Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hang Ups

We're all become Ernestine. That famous Lily Tomlin character from the breakthrough 1960's comedy show "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" was an operator who worked for "The Phone Company." Not the Verizon or AT&T of today, but a composite Bell System of yesteryear, whose tag line was "We don't have to care: we're the Phone Company." It's not that attitude that we have all assumed, but rather her opening gambit, whereby she dialed a number, then counted off, "One Ringey Dingey. Two Ringey Dingeys." 

We count because it's no longer as simple as letting it ring until someone on the other end picks up. In college there was an informal metric as to how long you had to wait before leaving a class that no one showed up to teach. If it was an instructor, there was 5-minute slippage factor. If it was an assistant or adjunct professor, the window was 10 minutes. And a full professor was allotted a grace period of 15 minutes before you could leave without repercussions. In that same light, we seem to have developed a sliding scale to hanging up before the beep. 

If you're calling someone who works at a desk, where the phone is within easy each, you might give them 2 ringey dingeys, 3 if you're feeling generous. There are either there or they're not. They are either available or they're not. They are either willing to talk to you or they're not. In each of those negatives, all the ringing in the world won't get you answered. 

However if your call is going to a mobile phone, it's somewhat gender and age specific. If it's a teenage girl who has it in her hand, one ring is all it takes. If it's a male or female who keeps the phone in their pocket, a 2 count is sufficient. In both cases, they have the phone at the ready, and are ready for you. Or not. But it's a quick decision and reaction. However, if it's a woman who keeps it in her pocketbook, you have add a few more for the fish-it-out factor. And if it's your mother, double or even triple it be by land or cell. 

That said, in almost no case should you actually take the bait and leave a message. Voicemail used to seem like such a great idea. You called to talk, couldn't make the connection, so you left a message. At the other end, the person you were trying to reach could call in at their convenience and hear a recording of you saying exactly what you wanted them to hear. How cool was that?

But that was then. This is now.  And now no one likes voicemail. Not the people leaving it, not the people picking it up. If you're the caller, when the beep occurs, it's like a director shouting "Action" to a scene you haven't rehearsed. And if you're the callee, you have to find the time to retrieve, play and then delete the message. Considering how fast things move today, in many cases that elapsed time from message left to retrieval of same renders the contents moot. With all that in mind, we're starting to see some companies whose phone system will no longer even take a message. A standardized recording asks you to try and reach the employee at another time, or send an email or text. It's more efficient and less costly. The bottom line is that in most cases if you get the beep, you should just press the "end" button and try a different path. And that goes for messages for your mom as well: after all, she likely has forgotten how to retrieve them anyways. 

Gawker has a list entitled "Don't leave a voicemail message if." It includes anything time sensitive, anything that you deem important, or if your message is simply a request to call you back. They say it's OK to leave a message is you can't text, if you're going to sing into the phone, or in the words of the old Stevie Wonder song, you just called to say I love you. Oh, and one other possible reason: you're going to die, and want the person at the other end to be able to save your last words. Other that, when you hear the beep, just hang up.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has learned to not leave messages, even for his mother. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Dunkin' Who?

A number of years ago I sat in on a meeting as an AT&T exec gathered a bunch of employees together for a brain storming session about the company's future. On the list of topics to discuss was what to call their retail stores. He pointed out that the future of communications would revolve around new technologies, and while phones might be a part of it they might also be in a different form. In that light, using "phone" in the moniker might be shortsighted. After all, the company only had to look at its own history: AT&T was the official name, but those initials came from American Telephone and Telegraph, highlighting a technology that went the way of the dodo. He also brought up the example of Radio Shack, at the time a thriving firm. An apt name when they were created, but at that point outdated: they didn't sell a lot of radios and their stores were hardly shacks. 

Fast forward, and the company's stores are known as, well, "AT&T Stores." While not the most original nor the trendiest (hard to delete all the vowels when one of the three letters in your name is an "a"), as long as they are still in business and go by that name they are probably protected from having to change the signs out front. The product mix inside doesn't really matter. Should they decide to add AT&T branded shoes, burgers or tennis racquets, they would be good to go. 

Which brings us to Dunkin' Donuts. Or as they will be known starting in January, Dunkin'. Officially, they say the name change is just a nod to streamlining, adopting a name that many already use. After all, they say, look at how Federal Express became FedEx, how Consumer Value Stores became CVS, how Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing became 3M. And not to worry, they say, they will always have donuts. They are just focusing more on beverages, which account for 60% of their business. Or as Thrillist writer James Chrisman noted, "It's also probably time for some existential reckoning when you find you're a donut chain serving tuna." 

(The interesting yin and yang is that another company in that space did the same kind of thing, but in the other direction. Seeing that their future was too tied to just hot beverages, Starbucks Coffee became just plain old Starbucks. They see their growth beyond java, and didn't want to be pinned into a corner by their name. Or maybe both companies just have a Cher-BeyoncĂ©-Madonna-Sting-Bono complex.) 

But just as KFC deleted the "Fried Chicken" from its name, the bait-and-switch is really to convince us that they are more than their namesake. Rather then be known as the "go to" standard for the foodstuff on which they built their reputation, they want to be thought of not as specialists but as generalists. The goal is for the consuming public to think of them more as a "lifestyle brand" than as a simple purveyor of one thing done well. With that name change, or so the thinking goes, they can branch out, moving beyond a product that is increasingly out of favor (in both Dunkin's and KFC's case, foods that are bad for you) and into whatever is most promising (foods that are less bad for you). 

One wonders about the wisdom of this. In this hyper focalized world, that specialization can be an asset. If I want donuts, I go to Tim Horton's or Krispy Kreme or Dunkin DONUTS. Those are the mother ships, done right, without apology. Do they really see a future in trying to out Starbucks Starbucks? That also means going toe-to-toe with Stumptown and Peet's and Coffee Bean. Is that really a caffeine fueled rumble they can win? 

Doing one thing well is no vice. Or as noted so eloquently in the song "One Trick Pony" by Paul Simon, "He's a one-trick pony/One trick is all that horse can do. He does one trick only/It's the principal source of his revenue. But when he steps into the spotlight/You can feel the heat of his heart come rising through." I for one can feel the heat of those Boston Kremes and Toasted Coconuts and French Crullers. And if I all I want is a cup of coffee, there's a cart on the corner.


Marc Wollin of Bedford requests donuts in place of birthday cake. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.