By Scott Westerman
If you want to be thankful for what you have, immerse yourself in an culture where it doesn’t exist.
That’s what is at the front of my mind as a decompress from 12 days in Cuba. I am thankful for clean tap water, hot water, soap, elevators, milk, beef, Decent roads (yes even Michigan’s most woeful roads are better), just about everything we take for granted in the bathroom, toilet paper, tissues, toilet seats and accessibility to bathrooms period. The unlimited cell phone minutes we take for granted cost over $2.00 each in Cuba. Text messages run 60 cents a piece. WiFi is only available in a few public squares and the better hotels. It costs $5.00 an hour. The typical Cuban earns just $20.00 per month. Yes, you read that right, $20.00 per month.
In spite of all of this the Cuban people are a generally hopeful and happy lot. There is one distinguishing factor, something that is amplified by the country’s years of socialist rule. Some Cubans feel no motivation to work. They are willing to exist on the meager living the government provides. Others look for an opportunity to earn more, using the evolving economy as a tool.
“Here in Cuba,” a local resident told me, “We need a ‘Plus’.”
For some, that plus is working in the burgeoning tourism industry, where a day’s worth of tips can equal a month’s salary. It’s a world where taxi drivers can earn an income that is 100 times greater than a doctor or an airline pilot.
And that income is generated exclusively by a unique and growing market: foreigners.
As I generously tipped our excellent tour guide, I was reminded that, whatever the economic condition, our rewards in life are always in exact proportion to our service. Even here in America, where scale and commoditization of products are a religion, we still celebrate and reward those who go the extra mile. It’s hard not to. We live in a world that tries to cram us into increasingly automated and non-human processes, a world of automated response telephone systems, labyrinthine websites and highly scripted support processes parroted by an overseas workforce. It’s a world where corporate profits are juiced by providing “just enough” service to keep the customer from doing the work to find another option.
It’s no wonder we crave individuality.
Cuba reinforced my belief that humaneness is a powerful competitive advantage. In a world with a ton of “elite” status programs where the word “special” is a meaningless cliche, there is immense power in the personal touch. Processes designed to identify and maximize relationship moments of truth pay huge dividends. Hiring people who love to provide joyful customer experiences are essential to their effective execution.
I saw this in action during a recent trip to Walt Disney World. My friend, Bob Chapek, manages WDW Parks and Resorts and I regularly cite the Disney way as best in class.
By my watch, when I had waited in a hotel check-in line for 90 seconds, a supervisor magically appeared to tell me that the wait would not be much longer, handing me a park map and asking me where I was from. There are video screens at every bus stop calculating the exact time the next vehicle will arrive for your favorite park. A “Magic” wrist band unlocks your hotel room door, charges your purchases to your account and speeds your entry into the parks. What isn’t overtly evident is how every employee, from the janitor to your bus driver thoroughly understands every dimension of the operation, knows the Frequently Asked Questions by heart and has been trained to identify customer moments of truth and maximize them.
Like thirsty hikers on long hot march across the desert, we crave this kind of attention. “We seek out experiences and products that deliver more value, more experience and change us for the better,” writes Seth Godin in Lynchpin.
And we will pay extra for The Plus.
We love people who make us feel special. It’s the foundation of our relevance at the Michigan State University Alumni Association. This is our Plus: We exist to care for and about Spartans. Whenever we find one, our goal is to always leave them feeling better about themselves, to help smooth at least one bump in their life’s road, to connect them with one other Spartan who is also walking their path. If we can do that, they are more likely to remain Spartan Loyal, and hopefully, to model that same behavior in their world.
Think about your personal brand. What is your Plus? What one or two things do you do to go above and beyond the average, to add more value? If those questions make you uncomfortable, simply look about you. There are subtle examples of Pluses everywhere. Try keeping a journal of the things you witness with this new awareness. What can you incorporate into your brand to stand above the crowd.
Begin with kindness. Make eye contact. Start every conversation with by asking how the other person is doing, going beyond the simple, “how are you”, to dig one level deeper. When I have an early flight, I always ask the TSA people, “What time did you have to get up today?” or “What day of your week is this?” TSA people work weekends so my Wednesday could be their Friday.
Prior to hosting our Cuba trip, I researched every one of our guests, sent them individual welcome emails with some last minute tips. I “worked the room” at every meal and tried to sit with different people on every leg of our bus tours. They turned out to be a fascinating lot. By the end of the trip I felt like I had deepened 14 friendships, a benefit to the university for sure, but equally, personally enriching for me.
The services we receive only happen because other people are willing to perform them. One of the most powerful gifts you can give is the gift of gratitude. Here’s one of my favorites. When I talk with any person who performs what could be incorrectly considered a menial task, I always say”I really appreciate you being here today for us.”
Too few people say this with genuine authenticity. I’ve received more than my share of business class upgrades and hotel amenities with that line. But that’s not why I do it. Developing an authentic appreciation for the humanity makes every day a little easier to navigate. It can create an energy field of positivity that will radiate well beyond your own experience.
It’s one small way you can significantly change the world.
Humaneness is the most important Plus. It’s more important than going the extra mile to serve. It’s recognizing that each of us have value as human beings, no matter what we do, appreciating them and thinking of at least one way you can leave them in a better place than you found them.
This is often hard to do in Cuba. The deck is stacked against it. For over 50 years this has been a country where deprivation has been a way of life. And yet, miraculously, somehow, hope springs eternal in this environment of stagnation and decay. Perhaps Viktor Frankl’s wisdom can explain why this is so. “When we are no longer able to change a situation,” he wrote, “we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“Cubans understand this,” my friend concluded. “We have many who are in very bad situations, but you would never know it to look at them. Those who come here tell me that we are a happy people. We choose to be happy, even while we are always looking for better life… for a Plus.”
She smiled and put her hand on my shoulder. “This is how we survive.”