If Only the Shades of Grey were Brighter

I knew I was pressing my luck.

I had flown in or out of LaGuardia Airport three times in four days, and I uttered the phrase, “I’ve had pretty good luck with flights this week.”

And so it follows that, for flight number four, two days later on a Sunday afternoon, I sat with my family of five on the tarmac for three hours only to ultimately return to the gate. A few hours after that, the flight was canceled.

I’d assumed that when American cancels your flight, or, in our case, five of your flights, they give a voucher for a meal or a hotel. Apparently not since “the flight was canceled due to air traffic control and not because of something the airline did or because of severe weather.”

(But the pilot told us 10 different times that air traffic control wouldn’t let us take off due to a “low ceiling in New York.” Isn’t that bad weather? But I digress.)

By my math, the overnight delay cost our family about $500: two $104 hotel rooms at the ALoft, one (terrible) dinner for five at that hotel, breakfast at the airport, an extra night of parking my car at LaGuardia, an extra night of care for our dogs, and a taxi from JFK to LaGuardia since our flight home landed at JFK.

What struck me about the experience was that this is how things work in today’s hyper-transactional economy: each step along the way is optimized by an app offering information (flight status, re-booking) and discounts (hotels, meals), and the sum of all of those micro-transactions is an experience that dehumanizes both the customer and the service provider:

The flight attendant is frustrated because she has no information or control, and the passengers are upset.

The gate agent is powerless. He just got assigned to the gate. He has no information and no discretion, and it feels terrible to give angry passengers nothing.

The airline has no obligations. It’s all spelled out in the fine print.

The one lone woman working at the hotel front desk has such a narrow job that she transfers the call three times to the van pickup and, when it goes to voicemail, she has no recourse.

The bartender has a big smile and pours a nice cold beer, but when we order a full meal off the bar menu he looks terrified. It turns out that the “grilled cheese with tomato soup” at the ALoft Raleigh-Durham is a microwaved hamburger bun with some semi-melted cheese and Cambell’s soup, all served lukewarm—because he has no chef, no pan, no stove, nothing. We’d ordered four of them.

While our 24 hours delay with a family of five was tiring and expensive, what I noticed most was how much it cried out for an ounce of humanity. The economy we’ve built optimizes so much for efficiency that there’s no space for human agency. Every step is a tiny transaction in which both people standing across from each other—service provider and service recipient—are powerless. It’s dehumanizing by a thousand cuts.

Well, not always.

On the bookends of this trip, I got to spend some time talking to Lily. Lily works at The Parking Spot at LaGuardia airport.

I first called Lily on Friday afternoon when The Parking Spot website told me that they were full, and I couldn’t park there. I called to see if this was true or if I could just show up, and Lily confirmed that I could only reserve over the website: “If it says we’re full, you can’t park here.”

So I asked her for advice, since LaGuardia is under construction and every place was full. We talked a bit more then Lily paused and asked what time I would arrive. “Three o’clock,” I told her.

“Come on over, ask for me, I’ll get you a spot.”

When I arrived, Lily and I both discovered that we knew each other a little. About a year ago, my wife and I were leaving from / arriving to LaGuardia on the same day. The best way for us to make it work was for my wife to pick up the car that I’d parked a few hours prior—without a car key, without the ticket, and with a different last name. Randomly, I had chosen The Parking Spot and ended up explaining this long-winded plan to Lily. She was great. I think she thought it was funny. She helped. My wife got the car. Lily acted like a human being.

The same thing happened with Lily this past Friday when I called, and on Monday the five of us rolled in, exhausted after a 24 hour delay. She laughed. She cracked jokes. She put everyone at ease, not because she has to but because she obviously finds joy in being helpful, saying hello, being human. And, to state the obvious, where do you think we’re parking the next time we fly out of LaGuardia?

The infinite, micro-losses we’ve created in today’s hyper-efficient world are epitomized in how remarkable Lily’s behavior is: in making every transaction smoother and a little bit cheaper we disempower everyone, and no one misses what’s been lost until it’s too late. Care, kindness and humanity now feel like luxury goods.

