Living in a Loop

Living through the Pandemic – A Journal (Part 3)

By San San Lee

I’m in a loop.

Positive news, bad news, and never-ending uncertainty.

The last 12 months have felt like a bad reality show, thanks to the onset of Covid-19, denials of its existence and gravity, quarantine, reopening, restriction, and shut-down cycles, topped off with the drama of the 2020 election. And now, just as we thought the end was in sight after a new administration and two approved vaccines, the discovery of the new variants has placed us in “A Race Against Time.” Vaccine shortage is real, and as more contagious variants emerge, current vaccines may lose their effectiveness. Reaching herd immunity and returning to “normalcy” appears as elusive and complicated as ever.

I am struggling. I have difficulty focusing on things other than information regarding infections rates and vaccines. I am overwhelmed by the unknown as I fear more bad news. With the saga continuing, I am exhausted.

Yet, even as I feel fatigue, my left brain detects a pattern in life and reminds me, “I am tired and feeling lost, but this is only temporary. It will pass, as things have many times before.” Even though the progress is painfully slow and uneven, facts tell me, too, that things are improving.

In these difficult moments, to help with perspective, I often revisit a March 2020 conversation with my client, “Ana”. We were discussing the profound effects that the pandemic would have on our lives, personal and professional. A senior executive in a major hotel company, I have worked with Ana for years as outside legal counsel. As we saw the fast and furious meltdown of the hospitality industry, we told each other that there would be many bad days ahead, and though rare, a few good moments. To ready ourselves for the onslaught, we agreed that we need to seize and cherish those good moments as we claw back to recover from the pandemic.

This week, Ana and I caught up. Though there has been no work since the pandemic, we check in on each other every other month or so. After a year of business downturns, staff reductions, and quarantine, she, too, was tired. We shared our thoughts about the lack of control and our disappointments in those ignoring public health guidelines. I described my life working from home with my husband and she opened up about her social isolation as a single person, along with her concern for her elderly mother who she had to convince to get the vaccine. We spoke of the possibility of working together and seeing each other again in the near future. We laughed and were able to lift each other out of our pandemic weariness.

Often, when I needed it most, I’ve had the luck of having one of these conversations.  Over the last 12 months, instead of focusing exclusively on efficiency and the work at hand, I have taken a measure of the well-being of the other person in business meetings. “How are you?” has become a real question rather than just a polite and perfunctory one. This ritual changed with friends and family as well. Recently, I exchanged texts with my brother about our childhood scars. My brother, very private and closed, used to only reach out to provide obligatory updates about our parents. Now with the pandemic, we check in with each other regularly.   

Almost a year ago, when Ana and I spoke of the “good moments”, I didn’t know what that meant. Over time, I’ve come to realize that authentic, genuine interactions with others are the “good moments”. In these instances, we can drop the pretense that all is well and be honest. By sharing our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, we are showing each other that we are human. That we care for each other.

Though the pandemic has kept us physically apart, it has emotionally brought us closer.

At the end of my call with Ana, I mentioned our March 2020 discussion. Agreeing that the pandemic has allowed us to share our vulnerabilities, she then said, “Let’s do everything we can to stay this way, even when we go back to working on projects, again.”

“I would like that,” I responded.

At that moment, I realized that I was not really in a loop. Instead, she and I, and our enduring friendship, have been progressing along a path of change and evolution, through the pandemic. All along.

click here for the Original Article in The South Pasadenan Newspaper


Acceptance, Anticipation, and Hope

Holidays in Spain – A Journal

By San San Lee

Thanksgiving of 2020 has come and gone.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday also had their turns. It’s December. We are in the midst of yet another holiday season and spike in COVID-19.

Unlike other years spent at home in LA, I am in Barcelona.

Growing up, my family owned a Chinese restaurant. We worked all year round. On Christmas and Thanksgiving, the streets were quiet, and throughout the day people would trickle in, one or two at a time. By early evening, the phone would be ringing off the hook for takeout orders. We would stay late to clean up, get home exhausted, shower, and finally go to bed.

Holiday or not, it was just another day.

In my mid 20’s and 30’s I worked in Asia for US firms. Since my employers followed the local calendar, I spent most major US holidays in the office. Though my colleagues and I took turns working on holidays, those of us who were single got a higher share of  holiday shifts. At first, we tried to replicate US traditions, but there was just no substitute for the festive aura. Recreating holiday dishes from local ingredients didn’t cut it. To add to the isolation, expensive international calls were the only means of instantaneous communication back then. Still, we found our own way to celebrate. We’d spend the day at work, leave a little early and have a nice meal out.

Spending time together took the edge off of the loneliness.

