“Your smile is a gift”- and other suggestions for better service.

Okay, to be fair, I considered some pretty harsh headlines for this post.

“Really? Your life cannot be that horrible” was one of them. I also contemplated using, “I’m the one being asked to remove my shoes and belt.”

Why such a title? You guessed it. I’m writing this from gate B3 at O’hare International Airport. And the headline I finally arrived at is a direct reflection of my experience with the disgruntled TSA agent today. It’s not a new story, and it certainly isn’t exciting. She was mad, frustrated, or generally unhappy. Perhaps she has encountered inexperienced travelers today. Maybe she is working an extra shift. Or, quite possibly, her airport lunch didn’t meet her expectations. Nonetheless, she was not having it today. And by ‘it’, I mean “general happiness and smiling customers.

That’s right. Today, the customers were all jovial, accommodating, and generally happy people, all trying to make it to their destinations. I was one of those. Shoes removed, belt in the bin, and smile upon my face. I was headed to sunny Florida (for work), where I would soon encounter a 57 degree temperature increase. Bring it.

But, Helga (not her real name) wasn’t interested. She was barking orders, and scowling at the floor. Not making eye contact, not smiling. Barely communicating. In fact, Helga was pretty much yelling at us. We know the rules. We are at the United Premier Access security line. This is not our first rodeo, Helga.

Now- I value the presence of safety officers. I think we all do. And I am sure it’s not the most rewarding career on the planet. But Helga was convinced we were all school children who needed reprimanding.

Keeping It Real

Here’s the thing: just yesterday I gathered our entire creative team to discuss the importance on quality customer service. Not that the team needed this reminder. In fact, much of our time together was sent commending individuals for value-added productivity and communication that is making our work so much fun. But I wanted to be sure we understood how important the customer is to the work we do.

Every task we tackle, every piece of fancy art we create, every video, photo and story we dream up means little if the client isn’t satisfied and thrilled with the work. And, as a pleaser myself, I can say I have a hard time sleeping at night when the customer is less than thrilled with my work. But it goes beyond the finished project. Customer satisfaction begins at the beginning.

There’s a reason every meeting in our office includes a pot of freshly-brewed (freshly roasted) coffee at the table. It’s right to offer your guests a beverage and a comfy place to sit for the next 30-40 minutes together. I would do the same in my own home. But it starts even before that.

It’s starts at “hello.”

That smile that greets the welcome is also paramount. Every step of the way, a friendly smile is the perfect accompaniment to a quality customer-client relationship. Now, video meetings and phone calls and emails may make that difficult, so when we are face-to-face, it is vital that we look each other in the eyes (“heads up, Helga”) and acknowledge the humanity in our brothers and sisters around us.

Helga was having issues, yes. But I decided to respond with the only tool I had in that moment. I ignored Helga’s barking, and waited for her to make eye contact with me. Then I blasted her with a smile, and said, “Thanks, Helga.” That was enough for me. I doubt it made much difference to her. But, as humans – we saw each other. Then we moved on with our days. That’s enough for now.

$330 Sneakers? Maybe.

A fascinating article in GQ today examined the current alarming status of the sneaker market.

That’s right– tennis shoes, gym shoes, kicks– whatever you call ’em, the market is booming. And not just for new items, either. The after-sale market is presently valued at $2 billion, with the ath-leisure market expected to be worth $83 billion by the year 2020, according to some analysts.

In the early 1980’s the footwear trend hit my hometown, a suburb of Detroit. And I had to have them. All I had to do was convince my parents that the $40 price tag was worthwhile. It wouldn’t be easy– we’d never spent more than $25 on shoes, and those were dress shoes. My parents scoffed at the idea.

Today, a $40 pair of quality sneakers can be near impossible to find.

After Christmas this year, our family decided to have a ‘stay-cation’ in Chicago. Since we live here, we often don’t do the touristy things, so once every year, we try to be tourists for a day or so. We visit museums and eat pizza and drink too much coffee.

As a special treat, I thought I would jet my boys to a couple of the “hippest” sneaker shops  while we were nearby. (Thank you Google for making this middle-aged dad appear, even momentarily, kinda cool.)

What I found inside the minimalist, tiny, privately-owned shop surprised even me: white walls, bare floors, plywood shelving and industrial pipe racks. This was the place?

