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Thursday, November 9, 2017

A Record Breaking Start to November as Sales Approach $3,000 and The Demographics of Stamp Collecting

I woke up to offers of almost $1,700 this morning on three stamps that I have had in my inventory since the beginning. Woo hoo!! I accepted them all and brought our monthly total, after 8 full business days to just under $3,000, breaking the record that was set in May, where after 9 days we had just under $2,400. I am incredibly happy with this. All of these offers came from a brand new customer that we just started selling to last month. He bought over $700 last month, was happy with what he received, and the service he got, and came back. The personalized service is definitely working, as I see more and more repeat customers who are recent customers.

I wanted to share a realization that came to me last week about the demographic trends affecting this hobby and the implications that I think it has for the business in general.

I have noticed that we are starting to get sales from younger collectors now, as well as female collectors, which were virtually unheard of 20 years ago. The sales are not large, but there is some repeat business that is beginning to develop. I can tell that these customers are younger by little clues, such as their e-mail addresses, or the fact that they move frequently. I can also tell by the stamps they are buying and their lack of fussiness in regards to condition. Last month, for the first time, sales of post 1952 stamps exceeded the sales of classic stamps, which are normally the domain of the older, collector from the boomer demographic or the few collectors left from the Greatest Generation.

Many people are of the perception that the hobby is dying. They are only partially correct in that the hobby in its old school form is definitely dying:

  • Membership in stamp clubs is declining.
  • Circulation of stamp periodicals like Linns is dropping.
  • Most collectors at shows and exhibitions are older.
I would maintain that much of the above is simply a reflection of the changing times. The fact is that membership in most clubs that meet face to face is declining because people are just as happy to do everything online, or people do not crave the face to face connection as much. Another possibility is that younger people find the clubs too stuffy and do not cater to their interests. This last possibility is actually quite probable, as it has been my observation that most younger collectors are interested in themes that they can relate to. Sure, they might be interested in stamps with Queen Victoria or King George V on them, but the difference is, they are content with just one, and it doesn't have to be rare. 

One demographic trend that cannot be overlooked is the fact that young adults from the millennial generation today are struggling with economic realities that their parents and grandparents simply did not have to face. Millennials simply do not have as much money to spend on hobbies as these generations did. It is not at all uncommon for the average stamp collector currently in their 70's, to have had upwards of $5,000-$6,000 per year available for their hobby. Over a 30 or 40 year period, this has allowed them to amass collections in the $150,000-$250,000 range. As a professional dealer, I have seen this first hand time and time again. 

Millennials today don't have that kind of money to spend. But they still need hobbies and can maybe afford $1,000-$2,000 a year - the kind of money that pays for pints of beer at the pub or packs of smokes. So given these conditions, I think that most of the demand for stamps will be in the cheaper material that can be bought for less than $10 per stamp. That price point is what allows a younger collector to regularly add to their collection. The more expensive material is simply going to be out of reach to most of these collectors. 

Institutional collectors seeking the rarest of the rare will continue to push prices of that material up, but the size of that market is going to shrink over time. Millennials are not as concerned with getting a financial payoff out of their hobby the way boomers are, which accounts for why I am finding it easy to sell the cheaper, lower grade Queen Victoria stamps. So what I think we will see over the longer term is a rise in the demand for the cheaper older stamps and modern stamps, and lower demand for the mid-range, $50-$500 stamps that are in such demand now. As long as the boomers are collecting, I think demand for this material will be strong, but after they die I think we will see a sharp price correction, as there will be many fewer collectors with the financial means to absorb it. 

So far from dying, I think the hobby is merely evolving. I am very excited for what the future holds for the less expensive, modern material.  

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Retraction - I Wasn't Talking About All Customer Service Reps

I just had a conversation with my wife, who worked in a CSR role for several years, and boy! did I ever get a talking to! I listened and realized that what I just wrote was grossly unfair to a very large swath of employees in companies that I really did not intend to target with my rant.

I want to be clear about the fact that I am not talking about customer service roles in large organizations in which the working conditions are extremely poor, or jobs where you are taking hundreds of calls a day from random, one-off strangers, or where you as the CSR have no discretion or latitude. That was not what I was talking about at all.

I am talking about a professional, or semi-professional type of job, like the broker at my insurance company has, where there is a certain degree of latitude, a living wage is paid, there aren't hundreds of calls a day and the customers are not random strangers, but people that one can reasonably expect to interact with more than once. It is these types of employees who do not perform their jobs with care that I take issue with.

