It’s More Important to Be Kind than Clever

September 14, 2012

by Bill Taylor  |   9:00 AM August 23, 2012

We spotted this interesting article from the Harvard Business Review recently which reminds us all that business is first and foremost about people.

One of the more heart-warming stories to zoom around the Internet lately involves a young man, his dying grandmother, and a bowl of clam chowder from Panera Bread. It’s a little story that offers big lessons about service, brands, and the human side of business — a story that underscores why efficiency should never come at the expense of humanity.

The story, as told in AdWeek, goes like this: Brandon Cook, from Wilton, New Hampshire, was visiting his grandmother in the hospital. Terribly ill with cancer, she complained to her grandson that she desperately wanted a bowl of soup, and that the hospital’s soup was inedible (she used saltier language). If only she could get a bowl of her favorite clam chowder from Panera Bread! Trouble was, Panera only sells clam chowder on Friday. So Brandon called the nearby Panera and talked to store manager Suzanne Fortier. Not only did Sue make clam chowder specially for Brandon’s grandmother, she included a box of cookies as a gift from the staff.

It was a small act of kindness that would not normally make headlines. Except that Brandon told the story on his Facebook page, and Brandon’s mother, Gail Cook, retold the story on Panera’s fan page. The rest, as they say, is social-media history. Gail’s post generated 500,000 (and counting) "likes" and more than 22,000 comments on Panera’s Facebook page. Panera, meanwhile, got something that no amount of traditional advertising can buy — a genuine sense of affiliation and appreciation from customers around the world.

Marketing types have latched on to this story as an example of the power of social media and "virtual word-of-mouth" to boost a company’s reputation. But I see the reaction to Sue Fortier’s gesture as an example of something else — the hunger among customers, employees, and all of us to engage with companies on more than just dollars-and-cents terms. In a world that is being reshaped by the relentless advance of technology, what stands out are acts of compassion and connection that remind us what it means to be human.

As I read the story of Brandon and his grandmother, I thought back to a lecture delivered two years ago by Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, to the graduating seniors of my alma mater, Princeton University. Bezos is nothing if not a master of technology — he has built his company, and his fortune, on the rise of the Internet and his own intellect. But he spoke that day not about computing power or brainpower, but about his grandmother — and what he learned when he made her cry.

Even as a 10-year-old boy, it turns out, Bezos had a steel-trap mind and a passion for crunching numbers. During a summer road trip with his grandparents, young Jeff got fed up with his grandmother’s smoking in the car — and decided to do something about it. From the backseat, he calculated how many cigarettes per day his grandmother smoked, how many puffs she took per cigarette, the health risk of each puff, and announced to her with great fanfare, "You’ve taken nine years off your life!"

Bezos’s calculations may have been accurate — but the reaction was not what he expected. His grandmother burst into tears. His grandfather pulled the car off to the side of the road and asked young Jeff to step out. And then his grandfather taught a lesson that this now-billionaire decided to share the with the Class of 2010: "My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, ‘Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.’"

That’s a lesson I wish more businesspeople understood — a lesson that is reinforced by the reaction to this simple act of kindness at Panera Bread. Indeed, I experienced something similar not so long ago, and found it striking enough to devote an HBR blog post to the experience. In my post, 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.

"What is it about business that makes it so hard to be kind?" I asked at the time. "And what kind of businesspeople have we become when small acts of kindness feel so rare?"

That’s what’s really striking about the Panera Bread story — not that Suzanne Fortier went out of her way to do something nice for a sick grandmother, but that her simple gesture attracted such global attention and acclaim.

So by all means, encourage your people to embrace technology, get great at business analytics, and otherwise ramp up the efficiency of everything they do. But just make sure all their efficiency doesn’t come at the expense of their humanity. Small gestures can send big signals about who we are, what we care about, and why people should want to affiliate with us. It’s harder (and more important) to be kind than clever.


Popping the filter bubble

May 31, 2012

What’s the first image that pops into to your head when I say the word "Bubble"? Water? Champagne? Scuba Diving? House prices, the Economy? Whatever it was, my guess is it wasn’t "Democracy". And yet, in quite an ironic way, your choice is a great example of a newly defined "bubble" which potentially could have a profound effect on our understanding of the latter.

Whichever mental image sprang to mind when you thought of the word "Bubble" was not a random idea plucked from the ether, but in some ways conditioned by your preferences, your experiences and your current location. If I asked you this question when we are in an expensive restaurant supping Dom Perignon, or in an estate agents office or swimming in tropical seas, your answers would probably have been different each time.

OK – so what has this word association got to do with the concept of democracy? But before we get to that – let’s consider what the concept of press freedom has to do with democracy. Most people would accept that a functional free press is an indispensable part of a functioning democracy. The ability for ordinary citizens to ask questions, be exposed to different opinions, challenge facts and policies is a fundamental feature of a free society as most Westerners would understand it.  For the best part of 200 years, newspapers fulfilled this function. Now we have the internet, with its limitless capacity to connect us with different points of view and ideas. That’s got to be an improvement, right?

Well, it turns out it might not be thanks to a newly-identified phenomena called the "Filter Bubble". The argument goes that as our preferred internet destinations, Facebook, Google and now Twitter, are basing the information that they present us with on what they know about us, they are in effect creating a bubble around us – presenting us only with the things that, either by direct or implied choice, we have previously expressed an interest in. This is an invisible process, something that happens without you being aware of it – much like your unconscious choice of "Champagne" rather than "House Prices".

The originator of the Filter Bubble concept and author of a book by the same name is Eli Pariser. If you have some time to spare, watch his lecture at last year’s TED – thought provoking stuff.

https://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html


The (further) perils of Twitter for business

April 18, 2012

Very interesting article this morning on Real Business concerning the legal implications of Twitter use. In particular, what it could mean for users who Tweet about their employer.

We all know that you should be extremely careful about what you say online. One case highlighted in the article is of a civil servant who found herself the subject of an acutely embarrassing (and not exactly career-enhancing) expose in The Independent.

A member of staff at the Department of Transport had a disclaimer in her Twitter profile stating that the tweets were personal opinions and were not representative of her employer. This disclaimer did not stop The Independent from publishing her tweets (about her job, her feelings towards work and wider political issues such as describing a course leader as “mental” and posting links to tweets attacking government “spin” and Whitehall waste) in an article about her employer. She complained to the Press Complaints Commission, but they found that because tweets are public property this was not an invasion of her privacy.

The article is well worth a read – you can view it in its entirety here Five more legal issues to consider when using Twitter