blue parrot thinking: the shared plight of churches and car dealers

Reflections on websites, damned websites and how analog and digital approaches are now one and the same.

Over the years here, I’ve shared at length (and perhaps lengths too far) of the brief life I once spent working in ministry. I haven’t spoken much about the life I spend now.

For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked in digital media: writing, editing and overseeing content for sports websites and support for and development of websites for the auto industry. I began the former with a background in journalism and WordPress; this very web presence, along with the work I did with a collegiate fishwrap, got me in the door there.

I began the latter with what could only be charitably described as rudimentary coding ability. I never studied anything more than QBasic in junior high and had a crude understanding of HTML. I would never consider myself a savant or expert developer, but I did find that I had a knack for this stuff, so I learned HTML, Bootstrap and CSS, can read and mostly interpret JavaScript but can’t seem to make the jump to writing it. I intuitively understood that if I didn’t swim, I’d sink and my family would starve. My understanding of ‘innovate or die’ is in many ways quite literal.

Over the last two-plus seasons in web support, development and a stint in account management for good measure, I’ve worked on a lot of projects and websites, which has allowed me to interact with a lot of people in the auto industry, from dealership proprietors from the used lot down the street to executives overseeing some of the largest auto groups regionally and nationally. By and large, my opinion of auto dealers remains healthily skeptical; I’ve been privileged to talk with really smart, savvy and collegial folks from every time zone.

I’ve talked to others, as well. (Haven’t we all?)

The interesting thing is how similarly those professionally part of American Evangelicalism and in your garden variety North American car dealership think.

Whilst perusing LinkedIn, I happened upon this meme:

As a rule, I don’t do much on LinkedIn. This, and the presuppositions behind it, moved me to violate my own principles. I couldn’t not act, and that was the moment that I realized that I was and am, indeed, a fully-fledged digital evangelist. Much like encountering someone upholding the principles of five-point Calvinism, the fire was trapped in my bones and I could not contain it.

Let’s talk about blue parrot thinking.

The world now exists as a singular duality: the material world (the booth I’m sitting in, the coffee I drink, the keyboard upon which I am relentlessly hammering right now) and the digital version (the website you’re reading [hi!], the memes you share, the snaps that were and are no longer save for the gutter of one’s mind.) There is no longer a difference between the two: your website, digital brand, social media footprint, all of them are viewed as equivalent to your actual self. A car dealership’s website is not a billboard or TV spot, it is the car dealership itself. People are window shopping (and, in a growing number of instances, getting financing and even desking deals in the virtual space.) A church’s website is not a tract, bulletin or radio spot, it is the vestibule (and in a growing number of instances, the sanctuary.)

My response to the meme: “Your dealership website IS your showroom. A poorly-functioning, design-blind website is the same as a dirty, dingy converted gas station used car lot. Not an extension of your brand, but your brand itself.”

You might own a converted gas station used car lot. There’s nothing wrong with a converted gas station used car lot, provided quality vehicles are marketed by quality people there and provided at mutually-beneficial value between buyer and seller. The point is that a poorly-developed website will undermine sales efforts and hamstring efforts to grow your business. A bad website is a loud fart during the exchange of wedding vows: the deed might get done, but the process in getting there is seriously disrupted.

The idea that businesses or organizations of any variety can and should be unapologetic in their digital crumminess isn’t just bad marketing, it’s bad business. There’s a reason this website exists and now in a semblance of ironic glory.

Be glad there isn’t an easily-accessible similar site for car dealers.

Examples of both of these are examples of selling blue parrots. They’re dead on arrival. Worse yet, no one’s even buying.

One can try to talk one’s way out of it; a bad website isn’t bad as long as people are coming in the door and we sell a car is philosophically identical thinking to the Machiavellian ‘even if one person comes to know Jesus, it will have all been worth it!’ gambit tossed out without a shred of self-awareness by Christian zealots who are content with alienating thousands so that they can hoist one on their shoulders in their deluded, bizarre tendencies toward self-congratulation.

In missiology, it is referred to as the ‘mission station’: an outpost people are expected to be drawn toward, as though it were a force of nature bringing them into the center (never mind that centrifugal force doesn’t actually exist.) The mission station, despite its obvious limitations and demonstrable, historic flaws as a strategy for proselytization, remains the preeminent method of ecclesiastical brand building in the world today.

The car dealership without a digital footprint and identity suffers from an identical problem and, without a way to interact with and get in front of others, others will remain staid or, worse, resort to their stereotypes. No one denies that the church and car dealership both suffer from historically poor optics. The fact that every church is stumbling over themselves to declare themselves real and authentic and relevant and that many car dealers talk up their hassle-free, stress-free, not-your-typical-dealership experience only underscores the point.

