Things that work

Here’s post #3 in a connected series of events.

First, I wrote a post about trust which, from what I saw and heard (traffic, comments, feedback) was well-received.  Then, connected to that post, I received a totally unexpected gift from a friend, which itself generated another post about delight, and I spent most of Friday on a real high thanks to this delightful gift and the real generosity it showed.

At the end of the day Friday, just as the skies opened up with yet another downpour, a little something brought me down a notch:  I discovered that I (boneheadedly) left my coat on the train that morning, and it was lost.

So here’s post #3 in the series, because I just got my coat back.

Yes, it’s true.  I was sure I had left my coat on the train on Friday morning, so I called up the MTA on Saturday to register the lost coat.  I figured it was long gone.  A medium black Banana Republic coat on the commuter train on a Friday morning…seemed like it would quickly find another home, and my faith in the MTA lost and found system wasn’t too great either.

Imagine my surprise when I got a phone call today from the MTA Lost and Found department.  “I believe we have your coat, sir.  We just need you to come in before 6pm to verify and pick it up.” Boy was I wrong about the MTA and their lost and found.

I rushed to Grand Central at the end of the day, and, lo and behold, Jason who mans the MTA lost and found went in the back and returned with my coat.   I filled out a short form, gave a copy of my driver’s license, and I was on my way.  I feel like I won the karmic lottery.

My only choice, then, is to put something positive back out into the world, but I need your help to create it: we need a blog or a community that holds up wonderful, daily, surprising, delightful, surprising examples of things that works.  We need more things that works and need to celebrate these small and big daily victories, and for Jason at the MTA Lost and Found Department, we need a space to celebrate the people on the front lines who create delightful customer experiences (but who, ironically, often find themselves buried somewhere deep in the org chart).  Unfortunately, the thingsthatwork URLs seem to be taken, but I’m sure there’s a blog waiting for someone to make this happen.  For example:

  • That cellphone rep who helped you sort out international calling plans.   Things that work.
  • Amazon giving a guarantee on price drops on items bought from their store, and getting $300 back a month after buying a TV.   Things that work.
  • The airline check-in agent who talked the gate agent into keeping the flight open for another 10 minutes so you wouldn’t miss a wedding abroad.  Things that work.

(oh, those are all real examples).

Please, start here in the comments section with your ideas.  But wouldn’t it be fun to create a crowdsourced conversation celebrating things that are so positive, unexpected, and important?  Go ahead, kick it off.

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Delight in the unexpected

I just received a totally unexpected, perfect gift out of the blue from a friend for absolutely no reason.  It’s probably the most surprising gift I ever received.  It showed the person was paying attention and thinking of me; it was just what I wanted; and there was no good reason to give it to me, so the surprise factor was off the charts.

Lately my wife has been less and less interested in the big meal and big gift on the big day (anniversary, Valentine’s day, birthdays) in favor of the perfect meal at a surprising time on an otherwise inconsequential evening; the “I just saw this today and I thought you would love it” gift.

Delight is about the gap between what you expect and what you receive, so you have to pick the right thing at exactly the right moment — which is exactly when someone least expects it.

We all might want to rethink when is the right time to try to delight our customers, friends, loved ones.

Happy weekend.

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Mystified in the egg aisle

The other day my wife sent me to the supermarket to buy some eggs.  You should try this yourself: go into the supermarket to buy just one semi-generic item (eggs, milk, orange juice) and you too might be paralyzed by the overabundance of choice.  (and no, the USDA Egg Buying Guide doesn’t help)

I had the option of buying a dozen eggs for $1.99, $2.99, $3.99, and $4.99.  Organic, cage free, no antibiotics, vegetarian feed…or just plain old-fashion industrial-supply eggs.  A 250% price differential between the least and most expensive option, and lots of claims on the packaging and pictures of farms I’m pretty sure don’t exist any more in the U.S.

I consider myself reasonably informed about food and I care a lot about getting good, healthy food for me and my family.  I know a least a little about industrial food production and how terrible it is, and I worry appropriately about antibiotics and growth hormones and conditions for livestock.  I’ve even read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (both worth reading).

But what I know still isn’t much use in the egg isle.  I’m pretty sure that the “all natural,” “organic,” “free range” and “cage free” labels have enough marketing lies to be untrustworthy.  And I feel like a fool simply buying the most expensive option and assuming that it’s somehow the most natural and the best.

