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« December 2011 | Main | February 2012 »

The waffle paradox

WaffleOne way for a candidate to change the conversation around her candidacy: have her followers pelt the opposition with waffles at every public appearance. Eggos in particular are lightweight and their shape makes them easy to toss.

Particularly in primaries, simplicity and certainty are rewarded. The waffling candidate, the one who hesitates to give a clear yes or no answer to every question is seen as weak.

(Worth noting that the word "waffling" didn't start appearing in books much until after the 1960 elections).

Of course, this post isn't about politics at all. Customers and employees and vendors and regulators almost always prefer simplicity and certainty.

There are two ways to begin an answer to most questions we face in organizations:

"It's simple" and

"It's complicated."

Both are usually true. At 10,000 feet, most challenges are simple. But actually making something work is quite complicated.

Nuance is the sign of an intelligent observer. Nuance shows restaint and maturity and an understanding of the underlying mechanics of whatever problem we're wrestling with. After all, if the solution was simple, we would have solved it already.

On the other hand, resorting to nuance early and often can also be a sign of fear, of an unwillingness to go out on a limb and make a difference. Hence the reactions of boards hiring consultants and CEOs, or of passionate primary voters. "Don't tell me it's complicated. Just show me the guts to make something happen."

My vote: your goals and your strategy must be simple. You must have passion and certainty in order to make a difference as a leader. Your tactics, on the other hand, should be layered, multi-dimensional and reflect the patience of someone who cares about reaching a goal.

When Howard Schultz talks about coffee or Jill Greenberg talks about lighting or Cory Booker talks about education, they can impatiently demand clear and simple results. At the same time, successful leaders see the nuance they'll need in executing to get there.

The paradox is that the simplicity we often seek in search of solutions rarely leads to the patient leadership we need to get them.

The irony is not lost on me... the decision on when to be bold is a nuanced one.

(What you get) - (What you were hoping for)

This might be the simplest possible explanation of customer satisfaction.

Dissatisfaction occurs when salespeople and marketers tend to try to amplify the first part (what you're promised) while neglecting the second.

The ability to delight and surprise is at the core of every beloved brand (product, politician, teenager...). Overhype and shady promises will undercut that before it even has a chance to get started. Yes, of course you have to make promises to earn attention and trial. The mistake is when you put more effort into the promises and less into what you deliver. Promise a lot but deliver even more.

[One really important amplification: Research shows us that what people remember is far more important than what they experience. What's remembered:

--the peak of the experience (bad or good) and,

--the last part of the experience.

The easiest way to amplify customer satisfaction, then, is to underpromise, then increase the positive peak and make sure it happens near the end of the experience you provide. Easy to say, but rarely done.]

Prepared to fail

"We're hoping to succeed; we're okay with failure. We just don't want to land in between."

--David Chang

He's serious. Lots of people say this, but few are willing to put themselves at risk, which destroys the likelihood of success and dramatically increases the chance of in between.

Faux familiarity is worse than none at all

Sure, it's easy to grab a first name from a database or glean some info from a profile.

But when you pretend to know me, you've already started our relationship with a lie. You've cheapened the tools we use to recognize each other and you've tricked me, at least a little.

Direct mail used to take advantage of this technique a lot, and since they measure everything, they knew when it worked. Online, though, we're seeing less disciplined marketers (big and small) continually mess it up. The clues are obvious to even the untrained eye--typefaces that don't match, references that don't make sense, and most of all, the weird disconnect we get when we think we're supposed to know someone and can't remember who they are. That's a lousy mood to get your prospect in, I think.

The honest broker

It really is a choice, one or the other.

Either you happily recommend the best option for your customer, or you give preference to your own items first.

Either you believe in what you sell, or you don't.

Either you treat your best partners better, or you treat everyone the same.

Either you shade the truth when it's painful to do otherwise, or you consistently share what's important.

Either you always keep your promises or you don't.

Either you give me the best price the first time, or you make me jump through hoops to get there.

Earning the position of the honest broker is time-consuming and expensive. Losing it takes just a moment.

Reconsidering Gartner's Cycle of Hype

400px-Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg

One theory of technology marketing and acceptance goes like this: A technology causes a media hypestorm and rising expectations. Then it crashes to Earth as the popular press and the public discovers that it's not all the hypesters said it would be--through no fault of the technologists who brought it to the world in the first place. Then, gradually, the truth about the technology seeps out until finally it reaches its use case--and then becomes that status quo, just waiting to be disrupted as it previously disrupted what came before.

While the violent vicissitudes of this chart make for good TV movies, in reality very few innovations follow this path. That's because it ignores 'being ignored.'

