Buy Speak Human
Look inside Speak Human

Chapter 15: Be Nice to People

Getting people to know and love your company is a cloudy process. What works for one group may do little for another. You’ll have to sniff about, run some tests, and see what works for you. One thing I’ve noticed, is that people tend to dislike working with jerks. Sure, we’re sometimes forced to do so due to a simple lack of options, but I think that’s quickly becoming a thing of the past. It seems to me that we increasingly have more choices regarding who we spend our money with. As this happens, I think most will choose to work with nice people when they can.


Again, we’re left with the mind-numbingly obvious. “Of course, people prefer to work with nice people. You mean I spent good money to read this sort of drivel?” Nevertheless, if it’s so painfully obvious, why is it so excruciatingly rare? Think of the millions that companies put into advertising, only to blow it once we’re in the door. My personal example for this is Telus.

Telus is a Canadian telco whose tagline reads, “The Future is Friendly.” They spend immense sums advertising around this theme, which is brought to life through playful animals on sparse backdrops. These ads are ever-present in cities like Vancouver. I find them on the bus, billboards, websites, television, and their corporate vans. They have invested heavily in getting us to think they’re friendly.

When I call them, I experience something quite different. They appear to have made it deliberately cumbersome to reach a human when problems arise. Should I find a way through their automated maze, their people seem intent on playing “hot potato” with my call. Solving a little problem like double-billing becomes an ordeal. I call them, get transferred, and am accidentally hung up on, until I want to punch someone. So I start to see those ads as a slap in the face. Their future isn’t “friendly”—it’s mechanical, obtuse, and circuitous. Unless… they want to sell me something or I call to close an account. Either of those change the game completely.

Selling me something (like a bundled service) seems easy enough and they’re well-equipped to hook me up. No need to be transferred—just a few clicks and we’re done. Similarly, calling to close an account seems to upgrade the importance of my call. Suddenly I’m a “valued customer.” Perverse, isn’t it? They’ll do anything to get a new customer. Ask to leave, and they treat you like family. But as an existing customer, it seems like I’m inconsequential.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but stick with me. What if… just hypothetically… a company like Telus concentrated less on telling me how great they were, and instead was nice to me? By “nice” I mean that an actual human would answer my calls, that I wouldn’t be tricked into a long-term contract, and that I wouldn’t find myself extorted upon wanting to cancel something I didn’t ask for.

What if the folks at Telus minimized their reliance on clever ads, and became obsessive about servicing their existing customers? Most in their existing markets already know who they are, so awareness isn’t the issue. It seems that some others feel like me, and voice their frustrations both in conversation and online. What if Telus re-allocated a few of those millions spent in media buys to just delighting their existing customers? A handful of loyal advocates might just do more than another season of cute ads. Crazy thinking... I know.

The hard part, is that people who aren’t nice don’t easily recognize this in themselves. Additionally, when they get feedback from others that shines a light on this, they often refuse to believe it. The challenge is to both get accurate feedback, and then act on it. This is exponentially harder for big companies.

Fighting impotency

I don’t intend to canonize small companies. Many have abysmal service and act badly, but if motivated they can address such problems rapidly. This isn’t as manageable when employees number in the hundreds or thousands. In large organizations you need systems to manage how people interact amongst themselves and with the outside world. Unfortunately these procedures aren’t perfect, and some within companies who see the absurdity of a given guideline, find themselves hamstrung by corporate policy.

Sometimes they shrug their shoulders and apologize; at other times I’ve been told how to get around such nonsense. My question is whether some of the structure and policies we employ are just too rigid. Could we run our companies better by establishing objectives instead of rules? I wonder what might happen if we empowered our people to simply “make customers feel great.” There’d be hiccups, as we’d be asking staff to make subjective decisions, but a lot of the current methods certainly aren’t working as they should.

