Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sheriff Bo Tully Mysteries

This is actually something of a series, although you could easily read them independently of one another.  Here's the first book:


I got the stomach flu a few weekends ago, and needed something easy and relaxing to read while I was sick.  A couple of these books were just what the doctor ordered.

If you're not familiar with Patrick McManus, he has written a series of humorous books with anecdotes and short stories about the outdoor life in the west - specifically the Idaho panhandle area, where he grew up.  Some of them are pretty entertaining.

These books, rather than being an "embellished" account of his own experiences, are fictional stories set in "Blight County" Idaho.  While they are murder mysteries, McManus' dry humor comes through loud and clear.

The cast of characters are entertaining, and the plots keep you curious about whodunnit.

With a thought to my Italian friends, I'm not sure how much of the books would be lost on someone not familiar with small towns in out of the way places in the US.  On the other hand, they're also a fun glimpse into the sort of town not often visited by tourists from abroad.

I can recommend the first two books of the series, which I have read: they're good, unpretentious, fun and funny stories.  A great distraction from a busy life in a not-so-out-of-doorsy place.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service: Inspire Timeless Loyalty in the Demanding New World of Social Commerce


I wanted to like this book, and the author seems like a nice, competent guy, but I don't feel like I got that much out of it.

There is a lot of talk about how to do great customer service, and there are some useful ideas there.  However, I felt that the economics of customer service were given short shrift.

And by economics, we're talking the classical definition of "the allocation of scarce resources".  Not everyone can be an Apple or a four star hotel: some businesses don't have those kinds of margins.  Now, granted, they can still follow a lot of the advice, but where resources are scarce, tradeoffs are involved, and in some kinds of businesses, you can't cater to the customer's every whim and still stay in business.  Yes, as he says, there are probably too many businesses where there is too much focus on "the bottom line", where in reality a bit of courtesy and going out of your way to help would be an investment that pays you back with time.  In any event, though, I felt like the book did not dedicate enough space to dealing with conflicts, and where to draw the line.  If everyone who walked into a McDonalds started ordering burgers as if it were a four star restaurant, just to make up an absurd example, something would have to give: prices or service.  You could say "ok, fine, you want a quality burger done your way, we'll up the prices", so that you can serve each person the burger of their heart's desire.  Or - and this is what would probably happen in a real McDonalds - you'd politely say "sorry sir, we don't do that".  You could say it with a smile, or make a joke about it, or even recommend another business, to leave a good impression with the customer.  But you'd still have to say "no".  If you're a social person, and genuinely in business to help people, it's pretty easy to go out of your way to help a customer.  The difficult part is defining a culture, and a few guidelines to go along with it, that has a sense of what's ok and when to say "sorry, no".

This kind of problem comes up more often in a service business.  Rational people do not go into a McDonalds expecting the best burger of their lives.  It's a product.  Not a great one, but a very standardized one where people know what they're getting.  With a lot of services, things are not so well defined.  A customer wants "a web site", and maybe has some vague notions of what that means, but may not even know what they want until they start to see it.  And then they want to tweak this, or that.  And then change something else.  If you're the guy building the web site, those changes and extra work cost you time and money, and, at some point, you're going to have to say "no, sorry, that's going to cost extra".

The other thing that I didn't get from the book was much practical advice.  I'm not sure who his audience is, but I'm just starting to build up customer service for my own small business, LiberWriter.com and trying to do it on a fairly tight budget.  Specific, concrete tips and tricks to make things work better that would save me painful learning experiences, and do so with my very limited resources, would have been very, very welcome and paid for the book many times over.

It did have some good bits, but with books like this, I'm more in the market for practical advice.  I'm not looking for a "timeless classic" that I'll keep coming back to for wisdom and philosophy, but a book that will help me bootstrap a solid customer service system and culture within my own small business.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Innovation and Entrepreneurship


Nearly 30 years old, this book still carries itself quite well. Lots of business books are faddish, attempting to capitalize on whatever is trendy.  Others have one good central idea that could be described in 5 pages, and are fluffed out to make them book length.  But I found a number of concepts that were relevant in this book, indeed, many that I've read in other, much later books, so it felt like a highly worthwhile read.  The book's age also helps in another way: rather than focus on the hot startup du jour, the examples are a bit more abstract, in that many of them are not so relevant today.  In other words, Apple makes an appearance, but so does Wang Laboratories.  That's a good thing, because it lets you focus on the idea being conveyed without confusing the issue with all of the hype and excitement about what's popular right now.

But—and this defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship—the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity

Innovation and Entrepreneurship opens with a discussion of different kinds of innovation.  Quoting from the book:
  • The unexpected—the unexpected success, the unexpected failure, the unexpected outside event;
  • The incongruity—between reality as it actually is and reality as it is assumed to be or as it “ought to be” 
  • Innovation based on process need; 
  • Changes in industry structure or market structure that catch everyone unawares. The second set of sources for innovative opportunity, a set of three, involves changes outside the enterprise or industry: 
  • Demographics (population changes); 
  • Changes in perception, mood, and meaning;
  • New knowledge, both scientific and nonscientific
And in discussing these different types of innovation, Drucker points out that the stereotypical "revolutionary idea" is actually pretty rare compared to other types of innovation.  A more typical situation is an industry insider who sees how things could be improved, and strikes out on their own.

Indeed, this is a theme common throughout the book: highly visible high tech innovation of the sort typified by, and glorified in Silicon Valley is probably more of the exception rather than the rule.

Something I noticed throughout the book were ideas I've seen in other, later business books, like Steve Blank's "get out of the building", or this quote about attacking a niche:

Once that beachhead has been secured, that is, once the newcomers have an adequate market and an adequate revenue stream, they then move on to the rest of the “beach” and finally to the whole “island.”
 Which is pretty much exactly the strategy espoused in Crossing the Chasm .

In any event, there's a lot of good material, and it's impossible to summarize all of it, so I'll conclude that this is a good one that is still relevant 30 years after having been written.