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  • The Impact of a Recommendation

    I had the opportunity recently to fill out an unconventional bio for a company that wanted to get some info on me.  Besides the usual, where did you work and what degrees you have earned, this bio asked questions like “What did you learn from your mother?” and “When you were a child, what do you most remember about playing?”.  Interesting questions, but the one that stumped me for a bit was “What do people say about you?”.

    Now I have heard a lot of what people say about me (and not heard probably lots more).  But it is hard to put that down on a bio, without either sounding incredibly pompous or wishy washy.  I could ask people to recommend me on LinkedIn and get some of that feedback, but in general, the recommendations on LinkedIn are very white bread and don’t really give the flavor that I was trying to provide. I could give snippets of client thank you letters or performance reviews, but that too was not really what I was trying to provide as part of this bio.

    And then I remembered the goofy exercise that we did at a previous employer.  I was working as a director of a professional services group.  I was one of 7 directors and it was the best working group that I had ever been on.  Not that we always agreed, but there was a dynamic quality to our interactions. For one of our offsite meetings, our Recruiting Director had the wild idea of having each of us write a short paragraph extolling the virtues of each of the other members, as a sort of recommendation. We all thought — there she goes again, new agey, touchy feely stuff, but we did it. She then collated them and provided each of us with a full version of our recommendations, without attribution.  It was a tremendous insight to see how others saw us. In some cases it was obvious who wrote the recommendation, but in others, I still have no idea.  What I was left with, though, was a composite of how I have impacted others.  I have kept that sheet in a special place.

    And it was to that place that I went when I had to create my bio.

    Takeaways:

    • Sometimes the most goofy sounding exercises can give you true value over the same old stuff.
    • Take an opportunity to write a short note to people (handwritten, if possible) to tell them about how them have impacted your life.  You have no idea how important this could be to someone’s day, life, ego, career.
    • If you are a manager of a team and want to make the team more cohesive, try this exercise.  I can guarantee that everyone will get something out of it.  Don’t forget to include yourself in this.  You can nominate someone else to receive the recommendations for you, so that they remain anonymous.

    Perfection

    No matter what you purchase or sell, no matter how hard you work, you can almost never reach perfection.  Perfection is the holy grail of your business. Until recently I don’t believe that I had ever experienced perfection in a product or service.

    I am proud to say that I witnessed and dare I say, participated in perfection in a small business.  The venue was Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago.  As part of a silent auction benefiting SuperSibs, I was the big winner of a Chef for a Day experience.  What that meant was that for 6 hours, I would be working (alas at no salary) as a sous chef for the restaurant.  After my Chef for a Day experience was completed, I had the opportunity to enjoy a meal with my wife and several friends at the kitchen table, a table for four elegantly set right in the working kitchen.

    After arriving at 2pm and getting fitted for a chef’s jacket, apron and chef’s hat, I was set to work cleaning and dehulling fava beans.  Some of these fava beans were to be used for a decorative puree for a plate and others were to be used whole as part of the garnish for several plates for dinner.  Other jobs awaiting me were breaking down cilantro, lemons, chives and other herbs. The other chefs working all were friendly and helpful, directing me to the rudiments of the tasks at hand.

    The kitchen was small and very busy, yet totally under control.  No screaming; everybody had a job to do and managed it well.  The kitchen had several master chefs, but also a large number of young chefs working their own stations. Charlie believes in supporting up and coming students, so there were several interns from Kendall College and Culinary Institute of America working their hearts out.  The experienced chefs were always around to lend a helping hand, whether it was shucking oysters or teaching an intern how to use a cherry pitter for the first time.

    At about 4:30, they had a family dinner.  Food was plated and the front of house staff (waiters, hosts and maitre de) met in the studio kitchen for a meal.  While the food was good, it wasn’t that different from what we might have in my house on a typical evening.  Salad, a beef stew over rice, vegetables sauteed in a tomato sauce and (different from my house), homemade ice cream sundaes.  The front of house was very friendly, asking about what I did for a living and why I was interested in this opportunity.  They were also open to my many questions about their work background, how this restaurant is different from others and what they liked best about working there.  These kids, most of them were in their early 20′s, worked at least 12 hour shifts 5 and 6 days a week.  What impressed me most was the level of confidence they had in their abilities to deliver first class service to all their guests.  I deal with young people in their 20′s all the time and these were a special crew.

    After family dinner, back to the kitchen for more prep work.  The kitchen was buzzing as the first service was about to start.  Charlie does work with the Chicago Public Schools and on that night was hosting a group of high school kids from CPS to a 10 course dinner. They were able to take a tour of the kitchen and, I’m sure, wonder what the balding guy was doing in the kitchen. The purpose of Charlie’s work is to show the kids what can be accomplished in the hospitality industry.  Many of the staff talked with the students and explained how things worked and took questions.

    All of the ingredients were of the highest quality. There were special ingredients that were used just in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen. A special olive oil from a certain farm in Australia or the chocolate that comes from one estate in Africa and is used in 6 different ways.  But more than that was the confidence of the chefs in working with those ingredients.  There weren’t many recipes floating around, but there were a lot of tasting spoons.  This is how expert artists cook.  They have an idea and build it with the use of ingredients rather than paints or mosaic tiles.  But the creativity did not just extend to the building of the dishes.  It went to the unusual pairings of flavors, the plating of the dishes and even the physical dishes themselves (more about that later).