Now, let me be clear: I have literally seen closets on the north shore that rival the square footage of this shop. But, here, on a blustery December day, I found a welcoming shop owner and a small community of enthusiasts who were pleased to show us their latest acquisitions. My sons were wide-eyed. And, I admit, I was taken by it all.

The sneakers in this shop are unique. Most are unavailable at retail outlets, and here they are sold at a premium- with few at retail prices. The curating of such items comes at a cost. The average price of a premium, after-market sneaker these days is $330.

Each of my sons, age 20 and 15, would pick up a sneaker, examine it from every angle, holding it up to spy the unique stitching and fabric dyes. And to be honest, I haven’t seen them take an interest like this, other than the screens of their phones.

What is it about this place? They’re just tennis shoes, right?

Wrong. It’s the community that the individuality and specificity of the brands affords the consumer. There are Adidas folks. Nikes folks. And then, those others who want the custom, gold-plated designer shoes. My boys save their hard-earned dollars to buy tennis shoes. Ridiculous? Maybe not.  My youngest has even taken to buying premium sneakers on their ‘drop date’ and reselling them online at a premium. And he’s making good, real money.

We bought shoes that day. That’s right, we. I bought a pair, too. To be fair, they were on sale for $50. And I love them. houndstooth

Read GQ article here.







Difficult, yet Rewarding


George Wolff

This Sunday’s New York times featured a terrific article about an exciting and popular new class offered at Yale University, “Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness.”

‘Psychology and the Good Life’ taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, “tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life,” according to the article by David Shimer. The course was so well received, it had to be moved to a larger location to accommodate the crowds or registrants.

Santos fights the mischaracterization of what many assume will be a fluff course. She surmises that Yale students ‘reprioritized’ their own happiness in high school to attain ivy league acceptance. Hmmmm. And while that seems like a typical response to this millennial generation, she also thinks hers is the “hardest class at Yale.”

Really? Happiness is the toughest course at Yale? 

She goes on to explain that the social pressures of taking a course with friends that calls students to be held accountable for their actions and their habits is truly unique and challenging.

My entire college experience was that course.

Though I studied music performance in my undergrad, I did so at a small, liberal arts college that encouraged proficiency across all aspects of academia. Music theory, performance studies, and aural skills may have been the focus of my degree, but the cornerstone of my education lay in the core curriculum and understanding of art, literature, religion and the sciences.

Though a liberal arts education isn’t for everyone, I found the value of my focused degree in the variable academia across campus. And, perhaps because it was a smaller college, my ‘general studies’ professors always encouraged my featured major in their individual concentrations.

I recall being in a literature course where my professor called me to study, in depth, the texts of the music I had been studying. Cracking into Voltaire as I studied Bernstein’s Candide, and discovering the text of Shubert’s Winterreise. But it went beyond these obvious illustrations.

During my sophomore year, my roommate was killed in a van accident. He was one of three friends who lost their lives while on our university choir tour. It was difficult for all of us, but I took it especially hard. My older, resident-director roommate had become a mentor to me, and I looked up to him.

With him gone, I expected I would be alone. I was wrong.

Instead, I found a campus (what seemed like an entire campus) that was now stepping in, ready to support me in my college career: professors, students, staff. The entire community was there to support me and help me cross the finish line– well.

Because of this tragedy, I assumed it was all for me. I assumed these fine people were investing in me because I had experienced some great tragedy. I am happy to say the was not the case.

My conversations with other graduates of my fine college tell a virtually identical story of their experience: professors inviting them to their homes for family dinners; one-on-one meetings to discuss life and all its complexities; and random phone calls to “check-in” on them. Apparently, our professors had collectively decided to ‘not give up’ on us.

Perhaps this happens at every college. Perhaps not.

My undergraduate experience was an eye-opening, challenging, stretching venture into the world of who I would become. I cannot say enough how grateful I am for the men and women who devoted their lives to their knowledge and skill and craft, and chose to invest in my life.

And, while I may have never taken a course entitled ‘Happiness,‘ I feel as if my undergraduate experience did provide such an experience.


Read David Shimer’s article here



More, From Less

MUJI as inspiration for our work

I’ve been toting around the most recent Harvard Business Review since it landed in my office several weeks ago– I kept meaning to get to it. Mainly, I wanted to be sure to take adequate time to digest “How I Did It” by Masaaki Kanai, chairman of Ryohin Keikaku– parent company of MUJI.

Now, you may have no idea what MUJI is, but trust me- you will.

