Why the Beatles were so good: They practiced!

Beatles in America

The Beatles arrive in America in 1964. From left to right: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Photo from Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, Washington celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first concert in America with the tribute band Beatlemania Now taking the stage at the same venue (the Washington Coliseum) at the same time (8:31 p.m.) to play the same set (12 songs) that John, Paul, George and Ringo performed that snowy February night in 1964.

Okay, I admit it, I’m old enough that I probably could have gone to that first Beatles concert—if we had lived in DC, and IF my parents had let me. Would you believe tickets that night sold for $2 to $4? Plus, Jay & The Americans, The Righteous Brothers and Tommy Roe were the opening acts. Wow!

Even in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, where I grew up, the Beatles were an instant sensation. At Graham Road Elementary School, we were singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” It was that “Yeah, yeah, yeah” part that got everybody giggling.

The Beatles were so talented that they made their special brand of pop music seem easy—and oh so listenable. But people forget that they worked hard perfecting their craft before bursting onto the scene with their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

If you’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” you know that the Beatles are an example of the “10,000-hour rule.” Gladwell studied extremely successful people and concluded that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. He based this in part on research done in Berlin in the early 1990s by a team of psychologists who studied the practice habits of top violinists. By age 20, elite violin players had averaged over 10,000 hours of practice, while less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.

John and Paul started playing together in 1957, almost seven years before their first concert in the U.S. More important, Gladwell explains, is the time they spent in the early 1960s in Hamburg, Germany, along with George and Ringo, playing in clubs night after night…after night.

“All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half,” Gladwell writes. “By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times.” As Gladwell points out, that’s more performances than most bands have in their entire career.

John Lennon explained that they couldn’t help but improve because they played eight hours a night. Do the math, and you can see that the Beatles had already logged 10,000 hours before coming to America.

What’s my point?

Well, it’s pretty simple: To get good at anything, whether it’s music, sports, art or business, you have to practice, really practice. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent of practicing eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, for five years straight. That’s like a full-time job.

To be sure, practice isn’t everything. Aptitude counts, too. But lots of practice seems to be the mark of the “outlier,” what separates the great from the not-so-great.

This explains why after six years of taking guitar lessons, I don’t play nearly as well as I’d like. I have to admit, days go by and I hardly pick it up. In a good week, I might practice three or four hours. Even if I practiced a full hour every single day, it would take me 27.4 years to hit that magical 10,000-hour mark.

Gee, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Beatles!

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Please, no more faux customer service!

Restaurant customer service

Restaurant customer service can be delightful…or dreadful.

Have you ever been the recipient of faux customer service? It’s service with a saccharin smile—plastic, mechanical and insincere. Not genuine, not caring and certainly not the kind of service that makes you sit up and say, “Wow!”

I recently wrote about exceptional customer service that surprised and delighted—service that can have a positive and lasting impact on your brand. The kind of customer service I am writing about here, though, is deflating and harmful to brands. It rings hollow and leaves you feeling disappointed, even cheated.

We hear a lot about authentic leadership these days. “Genuine,” “heartfelt,” “mission-driven”—these are words associated with authentic leaders who connect with their employees and customers. So why can’t customer service have that same authentic connection?

It’s getting to the point where I cringe when I hear the following words because they’ve become so inauthentic:

“How are we doing today?”

“Are you finding everything okay?”

“Has everything been to your satisfaction?”

“How is your meal?”

Usually, when these words are uttered, you can bet they are not heartfelt or genuine. They are said without much feeling, and the person mouthing them moves on before you even have a chance to mouth back an equally empty response about everything being “just fine.”

I get particularly irked at restaurant servers, who interrupt your meal to ask you how the food is. It’s pretty evident they are going through the motions.

I was recently at a well-known pizza restaurant in Arlington for dinner. A young assistant manager stopped by our table to ask how the food was. I looked at our empty table and then looked up at her and said, “What food? We haven’t been served yet.”

The young lady blurted out an apology and then hurried off, never to be seen again. She could have easily recovered from her faux pas and delivered excellent customer service by simply saying, “I’m terribly sorry that you haven’t been served yet. I will go check on your order, and then I’ll be right back.”

Contrast that experience with one a few weeks later when I met a client for lunch at a restaurant in Springfield. Even though each of us had asked the hostess to be on the lookout for the other party, we somehow missed each other. My client got seated at a table upstairs while I waited downstairs in the lobby.

By the time we discovered each other, almost half an hour had gone by. We mentioned it to the hostess, and she said she would ask the manager to stop by our table. Sure enough, a manager did come by towards the end of our meal. She apologized for our inconvenience, but she also backed up her apology with action: She took one of the meals off our bill and gave us a gift card towards a future visit.

