Monday, October 15, 2012

On Estonian Customer Service

Customer service stories are always popular with readers, right? Got a few different ones saved up for you.

The Good

Motodepoo is a largish motorcycle supply shop (and Kawasaki dealer). Along with Tartu's Motohoov, it tends to be the default choice for parts and gear, and it has a nice big storefront in Tallinn with a good stock of gear on the premises. Beyond that, it has an online presence,

With enough stock come leftovers, and occasionally the store has some really good discounts - especially right at the end of the riding season. Last year, I picked up a nice matte black helmet from them for a song, and this year they had one in the same color scheme as my bike, and in my size. (As personal acquaintances and long-time blog readers might recognize, I have a big head.)

The helmet, an HJC FG-14, cost me 35 euros (original list price was supposedly 250), plus overnight shipping. I sent in the order on Thursday morning, paid the invoice in the afternoon, and got the helmet delivered on Friday.

Except that it was the wrong size and the wrong color.

A system is not defined by its mistakes, but its reaction to mistakes - and Motodepoo was very cool about it. One phone call, and the dude apologized, said he'd find the right helmet in the warehouse and ship it to me. I could return the wrong one via Smartpost (my idea), or just drop by their store some time - no rush (their idea). The right helmet got overnighted again, and I had it on Saturday morning. The box with the wrong helmet was indeed mislabeled; Motodepoo's mistake was in not checking the contents before sending the box off, and they certainly handled the situation extremely well. Considering that this was a very low-value transaction for them - clearing warehouse space, selling a product almost certainly below cost - I am very happy with the company and will certainly deal with them again in the future. Oh, and the helmet's very nice.

The Bad

This was a few months back. I'd just returned from my Nordkapp trip, and didn't want to go out for dinner in Tallinn (where I was spending the night). So I ordered some food via a new service I'd seen somewhere called TapTender: you download an app to your smartphone (or use a Web browser) to order from a restaurant's menu, and they'll either deliver your order, or have it prepared and ready to serve by the time you specify, so you can arrive at the restaurant and get your meal right away. I'm not absolutely convinced there is enough added value in the idea to make it a business case, but here was a good opportunity to try it out.

I'd used the browser to put in my order and the address where it was to be delivered. The wait time was an hour - not particularly fast, but not unreasonable. Except that after an hour, the food was still not there. About an hour and 45 minutes in, I called the restaurant; the food was ready, but the delivery driver had not picked it up yet. They promised to call the TapTender people and figure out what was going on. A few minutes later, I got a call from TapTender's manager: their driver had become inexplicably unavailable, without warning. It did not occur to them that they could fix their mistake by getting the restaurant to use its other delivery service - which was working fine - until I'd suggested it. They said they'd call the restaurant and ask if that was possible, and call me back. When they did, I told them that so much time had passed since my food was supposed to arrive, that there was no more point in it.

My experience with the service was a complete and utter shambles, but to be fair, the TapTender people were very apologetic and seemed to be genuinely sorry and embarrassed. I got a call the next day, from their founder/CEO/whatever, offering a free delivery as compensation, but as I was not in Tallinn any more, I told them to forget it and just make sure it doesn't happen again. It's ludicrous that a contracted, professional delivery driver would simply fail to answer a call-out, but I have reasonable hopes that it taught the company a lesson. If you've used TapTender recently, I'd love to hear about your experience.

The Ugly

Möku is one of Tartu's premier pubs, a tiny room in a basement on the main pedestrian street that is open only in the evenings, serves only drinks (no food), and is extremely popular. It was started as a passion project by a couple of IT guys who wanted to bring the "local pub" culture to Tartu - to open a place that would establish a crowd of regulars, and stimulate a community feel. The combination of cheap drinks and an excellent location made Möku a staple of Tartu's pub culture. For two years, they hosted the monthly open mic shows for Comedy Estonia, of which I was a part. On show nights, comedians drank for free. I quite enjoyed that bit.

Unfortunately, Möku seems to have fallen victim to its own success - something that happens to a lot of personally motivated businesses while they grow big. Möku's crowd has grown to be many times that of its capacity, and these days the street in front of it is one big block party on weekend nights - certainly boosted by two other drinking establishments immediately next to it. On a warm, dry, mosquito-free night, this is a great place to hang out, and a place where you can go and expect to find people you know.

That is, if you can get a drink.

Möku's conceptual notion remains the same, even as its actual business has changed drastically. While in the early days, the founders themselves ran the bar, now it is all hired staff. And while I've met some cool people who worked at the bar while I was doing the comedy stuff, it seems that Möku has had trouble keeping them.

On a recent Friday night, I'd persuaded a few friends, old and new, to leave the dubstep-infused meatmarket that is Shooters and head over to Möku for a few drinks at a place where we could hear ourselves think. A few of the people were foreigners, so I figured it would be fun to buy them an Estonian Flag shot - like I did with a bunch of visiting comedians when we'd go to Möku after our main show. Now, different pubs make Estonian Flag shots differently, and I like the Möku version: pina colada, Salmiakki vodka, and Curacao Blue. (I know it sounds disgusting, but it works.)

