Get Real

A few days ago, I was talking to a person for whom I have the utmost respect.  I particularly respect his ability to sit with a client and make a solid connection in a very short amount of time.  If you have an angry client situation, this guy is the ultimate troubleshooter. 

 

File:Latex real numbers.svg

 

He told me about a situation where he was sitting with a client and talking about raising the rates that they were being charged.  Anyone who has ever had to do that knows that it’s not fun for either side.  He described how he showed them usage figures and told them about the increased costs based on the client’s growth.  He made a rational, intelligent case for the increase. 

The client didn’t get it.

In spite of my friend’s explanation and facts and figures and considerable powers of persuasion, they didn’t really understand.  All they heard was, you’re going to have to pay more.  They got to the end of the meeting and, being the perceptive person that he is, he knew they didn’t get it. 

He told me that he stopped just before they were about to get up to leave, and he said “Guys, I just want to say something before we leave.”  He proceeded to tell them in BASIC, REAL terms why he had to raise their rates and why he couldn’t continue to serve and maintain his high standards at the old rate.  He was sincere, he was direct, and they got it.

For me, knowing how superb a communicator my friend is, this was a wake-up call.  If this guy struggled in making his audience understand, how much harder do I need to work to get my point across?  How much effort do I need to expend in connecting with the people I need to communicate with?  How much more thought needs to go into reducing the noise and increasing the signal in my conversation?

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(In case you wonder, that’s the symbol for Real Numbers.  And no, I’m not a math geek…)

Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome

What happens when one person who is used to being the smartest person in the room has to work with another person who is used to being the smartest person in the room?  Or how about 3 or 4 of them?  I’ve worked for a lot of companies that would give anything to have this type of situation, but what about the unforeseen side effects of such a thing?  Sir Isaac Newton famously (and humbly) said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”  Would he have been as gracious if he had to go to staff meetings with those giants week after week?  Would he have been as quick to self-deprecate if he had to constantly defend his ideas to those giants? 

I’m sure you’ve know people like this.  Maybe you are one of them. Over the course of their lives, they have always emerged as the people that others turn to when they need things done.  They tend to be accustomed to having the best, fastest answer to any given problem.   I think the conditioning that happens to this sort of individual happens so subtly that they don’t even realize it’s happening.

So what’s the big deal?  My esteemed colleague (I told you I would give you credit, Steve) and I have been talking about this for some time.  Here are a few thoughts on the danger this presents to teams.

  1. Tunnel Vision – Every human being has an ego that tells them that their ideas are better than someone else’s.  Your ego in this has been fortified by your entire life’s experience in which your ideas were always the ones that were picked.  This can really negatively impact a group of people who are trying to solve a problem.
  2. Assumptions – You’re smart.  You know your teammates are smart.  Therefore, they must know the same things you do, right?  I think this leads to NOT exploring ideas and NOT talking through how you came to your conclusions.  Assuming in a team full of smart people can be lethal.
  3. Communication Gap – I suppose that communications is really at the heart of any team’s problems.  Any time you have more than one person working towards the same goal, communication becomes the glue that holds it all together.  I think smart people don’t sit and think, “I’m not going to communicate with that other person.”  I think more often it’s a combination of “We have daily/weekly/monthly status meetings to get us on the same page” along with some “I’m doing the WORK, I can stop and talk about it every five minutes”  with just a dash of “I figured it out, so should everyone else.”

I am fortunate to work with as many HIGHLY talented people as I do.  Every last one of them has some area(s) of absolute genius.  In spite of that (I suppose I’m arguing here because of that), we’ve fallen prey to some of these problems, mainly because we were unaware of this subtle cause.  But as GI Joe cartoons taught me when I was young, knowing is half the battle. 

Double Your Rate of Failure

I think a lot about success.  The nature of my job demands that I be aware of the definition of success on every project.  (Believe me, easier said than done.)  I read about other people’s ideas about success.  I am certainly awash in what society views as success.  I have definite ideas about what success looks like for me personally. 

Over the past couple of weeks, the development team at Sommet has been all but chanting the mantra “Fail Faster”.  We’re trying to increase efficiency, communication and transparency (as I’m sure all teams are trying to do) all at once, and this refrain keeps coming up.  If we fail early and often, we will get to success faster, right?

The famous quote by Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, goes:

It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure… You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all.

