I wish I was
Home, where my thought's escaping
Home, where my music's playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me
Home is one of those loaded words that brings to mind a certain image for many even though it has a much broader meaning.1
Pip, Dave and others in that team have been using it to talk about an important aspect of how companies can deal with customers ... sort of a peace of mind that is quite different from low prices, product selection and so on. I'm probably not using the concept in exactly the same way, but hearing about it from them recently caused me to reflect on some organizations that are good at it. I suspect it is something best accomplished face to face and may be a powerful tool for brick and mortar stores as online ordering becomes more prevalent. There may be some interesting ways of addressing it online too.
There are a lot of examples where it breaks too... shopping suggestions based on prior searches and visits annoy me to no end. It reminds me of Masahiro Mori's "uncanny valley" - a hypothesis that as robots begin to look and act like humans there is a point where we sense they are imperfect copies and that grates on us. Inferior models are preferable. Pixar is very aware of this effect and are careful to stray into the region as they found rather dramatically in the animation Tin Toy about twenty years ago and other works have been burned - famously Polar Express. I suspect a huge amount of social understanding and much more sophisticated techniques will be required to make interacting with these online ads less negative to many of us.
Many of you think about this more deeply than I do and I'd love to hear your experiences and insight. To start things off I put together a short list of a few recent experiences in brick and mortar stores and something a bit more personal to illustrate a positive sense of being understood and cared for even though the interactions were with strangers for very short amounts of time. In all three cases there is a very careful selection of staff along with a considerable amount of training. The experiences were all powerful and left with with a strong images of a company that is doing something right.
About a month ago and friend and I were in Manhattan trying to understand a bit more about street fashion and its possible future directions given new technologies and rich online social networking. Our base camp was the Lincoln Center area as Fashion Week was underway and the street fashionistras were curious about the shows as well as showing off what they had done and watching others - it was something of a sartorial scene. Out of curiosity we found ourselves in a Lululemon across the street.
Last week I was taking a gelato gelato break from some street fashion interviews with J across from Lincoln Center. On the way back we walked by a Lululemon Athletica store. She made the comment that she hadn't been in one, but some of the women she knew in the US who did yoga were passionate about the place and were regularly dressed in their togs. So we went in… as two tourists…
J happens to look like a model, and also happens to be in great physical shape (she runs an hour a day and bicycles everywhere). She tried yoga, but finds it frustrating and gave it up. I happen to not look like a model. I tried yoga a decade ago and quickly gave it up as I just couldn't get my mind and body to couple with the experience. Both of us recognize it has a passionate fandom, but we're not part of it so we were visitors from a foreign land.
As she looked through the clothing a salesperson approached and asked if she was here for fashion week, where she was from etc. Then came a few yoga questions with J noting that she didn't have much luck with it and considered herself a more kinetic personality. The salesperson (very personable) noted a lot of people have issues like that and finding the right trainer can be a deal breaker - she said she could recommend several who specialized in working with people who were left with a distaste.
J then introduced me noting she rarely visits the city, but that I have similar issues. The salesperson asked a few questions and said she could link me with trainers who specialize in working with men and there were a few in my area of New Jersey. Up to this point there was no sales pitch to J. She consulted a sheet and wrote down some phone numbers for me.
In the meantime J was looking at clothes and was told she would probably be too difficult to fit as she is very tall and thin. She asked another woman who came over and said J could try on a top, but it probably wouldn't fit. She knew of someone in the city who had a specialized business making custom athletic clothing for women. She Googled on her iPhone and sent J the contact information.
Our ten minute visit left us with a warm feeling that an effort had been made for both of us when a sale was impossible. The feeling was a yoga lifestyle was being sold - the clothing was incidental. J liked the styling and quality of the clothing, but felt it was overpriced - but she added: "this isn't really a clothing store, is it?"