My first “real” Thanksgiving experience was in my early 20’s at a friend’s home, despite having lived in the US for well over a decade. It was the first time that I had turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, string bean casserole, pumpkin and pecan pies, in one sitting! Sumptuous, but exhausting – it took a lot of energy to eat, and even more to recover. For me, the best part of the meal has always been the sides and desserts, and I always saw the turkey as a symbol of American generosity and abundance.

Over time, like many immigrant families, we moved on from a small family-run business and achieved economic security. We, now, take holidays off.

Nowadays, I have my own holiday traditions. After several failures, I learned to cook a not-so-dry turkey and make my own sides. After Thanksgiving weekend, I would start to pick out holiday gifts, finish out the year at work, and make final plans to see family and friends one last time before the year ended. The weeks that follow Thanksgiving are frantic, filled with commitments, consumerism, and intensity, but I enjoy the quiet that follows Christmas and the slow ramp up to the new year.

Now, the world is more integrated – American traditions, as well as what they mean to us, are becoming widely known. Several of our neighbors and friends here sent us texts wishing us well on Thanksgiving. As a predominantly Catholic and family-oriented country, Spain also takes Christmas very seriously. Depending on the perspective, Spain has benefitted or suffered from US commercialism and consumerism. Social media, multi-national enterprises, and increased travel have brought about and contributed to the abundance of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” ads and deals. In fact, exploring a nearby shopping mall that houses a Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Sephora, Zara, and H&M feels like wandering through Anywhere, USA.

With the existence of the familiar and apps for video chats, I remain connected to home. To its credit and to my gain, Barcelona does not lack in creature comforts or beauty.

Yet, I miss LA.   

This holiday season is particularly difficult. Being away during a pandemic has reintroduced the emotional wounds of my past. The loneliness and isolation from my childhood and the years abroad have follow me here. Even so, these holidays will need to be spent like other days during the COVID-19 era – staying put and distant from people. I am letting go of my traditions in exchange for something far more precious: a future, for myself and others.

For everyone.

This year, I am celebrating acceptance, anticipation, and hope. Acceptance: This holiday season is different from all others. Anticipation: There will be many more holidays to come. Hope: We will all be together in person, again, soon.

click here for the Original Article in The South Pasadenan Newspaper


Coping with Uncertainty, an Unintended Gift

Starting My New Life – A Journal

By San San Lee

To weather the corona storm and sociopolitical ugliness in the US, we left LA for Barcelona at the end of August. We will be here until the spring of 2021, perhaps longer. I have always planned ahead and find uncertainty anxietyprovoking. We came anyway.

Thanks to the 2016 election, we acquired an apartment in Barcelona in 2017, just in case. While my husband thought I was over-reacting at first, he understood that, as a first-generation immigrant, I was scared. Still, I never thought we would have to exercise our contingency plan.

From the lockdown and even after the reopening in May, we self-isolated in LA. We kept things in a holding pattern to maintain some “normalcy.” The virus was spreading and the inconsistent governmental responses left much to be desired. While we managed to adjust, it was far from ideal. I felt unsafe given the resistance to masks and other measures, not to mention the harsh political rhetoric.

After serious consideration, we concluded that Spain’s situation would be less precarious, even if that meant taking on uncertainty for our future. Where things stood, we predicted that infections in the US would surge dramatically as the weather cooled. Although it would be challenging anywhere, Spain’s success in reducing its infections in the spring encouraged our decision. In a nerve-racking five-month process, I received my renewed passport and we set out for Barcelona.

It was a significant risk. Armed with hand sanitizers and wipes, it was the first time we had gone more than five miles from home since the lockdown. Our entire trip was unsettling and eerie – the lack of traffic and cars at the airport, the emptiness of the terminal, and the number of unoccupied seats on our flight. The experience was surreal, adding to the “unknown” waiting for us in Barcelona.

Much to our pleasant surprise, Barcelona was in the full swing of summertime activity. COVID-19 cases were rising, but people were enjoying themselves – they seemed happy. It was a contrast to LA, which felt subdued, fearful, angry, and sometimes, defiant. Right before we left LA, public universities and several school districts had just announced that in-person classes would not resume in the fall, not to mention the devastating fires just beginning amid record-breaking heat. Meanwhile, Barcelona seemed remarkably “normal,” aside from the prevalent use of masks and the obligatory squirt of hand sanitizers as we entered shops and restaurants. The virus was here, but everyone was learning to live with it.

Our first challenge was to figure out how to live safely. Starting a life in a new city has its own stresses, let alone in a time of pandemic. As a consequence of Barcelona’s walking-city-nature, the number of our errands increased, which meant more interactions with people.

We took incremental steps.

My husband and I discussed each new activity to plan for contingencies. We looked for restaurants with outside seating that appeared to be complying with safety protocols. We politely declined dinners and drinks with friends and neighbors, responding with invitations for masked and socially distanced walks. 

The pandemic put several things on hold in our Barcelona apartment, as it had in our lives.

