Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Raisin box psychotherapy

My raisins are talking to me.

No, don’t break out the butterfly nets quite yet. What I mean by this is that every morning, I open a box of Sun-Maid raisins and pour them into my oatmeal (click here for the culinary details), and it took me a while to realize that the flap of each box contained some amazingly germane advice to guide my day. In time I have come to realize that many of the lessons I have learned in life, and much of what I am currently learning doing graduate work in psychotherapy, is actually waiting for me every morning at the breakfast table.

Some of this advice mirrors what I heard growing up from my parents, including nuggets like “Do your homework first, play later” and “Work hard. Play fair. Sleep well.” Other tips speak to my nobler instincts, like “Help a friend” and “Keep your hands open, both to receive and to give.” And some of it is understandably raisin-centric, such as “A handful of raisins is like a bunch of smiles in your mouth.”

Drilling deeper into the human psyche, much of this advice actually tracks current trends in psychology, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (“Give it a try”), behavioral modeling (“Study those you admire”), family therapy (“Ups and downs are part of all relationships”), and even bibliotherapy (“Support your local library – take a book to lunch”). And occasionally there is a dollop of pure philosophy (“Both our buddies and our enemies can teach us about life”).

My wife, on the other hand, is a chocoholic who prefers the advice printed on the inside of Dove chocolate candies. The Dove sages are a little less Calvinistic than their raisin counterparts, tending toward advice such as “Give yourself a treat,” “You look good in red,” and “You deserve a bubbebath” – not to mention some occasional advice I would rather she didn’t follow, like “Wink at someone driving past today.” But while the Dove folks certainly get high marks in the feel-good department, I still prefer the raisin d’etre that greets me every morning.

So when I graduate and become licensed as a therapist, I think a career path is starting to emerge: I think I want to become a psychologist for the Sun-Maid raisin company. Do you think they could use another advice-giver on their staff?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A great honor

I was delighted to hear today that What to Say to a Porcupine is one of four finalists for 800-CEO-READ's 2008 business book awards, in the business fables category. Here is a link to the announcement:

It is a great honor to be in the running for this award, given the caliber of the other finalists - the 13-category field includes people like Richard Branson, Guy Kawasaki, and Ram Charan, and my own category's finalists include bestselling author Daniel Pink as well as a delightful new fable Squawk! that I happen to be reading as we speak.

It is also an honor to be singled out by 800-CEO-READ, which in addition to being a leading on-line seller of business books, has a delightful blog that shows their love of the genre. (This summer they published a very nice review of Porcupine here.) It's nice to read the thoughts of people who really appreciate good books and their power to change lives, while having a good sense of humor in the process.

The awards will be announced December 15th. Keep your fingers crossed!

* * *

An update: I didn't win. The top honors went this year to New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink for his new book The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need, an imaginative Manga-fable turned business advice book. I think the judges made a good pick - congrats Daniel, and I was delighted to be one of the finalists.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dr. Ron Davis, 1956-2008

The world just lost a truly incredible person this past month. Dr. Ron Davis, a lifelong public health crusader who was most recently president of the American Medical Association, lost a very courageous and public battle with pancreatic cancer at the young age of 52.

I first “met” Ron as part of a teleconference discussing a National Cancer Institute monograph that I was working on as a science writer, a publication series that he was once editor of, and was struck immediately by how high his standards were. Not knowing him beyond this phone call at first, I imagined him as a demanding perfectionist. Later, meeting and working with him in person for several days in Chicago (he is the tall man in the blue shirt on the left), I discovered these high standards were combined with a warm and accessible man who was described accurately by his colleagues as “the nicest person in the world.”

During that meeting last year, he shared with us that he had just been elected president of AMA, and while he probably had the smallest personal ego of any person ever to hold that office, his pride was unmistakable. He clearly relished the opportunity to have a soapbox for the next year as an advocate for the nation’s health, and used it skillfully.

For those of you who don’t know Dr. Davis’s legacy, he was one of the world’s foremost experts on tobacco control, who founded its main professional journal of the same name, and played a key role in public health interventions that have saved tens of millions of premature deaths. As AMA’s president, it was Dr. Davis who delivered their formal apology to black physicians for their past exclusion, tirelessly advocated for better public health (at one point delivering an hour-long lecture from on a treadmill), and set the medical industry further on a path toward universal health care coverage.

On a personal level, it was a treat to listen to someone with Ron’s rare blend of expertise and humility, and I cherished the opportunity. For example, one night at dinner at a Chicago bistro, I started having trouble breathing after eating my appetizer – an issue that would later be diagnosed as food allergies – and started to panic. I soon recovered my bearings again without anyone being the wiser, but remembered my only thought being, “Oh no – I am having a medical crisis and I am sitting next to the president of AMA. What do I do now?” But above all, it was a pleasure working with a truly great man.

Perhaps his greatest final act was making us all part of his illness and its lessons. He shared a very detailed summary of his treatment with friends and colleagues on a blog, encouraged people at risk to have genetic testing for this illness, and kept up a full schedule of speaking and publishing. As his illness advanced, he appeared before the AMA for one speech – now bald from chemotherapy – and spoke in a calm, clear voice that “Our existence, compared with the history of the earth, is quite fleeting. So whether we are ill or well, we should not waste any of that time before figuring out how to leave our mark on this planet.”

Just two weeks before his passing, he still tried to chair a medical conference in his native Detroit, and when the gravity of his condition prevented it, he dictated a message to his colleagues that read in part, “Some of you remember me as a young medical student just beginning my journey. That energetic medical student committed to public health is still a part of me ... You have designated me as a leader, but I tell you honestly that in many ways you have led me. Your concerns and your friendship have guided me through the years. Now I must complete my “circle of life” and go with God.” Vaya con Dios, Dr. Davis.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hello Asia!

