A Man and His Dog

Ender is depressed.

His entire stock portfolio is in the toilet.

Ender was heavily invested in Pets.com, and eToys was one of his favorites, too.

But who in the world is Ender, you’re probably asking. Well, Ender Wiggin is my dog, of course. And, boy, I can tell you that Ender is not at all happy about the state of the Internet economy.

Just last night over dinner, Ender and I were discussing all the dot-com closures, along with the appalling drop in online advertising spending. “Ender Wiggin,” I said, trying to put on my best smile, “I just know things are going to turn around soon. It will be like the good old days… an IPO around every corner and funding for any dot-com that promises $100 million in revenue within two years, regardless of whether or not it has a viable business model.”

Ender didn’t say a single word. He just stared at me like I was from another planet.

Then he went back to eating his doggie chow.

I could tell that Ender wasn’t fooled by my smile and pep talk. He knows the score. He knows Internet business is never going to be the way it used to be.

And so it is that fiscal sanity has returned to the marketplace and the business world. The customer is king once again, and employees no longer take the helm. Business plans that once included budgets for Web-designer salaries that looked more like ransom notes (not to mention the 30 percent recruiter fee) have been scrapped.

Businesses have once again begun to seek out that sanity that purchases survival skills: ROI. No, this is not an acronym for Roll Over Inc. or even Rudeness On the Internet. ROI means don’t buy stock at 100 times future earnings; don’t spend 10 times more on advertising than you can achieve in revenue from the exercise. And above all, don’t forget the basic common sense your kindergarten teacher taught you.

Employees who once dismissed reliability as boring, customer relationships as old hat, and corporate morale as something that takes care of itself never once doubted that they could job-hop to their next victim if things went south. And it didn’t bother them to think that surviving happens as a matter of course — mainly because they had no sense of problem ownership. A cleverly packaged assemblage of survival skills has one prominent feature: We not only embrace problem ownership, but we focus on how to fix the problem and put in place a process so that it does not recur.

In this business environment, where paying clients are in short supply and talented employees are traded like they’re on the commodities market, it is hard to grasp this idea firmly. But to exist, a good businessperson knows he or she better practice this. And to survive, he or she had better be on it like a bum on a baloney sandwich.

There is no doubt that the world is continually evolving. But we still require the human voice, not the machine at the other end of the line. It reassures us, and it helps us to hone social skills that are part of this same survival package. Where we used to sport calluses on the second finger of our writing hand, we now use wrist wraps and mousepads. Where we used to get up and talk to someone about our idea for solving a problem, we now send him or her an email — even if he or she is 20 feet away. What gets lost in the translation? The writer’s thoughts are now not so much communicated as they are delivered and interpreted.

Wow! No wonder we prefer to think of customer relationship management as old hat. How do we tell our clients we’re smiling, we’re cheerful, we’re helpful, and we’re professional — with no voice, no intonation, and no hand waving (minus the callus, of course)? By creating and refining the relationship with your client through personal contact, so less is lost in the translation when the contact is electronic.

The old ways worked because they allowed you to respond to clients as people. You pick up the telephone and use your voice to talk and listen to your client. You become reliable, and you’ll discover that it’s not boring. It’s reassuring. You write your client a handwritten note instead of an email, and you’re on your way to making your relationship a personal one. You become responsible, and you’ll discover it enhances your professionalism.

It wasn’t but a year ago that Ender was telling the poodle across the street he was a “paper millionaire.” He strutted around the house acting like he was doing us a favor just to live with us poor folks who hadn’t invested in the stock market.

Well, today we use Ender’s stock certificates to line the cat box — the ultimate indignity.

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