Simplicity is Beautiful


I take the train from Vancouver to Olympia, and then back again, all the time. (The love of my life lives south of the border.)

Olympia’s Centennial Station is staffed by (usually) elderly volunteers who love trains and who love helping travelers. Built in 1993 after six years of fund-raising in the local community, the train platform is laden with metallic plaques with the names of contributors. So many are couples. To me, the plaques are very moving.

Everything about this train station is right: The seats are comfortable; the vending machines have coffee, juice, pop, peanuts, and Cheese-Its at inexpensive prices; there are plugs everywhere; and the Wi-Fi never flutters.

My favourite part of the station is the clock outside. I have often stood in the rain just to stare at it. Unlike many of my students, I have very little vocabulary to describe design (a professional nuisance, alas). But I think I “get” this clock. It looks strong; it looks old-fashioned. Trains are strong and old-fashioned, but they are neither obsolescent nor obsolete. Their design is simple and beautiful.

(I stole the title for this post from Juliana Hatfield, a great musical artist.)


Complex Communications Solutions vs. Perhaps a Simpler One


From Paul Constant in The Stranger today:

Chris DeRose published an article at Business Insider addressing the fact that McDonald’s is failing at customer service, with a vice president of the company openly talking about the “rude or unprofessional employees” at some franchises. Here are DeRose’s suggestions:

  1. Create shared emotion around delivering a great customer experience. 
  2. Keep simplifying work processes and rules
  3. Invest more in tools and training.
  4. Reward and recognize great service.

What DeRose doesn’t suggest? Paying the employees a living wage.


h/t @atrios

Collage by David Scherer Water, used with permission


Ethics of Persuasion: The Reciprocity Rule

I was walking down Granville Street the other day on my way to London Drugs when I spotted two Chinese monks ahead of me speaking to passersby.

Ordinarily cautious of sidewalk solicitors, I let one of them engage me precisely because they appeared to be Buddhist monks, with their shaved heads and saffron shirts and trousers. He placed his palms together and bowed, and I did the same. He handed me a little card with red tassels, and slipped prayer beads onto my wrist.

Then he showed me a flipbook containing names and donations, which all, curiously, seemed to be 20 dollars and written in the same handwriting.

“Oh, no no no,” I chided him. “I don’t have any money.” I handed back the little card and slipped the beads off my wrist.


“No, I don’t have any,” I told him, and scurried away.

A few years ago, I would have felt guilty, but that day I didn’t. The monk had attempted to invoke one of the most powerful societal norms we have — the reciprocity rule — solely to gain my donation. Because he’d given me a gift, I was then obliged to return the favor, or so it seemed.

Fortunately, thanks to Robert Cialdini, social psychology researcher and author of Influence, I reframed and rejected the gifts for what they truly were.

As long as we perceive and define the action as a compliance device instead of a favor, the giver no longer has the reciprocation rule as an ally: The rule says that favors are to be met with favors; it does not require that tricks be met with favors.

It’s worth noting that invoking the reciprocity rule in this fashion is a short-term strategy. We don’t tend to like people who have backed us into a corner. My fuzzy feelings about monks in general completely evaporated when it came to these particular ones. Indeed, not having any evidence they were affiliated with a temple, I began to wonder if they were monks at all, and whether there was anyone I could report them to.

The long-term (and ethical) strategy? Give freely, without asking for or expecting immediate returns. Reciprocity is powerful, and people will go to great lengths to try to return your favors. What goes around really does come around.

People will be suspicious; we’ve been taught “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and had so many experiences of being tricked that we sometimes reject treats.

That’s ok. Do it anyway.

Photo used under Creative Commons license from Richard Perry’s Flickr feed.

By the Book

The other day I called Asus for authorization to return my husband’s laptop for repairs. Hoping not to have to speak to support, I’d filled out the online request form, but I ended up having to call them anyway.

The support rep asked me to confirm my name, phone number, address, and e-mail address. Each piece of data elicited the response: “Thank you for that information.” Not “Thank you,” or “Thanks.” “Thank you for that information.”

This is going to be a long call, I thought.

The previous warranty issue with the laptop had drawn out over months and many phone calls, so I was familiar with the protocol. Each time, no matter how many times I had already called, the support rep asked me to confirm all of my personal information and thanked me for providing each piece. When we were done, each rep gave a summary of the call and the actions taken.

I understood some of this. It made sense to confirm my details the first couple times to ensure they’d been entered correctly. But by about the fifth call, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Can we skip this?” I pleaded.

It also made sense to summarize the call, in case there was a misunderstanding. But the language throughout the call was so stilted and so unvarying from rep to rep that it was clear each rep adhered faithfully to his script.

It seemed to me, after this latest call, that instead of reciting a script, the support rep could have easily been replaced by one.

An online troubleshooter could have walked me through the steps I had to take to confirm to their satisfaction that the laptop was indeed faulty and needed repair. Even with a name and address as tricky as mine, it could have solicited and confirmed that information with nary a fumble.

I would trade those Asus reps for a computer quicker than you could say “Thank you for that information.”

But that’s not really what I want, at least not much of the time.

What I really want is this: a human being with enough autonomy to go off-script.

A script, whether programmed into a computer or read by a support rep, cannot care for a customer. It cannot soothe anger, crack a joke, engage in smalltalk, or skip parts of the algorithm based on what you’ve already told them. Even its expressions of empathy sound insincere. The phrase “I apologize for your frustration” makes me more frustrated as a customer, not less.

Scripts can be useful to teach new reps. But if you’re not weaning reps off them and giving them the freedom to speak to customers in their own language and using their own problemsolving skills, you ought to call it customer dispatching. You’ve no right to call it customer service.

Image used under Creative Commons license from dalbera’s Flickr feed.

Follow us on Twitter: @nocontestca
Follow me on Twitter: @bfwriter