Delivering Great Service? The Journey counts as much as the Destination

A few years ago some colleagues and I were dining at a Parisian restaurant. It had been a long day and we'd picked an establishment close to our hotel. I ordered a seafood dish. The waitress was perfunctory: just doing her job. After a few mouthfuls of gritty crunching between my teeth, it was clear that the food hadn't been properly cleaned.

I called the waitress and mentioned there was sand in my food. Used to living in the US I expected her to apologize, swiftly whisk my plate away, and offer me something else (on the house maybe?). Possibly the chef would come over to proffer his excuses. Did any of this happen? No. Instead the waitress explained in a sarcastic tone: "It comes from ze sea Monsieur, of course it will 'ave sand!" Then she walked away.

This attitude, though extreme in this example, is more prevalent in Europe than the States, esp. in Northern Europe. People in service industries focus on the destination, i.e. the ultimate transaction, such as curbing your hunger, at the expense of the journey. Who cares if there's sand if your food? At least you're no longer hungry, right?

Focusing on the transaction is fine if the service is low value. Fast food joints focus on a cheap, repeatable, consistent experience. Margins are thin enough that there's little room for personalized service, though even here courtesy and a smile can go a long way. As the price of the service rises, how the transaction is delivered, the "journey", is as important as its delivery, the "destination".

This applies online just as much as offline: your site may sell goods cheaper than the competition but if that's not enough if you care about your customers' lifetime value. And if you don't focus on repeat business, you'll be putting yourself at the mercy of search engines and spending more and more on advertising. In fact, unless you're selling commodity items being cheapest probably isn't even the most important criteria.

Ultimately you need your customers to reach the destination, i.e. purchase something. To achieve this you should focus on their journey: understand why people buy from you, what their needs are, how you can differentiate your service, how you can make their shopping experience more enjoyable, informative, and relevant (reviews, videos, testimonials, leveraging the social web, etc.), and deliver great customer support. 

If you can consistently delight your users with a fantastic experience, as well as a good product, your customers will happily reach your destinations over and over and over.

(Picture by James Jordan)

Diseases make you Dumber... and Smarter?

Couple of articles in The Economist caught my eye recently. The first on the effects of toxoplasmosis and human behavior, the second on the link between disease and intelligence.

Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite whose lifecycle alternates between rodents and cats. When it infects rats and mice it lodges itself in their brains and causes them to behave in an erratic, risk tolerant, manner. It may even make them attracted to the smell of cats. Once the infected rodent is eaten by a cat, the parasite eventually ends up in its feces, to be ingested by a rat. Repeat ad infinitum...

It turns out toxoplasma has this effect by producing dopamine which then acts on their hosts' nervous systems. What then is its impact on humans? Some studies show a correlation between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia. Others, a higher level of road accidents in infected drivers (there's that increase in risk tolerance again). But "some researchers go further and propose that entire societies are being altered by Toxoplasma".

"In 2006 Kevin Lafferty of the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a paper noting a correlation between levels of neuroticism established by national surveys in various countries and the level of Toxoplasma infection recorded in pregnant women (a group who are tested routinely). The places he looked at ranged from phlegmatic Britain, with a neuroticism score of -0.8 and a Toxoplasma  infection rate of 6.6%, to hot-blooded France, which scored 1.8 and had an infection rate of 45%. […]

To repeat, correlation is not causation, and a lot more work would need to be done to prove the point. But it is just possible that a parasite’s desire to get eaten by a cat is shaping the cultures of the world."

The second article reviews a study comparing national IQ and a country's disease burden, i.e. the "disability-adjusted life years lost caused by 28 infectious diseases". They found a 67% correlation between the two and though they tried to find other causes, they kept coming back to the impact of disease on IQ.

The article is worth reading in its entirety. As with the case of toxoplasmosis, correlation is not causation, but if true, it's a key finding.

"If [the researchers] are right, it suggests that the control of such diseases is crucial to a country’s development in a way that had not been appreciated before. Places that harbour a lot of parasites and pathogens not only suffer the debilitating effects of disease on their workforces, but also have their human capital eroded, child by child, from birth."

So if we have evidence of diseases' deleterious effect on humans, couldn't other diseases make you smarter, stronger, or healthier? Wouldn't this give them a better chance at long term survival? 

In May of this year, scientists presented evidence of just such a effect: a bacteria linked to increases in learning behavior.

The researchers found that that mice fed live Mycobacterium vaccae "navigated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors as control mice" and speculated that "that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks."

