Outstanding Customer Service in Cedar Park, Texas

urlLinda & I spent a few days recently in Cedar Park, Texas, a suburb of Austin, and our first impression was positive.  We took advantage of our Best Western Diamond Club status by lodging at the Best Western in Cedar Park.  When we moved into the room, the WiFi was horrible, making it virtually impossible for me to work.  The manager saw my frustration, and worked tirelessly to make things right; resetting the router multiple times, working with tech support, and giving me the number to tech support so I could work with them personally.  Ultimately, he moved us into a room with an Ethernet cable connection, but the new room’s WiFi was strong enough it really wasn’t necessary to use the cable.

While I was perturbed by the poor WiFi connection in the first room, I was very impressed by the manager’s attitude and efforts to make things right.  The poor WiFi connection wasn’t his fault, but he made it his responsibility to fix the problem, and he did.

DDpizzaOn Thursday for lunch, Linda said she wanted pizza.  There was a Double Dave’s Pizzaworks  just a couple hundred yards from our hotel so we decided to go there.  When we walked in, there was a young woman busing tables who stopped what she was doing and greeted us with a smile.  She then escorted us to the counter to take our order.  The Double Dave’s flyer in our hotel room said their Thursday  special was a 3-topping large pizza for $10.99, and we agreed to have that; however, out of the corner of my eye I could see they offered a lunch buffet; it looked pretty tasty, and on closer inspection we decided to opt for the buffet instead.

The young woman asked:  “What were the three toppings you were going to order?”  We asked her why she wanted to know because we already decided to have the buffet instead, and there was plenty of pizza in the buffet line. She replied: “I want to make the pizza you really want, and I will bring it out to your table.”  She then went in the back and made the pizza herself.

What great service!  We had already placed our order, and this young woman made the decision to go above and beyond what was necessary to make the sale.  We grabbed our salads and drinks and sat down, and when she brought out our pizza, I asked if she was the owner, and she said, “Yes, we own 3 restaurants.”  Her young husband came out and introduced himself and then busily started sweeping under a table earlier occupied by a toddler more interested in throwing food on the floor than eating her pizza.

This young couple didn’t look much older than their early 30s, but it was evident they worked hard to run and excellent enterprise and  put the desires of the customer above their own.  I am always impressed by outstanding service, and I told her so. She thanked me profusely, and said it was nice to hear because: “Sometimes being in business is really hard.”

I don’t know what Cedar Park is doing to promote such great customer service, but I hope it is infectious.

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Planning for Emergencies in Dual Working Families

Working ParentsMany of my clients are married professionals: doctors married to doctors, lawyers married to corporate executives, airline pilots married to dentists, etc.  In a bygone era, the husband was the primary breadwinner, and the wife focused her attention on children and household affairs; that era is quickly becoming an anachronism.  So what do you do when both spouses have equally important work responsibilities, and one of the children is sick, the car breaks down, or the repair man is coming by to fix the dryer?

The best way to deal with an unexpected emergency is to plan for it ahead of time.  Sick children are going to need to be brought home from school, and someone is going to have to let in the plumber when the pipes burst and the basement looks like an indoor swimming pool; therefore, decide BEFORE they happen who will be responsible for dealing with emergencies.

In the same way balanced families plan for financial emergencies, they should also plan for “time critical” emergencies.  A time critical emergency is an event both urgent and important enough that it pulls a person away from their primary professional responsibilities.  The school isn’t going to let your sick kid stay in class because you are closing a real estate deal, and the dead car isn’t going to drive itself to the mechanic because you have an important client meeting; therefore, couples where both work outside the home should create a “contingency” roster to plan for responding to unplanned emergencies.

040303-F-2828D-101When I was in the Marine Corps, my infantry unit was periodically tasked to be the “Air Contingency Battalion” (ACB).  Whenever our battalion was assigned as ACB, we went about our normal operational and training routine; however, in the event of a crisis, the ACB was expected to drop everything it was doing and be prepared to load on aircraft within 6 hours of notice and fly anywhere in the world to respond to a crisis.  While it was possible for us to train and operate close to home, we couldn’t be more than two hours away from the base and we certainly didn’t schedule operations that would prevent us from dropping everything we were doing to load aircraft in a moment’s notice.

In the same way, I encourage dual working parents to create a family contingency roster that pre-assigns one spouse responsible for responding to contingencies.  When an emergency pops up that requires immediate attention, the contingency roster helps prevent confusion or hard feelings about who will respond.

Couples should plan their professional schedules accordingly.  Emergencies are never convenient, and they always pop up at the worst possible time; however, when possible, you shouldn’t schedule contingency duty the same week you intend to be in court, and your spouse shouldn’t volunteer to have contingency duty the days she is traveling out of the country.  To the best of your ability, use grace and common sense to work with each other’s professional commitments to ensure the contingency roster is efficiently coordinated and duties are equally shared.

In a mini crisis, someone is going to be inconvenienced by having to leave a meeting, vacate a job site, or cancel an appointment with their biggest client. Ultimately, the purpose of the contingency roster is to ensure both working spouses share the responsibility of responding to emergencies equally.  Resolve schedule conflicts with your spouse ahead of time, and those assigned contingency duty should be responsible for resolving their own work related conflicts. The spouse who routinely expects the other working spouse to interrupt their professional duties to cover for them will eventually create bitterness and resentment in their marriage.

