Once again, the guys at Fournos Bakery have softened my heart. This time, I went into one of their bakeries and ordered my stuff. The lady who served me, (and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t recognise her,) asked me about my two sons while getting my stuff together. Then, without prompting, she threw in two gingerbread men. Yes, my order may have been around R800, but I was so grateful about being remembered and getting something for nothing – again.

February is the month of love, (well according to most media and retailers,) and I think it’s a magic opportunity to find an excuse to tell your customers how much you love them. After all, it’s customers who put food on the table and pay for your kids’ school fees, right? So it shouldn’t be too difficult.

Why is it that we seem to find it so challenging to show warmth and caring for people other than those closest to us? Love has never been shown to be a limited resource, to be used sparingly. On the contrary, the more love we show towards others, the more seems to bounce right back to us. But that spirit of generosity, caring, warmth, even just basic courtesy, seems to have disappeared.

We recently surveyed just under 900 customers, two thirds of whom were answering as consumers, and a third were in a business-to-business context. Amongst other things, we asked them to discuss what their needs were with respect to their relationship with their suppliers, and in order of importance the top five were:

·        Reliability, (right first time, consistency and quality.)

·        Responsiveness, (respond to specific needs, and show a sense of urgency.)

·        Competence, (do the people I deal with have the skills, knowledge and experience to do the job?)

·        Accessibility, (availability when customers need you.)

·        Courtesy, (recognition, personal attention, respect, empathy, warmth, caring even love from people who deal with customers – even when customers don’t deserve it!)

(The other five were understanding the customer, communication, safety and security, integrity and freedom from worry, and, of course, the tangibles.)

But here was the big surprise: At the end of the interview, once customers had ranked all of the dimensions of service quality that were desirable to them, we asked them which of these was most missing in business today, which was the one factor that they wished would be dramatically improved. A full 83% said “courtesy”!

So it seems that companies are generally not too bad at reliability, responsiveness, competence and accessibility, but there was a deep yearning for customers to feel loved and wanted.

Of course, some people don’t seem to have a problem with this. Richard Branson is one of my favourite examples, and there are dozens of legendary stories that have been told of his love for his employees, for his customers, and for the needy people in the world. In one recent example, he personally read a story and tucked a couple into bed, kissing both of them as he did so. The reason? They had won an award to stay in his new Chicago Virgin Hotel.

WestJet is an airline that also gets it. (Watch their videos on YouTube. It’s well worth it.) Two years ago, just before Christmas, they arranged that every single passenger of two flights would chat to Santa Claus in the pre-boarding waiting area, and talk about what they wanted for Christmas. In the few hours that it took for the flights to reach their destinations, staff had arranged a gift for every single person, ranging from socks and underwear to a huge flat screen TV. As passengers waited for their baggage these beautifully wrapped gifts came out first. There were literally people who cried when they saw this, and the resulting goodwill led to publicity that no money can buy.

But how did they top that the next year? Well, this time they went to a different destination where people were much poorer – the Dominican Republic. This time they asked people in a particularly poor village what they would like for Christmas. On Christmas day they arrived, even bringing a snow machine to the tropical island, and they distributed, amongst others, a washing machine, a crib, a motorbike engine, and even a horse! On Boxing Day they also unveiled a new playground for all of the kids in the village.

Dr Wayne Dyer talks about what giving back to others does for us. “A life lived for others is never a life wasted, so use your unique talents and traits to help others along this crazy rollercoaster of life. They will appreciate your help, and you will make an ever-lasting mark on their life. Not to mention, when you help others, you also help yourself. If you have been feeling a bit empty or lost lately, just simply offer your help to someone. Everyone needs a purpose in life, and helping people should always be a part of that purpose.”

There are two lessons I’d like to share with you. First, if you allow people on your team to think and act like the owners, you may be surprised by how well they do. It gives them a different view on the rules and policies, and they think longer term than just following rules like a robot. Of course, it also gives them a sense of self-worth and importance.

Second, customers remember small things because of the emotional value. In all the examples I’ve shared, the cost was very little. But they validate the type of company that I want to deal with. I have already personally told a number of people about my experiences, and with you now it is thousands of people.

By helping others to find happiness, somehow we also find ours. And I think it would be quite fun to tuck a few of my customers into bed. With a gingerbread man under their pillow.