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.