The tin man

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about mentoring. I used to think it was simply about modeling certain behaviors, but I’ve learned along the way that there is a lot more to it than that. In fact, a big part of mentoring happens before the guiding, directing, and modeling actually start. Selecting the right people makes a huge difference, even to the point that it really should be considered part of the mentoring process.

Simply put, some people have it and some people don’t.

I’m not saying that there are people who are not worth the time and training. Not at all. What I am saying is that not everyone is suited for every role. You see, developing people isn’t about making them into something they’re not. It’s about identifying their natural abilities and building those into real strengths, improving and refining them. It’s like the line from the song Tin Man by America:

Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man
That he didn’t, didn’t already have.

If you want to develop talent in your workforce, in your organization, or even within your children, you need to spend a lot of time getting to know where their strengths lie. Really, it comes down to getting to know them. Only then can you help them reach their potential, and isn’t that what mentoring is all about?

You can’t make something from nothing.

Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’
You gotta have somethin’
If you wanna be with me
(Billy Preston, Nothing from Nothing)

Data mining

When this email landed in my inbox, it piqued my interest. My days at Custom Mattress were long ago and relatively short-lived–spanning my first four post-college years. The company closed its doors a couple of years after my departure, and I haven’t crossed paths with anyone from that phase of my life for years. Naturally, I was curious. Who could be orchestrating that blast from my past?

When I opened the email to investigate, It took about 1.67 seconds to realize that I had been played. The sender had simply mined information from my LinkedIn profile and used it to, ahem, reach out to me in a pseudo-personal way. Into the electronic recycle bin it went.

That should have been the end of the story, but I received several additional emails to follow up. (Apparently I need to update my spam filter.) Finally, I received a phone call to follow up on the emails. The woman on the other end of the phone sounded quite chipper and was eager to connect with me. Unfortunately for her, my mild annoyance had morphed into outright hostility at her deviance. I let her know that I thought she had gone too far–in no uncertain terms.

I’m a marketer. I understand the importance of making connections and the value of data mining. The one key element that people most often miss, however, is sincerity. Insinuating a connection that isn’t genuine leaves people feeling duped, and the effort falls flat. If you don’t have a real connection to me, don’t fake it. You’ll get much further by being up-front and honest.

Enough said.

Shell shocker

At 8:30 on a recent Sunday night, my son and I deposited several bags of outgrown clothes and toys in a local Goodwill bin.

Back at home at 8:45, I received an email from my son (who was upstairs) with a link to a promotional video for one of the toys he had just donated. This single line of his email said, I miss him.

By 8:50, I had confirmation from Amazon.com that my newly purchased replacement toy would ship shortly. Yes, I had purchased the same toy for a second time, and I don’t regret it one bit.

As with all the toys he donated, Jake had given up his Shell Shocker willingly and without any prompting from me. In fact, I didn’t even know he had included that particular toy until we were on our way home from the Goodwill drop. And while you might argue that it would have made a great life lesson for Jake to have had to live with his decision, I think I taught him an even better lesson: that he is important to me.

My surprise move gave me a tangible way to show him that I care about his feelings. I can tell him I love him all day long, but actions speak louder than words. This time those actions happened to involve a monetary transaction, but that doesn’t have to–and shouldn’t–always be the case. The point is that it’s the unexpected, go-out-of-your-way activities that really drive home to someone that he’s important.

I could have let him chew on his sadness. In fact, he probably would have gotten over it by the next morning. Eventually he would have been proud of himself, and later he would have forgotten his donation altogether. That would have been an okay outcome, too.

On the other hand, he will long remember that I was concerned about his feelings. That he is important enough to me that I did something seemingly irrational on his behalf. That I care. To me, that is a far greater lesson.

Be flexible and be ready. Don’t miss an opportunity when it presents itself, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense.

Word nerd

Words matter. I’ve written about phrases that make a difference to me, such as I’m sorry and you’re welcome. Imagine how my fancy was tickled when I stumbled across someone else’s interpretation of another meaningful phrase: well-deserved.

In a post earlier this week, Seth Godin, one of my favorite marketing gurus, wrote:

“Well deserved” This is one of the nicest things you can say to someone who just got good news.

I love it.

Seth is right. Congratulations doesn’t distinguish luck from intent, happy accidents from hard work. On the other hand, well deserved (or well done or nice work) says to the recipient, “You’ve earned this, and I recognize that.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with telling someone congratulations, nothing at all. If someone says it to me, I’ll take it with a thanks and a grin, and I’ll add it to my mental celebration compartment. I know I won’t stop saying it to others.

When I really want to note an accomplishment, though, from now on I’m going to reach for well deserved. There’s just so much more meaning packed into those deliberately chosen words. At least I think so.

Here’s the question: do you think anyone will notice? Or am I being too esoteric?

Comments, please.

It’s always personal

After I wrote yesterday’s post, I couldn’t stop thinking about how sometimes the smallest actions have the most significant effect on the customer service experience. As I ran through different experiences in my head, I realized they shared a common theme: at our very core, we simply want to be acknowledged.

Consider these examples.

