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Customer service is free

Most large organizations would disagree.

They hire cheap labor to answer the phone. They install recordings to mollify people who are on hold for hours. They measure the cost of the call center and put loopholes in the warranty.

When you see customer service as a cost center, all of these steps make sense. Any money spent lowering costs seems to raise profits.

But customer service is actually a profit center, for four reasons:

First, because the customer who calls you or shows up at the adjustments window is fully enrolled. Unlike just about every other moment you’ve had with them, in this moment, they are paying attention, leaning into the situation and on high alert. Everything you do here, unlike just about every other marketing interaction you have, will go on your permanent record.

Second, because your competitors have foolishly decided to treat this interaction as a cost, the chances that you can dramatically overdeliver are pretty good. You can’t make a car that’s ten times better, but you can easily produce customer service for your car customers that’s ten times better than what most manufacturers deliver.

And third, because in our industrialized economy, people love to tell stories about service. And so the word spreads (or doesn’t) based on what you’re about to do.

Finally, it’s been demonstrated again and again that the most valuable customers are the loyal ones. While your promotional team is out there making noise to get you new customers, you’d be much better off turning your existing customers into repeat customers and ambassadors.

And so, the money you spend on customer service isn’t simply free. It actually repays you many times over.

Chief Apology Officer

Companies are discovering that hiring people to mollify critics and disappointed customers is cheaper (in the short run) than changing things, learning from the feedback or even wasting the time of people who do the ‘real work.’

The CAO doesn’t participate in tactical or strategic discussions, and probably can’t explain the dynamics that led to a given policy, or why it’s difficult to change. That’s not their job.

Their job is to make the customer or critic feel heard enough that they’ll accept the status quo without further fuss.

This is the tech support person who’s not allowed to acknowledge that the software has a bug, or the gate agent who is unable to report to the home office that the scheduling system is causing real problems for loyal customers.

In addition to eating away at the mollifier’s well-being, the work of the Chief Apology Officer is also ultimately doomed. By insulating the industrial system from the feedback loop that would improve it, these organizations doom themselves to a slow fade.

“Do you have any influence on how the organization is going to respond to this?” is a fair question. And the CAO can only honestly answer, “no.”

It’s a tough gig.

The lifeguard hack

Who am I to walk up to someone at a party and introduce myself?

Who are you to start a new project?

Who are they to give a talk on the main stage?

Don’t raise your hand–someone else might have a better question. Don’t ship that work, it’s not ready…

There are endless excuses, comparisons and reasons to hold back.


Unless you’re on lifeguard duty and someone is drowning. In that situation, even if you’re not the best lifeguard in the world, and even if the water isn’t the perfect temperature, and even if you don’t quite remember how to do the latest version of the cross-chest carry… you jump in the water.

Because it’s not for you. It’s for them.

Generosity unlocks doors inside of us.

The oracle

Resistance often shows up insisting that it can predict the future.

The voice in our head, the one that knows everything, also knows that you will be rejected, that the work will be misunderstood, that you’ll end up shamed.

Not just the voice, but the circle around us can do this as well if we choose to listen. Wearing the hat of the ardent supporter, they will try to protect you by predicting the demise of that next thing you were pinning your hopes on.

And it’s easy (and tempting) to give them credit for soothsaying because they know so many other things. They (“we” if we count the voice) know all about the failures and disappointments of the past. They know all about the hard work and all about how others have stumbled. And so, of course, they must also know about the future.

A lesson from a koan is really valuable here. Voices that purport to know the future–whether they are psychics, astrologers, family or the noise in our head–are pretty effective when it’s vague enough, but terrible when it comes to specifics. That’s because when it’s vague, we complete the story on our own, creating our own fact patterns after things happen.

The simple question to ask the oracle is: I have a handful of beans. How many are there?

As much as we might want an oracle, there aren’t any. What we need, it turns out, are supporters who trust us and have our back.

A Scrabble hack

It’s definitely a regular pastime of mine, and one of my favorite games. I usually play solo with the Word Master app.

The structure of the game rewards knowledge of really short words like qi and aa, but the exciting part happens when you find a seven-letter word…

The hack that would work if you’re playing in real life, with other people and actual tiles: On every turn, each player is allowed to turn one of the letters in their rack over and treat it as a blank, which could be any letter of the alphabet.