90% of the time, new technology triggers are widely and aggressively ignored. While we're more eager than ever for a savior that will change everything, the number of technologies, pundits, prophets and entrepreneurs is so large that there's now a line out the door. As a result, most of the things we now take for granted (cell phones, tweeting, insulated windows, email) didn't follow this curve at all.

In fact, just about every innovation I know of has to make it through the wilderness before it gets anywhere close to a hype cycle. The wilderness is the term for the years (or decades) that a founder/entrepreneur/artist/technology must spend being ignored and unfunded before the breakthrough of overnight success occurs.

Who cares?

Unless someone does, things start to fray around the edges.

Often it's the CEO or the manager who sets a standard of caring about the details. Even better is a culture where everyone cares, and where each person reinforces that horizontally throughout the team.

You've probably been to the hotel that serves refrigerated tomatoes in January at their $20 breakfast, that doesn't answer the phone when you call the front desk, that has a shower curtain that is falling off the rack and a slightly snarky concierge. This is in sharp relief to that hotel down the street, the one that costs just the same, but gets the details right.

It's obviously not about access to capital (doing it right doesn't cost more). It's about caring enough to make an effort.

If we define good enough sufficiently low, we'll probably meet our standards. Caring involves raising that bar to the point where the team has to stretch.

Of course, the manager of the mediocre hotel who's reading this, the staff member of the mediocre restaurant who just got forwarded this note--they have a great excuse. Times are tough, money is tight, the team wasn't hired by me, nobody else cares, I'm only going to be doing this gig for a year, our customers are jerks... who cares?

Caring, it turns out, is a competitive advantage, and one that takes effort, not money.

Like most things that are worth doing, it's not easy at first and the one who cares isn't going to get a standing ovation from those that are merely phoning it in. I think it's this lack of early positive feedback that makes caring in service businesses so rare.

Which is precisely what makes it valuable.

Solving problems (vs. identifying them)

Often, we're hesitant to identify a problem out of fear we can't solve it. Knowing that we have to live with something that we're unable to alter gives us a good reason to avoid verbalizing it--highlighting it just makes it worse.

While this sort of denial might be okay for individuals (emphasis on might), it's a lousy approach for organizations of any size. That's because there are almost certainly resources available that can solve a problem if you decide it's truly worth solving.

Put yourself and your people on a path to finding problems without regard for whether or not they are capable of solving them. Queue them up, prioritize them and then go find the help your organization needs to solve them.

Just because you don't know what to do about it doesn't make it less of a problem.

"It's completely up to you"

... and that's the problem.

I was picking out the mat for a framed photo and there were a thousand colors to choose from. The framer uttered the scary invocation, putting the choice back to me.

So many things are now completely up to us, more than ever before. Where and how and when we work and invest and interact and instruct and learn...

If you think you have no choice but to do what you do now, you've already made a serious error.

It seems to me that passing the buck on this merely because it's easier than choosing is precisely the wrong strategy. It enables an abdication of power that will be very hard to reverse. It's up to you, and that's part of the power that you've got.

Back to the framer: I picked, because that's my job.

The pricing formula (S&S)

Years ago, my bosses and I needed to finalize the pricing for a new line of software I was launching. In the room we had MBAs from Harvard (2), Stanford, Tuck and, I think, Wharton. We had three prices in mind, and the five of us couldn't agree. So we did the only scientific thing: we flipped a coin (two out of three, just to be sure).

Pricing your product is actually simple, as long as you consider it from the buyer's point of view. How much it costs you to make something is irrelevant. They don't care (of course, you can't price something at a loss and hope to stay in business for long). The two keys to the analysis:

Substitutes: Every purchase is a choice, and that means the buyer can choose to do nothing or buy something else instead. If there are easy and obvious substitutes to what you sell, that has to be built into your pricing. If you make something rare and unique, you still might not be able to charge a lot--because people can always choose to buy nothing. A 42 carat diamond, for example, might be hard to replace, but it's not worth $100 million unless someone actually chooses to buy it.

Part of the work of design and marketing is to help people understand that there are no good substitutes for what you have to offer, meaning, of course, that you can happily charge more.

Story: The other half of the pricing formula is the story the price itself tells. A Prius at $40,000 or a Prius at $10,000 is the same car, but the price becomes a dominant part of the story. You can tell a story of value/cheapness/affordability, or a story of luxury. If you price your product or service near the median, you're telling no story at all with the price, giving you the chance to tell a story about some other element of what you sell.

If you're not happy with your pricing options, focusing on your costs might not be the right path. Instead, focus on how the design or delivery change the availability of substitutes, and how the price becomes part of the story of your product.

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