After waiting for fifteen minutes to reach the bar, I was told by the girl there that I could not buy Estonian Flag shots for my friends. Not because she didn't know how to make them, but because it would take too long. There was a line, you see; and the only things she would sell were bottled beer, or whatever was on tap. (Maybe if I asked nicely I could have gotten a gin and tonic or a rum and coke, but I didn't dare ask.)

This was not the first time that Möku staff refused to sell me anything more complicated than two ingredients quickly thrown together in a plastic cup. It's a recent phenomenon, and while I can certainly blame the individual bartender, I also think it's a failure of Möku's management. On a massively busy Friday night, they only had two girls on the staff - one of whom was gathering up the empty glasses, running the dishwasher, getting more stock out of the back room, etc. With a clientèle of hundreds, Möku still only has one point of sale and one wired card terminal. And while I'm sure they could make more revenue from selling bottled beers in the time it took them to prepare a few expensive shots, refusing a sale like that is just ridiculous. I have a lot of historical loyalty to Möku, it's been good to me, but after repeating that experience a few times, I have no desire to return. I'd rather just go to that newish Pirogov place, where they make a great White Russian, and if you get there early enough, they might just give you some fantastic soup.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Medical Strike Demands

Came upon a link to a letter sent by the medical workers' union to its members. It sets out, in clear language, what exactly it is that the doctors and nurses are asking for. Figure it's worth translating for anyone who's following the events.

For what it's worth, the taxation issue warrants further discussion, but otherwise I personally find these demands to be reasonable.

The Purposes and Demands of the Healthcare Workers' Strike

The purpose is to slow down the outflow of healthcare workers from Estonia and stop the disintegration of the healthcare system.

To achieve the purpose:

A. We demand a collective agreement that:

* Extends to all healthcare workers, irrespective of whether they are financed from the Health Insurance Fund or from the state budget;

* Sets out the maximum work amount that can be demanded within a 1.0 workload position. For doctors, the number of in- and outpatients treated per year. For nurses and caretakers, the number of patients in a department per employee;

* Implements a 40-hour paid work week for a resident physician;

* Ensures defacto accounting and compensation of overtime, additional pay for night work, the coverage of supplementary training costs, additional vacation time;

* Implements minimum hourly wage rates - the first phase demands are, before tax, 8.60 for doctors, 5.50 for nurses, 3.00 for caretakers. The wage increase must be palpable and guaranteed for the next 3 years, to slow down the outflow of healthcare workers.

We will accept an honest offer that considers all financial possibilities. Note: we are talking about raising minimum rates, not an equal percentage increase for everyone.

B. We want agreements for the introduction of changes to the healthcare system and funding increases. For conditions that cannot be immediately implemented starting from 2013, we will agree to a longer-term schedule, but a specific plan of action along with implementation deadlines must be agreed upon and binding to the parties.

* The hospital network's development plan must specifically define the volume and kind of specialist medical care (in what specialist fields) that will unequivocally remain in general hospitals, and must also define how the state will ensure the preservation of this volume. This will give young upcoming physicians a sense of stability. The decisions must be made at the state level, not left up to the hospital owners.

* To improve the availability of medical care:

a) Change the maximum limit of outpatient queues for specialist doctor care back to 4 weeks (this was changed to 6 weeks in 2009).

b) Restore dental care compensation for patients.

c) Provide family doctor care to uninsured persons, financing it from the state budget.

These changes will also reduce the unnecessary additional workload of doctors and costs to the state, as easier illnesses that are left untreated become more difficult and chronic, and the treatment becomes more expensive.

* To increase the 2013 budget of the Health Insurance Fund:

a) Cover the capital costs of hospitals from the state budget (as per the Health Services Organisation Act)

b) Use the undistributed profit of the Health Insurance Fund to the maximum extent permitted by law

* To increase the income base of healthcare, we recommend the adoption of the 2010 WHO proposals "Possibilities for ensuring the financial  sustainability of the Estonian health system", for example raising capital taxes, application of social tax to dividends, state-paid social tax on pensions. The choice must be made by the politicians.

We are prepared to negotiate and compromise on all topics. We will be able to end the strike as soon as the agreements are signed.

More On Inflation

One of those "I got into it in a forum, and might as well repost the whole thing" articles. The original topic was on the correlation of payroll tax levels and unemployment levels - statistically there doesn't seem to be a very strong one. Edited slightly for clarity. I'll update the post if there's any further interesting discussion.

Fwiw, any government that is that worried about unemployment should just employ people.
And pay them out of what? (Other than a few energy exporters like Russia or Venezuela, the state depends on tax revenues from private commerce. Short-term countercyclical surges like the New Deal are one thing, but government hiring is not a viable long-term solution.)

Money. Something that any government (well, any not dumb enough to sign maastricht) doesn't even have a theoretical limit of.
 The Finance Minister of Zimbabwe called, he said to tell you "Bitch please".

