I’m only human

Americans are a quirky bunch. Our hearts bleed when we see others in crisis, especially when it’s on a larger scale, and we rush to help. Friends of neighbors have a house fire? No sweat. We rush to our attics and dig out all the outgrown clothes, extra blankets, and old pots and pans we can find. Walk past a Christmas tree filled with ornaments listed with needs for disadvantaged children? We grab two or three without blinking. Earthquake in Haiti? We’re there. Kids collect coins and take them to school, adults pitch in cash to their local churches, and teams of people assemble to go do something, anything.

Put an American in an airport, though, and he gets prickly. Don’t encroach on his space. Don’t get near him with your bag. If you’re standing on the moving walkway, press yourself flat on the right side so there’s no chance of bumping one of the walkers on the left. And horror of horrors, don’t touch him inadvertently when trying to use the shared armrest on an airplane; you won’t see a faster recoil.

The sad thing is that I often feel myself turning into one of those airport monsters, too. I want to move fast and get to my next point with supreme efficiency, to make sure I have adequate time to, er, wait. I wonder when I forgot to be human–and to accommodate the humanness of others. It’s okay to brush shoulders with people, really. And maybe the slow-moving person in front of me is doing all she can; do I really need to move so fast (tight connections excluded)?

It warmed my heart yesterday to see two late-middle aged women having breakfast in the F terminal in the Minneapolis airport. One of them interrupted their shared conversation to ask an elderly woman with a cane, who was leaving the counter with her arms full, if she needed help. That woman didn’t forget to be human. And even though I hadn’t seen the elderly woman myself, it made me feel guilty. I still have some humanness in my heart, and next time I’ll be the one asking.

On your best behavior

Last night I had to run a few errands, so I stopped at the pharmacy to refill a prescription and pick up a few odds and ends. I went inside to the prescription counter, which I found to be abuzz with activity. Two pharmacists and three techs rushed about, frenetically serving the drive-thru window, in-store customers, and telephone inquiries. I had obviously arrived at a peak service moment.

While I waited in line, I found myself absently watching the pharmacist at the drive-thru window, and something made me tune into what he was saying. In a huff, he shook his head and muttered–though not particularly quietly–“Pain in the a**.” Then he stalked off to fill the next prescription, shaking and rattling alphabetically filed bags of meds as if they were violating his space. Now nonplussed, I focused my attention elsewhere.

At the same time and in an odd juxtaposition, the tech serving the woman in line in front of me was bending over backward to help solve a problem. The woman insisted that a prescription had been called in (she heard the nurse do it herself), but the pharmacy had no record of it. The woman was emphatic, and when it became clear that the prescription really wasn’t there, her voice rose an octave and I could see the creeping tendrils of panic start to curl around her face. “But she had surgery. Now there’s no one at the doctor’s office and she has to have her meds. What should I doooo?”

The tech looked everywhere she could think for the prescription, checked the computer, and asked her colleagues. Nothing. Then her face brightened and she suggested that perhaps the doctor’s office called it into the competing pharmacy across the street. Then she did an amazing thing. Rather than sending the woman on her way to check for herself, the tech picked up the phone and called the other pharmacy. Sure enough, the meds were waiting there.

Although neither scenario seemed out of the ordinary, watching each unfold simultaneously really left a strong impression on me. I learned two lessons from this visit. First, you have the power to determine the outcome of almost any situation. Although the customers involved behaved similarly, each situation took a markedly different turn based on the attitude (and corresponding behavior) of the respective employees. Second, you never know who is watching. If I noticed, other customers probably did, too. It never hurts to be on your best behavior.

Studying masterpieces

I’m getting ready to go to a trade show. While I’m there, as I always do, I’ll spend a fair amount of time checking out the competition. Even though I tend to want to look for chinks in their armor and catalog all the “mistakes” I think they’re making, deep down I know that is completely the wrong approach.

I’ll learn a lot more by figuring out what they’re doing right.

Sure, I’ve caught myself (more than once) taking a point-my-finger-and-laugh attitude, asking my compatriots, Can you believe they’re doing THAT? But honestly, that really doesn’t get me anywhere. Sniffing out the missteps and failures like a personal injury attorney chasing an ambulance doesn’t give me any reason to improve my game. On the contrary, it allows me to slip into the complacency of the self-righteous and give myself more credit than I deserve.

Obviously, some customers choose goods and services other than those offered by my company. They do this because they believe the competition does something or communicates something better than my company. Focusing on what the competition does right helps me better understand that dynamic. That is, I can learn why some people choose them over us when I study what works. And then I can figure out how to do it better. I’ll know how and where to step up my game.

There’s a reason why people don’t study failed portraits; they study the masterpieces.

Random thoughts on Saturday

You can pick your life, or you can let your life pick you.

If you’re passionate about something, you’ll overcome your own prejudices in favor of the crusade.

You can believe in happy endings or you can vehemently eschew them, but in real life, there’s no formula for how things will turn out.

It’s possible to believe something is true while at the same time refuse to apply it to yourself. The corollary: you can have one set of standards for the world and another set for yourself.