All this makes me wonder how prevalent such effects are in our lives. Could it be that these little symbionts have shaped our evolution unbeknownst to us? And how would we know?

Here's one way: let's see if our collective IQ decreases as we all use increasing amounts of anti-bacterial soap! :-)

Useful innovation framework: 7 Levels of Change

In April I attended a seminar given by Rolf Smith, innovation guru and author of the 7 Levels of Change. We covered a lot of ground in a single day but the part that resonated most for me was the one that focused on those seven levels.

(Yes, he spelled "Diffferently" that way on purpose!)

The seven levels describe the various stages you go through as you walk up the "innovation" ladder. Here's Rolf with the list.

Here's how his model works:
  1. Do the right things: Rolf defines innovation to include implementation so level 1 focuses on clarifying what key tasks to carry out
  2. Do things right: Next up is basic execution. Block and tackle
  3. Do things better: Now we're up to continuous improvement
  4. Do away with things: This is the pivotal level. Once you reach this point, you're likely saturated. All your time is allocated to carrying out those tasks and trying to get better at them. If you want to keep progressing, you need to make time. This means applying Pareto to focus on the 20% of tasks that generate 80% of the value and ruthlessly cutting out the rest. This gives you time back to explore higher levels
  5. Do things other people are doing: Look around you for great ideas and copy, extend, and incorporate them
  6. Do things no one else is doing: Here you're truly creating something new, or "diffferent" as Rolf would put it
  7. Do things that can't be done: Do the impossible! Break the mold!

While it seems simple at first blush, I've shared the model with co-workers and it's given us a very useful vocabulary around key areas of focus:
  • "We're spending all our time at level 3 here"
  • "I don't think we're past level 1 for this project, we really need to understand it better"
  • "Yup, that's level 6 alright, now... how do we do it?"

You can apply this model to individuals, teams, and even corporations. Some people are more convergent, i.e. execution/solution focused, and they tend to inhabit levels 1 to 3. Others are divergent, i.e. creative / idea generators, and they like to live at levels 5 to 7. What about you?

I've come to think of this model as more of a seesaw with levels 1-3 on one side, 4 at the pivot point, and 5-7 on the other side. While individuals may favor one side or another, really successful organizations are able, in fact need, to balance both.

(Execution or idea heavy? :-) Source)

For example:
  • I'd peg Apple as a level 6-7 company but they wouldn't be successful without their excellent ability to execute on those ideas
  • Microsoft? Mostly level 3 I think though parts are level 5 (e.g. Windows 7 Phone), and level 6 (e.g. Project Natal / Kinect for Xbox 360). The famous quip of it taking Microsoft three releases to get a product right may be due to moving from level 1 to 3 :-)
  • Google? Again it varies by team but a good deal of levels 5, 6, and even 7 once in a while
  • Dell, HP, Lenovo? Solid at levels 2 to 3, some level 5 happening
  • Toyota? The Prius was a huge level 6 success but given recent quality problems it seems they neglected levels 2 and 3
  • GE? Pioneers of level 3 6-sigma but innovation is far down the list when you think of this company

How can you use these levels? Here are some ideas:
  • Reflect on your own natural level. Are you operating at the right level to solve the problems you're working on?
  • Dip into level 4 and change / replace / eliminate some of your habits, esp. the most ingrained ones. Does this free you up to move up or down the levels?
  • Next time you're brainstorming, ask people for ideas at each level to force them to think across the change spectrum

Rolf's book is full of tools and ideas of how to get the most out of each level.
His site also offers a fuller explanation of the levels.

In Our Time

In Our Time is an excellent weekly radio program from the BBC. The really cool aspect is that the beeb is making it available as a podcast (here's the RSS feed).

The host invites well known scientists, philosophers, historians, etc. to debate and discuss a central question or theme. Recently we've had topics such as prime numbers, Geoffrey Chaucer, human evolution, and Catherine the Great. Fascinating stuff.

Warning: only the latest podcast is available, and then only for seven days. So make sure you run your podcast client regularly!

China rules

I was on Alexa today and looked at their top sites, i.e. the most traffic'ed sites on the net. In the top 10, four sites were Chinese and one Japanese. Very impressive. Obviously internet growth mirrors economic growth.

When I was in China a year ago I was impressed by the amount of construction going on. Huge cranes congregate in large numbers in cities. Four to eight lane roads run through the countryside with comparitively little traffic, awaiting the future onrush of cars (parking lots are for some reason still way too small though). We were even overtaken by a Lamborghini one day!

I expect most websites will have a "Made in China" logo in their footers before long :-)