Churches and car dealerships have been offering the public blue parrots for so long that they only show up when they have to: when the car breaks down, or Christmas and Easter.

What it comes down to is integrity. If an entity wants to put its best foot forward, it’s going to do the best possible job in every possible way. That includes digital marketing, because digital presence is now actual presence, thus the same efforts put into a difference-making organization–be it of the religious or RPM variety–must be put into how that organization exists in the digital space. The same is also true in reverse: a great website or digital presence shouldn’t be papering over blatant flaws in the brick-and-mortar space. To wit, Wendy’s has a killer social media presence, but I’m not buying a Baconator.

We have to come to grips with the fact that it may be more expedient or more affordable to cut corners, but it isn’t right. We may not be turning back the odometer or putting floor mats over cigarette burns, or masking insecurities of conscience by using scare tactics to manipulate someone into a conversion.

It’s all selling dead blue parrots, and when confronted with the fact that the parrot has ceased to be, readying any number of excuses as to why the parrot is alive (or, more to the point, why we aren’t willing to provide a refund.) If either church or car dealer is interested in changing perception, they’re going to make sure their various forms of presence are aligned and consistent with one another, if for no other reason than there are no various forms of presence: either there is presence or there isn’t.

This is how the world is. In reality, this is how the world has always been. We’re just recognizing it anew via emerging technology…and a nearly 50-year-old comedy sketch.

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waging war on salary

Everything is rooted first in an idea. Seldom are things what they are–seriously, it is what it is is a phrase that needs to be obliterated outright–rather, they are anchored by presupposition, predicate events, definitions, etc.

The present is inextricably linked to the past. Nothing exists in a vacuum. (Come to think of it, isn’t that a brilliantly redundant sentence?)

With recent fiat regulatory changes to the nature of pay for exempt (read: salaried) work authorized by the erstwhile presidential administration, then stayed by a federal judge in Texas, the nature of exempt versus non-exempt work briefly became a point of conversation. In short, exempt workers earning less than $47,476 in salary were to be paid overtime as though they were non-exempt (read: wage-earning) workers.

The first glance take by many was, ‘Cool! MONEEZ!’ And that would make sense, since, hey, who doesn’t like more money? In a sustained economic climate of flat average wages and inflation, it could be seen as government throwing the gray collared class a bone.

A deeper look at the matter, though, showed the rule change for what it is: a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare for businesses and employees. Employees who were not adjusted to above-threshold pay levels would essentially lose their exempt status, the trade-off for more money being meticulously tracking time as though they were not salaried at all. Employers artificially bumped entire sectors of their business, creating a new, unintended impact to the bottom line, putting some employers in a position where they had to cut payroll to keep the books level.

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[Hmmm? Oh, I didn’t say anything. Sorry.]

***

These kinds of wholesale changes are almost unilaterally nothing more than cynical pandering. Attempts to jack the minimum wage don’t just cause headaches for small business owners, but they push entire segments of the workforce closer to poverty as the other mechanisms are triggered within the economy adjust to the new baseline. Flat wages lend themselves to flat revenues; starve someone long enough and they’ll eat anything that looks like food. (Hey, they’ll get your vote, too.)

And this is what happens when we fundamentally misunderstand wage and salary. This is neither an economic nor math problem: arbitrarily rewriting numbers higher–even for the most well-intentioned (assuming noble motivation) reasons–does nothing productive when we don’t even comprehend what it is being changed.

Salary and wage are ideas. Salary is more or less an allowance: rooted in the Roman military tradition of paying salt-money in exchange for continued service. It is a forward-thinking payment that sets out to make above and beyond work worth a person’s while. Wage, on the other hand, is a reward for work already done. It is recompense for the past.

Salary, in essence, buys off a person’s commitment to a standard schedule where it is made worth a person’s while to not be confined to a shift. Wage, in contrast, is offered with clearer baseline expectations. (Anyone else ever work in an environment where overtime was discouraged, if not penalized?)

Neither are necessarily bad: some people prefer income stability, while others prefer the budgeted schedule and the chance at making a little more here and there. Some employers prefer people to not worry about the clock, others need to maintain a bottom line. It depends on the business and type of activities within it.

The problem is that workers and managers alike also seem to misunderstand this as much as, if not more than, government bureaucrats and the wage-hike cheerleaders. Salary is not designed to be abused and make people work 50-70 hour work weeks; that is an abuse of workforce and bad faith. Similarly abusive are environs where workers are either subjected to repressed wages or otherwise obligated to work overtime on a regular basis.

Simply jacking salary or wage numbers doesn’t address the actual problems however far beneath the surface. Raising the exempt overtime threshold, or the minimum wage, does not reconcile anything.