She did all of this without hesitation. Her demeanor was professional. No big fuss, but it was clear that she understood we had been inconvenienced. Both my client and I left feeling much better about the snafu.

Which restaurant am I most likely to go back to?

If you’re going to do customer service, then do it right. Make it authentic. Empower your people to wow your customers. In fact, make it clear that is what you expect. Anything less is simply faux customer service.

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Green socks, Hess trucks and the cocoon room

Hess truck

The first Hess toy truck was released in 1964 and included a fillable tank. Image from HessToyTruck.com.

Over the past week I’ve been collecting nuggets of wisdom to impart to you, dear reader—veritable gems, I tell you. Actually, I’ve discovered that it’s far easier to string together three little stories than to write a regular blog post.

What these vignettes have in common is that they are pseudo-profound, humorous (possibly) and have just a touch of irony. Oh, and they are mercifully short.

Green socks

Once upon a time, back when I dressed up more for work, I owned a bunch of suits. Most of them were gray or dark blue, but two of them were green. The khaki one went to Goodwill a long time ago. The olive-green one hangs forlornly in my closet.

I bought several pairs of green socks to go specifically with these suits. One pair in particular I wore only with the khaki suit, and so those socks have been out of commission for a long time now. But they are still in my sock drawer, waiting for…what?

The other day, I looked at those socks and sternly said to myself, “Either wear those damn socks or throw them away.” So I put them on, and I’m wearing them now.

Moral: When pushed hard enough, a man will wear socks that don’t match his pants rather than throw them away.

Hess trucks

I finally got around to taking down my Christmas decorations. The tree, lights, ornaments, wreathes, angels, a sled, a nativity scene—yeah, they were all still up.

Among the things I lovingly and oh so carefully packed (in their original boxes, of course) were my Hess trucks. Which, I might add, Debbie gave me. She gets all the credit for starting this habit. Look, I only have four of them, not every Hess truck since they started releasing them in 1964.

Did you know that 2014 will be the 50th year Hess has been making these limited-edition toy trucks? You can see every one they’ve produced on their website, HessToyTruck.com. It is so cool. The very first one, a Hess tanker trailer, had a cargo tank that could be filled with water and then emptied through an attached delivery hose!

Moral: A boy and his toys, no matter what age. Need I say more?

The cocoon room

I’ve been doing a lot of writing these days. Now, I like writing; in fact, I live for it. And I enjoy the fact that no two writing assignments are the same. But sometimes I have to really buckle down to write. It’s easy to get distracted. I’ll get the urge to eat. I’ll get up and walk around. I’ll make myself a cup of coffee. Or I’ll do something crazy like take out the trash or wash the dishes. I have these peripatetic habits. I start off in my home office. Then I move to the kitchen table. Pretty soon I’m upstairs in the cocoon room.

The cocoon room is what I call one of the spare bedrooms. It is probably the warmest room in the house in the wintertime. It gets lots of afternoon sun, and it’s as snug as a bug. I like the feel of it. I like that it’s away from everything else and so contained. It’s like when you were a kid and made a tent out of blankets and hid inside.

Moral: Everyone needs a cocoon room to repair to (when deadlines are near).

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Roy Rogers and ‘good’ brand incongruence

Delighted customers at fast-food restaurant.

Yes, even a fast-food restaurant can delight its customers.

I didn’t make it up—“brand incongruence” is an actual term. It’s when a company or organization does something that is incongruent with its brand attributes. To put it in the parlance of brand storytelling, your brand is acting out of character.

So if a high-end retailer known for its white-glove service fails to impress a customer, you’ve got some brand incongruence going on. Generally, you don’t want brand incongruence. You want to tell a consistent story that reinforces your brand promise.

But what if a brand does something out of character that is good? That’s what happened to me at my local Roy Rogers last week, and I’m still thinking about it. And that’s a good thing from a brand perspective.

Every Wednesday night, I take a guitar lesson at Music & Arts; then I stop off at Roy Rogers and have the #1 Meal. It’s a weekly ritual, and I’ve been doing it for over five years. (Did I mention that I’m a creature of habit?)

I’m already a big fan of this Roy Rogers franchise. The employees are friendly, and some of them have been there the whole time I’ve been going—which is amazing when you consider that it’s a fast-food restaurant.

Last week, one of the managers was walking from table to table, visiting with each of the customers. You really don’t expect to see that in a fast-food establishment.

I would definitely give him an A for his customer interactions. He was genuine, and he did three things that impressed me:

  1. He thanked me for coming in on such a cold night.
  2. He offered to take any trash that I had. (This was not an empty gesture; he had a tray in his hand already filled with trash.)
  3. He offered me an individually wrapped Roy Rogers mint.