MUJI is a line of sustainably designed, inexpensive, nondescript, non-branded  housewares and clothing, launched in 1980. Chances are, unless you live near a booming university town or a major metropolitan area, you’ve never stepped foot inside a MUJI store. And you certainly haven’t seen their advertisements, because they don’t believe in them.

I first discovered MUJI when I was living in Brooklyn Heights, outside New York. I stepped into their Manhattan store and immediately was taken by their minimalist concept. And anyone who knows me knows that I am anything but a minimalist.

But MUJI was different. It was so decidedly practical, and, well– necessary. Every item I saw, I thought I needed. Including their fashion. On that first visit alone, I purchased $300 in tee shirts, socks, a toothbrush holder and travel gear, a sweater for my wife, poncho, and two scarves that had been conveniently shrink-wrapped to the size of a Rubik’s cube.

As I strolled the store that day, I never realized that that my overpriced suit and shoes and topcoat and briefcase were the height of contradiction. I longed for the MUJI simplicity, and I decided to partake in all they had to offer.

Kanai credits the store’s universal (and now global) success to this concept, I like to say that MUJI goods should be like water: of universal appeal.” He also credits the adherence to a “uniform vision and execution” as key to MUJI’s success.

Kanai goes on to say, “Our aim is not to grow as large as we can. It is to be tenacious in our quest to deliver on the MUJI promise and to be of use in the lives of people around the world.” (Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2018)

How are we doing?

It got me to thinking: how are you doing in this area? Are you delivering on your company’s promises, and are you helpful to people around the world? Regardless of your product or sales category, your quest is to make an impact in the world, but primarily, in an individual’s life. In one life.

Kanai’s challenge is a good one, and I hope the simple concept of MUJI can inspire you to discover anew your mission and then, go boldly (or in MUJI’s case, simply) in the direction of your purpose.


You can read “How I Did It” by clicking here: https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-chairman-of-ryohin-keikaku-on-charting-mujis-global-expansion

Fearless? Really?

Creatives: don’t buy the “be fearless” hype! In her exceptional book, Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert distinguishes between ‘the fear you need and the fear you don’t need.’

“If your goal in life is to become fearless, then I believe you’re already on the wrong path, because the only truly fearless people I’ve ever met were straight up sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds – and those aren’t good role models for anyone.”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

Big Magic

Don’t ignore it

George Wolff, 989Group Partner, Creative Director


Dad, What are You Doing?

Last Saturday, while I waited in front of the soccer arena to pick up my son, I lay across the gear shift in my car, pointing my phone up at this beautiful series of color and patterns and light and shadow coming from my sunroof.

First looking over his shoulder to see who else might have noticed this, he said, “Dad- what are you doing?”

It’s Right There

Sometimes, I stop and stare at an object, a shadow or a light beam, and I cannot take my eyes off it. If I have my camera (phone) with me, I will snap a quick image, with the intent of returning to it later-– all to discover what about this image captivated me.

But, on those very rare occasions, when I am without my phone (camera), I am forced to stop and absorb what exactly it is that has come into view. That’s difficult to do. It means pressing ‘pause’ on whatever it was I was supposed to be doing so I can focus on this interesting, odd or beautiful thing that has stopped me in my tracks.

I may have been on my way to the copy machine, or coffee pot, or to tell Adam or Brian about a really great idea. And I have to stop.

Stop and Smell the Roses

To me, this phrase always meant, “make time for things that make you happy.” And, perhaps that is part of it. I love that idea. But, let’s not ignore the seismic impact acknowledging the beauty and majesty and wonder around us could have on us. These roses (and thorns, perhaps) are meant to be noticed along the path.

The shadow in a coffee cup, the puddle from snow-heavy boots, the leaves tossed across a brick path, or the light fighting to break through a car’s sunroof– they are all there to be noticed. They may not all be significant, but they are not to be ignored.

It’s What I Do

My work with 989Group allows me the luxury to stop and notice the details. Whether staring at a photo or layout spread or collaborating on the best word or phrase for an article, my job is to notice the details.

Sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse, it’s important to notice the details.

My son didn’t notice the ripples of light emerging from the vented opening in my sunroof, nor did he think much of it when I pointed it out to him. But then I snapped a picture and showed him.

“Wow- pretty cool.” He looked up at it again, and tried to see it the way I had captured it on my phone.

An extra set of eyes, seeing what we may not see, can sometimes make all the difference.