Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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Does Being Nice Take More Effort? Is it Worthwhile?

I think I could write an essay on the breakdown of civility in modern society based on these questions, but in this case, I ask them to question the business advantages of simply being nice.  It’s interesting that being nice to one’s customers is actually a differentiator these days.  Of course, it shouldn’t be, and that fact alone probably keeps many from even trying.  In reality, though, very few businesses practice being nice.  As a result, doing so can actually be a huge advantage to any business that touches it’s customers directly.

This morning, I stopped by Bed, Bath and Beyond, a store in a segment that’s simply falling apart in these tumultuous times.  I was greeted at the door and as I moved around the store, at least four different floor people smiled and said hello, with two of them asking, in an unobtrusive way, if they could help me find what I was looking for.  There was one cashier on duty dealing with the single customer in front of me when I was ready to check out.  Immediately, another cashier came to her register so that I didn’t have to wait.  The cashier asked me if I found everything I was looking for, smiled and wished me a good day.  BFD, right?  Yeah, it is.  I’ll go there before I shop some other store for similar goods the next time.

Contrast that experience with my next stop, the Post Office.  OK, this is probably an unfair comparison, but my guess is that the USPS is in a fight for its life as a business these days.  Yes, the USPS has competitors as well.  The person behind the counter never looked me in the eye, was rude, and never said “thanks,” good day,” or even “rot in hell.”  Nada. 

I had a similar experience once I got back to my office.  I had to resolve an issue on the phone with AT&T concerning my bill.  After I finally got through to a customer support rep who made it sound like I was standing between her and her tenth cigarette of the morning, I was told in curt fashion that I was “obviously” reading my bill incorrectly.  Ten minutes later, she admitted that they had problems with the last billing cycle and my issues were similar to the problems others were seeing.  Why did it take 10 minutes of haggling to get to that point if she already knew?  To top it off, she stated, without apology, that she couldn’t help me and I had to go to a store to resolve the issue.  My loyalty as a customer after this experience – zero.

How hard is it to be nice?  Not very.  Sure, dealing with complaints and questions all day is tough but, if the people you’ve given the job to aren’t cut out for it, don’t have them do it.  Find people who can at least act nice.  Your customers will appreciate that your company is a more pleasant one to do business with.  This feeling builds loyalty for almost no cost.  Or, you can let your employees be assholes to their customers who will in turn write nasty stuff about you on their blogs so that everyone they know will share the same ill will toward you that they do.  Ouch.

 

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 March 6th, 2009  
 Will  
 Customer Focus, General Business  
   
 18 Comments

18 Responses to Does Being Nice Take More Effort? Is it Worthwhile?

  1. Will – I love Bed, Bath and Beyond. I hope you used your 20% off coupon. We get the big postcard every month in the mail. Even if it is expired they accept it anyway! Last month I had to buy a new Mr Coffee. I wanted to get the cheap one to replace the one that broke. They were out of the color I wanted (black) and only the more expensive model was available in black. I had asked a person if they had anymore in the back. When they didn’t they gave me the more expensive one at the cheaper model’s price. To top it off they accepted the 20% off coupon too! Certainly much different than AT&T!

  2. Will – I love Bed, Bath and Beyond. I hope you used your 20% off coupon. We get the big postcard every month in the mail. Even if it is expired they accept it anyway! Last month I had to buy a new Mr Coffee. I wanted to get the cheap one to replace the one that broke. They were out of the color I wanted (black) and only the more expensive model was available in black. I had asked a person if they had anymore in the back. When they didn’t they gave me the more expensive one at the cheaper model’s price. To top it off they accepted the 20% off coupon too! Certainly much different than AT&T!

  3. Excellent post. I have two things to say:

    First, this is why I will never have an iPhone until it is available for other wireless providers. AT&T screwed their wireless subscribers nine years ago when I was a customer, treated people like crap, and I vowed that I would never be their customer again. It was incredible to me that they changed back from the Cingular brand, as if AT&T was somehow *better*. It’s built into the culture there from their monopoly days (“AT&T: We don’t care. We don’t have to.”) Apple: are you listening? However much they’re paying you for the exclusive, it’s not worth it.

    Second, you discuss companies that treat their *customers* well vs. poorly, but don’t discuss whether they treat their employees, vendors, shareholders, and other stakeholders well or poorly. Is is possible, long-term, to have stellar customer service and product quality but also to treat your employees badly? It seems like there are some businesses like this, but is it sustainable? Or maybe there’s not room in the profit margin to treat both sides well? I wonder what you think about this.

  4. Excellent post. I have two things to say:

    First, this is why I will never have an iPhone until it is available for other wireless providers. AT&T screwed their wireless subscribers nine years ago when I was a customer, treated people like crap, and I vowed that I would never be their customer again. It was incredible to me that they changed back from the Cingular brand, as if AT&T was somehow *better*. It’s built into the culture there from their monopoly days (“AT&T: We don’t care. We don’t have to.”) Apple: are you listening? However much they’re paying you for the exclusive, it’s not worth it.

