Saturday, August 18, 2007

Are Oregonians really friendlier?

I’m still pondering the full meaning of Netflix’s rationale for establishing a customer call-in service center in Oregon, rather than, say, Bangalore or Baltimore.

Netflix’s reason: Oregonians are friendlier.

Yes, you read that right — FRIENDLIER.

Here’s a little more background.

The decision, which landed the call center in Hillsboro, was mentioned Thursday in a New York Times business page story.

Netflix could have located the center in less costly places. Strangely, India pops to mind. Turns out Netflix wanted an an exotic "on-shore" site but rejected Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, all popular call center candidates.

You can read the article, of course, but here are a couple excerpts that set me thinking about what it means to be an Oregonian — and whether Netflix got us right.

The executive responsible for the decision, one Michael Osier (a corporate vice president for consumer service), told the Times that he “settled on the greater Portland area because of the genial attitude on the part of most service workers.”

The Times quotes Osier as saying, “In hotels and coffee shops and the airport, it’s amazing how consistent people are in their politeness and empathy,”

Elsewhere, the story reports that Netflix sited the center in Oregon because “it thought that Oregonians would present a friendlier voice to its customers.”

Okay, let's break this down.

1, Are we friendlier?

2. And if so, how?

3. And why?

Let’s take them in order:

I am happy to report that when I travel, I find a lot of consistently friendly people. Of course I’ve never exactly “traveled” to Oregon, (remember, I LIVE here). So maybe I’m missing something. Sure, visitors often tell me Oregonians are friendly, but I have thought they were just being polite. I’ve even found myself thinking, “What did you expect? Sarcasm?”

But to move along to 2., let’s assume that Osier is right: We’re friendlier.

How are we friendlier? The only evidence he produces are examples from the marketplace of consumer-customer chat. Are we friendlier over the long — post-chat — haul?

Face it, extended, intimate relationships aren’t sought at call centers (although, alas, I've had a few), so Osier can’t help us there.

He did use the words “politeness” and “empathy” however.

The two words may move us briskly to question 3: Why are we friendlier?

Politeness first. We may be polite to strangers because we are curious to find out what the world is like beyond the emerald confines of the upper left-hand corner of the lower 48.

You have to be polite to find out. Pushy doesn't cut it.

I’d say we are more “engaging” than polite. As in, we REALLY want to know what it's like out there beyond Baker City and Ontario.

Which gets us to "empathy." Osier may have misread our engaging, passionate (desperate?) curiosity as “empathy.” (“Empathy” means “Intellectual or emotional identification with another.”)

Then again, maybe Osier was right (Remember: Netflix pays him to be right) and that we do display empathy worthy of a call center.

Why? Maybe it’s because when we visit other places we seem, well, a bit weird. Or are made to feel a bit weird.

I’m thinking of the beginning of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” set in New York City. At some point a character (Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill?) announces being from Portland, Oregon. It’s a near conversation stopper. People don’t know what to make of it.

My reaction is to empathize with the fictitious Portlander. I’ve been there.

I’m also thinking of that reaction I sometimes get from old East Coast friends when I tell them, yes, I’m still in Portland and they give me that mildly stunned, “why-would-you-do-that?” look and then hastily compliment me, personally, on the Columbia River Gorge.

So, I don’t know about you, but I'm full of empathy for visitors. When I run into out-of-state out-of-towners, my attitude is, hey, things must be perfect in Peoria, huh? Or “up to date in Kansas City?” (This one comes with an nerdy elbow jab.)

* * *

I don’t want you to come away from this allowing me or Osier or Netflix to have the final word on our friendly factor.

Feel free to share those polite, empathic thoughts, friends.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Game for a Neighborhood

A week ago when I posted the modest announcement sign at the bottom of the hill, I had my doubts it would produce results.

It read:

“Neighborhood Board Games … Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. … Here”

“Here” was under a tree on the fringe of our curbless street.

The idea was inspired by Jay Walljasper’s “The Great Neighborhood Book,” published by the Project for Public Spaces.

By 7:45, lured by neighborly competition and the novelty of it all, 14 neighbors—our ages ranged from 10 or 12 to more than 60 — gathered bearing assorted games.

Scrabble, chess and a few games I had never seen.

Laughing and kibitzing, we played past dusk and into the darkness until we could no longer see tile or card.

Finally, reluctantly, we surrendered; we lost only to the night.

Some of us met for the first time, even though we live within a block or two.

Now we feel like neighbors. We know each others’ names — and our opening moves.

We vowed to bring a lantern next week and, if it looks like rain, a canopy.

The sign I made was roughly lettered with a chunky, chisel-tip permanent marker.

Today I spent time at the computer making a formal looking sign. I had it laminated and mounted.

The words are the same but more emphatic:

The new sign, unlike the old, is one of affirmation.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Vote" now against billboards

In an editorial attacking the epidemic of billboards since the passage of Measure 37, The Oregonian editorial board today urges a November vote for Measure 49 as a way to reject the billboard epidemic.