There is, however, a silver lining: it’s easier than ever, against this backdrop, to have the smallest actions stand out as exceptional. You can do this from the front lines. You can do this in how you build your company culture.

It’s easier than ever to be noticed, to have a bright splash of color be seen in an increasingly monochromatic economy.

Better than nothing?

After not being let into Yankee Stadium with a bike helmet three weeks ago, and having to abandon my bike helmet outside of the stadium (it was stolen), I wrote to Mayor Bloomberg’s office extolling the virtues of Citibike and suggesting that, as bikes get more popular in New York City, the Mayor’s Office should consider looking at rules to allow bike helmets in major city establishments (museums, stadiums, libraries, etc.).

I just got a reply:

From: Customer_Service-KG, <Customer_Service_KB@dot.nyc.gov>
Date: Thu, Sep 19, 2013 at 1:23 PM
Subject: 13-9288 re: General Information/bike helmet

Dear Mr. Dichter:

Your email message to Mayor Bloomberg of September 4, 2013 concerning the Yankees’ refusal to allow you to bring your bike helmet into Yankee Stadium was referred to the Department of Transportation.

DOT encourages all cyclists to wear helmets. Commuter cycling increased 262% in New York City from 2000 to 2010. With more bikes on the road, smart cycling is even more crucial to making New York City’s streets safer for everyone using them.

However, we have no control over policies established by Yankee Stadium in prohibiting certain items that the Yankees consider security risks. If you wish to contact the Yankees to discuss this issue you can use the contact form on the Yankees web site at https://secure.mlb.com/help/email.jsp?c_id=nyy&primarySubject=Other&secondarySubject=None&dest=fanfeedback@yankees.mlb.com.

Thank you for your concern in this matter.

Customer Service Division

New York City Department of Transportation

So I get that it’s a big bureaucracy and someone has written a rule that says that replying to all the letters that come in is a good thing. Let’s quickly agree, in hindsight, that this letter is worse than nothing, and let’s use this as an opportunity to remember that every time anyone in our organization speaks they speak for the whole organization, whether we like it or not. This means that our most important people are the ones who talk to our customers, and it’s high time we train and empower them to use their brains.

What baffles me with this particular letter is, if they’re going to write this sort of response, why didn’t they just take it all the way? Something like:

From: Customer_Service-KG, <Customer_Service_KB@dot.nyc.gov>
Date: Thu, Sep 19, 2013 at 1:23 PM
Subject: 13-9288 re: General Information/bike helmet

Dear Mr. Dichter,

Thank you for riding bikes. You wrote to Mayor Bloomberg about your bike-riding and helmet-using, and we at the New York City Department of Transportation are responsible for transportation. Bike-riding therefore falls under our jurisdiction.

We, like you, love bikes, and we are glad that you are riding a bike. You’re not the only one. More people are riding bikes than ever before – lots more! As you can imagine, the more bikers there are, the more chance there is that a bike runs into a bike, or into a car, or even into a person. Sometimes, even, people on bikes just crash for no good reason. It’s terrible when that happens, so it’s good to wear a bike helmet. We are glad that you are wearing a bike helmet and we hope you will continue to do so.

As you can imagine, no matter how much we love biking, and regardless of the fact that biking falls under our jurisdiction at the Department of Transportation, it’s not baseball and it never will be. We’re actually surprised that you don’t know this. Baseball is played in stadiums, and the Yankees in particular play in Yankee Stadium. That stadium is owned by the Yankees, and they make the rules for Yankee Stadium. These rules include the kinds of items, including bike helmets, that can and cannot be brought into Yankee Stadium. They are also responsible for anything that has to do with security, or baseball, in Yankee Stadium. In fact, every single thing that goes at Yankee Stadium is their responsibility, not ours, and they make the rules. So it’s best to talk to them about this issue or about any other issue that concerns doing things in Yankee Stadium, bringing things into Yankee Stadium, or the Yankees. We hope that’s clear to you now.