    Second, you discuss companies that treat their *customers* well vs. poorly, but don’t discuss whether they treat their employees, vendors, shareholders, and other stakeholders well or poorly. Is is possible, long-term, to have stellar customer service and product quality but also to treat your employees badly? It seems like there are some businesses like this, but is it sustainable? Or maybe there’s not room in the profit margin to treat both sides well? I wonder what you think about this.

  5. Alan,

    Doh! I completely forgot the coupon. Luckily, these guys are so good, they’ll give a refund for the discount retroactively. Like you say – top notch place. I’ll go out of my way to go there next time. The upgrade AND 20% off you got is totally wild. Great story. Not only did they get a customer for life (you), but you’re walking around telling people about it and sending them to the store. Worth it? I think so.

  6. Alan,

    Doh! I completely forgot the coupon. Luckily, these guys are so good, they’ll give a refund for the discount retroactively. Like you say – top notch place. I’ll go out of my way to go there next time. The upgrade AND 20% off you got is totally wild. Great story. Not only did they get a customer for life (you), but you’re walking around telling people about it and sending them to the store. Worth it? I think so.

  7. Dave,

    You’re right, of course, I didn’t step in a level and talk about how employees and other affiliates are treated. It’s a good question, is it possible to have stellar customer service and product quality while treating employees badly? I can’t imagine it is. In the short run, maybe – depends on the people delivering the support. In the long run, I can’t imagine how. Good people aren’t going to stick around to be continually treated badly. Once they leave, they are replaced by people who aren’t as good and, thus, support has to go down hill.

    The variable here is defining treated badly. The above applies to some standard definition. There are always employees who *feel* they are being treated poorly, when, in fact, they are being treat appropriately. In this case, it’s likely that the attitude will still bleed through to their support efforts. Managers have to watch this closely, especially if the employee is being watched closely for performance reasons.

  8. Dave,

    You’re right, of course, I didn’t step in a level and talk about how employees and other affiliates are treated. It’s a good question, is it possible to have stellar customer service and product quality while treating employees badly? I can’t imagine it is. In the short run, maybe – depends on the people delivering the support. In the long run, I can’t imagine how. Good people aren’t going to stick around to be continually treated badly. Once they leave, they are replaced by people who aren’t as good and, thus, support has to go down hill.

    The variable here is defining treated badly. The above applies to some standard definition. There are always employees who *feel* they are being treated poorly, when, in fact, they are being treat appropriately. In this case, it’s likely that the attitude will still bleed through to their support efforts. Managers have to watch this closely, especially if the employee is being watched closely for performance reasons.

  9. I went to Oil Can Henry’s yesterday to get my oil changed, and observed something interesting. The corporation has it down – the guys look sharp, they give you a newspaper and a bottle of water, and the operation just seems to click along like a well oiled machine. The people however are not quite getting it.

    The place had a couple of cars being serviced, and one or two in line, so it was busy, but not crazy. Yet everytime a new car pulled into line, the service guy working on my car would mutter something like, “Oh, not another one.” With rising unemployment, I would think that with every car he would mutter, “Oh, I get to keep my job a little longer.” It’s great to see companies where the people get it and are appreciative of new business. The companies that don’t appreciate their customers are going to get thinned out I think. Natural selection at work.

  10. I went to Oil Can Henry’s yesterday to get my oil changed, and observed something interesting. The corporation has it down – the guys look sharp, they give you a newspaper and a bottle of water, and the operation just seems to click along like a well oiled machine. The people however are not quite getting it.

    The place had a couple of cars being serviced, and one or two in line, so it was busy, but not crazy. Yet everytime a new car pulled into line, the service guy working on my car would mutter something like, “Oh, not another one.” With rising unemployment, I would think that with every car he would mutter, “Oh, I get to keep my job a little longer.” It’s great to see companies where the people get it and are appreciative of new business. The companies that don’t appreciate their customers are going to get thinned out I think. Natural selection at work.

  11. Terry,

    Ah yes, the Darwinian nature of capitalism. I agree entirely. Your story is not only a great example of being good to customers, but of the responsibility of management, too. Like you say, they had the mechanics right, but not the presentation. A memo to employees isn’t going to change the fundamental performance of people. That requires good management.

    In some sense, this business climate is going to be healthy in the long run. At least from 32K feet and for certain markets. Thinning of the forest hasn’t happened in a while. Hopefully, good companies will survive and learn and prosper even more in the future. That is, if anyone actually makes it 🙂

  12. Terry,

    Ah yes, the Darwinian nature of capitalism. I agree entirely. Your story is not only a great example of being good to customers, but of the responsibility of management, too. Like you say, they had the mechanics right, but not the presentation. A memo to employees isn’t going to change the fundamental performance of people. That requires good management.

    In some sense, this business climate is going to be healthy in the long run. At least from 32K feet and for certain markets. Thinning of the forest hasn’t happened in a while. Hopefully, good companies will survive and learn and prosper even more in the future. That is, if anyone actually makes it 🙂

  13. Differentiation comes in many flavours.

    The B2C customer experience has been the subject of a lot of popular books and is a guarantee for an MBA thesis. But the B2B customer experience is probably at least as big an effect on the market.

