Back in 1997 or maybe 1998, I took a customer service training class from a fantastic company called Ouelette & Associates. The class focused on customer service for technical people, IT, etc. It was a seminal course, taught by an amazing instructor, Anita Leto, and it lead to a completely new way of thinking about the interactions I have with others. A central tenet of the course was something called “moments of truth,” a phrase that comes from a book of the same title by Jon Carlzon, CEO of Scandinavia Airlines.
A moment of truth is an outcome of every interaction you have with someone else, no matter the form it takes or how big or small it is. In the customer service realm, the interactions are, of course, with customers. There are generally two outcomes: a “positive” moment of truth and or a “negative” moment of truth. In thinking about interactions with customers you always strive to make positive moments of truth. The course (unscientifically) posited that it takes ten positive moments of truth to wipe out a single negative moment of truth. Not scientific, but concept rings true. You have a bad experience with an airline, and wild horses and free trips might not drag you back to fly with them again.
As a professional freelance writer, I’ve been thinking about moments of truth in my interactions with other writers, readers, editors, publishers, anyone really. I look at Facebook occasionally, and am often dismayed by how many negative moments of truth I see out there. I’ve avoided Facebook more and more for this reason, but having spent more time than usual on it yesterday, it got me thinking about my own interactions as a professional writer in the same way I have interactions as a professional software developer. I aim for positive moments of truth.
This goes from the story level on up. When I write a story (or a blog post, or an article) I try to make it the best it can be. I want it to be a positive moment of truth for the reader. I am not always successful. Occasional typos slip in and readers (almost always kindly) point them out to me. I used to think, ah, well, not a very big deal, I’ll do better next time. But I realized that while a few little typos might not bother me, they act as negative moments of truth for the reader. It doesn’t matter why. All that matters is that I’ve caused a negative moment of truth for a reader.
A story is an objective thing and some readers won’t like a story for highly personal reasons. Those are negative moments of truth, as well, although they are far beyond my control as a writer. These I just have to leave with, in the same way I live with customers that can never be pleased. What I do have control over, however, is further interaction with those readers. Once a story of mine is published, I feel that it is no longer mine, in the sense that I’ve said what I wanted to about the story and moved on. A reader may not like a story, may despise a story. I usually just let that stand. No need to muddy the water and risk a negative moment of truth by replying.
That said, if a reader writes to me to tell me that they didn’t like a story, I will reply with regret, and say that I can understand that, I don’t like everything I read either, you win some, you lose some, etc., etc., but thanks for at least giving me a shot. It’s remarkable the effect this type of reply has. I may not have gained a new reader, but I’ve gained a fan nonetheless.
My professional interactions go far beyond readers, however. Even before a story gets to a reader, it goes to an editor, who may have her own thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. Interactions with editors are just as prone to negative moments of truth as they are positive ones. When I first started out writing stories, I’d read a lot of Piers Anthony, and I liked his author notes. In them, he made it sound like if an editor bounced a story of his, they were an idiot. I might have taken that same attitude early on out of simply naivete, but I haven’t thought that way in 20 years.