Zimbabwe didn't run out of its own currency. It never faced a problem of 'not having enough money'. Its problem is hyperinflation. Different problem entirely.

If you think deficit spending leads one inexorably on to the path of Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation, well I'd like to introduce you to Japan. Still fighting deflation after 20 years of massive deficit spending leading to a national debt at 200% of GDP. They could (and probably should) deficit spend even more.
The fact that Japan has a 200% GDP debt rate is exactly because they don't treat their money supply as inexhaustible. Otherwise their debt rate would be zero. They wouldn't borrow money, they'd print it.

Anyway, Japan's got an economic problem because it's a high-wage country with an insular culture and an aging population right next to a gigantic source of cheap labor; the majority of its population can't produce anything that would be competitive on the world market, so it's turned to internal consumption. It can run up 200% GDP debt because of the unique circumstance that its real estate is far too expensive for young people to afford, and the money that would be parked in equity in any other developed country is diverted either to discretionary spending (bouncing around the economy and cyclically taxed as VAT) or to savings accounts, which the domestic banks use to buy government bonds.

From the Weimar Republic to Zimbabwe to early-90s Russia or more-recent Belarus - every time a state has actually treated its currency supply as inexhaustible, it's only led to hyperinflation.

(Other participant:) So you're agreeing with the part where he says "spending is inflationary", right? Any comments on deflation?
 Printing money and releasing it into the economy is inflationary, yes. The reason why QE hasn't caused as much inflation in the US, or the EU for that matter, as it ought to have, is because all that liquidity is actually parked in bank reserves - not bouncing around the economy.

Not all spending is necessarily highly inflationary though - an excellent example is US foreign aid to Israel, which is required to be spent on purchasing military hardware from US manufacturers. Effectively it is a form of government welfare spending - pumping money into the economy - but because it keeps people at work, the rate at which that money is released into the economy is hard-limited. This, incidentally, is part of why the EU is so happy to pump money into its periphery: most of it is earmarked spending, and is effectively the creation of a market for the core's vital manufacturing sectors. (We just got a huge pile of EU money to overhaul our commuter rail network, but the trains we buy can only be Spanish or Austrian.) This kind of spending, which is associated with real production and export of goods, and a gainfully employed population, is not immediately inflationary beyond the natural inflation caused by income growth - the problem is when the foreign aid comes from borrowed money. You can keep it up for a while and not have dangerous levels of inflation, but only until people stop lending to you.

As for deflation... Do not conflate falling real incomes with deflation. Deflation by definition is a numeric decrease in consumer prices, and that's a very rare thing indeed - although it did happen in Estonia for one year in the middle of the crisis, when the sharp drop in incomes and, inevitably, spending, actually did force retailers to decrease prices on primary consumables - through market pressure alone, not government regulation. But that was a fluke.
(First participant:) You do realize that I was saying only that a country could create limitless amounts of money, not that it actually should create near limitless amounts of money.

You were saying that they could somehow "run out", and required the private sector to produce it. The private sector doesn't produce it and even Zimbabwe didn't run out. It created hyperinflation. Fine. Not a problem that's on our horizon, so rather irrelevant.
It's not a problem on your horizon because you're not dumping massive amounts of printed cash into the economy. Your central bank is playing a shell game with creditor confidence, creating the illusion if liquidity by printing money but keeping it warehoused. If all that cash that private banks borrowed from the BoE at near-zero interest actually gets lent out as small business or consumer loans, you'll see a huge inflation spike immediately.

So: it's not a problem on your horizon exactly because your government is not doing it.
 (Other participant:) It's not going to cause inflation if rich people pocket it and get richer, in other words.
Yes, if they actually pocket it, as in, keep it in a big vault and not spend it. But in this case they're not even pocketing it. The government is letting them hold on to it for a little while, so they can show their business partners that they have a suitcase full of cash and can be trusted to pay for the truck full of frozen fish within 30 days, not immediately on delivery.

There's the problem of the rich people giving themselves massive paychecks out of that money, of course, but that's a different issue.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Translators, especially ones like me (specializing on expensive rush jobs), rarely get to feel like their actions are directly making the world a better place.

Last night, just before midnight, I'm finishing up a video game and thinking I might as well go to sleep, when an email comes in. It's a translation agency I've not worked with before; a family has a sick child, and the local doctors can't make him better. They need a rush translation of the medical history. I'm not a dedicated medical translator (and that field has lots of specialist terminology, of course), but yes, I can get it done quickly. Two hours and seven pages later, I go to sleep.

This morning, I get a response from the agency. My translations were sent to hospitals in Germany late in the night, where the local doctors reviewed them and agreed to take on the case. I think the kid's on a plane right now or something.

I don't mind the usual work I do, but every once in a while, it's great to feel like I'm making a real difference in someone's life. Sure beats corporate correspondence, tax records, or user manuals for scooters.

Hope the kid will be alright.


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