We put certain safeguards in place – not being in the apartment when it’s being cleaned, keeping windows open during installations and deliveries, wearing masks when meeting people in and outside of our apartment. I even walked out of a bakery because the store clerk grabbed bread with her bare hand.

Initially, it was tough. I was in a new country where I didn’t speak the language, and I worried and stressed over each new encounter. Even so, I got used to the “struggle” of imperfect communication over time. My efforts were often rewarded with exceedingly helpful gestures – the worry and stress morphed into feelings of satisfaction and gratitude. Although we limited our social interactions, for the first time in six months, we were moving things forward instead of waiting for something to change before acting.

I was beginning to settle into my life here.

Six weeks after our arrival, Spain and the region of Catalonia imposed new restrictions. We knew it was coming – many had become too comfortable and were disregarding safety measures as they spent time with their family, friends, classmates, and co-workers. Not surprisingly, as comforts rose, cases surged.

Some of our newly reintroduced activities are in dormancy again. It is uncertain how long these measures will last. There is a feeling of déjà vu, but I am doing okay. Unlike the first lockdown in March, I’m not feeling the panic and the emotional tailspin. I am not obsessing on the “what,” “when,” and “why.” I don’t like uncertainty, but I realize it’s necessary.

The pandemic appears to have given me the unintended gift of “calm” in the midst of the unknown. Perhaps, with the ups and downs, I’ve developed a bit of a callous – keeping me in the “now” and less speculation on the “future.” Right now, I am in a beautiful and architectural city, and in my free time, taking online Spanish lessons, walking to parks and beaches, and more importantly, sharing gelato with my husband.

I just had my first birthday in Barcelona. I don’t know where I will be for my next one, but as with all things, time will pass, things will unfold, and life will go on.

click here for the Original Article in The South Pasadenan Newspaper


Corona Yo-Yo or Moderation

Much like yo-yo dieting, many parts of the country are on a yo-yo of closures

By San San Lee

Several years ago, I lost 50 pounds. After being diagnosed with high blood pressure, I realized it was time to take action.

It was hard.

It took me 11 months and I went down three sizes in jeans. My blood pressure also went down, and I was off the medication. To reduce the weight, I had to give up many things: wine, desserts, ribs, cheese, French fries, and many others that I used to indulge. I exercised regularly and did yoga. I got there by complying with the “rules.” One set of rules for permitted items to eat (mostly, vegetable and lean meats), and another with off-limits foods (fries and ice cream, etc.). I abandoned the prior “no rules” of eating it all. Back then, I thought I’d stick with my new weight-loss strategy, and then, I could go back to my old ways. By the time I lost the weight, I was sick and tired of steamed broccoli and baked chicken!

After 11 months of sticking with the rules, I no longer wanted to go through it again. I had worked too hard and felt great. With less weight, things got a lot easier. The weight-loss rules no longer applied, but if I went back to my old ways, I knew the weight would be back, and I would need to lose the weight or risk going back on blood pressure medication. I didn’t want to be another victim of yo-yo dieting.

At the same time, I also wanted to reintroduce the “forbidden” items, but how much and how often? I was a bit apprehensive at first. I knew that I couldn’t go back to my old ways or stay in weight loss mode forever. I had to find a “happy medium,” which required discipline and vigilance. To do that, I struggled to reconcile between how I lived my life before the weight loss and how I had to live to maintain my health. Often, I had to say “no” to another glass of wine or a piece of chocolate. It would have been easy to default to my old way of “eat it all,” but I had to let it go. I had to accept that things were different. I needed to develop new habits and live my life accordingly. I knew my desire to “eat it all” would hold me back from making sustainable progress, so I struggled to find a balance.

That was almost nine years ago, and I’ve kept the weight off. Over time, through hard work and persistence, the self-monitoring has become mostly automatic. Yet, the struggle to find the balance to keep the weight off was more difficult than losing the weight.

As I live through the pandemic, I see a similar struggle. It was easier when the “rules” were clear, much like the weight loss rules. In March, the lockdown required us to stay at home, limit our contact with others, wash our hands, wear face coverings, and maintain social distancing. We reduced the infection rate and the curve flattened. We waited for the reopening, hoping that the lockdown would be short-lived and our lives would go back to “normal.”

While the lockdown slowed the spread of the virus, it did not disappear. We knew that. When the country began to reopen in May, most Americans were apprehensive about the possible rise in the infection rate. The uneasiness was well-founded. Infection rates in our city, county, state, and other states around the country are skyrocketing. I also was concerned about the reopening because it was unclear what it would look like or mean. Would we be able to go back to the “old normal” or would our activities be restricted? It turned out for many, reopening meant that we could abandon the “weight loss” rules and go back to our old ways of “eat it all,” or more appropriately, “do it all,” rather than seek a balance. We were not prepared to reintegrate activities slowly and modify our pre-pandemic behaviors to develop new habits to ward off the spread of the virus.

