Brief Lessons: Expectation Management

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The success of every interaction, project, or other engagement you have with a customer has one thing in common; expectations. It doesn’t matter what business you are in, from cleaning houses to custom software development, if the product or service that you deliver does not meet or exceed the customer’s expectations, there is little chance that you will continue a positive relationship with that customer. To illustrate, let me use an example.

Imagine that you have decided to splurge and instead of just running your car through the car wash or doing yourself in the driveway, you are going to have a full detail job. You find a local detailer and sign up for their top end package. It’s the most you’ve ever paid for a car wash, by a long shot.

You get the car back and it looks pretty clean…  but upon closer inspection, they didn’t polish any of the chrome, they didn’t put conditioner on the leather seats, and they didn’t even open the hood. You think to yourself, whenever I wash it, I always do those things, my chrome is polished, my leather is conditioned, and even if I don’t detail the engine every time I at least open the hood to clean around the edges a bit.

Clearly, the expectations that you had for the “top end” package did not align with your detailers expectations. Whose fault is that? Shouldn’t you have asked what the package did / did not include? Shouldn’t the detailer have reviewed with you a list of what they do or do not include in the package? Will you ever use that detailer again? What about another detailer, does this experience now mean that you will never again pay to have your car detailed?

A little expectations management up front could have completely changed how you felt about the entire experience. So, next time you are the one providing the service or product, whether you are charging $100 or $100,000, if you expect that customer to do more business with you or to refer you, you had better make sure you understand their expectations. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how good your service or product is, if you don’t live up to the customer’s expectations, it won’t matter.

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Brief Lessons: Be Honest

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My last blog post was almost eleven months ago. Clearly, Seth Godin I am not. Seth is a machine. I don’t know how he churns out so much content of such consistent quality. It is because of Seth, and other regular content producers such as Scott Hanselman, that I am back. I can give primary credit to Seth for making me realize that a blog post does not have to be five hundred plus words to provide some value. As you can see from his blog, it is not uncommon for Seth to make posts of one hundred words or less. Thus, with that lesson learned, this will probably be my shortest post to date. A lot has happened since I last blogged, but I will not make excuses, instead I will jump right into a brief lesson that I want to share.

My lesson starts with this joke:

A web designer walked into a restaurant. He got a look around and then turned around and walked out because he did not like the table layout.

While this joke may be funny, to the right audience of course, the lesson I want to share is just the opposite of what happens in the joke… Do not walk out. Instead, be honest, tell your customer the table layout is bad but do not stop there, be sure to offer a solution on how to fix it and provide justification for what value fixing it would provide. Thus, my simple lesson is that if you see a customer doing or approaching something incorrectly, do not be afraid to speak up with an honest assessment, just make sure you approach it with the appropriate tact. I can tell you from many experiences that it is very likely that your honesty will be seen as refreshing and will go a long way towards building trust that is crucial to a strong working relationship.

Less than 330 words. But wait, there’s more…

Seth action figure
Thanks Seth!

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Simplicity

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Sometimes I think humans have a fondness for complex things. This fondness seems to be especially true of engineers, software developers, software designers, and others with scientific or maker-oriented minds. Perhaps it isn’t all our fault, maybe it was just our childhood. Who doesn’t remember the game Mousetrap?

The game Mousetrap by Hasbro

Mousetrap by Hasbro

Mousetrap is a classic example of Rube Goldberg machine, an intentionally over-complicated solution to a simple problem. I have to admit that I love a good Rube Goldberg machine, something about the creativity that the intentional complexity brings out is just fascinating. And, if you remember Mouse Trap, then you are probably a child of the 80’s and you also remember Back to the Future and The Goonies. The real test is not just whether you remember the automatic dog feeder or the gate opener in these movies, but whether you tried to build your own versions of these and other overly-complicated machines. I know I spent more than a few evenings running string, tape, and other components around by bedroom to create a “better” way to open the door.

Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird

Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird

The problem with our love of complexity is that we sometimes overlook that the best solution is also the simplest solution. The KISS principle and other variants are so popular because they remind us of what we should already be thinking, that we should aim for simplicity in our design. Imagine for a moment that you are Kelly Johnson and you are working on a team designing the most advanced (and IMHO the coolest) planes ever conceived. You have any resources you need. You have some of the top minds in the world working with you. You have an open check book. You are designing war planes, which by definition have to operate under combat conditions so they will be broken, they will need repair, and they will need maintenance. Under those combat conditions, you won’t have all the resources you need, you won’t have the tops minds in the world, and you won’t have that open check book. A broken war plane is a useless war plane thus, the mechanic with basic tools working in a combat situation must be able to keep the plane operational. So, if you really are Johnson, you hand your team the same set of tools that field mechanic will have and in so doing, you clearly define one of the goals of your design is simplicity.