If anything, it amplifies fundamental misunderstandings and makes bad situations worse: a jerk of an entrepreneur who expected 80 hours of work per week from an exempt employee for $40,000 will expect that much more from someone when they have been required a nearly 20% raise by bureaucratic decree. That same jerk will either cut working hours or workforce entirely when wage obligations reach an unsustainable level. These are not merely math problems: they’re philosophical problems.

The part about Smith’s Wealth of Nations that people seem to overlook is that the name of the book has nothing to do with capital or capitalism. He’s pretty clear on this point, before laying out–in most comprehensive detail–his capitalist treatise: the wealth of nations is in the goodness of its people. The title is an irony. And, while I quickly veer away from the partisanship and rancor and cause all gradation of grundy such as whenever terms like ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ are implied or invoked, the point I’m making is that if we understand what we’re dealing with, we stand a far better chance of actually solving problems, and doing so together. Further, I believe this is particularly true in matters of compensation.

A good and wise business owner will treat her employees with goodness and wisdom in all respects. Granted, this doesn’t happen much, but when the conditions are such that ownership is obligated to conform to a standard, the ability to demonstrate goodness or wisdom is also  necessarily restricted.

So, then, this is how we ought to interpret broad-stroke regulatory changes like the one currently stayed: as a capricious restriction on our ability to be better. The bigger check makes for stronger chains. The law brings death, and that which is dead is connected to nothing at all.

Graves have no roots. Those in them don’t get paid, either.

take your time: briefly, a case for limitless PTO

Earlier this year, Virgin Group announced a new policy allowing unlimited vacation time, or in the preferred current corporate nomenclature, paid time off. Virgin is likely the most prominent firm in the world to have moved to such a position, though they aren’t the first–a number of Silicon Valley companies have done something similar, including the very group whose subsidiary is the platform for this blog, Automattic.

Branson’s cache and prominence, though, is what caused a stir in culture: is it a good idea? More importantly, will it work?

The common reasoning is that if employees are permitted unlimited time off, then they’ll abuse the policy, productivity will slide and bottom lines will be undermined by a lazy workforce. Or something like that.

Based on the findings of companies researched by the Society of Human Resource Management, however, perhaps we ought to have a little more faith in our fellow humans.

First, unlimited paid time off, like representative democracy, works best with a virtuous workforce. Perhaps ‘virtuous’ is a loaded modifier, but it works. Unlimited PTO is not an invitation to not show up for work, but rather a sign that an employer trusts its workforce. To wit, why would an employer hire–or retain–someone she fundamentally doesn’t trust?

Decent people deserve to be treated decently, and that includes not hammering someone because he is undergoing treatment for a serious illness (FMLA provisions notwithstanding), or putting strictures on someone who has an opportunity to travel, study or otherwise pursue her interests or a charitable cause.

A company that holds an unlimited PTO policy and fails likely has far more serious issues than allowing its workers to take two weeks to fully recover from the flu.

Second, and not entirely unrelated to the first point, unlimited PTO demonstrates to a workforce that an employer is confident and capable in staffing his workplace. Frankly put, a person taking two weeks to vacate or two months for paternity leave should not mean that a company is then incapable of fulfilling its raison d’etre. Taking the caps off sick and vacation time should spur productivity, which reasonably should spur gross receipts, which reasonably should foster additional job growth. Companies moving toward this model are a classic example of the marketplace adapting to employee’s needs and increased desirability for potential future workers–the free market in action.

Third, in an era when work is increasingly virtual, what is the point of having banks of accumulated time-off hours? Certainly, not all work is virtual, but many people can do far more outside of a typical office than they ever could do before. The aforementioned worker recovering from the flu could theoretically take a few days and then telecommute for a few more until she’s back at full strength.

Fourth, it puts weight behind the clichéd and ultimately worthless phrase ‘work-life balance’. If an employer truly values his employees and their equilibria, he’ll do what is needed to make sure they’re in the best position possible to do the best job possible. That includes being generous and understanding, including (and especially) when people need time off.

People burn out if they’re pressed too hard for too long, and while it is important to maintain standards for performance and conduct in and around the workplace, it is not healthy to leave workers dreading to come back to work after falling ill, needing time to address family situations, having a child, moving to a new residence or seizing an opportunity that otherwise might not be available.

Finally, with great benefits comes great responsibility–some companies reported that those who work in an uncapped PTO environment actually use less time than those who feel like they have to use as much as they can before an arbitrary turning of the calendar resets the banks. Freedom, in workplace praxis, engenders loyalty. Arbitrary restraint, contempt. In this era of jobless recoveries and political and economic chicanery, good employees with great potential and/or track records of performance are worth keeping and taking the necessary measures to demonstrate mutual commitment.

umm…right?