Wow, an after-dinner mint at Roy Rogers!

I’m still thinking about that one because you just don’t expect a mint at Roy Rogers. It was definitely incongruent. But I remember it.

The question is, did this manager’s actions have any impact on the Roy Rogers brand? To answer that, I would have to consider the Roy Rogers brand promise, which for me is: convenience, fast, friendly service, cleanliness, consistency and value.

A Roy Rogers “suit” from the corporate office might be tempted to pull this young manager aside and say, “That’s a nice touch, son, but don’t forget why you’re here. Make sure the restrooms are clean and the tables get wiped.”

Or in brand-speak:

Exceptional customer service may get rewarded with high recall, but it won’t have any long-term impact if the brand promise isn’t filled.

But, on the other hand:

Exceptional customer service can have a lasting impact if you make good on your brand promise and then take it a step further. In other words, you’ve cleaned the restrooms and wiped the tables, and now you’re delivering pure delight.

It is the latter that was delivered to this customer last week at Roy’s, and I was delighted. Bravo!

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The unintended consequences of change

Just before Christmas, I made a lot of changes to my 2009 Apple iMac computer. I installed new memory cards and doubled its RAM from 4 to 8GB. I upgraded the operating system to Apple’s newest Mavericks OS. I upgraded Parallels, the software that allows Mac users to run Windows. I also bought a new external hard drive to back up everything.

I was psyched. My iMac was like a brand new computer. But I soon encountered a problem: It started shutting down for no reason. I’d be merrily typing away, creating spectacular content for one of my clients, and suddenly the screen would go dark.

I’m not sure what’s making my computer crash. Maybe I made too many changes too fast. Maybe I should have tested each upgrade before moving on to the next one. Now I have a computer that is in some ways worse than what I had before!

Jets in flight

Make sure your speed of change doesn’t exceed your capacity to change.

Managing change isn’t easy. Sometimes leaders try to change their organizations too fast. They want to do everything all at once. But too much change can crash an organization, just as surely as it did my computer.

When J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson was ousted last year after just 17 months at the helm, the conventional wisdom was that he tried to initiate too many changes at the ailing retailer. In an article in Forbes, Bill Ackman, Penney’s principal shareholder and the driving force behind Johnson’s recruitment, admitted that, “One of the big mistakes was perhaps too much change too quickly without adequate testing on what the impact would be.” He acknowledged that Johnson’s turnaround effort had been “very close to a disaster.”

This brings to mind what I would call the first law of change:

Change can have unintended consequences.

When I was upgrading my computer, all I thought about was how fast it would run and how up-to-date it would be. It didn’t occur to me that all those upgrades might not play well together.

Observers say that Johnson failed mostly because he didn’t take the time to test the impact of his changes. He scrapped Penney’s existing business model without having a proven model ready to replace it.

Of course, there are plenty of CEOs who make big, bold changes and are hailed as heroes. And we all know that if change comes too slowly, it can result in decline, even death, for a company.

So what’s the right pace for change? Some have argued for a balanced, “Goldilocks” approach to change management: Not too much, not too little; not too fast, not too slow—just the right amount of change to fit an organization. In other words, your speed of change shouldn’t exceed your capacity for change.

Leaders must walk a fine line. If they move too fast, they risk making mistakes, alienating key stakeholders and leaving their teams behind. If they move too slowly, they miss opportunities, bleed talent and risk possible extinction at the hands of faster competitors.

What’s been your experience with leading or participating in change?

For my part, I think practicing some of the “C’s” associated with sound change management helps a lot. These include:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Compassion
  • Commitment
  • Choice
  • Community/Common purpose
  • Critical thinking

Critical thinking is definitely a key one. If I had thought through my computer upgrades a little more carefully, I might have avoided those random crashes. Instead, I find myself clicking the save button and keeping my fingers crossed.

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Ut prosim, Virginia Tech and fall commencement

Virginia Tech

“That I may serve.” Image from virginiatech.tumblr.com.

There I was, a U.Va. graduate, in the heart of the Hokie Nation, watching my son receive his undergraduate degree in construction engineering from Virginia Tech. Putting aside all of the jokes we U.Va. grads make about Hokies being farmers (Tech, after all, is Virginia’s land grant “aggie” school), I was darn proud of Patrick.

It was an unseasonably warm day for the Dec. 20 commencement ceremony, held inside Cassell Coliseum. As we stood around outside afterwards enjoying the sun and taking pictures, a number of thoughts went through my head.

