I’ve sung the blues,
For every broken-hearted lovesick dream for you.
I’ve paid my dues,
Working hard-sweat, blood and tears for you.

I’m back in England. I left Chicago on Thursday. I was to stay for a week. Plans changed last night. I am staying longer—now nearly two weeks.

Due to a tragic series of delays in Chicago—it would be funny if the results were not so damned annoying—I did not get off the ground until three hours past our scheduled departure time. Consequently, I missed my connecting flight in Brussels to Newcastle. I was rebooked on the next available flight which left Brussels about five hours after I arrived. By the time I got into the Newcastle office, the reason for my leaving Chicago Thursday night was no longer viable. I was too late. The people I scheduled to meet had closed up shop for the weekend; I was shit out of luck. The following four days have been dominated by continued fallout, repercussions and recriminations.

So by now maybe you are asking yourself: What the hell happened? Why was Bingo so late in getting off the ground? Have you ever heard the story of the horseshoe nail? Let me tell you the version I know:

Before an important battle a king sends his horse with a groomsman to the blacksmith for shoeing. The blacksmith has used all the nails shoeing the knights’ horses for the battle. He is one nail short. The groomsman tells the blacksmith to do the best job he can. The blacksmith warns the groomsman: the missing nail may allow the shoe to come off. The groomsman orders the blacksmith to proceed. Neither man informs the king. The king rides into battle not knowing of the missing horseshoe nail.

In the midst of the battle the king rides toward his enemies. As the king approaches the horseshoe comes off. The horse stumbles. The king falls to the ground. The enemy is quick onto him and kills him. Witnesses to the death of their king, the troops give up the fight and retreat. The enemy surges onto the city and captures the kingdom. The kingdom is lost because of a missing horseshoe nail.

Transatlantic jets do not have horseshoe nails. In Man’s technological surge forward through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries horseshoe nails have been replaced with a varied cornucopia of other instruments, devices and tools. My horseshoe nail was ‘a minor computer problem’. This minor problem forced us off the tarmac and back to the gate just a few minutes before we were scheduled to take off down the runway. Our pilot reassured us with, “Just a few minutes. It’s just a computer problem.” We lost our spot in line and had to taxi back to the gate. That consumed a volume of fuel. After the system was reset we waited for the fuel team to come and top off the tanks. We approached an hour late departing from the gate. There was another pause. Some passengers on our flight were transferring in Brussels to a charter flight to Africa. The charter flight flew only twice a week. With our delays the plane would not have arrived in Brussels with enough time to allow these passengers to transfer. The transferring passengers had no place to stay in Brussels for the three days required to catch the next flight to Africa. The airline proceeded to remove these passengers from our flight. They risked a $20,000 fine per passenger had they failed to do so. Meanwhile some other passengers determined that they, too, would have missed their connecting flights. They asked to be removed also. – The wheels retracted three hours late.

Those three hours were critical—more critical than I imagined.

Perhaps because I am contrasting this experience with my most recent trip to Las Vegas, I am highlighting the differences between American and English approaches to providing services. In Las Vegas literally anything and everything is available—at any time of day or night. Wine, women, song? Name your price. Someone will get it for you. In England the approach is different. My English counterparts have remarked repeatedly that the levels are not the same. Many of them attribute the differences to the predominance of monopolies and consumer rights. Others attribute it to a general cultural malaise. There is simply no strong—or effective—motivator to go the extra mile, to please the customer. In decrying the demise of cultural icons along Chicago’s State Street I wrote about the changes that Marshall Field brought to business. By valuing the customer, Field championed a redefinition of commerce. Better service, itself, yielded a higher profit. It appears to this naïve Yank that the English have taken a different approach. They have legislated a particular level of service and then reinforced it with large monopolies. There is neither motivation nor ability to act otherwise.

I grant you that doing work with telephone companies is a thorny task under the best of circumstances. Compound that condition with the cultural differences and expectation levels and we have a recipe for rum, sodomy and the lash.

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