Voting for Measure 49 is a good idea for all kinds of reasons, but citizens should “vote” between elections as well. As I have pointed out here and to The Oregonian (in an unpublished letter), the most direct way to fight billboards is to let advertisers know that “outdoor advertising” is counterproductive.

The billboard pictured with today’s editorial is near Sandy and advertises Smoky Hearth Pizza Company, home of “Portland’s Best Pizza.”

Your vote is one phone call away. The phone number for Smoky Hearth Pizza is (503) 668-4466. Ask for co-owner Jeannine Hokanson. Or you can e-mail her.

I talked with Jeannine today on the phone. Jeannine, who is co-owner with her husband, Don, is very pleasant and an excellent listener. If you state your concerns politely, respectfully and even helpfully, I think you will find that your “vote,” added to others, might make a difference.

I told Jeannine that if Smoky Hearth took down its sign, I’d go out of my way to drop in for a pizza on my next trip to Mt. Hood via Sandy.

By the way, Jeannine told me I was the first person from outside the Sandy area to complain.

Will you be the second?

P.S. I hope that someone in Sandy, who has "eyes" on the billboards, will pick up on this little effort and clue us in on others to contact. The manager of the Sandy Safeway perhaps?

Meanwhile, I have put out a call to our Metro Counselor Robert Liberty because Jeannine informed me that the Portland Zoo, which is operated by Metro, has advertised on the Sandy billboards. I'll let you know Robert's response.

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2008 Campaign's House of Mirrors

Karl Rove, who has masterminded the worst presidency in the nation’s history, is now telling anyone who will listen that Hillary Clinton (and here I quote today’s New York Times) “lacked the vision to be president” and is “… ‘weak’ on national security and support for the armed forces.”


Quick now, what as been the Rovian “vision” of the presidency? Dismantling and privatizing the federal government (think Katrina). Driving the country deep into debt (think tax cuts for the rich and billion for war). Spying illegally on the citizenry. Making us the most despised nation on the face of the planet.

So much for vision.

As for making the nation secure and supporting the armed forces, wasn’t it the same Rove who served as “brain” to a president who went to war where there was no threat? Who fielded an army so ill-prepared that the parents of soldiers had to pass hats to protect them with body armor? Who ignored dozens of pre-9/11 warnings of a major terrorist attack?

So what’s the deal with Rove roasting Hillary?

Two things about Rove: He is smart and dishonest. Some, including those in the Obama campaign, suspect that from the Republican perspective, Clinton would the most vulnerable Democratic presidential candidate (I happen to agree). By Rove’s trashing Clinton so blatantly (and ironically), he can perversely attract support to her — and set the Democrats up for defeat in November 2008.

Got that?

Welcome to the 2008 House of Mirrors.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Billfolds vs. Billboards

I sent the following letter off to The Oregonian yesterday.

I had a letter to the editor printed last week, and, quotas being quotas, I doubt the editors will print this one.

Still, I think it is worth sharing here.

Your front-page story in Sunday’s paper (“Billboards pit Beauty vs. Business”) fails to mention the single most effective weapon against billboards.

We all carry it around with us. It’s a wallet or a pocketbook.

Using the Internet, it is relatively easy to organize a community to prove to advertisers that offensive, blighting advertising is counterproductive — to show them that it will lose, not make, them money.

Post the phone numbers of CEOs or managers on the Internet for easy reference. Encourage readers to phone to say that they and their neighbors vow publicly to take their business elsewhere unless the billboards come down.

If that fails, trump billboards with your own signs using a good old-fashioned picket line. Bottom-line: Businesses should be openly and systematically held accountable in the marketplace for the methods and content of their advertising.

Rick Seifert
SW Portland

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Giant Sucking Sound at Safeco Field

Six hours ago I was gasping for air in Safeco field along with 42,000 Mariners' fans.

The Minnesota Twins' Torii Hunter had just sucked the oxygen out of the Mariners' stadium on a ninth-inning, full-count pitch with two outs and the bases loaded.

Yup, Hunter's grand slam homer over the left field fence was a stunner — and cemented the score at 6-1.

But it was a good game. Close for eight and a half innings, and then for a team — never mind which one — to win it with a grand slam in the 9th with two outs. Well, that's just plain fun.

Well worth a day's round-trip to Seattle.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Yesterday I found myself writing a fellow editor from my print days that the “ink in my veins” has dried up and been replaced by free-flowing pixels.

Publishing is still about words and pictures, except that ink and paper are a lot more expensive than pixels — and that makes a big difference.

If you have a computer (and who doesn’t these days?), the start-up costs for on-line publishing are virtually zero. Because of that, there aren’t a bunch of advertisers looking over your shoulder.

Of course there’s a whole lot more competition for readers, resulting in what mass media moguls rue as the dread “fragmented” market.

But one publisher’s fragmentation is another’s diversification.

