Harnessing the Power of Kindness

by Dean Rieck

As a businessman, I support healthy Christmas commerce. As an investor, I rely on the year-end rush to boost my portfolio returns. But as a person, I'm galled by the overwhelming greed and commercialism of the holidays. Which is why three acts of kindness really impressed me this last season.

The first was a coffee tumbler mailed to me from Amazon.com. It came with this note, signed by Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO:

Dear Friend,

With the holidays approaching, I wanted to thank you for making this such an exciting time for Amazon.com. This past year, we added music and videos to our store, set up shop in Germany and the UK, and made lots of improvements to the site to make it even easier to find what you want. Your suggestions (and believe me, we received lots and we read them all) were invaluable to us. We really couldn't have done it without you.

As a token of our appreciation, we'd like you to have this small gift — our special coffee tumbler (I'm particularly fond of this year's quotes). May you use it in good health.

Thank you again for all your support, and best wishes for a holiday season filled with family, friends, and happiness!

I don't drink coffee very often and don't have much use for the tumbler, but this little thank you struck me as particularly genuine and effective. You'll notice that nowhere is there a solicitation for more business, but I felt so good about Amazon.com, I wanted to immediately log on and order a book.

The second act of kindness came in the form of unexpected customer service from Current. For some time I had been struggling with an ancient, plastic checkbook cover which was slowly deteriorating from hard use and age. (My wife is responsible for most of the "hard use," but that's another subject.) It was a small thing, but I didn't know how to go about getting a new one. So I wrote a note to Current explaining my problem.

To my surprise, a brand new checkbook cover arrived a few weeks later with this note, signed by the Customer Service Manager:

Dear Check Buyer,

Thank you for your recent inquiry about Current Check Products. Enclosed are the materials you requested.

Current offers a full line of check products including checkbook covers, address labels and stampers. We also have a complete line of business checks — 3-on-a-page, laser/ink jet, continuous checks, and more. Call us for information.

If you have any questions or would like to place your order by phone, please call us TOLL FREE at 1-800-204-2244, Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Saturday 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time.

Once again, thank you for your interest in Current Check Products. We look forward to serving you in the future!

I had expected them to send a catalog so I could order a new checkbook cover. The fact that they went ahead and sent me one — placing my problem above their profits — impressed me greatly. The note was clearly written for order fulfillment or general inquiries, which suggests that sending my checkbook cover was a judgment call, a pure act of kindness for a loyal customer. A personal letter would have been nice, but it's the gesture that is important here.

The third act of kindness came from my old buddy Steve Forbes. Okay, we're not really old buddies, but you'd never know it to look at the Christmas card he sent me. On the front was a photo of his five attractive daughters, Sabina, Catherine, Elizabeth, Moira, and Roberta. Inside a photo of Steve and his wife Sabina. The message was a simple "Happy Holidays."

Now, I know I'm on a lot of mailing lists, including quite a few fundraising lists for political causes. And my files are bulging with solicitations from Mr. Forbes and his organization, Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity, Inc. I even knew that the card was probably meant to soften me up for another mailing soon after the holidays (which I received promptly on January 2.) But I still liked it. It was personal, friendly, and without a hint of begging.

The Power of Kindness

These three small acts of kindness may be shrugged off as just good customer relations or customer retention. But there's much more going on here by way of a psychological principal I call the "Rule of Reciprocity." We are all bound, even driven, to repay debts of all kinds. Someone does something for you. Then you feel obligated to repay.

Researchers — and yes there is an entire field of study dedicated to such matters — have referred to this idea of doing for others and getting back in return as a "web of indebtedness," a form of social interaction that is "central to the human experience, responsible for the division of labor, all forms of commerce, and how society is organized into interdependent units."

In other words, being nice is a very big deal indeed. It's guerrilla marketing to the nth power. Much more than simple customer relations, it's a central, essential, and incredibly potent way to boost your profits.

You might say that there is a "payback" urge hardwired into our brains. And it's very difficult to resist. (Remember the last time a colleague insisted on paying for lunch? You immediately swore you'd pay for the next one, didn't you?) Which is why you should spend more time thinking about how you can be nice to your customers and prospects, and a little less time thinking about how to bludgeon them to death with clever techniques.

So how can you use this principal? Well, the three acts of kindness illustrate three ways right off the bat:

1) The coffee tumbler was a thank you for past business. In addition to producing warm fuzzies, a gift — with no strings attached — also sets up an urge to return the favor. For friends that means a return gift. For businesses that means return business.

2) The checkbook cover was an off-the-cuff gesture. When someone gives away something that is usually paid for — and takes a loss by doing so — the unexpected act shows concern that goes beyond profits, which of course will probably produce more profits in the future since the customer on the receiving end will feel indebted.

3) The holiday card was a personal and noncommercial greeting. The "gift" here has no monetary value, but such greetings during the holidays are usually only received from family and friends. And all greetings benefit from this association. An act of friendship sets up an urge to repay with a similar act of friendship, which in this case is the sender's charitable cause.

Making Kindness Work for You

You can see this as a marketing strategy or a creative technique. The label doesn't matter. What matters is that you look at how you deal with customers — the offers you make, the messages you create, your fulfillment policies, etc. — and see how you can be nicer to your customers. It's not just a matter of gifts or greetings, it's a way of thinking about your customers that can manifest itself in many forms.

Here are some general guidelines on putting kindness to work:

Nice Guys Finish First

The classic example of kindness at work is Amway. Some very savvy distributors started giving homeowners a package stuffed with cleaners, deodorizers, insect killers, and other product samples. They called this package the "BUG." The distributor would leave a BUG with a homeowner for up to 3 days with no cost or obligation. They only asked that the homeowner try out the products.

Some time later, the distributor would come back to pick up the BUG and, of course, to ask for orders. By this time, having used the products for free for so long, the homeowners felt obligated to buy something from this generous distributor who seemed almost naive in his trust and kindness.

Just how successful was this nice guy approach? As one Amway distributor put it, the response was "Unbelievable! We've never seen such excitement. Product is moving at an unbelievable rate ..."

The point of all this is not picking up particular techniques. The point is that you should put yourself in your customers' shoes and consider what they care about. Instead of always asking yourself, "How can I get more money from people?" occasionally ask yourself, "How can I help people?"

They say nice guys finish last. Don't you believe it.

Copyright © 1999 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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