The good news is that the Yankees have a website, and we even looked it up for you by using Google. The website address is https://secure.mlb.com/help/email.jsp?c_id=nyy&primarySubject=Other&secondarySubject=None&dest=fanfeedback@yankees.mlb.com.

(If that website address is wrong, however, please do not contact us, or the Yankees. In that case you should contact Google. Unfortunately we don’t know how to get in touch with them.)

We wish you the best of luck in contacting the Yankees, and we encourage you to purchase a new bike helmet since bike use is up and bike safety is important to us at the Department of Transportation! However, just to be clear, what you do at Yankee Stadium is your own damn business.

If you have any additional questions involving bikes or anything else involving transportation of any kind in New York City, feel free to contact us.

Thank you for your concern in this matter.

Customer Service Division

New York City Department of Transportation

Joking aside, getting this sort of correspondence right isn’t difficult.

For example, on Friday I had trouble getting a bike out of a dock at Citibike and was worried that my key was blocked for some reason. Here’s the reply I got from NYC Bike Share (which runs Citibike):

Thank you for contacting NYC Bike Share we have reviewed your account and od onto show any open trips or your key being deactivated. Please try your key again at a different station and on multiple bikes, any bike with a steady red light before inserting your key is out of service. If it still does not work for you such as not getting any lights, or never getting the green light please contact us and we will replace your key.

For additional comments or inquiries, please respond to this email. Please sign up for our e-mail list and visit our website regularly for updates.



Customer Service

I received this email three hours after I emailed them (three hours!), and I was so happy with the response that I wrote back:

thanks I really appreciate this note – I’ll try again on Monday when I’m back in the city.


Get this, they’re not stopping there – they replied to that note too!

Dear Sasha,

Thank you for conatcting NYC Bike Share.

We will be awating your call to let us know weather or not your key is working so that we can have a new key sent out to you if need be.


Chris E.

So here’s the big question for the folks at the DoT: do I care that April has a typo in her email and Chris E. didn’t spell “contacting” “awaiting” or “whether” right? Of course not. What I care about is a timely and substantive response that sounds like it was written by a human being, and if anything the fact that there are errors means each note isn’t going through four reviews before being sent out. The extra note saying “we’re awaiting your call”…can you imagine such a sentence feeling real in the DoT note? Not only did they not write that, they couldn’t have because I would have never believed that they want to hear from me ever again, nor would I ever want to write to them again.

Keep it human, every time, or don’t bother writing back.

(end of rant)

Delta: Melancholy in Seat 41F

Dear Delta airlines,

Oh what a tangled web you weave!  You, Delta, have achieved an oxymoronic height of customer (dis)satisfaction I didn’t know existed.  Who but you could get me across the country twice, safely, and without hitch or delay in my flight, and yet still manage to make me feel like I’d rather never fly your airline again?  Could it be that this is all part of some Grand Marketing Plan, a word-of-mouth viral campaign premised on the notion that “there’s no bad press” and the surprising, even counterintuitive revelation that coupling on-time arrival with terrible customer service will create stories that spread and a groundswell of interest in experiencing this impossible cocktail of joy meets frustration?

How else could one explain that, for the second time this month, I’ve booked flights on your airline and been denied a seat assignment?  That twice in the last month I have been seated in the very last row of coach, in a seat that doesn’t recline, optimally placed to have my head bashed by the beverage cart that cheerfully offers Delta’s signature $7 “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” cocktail, a coy mixture of Bacardi Rum, Minute Maid Orange Juice, and a splash of Minute Maid Cranberry Apple, served over ice, created by Delta Flight Attendant, Linda Kelly (product placement home run!)?