    Of course there’s a customer support side to B2B, and an account management side. But also consider the vast sums of money spent influencing B2B customers to keep buying from their preferred vendors: Accenture reimbursing their partners for golf club memberships, all those luxury boxes at stadiums and arenas, and companies taking “Entertainment” as a business expense! There’s a good reason some companies don’t let their employees even go to lunch on a vendor.

    B2B selling has involved Mizu Shobai for centuries.

  14. Differentiation comes in many flavours.

    The B2C customer experience has been the subject of a lot of popular books and is a guarantee for an MBA thesis. But the B2B customer experience is probably at least as big an effect on the market.

    Of course there’s a customer support side to B2B, and an account management side. But also consider the vast sums of money spent influencing B2B customers to keep buying from their preferred vendors: Accenture reimbursing their partners for golf club memberships, all those luxury boxes at stadiums and arenas, and companies taking “Entertainment” as a business expense! There’s a good reason some companies don’t let their employees even go to lunch on a vendor.

    B2B selling has involved Mizu Shobai for centuries.

  15. B@B. Good point and much more complex. Is spending money on one’s customers the sincerest form of being nice? 🙂

    Ahh, Mizu Shobai. Brings back memories. Too bad prudish Americans never had such a tool in their business quiver. At least not legally.

  16. B@B. Good point and much more complex. Is spending money on one’s customers the sincerest form of being nice? 🙂

    Ahh, Mizu Shobai. Brings back memories. Too bad prudish Americans never had such a tool in their business quiver. At least not legally.

  17. As an employee of Bed Bath and Beyond for more than 3 years (and still a currently employed)…I have to comment on the “culture” of this company. First, I agree that the majority of my fellow associates are ‘great. honest, individuals, who are easily liked, due to their humble personalities….which, Bed Bath and Beyond…does an incredible job pin-pointing these people for employment. But, BBB will overwork all their associates, ESPECIALLY their underpaid/part-time associates. We do an incredible amount of work for the rate we’re paid…which includes the use of poorly furbished ladders….and the need to stock 50+lbs of merchandise overhead, and the lack of encouragement from any of the management….which they threaten our jobs with because of the numerous applications submitted, (they like 16 year old girls with “looks” As a company….they treat their employees as second rate citizens…giving us the standard 20% discount (which is the same as the customers)….and sometimes…YOU, the customers will recieve a BETTER discount than us…when you use the $5 or $10 coupon. YES…YES…we will take back anything you bring to us…including your 2 year old sheets that you used….and ripped up….but…JUST REMEMBER….the lost in $$$…is taken out of OUR pockets…in the long run…by giving us FALSE promises on RAISES…or by decreasing our HOURS (haven’t you noticed…there is NEVER anyone around to help you…because we’re too busy putting away new merchandise that arrived earlier that day….or by cutting costs such as limited air conditioning in the building while it is 98 degrees outside…and even YOU…are sweating while shopping…or their continued use of buying crappy products from countries that use child labor, or produce products that break within a month. I know YOU have returned a defective product…or maybe a USED product…which we sold as NEW.

    BEWARE of my employer…it’s very multi-faced…just to GRAB your dollar when you check-out….and talk crap about you (and your family) while you walk out of our doors.

    As the saying goes…if it seems too good to be true….

  18. As an employee of Bed Bath and Beyond for more than 3 years (and still a currently employed)…I have to comment on the “culture” of this company. First, I agree that the majority of my fellow associates are ‘great. honest, individuals, who are easily liked, due to their humble personalities….which, Bed Bath and Beyond…does an incredible job pin-pointing these people for employment. But, BBB will overwork all their associates, ESPECIALLY their underpaid/part-time associates. We do an incredible amount of work for the rate we’re paid…which includes the use of poorly furbished ladders….and the need to stock 50+lbs of merchandise overhead, and the lack of encouragement from any of the management….which they threaten our jobs with because of the numerous applications submitted, (they like 16 year old girls with “looks” As a company….they treat their employees as second rate citizens…giving us the standard 20% discount (which is the same as the customers)….and sometimes…YOU, the customers will recieve a BETTER discount than us…when you use the $5 or $10 coupon. YES…YES…we will take back anything you bring to us…including your 2 year old sheets that you used….and ripped up….but…JUST REMEMBER….the lost in $$$…is taken out of OUR pockets…in the long run…by giving us FALSE promises on RAISES…or by decreasing our HOURS (haven’t you noticed…there is NEVER anyone around to help you…because we’re too busy putting away new merchandise that arrived earlier that day….or by cutting costs such as limited air conditioning in the building while it is 98 degrees outside…and even YOU…are sweating while shopping…or their continued use of buying crappy products from countries that use child labor, or produce products that break within a month. I know YOU have returned a defective product…or maybe a USED product…which we sold as NEW.

    BEWARE of my employer…it’s very multi-faced…just to GRAB your dollar when you check-out….and talk crap about you (and your family) while you walk out of our doors.

    As the saying goes…if it seems too good to be true….