For many years, I have been extremely lucky.  I have been able to achieve some really amazing things by failing only a few times.  (They’ve been doozies, though trust me.)  As a result, and in violation of Mr. Watson’s maxim, I do indeed tend to think of failure as the enemy-or at least the opposite-of success. 

I could ramble on this topic for some time, so let me just cut to the chase.  Every single time you get it wrong, you are that much closer to getting it right. It doesn’t matter if you are a business owner, a stay at home parent, or the guy working at the snack bar.  Analyze those failures, make small changes, and try it again.*

Thanks to Alex, Jim, Kristin, James, Evan, Dan, Elijah, Steve, Joey, Matt and Bryan for letting me learn from you guys every day.  It’s an honor and a pleasure to work with you all.

*(These are precisely the same steps as troubleshooting any problem…duh.)

A Few Words on Service

On December 13th, 2009, I was getting ready to go to a performance of Handel’s Messiah, in which my lovely and talented wife was to sing in the choir.  My most excellent older brother and his wife were going to keep the kids for me.  My very good friend and his wife were going to come with me so I wouldn’t have to sit alone.  All was right with the world.

Then, as quick as a rattlesnake, I was doubled over in pain, white as a sheet and filled with both dread of what was to come and guilt for ruining so many people’s plans.  I knew exactly what the problem was, as I had experienced it several times before.  Kidney stones.  (If you didn’t actually shudder and cringe when you read that you’ve never had them.)

So way back on that Sunday afternoon, I figured this was going to be an inconvenience and no more.  I had painkillers and anti-nausea meds and even some nifty stuff called Flomax which helped the last stone I had pass in just six hours.  I figured it would be more or less a repeat of that.  How wrong can one chubby computer guy be?  That was the question I was ironically pondering a week later as they were wheeling me into my first ever surgery.

What does all of this have to do with service?  I talk a bunch about customer service, service in your organization, a service mindset, always from the perspective of the one serving.  Over the course of this couple of weeks, I got a very large dose of the perspective of being served.

Learn From My Pain

  1. It’s vaguely uncomfortable to be served by someone else.  Maybe it’s because I’m a guy.  Maybe it’s because I’m a support person at heart.  I’m not sure what it is, but I always feel like I should be doing things for myself.  Being in a position where I physically CAN’T do things for myself made me realize that despite the slight discomfort from being served, I am SO grateful to those who helped me out.  I would do almost anything for those people in return.  Keep that in mind as you try to put yourself in your customer’s shoes.
  2. The strongest relationships are forged (or broken) in service.  When someone really needs your help, that’s the absolute BEST time to win them over.  If you help them when they need it, they will remember.  I have an esteemed colleague that gets an absolutely electric charge out of going into a situation where the customer is upset and then turning the situation around and winning them over for life.  I’ve seen it happen, these people would do anything for him when he’s done.
  3. Customer service is about one person serving another.  It has nothing to do with corporate policies or call centers or even the product itself.  It boils down to a single person doing their best to make the other person feel valued and cared for.  There has been volume after volume written on this subject, but that’s the heart of it.  If you can pull this off, everything else is candy.
    I hope this give some insight from the other side of the table that will help in pursuit of excellent service.  I have experienced such a tremendous amount of great service over the past several weeks, and I can tell you first-hand how amazing it is when it happens.  From the nurses and doctors that took care of me in the hospital, to my true friends who brought food when we needed it (I didn’t cook a meal for days), to my family members and coworkers who prayed for me, checked in on me and thought about me, I am grateful to them all. 
    The one I have to single out in this, though, is my beautiful, intelligent, patient and caring wife.  She did everything that needed to be done for both of us for several weeks.  She missed out on doing things she loves doing and rearranged her whole life without a whisper of complaint and at a moment’s notice.  She is the greatest.
    After this outpouring of support that I experienced, I have felt very loved and appreciated.  I feel like I can surmount any obstacle with all of these great people on my side.  I didn’t mean to get sappy at all with this, so let me leave you with this question.  What would happen in your business/job/life, if you could make the people around you feel like that every time you were around them?  I can’t tell exactly, but I bet it would be amazing.

A Tale of Two Techies

I recently had a conversation with a group of young tech workers.  They are all VERY intelligent and great technicians.  They even have what I would consider very good people skills.  The topic of discussion was the role of technology (consultants and managers primarily) in keeping the business up to speed on what technology workers are working on.  The group seemed surprised by my assertion that it is every bit as important to report on the work as it is to do the work well.