Just a quick note - I was very pleased to get word this weekend that What to Say to a Porcupine is going to be published in a Korean edition in 2009 through CREDU, an educational division of the Samsung Group.

My books have been published in six languages so far, but this one means a lot to me. Even as an English-language book it has been very popular in Asia so far - for example, this week it is one of the top 15 business humor books in Japan on Amazon, as well as #21 on the customer service chart - and globally, it has been a top 10 business humor book throughout the English-speaking world.

So I'd like to say hwan-yŏng-ham-ni-da (a special welcome) to all of my new friends in Korea! And, of course, looking forward to teaching you all what to say to a porcupine.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

We're number two!

Last week was very special for me – my latest book What to Say to a Porcupine became the number 2 selling customer service book in the United States on, as well as one of the top 10 business humor books worldwide, following a record-setting webcast sponsored by and Parature Software that drew nearly 500 people! Thanks to everyone who attended and purchased the book.

Now I’d like to return the favor by making the same offer we made to people who attended my webcast last week: purchase a copy of What to Say to a Porcupine on (click here to order), and receive a complimentary mini-course that will help you use this book as a training tool in your organization.

Featuring student and leaders guides, a PowerPoint presentation, and an electronic copy of one of the book’s fables, you will have all you need to turn your next team meeting into a fun and productive learning event. To get your free copy, simply forward your receipt to

P.S. If you missed the webcast, tune in anytime to the archived presentation at Enjoy!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Whipped Cream Diet

What does going on a diet have to do with communications skills? Bear with me for a moment, and I'll explain.

Earlier this summer I decided to go on a diet, with a goal of losing 25 pounds and getting back to my high school weight. I am now halfway there, as the before-and-after pics below show. But how I got there struck me as having a lot in common with how we communicate in difficult situations.

You see, most diets involve depriving yourself. Instead of having burgers and fries, you eat things like carrot sticks, skim milk, and thin gruel. And then after a week or a month of this kind of dietary torture, you go off the wagon and balloon back to your previous weight. This is what happened to me last year when I tried a commercial diet plan, I did great as long as I followed the plan, except that I stopped following the plan.

So this year I am doing things a little differently. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, so I am having the most scrumptious breakfast I could imagine – hot oatmeal with milk, raisins, and a big dollop of whipped cream. Yum! Most people don't realize that a big spoonful of whipped cream is only about 40 calories, or about as many calories as I spend scratching my nose.

That yummy breakfast leaves me feeling full, and more than happy to have big salads and small portions the rest of the day. Best of all, I don't feel deprived at all. To the contrary, I feel like I am eating better and enjoying my food more than ever before. Which leads me to how we communicate with people.

When we aren't happy about something, we usually lead with the verbal equivalent of the carrot sticks. We take corrective action, hold people accountable, tell people to get with the program, yada, yada, yada. And we usually get about as far as I did last year on my diet. Because – surprise – no one lays awake at night rapturously pondering your "corrective action."

I say break out the whipped cream. Find out what motivates the other person and help them get there. So when someone is coming in late too often, for example, put it in the context of how they can develop as a leader, not how they can avoid getting written up for disciplinary action. When you use a strength-based approach built around incentives, I find that people's resistance to change melts away as fast as my pounds do.

Think critically about all of the people you have ever worked with who had behavioral issues on the job. Did any of them ever change in the long term because of pressure and disciplinary action? I don't know about you, but in my quarter-century-plus career, those few people who really turned it around did so as a result of someone believing in them, and getting them to believe in themselves. Everyone else - the ones who were simply "held accountable" – either stayed the same or got canned eventually.

My next book for AMACOM, entitled How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work, explores the mechanics of this approach in detail, along with its roots in the growing field of strength-based psychology. If you'd like to be part of my advance team as a potential reviewer, drop me a line at info –at- This is going to be a very exciting book release.

So with a dozen or so pounds to go, I'm stocking up on more whipped cream. Now, what do you plan to say to someone the next time you want them to improve?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Using Storytelling to Supercharge Your Customer Service Training

Think back to when you were nine years old, and your mother told you to behave better. Did you listen with rapt attention? Did you run off full of enthusiasm to improve yourself? Perhaps most important, did you actually change your behavior?

The reason that you answered "no" to all of these questions holds the key for how to breathe new life into your customer service training. When you stop telling people how to behave and start stirring their creative juices instead, there is no limit on how far they will lead you.

Most of us immediately get defensive and self protective when someone tells *us* to improve – no matter how quote-unquote correct the other person is – because this is a basic survival instinct we all share. But when we hear a story about someone else's foibles, we listen and learn from it. This is because of a well-known principle of behavioral psychology known as "modeling," which holds that we primarily learn by observing other people.

This principle lies at the root of how we started telling stories. Over 2500 years ago, Aesop's fables were created to teach people life lessons, in the form of funny stories about animals and people. A generation ago, Popeye cartoons helped children to want to eat their spinach. And today, approaches such as narrative psychotherapy help people examine their own life stories and make positive changes.

So how does this apply to your own customer contact team? Simple. Stop telling them what to do better, and get them to work scripting stories about how other people handle customer situations. You'll be amazed at how much energy and creativity they will have in doing something all of us do extremely well: stick our nose in other people's problems and try to solve them.

Nowadays, when I teach a customer skills course, I often follow a three-step process. I share a humorous fable about a customer situation, teach some of the skills that these characters could use to make the situation better, and then turn everyone loose to complete stories of their own. Here are some examples:

1) Once upon a time, there was a fire-breathing dragon who was rude, demanding, and angry– and if anyone ever dared to stand up to him, tongues of fire would shoot from his mouth! But this dragon was also very sad and lonely. No one ever wanted to talk with a fire-breathing dragon, and people would cower behind their desks and counters whenever he came in to buy anything. So one day, you came to the village and said, "I have a great idea for how to deal with this dragon in the future! My idea is ______________"

2) You and your business partners have just pooled your life savings to create your dream job: starting a new garbage dump. But not just any garbage dump. Your goal is to give people the very best garbage dump service experience possible! What can you do to create an excellent service experience for people dumping their garbage?

