What Kindness Isn’t|Jill Lublin

Maybe right now you’re thinking to yourself: Kindness? Really? The last Harvard Business School class reunion didn’t include a hand-held circle of MBAs singing Kumbaya. Maybe not, but the cream of the corporate crop has always known that a smart business strategy includes how customers are treated and perceived to be treated. In his article in the Harvard Business Review, Jeffrey F. Rayport writes about what was introduced by the Review two decades ago as “service recovery—a company’s ability to respond quickly, decisively, and effectively to a service problem of its own making.”3 For example, Rayport cites how Ritz-Carlton Hotels are famous for making every problem into what the company calls an “opportunity” and has proven to be a powerful way to increase loyalty among existing customers. Writes Rayport:

Here’s how it works. When a problem occurs, swift and effective resolution can elevate repurchase intent to a level that’s actually greater than if the problem had never occurred at all. Every problem, if managed well, is thus an ‘opportunity’ to boost overall loyalty among a company’s already loyal customers. Spill soup on a guest in the hotel dining room? Solution: Offer on the spot to dry clean the suit or, if the damage is severe, offer to replace it entirely. The customer is delighted; the employee has done the right thing; the hotel raises that customer’s lifetime value.

However, kindness is not saying please and thank you, or offering complimentary valet services, or hosting an annual holiday party, or making reparations for a clumsy waiter or rude receptionist. Depending on the business, these could be wise practices, but kindness goes as deep as doing all of these things when the fault is not your own, but of the customer, client, or even the employee.

Take Joan, for instance. She held the title of editorial director for about six weeks when her boss, and owner of Stratospheric Resources, Jack, had her travel to Toronto to pitch her first catalogue of books to the Canadian sales force. After an overnight stay and a breakfast and lunch sales call in New York, Joan would fly to Toronto in time for a business dinner.

Shortly after leaving her home base of Ft. Lauderdale, Joan looked out the window admiring her view above the Atlantic. Once the fasten seatbelt sign was off, she began to rustle through her bags, noticing one teeny problem: she had left her passport on her desk at the office. She was dizzy and distracted the rest of the flight, until the national accounts manager approached Joan about her sudden change in demeanor. After the manager broke the news to Jack, Joan couldn’t bear to look either of them in the face. So much for being at the helm of the editorial department.

She hid in her hotel room and cancelled a dinner invitation with an old colleague from the city. She went into self-punishment and self-deprecation mode, planning to step down if she wasn’t already fired. Then her phone rang. It was Jack. “Call your husband and ask him to bring your passport to the office. A courier will pick it up and have the passport to us by tomorrow so we can get you to Toronto. After all, we need you there.”

As promised, the next day, Joan’s passport was in her hands, and she and Jack were off to meet the Canadians. Joan begged Jack to take the expense for an overnight courier out of her pay, but he refused, saying, “It was a mistake. It won’t happen again. Now let’s have a good meeting.”

Joan never forgot her passport again, and never forgot the compassion Jack showed her on that trip. She had bigger things on her mind than her passport: a catalogue to pitch, new people to meet, and a staff to lead. Jack could’ve thought that he made a big mistake with his new hire, chastised her, and even put her on notice, but instead he afforded her the right to fail, trusting that turning the other cheek would result in her never letting him down again. Jack’s kindness was actually a motivator to his employee to pay it forward big time, in the form of hard work, loyalty, and personal accountability to the firm. If he had gone the other way, Joan believes she would have never made it to the sales conference or been able to connect on a personal and respectable level with her publisher.

This is kindness that counts. Not the “customer is always right” or the “I’m the boss” approach, but the heartfelt way through the business world. The currency of kindness is the kind of payment deposited straight from the heart of a person, and it is that heart and that kind of grace that I believe to be the center of successful business strategy. In the New York Times best-selling book, Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck, published by Harvard Business Review Press, the author team of Anthony Tjan, Richard Harrington, and Tsun-Yan Hsieh introduce the idea of heart-driven entrepreneurs, describing them as being fundamentally different than the rest of the population. “Heart-driven founders connect with a passion and a purpose deep down inside. They are inspired by everything they touch, see, do, and hear. They are unconventionally idealistic. They carry a different risk profile…. A heartdriven person cares less about what she lacks and more about what she can achieve with what she already has.”5

The kindness that I am talking throughout this book is a currency chosen by business owners because it keeps them connected with the reasons they got into their line of business in the first place. Every day, when they are conscious of being kind, whether to an employee, partner, contractor, customer, or client, they are answering questions such as “Why am I here?,” “Why have I chosen to do this?,” and “Why do I keep getting up, day after day?”

When you act in accordance with your character as well as your passion and purpose for your business, profits will rise, employee turnover will lower, and customer loyalty will skyrocket. However, kindness in all of its simplicity is a loaded word. It’s a term for a host of other traits, behaviors, emotions, and actions that must be exhibited on a daily basis in order to cash in on kindness. Just as we pay for goods and services using cash, credit, and even bartering, kindness currency varies. These characteristics or pathways can be used alone or in tandem to increase connection, prospects, and customers, helping you to begin brainstorming each kindness characteristic as a pathway to your business goals.

The Golden Rule Redux

“Do unto others have you will have done unto you” is known as the Golden Rule, and it isn’t reserved for religion. In business, we want to treat others kindly, and if we veer off course, this Golden Rule can act as a beacon for us to consider “Would I want this done to me?” However, when I discussed the use of the Golden Rule as a way toward kindness in business with my friend Ivan Misner, founder and chief visionary officer of BNI, he said he didn’t follow the Golden Rule at all. This sounded preposterous, after all Misner founded his consultancy business in California on the premise of “looking for referrals for my consultancy practice and for fellow business people who I liked and trusted.” Then Misner created the concept statement around which BNI now operates: Givers Gain. And it’s worked famously, as BNI now claims to be the largest business networking group in the world!

Turns out Misner upgraded the Golden Rule to what Tony Alessandra coined as the Platinum Rule, which teaches “Treat others the way that they want to be treated.” What this did for Misner, as it does for so many others, was take the me-centricity out of doing business. “The Platinum Rule accommodates the feelings of others,” explains Alessandra. “The focus of relationships shifts from ‘this is what I want, so I’ll give everyone the same thing’ to ‘let me first understand what they want and then I’ll give it to them.’”6

This idea of a baseline that doesn’t begin with us is the way to achieve true connection in business—the type of relationships that grow out of mutual trust and respect and therefore go the distance. BNI, founded mostly on connection, brings to mind the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” But Misner has a twist on this famous phrase: “I think it’s neither. I think it’s how well you know who you know that really counts,” he says.7

Achieving that kind of intimacy, the familiarity with a person that helps you foresee what they need and want, requires we think of ourselves not first, not as golden, but as if the other is platinum, the first priority.