The “do it all” behaviors returned during the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, along with the “normalcy” of summer. It was as though we gorged after a fast, without regard for the inevitable consequences. Now, shutdowns are recurring, and we are back on a “diet” to starve the virus once more – a consequence of our over-indulgence.

Much like yo-yo dieting, many parts of the country are on a yo-yo of closures, reopening, partial closures, reopening, as the infection rates go up and down. According to various infectious disease experts, the yo-yo will likely continue unless we take personal responsibility and modify our behaviors to stop the spread of the virus.

So, where do we go from here?

The virus is very much with us and will likely be with us in the near term. Unfortunately, life is not a Hollywood movie – vaccines and cures do not appear overnight. Until a viable medical option is available, we must learn and adapt our behaviors to minimize the spread as we go about our day. We need to stop the yo-yo.

We must learn to live more cautiously, with vigilance and consideration for the health of others as well as ourselves. Much like a post weight-loss plan, we need to exercise moderation – engage in some pre-pandemic activities, but perhaps not as often and not in the same way, and in many instances, with caution and safeguards. Simply put, we need to follow the rules, even if it means giving up the past and sacrificing our desires. Many already do this, but given the rising infection rates, it’s clear that we need to do better.

Yes, it’s a bummer, and it takes work – but it’s a much better alternative than being on the Corona yo-yo.

click here for the Original Article in The South Pasadenan Newspaper


Reopening – A Good Time for Paranoia

‘Life must go on. Unfortunately, we are left to figure out how to navigate the reopening on our own’

By San San Lee

Birds are chirping, the sun is out, and the morning glories are flowering. Cool mornings and warm days – overcast skies as we move from spring to summer. A typical transition of seasons in LA. Every year, this is when my allergies act up, my eyes water, and I sneeze. “Pollution,” attributes my doctor. But, it’s different this year. My symptoms aren’t as bad, probably because the air quality is better. One of the unintended consequences of the stay-at-home order.

The stay-at-home order is easing, too. For some, this is a delightful development. For others, it comes with unease and concern for possible exposure and increased Covid-19 infections. Based on recent polls, a majority of Americans are at least somewhat (if not, very concerned) about the rise of infections as restrictions ease. I, too, am concerned.

While my workload is much less than the pre-pandemic level, I’ve been able to work from home. With the stay-at-home order and its restrictions, and more importantly, the dedication of essential workers, I’ve had the luxury to “hide out” from the virus in the safety of my home. That will change as things open. The reopening does not mean the virus is gone or that it has lost its contagious might. Life may become more precarious. Without the restrictions, we are no longer as protected and isolated from the virus. Reopening would mean more exposure to others, and therefore, the virus.

It appears though that some don’t see things this way. The behavior of the Memorial Day weekend at beaches, Eaton Canyon and other weekend and vacation spots are examples of that. It’s disturbing – the crowding, lack of social distancing, lack of masks, and frankly, just a lack of awareness that we are in the middle of a pandemic. It’s as though “reopening” equals the virus is gone and we’re free to party and celebrate! Health authorities are warning that precautions must be taken as infections continue to rise in many parts of the country. Yet, the lack of a consistent, clear and coherent message from governmental officials result in confusion, misinterpretations, arguments, haphazard behaviors, at a time when the need for precautions is paramount.

Life must go on. Unfortunately, we are left to figure out how to navigate the reopening on our own.

Back in March, right before the stay-at-home orders started to come down, I was texting back and forth with Tim, a friend in Barcelona. Spain’s shutdown, much stricter than ours, had just been imposed. We were discussing the likelihood that the US was next. He advised, “Don’t wait until the government tells you what to do. You know what you have to do.” Taking his advice, I started to wear face coverings whenever I went out. I had been reading about countries that were successfully warding off the spread. One thing stood out, people in those countries, whether required or not, were wearing face coverings in public. Although CDC only recommended face coverings for those with symptoms at that time, I decided to wear a mask anyway. I didn’t have any symptoms, but shielding my nose, mouth and portions of my face from the “droplets” of others had to be better than nothing. It made sense to me as an added precautionary measure to minimize exposure, especially when it was clear that our lives were to be disrupted dramatically. What’s a little more inconvenience for my safety and that of others?

Late to the game, CDC did not recommend face coverings until two weeks later, when it informed us that a significant number of transmissions occurs from asymptomatic individuals.

Tim’s advice is still very much appropriate in the context of reopening. Rather than relying on the government, I decided to assess the amount of risk I’m willing to accept for my own safety and those around me. My actions should not be driven or dictated by others. Instead, I have to set the rules and at times, make a case-by-case determination for myself.