3) Take the worst customer experience you have ever had. Turn the person who waited on you into a fictional character, and then write your own fable about how this character learned to do things better. Have fun!

This last exercise is particularly important, because no one wants to hear about improving their own attitude or courtesy, but when they start examining bad experiences from the other side of the counter – and put their problem-solving skills to work – a valuable learning moment takes place. So try using stories yourself to put the creativity of your own team front and center in your training. Soon you will find that story time isn't just for grade school anymore, and more important, you will watch your performance soar.

Friday, August 15, 2008

What to Say to a Porcupine: A global hit!

It has now been a little over a month since the release of What to Say to a Porcupine, particularly in overseas markets, and I am proud to report that this week it reached the top 10 on Amazon's business humor list in the United Kingdom. This combines with a top 20 showing on the US business humor list, and rave reviews from thought leaders in industry.

For example, the influential Peppers and Rogers Group recently noted on their blog that "With a fairly high chuckles-to-learning ratio, Porcupine is easily one of the more charming business books out there at the moment," and 1-800-CEO-READ declared that "This book is great for any company that needs a little kick-start or even a reminder of how customer service should be like. It's thought-provoking in a very interesting way! I hope when you get a copy - or even copies for your whole staff - you'll enjoy it!"

Also, this week marked the first live training program for What to Say to a Porcupine, and it garnered rave reviews from everyone who attended. Here are just a few of the comments:

"I've attended and taught customer service techniques in many settings, and Rich is a vast recourse with fresh, genuine information! Let's do this program over and over - what a great avenue down the path of success!"

"Acknowledging, validating, and paraphrasing customers' feelings are my new goals and mantra"

"Rich Gallagher is an excellent facilitator, and the workshop was fun and enlightening."

"I would recommend this workshop to anyone who is a customer service representative."

This book - and training program - was designed from the ground up to dramatically change your team's customer skills, using the latest principles of human communications, in the most fun and enjoyable way possible. In the near future, a companion training kit (see the postcard above) will be released and promoted nationwide. And of course, I am delighted to come speak and train for your team - and guarantee you will never look at prickly customers the same way again!

To nibble a nosh for free, visit for a downloadable sample chapter, and stay tuned for a free mini-course in the very near future. Enjoy!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thoughts on the Beijing Olympics

It has been fascinating to watch this year's Beijing Olympics so far - not only the games themselves, but the spectacular opening ceremony and the media run-up about what it is like in modern China today.

Whatever you may think about China politically, it will always have a warm spot personally in both my heart and my family's history. Not long after China first took its first tentative steps toward the West with ping-pong diplomacy and Richard Nixon's visit over a quarter century ago, my late father was part of one of the first US scientific delegations to China, and soon afterward I took a sabbatic from my software job to teach at a Chinese university as part of World Bank development project.

As someone who grew up during the Cold War hearing about the evils of Communism, I went behind the Iron Curtain with a mix of excitement and trepidation - after all, this was a country that sent many academics off to forced labor during the Cultural Revolution, and still denounced my homeland as a bunch of imperialists - and the trepidation part didn't get any better my first morning in Beijing (Peking back then), flinging back the drapes of my hotel room and seeing a massive sea of people in identical "Mao suits" commuting to work on their bicycles.

At the same time, it was tremendously exciting to be part of what I felt was a wave of history. To go in the first place, we had to undergo a lengthy approval process from both governments and study State Department briefing materials. And to stay there, particularly as a visiting professor, I had to show a great deal of respect for a country that was very different from our own. Except for the occasional faint BBC broadcast on my shortwave radio, it was an immersion in a totally different culture.

This trip was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and it reaffirmed the obvious but often unappreciated fact that people are people everywhere. Our hosts could not have been more gracious, people came up to us frequently to get to know us and practice their English (even at times grasping at my clothes to see what I wore), and we could not step on a bus without every Chinese soldier jumping to his feet and insisting that Colleen take his seat. Most important, I got to know a great many Chinese as warm, welcoming people who cared about us at a personal level.

My sabbatic was a flurry of lectures, meetings, impromptu tourism, and a different way of life. For example, we were packed off in tour vans every Wednesday because power was shut off at the university, our laundry was laid out to dry on a grass courtyard by old Chinese ladies, and one afternoon I even watched brand new IBM PCs being loaded off a horse-drawn cart. But what I will remember most were the people who treated us like old friends, and were as curious about us as we were about them.

Perhaps my fondest memory was my "Elvis Presley" lecture. Every morning they taped my classes, and played Western elevator music on the cassette recorder beforehand thinking it would make me feel at home. One day I decided to show them what real American music was like, and brought a cassette of Heartbreak Hotel. As I explained the lyrics and the vagaries of American romance gone bad, everyone burst out laughing, particularly as I described Elvis and wiggled my hips to demonstrate.

Afterward they wanted a tape of my music, and I agreed on one condition - that they give me a tape of their favorite music in return. What I got was a tape of the sweetest, most poignant Chinese opera I have ever heard, with the admonition that "whenever you listen to this, to always remember your friends in China." Today this music, and memory, still brings a lump to my throat.

Nowadays as I watch the Olympics, I barely recognize a country that now has five-star hotels, gourmet food, and a growing middle class that drives cars, buys houses, and uses their credit cards like we do. A country that is now one of the largest markets for McDonalds and Buicks. A country whose energy and talents, in my mind, transcend whatever geopolitics are talked about on television. And above all, a country with many people I consider friends. I wish them a great Games.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hiram Bullock 1955-2008

Colleen and I have literally thousands of albums, tapes and iTunes tracks between us, but there are only two artists who are so incredible that I buy nearly every thing they have ever done. One is Tower of Power – see my post here about them – and the other is a guitarist most of you have never heard of, by the name of Hiram Bullock. I just heard the sad news today that Hiram passed away this past week.