Christmas is a lot of work.

Pancetta improves any dish.

Everyone can do something important.

The capacity for human beings to be collectively horrible or collectively wonderful to others never ceases to astonish me.

I want my kids to grow up with empathetic hearts and the will to do something about it.

Cooking is my way of creating. Kitchen therapy calms me.

Books are my trophies.

I learn so much from reading, even–or especially–fiction.

I can’t turn off my brain.

Black Friday

I hate Black Friday. Aside from my aversion to maniacal crowds and teeming masses of claustrophobic frenzy, here’s why: it’s just bad marketing.

Actually, I don’t see the marketing at all; what I see is simply a race to the bottom. In order to entice people into their stores–Pick me! Pick me!–retailers compete to offer the best deals (read: lowest prices) and the craziest shopping hours. Their argument for deep discounts is that once people come inside the store, they’ll buy other, more profitable, things too. Maybe so, but could we really just be robbing Peter to pay Paul? If people couldn’t shove their way through the doors at zero-dark-thirty, wouldn’t they just come another time? I mean, people still have lists to fill, regardless of what day they choose to shop, right?

Anyway, I digress. My theme is really the lack of creativity in the Black Friday marketing scheme. Every retailer follows the same path: low prices, long hours. Where’s the creative genius in that? It reminds me of Hollywood’s current cinematic output; I haven’t seen an original plot for years. Theaters are filled with sequels, remakes, books-made-into-movies, old-time comic heroes. Seriously, whatever happened to generating interest through new and different content?

Forget the gimmicks, I want to be drawn in because someone has something to offer that I can’t get anywhere else. Or presents it in a way that I find irresistible. Or with a level of service that I won’t forgo for a lower price anywhere.

A former boss and mentor taught me two things. First, there will always be someone with a lower price. Second, once you cut the price, it becomes nearly impossible to raise it back to its “normal” level. He also taught me that our products were worth something; they carried a lot of value. The key to success was being able to communicate why they were worth something in a way that made sense to our customers. Anyone can lower a price. Not everyone knows how to communicate, to market.

As a consumer, I definitely appreciate good bargains. I haven’t found one yet, though, that compels me to stay up all night, brave hordes of frenzied shoppers, and wait in long lines. My time and comfort are worth more than a few dollars off. Give me a reason–a real reason–and then I might venture out.

It just takes time

I’ve struggled a lot lately with how to effectively promote online content. This blog aside (except that I sometimes use it as an experimental proving ground for the work stuff), the online toolbox of resources for my industry just isn’t getting much attention. And as part of my 9-5 job, I can’t just put it out there and hope for the best. Time has proven that an if-you-write-it-they-will-come strategy is more effective in someone else’s field of dreams.

The way I see it, I have a couple of big hurdles to overcome. First, there’s just so much content out there that it’s hard for anyone–especially novice users of the medium–to get to the really good stuff. (I define really good stuff, by the way, as the information that is relevant. What’s good for me, for example, may not be good for you.) Second, my industry boasts a lot of so-called novice users; whether they’re slow adopters of electronic technology or they just don’t have time because they’re in the field all day, these guys don’t spend a lot of time on the computer. Don’t get me wrong, I know some really savvy users in this business, but most of these guys spend their time operating complicated drill rigs and keeping people in water, not surfing the internet.

It would be easy to just give up, but I can’t. The industry won’t always be this way, and I can already see shifts in the demographic of the audience, slowly but surely. Besides that, we’re putting out a lot of good stuff that can really help. I know it can help, because we’re answering questions people ask at trade shows, on our hotline, on customer visits. We’re not just making this stuff up.

So back to the issue at hand: how to get people to read. I think it comes down to these things which, when I think about them, really just represent sound marketing principles, regardless of whether the medium is electronic or traditional.

  1. Make it worthwhile. If the content doesn’t live up to the hype, people won’t come back.
  2. Put it someplace where the right people–your desired audience–will see it. Actually, put it in LOTS of places where your audience will see it.
  3. Get your own people to talk about it. This works best if they can use it as a resource of their own.
  4. Get your customers (and theirs) to talk about it. (To do this, you have to nail #1.)
  5. Keep at it. Sometimes it takes awhile.

Ultimately, if the content is good, the real issue is making sure people know that it exists and where to find it. Tell them, over and over. It usually takes several “hits” to make it stick. The hardest part is not giving up. When other people start talking about it, you’ll know you’re on your way.

Okay, self-directed pep talk over. I’ve got some promotion to do.

Bird is the word

It’s Thanksgiving today, my favorite holiday. It brings all of the best aspects of celebration–gatherings of family and friends, good food lovingly prepared, reflection on the present, reminiscence of times past, talking, laughter–without the pressure of gift-giving, commercialism, and who-can-outdo-whom expectations. I love everything about this day. I love the preparation, the anticipation, and even the tired cleaning up. I hope you’re spending this day with people you love; if you’re not, there’s always room at my table.

Happy Thanksgiving.