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A three word New Year's resolution: Just be nice

I know, New Year's resolution articles are tired and cliché, but I'm doing one anyway. This time, no list of good intentions to fall by the wayside soon after the confetti is cleaned up; just one suggestion, for one commitment that you and your business can and should keep:

Just be nice.

Aw, isn't that just the cutest idea… unicorns, rainbows and kumbaya as a business plan? It's easy to trivialize or dismiss as unrealistically simplistic, but pooh-pooh the sentiment at your peril. The shrinking world is becoming increasingly intolerant of unkind commerce, so you'd do well to make being nice a real priority, especially when it comes to the people who make or break your business:

Your customers: Duh, right? Why, then, if being nice to customers is such an obvious concept, do most customers still not feel the love from most companies? The reason is that too many businesses think they are being nice to people by giving them more Customer Self-Service (CSS) options, including more sophisticated Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems and look-no-further FAQs. Tools designed to eliminate the need -- and sometimes the option -- to ever speak to a Customer Service Representative (CSR). Companies know these things work because they measure their First Call Resolution (FCR) and other Key Performance Indicators (KPI).

Customers aren't acronyms or metrics, and they don't like to be treated that way. They are increasingly frustrated with being denied control of the way they can interact with a company, and certainly fed up with the quality of many of the interactions they do have. Saccharine as it may sound, they just want someone to be nice to them. The companies writing the new rules of exceptional service are using the old rules: Personal connection, high-touch, elimination of barriers, a true desire to serve.

Your employees: I don't know how many studies it takes for employers to believe, really believe, what employees say they want most from a job. Money and other practical considerations are important, of course, but those come with every job, albeit at varying levels of attractiveness. But the things that make employees love their jobs, stay in them, and perform at their best are largely emotional: People want to be recognized and appreciated, to feel secure and supported, to be included and informed, to know that they are making a contribution. They will take a little less money to be part of  a culture and atmosphere that makes them want to spend their waking hours -- a third or more of their lives -- helping a company make more money.

Turnover hurts every part of your business. Great companies keep great people for a longer time by being, literally, nice places to work.

Your suppliers: Whenever someone at my company speaks to a prospective new supplier, the first thing I ask -- and I'm happy to take the ribbing I get for it -- is, "Did he sound nice?" It's a silly-sounding question, but one I take very seriously. I believe that there can be no good business without good relationships, and I want to enjoy working with suppliers as much as I do with customers. I want to deal with partners who respond well to being treated well, because I know that good suppliers favor nice customers, all else being equal. Much as is the case with employees, signing checks is important, but the enlightened company knows there's more to it.

Being nice to suppliers means being timely with payments, but it also means being loyal and not playing vendor pinball to chase after the next penny -- you may save today and pay tomorrow. It means being reasonably understanding of problems and mistakes, knowing you make them too. And it means treating your suppliers as valued relationships, not interchangeable anybodies who should consider themselves lucky to have your business. It is inevitable that, at some point, the way you treat your suppliers will come back to you one way or the other.

Although being nice and good to people should be a day-in, day-out priority, the turn of a new year is always a good time to step back and see how you're doing. Do your customers feel that you are serving them, or that you expect them to serve themselves? Do you want your employees to work happily, or just work hard? Do you treat your suppliers like partners, or just payables?

At the end of the day, all this "nice" stuff comes back to the word that matters most: Empathy. When you put those other shoes on, would you truly love to buy from your company, work for it, or sell to it? If so, identify why and do more of it. If not, chances are good that you have some opportunities in the humanity department.

This coming year, and forever after, be nice. If you're already nice, be nicer. Put it out there and see what comes back.

Photo illustration adapted from a Flickr image by JD Hancock

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