Hiram Bullock was, quite simply, the most electrifying jazz guitarist ever to grace the planet. In his early years, his high energy kick-in-the-afterburners guitar solos would practically melt your speakers. Later, his forays into straight jazz, funk, and R&B had an intelligence, texture, and even wit that you rarely find in a solo artist.

I first heard Hiram’s music nearly 20 years ago, on a jazz countdown show, doing a version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” with a piercing guitar solo, a three-foot-thick bass line, and Al Jarreau on vocals. I was hooked instantly, picked up a copy of his album “Give it What U Got,” and proceeded to have it blasting away on my car stereo for months. Later on a business trip to Pittsburgh, I saw him on stage for the first of many times, and never saw so much energy coming out of one guitarist.

What made Hiram what he was, however, wasn’t just raw power but intelligence and complexity. His music was textured with incredibly tasty chord sequences, clever intros and outros, and sidemen who fit him like a glove. Listening to his music was like biting into a seven-layer brownie with lots of treats inside. If he wasn’t a musician – and he noted proudly once on his website that he spent his entire life making his living in music – he probably could have been a rocket scientist for NASA.

So why wasn’t he more famous? Perhaps because he was a mutt. His body of work had enough jazz, funk, rock, and R&B to be part of each of these genres, and yet never be fully one of any of them. He had no lack of credentials, being the barefoot guitarist on the David Letterman show for years, and a respected sideman whose credits were a mile long. But in a world that speaks in hushed, reverent tones about jazz guitar purists like Pat Metheny, and rewards hip-hop artists with multimillion dollar contracts, Hiram’s music was a refreshing oasis that defied both convention and airplay.

None of this mattered to me, of course. I eagerly devoured everything he ever put out – often ordering autographed copies from the source itself – and went to shows that rocked with so much energy that I thought the stage would explode. (And, as you can see above, I even got to meet Hiram and get a picture with him at the Rochester Jazz Festival a few years ago. Some of my other pictures from that show now grace his website.) According to another blog comment, he was apparently still playing - and rocking the house - the week before he died, and I can’t believe he’s gone. Rest in peace, Hiram.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Midlife crisis resolved – for now

Faithful readers of this blog may remember that I wanted to spend my “author” income on a proper midlife crisis, specifically a down payment on a white sports car. My first choice and the car I’ve wanted since childhood, the Ford Mustang, was a no-go because its curvy windshield gives me a headache after about an hour behind the wheel.

Since then I’ve been too busy to think about cars, until now, because the lease on my Honda Accord was coming to an end – and as the drumbeat of end-of-lease letters and even phone calls from Honda were starting to increase dramatically, things were getting to the point where I had to buy *something*, even if it was my old car. So I finally managed to squeeze out from behind my desk with the missus and look at cars last weekend.

My first stop was a BMW dealer, and to my surprise, I wasn’t impressed. Short, hard seats in a heavy car that indeed goes way too fast, for way too many Euros. Then came one just for fun, the Chevy HHR, a car I’ve rented and enjoyed before. Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t want to be driving around in something that looks like a 1940s milk truck for the next five years. We even checked out another same old same old Honda Accord, like I’ve been driving for much of the last two decades, and its great new styling for 2008 unfortunately couldn’t overcome a passenger seat that was a hard as a park bench. (I spend a lot of time in the passenger seat of my own car, writing on my laptop on business trips and weekend jaunts while my sweetie drives.)

So finally, I went to a Volkswagen dealer and tried out the Jetta for the first time in many years, and – wow – it was love at first sight. Slot-car handling, a nice firm ride, supremely comfortable seats, and its SE model is loaded with everything I ever wanted in a car: heated leather seats, sunroof, satellite radio, MP3, ABS, a zillion air bags, and a 10 (!) speaker premium stereo. Its 170 HP engine, based on a Lamborghini design, zips around nicely in traffic. And it is a beautiful white car, just like I imagined.

The one and only twinge in my decision was whether I should upgrade to the turbocharged Wolfsburg edition of the Jetta, giving me near-BMW performance for only a grand or so more. (Remember, this is supposed to be a proper midlife crisis.) Unfortunately, it has a couple of gotchas. First, it requires premium gas, adding a few hundred more a year to my car expenses. Second, and more important, it only comes in dull colors that seriously need more Prozac – grey, black, and silver – as well as a garish fire-engine red. The dealer was kind enough to let me take one home, and looking at it in my driveway, the thought of driving a dull grey car for five years was a showstopper. I’ve already been through the dull grey car phase of my life, thank you.

So now I have my white sports car – sort of. I love it. Now, back to writing.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Customer satisfaction - moving the needle

I wanted you, my friendly blog-readers, to be the first to know about a very special workshop coming this October in Las Vegas for anyone who manages a customer service or support team.

My friends at the Service and Support Professionals Association (SSPA) have invited me to teach a preconference workshop entitled Moving the Needle on Customer Sat Ratings for their 2008 Services Leadership conference. This workshop will explore training, coaching, measurement, and team leadership methodologies that create real, substantial changes in customer satisfaction levels, morale, and turnover for any customer contact operation.

I am particularly excited about this workshop because it gives me a chance to open my entire playbook from a career of dramatically "turning around" the performance of customer contact operations - including helping one firm grow from a startup to a major NASDAQ firm as its director of customer services, and later leading another 24/7 call center operation to near-perfect customer sat levels and near-zero turnover.

