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Kindness – the key to entrepreneurial success

13 November 2019


The antidote to ‘forgettability’

Which company do you love being a customer of?

I was speaking at a conference the other day and I started my talk by asking everyone this question. Despite interacting with hundreds of companies every day, most people struggled to think of a single example. Apparently, most companies have become so corporate and so scared of standing out that they’ve inadvertently become forgettable.

The people who could think of an example fell into two quite distinct camps: those who marvelled at the frictionless customer experience and convenience of Google, Amazon or Uber, and those who remembered a specific customer experience that had made them feel great. The latter examples were much less frequent but seemed to have had much more impact on the customer. And typically, they applied to companies which were local rather than global.

These two different camps are a function of how our brains work. In my view, we assess everything and everyone we interact with according to two dimensions, competence and kindness. Competence is about expertise – in today’s world, it’s about recognising that no one has the time, patience or inclination to deal with anyone or anything that makes their life any more complicated. Kindness, on the other hand, is about doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.

Why should businesses be kind?

The problem for most businesses is that they’re only wired to compete on one of these two dimensions – competence. Kindness isn’t something which gets much airtime in the boardroom. Likewise, “kind” probably isn’t the adjective you’d associate with most Chief Executives. And therein lies the problem. Businesses and the people running them simply forget, or are even afraid, to show a gentler side. Instead, they’re busy entering your markets and trying to outprice, outsmart or outmanoeuvre you. It’s unlikely they’ll ever sit down to work out how to ‘outbehave’ you, or be kinder than you.

But they probably should.

Great businesses, in my view, are simply a function of how they make their customers feel. Kindness and doing the right thing are both big factors in getting this right, allowing companies to build an emotional connection with their customers. We, as humans, are programmed to respond to kindness, typically by reciprocating it, which can only be beneficial if your company is on the receiving end. And kindness is at the heart of our relationships with our friends and family. There’s no reason it should be any different for the relationships we form with businesses. 

If you’re still not convinced about the business benefits of kindness, consider the fact that research has proven that being seen as kind by your team will make your employees feel safer and more trusted. With this security will come increased commitment to the business and a greater willingness to share ideas or to take risks.

How can a business be kind?

One of the challenges when trying to apply kindness in a business sense is that it’s so intuitive and intangible. There’s no training manual or course to attend. So, I thought I’d try and come up with a few practical tips to help you create a culture of kindness in your own organisation.    

Start with yourself

It may seem obvious, but to be kind to others you must be kind to yourself first. Entrepreneurs are a strange breed who are restless, enjoy feeling overwhelmed and tend to think that almost anything is possible. This high-energy, always-on attitude tends to apply to all areas of your life, meaning you can put your brain and body under quite a lot of pressure. Set some rules for yourself – don’t be the person who stops going to the gym or who doesn’t see your friends simply because you’re too busy. If you stretch yourself too thin, you’ll find it extremely difficult to maintain your compassion externally.

Be kind to your people

You have a responsibility to everyone working for you that goes far beyond paying their wages. On average, we spend at least a quarter of our time at work, and you have a duty to build an environment in which your employees can really thrive. Businesses are agents of change, and this applies as much to fixing some of today’s problems as it does to helping your people with issues they might be struggling with; the mental health, physical health and financial wellbeing of your employees are all things you can help improve.

Never forget the reason you exist

Your customers. Without them, you have no business. While it might sound basic, you should call them to say thank you. Not to sell them anything else, but just to say thank you. It’s such a simple thing, yet so few businesses ever do it, particularly when they get to scale. And it is massively appreciated. Say thank you when your customers give you feedback too, even if it’s a complaint.

When you make mistakes, say sorry

Not “sorry you feel that way” or “sorry but”. Just sorry. A genuine apology, again, is not something you will hear from a lot of businesses. We all make mistakes and, in my experience, there are very few people who won’t accept an apology if you really mean it.

An entrepreneur I know sits down between Christmas and New Year, every year, and writes letters apologising to the people he thinks he’s treated unfairly during that year. His view is that he starts the New Year with a clean slate and these apologies keep him grounded and human.

Be human

We live in a world where most of our interactions take place through devices. While, technically, we’ve never been this connected, we’ve also never been this lonely, if you think about face-to-face contact. Little, human moments can make a big difference. So, against all your British conservatism and instincts, try having a conversation next time you meet a stranger. Start from the perspective that there’s always something you can learn from someone else. Or, next time you’re about to fire off an email to a colleague, make the effort to go and speak to them instead.