It strikes me that this matters because there’s an accepted wisdom that consumer’s decisions – and a growing preference for “greener” and more socially responsible products – will lead companies to behave more responsibly.  The egg-buying conundrum exposes the fallacy: while I’m relatively informed about egg production, I still don’t know enough to differentiate at the product level, and since all marketers are liars, I can’t rely on the information on the packet to make informed decisions.

There’s been a recent upsurge in demand for “better” products – organic food sales skyrocketed from $1B to $20B from 2000 to 2007 – but this doesn’t mean that companies don’t still have a ton of wiggle room.  Consumers just cannot know enough at the margin, which means that outside of egregious corporate behavior, companies that want to do the minimum can and will get by.

Put another way, change is going to come from personal leadership from within companies, with outside consumer pressure providing a general direction but never really being enough to separate the wheat from the chaff.

P.S. Any advice on the egg question is welcome

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Trust

Glenn Urban at MIT teaches us about the importance of the power of trust.  Glenn observes, as have many others, that we have shifted from a mass-media, high promotion world (that effectively ended at the start of this decade) to one focused on relationships and two-way communications.  In this new world, the single most important thing that matters is trust.   (For more on this shift, check out Clay Shirkey’s TED@State talk, below)

Ironically, building trust is easier than it looks – be generous, act consistently, and make promises that you can and do keep.   (The harder part is doing this within an organization that has thrived on another way of doing business for decades.  But it’s important to remember that being trustworthy really isn’t difficult at all).

For example:

I’ve been playing with an out-of-production squash racquet for about three years now.  Since squash is played in an indoor court with cement walls, the racquets break often, so it’s common to go through 1-2 racquets a year.  Since my racquet model (a yellow-and-black Dunlop Hot Melt, if anyone knows where I can still dig one up) is out of production, I’m down to a single racquet, and I’ve no choice but to buy a new model – with a different feel that will play differently.

Squash is a niche sport in most places, including New York, and it’s hard to find stores that sell squash racquets, and harder still to find stores that demo racquets (let you pay to rent a racquet for a day or two before deciding which to buy).

A fellow player recommended Grand Central Racquet, and I went there this afternoon and met Tony, the store’s owner.  Together, we picked two racquets for me to demo.  I was a little rushed, hoping to catch a train, and was dreading the inevitable swiping of my credit card, preapproval of $300+ on my card (the value of the two racquets), maybe even making a copy of my drivers license…all the necessary evils of walking out of the store with a few hundred dollars worth of unpaid-for merchandise.

I’ve been trained so effectively by our trust-free world that I was beside myself when Tony took out a pad of paper, wrote down my name, my phone number, and the models of the two racquets I’m going to demo, and asked for $10 (cash was fine).  No approvals, no verification, no nothing.  “Enjoy them, and we’ll see you on Wednesday,” was all he said.

Why does this work for Tony?  How does he know I’m not going to run off with the racquets?  Did he make some sort of judgment call about me personally (I doubt it) or is this just how he runs his business?

The point is, he is taking a risk.  But he’s decided that being generous and trusting of me in a way that never happens in the big city in the 21st century makes sense.  And by giving me this gift, he’s taking someone who could be a lifelong customer – but who has the option of buying online for 20% less – and giving that person a reason to be loyal to him.

I’m sure the lawyers and the rule-makers and the people whose job it is to say ‘no’ would tell Tony that he’s crazy, and maybe he is.  But if trust is all that really matters today, if success is about building communities of trust, and if trust can be established so quickly and easily, we all need to find ways to act a little more like Tony, and we’ll have to break some rules to get there.

Do you have any great trust-building stories you’d like to share?

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Twitter search

If you’ve been following everything that is going on in Iran right now, it’s impossible to avoid noticing that Twitter has played a role in providing up-to-date information on the ground from Iranians participating in the protest.  Since most people still aren’t on Twitter, I thought I’d share a step-by-step on how to follow what’s going on here.  Just use Twitter Search.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Go to http://search.twitter.com
  2. Search for a topic.  In this case, search for #iranelection.  This will give you all recent “tweets” (140 character updates) that include the “#iranelection” hashtag (an identifier with a “#” in front so people can find tweets on a given topic.
  3. If any of the people posting seem particularly interesting to you, click on their photo to see all of their tweets (updates).  (Also, you might notice in this search that many of the photos are green.  This is because last week a request went out from some active Iranian tweeters for everyone on Twitter to change their photo to green in solidarity with the protesters.)