Above all, you will learn that high customer sat levels are not just a lofty goal on a mission statement, but a real, achievable process that you can learn and execute with your own team. And today, with higher-than-ever performance and productivity pressures on customer contact centers, these lessons are more timely than ever.

It is also great to be partnering again with my friends at SSPA, the leading professional society for customer service and support managers. Two years ago at their 2006 Services Leadership conference, my presentation Creating Leadership in Every Cubicle was one of its most highly attended and highly-rated sessions, and I fondly remember speaking to a standing-room crowd that cleaned me out of every single book and business card I had.

Finally, if you work with customer contact professionals, this is the networking event of a lifetime. The last time I spoke there, it was a highly senior crowd that read like a "who's who" of support leaders from major organizations. This time, SSPA is joining forces with its sister organizations Technology Professional Services Association (TPSA) and Association For Services Management International (AFSMI), the world's leading field service organization, to create a single blockbuster event for anyone who works with the public.

Best of all, if you attend my workshop (currently scheduled from 8 AM to 2 PM on Monday, October 20), you don't even need to book any extra travel days: the opening session of the conference starts an hour later the same day at 3 PM.

This will be a real-world, high-content workshop that delivers what the title promises: you will come away from this workshop with a practical game plan for making real, substantial changes in your customer satisfaction levels, and leading a customer support team that looks forward to coming to work every morning.

SSPA is still finalizing the speaking program, but I know from past experience that this conference will equip you with the latest best practices in our field, straight from the minds of industry thought leaders. For early bird registration, visit the conference home page online at Hope to see you this fall in Las Vegas!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Mitford Wives

I just had an interesting conversation with my darling wife Colleen.

She just purchased a book called the Mitford Cookbook, a book of recipes inspired by characters in the Mitford series of novels. Neither of us have ever read the novels – apparently heartwarming pastiches of neighborhood life – she just thought it was an interesting comfort-food cookbook on sale.

So I looked through it, turned toward my budding-novelist spouse, and exclaimed, “How cool! Wouldn’t it be great to have your novel characters be so popular that they have their own cookbook? What a great idea to extend your ‘brand’!”

Colleen replied, “Yecch. I would never want my characters to have a cookbook. And the idea of using the word ‘brand’ in conjunction with a piece of literature makes my skin crawl.”

You see, Colleen’s novel is probably never going to about flowers, teddy bears, and domestic bliss like this Mitford series. Her books would be much more likely to examine the dark night of the soul, in characters that seethe with rage and anguish, but never actually talk constructively to one another as years and generations go by. People who, in my view, should be rushed by ambulance to one of my communications skills training programs.

I love being in Colleen’s life, but I would hate being in one of her novels. And the more I think about it, if her characters ever wrote a cookbook, it would be about whatever angry intellectual deconstructionists prepare for their dysfunctional families. And I agree that, in hindsight, they probably wouldn’t make for good stuffed animal tie-ins.

Which brings me to a much deeper point. How much do you appreciate the differences in your own family and workplace relationships? I am a pretty sunny, happy, straightforward, extraverted kind of guy. But I didn’t marry someone just like myself. I married someone whose tastes lean toward late nights, brooding novels, beautiful art, and unsolvable mysteries of life. And that is probably why I am still madly in love after all of these years. She makes my life interesting, and I make hers run smoothly. We ground each other, even if it means that I had better not ask about “branding” the characters in her novel.

So, do you appreciate and cherish the differences around you? And use those differences to learn how to speak to other people? I am still learning, and so should you.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

It's out!

I’ve got to hand it to the folks at my publisher AMACOM Books – they sure know how to get a book out to market. Within the last 48 hours my latest book What to Say to a Porcupine, a delightful business fable collection for people who work with customers, has been released to major bookstores all over the United States.

It is now available in larger Borders and Barnes and Noble stores in the US, and in a few weeks you can also get it worldwide from chains like Chapters and McNally Robinson in Canada, W.H. Smith in the UK, and others. I am particularly proud that McNally Robinson will be doing a special display of the book in their stores, together with fellow AMACOM title In the Land of Difficult People. And of course, you can order it on-line everywhere – click here to get your copy on

Porcupine is a delightful book, a quick read, and one of the fastest and easiest ways to get everyone on your team to learn world-class customer skills. It will also be the linchpin of an exciting new approach to training your team: stay tuned for more details as well as a free downloadable mini-course and sample chapter. And of course I’ll be speaking and doing book signings this summer, and hope to meet many of you in person. More to come soon!

P.S. Update: Would you believe that one *day* after its Amazon release it's already the number 18 book nationally on business humor - beating out Dilbert and Dr. Seuss? I'm really psyched (and I'd better get to work promoting this!)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hug Your Kids Day

We talk a lot about verbal communication here, but today I’d like to make a plug for a much more powerful message between you and your children.

I recently heard from my friend Michelle Nichols, the former Savvy Selling columnist for BusinessWeek, who has now devoted herself full time to creating a national Hug Your Kids Day on July 21. The effort already has a great deal of momentum, with two major outdoor media companies providing billboard space around the country, and a new book coming out in a few weeks.

This is a very personal quest for Nichols, who suddenly and tragically lost her own son to brain cancer before his ninth birthday. Today, she is trying to get working parents all over the country to “carpe kid” (seize your kid) and celebrate the good times and the bad times alike in those irreplaceable moments as your children grow up. Her goal is to have every parent hug their children at least once a day

Hugs are a powerful metaphor for our deepest human relationships, in a world where experts estimate that 93% of our communication is non-verbal. They reaffirm love, caring, and safety in ways that no verbal dialogue could ever accomplish. And they can be life changing moments, for grownups as well as children: I will never forget the day that cute girl I was getting to know put her arm around me and drew me closer, because it turned “just another date” into the start of a relationship I still cherish after decades of marriage.