Let me clarify with a story.  Let’s imagine two technology managers (or consultants or even entry level, really).  Let’s call them John and Ray.  They are both excellent with technology and work very hard for their companies.  They both have great experience and try to pay attention to their people skills.

John is a very reserved kind of a guy and somewhat of an introvert.  He does his job well, stays weekends and nights when he needs to and really tries to do the right thing in all situations.  He assumes that his hard work and diligence will be noticed by his managers and users (customers) and they will appreciate him without his having to “blow his own horn”.  This mentality is his justification to ignore what he thinks of as office politics (he thinks they’re beneath him) and he focuses most of his attention on the technology itself.

Ray is a little more outgoing.  (For a computer geek, he’s actually the life of the freaking party.)  Someone told him years ago “Perception is reality” and it always stuck with him.  As a result, Ray always sends his manager a rundown of his department’s activities when they work over a weekend and he makes sure to take an extra few minutes to explain how the business will benefit from whatever they did.

Ok, let’s throw a situation at these two guys and see how they fare.  It’s the end of the year and both of these guys are naturally thinking about raises and maybe even promotions.  They each have a review with their manager.  This is what it might sound like:

John’s Review

MGR:  We’re glad to have you John.  I know you care about doing a good job.

John:  Thank you.  The team and I have been putting in a lot of nights and weekends.

MGR:  Really?  That’s good to hear.  Keep up the good work.  Do you have any other questions or concerns before we wrap up?

John:  Well…is a salary increase at all in my future?

MGR:  An increase, huh?  Wow.  That’s going to be tough to swing this year with the economy and all.  We should all be glad we even have jobs.

John:  I AM glad we all have jobs, but I really feel like I’ve had my nose to the grindstone and should at least be considered for a raise.

MGR:  John, I will do my best to get you some consideration, but if you look at the numbers, IT is one of our biggest expenses.  Also, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but our CEO was really ticked off about his little email outage…

John:  He’s mad about that?  We got him up and running as soon as we got the word he was having problems.  The Exchange server punked out again and wouldn’t let him connect.

MGR:  I know, it’s not really your fault.  I only bring it up to let you know I have the deck stacked against me.

John:  Ok, I appreciate whatever you can do.

MGR:  No problem.  I really mean it when I say thanks for all that you do.

 

Ray’s Review

MGR:  We’re so glad you’re here, Ray.  I don’t know what we’d do without you.

Ray:  That’s great to hear.  The team and I have really tried to get a lot done before the end of the year.

MGR:  I know you guys have put in a ton of late nights and weekends.  It really has made a difference around here too.  Which is as good a lead in as any, I guess.  Ray, we’re going to give you a raise, congratulations.

Ray:  Wow.  I can’t thank you enough.

MGR:  You’ve really earned it.  Not only have you put in the time and made a difference, but pretty much everyone in the company feels like you’ve brought all of us along for the ride.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me how glad they are that you can explain things in a way that they can understand.

Ray:  I’m glad to hear that.  We try to keep our focus on the needs of the business.

MGR:  Keep up the good work!

 

OK, I know it’s a little cheesy, but I have seen and been a part of conversations that are VERY similar to the ones above.  If the business doesn’t KNOW that it’s getting good value from what you’re doing, do NOT expect it to act like it’s getting good value.

I’m not advocating walking around and spouting off how great you are or how much you know.  That will be self-defeating.  I’m talking about little things like sharing the metrics with your organization.  How many calls did we handle last month?  What was our average resolution time?  What kind of growth have we experienced recently?  How has technology made the work life of users better?  Things like letting management know not just that you’re working overtime, but what that work will MEAN to the company and the people who work there.

Trust me, I’ve seen this one play out many times.  Heed this advice and I GUARANTEE you will have a more successful career.

Golden Rule More Important Than Ever

He who has the gold makes the rules right?  Have you seen gold prices lately?  But seriously, my mom would remind my brother and I of this (amidst eye rolling and sly punches) almost daily.  Who knew it would actually make good business sense?

This is what customer service really boils down to, isn’t it?  If I want to make an impression on a customer, I need to try and empathize with them and then treat them as I would want to be treated myself.  If I want to make a bad impression, I don’t listen, I spout off “company policy” and generally give off the vibe that your situation isn’t worth my time.