Suddenly, possibilities multiply! The number of 7 letter bingo words explodes. Instead of wrestling with 7 dependent variables, you have 6 and a wildcard.

The metaphor, as you’ve already guessed, is that every day we may have a chance to turn over one of our ‘letters’ and make it into something else, if we are brave enough.

Under the circumstances

The circumstances are heavy indeed. Systems work hard to maintain the status quo.

The teacher is doing the best they can. But the principal and the board and the regents and the parents…

The board member got elected with great intentions. But the state and the unions and the parents…

The textbook publishers want to do better, but the boards and…

You get the idea.

The circumstances conspire to put us under them.

The option is to start small, as small as possible. Small enough to work, big enough to put you on the hook. Build something that works.

And then, the challenging task begins: Get someone else to do it too.

Finding your voice

Not your metaphorical voice. I mean your actual voice.

It’s pretty clear to me that our speaking voice is not the result of the inevitable physical evolution of our vocal cords. It’s something our brain figured out how to do with the part of our body that keeps us alive by breathing.

And because it’s a late addition, there are a bunch of kinks in the system.

Talking while breathing is the beginning of the challenge.

But it’s also worth noting that the entire process is in the middle of a huge number of sensitive muscles and nerves. This means that when we’re talking (calling attention to ourselves) we’re also trying to keep all of that stress at bay. Add microphones, Zoom, and the high-stakes world of being seen, and you can start to understand why it’s so easy to get hoarse, to sound like someone you’re not, to develop tics, to amplify your stress, and a whole host of other challenges.

If you don’t sound like you, it might simply be because your brain is sabotaging the thing you’re trying to say. I used to riff about “no one gets talker’s block” but now I’m not so sure. I think most of us do.

If you’ve experienced any of this, I encourage you to find a good voice coach. Not because you’re some fancy keynote speaker about to go on the TED stage. Simply because you have something to say and it would be nice to be able to say it without pain. It’s easier than ever to have a few sessions remotely, and many people I know have found it life-changing. You can find someone nearby or even watch some videos to get started.

The world needs to hear from you.

So many accidents

The ones we notice are the negative ones. The time we slipped and hurt our knee, or the lingering illness that won’t go away. The gig we didn’t get, or the friend who is afraid or lonely.

But we’re surrounded by positive accidents as well, too many to mention. And often, we forget to mention them.

To be born when and where we were. To have people who give us the benefit of the doubt. To have a chance to read and to speak and to connect. To be surrounded by opportunities that others never even dreamed of.

And then, given those opportunities, the efforts expended and the care extended. The belief we have in others, the smile we offer or the contributions we make. All toward community and possibility.

I heard from two of my oldest friends yesterday, as well as from a dozen new ones. I met each of them accidentally. Every event opens the door for another one.

So many things to be thankful for. Accidents included.

PS anywhere in the world, feel free to check out The Thanksgiving Reader.

Books unread

I was sitting in a friend’s study the other day, and noticed that he had hundreds of books I’d never read.

Each was written, perhaps over the course of a year (or a decade), by a smart, passionate person with something to share. All of that focus and insight, generously shared with anyone who wants to take the time.

It reminded me of how much is out there, just waiting for us to explore and understand. We have a chance to learn and move forward if we care to.

Marketing as a service

Some folks think of marketing as something that is done to people. A hustle, a hype, a stealing of attention.

We need a name for that, but I don’t think that’s marketing.

On the other hand, calling dinner, “cold dead fish on rice,” while accurate, doesn’t really help people enjoy their sushi.

Human beings aren’t information processing machines. We’re not hyper-rational or predictable. Instead, we find joy and possibility in stories, in connection and yes, in tension and status roles as well.

When you care enough to see your audience with empathy, you’ll realize that they’re not happier if you simply recite a list of facts. Almost everything we engage with is a placebo at some level, and bringing a human-friendly story to the interaction is a way to serve people.

We need to not only have the ability to imagine what others see, we have to have the guts to go where they are and talk with them on their terms.

This means that we’re willing to be wrong on our way to being useful. We need to make assertions and show up with consistency, making promises and keeping them. Promises not just about the atomic weight of nitrogen, but about experiences and expectations that are sometimes hard to pin down.

Don’t make something that you would buy.

Make something that they would buy.