As intriguing as I find the creativity in complexity, I also find inspiration in simplicity. It was the simplicity of  a single product that inspired this post.

My shower mirror from The Shave Well Company

My shower mirror

Yes, that is my shower mirror. For some time now, I have preferred to shave in the shower and I would recommend you give it a try. You might be wondering just how complicated a shower mirror could get. Well, the thing that makes this product so remarkable is its simplicity. This is (at least) the third “fogless” shower mirror I have purchased and it is also the one I have had the longest. There are over 100 shower mirrors on Amazon, some of the mirrors attach to your shower head with telescoping arms, some have lighting, some a place to hold your razor, some of them magnify, and some attach with suction cups. Many claim to be fogless, others don’t bother. Of the ones that claim to be fogless, some have special coatings on them, some have special water chambers, and there are some that recommend that you buy some spray used by divers to prevent fogging on their goggles. All too complex and as a result, my past mirrors all had to be retired after various failures such as they just wouldn’t clean just wouldn’t stick anymore. This mirror, which just happens to be one of the cheapest you can buy on Amazon has been the best. So what makes this mirror so simple yet so effective?

The design. It is only two pieces. The mirror itself is just an acrylic mirror with a circular hole. The attachment mechanism is just a hook, like an ordinary peel and stick Command hook. There is no lighting, no suction cups, nothing complex. However, it is the fogless part that makes this mirror stand out. No, there isn’t a special coating or water chamber, in fact as best I can tell, there is absolutely nothing special on this mirror to prevent fogging. The genius in the solution is that it just hangs on the hook and fog is eliminated by simply removing the mirror from the hook and placing it under the running water for a few seconds. It is because of this simplicity that I have never had to clean the mirror, apply a special film, and I’ve never had to deal with it falling off during a shower.

What things do you use in your daily life that could be simplified? I know one that has always bothered me is an elevator in a two story building. My issue is not with the users who prefer the elevator over the stairs, I know that stairs are not feasible for everyone, my issue is with the buttons. Once I’m inside the elevator, if there are only two floors in the building, why should I have to press a button to tell the elevator where to take me? Yet even though I can see the simplicity from the perspective of user of the elevator, I realizee that in simplifying for the user, we must consider what complexity is needed to support this user perceived simplification. What if no one got on the elevator, how would the elevator know that it should not waste energy and bother going to the next floor. Perhaps a motion sensor or weight sensor could solve this problem, but now we are introducing complexity. Which is more likely to break, a sensor or a button?

The elevator example illustrates one of the problems with simplifying; sometimes when simplifying for one task, you are complicating another. Perhaps the complex solution is the right solution. After all, is a single button really that complex?

I will end with a story of both simplicity and complexity from a real world problem faced by a team with I was working with. We had been working many late nights to meet a tight deadline. It wasn’t just any arbitrary deadline, missing this deadline would mean stiff financial penalties for our customer. Our customer was a major financial institution and the solution we were working on was going to being processing transactions driving an important revenue stream. It had to go in on time and it had to work. When approaching time to go-live, we discovered an issue. The issue was not any fault of our team or the customer, the design in place was solid. The problem stemmed from another component, outside of our control, that simply could not keep up with the expected volume. Luckily, our load-testing had caught the issue before going live, however we knew that the simplest solution, fixing the component causing the problem would never be done in time and we were not even sure the component could be fixed at all. We were forced into complicating our design ever so slightly, by implementing some queuing / throttling into our components. As it turned out, the problem component that we were dealing with had a sweet spot, if we kept the number of transactions within a certain range, it would hum along at its optimal performance level. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to build and test our new throttling capability before going live. Faced with this dilemma, we found an even simpler solution which required a person watching a folder for files and manually moving them into another folder. This multi-million dollar project was now up and running, processing live transactions for real world dollars with a human watching over every single transaction. Obviously this was not a long term plan, but it bought us a week to fully implement and test our throttling solution. The week long manual solution worked perfectly and the throttling solution went in over the weekend. The project had been a success and helped the customer achieve an automation level they had not thought possible. Sometimes, the answer is simple and perhaps even simpler than you can imagine, the mechanical turk comes to mind.

The Mechanical Turk

The Mechanical Turk

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