Of course you don’t just have to use Twitter Search for following what’s going on in Iran.  Search for “#haiku” or “listening to” or “happy hour” near:SF and see what you get.

p.s. In case you were wondering, all the URL’s people post on Twitter look funny because they get shortened so that the URL doesn’t take up too much space…there’s a 140 character limit for each tweet.

The finish line mirage

A friend shared Paul Hawken’s moving, challenging commencement address and it got me thinking: we are constantly confusing starting lines with finish lines.

Getting married is a starting line, not a finish line.

Landing your dream job?  Starting line.

Getting VC funding? Starting line.

Graduating college?  Easy. Starting line.  (It’s even called “commencement.”)

Having a child?  Definitely a starting line.

Promotion? Starting line.

Joining a nonprofit board?  Starting line.

Landing your dream recruit for a job?  Starting line.

Getting elected?  You guessed it.  Starting line.

Our work is never done, which is why there is no brass ring and you never arrive.  You are there now, doing the work, making change.

Now more than ever, you don’t need anything (credential, title, authority, salary) other than what you already have to do what you were put on earth to do.

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My (almost) 2,000 calorie dinner

A few nights ago, on a family vacation in semi-rural Pennsylvania, I agreed that the time was right for a straightforward, kid-friendly, while-the-sun-was-still-high-in-the-sky dinner at…Olive Garden.  I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker, so I grew up nearly oblivious to chain restaurants (“Original Ray’s Pizza” doesn’t count).

Of all the chains, Olive Garden seemed a safe bet: not completely off-the-charts junk food (McDonald’s / Burger King / White Castle), not aspiring to be something that likely will turn out badly (Red Lobster).  Pasta is pasta, right?

I thought the food tasted pretty terrible, but that’s not really important…people differ on these sorts of things.   What I found shocking was that, had I finished what I ordered (one dish), I would have consumed nearly 2,000 calories.  This is a day’s worth of calories in a single meal.

Here’s the analysis of what arrived (I ate about half)

This is without ordering an appetizer or a dessert, so I ordered moderately (though in fairness I didn’t look for low-cal options).

Search Google for “obesity epidemic” and you’ll get 713,000 hits.  Check out the CDC’s animation on increase in obesity – in 1986, all states in the US had less than 14% obesity rate; in 2007, nearly all states have more than a 25% obesity rate; and the diabetes rate has doubled in the last 10 years.   And the over-abundance of cheap food with huge portions at every meal is, in my opinion, a big part of the problem.

We’ve become a wealthy enough nation and an efficient enough food producer that calories are cheap and we end up paying for the experience and the branding and the story.  The food is mostly an incidental cost so why not jack up what’s delivered so people feel like they’re getting a “good value?”

I find this terrifying, and worry that preventable medical ailments are slowly killing us and will suck up an increasing portion of our GDP for healthcare costs.  Our prosperity is undermining our good health and well-being.  And it’s not just here: India, which suffers from some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world with 46% of children under the age of 3 malnourished, now has the most diabetics of any country in the world with more than 40 million diabetics – 11% of the urban population.   It’s sobering.

If we can’t right this ship and change our food consumption behavior, two decades from now I predict we will see food labeling guidelines and regulations as strict as what we see on cigarettes and tobacco today.

The last turn problem

Next time you’re driving somewhere new, notice how you process the directions you’ve been given.  If you’re like me, you’ll give your complete attention to the overall route and the first 9/10th of the drive, and then when the time comes, you’ll pay close attention to the last set of turns.  “OK, I’m doing a 2 hour drive, going North on I-95, and then I need to take Exit 16…” gets you most of the way there.

This is an efficient way to process information: it’s simple, you keep to the key information, and you’re processing the amount of information you can handle given that you’re a novice on this route.

Notice the difference between this (the information you want to be told by a friend giving you directions) and how two locals talk to each other about driving.  If you’ve  ever visited Los Angeles, you’ve seen this scene unfold: the first 30 minutes of a party are spent with people (all insiders) comparing notes on how they got there, which freeways they did and didn’t take, how they remembered that there was a Lakers game tonight so they did such-and-such differently…  This is interesting if you spend a lot of your day trying to figure out how to beat nightmarish traffic.  But if you, guest at said party and newcomer to LA, are listening to this conversation, you’re lost and you’re not learning what you need to hear.  You just want to know which freeway to take when you go home and where to get off.  In fact, you’re probably OK sitting in traffic if it’s a choice between that and getting lost altogether.