The only job I could find after completing art school was at a photo-finishing shop in the mall. I learned something from one of my coworkers who had a nice way with customers. Darrell didn’t make a big deal out of things. He wasn’t concerned with every detail that had been laid out in the staff manuals. Mostly he just tried to make people happy. One day a customer came in to pick up some photos, presenting me with a coupon that had long since expired. Half-way through my explanation that, “Um… this coupon is sort of…” Darrell walked by and whispered, “Make your life easier—take the coupon.”

While I was stuck on an unimportant rule (what’s a “limited-time offer,” anyway?) Darrell seemed more concerned with the big picture. I think he knew that acting by-the-book would lose a customer and perhaps cause a scene. By being pleasant and just going with the flow, customers came back time and again. People liked Darrell, and we were never worse off for doing any of this. More than that, what should head office be more concerned with: rejecting an outdated coupon or keeping a customer?

What’s notable is that Darrell did this sort of thing on his own. I doubt our manager was ever aware of it—she likely would have put a stop to it immediately. By ignoring the more tedious aspects of corporate policy, though, Darrell’s actions increased customer loyalty. I have to wonder what kind of response your company would find if you encouraged staff to do the same. To do so you might actually have to rewire your drones to speak “human”—enabling them to get the job done and make customers love you.

A cold-shoulder or a helping-hand?

My brother Mark was on his way from Kitchener-Waterloo to Vancouver for the Christmas break when a massive storm-front took hold in parts of Canada and the United States. He and thousands of others were left stranded in airports unable to make their way home for the holidays. For a few days, Mark was forced to wait at Calgary International Airport while we drank wine and ate nice dinners without him.

There’s no good time to be stuck at an airport. Christmas must be the worst, as it’s when one would otherwise have an opportunity to share a few precious days off with family. Lots of people were stuck, frustrated, and pissed off. Mark later told me that some Air Canada passengers were highly frustrated. This lead to many negative reviews in the media of the carrier’s performance.84

Air Canada didn’t cause the snowstorm and it would be unreasonable to expect them to cover related costs. What they missed, was one of the best brand building opportunities they’d ever have. You see, the snowstorm wasn’t their rival WestJet’s problem either. Nevertheless, they took a different approach, making the non-compulsory decision to care for customers, regardless of what it took.

Both Air Canada and WestJet customers were stuck. With their planes grounded, there was little that could be done to change this. Curiously, while Air Canada’s customers were left to fend for themselves, WestJet’s were taxied, put up in hotels, and given meal vouchers. This was done on WestJet’s dime, to the tune of two-million dollars.85 Each day, passengers shuttled back to the airport in hopes of getting home, but socked in weather and an increasing backlog left many very irritated. Still, WestJet staff put on a brave face, and did things to lighten the mood. They handed out pizza to hungry customers and awarded prizes to those brave enough to sing Christmas carols over the PA system.

Mark has been an admirer of WestJet for some time. What happened in Calgary made him in a dyed-in-the-wool fan who tells the story above to all kinds of people. Ask yourself: if you were in the Air Canada lineup and saw how WestJet took care of their customers, who would you book your next flight with?

“Nice” can be part of your ethos

I flew with Air Canada recently, and was surprised by how much they had changed in the past five or ten years. Everyone was friendly and the flight was enjoyable. Prior to this, I found their staff to sometimes be quite dismissive and snobby.

As much as they work to change their operation, at heart Air Canada is the same company, and this still permeates in the organization today. Booking a flight on their website is unnecessarily arduous, seemingly focused on data collection rather than user ease. What should be a relatively simple process leaves me irritated. Similarly, to the flyer it feels like they take every opportunity to add extra charges. Instead of being able to just choose a destination and time when booking a flight, I have to determine whether I want “Tango,” “Tango Plus,” “Latitude,” “Executive Class Lowest,” or “Executive Class Flexible.” I don’t want to decipher ridiculously named packages. I just want to get somewhere.