    After my work was complete, I was able to change into dress clothes and join our group back in the kitchen for our dinner.  Alex, our waiter for the evening, was that perfect combination of total knowledge of the food and kitchen and openness to work with the guests to make them feel totally comfortable asking questions and learning.  Alex told us at the start that we would not get a menu, but would be served whatever the chefs felt was best on that night. Would we like to choose a wine?  Not so simple; Charlie’s wine cellars hold 20,000 bottles of wine. Alex was right there to give guidance on how the menu might proceed, to make the wine selection easier.

    But, Al, you have written 900 words and haven’t even talked about the food that you were served.  How could that be?  Well, over the 4 hours (yes, 4 hours) that we enjoyed our dinner, we were served 20 separate courses. Each was served in the French style with small portions (thank god for small favors), yet each dish was a work of art. Each dish was a complicated and creative mix of flavors that engaged your palate without a single note that became overwhelming.  There were 3 amuse (appetizers), 5 fish dishes, 2 vegetable focused dishes, 2 poultry, 2 meat, 1 cheese, 5 desserts.  Each dish was cooked without butter; so much for the French style.  But there were always surprises.  Freshwater eel with banana.  Duck breast with licorice jelly. Onion sorbet. Matsuzaka beef (Kobe style) with a plum vinegar broth that cut the richness of the beef. Frozen key lime meringue with cilantro and green peppercorn.  Unbelievable flavors and gorgeous presentation.  Each dish was presented in a unique serving plate.  We only had a duplicate plate once during the dinner.  Even the plates were chosen for the applicability to the specific course we were being served.  Some were small, some were large, some had wells for broths, some were shaped like boats, some were Asian in design.  Each was perfect for the course that presented.

    And yet, what comes back is that we were able to have an elegant dinner sitting in the middle of a kitchen that was serving the second round of diners in the rest of the restaurant. Periodically, some guests from the restaurant were able to take a quick tour of the kitchen led by the same front of house staff that I had met at the family dinner. The activity around us did not abate, but there was no interruption to our dinner.

    After dinner, Alex took us on a grand tour of the restaurant.  We were able to see the types of equipment used in the kitchen and how the ingredients were stored. We saw the Studio Kitchen, where Charlie Trotter films his TV show.  We saw the herb garden at the rear of the property.  We were able to tour some of the wine cellars.

    All in all it was an unbelievable day (and night).  I had anticipated having fun seeing how a world class restaurant operates behind the scenes. I had anticipated a great dinner.  What I got was so much more.  It was the complete mix of people, processes, product, environment and training that made for a perfect experience.

    My question to you is what would you have to do to get people to write about your business this way?  How can you make your business perfect?

    Absence makes the heart grow fonder

    Your mother was probably fond of the saying “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”.  Mine certainly was.  She usually trotted it out when she wanted one of us to go on a trip where we would have to leave the current boyfriend or girlfriend home for a week or so.

    I was reminded of this when I read the book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive on vacation. In the book, the authors use scientific studies to validate ways that people can be persuaded to do something.  Some of the ways involved differing methods of getting people to reuse hotel towels.  But what prompted this post was the idea that scarcity of a product can increase its demand.  Not absence, scarcity.  The idea is that if there is a hope of getting a scarce product, then consumers will desire it more.

    They used the case of the Oldsmobile.  In 2004 GM discontinued the manufacture of the Oldsmobile line due to low sales.  The ironic thing is that the sales of Oldsmobiles in 2003 were their highest ever.  People were induced to buy because of the scarcity of the brand.

    I am convinced that the popularity of the Wii gaming system from Nintendo was also a case of the scarcity inducing purchase envy.  Nintendo released the Wii with only a few systems available.  If you knew of someone who got one of the first ones, they raved about the user interface and the general fun factor of the games.  This just stoked the purchasing flames, when people could not get one.  Those folks staked out the Best Buys and the Costcos just waiting for the next shipment to arrive, so that they might get their hands on one of the 25 just arrived systems.

    However, scarce does not mean late.  Note that Boeing has upset more customers with a late delivery for their 787 Dreamliner than made potential clients excited.  You have to make your dates.

    Scarce also does not mean boring.  Something that is scarce and boring does not make people excited.  See any number of cell phones that are released for use on one cellular network and has me-too features.  Who really cares?

    And despite what my mom said, absence won’t really get you talked about.  You need to have something there for people to get excited about and envision themselves owning.  Nintendo and Oldsmobile (probably inadvertently) got the mixture right.  This same story was critical in the Tickle Me Elmo, iPhone and Cabbage Patch Kids.

    Find a way to make your product good and scarce.  It has to be both. And you just might have the next remarkable product in the land.

    Entrepreneurship links

    Entrepreneurship: A few  start-up related posts.  First the twenty things that I wished I had known before I started my business. (Hat Tip: JL)  Then, from a genuine internet star, Jessica Hagy, The Start-Up Checklist.  Are you an entrepreneur or a hobbyist? Lastly, not exactly start-up specific, Seth has a good pithy blog post on Jello.