The contingency roster should be published monthly and discussed weekly to ensure it is understood and workable.  It need not be complicated, really nothing more than a color code or initial on a calendar (like Google Calendar) which both spouses have at their immediate access.

To be honest, having only one spouse working outside the home has been less complicated for Linda and me, and I often take for granted how fortunate we are that Linda is flexible enough to handle most of our mini crises, but for those couples who both enjoy their professional careers and expect their spouses to support them, the contingency roster seems to be a good solution.

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The myRA Will Add Unnecessary Complexity to Retirement Savings

140128225516-president-obama-state-of-the-union-inequality-economy-minimum-wage-00000127-620x348In President Obama’s state of the union address on 28 January, 2014, he introduced a new retirement plan called the” My Retirement Account” (myRA).  This new plan promises to provide investment opportunities for those workers who aren’t eligible to participate in an employer sponsored retirement plan.  It is true a majority of Americans unnecessarily retire without savings; however, creating yet another complicated tax advantaged savings vehicle will not increase the number of Americans adequately saving for retirement.

While saving for the future appears intuitive, it really is not when you factor in all the complicated options the government has created to incentivize citizens to save for their own futures.  While the following list is not exhaustive, it does give the reader some idea of how overwhelming it can be to choose the appropriate retirement savings account: 401(k), 403(b), SEP-IRA, SIMPLE IRA, Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, etc…

The rules for retirement planning are complex, and they are made even more so when politicians get involved.  When some (but not all) Americans take advantage of the incentives in the U.S. tax code to save, politicians often respond with legislation to contend with the corresponding wealth inequality they helped create.  To prevent “too much success” from saving, Congress imposes a variety of limits on how much a citizen can invest in different retirement plans based on participant incomes, participation in other plans, age, or how much participants earn from wages.  Over the years retirement plan possibilities have grown numerous, and for many Americans, the choices and complexities have become paralyzing.

The myRA attempts to use the concept of “new” to inspire individuals to save for their retirement because evidently, the “old” plans haven’t inspired enough low and middle income wage earners to save.  The Roth IRA, originally created by the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, is an ideal savings plan for low and middle income citizens, and it is offered by most banks, credit unions, brokerage firms, and insurance companies. Although Roth IRA’s are terrific, not enough Americans are taking advantage of them, and this is must be the inspiration for the myRA.

The myRA works a lot like the current Roth IRA.  It is funded with after-tax dollars, and the earnings grow tax free.  An investor can withdraw contributions out at any time without having to pay taxes or penalties, and after a person turns 59 ½, the earnings can be withdrawn tax free as well. The only difference I see between the myRA and the Roth IRA is the myRA will allow investors to invest in the “G” Fund, the government’s guaranteed cash option in the federal employees Thrift Savings Plan. The G Fund currently pays 2.2%, and although better than local bank savings rates, it still barely keeps up with inflation.  Investors in MyRA’s will be allowed to participate until they: (1) accumulate $15,000; or (2) after 30 years, whichever comes first.  At that time investors will be required to rollover their MyRA into a Roth IRA with some other private financial institution.

In theory, the myRA allows employees to invest contributions straight from their paychecks, just like a 401(k), 403(b), or SIMPLE IRA; however, many employers already allow their employees to direct deposit a portion of their paychecks into Roth IRA’s (many of my employer clients allow employees to do so).  Additionally, the myRA allows employees to make small initial investments of $25, and additional contributions as low as $5 per pay period; but, most banks and credit unions (and some mutual fund companies) already allow contributions this low as well.

I think we need the myRA like we need another Rambo movie; instead, we need LESS retirement complexity.  My proposal for getting increased retirement savings is for the government to simplify the current system by reducing the number of retirement savings accounts from several to two: (1) a traditional option funded with pre-tax dollars with earnings growing tax deferred; and (2) a Roth option funded with after-tax dollars with earnings growing tax free.

Under my proposal, a citizen who works for a company offering a 401(k), a 403(b) or a SIMPLE IRA would have his contributions deposited into either his traditional plan, his Roth plan, or both. Additionally, the citizen would also be able to make IRA contributions into either or both his two plans, subject to the contributions limits that already exist.

We live in an era where Americans change jobs multiple times throughout their working years. Rather than have two old 401(k) plans from  two different employers and a small SIMPLE IRA with a current job, my proposal would allow Americans to take their portable plans from one employer to the next, reducing the red tape necessary to rollover old plans into IRA’s or new employer plans. Although the funds being deposited into the two plans would be subject to current contribution rules for the type of plan the investor is eligible to fund, reducing the number of retirement accounts would greatly simplify the retirement savings process and increase the number of citizens capable of understanding them.

Because myRA’s offer limited investment options and capped growth but plenty of government bureaucracy, I don’t see much value in them.  We already have Roth IRA’s which are less bureaucratic and offer more options.  The complexity of the myRA outweighs its benefits, and like many well intended programs offered to help the poor and lower middle class, I predict the myRA will produce results that are the exact opposite of what were intended.

Unless the government reduces the complexity of investing for retirement, America is not going to see an increase in retirement saving any time soon.

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