WestJet started by doing “less” very well. They’ve continued to apply this thinking and in doing so their entire process feels like it is built around customer needs first. Air Canada, on the other hand, appears to look for what works best for them. By adding these options they conceivably maximize profit, which was good. Saving two-million dollars on the transport, lodging, and feeding of stranded guests is probably quite fiscally responsible. Yet, in the minds of customers, these things add up. This leaves some feeling that Air Canada is less interested in their customers than the bottom line.

At the writing of this book, Air Canada has just barely staved off a second bankruptcy filing. WestJet on the other hand is adding planes to its fleet and looks stronger than ever. While Air Canada has been a giant in Canadian aviation, WestJet started as a small company just 13 years ago. Over that time it has done everything to act like a little guy. They’re nice to customers and service the heck out of them.

Be nice to all people

Being nice is sometimes hard: customers can make unreasonable demands; suppliers don’t always deliver; and, partners can miss deadlines. A lot of us are hot-headed and react too quickly. I’m one of these people, and I tend to do or say the wrong thing when a situation gets the best of me. Then of course, few of us are Mother Teresa, and from what I hear, even she had moments of doubt.

What we can aim for, is to do our best. We have to look past just the benefits to be had by being nice, and instead form meaningful and sincere relations with those around us. Most do this already. In the rush of a busy day though, we can get lost in the hustle and bustle, only to do damage in ways we didn’t intend. Just imagine being greeted by a gracious host upon arriving at a lovely coffee shop. He takes a moment to ask about your day and offers you a slice of their freshly-baked pie. A few moments pass before you momentarily excuse yourself to slip into the restroom. In doing so you pass by this same cordial fellow only to witness him boorishly putting down a staff member. Wouldn’t these actions shatter any ideas about the fellow that you first started out with?

The thing is, not being nice has ramifications. When my wife and I walk onto a car lot and the salesman only talks to me, we leave without any intention of returning. Ignoring my partner stops us from buying anything. Did he think there was some kind of camaraderie to be built by talking “man-to-man” about cars? If so, he was sorely mistaken. No, we just walk away, never to come back, and no clever ad will change that. That dullard will likely leave the company someday, and I’ll still associate the operation with his poor judgment.

It doesn’t stop there. Making rash suppositions based on who you think people are begs for disaster. I’ve watched as folks have acted condescendingly to the water delivery guy, janitor, or secretary. Don’t do this. It only invites people to hate you and your business. Besides, every one of these people could influence a purchase from your company. Some have kids who will grow up to be customers; others have parents who they could convince to buy from you. Everyone deserves respect. It’s so easy to lose customers; don’t make that any easier.

One other note: If you’re one of those brave souls who drives a car with your company’s logo on it, always be on your very best behavior. Every time you cut off another driver, run a red light, or fail to give the right-of-way, you risk pissing someone off. Believe me, you don’t want their first memory of your company to be the time you nearly ran over their kid. Marketing your company gets more expensive when you act like an asshole.

They need to want it

You can hire the best salesperson in the world, but if you’re selling me tickets to the upcoming Yanni concert, you’re out of luck. I don’t want to hear his music and I probably never will. It won’t matter to me that the tickets are front-row, half-price, or that I might even like the show. The fact is, If I don’t want it, I won’t buy it. I’m not saying that you’re a bad person; I’m just not interested.

Branding, marketing, and sales can only get you so far. You just can’t make people do something they don’t want to do. My suggestion is to be nice to those people anyway. Say “please” and “thank you” and maybe offer to help them find something that they might like—even if you’re not the one selling it. By being that rare person who is nice when they don’t buy, you make it easier for them to come back. We’re emotional creatures and if we think that someone doesn’t like us we’ll probably just avoid them. Don’t make me feel guilty about coming back when I am ready to buy. Just be nice so it’s easy for me to do so should the opportunity arise.

Besides… I just walked by a tour bus full of seniors who are dying to see a Yanni show. You never know where the next sale is coming from, right?