So go visit Michelle’s website, check out her new book and speaking engagements – and then go hug your kids. OK?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Getting Zinged

I just returned from a business trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I had a chance to visit a legendary icon of customer service: Zingerman's Deli.

If you aren't familiar with Zingerman's, they stand as an example of a small business that has built a national reputation for its business model and service quality. They have written a book about their customer service approach, were featured as the cover story in a major business magazine, and even have a training subsidiary (ZingTrain) that teaches their secrets to other businesses.

So I was expecting a large, gleaming facilty as I drove up and down Detroit Street looking for it - not realizing that I was whizzing right past a small, unassuming corner deli, plus a converted house next door (Zingerman's Next Door) with seating, a gelato stand, and their training operation. You could probably fit the whole complex in my backyard.

But here is the important point: eating at this tiny deli, with its convoluted ordering system (you order your sandwich, go to a back counter to pay, then wait next door with your stamped receipt until they deliver your food), is a *wonderful* experience. If everyone ran their small business like Zingerman's, the world would be a much nicer (and in this case, tastier) place. Here are some of the lessons I learned from my lunch there:

1. Quality matters. Zingerman's is not cheap, particularly by the standards of a college town in Michigan - a small Reuben will set you back almost 11 bucks, nearly twice what I paid in Manhattan last month. But oh my my, what a Reuben. Delicious corned beef that melts in your mouth, with a tasty dressing on fresh grilled rye bread. That's why the place was packed, even in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. When you are the very best at something, people will come in droves with their 11 bucks in hand, myself included.

2. Customer experience matters. Zingerman's prides itself on its service, and you can feel it in the air as soon as you walk in the door. People make eye contact, smile at you, offer you samples, call you by name, and act like they are happy you are there. Simple communications skills that make people's day, one lunch at a time.

You know that I normally see good service as a matter of skills, not "attitude." To me, a place like Zingerman's is a great example of where people are well trained in how to interact with their customers, and that in turn becomes an attitude. When you see it in action, it's magical. Which leads me to my next point:

3) Keeping employees happy matters. Do you know what the single biggest problem most small businesses have is? They don't know how to treat the people who work for them. So you end up with disengaged people who provide "I'm sorry sir, we can't do that" service, hate their jobs, and run their businesses into the ground.

As I was reading an article about Zingerman's on the wall - waiting for their one bathroom to open up - it mentioned one manager who attended one of their training courses, immediately quit his job to come work for them, and said, "I'd be a dishwasher to work at this place." When you have that kind of loyalty and camraderie, it will infect everyone who does business with you.

I came away from my visit to Zingerman's full, happy, and flush with the knowledge that the right quality and service can make any business succeed beyond its wildest dreams - even a tiny corner deli with expensive sandwiches, cramped space, and a single one-person bathroom. I'm already looking forward to my next Reuben there.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Writing: the ultimate communications skill

Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you reading this blog want to become a published author at some point?

Of all the forms of communication that we use, I personally feel that the written word is one of the more important ones. In particular, writing allows you to mold, shape, and edit your thoughts. As a result, the person on the page can be a lot more worldly, interesting, and articulate than even we ourselves are in the present moment.

I also love writing because good books change lives. I can look back on several as turning points in my professional or personal life, and my own love of writing popular business and communications skills books dates back to an even greater love of reading and learning from them. When you become a writer yourself, I feel that you join a very important dialogue in society.

Today, I am no slouch as a non-fiction book author: eight nationally-published books released or coming soon, four book club selections, two books with peak sales ranks in the 2000s, and gross sales of about half a million dollars and counting. As a result of this, I am increasingly finding myself coaching and mentoring other budding writers nowadays.

So what are your chances of getting a nonfiction book published? Probably better than you think.

If you check out resources like Writers Market, you will find some truly daunting statistics – for example, many agents and publishers accept less than 5% of the authors who approach them.

Now, here is the good news. Probably half of the queries and proposals that get sent to publishers are truly awful. They are poorly written, do not fit the publisher’s list, or cannot thoughtfully explain why a few thousand people or more would actually buy their book. Still more are good proposals in areas where there is simply no market.

So if you have a good idea, aimed at the right publishing houses, that is well-written and fits the style and genre of other books in the field, double this 5% and then consider how many agents and publishers might want to see it. If you do the math, I would put your chances at a solid 50-50 or better.

Which brings me to my next point. Becoming a published author is a learned, procedural skill. Do you study the style and format of good books – and lousy ones – to help you develop your own voice? Do you do a competitive analysis of what books are similar to your own ideas, and why yours would be better? Do you think like an editor and consider how large a target audience your project could attract? Do you talk with other authors and study how the profession works? If you do these things, move to the head of the class!

Stay tuned in the near future for an exciting new website and resource center I am planning for people who want to become better – and publishable – non-fiction writers. In the meantime, keep learning and keep writing!

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Neutral Opening

I’m in New York City today for the opening session of the American Management Association’s new Communication Boot Camp, an intensive three day workshop on communications skills, along with a packed house of attendees.

I am really glad to be here for a number of reasons. First, I served as AMA’s subject matter expert for this program, and helped develop the course material along with consultant (and fantastic trainer) Julie Kowalski. Second, the program is selling out all over the USA, which is very impressive for a brand new course, even for a top-flight organization like AMA. Third, this humble blog is one of the course resources, so I want to offer a warm welcome to any first-time readers.

But perhaps the thing I most enjoy about being here is seeing a large group of people learn new, procedural ways to communicate effectively in even the most difficult situations – such as what to say when people are rude and demanding, or how to have influence when you are presenting an idea. Today, everyone learned something that I feel is the most important communications skill of all: the neutral opening.

Let’s say that you are trying to ask someone to dress better at work. Or want someone to stop yelling at her employees all the time. Julie used some great examples to show how criticism never works, no matter how “right” it is, because the other person almost always pushes back. So far, so good. But now, what *do* you say – particularly for those critical first few seconds that make or break the conversation?