Now, hold this thought for a minute, and then ask yourself how you take your experience as a driver trying to get from point A to point B and use it to make your storytelling more effective.  And take as a given that you, the storyteller, know your story inside-out and backwards.  You’re the expert who knows all the back roads and has the best secret for skipping off the highway to beat rush-hour traffic.

Don’t start talking about the back roads.  Don’t give all the tips and secrets.  Tell the story at the level of information and expertise that is right for the listener, not for you.  You can and should telescope in from time to time to provide context and details and be specific.  But if all you’re doing is sharing the insider’s version of your story, you’ve lost your audience.

This is why “storytelling” matters.  It’s not because people want simple answers and live at the level of anecdote.  It’s because stories provide a common language and a way of interacting that everyone can relate to, so they become the vehicle through which the expert (hopefully you) and the neophyte (your audience…sometimes but definitely not always) can develop a common understanding.

And going back to the driving analogy, as you develop your story, you are driving along the freeway, and if you bring your audience with you, you can delve into the nitty-gritty details of those last 8 turns.  Just don’t start there.  They’re not ready for that conversation, because it doesn’t matter to them…yet.

The SYTYCD Job Market

I barely watch TV, let alone reality / contest shows, but I must admit to being a rabid fan of “So You Think You Can Dance” (which is NOT the same show as “Dancing With the Stars.”)  It’s really high-quality dance (for example, this year, Alex Wong, principal dancer in the Miami Ballet would have had a spot if they’d let him out of his contract); it’s well-produced; it showcases dance styles from around the world; and thanks to TiVO I can get through the 2-3 hours of weekly programming in about 45 minutes.  Plus there is something magical about being wowed by a hip-hop dancer knocking the cover off the ball doing a Russian Trepak (video below).

Watching contestants killing themselves to get on this show, I couldn’t help but be reminded of today’s job market.  Where the funnel is wide – getting from thousands of dancers to hundreds – it’s obvious who’s serious and who’s not; and even getting from 150 to 50 dancers, the differences in skill are obvious enough that even an untrained viewer could make a reasonably well-informed selection.

But getting on the show is about making the very last cut, and what becomes obvious is that there’s no such thing as “the best” dancer just like there’s no such thing as “the best” job candidate.  The show’s judges and producers are looking for fit, for the right mix of people on the show, for who will play well on television.

(This couldn’t have been more clear this season: two brothers, Evan and Ryan Kasprzak, made it to the very final cut, and in the end were brought out together.  The judges told them that they were both great, but since they both dance similar styles only one of them could make it onto the show.)

This is worth remembering because as you go through your job search, it’s hard to keep picking yourself up after repeated rejections – and there are a lot of rejections in a market where 80% of college grads don’t yet have jobs.  What’s toughest is getting really close to your dream job and coming up short: you run the risk of thinking the reason you didn’t get the job is because you weren’t the best candidate.

There’s no such thing as the best candidate, just like there’s no such thing as the best dancer.  There’s just the candidate they were looking for; the candidate they happened to pick.  So go a little easier on yourself, and keep at it.

(Here’s the amazing Russian Trepak from last year, by Joshua and Twitch, two hip-hop dancers)

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Communication cop-out

With the launch of the new iPhone 3Gs today, the handheld wars are in full swing.  Lots to get excited about here, and you can mark your calendars: 2009 will be the year when the blurry line between computer and cellphone communications is erased forever.

Our habits rarely evolve as quickly as our technology, so we’re still acting like different rules apply depending on whether you write your emails on a computer or a handheld.

Apple and BlackBerry both include an automatic signature for all emails you send, an istant cop-out that says “Sent from my BlackBerry handheld device” and “Sent from my iPhone.”   It makes sense for the companies — free advertising — and while I can’t remember if BlackBerrys were ever hip, I do remember the first few times I saw “sent from my iPhone” after a signature, and I must admit it conferred a halo of cool for a few weeks.

But with iPhones ubiquitous and smartphones representing one third of global handheld market share, the rules have changed.  The  “sent from my smartphone” email postscript is an anachronism, as it’s saying “give the note I’ve sent some slack because I didn’t type it on a proper keyboard.”

I think this is risky.  It gives the sender the illusion that she gets to take shortcuts instead of remembering that every communication is a chance to build rapport and connection, and every note that doesn’t do this shouldn’t be sent in the first place.  Really.

(And if you’re going to leave on the email signature, at least personalize it.    The best I’ve seen so far: “Awkwardly typed on hopelessly tiny keyboard…pls. excuse brevity and typos.” )

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