When you blow it

In 2002, Capers (an organic food store and restaurant) had an employee become infected with Hepatitis-A. They didn’t waste a moment upon learning of this. Regardless of the damage it might do to their brand, they acted responsibly. Within hours they pulled potentially contaminated products from shelves. Then, they alerted media of the concern, asking hundreds of employees and thousands of customers to get immunizations. They even took out ads in the local paper to apologize for the inconvenience. Jim Hoggan (the publicist who helped the company address the situation) later noted, “Their sales were back up to normal within a year and the company resumed growth.”86

Contrast this with the Mama Panda restaurant back in my home town. Purportedly a customer with the stomach flu vomited near the buffet table. This allegedly resulted in others also contracting flu-like symptoms. You’ll note that although I speak with abandon throughout this book, I’ve used words like “purportedly” and “allegedly” here. I do so with self-preservation in mind. A journalist (and friend of mine) reported in her piece titled, “Vomit serves up virus at buffet” that necessary steps weren’t taken to clean the premises, and this may have caused the spread of the illness. The owners of the restaurant went on to take legal action.87 Years later they were still fighting a pointless fight; the restaurant was gone, and although I had to look up its real name, the only moniker that sticks with me is “the barf buffet.”

Promises are easy to make, but it’s our actions that really validate such claims. No matter how hard we try, we will make mistakes. In instances like those noted above, we have a few options. Capers choice was proactive and moral; they have maintained the trust they had worked so hard to build.

Customer loyalty isn’t a program

One of my favorite clients is Paul Williams from McInnis. He marks the third generation of the McInnis/Williams family to run their shop, which started way back in 1920. Although McInnis has done a few different things over that time, they’ve more recently focused on lighting and have done so quite nicely. We had the pleasure of working with Paul on an identity project for his company a few years ago.

Paul is nice without ever being phony or saccharine. He’s simply a good guy who treats his customers well. Everyone in his shop knows the products that they sell and readily carry purchases out to customers’ cars. Additionally, if you ever have a problem with something you’ve bought, he simply takes care of it. I find myself perpetually bombarded by big companies wanting to build “customer loyalty” with some kind of card, membership, or vague promise. Paul does none of those things. He just treats customers the way that any of us would like to be.

I learned a few things about business in Prince George. We started our company there, and along the way some people shared their insights with us. I think Paul’s stories are the ones I remember best. He had an interesting way of simplifying things in a way that just made sense. He once told me that many of his business insights were informed by his mother, who noted such things as, “you run your business like a household: you don’t buy things when you don’t have the money to pay for them.”

News stories and magazine articles about business often seem to make things more complex than is perhaps necessary. I wonder if we should just try to think of our businesses as extensions of ourselves. This may help us better keep them in-line with the kind of people we are. Few of us act miserably in our personal affairs, so why do businesses sometimes do so?

What you sow

Ever wake up knowing your day is going to be shit? What about the next, when you think everything will be wonderful? Our minds have an amazing power over our perceptions. What we expect to be bad seems to become just that, and vice-versa.

I’d love to believe in the notion of some kind of karma that maintains a measured balance between what we give and receive. I am not that mystic or spiritual, but I do think the way we feel changes how we express ourselves. This in turn informs the experience we can subsequently expect.

Imagine that you’re a shop-keeper who decides to assist some teenagers with something they like; let’s say you help them find space and free paint to create a local mural. Suppose one of their friends later suggested tagging the side of your shop. Do you think they’d defile your storefront or would they perhaps act differently as a result of your actions? When you’re nice, you open up the possibility of others reciprocating. If we’re lucky, this results in making a few friends. We all need more of those, because strangers hardly give a moment’s thought to whether we fail or succeed.


Share:   | More



Next chapter: Selling Without Selling




Order Speak Human



Speak Human cover

Want to read more?

Get yours today from
Buy Now!


Want more? Watch the videos, get updates, join the group, or book Eric to speak at your event.