What quote-unquote nice people usually try to do is make small talk, beat around the bush, or compliment the other person first – all of which the other person normally sees through, even in role-play. Today, they learned that the most powerful opening is one that is totally non-threatening, yet gets you head-on into productive dialogue with the other person about the issue at hand. In other words, a neutral opening.

Here’s an example of what you might say to person who should dress better: “I see you like to be comfortable at work.” For someone who is falling behind at work: “It sounds like you’ve been really busy lately.” And for the person who yells at her staff, there is what I call the perfect neutral opening, because it is all but guaranteed to open a dialogue: “What frustrates you about people on your team?”

Once you engage someone with your opening statement, you have opened the door for a productive dialogue that can benefit both of you. But first, you have to get over the speed bump of starting the discussion. That is why neutral openings, which can be learned and practiced, are far and away the most important part of interacting with another person.

This AMA course is chock full of examples on how to structure a neutral opening, and I am all but beating this issue to death with a stick in my forthcoming book for AMACOM, tentatively entitled How to Tell Anyone Anything. But if you can’t wait for the course or the book, here’s the quick summary: find out where the other person’s interests lie, and always start your discussions there.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

You're still a young man

Many of my good friends know that Tower of Power has always been my favorite band. Last night I saw them in concert for the umpteenth time in Elmira, NY, just down the road from where I live. (That’s me with TOP’s lead singer Larry Braggs after the concert.)

There are some pretty obvious reasons why I like TOP so much. They have the tightest horn section and rhythm section on the planet. They practically wrote the book on creating funk music with great melodies. Their music has been the soundtrack to my life, from the 1970s all the way through their latest albums in the 21st century.

There is also a less obvious reason I like them, which made this concert very special. Their signature song “You’re Still a Young Man” deals with a guy trying to convince an older woman that he isn’t too young for her. When that song came out in 1972, it was practically my theme song: I was 18 years old at the time, and starting to woo someone who was several years older than me.

Well, guess what – it worked, and this month we are celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary. I love you, Colleen.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On Facebook, no one can hear you scream

I finally took the leap and joined Facebook last night. I had to. I am doing a research project on social networking for a client and wanted to look at a Facebook group page, which are locked up tighter than Ft. Knox unless you join.

So now I have my first social dilemma already. When you first join Facebook, it reads your e-mail address book, suggests a kabillion people you know who already have Facebook pages, and prompts you to invite them as friends. I left most of them checked and clicked OK. Or so I thought.

Now, here it is a day later, and none of them have answered. But two people I invited directly accepted almost immediately. Hmmm ... should I shave more often? Or did these friend requests never go through?

Which brings me to a fundamental point about applications like Facebook. The good news is that it is free. The bad news is that you get what you pay for. There appears to be no way to determine if you have any outstanding friend requests, the FAQ file is mute about this, and the support e-mail I sent remains unanswered for two days and counting.

So, do I risk bothering these kabillion people a second time, becoming the cyber-equivalent of the boor at the party? Or do I assume the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) and wait to see what if anything happens? Stay tuned!

P.S. If you want to be my friend on Facebook, here I am:

*Update 4/3/08: It looks like everyone I invite individually seems to be responding. So hopefully I'm not such a bad guy after all. As for the fate of the mass invite, Facebook respondeth not.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

What to say to a bully at work

I am about to teach a training program on difficult situations in the workplace, and one of the topics I am covering is working with bullies.

Type “dealing with bullies” in your favorite Internet search engine and you will get nearly a quarter of a million hits. This is no great surprise: according to a recent poll by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International in late 2007, over a third of employees report being bullied, half of them to the extent that it affects their health. That represents a lot of misery out there.

But here is the real surprise: type in the exact phrase “what to say to a bully at work” and you get *zero* hits. Simplify it to “what to say to a bully” and you will get about 50 hits, some of which are from people trying to sell you a book or program, and none of which appear to actually tell you what to say to a bully.

Why so much silence on such an important subject? Because bullies are seen in most of these resources as one-dimensional enemies to simply be fought or avoided – some even flatly recommend that you do not engage a bully. As a result, nearly all of the advice out there revolves around the legalities of handling bullies: documenting specific abuses, when to speak with you HR department, what your legal rights are, and the like.

Perhaps a more balanced view comes from the government of South Australia, which has strict legal protections against workplace bullying. A recent report from them describes workplace bullies (the majority of whom are supervisors) as people who often lack basic management skills and do not know how to behave differently. In their words, “They believe that good management is "tough" management which involves making instant decisions, tolerating no dissent or disagreement, driving people to work harder or faster, dispensing with anyone who cannot keep up and generally treating everyone in a harsh and unfeeling manner. Such managers also believe that if they do not behave in this way they will be seen as "weak" and therefore unlikely to survive in their position.”

Of course, some bullies cross the line into inappropriate behavior, like this one who knocks over filing cabinets to make a point. (I have a good three-word technique for this situation: “call the police”) Others may be sexist, racist, or out to exploit power for their personal gain. But for others – perhaps the majority – I honestly feel that the right communications skills can help defuse these situations and build mutual respect.

Here is my view as a communications skills expert:

We tend to view bullies as evil villains, and this view colors our responses. But bullies generally respond to being challenged the way most of us do, by fighting back and rationalizing that you are the problem. This is nothing more than classic cognitive-behavioral psychology.

If you change the script of what you say, you can often change the outcome – particularly if you speak to their interests while maintaining your own dignity and boundaries. So here is my advice on what to say to the garden-variety, non-sociopathic office bully:

1. Start the conversation in a safe place by acknowledging and validating their agenda. For example:

-When someone has an angry outburst, say, “I can tell by your tone of voice that you are pretty upset.”
-When someone has been spreading rumors about you, say, “I understand you have some concerns about my performance” or “”I understand you aren’t happy about what I said to Sally.”
-When someone is pressuring you to do an unrealistic amount of work, say, “It sounds like we are under a lot of deadline pressure. Tell me about it.”