I am comforted by the fact that I am not alone in this. Based on my discussions with others (via, email, text, zoom and phone calls), they are trying to figure it out, too. How and when do we begin to incorporate more social contact? If so, under what circumstances? Who can we trust? How stringent have they followed social-distancing and what is the level of their hygiene? How serious are they about the virus? What businesses are still on the “to go back to” list? Are they following the guidelines? Under what conditions would we go back to eating at a restaurant? If so, which ones do we trust to have our health as their number one priority?

In these discussions, I’m finding that we are also assessing each other’s quarantine habits to determine if the other person is “safe.” It’s like early stages of dating, getting the awkward questions and “must haves” out of the way to see if there will be a second date. Or, in the current context, is it safe to see each other in person?

Recently, my friend Nancy signed off her email with the hope that we can get together soon in person and added “six feet apart and with masks.” Another friend told me that he is choosing not to see his sister because she has been socializing with her friends in person during the quarantine. A friend with a dog was elated to hear that I hike with a mask because we can hike together with his dog while we both wear masks.

Assessing the risks can be difficult, messy, tedious, and complicated. In a recent Zoom call, an old friend reminded me of the discussions we used to have in the 1990s during the HIV epidemic, when we were both single and dating – not only are you having sex with a person but with every person he/she has had sex with. He then, asked “It’s really the same, isn’t it?” Not only are you having contact with a person, but every person he/she encounters. Ultimately, it becomes an exercise in calculated risk. How badly do you want to do something and how much risk are you willing to take? Bottomline, what is the value of your safety?

It’s sobering, but it’s necessary – at least for me. I passed on some dates back then, and I know that I will have to pass on seeing some people now – even if that means I can’t go to the places and events I that want to. At least, for the time being.

click here for the Original Article in The South Pasadenan Newspaper


I Can’t Go Home Anymore

“I question whether I will ever be able to go back to the way we were”

By San San Lee

“I want things to be normal again and just go back to the way they were.” That’s how I felt as the coronavirus spread and cases of death rose, followed by stay at home orders, business closures, job losses and changes to our lives. As things have begun to reopen and resumption of “normal” life begins, I’ve been reflecting. I keep on coming back to the same question – what does “normal” mean? What does “going back” mean, especially given what has happened?

As a lawyer specializing in hotel transactions, by early February, following the footsteps of China and parts of Europe, my clients were dealing with cancellations, and my workload started to diminish until it came to a screeching halt. Everyone hoped that the effects of the coronavirus would be contained and temporary, confined to a small region and high-risk population. In retrospect, that was not the case. Watching the industry, I saw it coming and knew it would be bad. Nevertheless, the pace and speed at which things changed were daunting and excruciating as I watched familiar things in my life disappear.

Many hoped that the return to the “normal” would be like a light switch. The stay at home orders would be lifted, and miraculously, things go back to the way they were. The pandemic would be a distant memory. Yet, as local and state governments discuss the plans of re-opening, they are conditioned with restrictions, not only to ensure public safety, but also to safeguard the health of employees and consumers. The road to normalcy will be a gradual grind, as we get accustomed to doing “old normal” things in “new normal” ways.

Yet, as I reflect on return to “normalcy,” I question whether I will ever be able to go back to the way we were.

Adjusting to the existence of a pandemic, we’ve all had to dramatically adjust our day-to-day lives. I am no exception. I lived in my own bubble. I had my work, my clients, my friends, my favorite coffee places, my personal training sessions, hikes with my husband on the weekends, and our favorite restaurants. For me, it was a way of life that took years to build and a lot of effort to secure.And, my life was “just so” – we had a routine and that gave us certainty and security – we both felt we had found “home.”

Three months ago, it would have never occurred to us that our routine would be disrupted in any significant way, let alone be in jeopardy. After all, we lived through the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed – and, our life remained intact. During the initial days of the pandemic, as I obsessively watched the news, I kept on hearing pundits comparing the two. Deep down, I knew it was different. Back then, it was the economy, but not our health. This time, we are threatened by a virus for which we have very little information, and it is eating away at everything we hold dear, including lives.

There were lots of bad days initially, but the worst was accepting that the life I had built (really, my bubble) was so fragile. I was no longer able to do those familiar things. The things we enjoyed and that defined our lives just evaporated. I felt lost and became unsure of who I was and what I stood for – I had let those external things define who I was and be a barometer of my certainty and security. Having those things made me feel more whole. To top it off, the uncertainty and the unknown surrounding the virus, and therefore, our health, made things unbearable. I felt suspended in the loss of my life as I knew it and the unknown of the future.

