Random acts of kindness

Most Thursdays I am in Covent Garden for a Toastmasters meeting. Usually for 7am, but on occasion I need to be there soon after 6.30.  There’s no time for breakfast – a lightning shower and minimal make-up is all I can manage at that hour. So obviously when I get off the Tube I am badly in need of a coffee. And thank the Good Lord there’s a Pret-A-Manger in Long Acre. And it opens early. When the charming manageress told me my coffee was on the house I had no idea this was part of the Pret version of a ‘Random Act of Kindness’. Not that I’m knocking it. Not if it’s genuine.

Random Acts of Kindness have probably been around long before St Martin gave half of his cloak to a beggar. Wikipedia defines them as selfless acts “performed by a person or people wishing to either assist or cheer up an individual person or people.” And goes on to say that the phrase may possibly be attributed to the writer, Anne Herbert, who says that she wrote “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” on a place mat at a Sausalito restaurant in 1982 or 1983.

I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this concept. I absolutely love the idea of truly random and genuine acts of kindness. I hate the idea of business, particularly big business muscling in on the act. Not that I am against kindness – particularly in commerce. It’s heartening to see a gentler, less aggressive attitude gaining ground. There are some brilliant examples in companies large and small – Henrietta Lovell at The Rare Tea Company and Paul Warner at When I was a Kid to name just two.

These and other companies put kindness and empathy at the forefront of their businesses. This includes doing random acts of kindness. However, it’s the people who generate the attitude, the ethos, of these enterprises. And it’s this that customers and suppliers alike recognise and respond to. Of course such an approach is good for business; I believe the majority of people will respond more readily to kindness and understanding than to cutthroat methods.

However, there’s a caveat. It’s this. The kindness must arise naturally from the beliefs and values of the owners or managers. In this context companies who allow their employees to use their intuition and discretion seem to do better than those who lay it on them as a ‘strategy’ as that somehow defeats the whole object. Provided the core motivation is to help, understand and offer kindness the concept works, no matter the size of the company.

Social media offers a great opportunity to get to know customers and to identify occasions for random acts of kindness. As a result of the disruption caused by the Iceland volcano a few years ago, KLM for instance began to see the opportunity provided by social media and read their customers Tweets and Facebook comments. They used the information they gleaned to surprise selected customers with small personal gifts or with invitations to events. Similarly such companies as Guernsey-based telecoms company Sure and Scottish brewery BrewDog have a policy of kindness, whether just being nice to someone or offering free beer.

The more worrying side of all this is the move to formalize the trend, to make it part of a marketing mix, just another marketing tool. This quote from Jo Causton, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, is not reassuring. ‘”We need to give our people the skills and confidence to make the right judgment as to when an act of kindness … is appropriate. When organisations do that it really needs to feel authentic and genuine.”

The italics are mine. If something ‘needs to feel’ authentic, it’s pretty clear that that’s the last thing it is. Any company thinking to follow this advice would be much better off improving their customer service first. They’d do well to copy the likes of Boots who coughed up a 25% discount without even being asked ‘because we screwed up.’ Or my boiler insurance people who offered a cheque for £100 because they let me down. Or O2 who bent over backwards to sort out my phone.

Customers aren’t stupid. They’ll spot insincerity and gimmicks quicker than you can say ‘freebie’. The only way that random acts of kindness can work in a commercial setting is if they come from the heart, the values and the ethos. Of course they will create goodwill and thus increase profit – but this won’t last long if the motive is merely profit.

I was delighted with my free coffee at Pret. It didn’t feel contrived or as if I was being manipulated. It wouldn’t have worked if it had.  I go to Pret because I like their coffee, I like their values, I like the genuine warmth of their staff. (They don’t train their employees in customer relations by the way. Their policy is to recruit people who are naturally friendly, who don’t need to be taught to smile). There’s another coffee shop nearby. The one that doesn’t pay its taxes. However, it’s not that that prevents me crossing their thresholds. Or not only that. It’s because their coffee is lousy. And writing people’s names on the cups doesn’t fool anyone.

Googling ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ will bring up a lot more information.

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