed, which was done via email. Late Monday evening, I went to bed happy and relieved.
Until Tuesday morning early. Yes, we had electric power, but no gas, and the building was now near freezing. In short order, the following Keystone Kops scenario played out:
-The contractors dropped everything and began to winterize the building;
-The “local utility” confirmed that the email applications would take seven (7) business days to process and get utilities back on, but if they were delivered in person they could be “expedited” to get power back on in three (3) business days. I went to headquarters;
-As opposed to the residential side of the utility operations (which resembled a carnival midway), the business side was calm and quiet. I was optimistic;
-There was not just one account to be set up, but three: gas and two electric – one for each meter. Who knew? Do I have the meter numbers? No. But I just happen to have the previous owner’s account numbers, through which we can get the meter numbers. This is viewed as a miraculous success, as having the contractors in the building hunt for useable information has resulted only in locating the meter manufacturer’s serial numbers, not the utilities’ meter numbers;
-One account is finally set up, entering all the owner and meter information painstakingly by hand, line by line, screen by screen, of which there are many. Legion is their name;
-Do I have our EIN (Employer Identification Number)? Yes, and provide a form with the information on it. Sorry, we can’t use the EIN number on THAT form as it is not an official letter with the IRS letterhead. Do you have the original letter from the IRS providing your EIN? It looks like this – and the agent pulls a letter from a three-inch stack of loose papers on his clipboard. While the letter is recent, it actually does not have any letterhead and appears to have been typed on blank paper using an IBM Selectric typewriter from the 1960s using Courier font. (Phone calls to the office, resulting in mad hunt for said document, to no avail). No. That’s okay, we can call the IRS and have them fax your EIN. Can you pull it from our old, previously approved account? No, because that is inactive…. Let’s complete the other two account set-ups and then call the IRS;
-The second account is begun. Can you just fill the common fields on all the screens in the new account from the first one? No. There is no copy and paste, or Create a Duplicate Account function. There are all these screens. Their name is Legion;
-The second and third accounts are slowly birthed;
-I am excused to the waiting area and call the IRS. There should be a 15-minute wait the recording says. After 45 idle minutes I am helped by wonderful lady who walks me through conjuring up the original information used when the EIN was requested 8 years ago. The process resembles charades. I receive the fax, (legally, I must confirm I am standing in front of the fax machine before it can be sent) and make multiple copies for our records, hoping to prevent a similar ordeal in the future;
-The accounts are finally done, and the gentleman helping me graciously calls in a request to have the gas turned back on the next day. The best the field office can say is that this will be sometime between 7 am and 7 pm, and someone needs to be present at the building. The contractors will be thrilled;
-I head for home happy, even though it is rush hour traffic;
-The next day, gas is eventually restored and we get heat;
-Net time lost: three days each involving a minimum of 7 people.
There are times when one has to drop one set of plans and quickly respond to another because of circumstances. (Shhhhhhh), it happens. But it would be nicer, more efficient, and certainly more cost effective if it didn’t.
So, excellent questions to ask are: why did it happen, what went awry, and how could one prevent or minimize things like this in the future?
I checked the settlement statement and there were no utility adjustments there. We didn’t catch that. Since we also have water service, I called the water department only to discover that, yes, the water account had been rolled over to us as of the closing date in October. So, the utilities had indeed been taken care of properly for closing. Just not by the “local utility monopoly.”
What actually triggered the shutdowns was a November utility bill that showed up at the previous owners. They called the utility, were asked if they wanted a final bill, to which they said yes. There’s some he said-she said at this point, but it appears the bottom line is that in “local utility company-ese” “Final Bill” also means “Shut Off.” But no one thinks to notify the new owner who has to live with the immediate consequences.
And that brings us to the Inconvenient Truth.
In our careers and lives we will encounter many different people and situations. These people, including you and me, will fall into a series of general categories in terms of their behaviors and their engagement with life around them. Some of them I have alluded to in an earlier post.
Some people will follow the “rules” (or norms, or expectations) to the letter. They do their job exactly as described, no more, no less. Most of the time this is great. It helps us count on things getting done in a reproducible, planned way. But it’s comfort in a “box.”
Others will understand the “rules” might need some interpretation under certain circumstances. These folks have a gift at Problem “Seeing,” if not Solving. Fred in my story above is one of these. So is the person who, seeing an unexpected utility bill, called the utility company. This skill of problem recognition and solving is highly sought after in a career. It’s not bad for life in general, either. But this one is a reactive problem solving skill, reacting to something that happens outside the “box.”
There are a few others whose skills extend beyond what we normally think of as Problem Solving. These are people who first make learning an everyday exercise. They then grow to better understand what is going on around them in life and career, and then use that understanding to inform their analysis, decision-making, behavior, and creativity. These people are often able to reach a new level of problem solving – let me call it Strategic Problem Anticipation. It takes a certain amount of vision. It recognizes when certain information is missing, and makes a reasonable estimate of what that information might be. It gathers seemingly disparate information (“pieces”) and sees connections (“patterns”) that otherwise might be missed. This is a proactive problem solving skill that sees beyond the “box,” if the “box” is there at all. Inventors and entrepreneurs fall into this category.
But you don’t have to be an entrepreneur to have it and use it. It can be learned and developed, and it is not a far stretch to get there. Fred might have also said, “I only do electric, but the gas crew has also received the same shut-off notice and that could be even more important.” The person in the office could have thought, ”If we got a utility bill, that means the new owners didn’t, and if I call the utility company for a final bill they will probably shut off the utilities. I’d best let the new owners know.” The best customer service people understand this, and we are all in some form of customer service.
Far reaching negative consequences can be avoided. And that’s one heck of an Added Value.
Seek this higher problem solving skill. It will make you invaluable in your career as well as in life.
Somebody important will notice. That’s the Convenient Truth.