flashback friday: committed? are you sure?

How committed are you? To your job? To your personal mission? To the things you must accomplish in this life? How committed are you really?

We’re told we should choose a career that we love so much we’d do it even if we didn’t get paid. That’s a pretty high level of commitment and passion right there. We all want to do something we love, something that has meaning for us. But what if what you loved required you to risk incarceration? Death? That necessitated carrying firearms just to get to the job? That still paid almost nothing, if anything at all? That was so outside the norm that you were the only one in the entire country doing it and you were blazing the trail with almost every action?

That’s pretty rough. Let’s up it a little: would you go into exile for your passion? Would you leave friends, family, and everything you knew behind to go be a second-class citizen in another country just so you could “follow your bliss”?

This weekend I watched the 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad about Iraq’s first (only?) metal band Acrassicauda and saw a glimpse into what relentless obsession looks like. The movie is a fascinating look at Baghdad in 2005/06. It’s not about soldiers, politicians, ideologies, right, or wrong. It’s not even really about heavy metal. It’s about the struggle of a group of 20-somethings just trying to have a band and make some music against the backdrop of daily life in Baghdad. What would be a normal – mundane, even – activity for college-aged youth in the US becomes a hero’s quest where hopes and dreams wrestle against the hopelessness of daily violence and chaos. They suffer more for their dreams than I could ever go through here.

After watching, I came away wondering how I could up my passion to that level. How can I tap into the human need that’s fueling them to carry on? How can I bring the noise like they do? How can I play that big with the things that are important in my life? How much would I, could I, truly risk?

[This was originally posted July 30, 2012. I just watched the movie again last night and was affected even more strongly than the first time. It’s easy to talk about following my dreams when I am my own biggest roadblock and easy to complain about all my problems and setbacks when I don’t really have any. Time to play bigger.]

what your business can learn from a 30 year old metal band

When is the last time that you – as a customer – were completely blown away by the unexpected value a business provided? I don’t mean that you were happy with the service or product. I mean that you were so delighted that you wouldn’t shut up about it. You told everyone in earshot, called up friends, emailed, posted it on Facebook. You went in expecting X and got X+10.

Now the tough question: when was the last time that you delivered that level of unexpected value to your customers?

Last week I came across a video on YouTube that caught me so off guard I’ve been annoying my friends with it, spending money on iTunes, and it has caused me to rethink my day job. I hesitate to share it because I realize that not everyone will, um, appreciate it as much as me, but even if you hate the video, the idea holds true.

Here’s the backstory: Grave Digger is a metal band from Germany founded in the early ‘80s. They never made it big in the US but were very successful in Europe. They were invited to play the 2010 Wacken Open Air Festival – an enormous 4-day event with 80,000 attendees, over 120 bands, and 6 stages. It’s kind of a big deal. They played on the main stage and chose to play their most popular album in its entirety.

That’s huge, but how do you stand out further? There’re a lot of other and bigger name bands, so what do you do to please your customer? You close with a crowd-favorite anthem about the Scottish rebellion (think Braveheart) AND you invite Van Canto, an A cappella metal band (don’t ask – it works for them) to open the song AND you invite the singer for Blind Guardian (another band barely known in the US and legendary in Europe) to sing with you AND you bring bagpipers on stage. It is so amazingly over the top, but I’m afraid that if, for some strange reason, one wasn’t into German heavy metal , the impact of it would be lost. The video link is at the bottom. Watch and enjoy if you want, but my point isn’t about music at all.

Maybe this will capture the impact: Imagine that you were a huge tech conference and excited about hearing Bill Gates speak. As he nears the end he surprises the crowd by bringing Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg out to offer their thoughts on the topic. That’s the kind of value it is for the customers. Would it have been a good show without all the others? Sure. But it wouldn’t have been you-must-see-this amazing.

My point? If you’re not surprising your customers, leaving them dumfounded, amazed, and dying to tell their friends about your products or services, you’re a commodity. I can get Italian food from dozens of restaurants; what makes your restaurant better? Realtor? Hundreds to choose from, why do I care about you? Car dealer? Yawn – there’re 17 others lined up right next to you. Competing on price? I’m a loyal customer until your competitor has a sale. C’mon. Do better.

What? The music festival story doesn’t work for your business. You’re lying to yourself. Try harder. It doesn’t have to be festival big. Little things make a huge difference. Do you greet every customer? Not the, “WelcometoblahblahblahI’monlysayingthisbecausemyjerkfacebossisforcingmeto.” that even mini-marts are doing. I mean a look-you-in-the-eye-shake-your-hand-sincerely-I’m-pleased-you’re-here hello. There are businesses that do it; a few of them. They really, really stand out. And it costs them NOTHING.

My favorite  Realtor in the whole world consistently amazed me with his uncanny in-depth knowledge of the market and area, connections to very high quality repairmen, and tons of little touches. After we sold our house he gave us a $50 gift card to our favorite restaurant. Pleased? Surprised? Thrilled? Absolutely. Small touch, big impact, class act.

My favorite motorcycle jacket is an Aerostitch. I didn’t know I was going to buy one, but I happened to see their shop from the highway one day when I happened to be in Duluth (who happens to be in Duluth?). I went in on a whim and after chatting for a few minutes with the clerk, he INSISTED that we take a tour of the factory. The jackets were assembled on-site and I got to see crashed jackets that were being repaired, meet the people sewing them together, and yes, I bought a jacket. And for days after I purchased it I kept finding new pockets and features that only a very serious motorcyclist would have thought to include. There are a lot of ways they could have cheaped out, but that wouldn’t have inspired me to make a $400 impulse purpose at a time when I was making about $7 an hour. And it wouldn’t have inspired me to brag on the company 15 years later.

This is a long post, but an important one. Are you offering as much delight and value as your competition? Yes? Then you are instantly replaceable. Do better.