Yes, it’s true, I was one of 30 confused, nearly irate passengers who, without a seat assignment, eschewed going to the bathroom or grabbing a bite to eat and instead queued up for 45 minutes for the gate agent in JFK.  What a tantalizing possibility it was (“Might we get bumped from the flight?!”).  And then, miraculously, like Scotty on the Starship Enterprise, you saved the day and (drumroll please) got us all on the flight!    Ah, the market research must have shown that we would appreciate it so much more, appreciate YOU, so much more, if you snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Now I’m beginning to see the contours of your master plan, now I’m beginning to understand why, heading to San Francisco, my video screen would turn on but not play any movies; why you’ve simultaneously added Wi-Fi to your flights while ripping out the power jacks that will fuel our laptops and our power-hungry 802-11g Wi-Fi cards.  You can fool me no longer!  You want us to know what is possible and then take it away, to whet our appetites and leave us wanting more!

So here I sit, in seat 41F, just three rows from the back (“You like me!  You really really like me!”) no longer confused or perturbed that I’m one of only a handful of people told that I couldn’t bring my small rolling carry-on onto the plane.  Now I understand why I was made to check this oh-so-tiny bag and pick it up at baggage claim at 8:30pm in JFK, where I, shifting my weight anxiously under the flickering lights of a cramped airline terminal, will wonder if I’ll see my wife before she heads to bed.  Yes, there was plenty of space in the overhead bin, yes the stewardess told me it made no sense to her and suggested that I should try to get my bag back.  But now I understand that ever elusive happy-yet-melancholy state you hope I will achieve.

This even explains why your tray tables don’t slide, so that when the person in front of me reclines his seat (as he did an hour ago), not only am I almost hit in the nose by my video screen (Will it work this time?  Ah the mystery!), but my laptop literally is pushed onto my lap, testing the very flexibility of my shoulders and daring my now-gnarled, aching hands to keep on typing.

Oh Delta, your mysteries elude me no more!!  You are the yin and yang of airlines, the sweet and sour pork that makes flying across the country an adventure.  You deposit me where I want to be when I want to be there – nay, sometimes even arriving early! – and yet you find a way to leave me just a little bit crabby, annoyed, and yet, strangely, elusively, wanting more.

A clever strategy indeed, and it’s working.

Sincerely yours,

Melancholy in Seat 41F

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The catch

To thank someone in a way that touches and moves them, you have to feel real gratitude.

To be outstanding at customer service, you have to want to make your customers love your product (not just be “satisfied”).

To have employees who consistently make the right decisions, they have to care about the brand, the company, and its success.

Faking it only gets you so far. 

To give yourself over totally to something, you have to care.

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You are at the top of my list

If you’re trying to get someone’s attention for the first time, it’s hard to stand out.  People are flooded with information, emails, RSS feeds, tweets…how do you make yourself heard or seen?

Why not try being unbelievably responsive?  If you meet someone for the first time and four days later send an email to say thanks and follow up, the timing of your note communicates, “The time I spent with you really wasn’t that important.  Those things we said we’d do?  Probably not going to happen.”

Even worse?  Waiting four days and sending a lackluster note.

Everyone is in constant triage mode.  But everyone, up to our BlackBerry-touting President of the United States, responds to some people right away and some people later on (or never).  So you have a chance each and every time to stand out from the crowd by being fast.  This says, “you are on the top of my list.”

This doesn’t apply to every email you receive – then you’re a slave to your Inbox.  But for the people who are most important to you (you’d know who they are, don’t you?), you’d better be writing back in 24 hours or less (immediately is good too).

Last Sunday I spoke on two panels at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference.  I gave out almost an inch of business cards after my panels.  I promise you I will think very differently about how to respond to the people I heard from a day or two after the conference and the person who, two months from now, is going to write to say, “we met back in March and…”

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The best rejection letter ever

Next Monday, Seth Godin (marketing guru, innovator and all-around fabulous guy) is starting his alternative MBA, so I was curious to learn how the unorthodox application process had played out.