They clearly wanted to make sure we both had had a proper trainer before abandoning us to a yoga-free life. The fact that I was male and would never use their products didn't seem to make much of a difference. I've seen similar behavior at Apple Stores. A key point is these people really aren't salespeople (I shouldn't have used that term), but provide service instead and have a high degree of integrity. I've seen that time and time again at Apple Stores, Trader Joe's and suspect it is true here.
As we walked out we went past the Manhattan Mormon Temple … an interesting juxtaposition …
Apple Stores are almost always too busy, but somehow the sales guys manage to find you without being too intrusive. You are encouraged to play with the products and the atmosphere is such that other customers often offer their own comments and suggestions. The only pressure I've ever felt wasn't that great - mainly being encouraged to purchase AppleCare when I buy a computer.
The sales people do not work on commission and can route you to others if you have very specific questions. Trouble shooting of existing product is done at the "genius bar" and the stores offer one-on-one training. I've been visiting the stores since the first opened in New Jersey and note how much they've changed as the company learns more about retail and its customer mix changes. There is a nearly constant experimentation and the overall quality of experience is kept high throughout.
The ability to help people with various skill levels use their computers is remarkable. They have a few classes, but increasingly they offer one on one training using a full or part time employee who is expert at teaching and a few applications. A friend spent $99 for this service and spent about 20 hours learning fine points of a serious video editing program taking him much futher along than he was able to get using books on the subject. A user group meeting even meets in this Apple Store (in Manhattan on West 14th St - sort of ground zero for that sort of thing)
I was interested in how a new AirPlay enabled amplified speaker might be sold.2 The speaker is the product of a medium to high end European audio company and it is one of their first excursions into the larger consumer market. I approached clerks at several Apple Stores and was routed to their audio expert. All of them gave the right advice for me - that this amplified speaker wasn't going to make me happy and I could put something together on my own for much less and almost no effort. Three of them made lists of what to buy elsewhere. How novel - get the maximum value out of what you own rather than buy something expensive - even though the item I originallly asked about is sold by the Apple Store.
I suspect many of you have shopped at Trader Joe's. It may or may not be to your taste, but it caters to people who like a curated selection of a certain class of food. We're often struck how much we identify with other customers as well as the clerks.
Channeling Barry Schwartz and Steve Jobs, they limit product selection to make the experience easier. They cheerfully refund the inevitable disaster purchase, allow you to taste products in the store, offer advice and, most important - they watch and listen.
Information is gathered from employees and customers and is frequently acted on. A friend worked in one for a few years and noted several customers wanted their particular store to open an hour earlier. The store put it to a customer vote, found there was general support and that particular store now opens at 6am. I suspect their information gathering system is much more powerful than massive data mining attempts by others... Knowing your business and customers well enough to listen makes a huge difference.
I've had a personal chef cook for me a few times as a present. G. is the brother of a close friend and is amazingly talented. More important is the fact that he listens and tries to come up with an experience involving fresh food, your own tastes, and his experience and inventiveness. He loves to give surprises and walk you in directions you have never been.
I can only decribe him as passionate. The experience starts with a trip to a farmer's market earlier in the day with you picking up things you like and letting you sample other items that might work out well. There is a conversation about food and he's building models of what might work in his mind as the trip progresses - it is clear he never uses recipes.
The cooking experience, at least for me, involves me helping out as I want to learn technique and he's a great teacher. To this day we still have email conversations about interesting things to do about food and he almost makes me feel welcome even though many of my ideas are probably naïve.
His goal is not to cook a spectacular meal, but rather to spark a passion for food and cooking in me. To this end he's also interested in learning what I can offer - sort of the physics of cooking and some of the chemistry involved. This is so much better than a restaurant experience - so much deeper and more personalized and it inspires me to cook for quite some time afterwards.
None of this is rocket science, but rather the hiring of passionate workers along with clear policies of doing right by the customer. In most cases the product being sold only enhances what the customer is really after and it is up to the organization to make that desired experience central rather than the product itself. Only a few organizations manage to pull that off.
It may be helpful to have additional information available, but only if it enhances the ultimate goal. And most remarkably it makes a lot of sense to recommend services and products that the company does not offer if it makes the most sense.
