As it is that time of year, odds are pretty good that you’ve happened upon the Frank Capra holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Between that, “A Christmas Story” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” it’s a wonder there's anything else on TV during the holiday season. I do consider myself a fan of the movie, but that probably has more to do with my appreciation for James Stewart and the funny way he talks than it is for anything else. Stuttering Jim aside, the movie definitely has its milestone moments, and probably none as culturally indelible than when little Zuzu, upon hearing the ringing of the Christmas tree ornament bell, sweetly states, “Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angle gets his wings.”
Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. While I’m sure that Clarence appreciated getting his due, I’m not really here to discuss campanology, nor its merits on signaling major life events amongst angels. Rather, I was recently reading the December 2011 Wired Magazine interview with Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, and something he said struck me:
“Every time a customer contacts us, we see it as a defect.”
While certainly not as sweet and innocent as little Zuzu’s proclamation, Bezos' version does hint at that same sense of childhood naiveté and idealism. You see, what he's really saying is that he wants Amazon to be a perfect customer experience. Not just when a customer reports a missing order or something else unpleasant, but when a customer makes any contact, whatsoever. In Bezos’ world, a perfect customer experience should be so intuitive, painless and efficient that the customer can barely even recognize that an experience has occurred at all.
It’s a bit of a paradox. While we all want customers to use our specific brands of software and services, they're only doing so to solve some other sort of problem. I’m not using WordPress for the sake of using WordPress; I’m using it to communicate my ideas here to you. We spend lots of time and money building features to make it easier for customers to solve problems using our software. But the truth is, if we’ve really done our jobs right, the customer almost forgets that they're using our specific brand of software and services to actually solve their problem. The tool becomes invisible. I don’t think of the power company when I turn on my lights; why should I think of Amazon when I use them to purchase my, "It’s a wonderful Life" two/disc collectors set DVD? If the experience was perfect, their role in the transaction would be transparent and forgettable.
Long ago, I had a mentor who suggested that a good employee is one who makes himself indispensable, while a great employee makes himself redundant. If your job is to solve a problem, and your charter is to make solving that problem as easy as possible / and if your goal is perfection / then at some point you’ll work yourself out of that job. If our goal as software and service providers is to solve customer problems, and perfection is something we strive for, at some point we should become an invisible part of the equation. While the idea of invisibility and redundancy may seem threatening, it shouldn’t. If people can use our software to solve their problems with such ease that they don’t even consciously recognize that they're doing so, how do you think they'll feel when they use tools that force them to be aware?
While Zuzu had her rose, Bezos' petals is the idea behind his words:
- Focus on the details,
- Expand your definition of quality, and
- Never compromise
Striving for perfection may mean that you essentially become invisible. But that’s okay. Customers may not recognize you when they're using you, but they sure will miss you when they are not.
It’s almost 2012, a brand new year! Being an eternal optimist, I am excited with what the year has to bring. In a short time, the holidays will be officially over and it will be back to “business as usual.” So as a final adieu, I’d like to offer a toast /
In 2012 may all your builds be good, and all your acceptance tests automated and passed. May you continue to focus on innovation, quality and user experience. And may Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings recover from his ACL and MCL injuries very quickly, as we really can’t afford to have our star offensive player out for the 2012 season over a stupid play from a game that didn’t even matter… er, well Happy New Year!