My wife took her engagement ring to be repaired recently.  (Anyone who knows her knows that this story won’t be a positive example.)  They messed it up.  Seriously.  So they take it back and say they’re going to fix it.  So she goes to pick it up – for the second time mind you – and it’s now deformed and not at all to her satisfaction.  The lackey that she’s dealing with looks at her (she’s almost in tears at this point) and says to her “What do you want me to do about it?”

Wow.  Epic fail on the service there dude.  I realize that there are times when you just can’t help the customer out.  They want you to change the laws of physics or alter the space-time continuum or connect you with an English speaking operator when you call Dell.  These things will come up and I think most customers understand and have a certain amount of tolerance for.  You lose them as soon as you treat them in a way that you yourself would not want to be treated.  It’s that simple.

</sermon>

Easy to Talk About, Hard To Do

Reading this blog may have given you the impression that I am the ultimate support person.  OK, I am, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have times when I drop the ball, miss things, or lose Outlook data from my wife’s computer.  (Sorry, honey.)  Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into the gory details of my domestic squabbles here. 

Before I get into my actual point, let me describe the customer interaction pattern that I preach to everyone who isn’t sick of hearing me talk about it:

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  1. Listen to the customer’s problem.
  2. Communicate your plan of attack.
  3. Act on the plan.
  4. Test your fix against the problem identified in step 1 (it’s best if the customers can do this for themselves).
  5. Inform the customer of the results and any further steps needed.
  6. Repeat as needed.
    So this wasn’t a customer situation, really.  I had a friend of mine call me and tell me about several issues he was having with his computers.  He just lives down the road a bit from me, so I went over to see if I could help.  I wasn’t going to take any money for helping my friend (even though he tries to pay me every time).

To make a long story short, I fixed the problems he was having, made some recommendations for some low cost upgrades he could do, and then asked him if there was anything else he needed help with.  He told me about what he called a minor annoyance and said it really was no big deal.  Of course, Super Tech here couldn’t let that go unanswered, so I dug in and figured out the setting that controlled what was annoying him, and changed it.  And then I packed up my stuff and left amidst a shower of thanks and praises, and <ahem> a feeling of smug self-satisfaction.  (Anyone in tech support can already hear the ominous music…)

Like I said, I think I’m a pretty good tech and very good at customer service.  I have a system, for crying out loud.  I have a whole power point presentation on it.  None of this, however,  protected my ego when my friend calls me back 30 minutes later and says “I’m not sure what you did, but I just rebooted and now Outlook doesn’t work, my desktop looks completely different, and I can’t get anything to work right.”  Wow.  Total service failure.  And it was all me. 

The moral of this story is that it’s SO easy to fall down in tech support.  Whether it’s because you’re in a hurry, or you’re overworked, or you’re a chubby computer geek who lives out his super-hero fantasies by saving unsuspecting users from the dark forces of technology problems, you have to stay focused on the person you’re trying to help and think through the law of unintended consequences.  It’ll bite you every time.

Giving a Great Demo is An Art

Some demos are ok….some are great.  I think that’s obvious enough.  It’s like having a good date vs. a great date.  When you’re on a date, there are tons of things you could talk about but what’s going to make the best impression?

The way I see it, if you’re a developer or a program/project manager, you have a lot invested in the product itself.  You know the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into creating this thing.  You know the emotional highs and lows that are behind every button, text box, and sort column.  It’s only human nature to want to talk about those things as if it were some sort of weird group therapy session.

The problem is that your audience, whether it’s your boss, the client, or whomever, doesn’t know about that stuff and more than likely doesn’t care.  They want to know about how the product is going to affect them.  So here’s my opinion of what goes into a great demo:

  1. Think it through beforehand if at all possible.  I pride myself on being fairly quick on my feet, but trying to field questions, click the right button (we all know that clicking the wrong button can lead to disaster in an unfinished piece of work), and smoothly move to the next talking point is too much to handle for most folks.
  2. The things you choose to talk about and spend time on should be the things that matter most to THEM, not you.  Think of the greatest date you’ve ever been on, and I bet there was significant amounts of that time spent talking about YOU or things you are interested in.  Let’s face it, we all think the world revolves around us.
  3. Do your best to read your audience and adjust your spiel as needed.  Item number one is valid, but you have to remember to be a little flexible.  I sat in on a demo where the presenter said to one of the major project stakeholders "Let me finish with this part" no less than 4 times.  That’s a huge red flag in my book.  Not everyone thinks of technology as fun or cool.  We have to make things as approachable as possible, even in the demo.