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?

You can deliver magic

Think about the difference between “good enough” and “magical.”

It was the difference, five years ago, between the iPod and the Microsoft Zune (or, for now at least, the iPad and everything).

It’s the difference between a Tiffany’s ring in its eggshell-blue box, and the identical ring you can get 10 blocks away in New York City’s diamond district for half the price.

It’s Zappos giving you free, next-day shipping the first time you order.

Or, back in the day, when your FedEx arrived the next morning, every time, no matter what.

“Magical” isn’t a little better than “good enough”, magical crushes the competition.

Of course, making the entire Apple experience magical is a big deal: they need to deliver, to everyone, the whole package: hardware, software, design, the Apple store, Mac Geniuses, Steve Job keynotes, even those snappy new cases on the iPad 2.

The good news is, you probably don’t need to do a fraction of this to deliver magic.  If you’re not Apple, I’m guessing that most of your success depends on a handful of customers (less than 20, I’m guessing…and even if it doesn’t just depend on such a small number, you can start small).  Curiously, delivering a magical experience to 20 people isn’t actually that hard.  Yes, you have to amaze, surprise, care for, and delight these folks, but there are only 20 of them, and I’m sure if you decide to do this you can do it right away – much more quickly and easily than you expected.

What would it take, really, to deliver magic to just the tippity-top of your top customers?  (not much).

So what’s stopping you?


Yesterday night, for the first time, my wife ordered me a pair of shoes on Zappos.  This morning, she called me to say, “This is amazing.  They just arrived!  I don’t know how they do it.”

I know.

It’s magic.

Think about how incredible this is: with all the technology in the world, with all the jaded consumerism, with all the hype, Zappos did something so cool that it was worth picking up the phone and telling someone about.  And they’re delivering shoes.  Shoes!!!

If they can create magic with shoes, anything is possible.  Anything.

With magic, you’ve got traction, momentum, joy, surprise.  Without it, you’re just pushing a boulder up a hill.

So go on, take whatever you’re working on and insert some magic, create an ideavirus that will spread.

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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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Why I love New York

Music and humor on the way to work – talk about a different kind of commute.

People in Grand Central Station dressed in swimsuits, shorts, and work clothes, guerrilla marketing for The Ebony Hillbillies playing bluegrass outside the Shuttle train. And a woman named Julie (I think) playing guitar on the Shuttle train and singing in an angelic voice.  I’m sure she’s better than most paid acts in any other city around the world.

Some reflections:

  1. Peak commuting hours have the most people, but they’re so focused on getting to work that you aren’t going to get their attention.
  2. Nothing surprises a New York commuter
  3. Stopping for five minutes to see something beautiful, humorous, and memorable helps us all get through the day

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