One can imagine that happen as a community based experience online as well as in hybrid online/brick and mortar mixed model. Some - like street fashion - are probably best done by the mixture.
I suspect getting this right takes a lot of common sense as well as the experimentation and honing that Apple and Trader Joe's are constantly performing. You need passionate employees and a structure that gives them a bit of freedom and treat them fairly. Your best employees may come from the pool of your most enthusiastic customers. Commissioned sales probably poison the process as the optimization shifts from the customer to the employee.
Most of all drawing up this list makes me reflect on my own practice. Am I bringing the appropriate passion to what I do and am I finding what my client is really after rather than what I - or they - may think on the surface? My greatest value is probably helping people connect the dots where they didn't see connections before ... other things may not matter as much to either of us.
So what are your favorite companies and what makes them special? What about your passions - are they well supported? Feel free to add your comments!
ok - I mentioned cooking, so it is time for another recipe. This is my chocolate chip cookie recipe. It is decidedly not healthy, so don't make it all the time. It is simple, but a bit strange and has a long resting time in the refrigerator before baking. Not exactly the Toll House recipe. Although I don't really measure in cooking, I use a scale for everything in baking. If you bake a lot you need to get a good scale accurate to the gram!
This one came out of the realization that all purpose flour is a compromise, so I use a mixture of bread and cake flour. The cookies need to be large to take advantage of this mixture and it produces a soft and moist interior with an exterior with a nice crunch. Make sure your ingredients are fresh! I am a big fan of King Arthur flours. Also - I am addicted to eating a bit of the raw cookie dough. This isn't safe unless you use pasteurized eggs.
Monster Chocolate Chip Cookies
240g cake flour
240g bread flour
1.25 tsp baking powder
1.25 tsp baking soda
1.5 tsp kosher salt
2.5 sticks butter (fresh and high quality!)
225g white sugar
285g light brown sugar
2 large eggs (pasteurized if you sample raw cookie dough like me)
2 tsp vanilla extract (I make my own with vanilla beans and rum and time for aging)
550g 60% to 70% bittersweet chocolate. I like Lindt in the thin sheets and break them into bits about the size of a nickel
150g chopped pecans or walnuts
small amount of large crystal sea salt (Maldon)
° sift dry ingredients into a bowl
° cream the butter and sugars in another mixing bowl until light and smooth - about 3 or 4 minutes on a medium speed with an electric mixer for me. Add the eggs one at a time mixing well after each. Add the vanilla. Now add the dry ingredients and mix at low speed until just combined. Don't overmix!! About 10 seconds for me. By hand carefully mix in the nuts and chocolate pieces.
° press the dough into a plastic wrap and tightly wrap into an airtight package. Refrigerate for a day or so. I usually go for a day to 36 hours. There is a very slow chemical reaction going on and baking sooner won't produce the same result.
° preheat oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper
° scoop some large mounds of the dough into golf ball sized globs (I have a four ounce round scoop). Some of the chocolate chunks will stick up - push them flush. I go for about six cookies for my sheet to give them room to expand - these are BIG DANGEROUS COOKIES.
° sprinkle each with a bit of Maldon salt and bake until golden brown. About 20 minutes in my oven (which runs just a bit cool).
° the leftover dough will keep a few days if you want several days of warm monster cookies that are fresh.
Also - Sukie is allergic to chocolate and I make a version with dried fried and more nuts that is pretty good. If you aren't using chocolate, skip the Maldon salt finishing step - salt pairs well with chocolate, but not dried sweet fruit.
1 In my Human Computer Interaction department we kept track of some of these and tried to avoid them when there could be a misunderstanding. Community is another example.
The lyric sniplet is from Simon and Garfunkel's Homeward Bound. If you don't have a copy, you need one.
2 Airplay allows to to wirelessly stream content from Macintoshes, iPads, iPhones and so on to any stereo system or TV in your house. Content can be on any of the devices or from iCloud. Properly executed it can add a good deal of flexibility to a home system.