Strategic Mediocrity

At a company offsite last year, I gave a presentation to our customer support leadership team on service excellence. One of the phrases that stuck with everyone was 'being strategically bad' as it pertained to our department. I had just finished reading Uncommon Service, by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. They argue that striving for all-around excellence leads directly to mediocrity.

Achieving service excellence requires underperforming on the things your customers value least, so you can over-deliver on the dimensions they value most. Decide what trade-offs you will make – where you will do things badly, even very badly, in the service of great – based on deep insight into who your customers are and what they need operationally.

Then be unapologetic about it.

This concept isn't new by any means. Michael Porter wrote about this in Competitive Advantage (1985):

"Being "all things to all people" is a recipe for strategic mediocrity and below-average performance, because it often means that a firm has no competitive advantage at all."

After the presentation, we discussed what our customers valued most and how we could improve in those areas, willfully neglecting some service aspects that customers didn't care for. As Frances Frei explains in the video below, the primary obstacle is not the ambition to be great, but the stomach to be bad.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

In my final year of college, I took several photography classes that shaped my views on quality. My instructor, Kenneth Barrett, taught students not only about the typical photography concepts you'd expect, but also about composition and style. We studied famous black and white photographs and I fell in love with artists like Diane Arbus. Her photographs felt harsh, sometimes sadistic and even exploitative.

I first began shooting on a 1973 Mamiya/Sekor 1000 DTL my father gave me. It was the world's first camera with dual-pattern through-the-lens (TTL) metering. It was bulky, difficult to hold and completely unforgiving. It took patience loading the 35mm film. Developing the film was even more laborious. 30 seconds in the stop bath, 4 minutes in a fixer, 30 seconds in a rinse, 2 minutes in a clearing agent and so on. It was easy to screw up and I did on numerous occasions.

The more advanced I became shooting 35mm, the more I appreciated the restrictiveness of the format. The beauty of it wasn't about the camera's constraints, rather what it forced you to focus on. You had 36 chances to take a beautiful photograph.

Years later after graduating, the darkroom was converted to a digital photo studio. Kenneth Barrett no longer teaches there. Today, I take pictures on my iPhone and post them on Instagram. It takes seconds. I apply filters to emulate quality that would, in real life, sometimes take hours to create. I'm reminded of a quote from one of my favorite books by Robert Pirsig's, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

"It's the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don't know where to start because no one has ever told them there's such a thing as quality in this world and it's real, not style. Quality isn't something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start."

Support Ops Podcast

Last week, I had the pleasure of joining (mt) chief correspondent, Sara Carter, on the Support Ops podcast. Support Ops is all about customer support. More specifically, bringing humanity to customer support. We had a fantastic time and I can't thank Chase Clemons enough for having us on the show.

Chase, who runs the Support Ops blog and podcast, is extremely passionate about providing great customer experiences. He currently works at 37signals, a company I've always admired. I first came across his work through UserConf 2012, a customer service conference about keeping your customers happy. You can watch his talk -- "Try New Stuff" -- right here:

Generating Passwords with node.js

For a few years now, I've been using the same silly random password generator from a coworker of mine. Since I use 1Password for password management, I'm frequently creating new random passwords. While a feature exists within 1Password for generating new passwords, I usually find comfort in doing this from Terminal. When my coworker's server was down for a few days, I temporarily reverted to some bash-foo:

date +%s | sha256sum | base64 | head -c 13 ; echo
tr -cd '[:alnum:]' < /dev/urandom | fold -w13 | head -n1
< /dev/urandom tr -dc _A-Z-a-z-0-9 | head -c 13 ; echo

While these examples are super handy, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to play around with node.js. This simple utility can generate 13 character random passwords using 2 node modules, express and request. Here is the meat of it:

var express, http, make_passwd;

express = require('express');

http = express();

make_passwd = function(n, a) {
  var index = (Math.random() * (a.length - 1)).toFixed(0);
  return n > 0 ? a[index] + make_passwd(n - 1, a) : '';

http.get('/', function(request, response) {
  var password;

  password = make_passwd(13, 'qwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmQWERTYUIOPASDFGHJKLZXCVBNM1234567890');



I've published a working version to Heroku. You can find the full repository on GitHub. Give it a shot:

curl –s 2>/dev/null | pbcopy

Speaking at Social Brand Forum 2012

On October 17-18, I'll be giving a talk at Social Brand Forum 2012, Iowa’s premier social media marketing event. The session is centered around how businesses can successfully manage a crisis with social media, focusing on the impact of customer relationships and brand reputation. I'm thrilled to be part of such a great event.

Social Brand Forum 2012 brings national-level social media content to the Eastern Iowa Creative Corridor for a day and half of keynotes, panel discussions, and interactive sessions. Featuring speakers, authors, and thought leaders from the national stage, the event is designed to help marketers at organizations small and large build stronger brands through social media content, conversations, and community.