Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Why being nice to customers is a good idea

I started writing this at 30,000ft, over the Sahara Desert, where Virgin Atlantic was pampering me to death – and I wasn’t even installed in their uppermost class. ALL Virgin staff, whether in their office or at the airport or in the sky, are permanently, relentlessly friendly and cheerful. And genuinely so. It doesn’t seem to require a big effort. It’s not training. It’s just the way they are.

The airline does a great job looking for such good people when they recruit. And in reflection of Richard Branson’s bubbly personality, they’re encouraged to be their full joyous selves once they join. They’re genuinely pleased to be with you and to serve you, and you can’t help but be put in the best of moods by them. Their smiling enthusiastic culture is deeply infectious, better than any spa, any therapist.

And there’s more to this positive attitude. Their people display a generosity of spirit that constantly aches to do MORE for us, to exceed our highest expectations consistently. They keep coming round to ask if we’d like a glass of water, or perhaps some other drink. They cruise through with trays of refreshing juice, with soothing hot towels, with whatever they can think of that will give us pleasure, make us feel spoiled.

So many organisations proclaim they want to go the extra mile for their customers. Not a few manage to persuade themselves they actually do. But you and I know that, anywhere in the world, hardly any even manage to make it through the first mile, never mind subsequent ones. For the vast majority, ‘exceeding customer expectations’ remains an empty slogan, a lifeless value on a stale list (that probably also includes ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’ and other ideals that exist only as wishful thinking).

It’s always puzzled me why the world is this way, why so many customer-facing people, from the most senior to the most junior, are so palpably indifferent to their customers, often downright mean and rude. Even if there’s no competition, what kind of minds are at work, what souls inhabit these unfriendly, unresponsive vendors? What inhibits them? Why do they feel they’ve been prohibited from being nice to customers, that it would somehow be a betrayal of what their employers really want?

I say this remembering my only ever flight – and long may it remain so – with one of the largest American airlines. After being soundly and gratuitously abused by one of their ground staff, a colleague of his, trying to make amends, confided in me that he would sometimes berate her for being ‘too nice to customers’! I could hardly believe it, but given the way he’d behaved with me and some of my fellow passengers, his philosophy was obviously based on the assumption that we customers are but an indisciplined source of irritation.

Surely there’s a cure for this dreadful sickness: tell those who serve customers (ie just about everyone, one way or another) that they indeed have permission to smile and to be polite, to be responsive and reliable, to deliver quality and to go the extra mile. It’s OK, we allow it. We encourage it. Excuse me, we insist on it! Be happy. Make others happy. Simple.

While in London I went to a nice little Italian restaurant on the Strand that has been going for over forty years. All the waiters are jolly, and long before the end of the meal we felt they were our friends. (I’m happy to say this isn’t so unusual in Kenya.) They wanted us to enjoy the food and the service, and they wanted us to leave feeling we were happy we came.

I don’t how much those waiters think about the emotional link they create, or about the loyalty they build. But their warmth is exactly what makes us want to repeat the experience. We’d even be prepared to pay a little more for their tender loving care, preferring their brand over others and so making it our first choice. Many organisations tell us their vision is to be the whatever ‘of choice’?  But how many have the slightest idea about how to have us become addicted to dealing with them, forsaking all others? Pathetically few.

Too many companies are so obsessed with controlling costs, with making sure no customer walks away with any tiny amount more than they’ve paid for. They’d rather die than offer a concession after disappointing or irritating us. But they’re so concerned about being wonderfully cost-efficient they completely lose sight of the bigger picture – and that their very efficiency completely overwhelms their overall effectiveness.

We customers feel the meanness. Yes, feel: we’re human, we have emotions… and we vote with our feet. We go elsewhere, to someone who understands what it takes to satisfy our need to be treated well. We want quality and we want a good price and speedy delivery and all those things. But it can all be for nothing unless we feel welcomed.

For this to happen when it most counts it’s vital to empower those down the ladder. They see when there’s been a service failure, and they’re the ones who should there and then use discretion, not feeling bound by restrictive systems and rules that provide easy justification for saying ‘no’. By the way, on my return journey with Virgin, their in-flight entertainment system refused to work. So being Virgin they were ready with their ‘pole’: a printed ‘Sorry’ form for each of their passengers, awarding us all a bunch of extra air miles. Perfect.

People buy from people. And we’d far rather buy from friendly helpful ones, who enjoy dealing with their product or service, and who enjoy dealing with us. So relax. Smile. Not because you’ve been trained to. Not because it’s hard work. But because that’s the social you, the full, natural you. You’ll live a healthier life, and a longer one… and you’ll have lots and lots of customers who can’t wait to spend their money with you.