But even during the worst days, I had to survive. I had to wash my hands, find face coverings, engage in social distancing, stand in grocery lines, cook meals, find toilet paper and cleaning solutions, go out for walks, clean my house, and water my plants – not to mention deal with client issues that came up. With the “stay at home” order, my priorities changed, and I was doing things I had not done in years. I could no longer rely on anyone else to do it for me. I was just trying to keep us fed, safe, and healthy, but it was exhausting. With the lurking virus and the fear of catching it, every outing was stressful, and I was obsessively watching cable news to obtain as much information about the virus as I could. While difficult at first, these stressful and exhausting things became less so as I got used to doing them.

I was changing – not just what I did from day-to-day, but internally. Over days and weeks, I got used to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the future. I still craved certainty, but I could no longer rely on the pre-pandemic certainty. It was no longer there. I knew also that as quickly as those things were taken away – looking to regain them would be a fool’s errand. I had to look for certainty elsewhere. But, where? 

Through it all, one thing is clear: certainty is elusive because most things are outside of our control. 

I realized that the only certainty I have is within me. That is all I can control. When I feel the need for certainty now, I find comfort in knowing that I can adjust by shifting my priorities. I don’t need the things I once thought I did, and doing things for myself is okay. I also discovered that having to improvise is a way of life. Most of all, I found certainty in my marriage, as my husband and I became great collaborators during this pandemic. We agreed that we would only take risks that we could both accept.

So, from where I am now, I can’t imagine going back to the way we were – living in my bubble and relying on it for certainty and security. Now that I know how fragile our “home” was, we just can’t go back and be as we were. I don’t know how things will turn out or what will happen, but I know that it’s not in the cards for me to look for certainty and security in a house of cards.

click here for the Original Article in The South Pasadenan Newspaper


What is “Service”?

A good friend of mine and I recently spoke on the question of what is “service”?  He is in the hotel industry where he and his staff deliver one-on-one direct service while providing a very tangible product to customers.  Based on the “real-time” exposure to his staff and the condition of the hotel product they are offering, his customers have immediate awareness and appreciation for the service being offered.  At his hotel, much time is spent training the staff on how to enhance the customer experience, while they are staying at the hotel.

I am in a slightly different business.    As a lawyer, I disseminate advice, resolve my client’s problems, and help my clients close their transactions.  I don’t offer a physical product.   Given the nature of the representation, which can go on for months, unlike my friend who runs a hotel, my clients do not necessarily immediately see the results of my advice, and I don’t necessarily get immediate feedback from my clients.  They don’t fill out guest questionnaires about the rooms, amenities, and the level of courteousness of the staff, etc.  Over time, things work out or deals close, and when clients are pleased, they come back or refer their friends and business associates – sometimes, months or years later.

The difference between what my friend’s hotel offers and what I offer got me thinking.  While I don’t offer a physical product, what is consistent about the two businesses is that we both offer an experience.  In his situation, his customers experience the product and also experience the service being offered by his staff.  In my situation, my clients experience “how” I provide legal advice.  With professional services, the service element is what patients have termed their doctors’ “bedside manners”.

Professional service providers often focus on “results” in their ads and promotional materials – and yes, that is a big part of the service – and in fact some would contend that it is the only thing that matters.  Having been a member of different professional service organizations, I find that there is a great deal of emphasis on winning the case, getting deals done, etc., but unlike the training that goes on at my friend’s hotel,  there is little emphasis on “how” the services are to be delivered in the interim.  Most professional services organizations seemingly rely on the recruitment process to hire employees with certain personality traits, but once hired, little time or effort is expended on training to deal with clients and handle situations. While results are important and it is the reason a client initially seeks professional services, I am not sure that obtaining positive results is the only way to keep clients in the long-term.  Don’t get me wrong – results are important and key.  However, if the client experience leading up to the result is negative, the client is more likely to consider other alternatives the next time around.  On the other hand, if the client experience is generally positive, the client is more likely to come back.   So, the bottom line is that rather than just focusing on the result, a professional advisor has to be aware of how her services are being delivered and perceived by the client. So, how does one try to provide good service as a service provider?  Here are some ideas:

1.  Respect Your Client’s Time.   Don’t be late or if you are going to be late, let them know.  I have found that clients are very understanding when you communicate with them and give them the “head’s up”.  Remember, clients are busy and they, too, have deadlines.  If you leave them in the dark, they then have to “juggle” things around to accommodate you delay.  That would not be delivering good client service.

2.  Listen to Your Client.  A lot of professionals I know like to babble on about their own expertise and how good they are – your clients know you are good.  Otherwise, they would have gone somewhere else.  So, stop selling and get to work!  The client has an issue that needs to be resolved.  Listen up and see what they want to do about it and see how you can help them, and stop talking about how you have helped someone else.  At the end of the day, clients only really care how you can help them.