Mostly I thought about how far Pat has come in the last 10 years. Back in 2003, when he bowed out after a year and a half at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, he was bitter about school and directionless. He said going to college was a waste of time, and he would never go back. As he drifted, I worried about his prospects. I fretted, like any father would, about where he would end up.

Working in construction, though, showed him the value of hard work and that a degree might be necessary to get ahead. He started taking classes part-time at Northern Virginia Community College; then he transferred to Tech full-time about two years ago. Now, at the age of 30, he has his degree.

But he didn’t just get a degree. He approached school with a purpose and discipline that was missing the first time around. And it paid off. He graduated magna cum laude and received an academic award that assured him a spot in Tech’s nationally ranked graduate engineering program. He’s already on track to get his master’s degree at the end of next year.

One of the graduation speakers reminded us that commencement means beginning. I guess like most people, I have always thought of the commencement ceremony as a capstone, a time for congratulations and attaboys. How appropriate, I thought, to also view it as the start of something new and exciting—so many doors are now open to Pat that before were closed or only slightly ajar.

Another commencement speaker urged the audience to not just accept change, but to embrace and influence it. “Invent the future,” he said, which is Virginia Tech’s slogan. Everywhere you turned, embroidered on the gown of every graduate, was the school’s Latin motto, Ut Prosim: “That I may serve.” Combine inventing the future with serving others, and you have a pretty good action plan for life.

So I couldn’t be more impressed with this latest engineering grad from Tech. May he serve with distinction!

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Giving thanks for the things I don’t have

Walking through my house after being gone for four months, I was struck by what I hadn’t missed while I was away. I didn’t miss my belongings or the furniture or even the neighborhood. Within a day, though, I was back to worrying about this or that. I had my list of chores—clean the humidifier, replace the furnace filter, unpack some things I had stored in the basement.

Father Christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — I think.

I had vowed not to get caught up again in being a property owner; yet, here I was on the phone with my insurance company trying reinstate my homeowners policy, which I had replaced with landlord insurance during the time I rented my house. Unfortunately, I couldn’t just restart the old policy. The agent said I had to buy a new one, and that meant answering a bunch of questions about the property. I could feel those old ownership juices flowing again.

It didn’t help that I moved back into the house just before Thanksgiving—the kickoff of the Christmas shopping season, when the urge to buy, get and own things reaches its zenith. It’s a strange time of the year, with conflicting messages and feelings. It seems that two very disparate themes have evolved over the years and are now awkwardly intertwined like mismatched dance partners: One gyrates to the frenetic beat of “buy, buy, buy”; the other grooves to the good news of Christ’s coming and the possibility of peace on Earth.

There are occasional points of intersection, those times when we acknowledge the “true meaning of Christmas.” But is that just sentimentalism, a Hallmark moment? Or is it truly the humbling and sublime experience that the virgin birth conveys?

Each year, I think about setting my priorities straight. Then come those guilty pangs of “maybe I didn’t spend enough on gifts” or “what if someone I didn’t buy for gives me something?” What joy is there in that?

Next year will be different, I say…and so now “next year” is here, and I feel those same old expectations tugging at me. Will I give in to them, or will this be the year of change? And what exactly is change? A trip to someplace warm to escape everything? Shopping earlier so that I can enjoy Christmas Day?

At church, we are encouraging our congregation to engage in “alternative giving.” The idea is to make a donation to one of several causes we’ve identified (housing the homeless, stopping human trafficking, etc.) on behalf of someone else. Make that your gift rather than spending money on another tie or scarf that no one really needs.

That’s a good start to changing the dynamic of the season. I think about my house and being in it this Christmas but also wanting to refrain from feeling too invested in it. Not getting caught up in the trappings of ownership, the acquisition of things. I want to continue to downsize, to give away what I don’t need or never use. To simplify my life to the point where I really can focus on what is important. It may sound strange, but I want to give thanks and celebrate what I don’t have and what I haven’t really missed these last few months. That’s my holiday wish.

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The bald truth about power and leadership potential

In the mornings lately, when I take a shower and dry my hair, I’ve noticed a little thinning on top. Uh-oh.

My hair has always been what shampoo makers call “fine,” but nowadays it seems to be even finer—so fine as to be nearly invisible. So what’s going on here? Is this the beginning of the…end?

Bruce Willis

Remember the show “Moonlighting”? Bruce Willis had hair then. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m not sure, but I’ve discovered that if I comb my hair across the top of my head, you can’t really tell. It’s ingenious, really. I call it the comb-over. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of this. No one in the history of mankind has ever employed such a brilliant subterfuge. I’m thinking of patenting it.

Okay, just kidding.