Besides, any moderately tagged site not fixated on profit is instantly accessible through search engines. I’m amazed at the numbers of readers who “stumble” on The Red Electric because they are searching for “Ernie Pyle” or “A Pattern Language” or “Olympia Typewriters” or “Thoreau” or “billboards” or “farmers markets.”

Now that’s diversity!

I started posting less than a year ago. Over last weekend I passed the 400-post mark. I won’t do it tonight, but I need to examine the scope of those post topics to see whether I can stitch together a theme or two.

Without going into detail here, I’ll let you in on one: I am a “res … publican,” but I’ll leave that for another time.

Finally, just to show you how bad my obsessed, pixated brain is, I’ve started another web site, and, as of today, the first post is up. If you are interested, visit Back Space Typewriters.

Oh, and then there is always Hillsdale News, a site/e-newsletter serving our community.

See what I mean? Total pixation!

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Monday, August 13, 2007

It takes a neighborhood ...

We decided to hold our "National Night Out" neighborhood block party a little late. Most were on the 7th of this month. Ours was yesterday, Sunday, the 12th, at the corner of SW 18th and Martha Street. The pavement of the site had been marked in chalk in the month prior to the event (see photo above)

The photos pretty much tell the story. But the story, as you can see from the photos, was full of stories. How long folks have been here. Where they came from. What they do. Where the kids (or grand-kids) are in school. What changes we've seen in the area.

We connected faces with names, and names with houses. In short, many of us became neighbors for the first time.

The trick is to continue the connections. With that in mind, earlier in the week I took a page out of "The Great Neighborhood Book," which I wrote about in my Connection column this month. Inspired by the book, I posted a sign next to a vacant lot. "Neighborhood Board Games, Thursday, 7:30 p.m."

Several people at the block party had seen the sign and vowed to be there. I hope it is the beginning of a neighborhood institution. I'm now thinking that the part of the vacant lot along the street might serve as a neighborhood horseshoe pit.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For now I'm still assimilating all those great stories, names and faces from Sunday's street potluck.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Arguments with advertising

My Sunday Oregonian arrived on the driveway this morning stuffed in an Ikea wrappper ad that read in big letters, “Home is the most important place in the world.”

Call me a crazy, but to me the most important place in the world is … the world. Without it we would not have our homes. And if we continue to fill up our homes with junk — even elegantly designed Swedish junk — we won’t have the world.


Consider this quote from a Friday New York Times article carrying the headline “Product Packages Now Shout To Grab Your Fickle Attention.” The quote is from a chief executive of a “brand agency” in Cincinnati who thinks off-beat packaging is a hot advertising medium.

“The media is fragmented, and we can’t find people — we can’t get them to sit down and listen to our argument on a television spot.”

Argument on a television spot?

Since when do television spots present arguments. The whole appeal of television as an advertising medium is that it short-circuits reason and goes for gut emotion.

If you look at the new glitzy packaging — Kleenex in oval boxes, Mountain Dew in graffiti-inspired bottles — none has anything remotely to do with making an argument.


Last spring the University of Oklahoma agreed to sell the naming rights to one of its premier campus schools. Voila! Conoco-Phillips School of Geology and Geophysics, the university is only the most recent institution to sell a respected name for corporate money. In this case, for $6 million.

Could it be that one day, public institutions will be so financially starved that this city, this state, and even this nation will sell their names to corporations? I once thought I would be spared such travesty in my lifetime, but now I’m not so sure.

Here’s an idea. Let’s name our major environmental disasters after corporations. Hurricane Exxon Mobil? Chevron Global Warming?

And why not name our wars after those for whom they are being fought? Isn’t the Iraq War really Big Oil War?

Credit where credit is due.


Finally there’s the Oregonian front page story this morning about the explosion of billboards in the state since the passage of Measure 37. The story quotes folks who are rightfully offended by the blight caused by the new signs.

When I ran The Connection newspaper, I launched an editorial campaign to fight a huge sign that went up at the corner of Shattuck and Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, right across from Albertson’s.

My approach was simple and I wish it had been mentioned in the Oregonian story (I’ll write a letter to the editor tomorrow, which may or may not get printed). The solution: Get readers to call the companies advertising on the billboard and tell them that their ads are counterproductive. As in, we don't do business with outfits that blight our community.

As an editorial service over several months I provided readers with CEO names and phone numbers.

After a few dozen calls, the advertisers got the message. The billboard company (now Clear Channel) literally couldn’t give away the space. They tried. When the Oregon Zoo was offered free space and took it, we complained to Metro, which runs the zoo.

The Zoo ads came down and then the sign came down.

The bottom-line message is this: Businesses should be judged by the ways they advertise.

If ads are intrusive (Portland Trolley voice sponsorship ads for instance), if they offend (ever see a sexist ad?), if they blight the Commons (billboards or illegal signs on public roads, for example), if they slap their names on public institutions (buying naming rights — PGE Park and the Conoco-Phillips School of Geology and Geophysics), then we, the public, should openly and repeatedly vow to take our business elsewhere.

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