  • Years ago, I decided to trade my car and buy a new one. I took my then-boyfriend along for moral support and set about visiting car dealerships in search of the perfect vehicle. Unfortunately, the salesman at the place that interested me most wouldn’t talk to me. He addressed every question to my BF, even though I was the person with the checkbook. When he called later to follow up, he couldn’t remember my name. Guess who didn’t get my business.
  • Fast forward more than twenty years to another car buying experience. This time, my dad was with me—not because I needed moral support or advice, but because I needed a ride. The salesman did all right, but his sidekick in the finance department tried to direct his conversation to my male counterpart. In this case, however, my dad quickly set him straight in no uncertain terms. The experience took a turn for the better when I had the finance guy’s undivided attention.
  • Last weekend, I talked to a colleague who had recently purchased a new vehicle. When asked why he had chosen that particular make and model, he replied that it had all come down to the salesman. He had visited several dealerships, and only one salesman had remembered his name. Not surprisingly, that guy had also been able to answer all of his questions, but the name thing stuck with him more than anything. My colleague went with the guy who made him feel that he (his business) was important.

Although these examples all revolve around car buying, I can think of many more across all walks of life. Regardless of the scenario, they all boil down to one thing: the customer wants to feel important. Look at me. Listen to me. Acknowledge me. Recognize me. Remember my name. It may be a business transaction, but there are people involved. And whenever people are involved, it’s personal.

Just one look

No, this isn't our Food Lion!It would have taken just a look. One look. A meeting of the eyes, a flicker of understanding, a slight nod of the head. Recognition, acknowledgement of our presence.

Instead, we got nothing. The woman at the cash register continued her determined activity with pointed indifference to the growing line. Her focus on the task at hand was so concentrated, so deliberate, that in the fifteen minutes we waited without any discernible progress, her studious ignoring of our presence seemed intentional. In that amount of time, our eyes should have met at least once, even if only by chance.

We felt shut out.

This scenario played out a couple of weeks ago, when a colleague and I found ourselves in a Food Lion several states from home, buying supplies for a job site film shoot. We unloaded our cart onto the conveyor band behind a woman whose pile of provisions didn’t look too intimidating. Unfortunately, the transaction took a complicated posture when we realized the clerk was shuffling a handful of vouchers, counting items, adding totals, making cryptic pen marks, and reshuffling the papers in her hand. Initially, we weren’t fazed; we had a little time, and this kind of thing is a normal grocery store event.

Unfortunately, time seemed to stop. Nothing on the band moved. As clerk shuffled and reshuffled, the bags of ice we had placed on the conveyor belt slowly started to melt. Five minutes passed, then ten. My colleague and I shifted from foot to foot, starting to get nervous about our return to the job site. After fifteen minutes, another clerk took pity on us and invited us to his newly opened station, four lanes over. We piled everything back into the cart and made the move. By the time we left the store, the woman in our original lane was just wrapping up.

Frustrated as we felt, the problem wasn’t the wait. Anyone who has ever visited a grocery store knows that this stuff happens. The problem was how the clerk handled it. Never once did she look at us or let us know that SHE knew we were there. She never acknowledged our presence or our wait, never offered a sympathetic smile, never made a connection. Instead, she put up an invisible barrier and locked us out of her world.

I figure she was flustered by the transaction and that the growing line was overwhelming for her. She imagined the rising discontent and shrank away. Sadly, she could have diffused much of the frustration by simply recognizing it. She could have looked us in the eye and nodded, or said Good afternoon. I’ll be with you just as soon as I can. We would have understood, perhaps even found a sort of limited solidarity. Instead, when we finally walked away from her line, we left feeling frustrated and unimportant.

Just one look. That’s all it would have taken.

Sometimes, customer service is as simple as that.

Playing chicken

Years ago when I lived in Germany, my mom came to visit me for a couple of weeks. In an effort to expand her horizons and feed my wanderlust, we ended up in Belgium for a few days. (How that happened is a whole other story.) After luxuriating in the hotel bath followed by a jaunt around the Grand-Place in Brussels, we decided it was time for dinner. We ducked onto a side street and began to evaluate restaurant storefronts as we cruised along with other pedestrians.

Mind you, since neither of us spoke French or Flemish, “evaluating” meant assessing the looks of each place, not reading the menu.

About halfway down the street, a couple of employees standing in the doorway of a reasonable looking restaurant started a conversation with us. After they realized we couldn’t speak French, they continued their entreaties in broken English. “Come in to our place. Is good! You like seafood? We have the best!”

Even though I love seafood, my mother doesn’t, and she expressed this to our eager new friends. “No. No fish! I don’t like fish,” she said, throwing in a dramatic shake of her head for good measure.

“No problem!” said one. “You like rooster? We have rooster!”

Thinking we had found a solution for both of our palates, my mom and I let them lead us to a table inside. We ordered, talked, observed the other patrons, and talked some more. In short order, our food was presented: the fish I had ordered, and raw oysters for my mother.

My mom sat in stunned silence as I tried to contain my snickering. I don’t think there is anything she likes less than raw oysters. I could practically see her fighting back the gag reflex as she looked at her plate.

In a rare moment of good daughter-dom, I recalled the waiter and tried to explain our plight. With some creative language and a bit of arm flapping, we finally made him understand that my mom wanted chicken. After a moment of consternation, he told us it was no problem.

As we resumed our conversation, I noticed another restaurant employee speed out the front door. Ten minutes later he was back, and three minutes after that our waiter placed a steaming plate of chicken in front of my mom. To my utter amazement, I realized that these guys were so eager to satisfy their customer that instead of telling us they didn’t have chicken, they bought it from another restaurant down the street. I don’t remember anything about my own food that evening, but I don’t think I have ever appreciated another meal quite as much.

Words matter, but so do actions.

I apologize for my lengthy silence. My work travels got the better of me, and I should have given my readers a heads-up!