3.  Try to Understand Your Client.  You can more effectively represent your client and meet their needs if you have a sense of who they are and how they work.  Do they want more assurance?  Do they like to deliberate and make their own decision or seek others for input?  How do they communicate with you – this should be a clue on whether you pick up the phone or send an email.   Figuring these things out on the front end will give you a head start on how to best handle your communications with your client – so that you can optimize your contact with them.

4.  Be Responsive.  There is nothing worse than having with a problem that needs resolution and feeling like your advisors are not available.  Even if you cannot speak with your client then, send an email letting them know when you will next be available.  Your client will appreciate your efforts and you’ve also managed their expectations.

5.  Be Courteous and be authentic – but Focus on Job.  Always keep you client’s interest as the primary concern.  Treat your clients the way you would want to be treated – not exactly the same way, as you and your client are different people.  However, treat your client with the level of courteousness and authenticity that you would expect, from a services provider.  Remember, they are clients, and not friends, and they are coming to you to get things done.  One of my competitors (who is also a good friend), and with whom I share common clients, likes to share his exotic and elaborate vacations with his friends, and yes, clients, too.  Our mutual clients have made passing remarks about this to poke fun at him.  He obviously goes overboard and his clients see his “sharing” as “bragging”.  Not a good sign!

Only focusing on the “results” will not necessarily get professional service providers repeat business.  So, why not learn from my hotel friend – put a little care in the client experience to ensure that the delivery of the service is done with concern and respect for your client’s state of mind, along with getting clients the best result possible.  Professional service providers deliver “results”, but the delivery of the result is a process that occurs between the service provider and the client, and the more pleasant the process is, the more likely the client will return in the future.





Whatever Happened to “Playing Nice”?

I recently closed a very difficult transaction for one of my clients – let’s call my client X Co.  The transaction was difficult for a variety of reasons – tight time frame imposed by the other party (let’s call it Y Co), working in three time zones, inconsistent expectations of  the parties,  new personnel at X Co., and the list goes on.  Yet, the most noteworthy reason – Y Co. was not “playing nice”.  This was evident in how Y Co.’s counsel and personnel handled negotiations.

Don’t get me wrong, advocating strongly for a client is every counsel’s job.   However, communicating the client’s position is one thing – putting down the other party’s position while you are dong so is something else.  And, adding your own commentary, ones that speculate on the other party’s intentions (especially when they are negative) is really inappropriate.  Moreover, the level of flippancy and sarcasm of Y Co.’s  counsel was so over the top that his client sometimes “misunderstood” the point he was making.   Y Co.’s counsel’s comments were often laced with cynicism on how my client would “fail” to perform, and his client  took this as a cue to challenge my client’s position at every turn.  So, when we came to an impasse on an issue and when my client tried to focus on the common ground they shared, his premise was challenged and the discussion would  turn argumentative.   Sound familiar?  It was like listening to the Congress!

So, here is a typical conversation:

My client:  “I think we are okay here with the budget process because our interests are aligned – and we would want to do a good job and run the business for you in a profitable fashion – so we would work with you to achieve that”.

Y Co.:  “You guys care about your fees, so we can’t trust the process that you proposed.  We need to be in control”.

My client:  “Yeah, but you’ve hired us to run the business for you – so you can’t be in control if you want us to run the business.  Besides, what interest would we have to run a business in an unprofitable fashion?”

Y Co.:  “We disagree with you on the definition of what would be profitable.”

STOP!   How do you even begin to have a productive discussion with someone who wants to disagree with you, at every turn?  And, why would anyone do business with someone who can’t be trusted?  What is that all about?  Or, did Y Co. negotiate that way becuase it was not getting its way?  These discussions became confusing.  First, we were talking about the budget process – then our premise of running a profitable business was challenged, and then the discussion morphed into a philosophical definition of “profitable” – veering way off from how the budget process can be improved, the original point.  Instead of sticking with the original point, we went  round and round in circles – eventually coming back – but only after much time was spent getting sidetracked.

The irony here is that Y Co. was under a tight time constraint, and given the financial incentive that my client was offering, there was no doubt that the deal was going to happen.  So, why go through all the painful discussions that had the effect of diluting trust and potentially damaging the relationship?  With the time constraint, why waste time to go off topic?  Finally, why did Y Co.’s  counsel offend X Co. when his client needed our cooperation to timely close the transaction?

What happened did not make sense at all.  Y Co. acted against its own interest.  X Co. did not like dealing with Y Co. and made negative comments about its  counsel – who my client, X Co., is dealing with on other transactions.  So, all in all, the deal got done – but  how Y Co. and its counsel handled themselves left my client with a bad taste – and perhaps some defensiveness, which ultimately gets translated into future dealings with Y Co.