Just wanted to be very clear, because I don't want to attack people who are basically defenseless. That's not fair. 

A Radical Thought - Why Most Customer Service Jobs Suck

Yesterday I was working intently getting my material ready to lot today when I received this e-mail message from someone at my insurance agency:

Good afternoon Chris, we have received a notice from your insurance company Wawanesa insurance that they will be doing any inspection on your home.
Can you please provide the name of the contact person and phone number so the inspector can call and set up an appointment.

That was it. I'd never dealt with the person who sent this for the entire year I have been with this insurance company. There is:

  • No introduction and explanation as to why I am dealing with her now, rather than the lady I have been dealing with this past year.
  • No explanation for why the insurance company wants to inspect, what they are looking for, and what they intend to do with the information.
Is it just me, or is this not intrusive? I decided to research these inspections online and I found a range of stories from nothing happening to sky-high premium increases. So naturally, I telephoned and spoke to this person telling them that unless the insurance company could explain why they needed to come in here after I had already spent $6,000 on mandatory upgrades this past year, and have already provided proof that the work was done that my answer would have to be no. 

This morning, she sends me the following e-mail response:

Was advised by Wawanesa that the inspection is required due to it's age and value. Please see attached criteria.  The inspection was not required when policy was first issued, but now that the value is over $500,000 inspection is mandatory.  

Chris if you don't consent to the inspection, Wawanesa will not offer renewal on December 9th 2017.  Please advise. 

Now, I should say at this point that our house is about 140 years old. It is in great shape for a 140 year old home, but it is in no way comparable to a newly built house. We paid $132,000 for it last year and there is no way that it would cost anywhere close to $500,000 to re-build, and even if it did, we probably wouldn't bother. We would just buy another, similar house from the dozens that are for sale in Saint John. 

So the whole thing is bogus and BS. The only thing that this will result in is laundry lists of required "improvements" that are costly and not necessary, or premium increases, and once I let them in once, it will become an annual thing. We were NEVER told about this when we got the policy last year, or at any other point until now. Needless to say, I am irate, and I let this person know it. I'm sure she is not enjoying my e-mails. But then I had a thought, about why most customer service jobs suck:

Maybe they suck, because you, the employee, suck at your job, and your suckage pisses people off to the point where they let you know it. Maybe that is the reason. 

Yes, I know, I know. There are people with low emotional intelligence that will just blow up at people for things they have no control over. Those people exist, and yes, dealing with them sucks, and is not a reflection of the customer service representative. But I would wager that these people are not the majority. 

Here's the thing: it takes time, effort and investment to be good at what you do, and you have to care. If you don't care about doing a good job, then it is pretty much a guarantee that you will suck at what you do, eventually. A CSR's job is to help people, pure and simple. In order to be good at helping people you who are buying a product or service, you have to be:

  • knowledgeable about the product or service.
  • knowledgeable about the company policies, the grey areas, the workarounds and you have to be able to communicate clearly to customers where you have flexibility and where you do not, politely and firmly.
  • good at communicating. This includes knowing when you need to offer explanations and alternatives and not simply waiting to be asked. You have to be able to deliver bad news in a fair, respectful and compassionate manner.
  • able to anticipate what some of the cost common customer concerns are, and be ready to address those concerns. If you are unable to address them to what you know would be satisfactory to the customer, you need to be able to say so upfront, and not after you have kept them on the phone for 30 minutes and peppered them with questions. 
All of this requires a skill set - soft skills. Skills that require practice and effort to perfect. The unfortunate reality is that in theory, anybody can do this job, which is why customer service jobs are usually so poorly paid. The truth of course, is that very few people can do this job well with no prior experience and no effort made to consciously develop these skills. Yet, the impression that I have, after interacting with countless CSR's is that they just expect to be able to show up, and that somehow magically, they will be good enough at what they do to not frustrate the customers they speak to. It is truly magical thinking. 

I am not someone who goes around getting mad at people all the time. I have dealt with Canada Revenue Agency auditors for clients where hundreds of thousands of dollars was at stake, and I have managed to remain calm and professional in my communications. I don't fly off the handle easily. But I have to say that I have a very short fuse when I am forced to deal with someone who just isn't helpful and just doesn't care. That is why I think these jobs suck. I think if the employees doing them would focus on being the best they could be, fewer people would get frustrated with them, some people might actually praise them and thank them, and the job would become much more pleasant to do.