Do Small Things with Great Love
By Bill Taylor
First Published on hbr.org
The world confronts vast uncertainty, from unrest in the social climate to accelerating shifts in the climate itself. The economy faces huge challenges, from public-debt crises in Europe to the overhang of mortgage debt in the U.S. The business community faces an ongoing series of stops and starts, from the loss of an icon like Steve Jobs to the rise of new-economy giants like Amazon and Facebook.
There is a temptation, amidst the turmoil, for pundits to conclude that the only sensible response is to make bold bets — new business models that challenge the logic of an industry, products that aim to be "category killers" and obsolete the competition. But I've come to believe that a better way to respond to uncertainty is with small gestures that send big signals about what you care about and stand for. In a world defined by crisis, acts of generosity and reassurance take on outsized importance.
I've written before about not-so-random acts of kindness that humanize companies and offer an uplifting alternative to a demoralizing status quo. Earlier this year, for example, a Southwest Airlines pilot delayed a flight from Los Angeles to Tucson to accommodate the needs of a distraught grandfather who was racing to the hospital bedside of his toddler grandson, the victim of criminal abuse. Despite the obvious security concerns and schedule pressures, the pilot, who had gotten wind of this late-arriving passenger's urgent situation, refused to budge until he made it to the plane.
"They can't go anywhere without me," the pilot told the grandfather, "and I wasn't going anywhere without you." The story immediately went viral, with travel writers and bloggers celebrating the stubborn pilot and his values. His genuine kindness was a welcome change of pace in an industry known for lousy service, surly passengers, and miserable conditions.
I experienced something similar myself not so long ago, and found it a striking enough to devote an entire HBR blog post to the experience. In an entry called "Why Is it So Hard to Be Kind?" I told the story of my father, his search for a new car, a health emergency that took place in the middle of that search — and a couple of extraordinary (and truly human) gestures by an auto dealer that put him at ease and won his loyalty.
"Nobody is opposed to a good bottom-line deal," I concluded at the time. "But what we remember and what we prize are small gestures of connection and compassion that introduce a touch of humanity into the dollars-and-cents world in which we spend most of our time."
We remember the lack of connection as well. A month or so ago, I visited my optometrist, who was troubled about something she saw in my routine eye exam and sent me to a renowned retinal specialist for a more in-depth look. This doctor did an utterly competent exam, explained my situation, and offered a sound course of action. So I'm fine.
Yet I keep thinking back to the experience, not because of the quality of the medical care I received, which was superb, but because of how uncaring the experience felt. As I sat in the waiting room, it seemed more like the offices of a payday lender or a bail bondsman than that of a highly credentialed surgeon. "If you arrive late, your appointment may be rescheduled," one sign warned. "Copay is due upon arrival," another signed explained. "We accept Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express." However, a different sign warned, "If you do not have your copay, your appointment may be rescheduled." Finally, blared another sign, "If you have an overdue balance, your appointment may be rescheduled."
Since I had to wait an hour past my appointment time to see the doctor (there was no sign about what happens when the doctor is late), I spent a lot of time thinking about the surroundings, and the bizarre messages all these signs were sending. My fellow patients and I were nervous, anxious, worried about our eyesight. Yet it felt like the doctor thought of us as a collection of truants, tightwads, and general layabouts. Were we visiting a healer, or the ocular equivalent of the "Soup Nazi" from Seinfeld, for whom one wrong move means "No appointment for you!"?
Two weeks later, by the way, I got a call from the doctor's office. "Does the doctor want an update on how I'm doing?" I asked the staffer who placed the call. "No," she said. "Insurance did not cover the full cost of the exam, and we need to know if you want us to charge the credit card we have on file or use a different card."
It's always risky to look to great humanitarians for lessons about business, but something Mother Teresa said long ago strikes me as a pretty good epitaph for our disruptive times — and for dispiriting experiences of the sort I had with this doctor. "We cannot do great things," she famously told her followers, "only small things with great love."
Yes, success today is about price, features, quality — pure economic value of the sort that requires you to rethink your strategy and business models. But it is also, and perhaps more importantly, about passion, emotion, identity — sharing your values. And all that requires is a way of doing business, a strategy for connecting with customers, that communicates who you are and what you care about.
As the value proposition gets rewritten in industry after industry, it's organizations with an authentic values proposition that rise above the chaos and connect with customers. Few of us will ever do "great things" that remake companies and reshape industries. But all of us can do small things with great feeling and an authentic sense of emotion.
What's your values proposition?
William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and author of Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself, published January 4, 2011. Follow him at twitter.com/practicallyrad.