Is Kindness a Strategy?
A friend recently described a remarkable travel experience. Strange to say, the story was about an airline, and it wasn't a travel nightmare. Instead, it involved the recently bankrupt American Airlines doing something extraordinary — by putting kindness to work.
The story came from a colleague of his I'll call Frank. Frank lives in Dallas and was on his way to a board meeting in Boston. Frank was happily driving to Dallas-Fort Worth to make the non-stop when he got caught in glutinous morning traffic. He arrived at DFW late for his flight. The woman behind the counter looked at him, looked at his travel record, looked at the hundred people lined up at security, and informed him that he would never make it to the gate on time.
Most airline personnel would have stopped there and offered to book the next available flight — for a fee. If Frank was late, it was Frank's fault. If he missed his board meeting, that was his problem. Under such circumstances, pristine logic normally rules and mercy has no role.
In this case, this logic was proven wrong. The woman asked if Frank had bags to check. He did not. Hearing that, she suggested firmly that he remove his left shoe and sit on it. She summoned a bellman to rush over with a wheel chair, she put Frank in it with his bags, and she went careening off through security, using an express lane for her "invalid" guest. She took Frank all the way to the gate, and Frank made his flight. He also made the meeting on time — and told the entire board about the "miracle" he'd experienced at DFW.
I'm sure many supervisors at American would have issues with their colleague's innovative, if mildly deceptive, solution. But, no matter how you look at it, it was an act of genuine kindness. It's conventional wisdom in business that customers spread bad news five times as far and fast as good news. This, however, was a tale of generosity so dramatic that Frank is surely still telling people all about it.
How did an act of kindness become so compelling? A young woman with a generous and ingenious soul had gone the extra mile to solve Frank's problem. She proved herself a hero. As a result, she exalted American Airlines, too.
In today's socially wired world, positive word of mouth is an ever more prized commodity. Most companies solve problems when the fault lies with the company. For example, Ritz-Carlton Hotels are famous for making every problem into what the organization calls an "opportunity." It's based on the concept, introduced in HBR some two decades ago, that "service recovery" — a company's ability to respond quickly, decisively, and effectively to a service problem of its own making — is a powerful way to increase loyalty among existing customers.
Here's how it works. When a problem occurs, swift and effective resolution can elevate repurchase intent to a level that's actually greater than if the problem had never occurred at all. Every problem, if managed well, is thus an "opportunity" to boost overall loyalty among a company's already loyal customers. Spill soup on a guest in the hotel dining room? Solution: offer on the spot to dry clean the suit or, if the damage is severe, offer to replace it entirely. The customer is delighted; the employee has done the right thing; the hotel raises that customer's lifetime value.
The distinction between American Airlines' solution here and Ritz-Carlton's approach is, however, significant. American resolved a problem where the customer was at fault. In theory, Frank deserved to miss his flight.
It's hard to cite many businesses that make kindness the bedrock of their operating strategies. Frank's story is striking because it's so wildly off the spectrum of expected outcomes.
Now, I'm sure there were extenuating circumstances. Frank flies a lot, so he likely enjoys status in American's frequent flyer program. He's a prosperous senior executive, so he likely looked like an influencer among customers American would like to attract. He was able to make his flight with a relatively modest intervention, making the good deed viable. And the woman surely took pity on him because of his predicament. But, still. Who would expect this from an employee of a bankrupt airline?
Like all case studies, this is but a single data point. But it leaves me wondering what any business might stand to gain if it oriented its associates to look out aggressively for opportunities to perform true acts of kindness for their customers.
Consider the fact that kind acts don't generally add costs — unless you have employees giving away the store. As my colleague James L. Heskett of Harvard Business School observes, it's important to endow workers on the front line with "latitude within limits." Otherwise, a plethora of otherwise innocent acts of kindness could get costly.
But, assuming you've got such guidelines in place, kindness has a strategic role to play, especially when it comes to winning over customers in an intensely competitive and slowly recovering economy.
Just ask Frank. He has a new hands-down favorite airline. It's American. All things considered, that's a powerful outcome.