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 thorlabs.com 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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How we say ‘thanks’

Though I’m not plugged in to popular culture, I do try to catch the Oscars.  Like the Superbowl and the Olympics, it is a chance for the whole world to tune in and dream of a simpler world full of villains, heroes and movie stars.  The Oscars on Sunday night felt appropriately subdued, reminiscent of old-world Hollywood – complete with Hugh Jackman’s impressive retinue of song-and-dance numbers.

They tried something new this year.  In the major categories, Oscar winners from years past come on stage together to announce the 2008 nominees.  (Tony award winning actor Sarah Jones tweeted (@jonesarah) during the show “A bit disoriented by the multi-presenter format, it’s kind of like the ghosts of oscars past. Can’t decide whether I like.”)

I felt the same way at first, until the Best Actress award.  The five previous winners came on stage, a group of powerhouses:  Sophia Lauren, Halle Berry, Shirley MacLaine, Marion Cotillard, and Nicole Kidman.

The defining moment was when Shirley MacLaine spoke with genuine warmth and respect to Anne Hathaway, praising not only Hathaway’s work this past year in Rachael Getting Married but reflecting that she’ll be a star for years to come.  Hathaway was visibly moved, with tears welling up in her eyes.

Lately I’ve been involved in the selection process for a few sought-after positions – not quite Oscar-like in their desirability, but hundreds of applicants for a handful of spots (most recently the Acumen Fund Fellows Program).  What strikes me is that we (all, collectively) may be reasonably good at whittling down an applicant pool to, say, the top 10%, but when you only have spots for the “top” 1% or so, there’s no fair, totally objective answer to “who is best?”

Which is why I liked what they did at the Oscars this year.  There was real, honest thanks and acknowledgment offered to the nominees, and I suspect that Anne Hathaway’s night was a lot different than it would have been with a different format — one of film’s all-time greats sung her praises, to her and to the world.

Too often in life, the winners (who get the award, the job, the acceptance letter) win and the almost-winners get polite declines.  Can’t we do better?  Can’t we find ways to acknowledge and honor all the people who were really great and who put themselves out there…and can we go a step further to create communities that allow these outstanding people to connect with and support one another?

Giving thanks is a dying art.  In a world with more communication than ever, we have dwindling amounts of personal connection.  People are thirsty for genuine interaction that starts with candor, respect, and honest words of thanks.

How can we best begin?

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