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Peak customer service and the hospitality mindset

Is cheaper better?

Is profit the only thing to be maximized?

For its first decade, Federal Express embraced customer service as a marketing tool. They were competing with the postal service, but more than that, they were trying hard to create a habit that turned 25 cent deliveries into $20 deliveries, particularly among businesses.

They answered the phone on the first ring.

They hired people who cared about the customer experience and gave them tools to keep their promises.

They sacrificed short-term profits in order to build a brand promise that people could trust.

Some organizations end up ingraining this ethos deeply into what they do, and stick with it for the long haul. They have a hospitality mindset. Service isn’t simply the tool to make profits–it’s a key part of why you’re here in the first place.

In the last decade, Fedex (simply to pick a familiar example, they’re by no means unique) decided to take a different path.

They don’t answer the phone easily. When they do, they box their low-paid workers in with scripts and policies that leave little room for human engagement. They remove less profitable dropboxes, and shorten the hours they do pickups. When a package goes awry, they do little to repair the broken trust it creates. I’m sure a McKinsey consultant ran the numbers on all of these changes.

All of these steps add up to slightly more profit in the short run. And, perhaps, over time, people who really care (the difficult customers?) switch to another provider. But the real cost here is to their people, their mission and the culture they seek to build.

Hospitality is a choice, not simply a tactic.

It’s possible to build an organization that does work you’re proud of, surrounded by people who feel the same way. People who care, solving problems and creating connection.

The things you can’t see

Do you remember all the elements you didn’t used to notice?

It might be the way you see typography now, or the tuning of an orchestra. Or the alignment in the mouldings of a house you’re inspecting or the way an engine sounds… (or whether you put a ‘u’ in moulding)

Expertise is about learning new ways to notice.

Often, once we learn to see, we assume we’ve always known. And that allows us to believe that the things we can’t see, we’ll never be able to see.

But it doesn’t work that way unless we get complacent.

There’s always something just below the surface, the elements that most people simply don’t notice. But we can if we choose.

Question authority

Lock-in persists. That’s why it’s so valued by monopolists, tyrants and cults.

The ability to speak up always creates inefficiency. It’s easier to just shut up and drive. Or be driven.

But the ability to speak up is a self-cleaning algorithm. Our freedom to move on, to criticize and to suggest creates the conditions for the system to improve.

It’s tempting to sign up for the one with lock-in. It often comes with bonuses, inducements and the promises of efficiency and dominance.

But it’s not resilient. When the world changes, and it always does, open systems are far less brittle than their shiny counterparts.

Inside the bubble

Whenever there’s a speculative bubble going on (or a cultural one, for that matter) life inside the bubble seems rational and normal.

And so artists at Miami:Basel are talking about minting NFTs. Not because they understand them (they don’t) or because they provide actual utility (they don’t) but because that’s what life is like inside of this particular speculative bubble.

And people outside the bubble are supposed to feel left behind, because that’s part of the fuel of life inside the bubble.

When a corporate culture begins to get insular, or a community starts acting like a cult, the same thing happens.

Culture is “the way we do things around here.” The very nature of a bubble is that there’s an inside and an outside, an expanding reality-distortion field that assures people inside the bubble that they’re doing things that are rational and normal.

If you’re confident that the bubble is here for the long-term, perhaps we shouldn’t hesitate to play along.

But when the bubble bursts (and speculative bubbles always do), be prepared for reality to disagree with your assertions.

“Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called.” –Jean Dubuffet

How should we celebrate your day?

If today was a holiday in your honor, what would it be about?

If we had to examine everything about you, your work, your impact, your reputation–what would be the positive caricature we would draw? What sorts of slogans, banners and greetings would we use to celebrate you and your work?

It’s never accurate to boil down an organization or a person’s work to a simple sentence or two, but we do it anyway.

What’s yours?

The hobgoblin of fidelity

My first computer game design was in 1977–I came up with a version of Star Wars. It was almost nothing like the movie, but it was a pretty good game for something running on a mainframe.

The Godfather isn’t a perfect retelling of the book. But it’s a better movie as a result.

A really good recording doesn’t sound like a live concert or what you’d hear sitting in the studio. It sounds like a really good record. And when Alan Dean Foster and I turned Shadowkeep from a computer game into a novel, the goal wasn’t to replicate a computer game, it was to create a good novel.

When a medium arrives, or time shifts, it’s sometimes tempting to aim for a complete reconstruction of what came before. Follow the rules, don’t innovate. But that’s a mistake–a safe choice that’s actually a trap.

People desire media that is in and of itself. Each form of media has its own character, and fidelity from one form to another is a compromise that rarely works.

Because the world has changed, original isn’t original anymore. It can’t be, even if we want it to, because now it’s out of place. Just as we can’t step in the same river twice, each innovation in media forces us to walk away from fidelity to honor what’s possible.

Fidelity might feel like an option, and it takes effort and care. But is fidelity the best you can do?

When we switch media, or time zones, or cultures, or technology, it’s up to us to make the idea what it can become, not simply an unpalatable simulacrum of what it was over there.

All the best

Benchmarking involves looking at every element of what you offer and comparing it to the very best element of any of your competitors.

So your door handle is as good as the Audi’s, and your brake pedal is as good as the Volvo’s and…

It’s pretty tempting to do this. Who wants any element of what they do to be inferior to a competitor’s?

And yet…

That’s almost never what makes something remarkable (it’s worth noting that the Ford Taurus was the car that brought benchmarking to my attention… who wants a Ford Taurus?).

What makes something remarkable is a combination of its internal synergy—the parts work together as a coherent whole—and its imbalance. Something about it is worth talking about. Something about it is hard to find. Something about it helps us achieve our goals if we talk about it.

This uneven allocation of attention is the opposite of benchmarking. Find your edge and go over it.

Assuming other people have it too

Whatever “it” is.

That’s probably a mistake.

People don’t know what you know, don’t believe what you believe, don’t fear what you fear. They’re not equally skilled, equally fast and equally equipped.

“If I were you” isn’t that helpful.

Reply all

Who decided that this was a good way for a group to interact?

It’s all the worst elements of synchronous and asynchronous discussion rolled into one. It prioritizes speed of reply over thoughtfulness, and creates a hard-to-manage non-coordinated sort of discovery and decision making.

If it’s worth taking the time of the team, it’s worth doing it in a shared doc or in real-time. Neither is as convenient, both reward thinking hard about how we want to move things forward.

The easy measurements

The system is lazy. It focuses on the things that are easy to measure: How fast can you type, what was your score on the test, how many followers do you have?

One way to move forward is to learn discernment. You can discover overlooked value by measuring things that are difficult to measure.

And finding the energy and commitment to do things that others might not easily measure in the short run is the best way to make a difference.