Grasping at Straws

You thought I was done, huh? That I got all my whining and fears and neurosis out in that last blog but hoooo boy, you were wrong.

Just kidding, it’s a short story, I promise.

I work for a healthcare company, something you probably wouldn’t have gleaned since I primarily work on integrations now, but I did my time in the trenches.

At the time of 9/11, I was managing a call center team of about 25 people. One of the unfortunate tasks assigned to me during that time was to take “manager” calls. When you said, “ I’d like to speak to the manager,” you got me.

My job was to give you the exact same answer as my Customer Service Rep just gave you, because that was in fact the right answer, and to throw in a few more apologies for good measure. When you ship billions of packages there are bound to be some mistakes.

On 9/11 and 9/12, we all came to work like we normally would. Back then we did not have the phone capabilities like we do today, where we can transfer calls all over the world. Rain, sleet, snow or National Disaster, Customer Service must go on and they must do it in the office. The people need you, they need answers, they need supplies.

On 9/12, one of my employees came to me with an escalated call. A Customer was mad about not getting their delivery, and wanted to speak to a manager.

Up until then, I was feeling united with my fellow man. We had all watched in horror as we were attacked and people died. We held our kids a little bit closer, checked in with our families and gave blood or money or time off or support wherever we could.

The woman on the phone was mad because the straws she had ordered for next day delivery had not arrived.

There are medical supplies essential to a patients life or death, and then there are straws, which are readily available at many other locations (or at least they were back then). If a g-tube doesn’t arrive and a patient can’t eat, you can’t run and get that at Walgreens.

“I’m sorry,” I began.

I learned in Customer Service how to be sorry about things that aren’t my fault, something I still do to this day and am occasionally am criticized for.

“There are a lot delivery delays due to what happened yesterday, your packages are still in route. Unfortunately, no next day air packages are arriving next day air.”


“I’m sorry,” I said again, thinking of my employee from New York, holding herself while moaning and rocking in her cubicle yesterday, “we could not possibly have called everyone, and we assumed everyone knew that the planes were grounded.”

(“Next day air” does in fact mean NEXT DAY BY AIR)

She did go on to tell me what I already knew about some patients only being able to eat through a straw.

“Maybe you could try a local store?” I offered.

“At five times the price!” she hollered.

I pulled the inside of my ear part of my headset out and held it just outside my ear instead.

“I can leave a message for your sales rep, to see if they can reimburse you?”

Another downside of having spent 15 years in Customer Service is that I treat every problem the same. What are the options? Pick one and move on. I don’t generally stew, I take action. This can be seen as invalidating to people in my life who are not Customers, but Customers like it. Usually.

I don’t remember what she said before she hung up on me, only that she hung up. And I sighed.

The next day, as part of our department meeting, we watched a video that included a view of the twin towers and we had a moment of silence. One of my employees, seventy years old, implored us all to be kinder to each another, to our Customers, who were just trying to get back to normal.

We talked about the straw lady. We didn’t know what she was going through or how 9/11 had impacted her. (I mean, outside of the delayed straw delivery) It was just as important to be good to the straw people as any other people, we decided.

We were all in it together, after all.


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