Why All Experts Should Be Two-Handed Economists | President Truman

Why All Experts Should Be Two-Handed Economists

President Harry S. Truman once famously quipped, “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, ‘on one hand … on the other.”


Photo Credit: White House

While I can completely relate to President Truman’s frustration, his economists were doing exactly what they should have been doing — adding context and perspective to a fluid and complex topic.

Yet, “two-handed” experts are increasingly more rare. All too often short form advice supplants deeper counsel. We live in a world increasingly awash in bold pronouncements from the disconnected.

The manager gives them to the front lines.

The CEO gives them to management.

The consultants give them to the executives.

This general, disconnected advice can be useful as a form of motivation, but it is often useless or — worse — misleading when applied to any deeper purpose.

The Internet Effect

Online, the problem is even more rampant. Short form media designed for our ever-shrinking attention spans makes sound byte wisdom the dominant form of advice.

And there is nothing wrong with short form advice, as long as it is not passed off as something more substantive or more concrete.

I was recently asked to contribute to a panel post and to answer the question the following question in less thank 100 words:

“What’s the #1 way for any company to improve their customer service?”

It was interesting to see the different perspectives that different experts took when answering the question, and the short form answers were not without value.

They could potentially have started you thinking about new ways to approach the topic or inspired you to refocus on basic principles — but a solution to your customer experience challenges they were not.

The same goes for advice on Twitter. I (and millions of others) often share quotes and quick thoughts via Twitter. Nothing wrong with that, but the medium is not a place to go for depth of analysis.

The Short Form Skew

The catch with short form advice is that it must be universal and thus often runs towards dogmatism. You cannot discuss the perspective of the “other hand.”

Here is a recent example I stumbled across (not citing, since my goal is not to call anyone out):

“All communication and data should be compiled and shared through digital communications. If desired, the customer can always print the data in a PDF format, but communicating with word documents, PDF files, etc. is both outdated and expensive.”

Well, that is quite the bold pronouncement. One person having an experience in one industry has proclaimed that email attachments are bad customer experience.

Perhaps in his case they were, but you know what else is bad customer experience?

  • Emails that are unreadable because they render inconsistently in different email clients
  • Digital documents that have become ugly franken-documents because they were forwarded multiple times
  • Cut off, incomplete documents discovered years later because they did not print correctly from email

The commandment issued by the writer above is short form advice at its worst: decontextualized and dogmatic.

Be Your Customer's HeroWhen Short Form Works

Short form advice is best when it accomplishes three things:

  • It is inspirational or motivational (remember the customer in the boardroom)
  • It reminds you of basic principles (smile when you greet a customer, even on the phone)
  • It stimulates you to think about the specifics (evaluate policies regularly to make sure the costs are worth the benefits)

Bad short form advice is specific, absolute, and doesn’t allow for the complexity of context.

Every organization should be using social media for customer service.

Maybe. Maybe not.

True experts in any discipline are always two-handed economists. They know that context is king, and wisdom comes from applying the right principles at the right time, not the catchiest wisdom at every time.

As to whether you should pay attention to short form advice, on the one hand, I’d say go for it; on the other hand…


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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