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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

Where’s My Onion Soup?

I don’t like the way my hair smells, either.

Published: Sunday, January 6, 2008 - 22:00

In the last couple of months, two topics have become particularly vexing to me. First, how can we be environmentally responsible by purchasing E85 fuel when there are few service stations that provide this new elixir? Second—even more difficult to comprehend—why do companies eliminate products and services before surveying customers?

To address this latter oversight, customer service representatives and wait staff at restaurants seem to be reading from the same script when they say, “Yes, everyone is asking about that item. Maybe you should contact the management.” Permit me to tackle the E85 conundrum first.

When our 2001 Buick LeSabre’s odometer registered 130,000 miles I figured it was a good time to go into debt again and purchase one of those gas-sipping automobiles that burns alternative fuel. Not that I’m overly concerned about the polar bears in the Arctic, I’m just a frugal individual, and I assumed that exhibiting some semblance of being environmentally friendly and filling my tank with alternative fuel would placate the environmentalists. To that end, my wife Mary and I set out on our quest.

Purchasing an automobile can be a mind-numbing ordeal, and yet Jay, from Wally Edgar Buick/Chevrolet, made the whole transaction almost painless, except for the monthly payments.

Mary and I originally thought we’d purchase a dark blue Chevy Impala, and we communicated that to Jay, but the next day we decided that the white model with a sunroof was more to our liking. We contacted Jay, and without hesitation he immediately started searching with other dealers for one with our specifications. He was able to locate 11 such cars and painstakingly contacted each dealership to no avail. The cars had been sold or the other dealers were reluctant to engage in a trade.

Then a white Impala with a sunroof unexpectedly came into the inventory at his dealership! I think it was a matter of Jay’s persistence that the heavens shined on him and our car suddenly appeared.

In my opinion, Jay epitomizes everything that a top-notch salesperson should exude: professionalism, accuracy, caring, follow-up, humor, and a focus on what the customer wants—not what it is easier for the seller. The freshly popped corn in the lobby certainly also helped seal the deal! Here’s where it became frustrating.

Driving a car in the 1950s meant eight-cylinder engines and two types of gasoline—leaded regular and premium ethyl. Very few of us back then needed to power our clunkers with ethyl, so chipping in to fill the tank meant only .50 cents apiece for the four of us who used to pal around.

With summer weather almost upon us there will likely be additional blends available to reduce pollution during the hot driving months. Of course our same party of four will now have to ante up a day’s pay to top off the tank!

The answer to all this madness, we’re told, is to burn E85 gasoline in our combustion engines. Of course our new car has the words “Flex Fuel—E85” prominently emblazoned on the trunk. For the entire world to see, we’re now environmentally responsible people, or so we thought.

Just try to locate a station that sells this new elixir called E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline). It’s estimated that out of about 170,000 stations in the United States there are approximately 1,500 stations that handle E85. Perhaps part of the reason for the paucity of locations is that it costs the station owners in the neighborhood of $200,000 to install an E85 pump.

I don’t profess to be an expert in the stoichiometric fuel ratio of E85, nor how this new automobile “go juice” is concocted. I know that at about $3.19 a gallon the cost is less than than the liquid gold we’re currently purchasing at the pumps, but I don’t think the cheaper price offsets the 20 to 25 percent reduction in gas mileage. And even if we wanted to sample E85, the closest station is 31 miles away! Perhaps when Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club get on board there will be more availability, but in the meantime the only pumps I see are pictures in my owner’s manual.

E85 naysayers complain that the harvesting of corn for use in the refining process may be damaging the environment. Rising food prices have also been attributed to converting corn to E85. As the price of popping corn continues to rise, will I have to switch to Cheetos?

I think it’s time to start exploring the oil fields in Alaska and other regions north. Yes, I’m aware of the effect it might have on the prized caribou, but how about hiring Dr. Doolitle to “talk to the animals” and impress upon them their obligation to our planet and its residents. If fuel were cheaper maybe we could drive to their habitat in the north and thank them personally.

In the meantime, should you see me driving, keep in mind that the “Flex Fuel E85” emblem on the back of my car indicates that I’m a responsible, environmentally conscious, global-warming aware citizen. Yeah, right!

Now let’s discuss companies eliminating products without first surveying their customers. I can provide you with numerous examples of this, but let me home in on a just a couple that have been particularly irritating.

One of our favorite restaurants is the Longhorn Steakhouse. The steaks and the service are first-class. We have never had a below-par meal, and the staff is extremely hospitable. Several months ago, French onion soup was added to the menu as a special promotion, because what is a steak house without the savory aroma of onions in a rich broth? After a month or so, the onion soup was inexplicably removed from the menu. Our local management indicated that guests were still asking for the soup and that there was concern about what would happen to all the soup crocks that had been ordered for this promotion. My course of action was clear. I wrote the management at headquarters and expressed dissatisfaction with their decision, which affected me personally. Perhaps due to my missive, and no doubt because of complaints from others, the French onion soup has now been restored and has a permanent place on the menu.

You want more? How about Dove shampoo eliminating a product for normal hair and offering shampoo only for dry, damaged, thinning, dyed, sun-damaged, lightened, highlighted, or color-treated hair? There’s nothing for normal hair unless it reeks of lemon or grapefruit.

You know that I’m an agitator, so it should come as no surprise that I contacted Dove by phone and inquired about how I would obtain shampoo for normal hair without the essence of watermelon or cumquats. The representative provided me with the usual staccato response: “Yes, a lot of customers are making a similar request, and I will pass it along to the marketing people.” Why the marketing people didn’t personally call me first is a mystery. Be that as it may, the Dove representative sent me a coupon for a free bottle of shampoo—now my hair smells like lilacs.

Just to demonstrate that these aren’t isolated examples, the gorgonzola cheese-and-bacon salad at California Pizza has been officially discontinued, but the manager will prepare one for you anyway because “Everyone is asking for it.”

My wife, Mary, tells me that the store that knows how to keep secrets is no longer carrying a particular ladies’ undergarment. Service representatives told Mary that she could locate it on eBay. Chances are that’s where one could have also found some slightly used soup crocks had the steakhouse management not relented. When did tracking down a store’s offerings become the responsibility of customers?

Here’s my solution to all this madness: change the E85 Flex Fuel sign on my new Impala to include “Good luck locating it.” In so far as eliminating products and alienating customers without their input, how about this—we in the United States like to vote on mundane issues, as evidenced by the number of people who participate in “American Idol.” Let’s have companies provide on-air voting before eliminating onion soup or regular shampoo sans essence of grapefruit.

Well, now I feel better, however I just learned that because more service stations are planning to distribute E85 fuel, the price of corn will continue to escalate and thus my daily popcorn fix will soon be out of reach. Looks like I’ll soon be growing and harvesting corn in my yard and experimenting with a formula for regular Dove shampoo in my downstairs lab. Anyone care to join my crusade?

In my June column I mentioned that I was undergoing surgery for prostate cancer, a malady that strikes one in every six males. The robotic surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit went extremely well, and I am now cancer-free! In fact, the doctors told me emphatically that I “won’t be dying of prostate cancer,” so I can cross that off my list.

The doctors, nurses, and support staff at the hospital were awe-inspiring. It’s no wonder that people come in from all over the world for this type of procedure. And a “Comfort and Care Package” in conjunction with the local Ritz-Carlton—which includes transportation to and from the hospital, pre-op and post-op meals for the patient, and the TLC of the hotel staff—certainly adds a welcome element to one’s piece of mind. Within the next six weeks I will begin running and biking again!

Thanks to the readers of QualityInsider for their thoughts and prayers.


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.