Yes, it feels funny to talk like this with someone who acts like a jerk. It feels like sucking on a lemon for most of us. And no, it doesn’t always work, particularly when things cross the line into discrimination or abuse. But perhaps 70% of the time, this will get you into productive dialogue. Try it and see what happens.

2. Ask non-threatening, factual questions about their behavior. In general, when you make statements and tell people what do to, they push back – but when you ask questions, you are both giving them the floor and holding them accountable. For example:

-“What would you have liked me to do instead?”
-“How would you have preferred that I handled things with Sally?”
-“Tell me more about what our clients are expecting by the deadline. Do we have any flexibility with them? Could I speak with them directly and see how we can help?”

3. Set boundaries while offering to address their agenda. Bullies usually fight back when they are challenged, but a surprising number of people will respect you for standing your ground if – and this is a big if – you also speak to their interests. For example:

-“I don’t want to see you upset, and I don’t want to be yelled at in the future. Where can we go from here?”
-“I don’t want you to feel criticized, and I also want to be free to be honest with other people. How can we solve this in the future?”
-“I want to make the client happy, and I feel I can honestly do X much work between now and then. How should I best use my time between now and the deadline?”

I feel that everyone is entitled to a workplace that is free from harassment, and fully support legal protections designed to put an end to workplace bullying. But in the meantime, I also feel that in many cases, your communications skills can make a big difference in stopping these situations in their tracks.

P.S. If this approach sounds useful for your workplace, drop me a line at – I am currently putting together some interesting live and on-line training programs on difficult workplace situations, tied in with my next book for AMACOM, and would love to hear about your own specific situations.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Coming soon: What to Say to a Porcupine

What do a demanding colony of porcupines, an upscale restaurant run by hyenas, and a famous medieval knight have in common? They are all part of one of the funniest books ever written on how to create excellent customer service! I am pleased to announce my next book What to Say to A Porcupine: 20 Humorous Tales That Get to the Heart of Great Customer Service.

Faithful to the format of Aesop’s Fables, Porcupine is a collection of 20 very hip, funny stories that teach real lessons about the mechanics of good customer support, aimed at the same audience as business fables like FISH! and Who Moved My Cheese.

Porcupine is scheduled for release late next quarter from leading business publisher AMACOM Books. For me, this project was a chance to combine a lot of things that have always been very close to my heart: great storytelling, real-world interpersonal and leadership skills, and even research on the structure of how classic fables made people smile over 2000 years ago.

The end product was truly a labor of love, and makes everyone laugh out loud. I can’t wait for all of you to see it. You can pre-order it now from Amazon, and my new website will be coming soon. And keep an eye out for a summer tour with readings, book signings, and one of the funniest speaking engagements ever on customer service - more to come soon!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

On becoming a musical anachronism

If you don't play a musical instrument, please feel free to skip to the next blog entry.

I love all sorts of music: jazz, R&B, indie alternative rock, you name it. And there is one common denominator to lots of my favorites: the minor-seventh chord. So many great songs that get my motor started have minor-seventh chord sequences - if you aren't musically inclined, here is a taste of what I am talking about:

-Smile by Lily Allen
-Pacific Coast Party by Smashmouth
-You're Still a Young Man by Tower of Power
-Sitting in the Park by Billy Stewart
-Crystal Blue Persuasion by Tommy James and the Shondells

So here's the problem: it seems that the minor-seventh chord has slowly disappeared off the face of the earth. Once in a great while it shows up in a new song (like the aforementioned "Smile" from 2006), and then when I look it up on the web they talk about how "retro" it is. When "Pacific Coast Party" came out, which I thought was one of the greatest songs on the face of the earth, one review said that it "sounded like every cop show theme from the 1970s."

Perhaps the last straw came in an interview last week from Joss Stone, the British songstress whose triple-platinum album The Soul Sessions gave me hope for the future - especially songs like "Super Duper Love", a gorgeous minor-seventh fest of old-school soul. Turns out she hated that album, complaining nowadays that the songs were written and produced "by guys 50 and up."

(Sigh) You got me there, Joss: I am 53. But first, do me a favor: go listen to a song like "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye" by the Casinos. *That's* retro, OK? So stop picking on my minor-sevenths.

If I ever do an album, it's going to be entitled "Minor Seventh". And the way things are going these days, it's probably going to sell three copies.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Topping the e-book charts

Just wanted to pass along some good news on my latest book Great Customer Connections: Simple Psychological Techniques that Guarantee Exceptional Service: it is suddenly a hit in cyberspace. recently started its own line of e-books for use with its own Kindle reader, and the Kindle version of Great Customer Connections has consistently been their number 1 book on customer skills.

Specifically, this book generally has a sales rank in the top 10 or 20 in Amazon's "customer service" category, however the vast majority of these are books on service *strategy*, not how to deal with customers. In addition to being their top on-line seller for customer skills, I am pleased to see it holding its own among some of the real giants in the customer service field.

This comes on the heels of a strong release of the physical book version, where it reached the top 8000 (for all books!), was critically acclaimed in Business Week and the customer support trade press, and made a big splash overseas, where it became distributor McGraw-Hill's 26th top selling trade book.

There are approximately 10,000 published books on customer service, according to, but few dig deeply into the psychology of how we really handle customer situations. That's why Great Customer Connections has such great buzz among businesses nowadays, particularly customer contact operations - it's giving them a way to make real, measurable changes in their service performance.

Want to learn more about how you and your team can handle *any* customer situation successfully? Check out a free sample and audio clip at, and join the crowd!