I’m beginning to understand, though, why otherwise rational men resort to comb-overs. Sure, bald is in, sort of, but I’m no Bruce Willis or Dwayne Johnson. Although, what choice do I have when the inevitable happens—unless I use the patented comb-over or go for a toupee? Well, I could just shave my head now and be done with it. I could be another Seth Godin!

You laugh, but The Wall Street Journal reported last year that “[m]en with shaved heads are perceived to be more masculine, dominant and, in some cases, to have greater leadership potential than those with longer locks or with thinning hair, according to a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.”

In fact, Godin is even quoted in the article: “I’m not saying that shaving your head makes you successful, but it starts the conversation that you’ve done something active. These are people who decide to own what they have, as opposed to trying to pretend to be something else.” Okay, Seth, score one for authenticity.

Wharton management lecturer Albert Mannes conducted experiments to test people’s perceptions of men with shaved heads vs. those with hair. Subjects reported finding men with shaved heads as more dominant, taller and 13 percent stronger. Wow!

Seth Godin

Marketer Seth Godin. Photo by Joi Ito/Wikimedia.

Mannes speculates that head shavers seem more powerful because the look is associated with masculine images such as the military, professional athletes and Hollywood action heroes. Male-pattern baldness, by contrast, is associated with George Costanza from “Seinfeld.”

Indeed, the study found that men with thinning hair were viewed as the least attractive and powerful. “For these men, the solution could be as cheap and simple as a shave,” says the Journal. Ha, ha, ha. That really hurts.

For now, I have hair. It’s just not a full mop. It’s like a Chia Pet that’s lost its luster. A broom that’s missing some of its bristles. A thinning patch of grass that needs a little bit of TLC. I’ll manage for the time being. I’m not quite ready for the sheared look. Although, I did shave off my mustache a few years ago. Hmm…

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The magic of great branding

Who can explain why an Apple customer is willing to stand in line for hours for a new iPhone or why coffee drinkers will drive miles out of their way to find a Starbucks?

The Federal Credit Union magazineIt’s the magic of great branding.

In an article I wrote for the November-December issue of The Federal Credit Union magazine, I take a look at what the big, iconic brands can teach credit unions.

If you have a few minutes, I highly recommend that you give it a read because the observations I gleaned from talking to branding experts apply to any organization trying to differentiate itself in the marketplace.

Here are six quick takeaways from one of the experts I interviewed, Daryl Travis, CEO of Brandtrust Inc. Brandtrust is a Chicago-based research and consulting firm that has helped America’s top companies better understand their customers and brand themselves. Travis also has a new book out called “How Does It Make You Feel? Why Emotion Wins the Battle of the Brands.”

1. Brands are about feelings and not facts. With the advent of social psychology and behavioral economics, we understand so much more about why people make decisions, and we see more and more that they are driven by feelings. If you look at the customer experience from end to end, there may be hundreds of touch points, but our brains can only remember the ones that are the most emotionally intense. Those are the touch points that matter; they create the narrative or the mental model for processing how a brand makes us feel. That’s what the iconic brands understand.

2. Branding is the most powerful, yet most misunderstood, business strategy. There is nothing to explain the success of companies that sell commoditized products like coffee (Starbucks) or shoes (Zappos) beyond the power of their brand.

3. The brand is not part of the business; it is the business. How well an organization makes good on its brand promise—that’s what it’s all about.

4. The little things you do are more important than the big things you say. In personal service, it’s always about human interaction. How well is your staff attuned to what’s really going on with your customer? Are they thinking about what’s happening in their organization or what’s happening in their customer’s life? That’s what really makes a difference.

5. Every brand tells a story. How will yours be told? The essence of all human communication is story. That’s how humans learn. If you want people to pay attention to you, don’t give them a list of bullet points or features and benefits. Tell them a story. Tell them a story about what your organization stands for, why it means something to them and how it will help them in their own life.

6. There are brand ideals. Brands need to stand for something important. You have to ask yourself, “How would an organization that makes these kinds of promises behave?” Then it starts to become very clear what you need to do for product development, customer service and creating an experience where that brand promise comes true every day so that people feel it. Once people start to feel it, they will become engaged with the brand, and they will become loyal to the brand.

PRSA-NCC blog and board

I had an opportunity to post on the PRSA-NCC blog this week on “The future of America’s newspapers.” Similar to my post last week on The Wayward Journey, this one has more information from the Pew Research Center on the state of America’s news media.

I also want to thank everyone who voted for me in the recent PRSA-NCC elections. I have had the privilege of serving on the NCC board these past two years; now, I will have the privilege of serving as a vice president. I look forward to being a part of next year’s leadership team!

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