So, what is the lesson here?  Even when Y Co. did not “play nice”, my client was patient, and that was a cue for me to do what we needed to do to get the deal done – so as annoying as Y Co.’s behavior was – the lesson was “ignore it, don’t engage, and get the job done”.  For that, I was greatly rewarded by my client’s appreciation.   I am was thankful that I  had a client who did not lose sight of his own goal of getting the deal done for X Co. – and did not make the situation worse by engaging with Y Co.   In the final analysis, even if the other party does not “play nice”, just do what is right for your client…..and all will turn out as it should.


It’s a Beautiful Day

It’s a beautiful day.  The sun is out, here is a cool breeze, and it is the weekend.  I’ve had a good week – busy, but not too crazy.  Clients seem happy.  Yet it’s hard to relax and fully enjoy the moment.  I am thinking about the next week, the next month, and the rest of the year and what I need to do – putting my focus not on the moment but something else, sometime else, and somewhere else.

This is not unusual.  In fact, it is pretty typical.  I make excuses for myself – that I am running a business, I have a lot of responsibility, I have to pay the bills, I need to think about the future, and so on.  I can rationalize and think of any number of excuses and defend them.  Regardless of my excuses and rationalizations, the bottom line is that I am not enjoying the moment of the “beautiful day”, my mind is somewhere else.  I recognize the beauty and its elements, but I am having difficulty staying in it – focusing on it.

When it comes to work  and my business, I don’t have as much difficulty staying in and focusing on it.  The task at hand is clear and we all have been trained to deal with tangible issues and specific demands that need to be addressed.  And, in that moment, I have to be there or else I don’t get much done.

Staying in the moment when you have the luxury of time is more difficult.  At those times, my mind drifts and looks for something tangible that it can attach to – leaving that moment behind.  I think about the past, the future, all of the things I need to do, and all the things I have not done, and pretty soon, I am in “work” mode.   While many experience this, I think the situation is probably a bit more prevalent among business owners and those whose compensation is based directly on their own ability to generate business.  Nevertheless, letting the “work” mode take over is not the solution.  So what is?

Perhaps, we already have the solution……it’s the same ability to stay in and focus on work.  For me, the beauty became more acute as I focused on the elements that make up the beauty I was seeing and experiencing, at that moment.  I saw the different shades of green and staying with it, thought about the angle of the sun and how the light changes the color – but they are all “green”, even though they are so distinct from one another.  And, in that moment, with those thoughts in mind, I felt deep gratitude that I was experiencing beauty.





Dealing with Business Cycles

Dealing with Business Cycles

It’s spring.  Things are a bit quieter.  Sometimes this time of the year is slower and sometimes it is not.  Yet, as things get slower, I use the opportunity to reconnect with business associates and friends that I have not spoken to in a while.  In truth, reconnecting allows me to allay some of my doubts about my own business – making sure that I am “top of mind” if something does come up.   So, I make my rounds talking to people and seeing what they are up to and what their sense of the market is.  While I am talking to people, it occurs to me that people deal with their “slowness” differently.

Some are more matter of fact  about it.  They just come out and say that things are quieter, their clients are still cautious, and their hoping that things will begin to turn.  Others are more optimistic – they tell you everything is fine at first – and then, more is revealed when the discussion goes on.  The difference in approach is understandable.  We don’t want to seem too eager or desperate for new business, but at the same time, we want to get the message across that we have capacity for and are open to it.  I struggle with this balance all the time.   For me, this also comes up as I seek to diversify my client base – things may not be slow, but as I develop new contacts, I want to further the relationship by seeing as a potential service provider for such new contacts.  However, at the same time, I don’t want to turn someone off.    In other words, how do you ask for business without being awkward or overt?

In thinking about this, it occurs to me that the best way to handle this is to try to be direct about this – but positive.  The focus ought to be on what type of business you are looking for; rather than you are slow, for example.  Talking to people about the type of work you want to do, the type of contacts you are seeking, and the type of client you are trying to cultivate, is more conducive to a positive conversation leading to how others can help you.  Telling people you are slow or have more capacity can potentially create awkwardness in the conversation.  Also, be sure to ask them the same questions about their business.  In fact, I often start with that when I meet people.  I find that networking is like providing service to my clients – not only is the result important, but so is the experience while you are going through the process.  If the networking process is not positive, it is not likely that someone would refer you or recommend you.  So, I figured out long ago that being affable, positive, helpful, and engaged are all qualities that are critical.  You want to be confident about your capabilities, but not boastful – and more importantly, be a good listener.  As we deal with the ups and downs of the business cycle, it is important to move forward, not sweat so much, listen, be helpful, engage, and most of all – be the person that others want to do business with.  If they don’t perceive you as someone they can do business with, there is no way that they will refer you to their clients or contacts.

It’s spring – so out out and mingle and spend some time getting to know others.  As we communicate and converse with others more, we are more likely to find and achieve the balance in our perspective and approach as we deal with the down cycle.  I have come to realize that the cycles are inevitable, but how we handle it is not.