The Garlic Mashed Potatoes

For a period of about five years, whenever we’d go out to a restaurant either my wife or I would order the dish with the garlic mashed potatoes. They were so yummy and creamy and decadent, with heaps more butter and garlic than we’d ever dare cook in at home. It pretty much didn’t matter what the main dish was.

Once garlic mashed potatoes began appearing on every menu, the allure went away. But the power of the surprise, the power of the side dish, hasn’t. As in, I just ate a take-out bowl of lentil chili, and at the bottom of the bag I discovered a completely unexpected corn muffin, which was really good. Not great enough, on its own, to make me go back next week nor (better still) so good that it’s really worth talking about, but still pretty darn good and worth remembering.

The thing about the garlic mashed potatoes or the corn bread is that they allow you, for once, to define the terms of the game. You rarely get to set expectations  – expectations mostly arrive in force when your customers show up – meaning you’re usually running as fast as you can to meet/not meet:surpass those expectations.  But with a side dish, with an unexpected surprise, you have the luxury of competing in a category that your customer didn’t even expect. It’s like applying for a job that hasn’t been posted yet: yes, you still have to be amazing, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to blow people away when they’re not busy systematically comparing you to the other 500 people whose names came in over the transom.

The garlic mashed potatoes is the best handwritten note your customer got all week (they haven’t received any), the phone call when everyone is busy filling their inbox. It’s showing up in person when everyone else is calling; giving a presentation with no slides when everyone who came before you bored them with a thousand bullet points; doing something wildly generous when you really, truly, have nothing to gain. It’s not being different for difference’s sake – garlic mashed potatoes are still dinner, after all – it’s doing something fabulous and unexpected that’s relevant to the core story you’re telling them.

Go ahead, why don’t you whip up a hot, piping batch of garlic mashed potatoes?

The Chana and the Dal

Occasionally I pick up a little Indian food in Grand Central Station on the way home from work.  These are always semi-rushed encounters of picking two veg entrees as part of a platter over rice (mysteriously, with a bit of iceberg lettuce on the side) crammed into a plastic takeout container.

Chana MasalaThe last time I was there I ordered Chana Masala (chickpeas in a tomato sauce) and Dal (yellow lentils).  As the owner was packing up my order at the register, he asked what had happened with my Dal.  While I had a nice portion of Chana, the Dal was a watery, soupy thing with barely a spoonful of lentils.  The owner gave my plate back to the server, haranguing him to give me a decent serving of Dal.  The guy gave me a bit more, still mostly too-thin broth, and it took one more exchange between the server and the owner before a decent pile of lentils ended up on my plate.

What the owner knows, but the server forgets, is where the transaction starts and ends.  To the server, I’m just another guy placing an order, one in a long line of people he’ll serve in a day.  The transaction starts when I make my order, and it ends when I shift down the line to pay.

What the owner realizes is that the transaction starts way before a customer arrive, beginning at the moment when she decides to pick this place out of the 50-odd places where she could grab a bite in Grand Central.  In this transaction, he’s up against the Shake Shack and Two Boots Pizza and Magnolia Bakery.  He’s also up against Golden Krust (Jamaican patties, right by the train track), Zaro’s Bakery, Chirping Chicken (best roast chicken in NY), and about 30 other places.

Winning the battle against all of that noise is really hard.  Which means that the moment the customer shows up is the big win.  The hard work has been done and now we have a one-to-one interaction where the only choice we have is to delight that customer – in this case with an extra five cents worth of Dal.

How often is our customer standing right there, smile on her face and money in her hand, saying “delight me”….and we miss?

We miss because we forget that whenever we have the choice between shouting louder to get more people to stop and delighting the people who are standing there in front of us, we must choose, every time, to delight.

I am human

When you meet someone for the first time – in a job interview, a sales meeting, wherever – it’s amazing how easily you can differentiate yourself by communicating that you are an actual, living human being.

Actual human beings aren’t just smart and articulate – they also have hopes and fears and joy and aspirations.  Yet so often we keep all of this under wraps.

How you share glimpses of what really makes you tick will depend on your personality, your openness, to whom you are speaking.  But giving even a glimpse of your own humanity is the dry tinder to spark genuine, personal connection.

The challenge is that you can’t go halfway.  You can’t say “I’m really excited about / passionate about / committed to…” if you don’t express (in your voice, your eyes, your face, your body language) the emotions you are describing.  Describing enthusiasm in a monotone; saying “I’m passionate” while you lean back, with arms crossed; claiming “my whole life I’ve dreamed of” as if you’re ordering a side of fries…this is worse than nothing.

Put another way, there’s no shortcut to being open, genuine, excited, and inspired.  You have to FEEL real emotion and be comfortable sharing it (in a professional way).

It is precisely because there are no shortcuts that doing this right will set you apart.

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What the Vook?

In case you missed it, Vook has a new iPhone app that creates a fully immersed, multimedia experience for books.   It’s really for the iPad but you can already start playing around and glimpse the future: text and audio and video all in one place.  Books like Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Ideavirus, The Call of the Wild, Alice in Wonderland, and The Brother’s Grimm Fairy Tales, from 99 cents to $2.99.

This is what the future looks like – so you may as well be one of the first people to check it out, before the iPad starts shipping in on April 3rd

And if you don’t have an iPhone, you can impress your friends: “Hey Joe, curious what the future of publishing and magazines and newspapers looks like?  Check out Vook.”  (Won’t you look cool?).

This is already what newspapers are becoming, and magazines aren’t far behind.

And eventually things will look like this, and won’t that be cool:


Optically delighted

Former Acumen Fund Fellow Karthik Janakiraman shared these thoughts with me, and he was gracious enough to allow me to post his note in its entirety.  It’s a perfect follow-on to my Magic post about Zappos.

I read your blog and often have noticed that you talk about being “delighted”. I had an experience from a relatively obscure company and wanted to share it with you.

I had to purchase a few optical filters from a company called and I decided to go with them because they were the cheapest.

I was on the website at 4.35ET and was desperate for these filters.  I had to get the order in by 5pm in order to make the overnight shipment cutoff. I did get the order in but was skeptical about having the filters ship out because I had a vision of some guy sitting in a warehouse, thinking about bailing for the day, who may or may not hustle to get my order in.

To my delight, at 5.01pm , I get an email with a FedEx tracking number on it.

The next day, I open up the box to see the filters and a bunch of snacks (trail mix, cereal bars and cookies) encased in a box called “Lab Food”.  I was absolutely delighted!

The net cost of the goodies was probably 4 or 5 bucks when the snacks are bought in bulk. I spent roughly 600 bucks, so for about 1% of sales this company has converted me into an evangelist and definitely a repeat customer. Great execution as well and I did not even have a human interaction.

Karthik’s story takes the idea in the Zappos post – that you can create magic anywhere – a step further.  To delight, you must surprise, which means you must surpass expectations.  You can do this in any customer interaction – it doesn’t matter if you’re selling shoes or optical filters or an idea.

Ideally, your create delight in a completely customized way.  But this isn’t always possible.  In which case you can, like Zappos (and, according to Karthik, like Thorlabs) build processes that are so above the bar that you can consistently delight nearly everyone.

Put another way, being exceptional and being systematic are in no way mutually exclusive.

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