The online applications (mostly Squidoo pages) are amazing – energetic, personal, compelling.  I was more amazed still by what one candidate described as “The World’s Greatest Rejection Letter” from Seth, which reads:

You are amazing.

I’m stunned.

Bowled over.


And optimistic about our future (and yours).

The applications I received were astonishingly good. Thorough and honest and clear and direct. They were motivating and demonstrated just how much people can do when they put their minds to it. I read every word of every application and I learned a lot.

If I had 60 seats, I still would have had too many people awe-inspiring applying. Unfortunately, I have nowhere near that, and so I had to make difficult, irrational and not particularly fair choices. Alas, I’m going to be unable to work with you in 2009. There are still interviews and such to go through, so I don’t have the final group selected, but I thought the fairest thing to do was let you know as soon as possible.

The good news, and I hope you think it’s good news, is that you don’t need me. As I said before, I have no magic wand, no secret recipe. Your decision to just make it happen, to push forward, to change… that was the hard part.

Go. Do that. Blow them away. I fully expect it will happen.

Thanks for taking the time and thanks for understanding.


PS I’m going to post on my blog about how stellar each of you are… and I’m linking to a Google listing of applications (all of them, accepted and not). If you don’t want to be seen by others, you should delete your lens (if you made one). But I think you should be extraordinarily proud of what you’ve built and what you’ve done… and you might even get a new gig because of it.

Since I’m proud to take (and share) heaps of advice from Seth, here’s some more: suggestion #6 from his recent blog post How to send a personal email:

6. Don’t talk like a press release. Talk like a person. A person is reading this, so why are you talking like that?

This is a trap we ALL risk falling in to, and it’s one of the easiest things to change about how you communicate with people.  Why in the world would you send out an email that includes a sentence like: “Due to the overwhelming quality of the applicants this year, we had to make some very tough decisions and we regret that we won’t be able to invite you to interview at this time?”

I think it’s because people (and organizations) worry that personal will become informal, and between the relative risks of seeming too boring vs. too unprofessional, boring is a lot safer.

Fair enough, but recognize what a huge opportunity you’re missing.  Think about how many emails you personally send out a day.  Add to that the emails your organization sends out, the content from your website and your Facebook page….you get the idea.

Your opportunity is to make it personal, to treat the person on the other end like a human being.  They’ll be so surprised that already you’ll have distinguished yourself from the pack.

And if you missed it, here are my 10 Obvious Tips about Email (that most people don’t follow).

Chicken in the Chicken Soup

(for those of you new to the blog, check out my first post here)

Yesterday I was on the lookout for some Chicken soup to take home for dinner – to care for some sick family members. I went to Friedman’s Delicatessen, highly recommended by a co-worker of mine, and asked if they had chicken soup in addition to matzoh ball soup. The guy behind the counter said yes but that the soup had no chicken. I told him I’d come back. At $11.95 a quart, no chicken didn’t make any sense to me, even if it does taste homemade.

I went a few shops down to Hale and Hearty Soup, which I generally like, and tried their chicken soup. It was good, but not traditional enough and, in this case, not what I was looking for. So I went back to Friedman’s and a guy who was clearly the manager and owner said, “I’m glad you’re back. We can put chicken in the soup. We didn’t used to because we were kosher and the kosher chicken is expensive. But now we can.” The chicken went in the quart of soup, and I bought a couple of half sour pickles as well.

I have no idea what the real story is about the chicken. But I do know that this interaction single-handedly changed my impression of Friedman’s. I became a customer, a happy one at that (the soup was delicious), and I’m going to recommend Friedman’s to other people. The owner went above and beyond to make me feel valued, and he had enough good manners and good business sense to win me over. I’m pretty sure there was nothing special about me, it was about giving a customer what they asked for, within reason. I think anyone who deals with customers – myself included in my job at Acumen Fund – has something to learn from this. The owner made a great impression, one that stuck with me, and now if anyone asks me I’m recommending that soup, which was delicious.

And the next time I probably won’t even care about the chicken.