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Being nice isn't the same as being good


(MoneyWatch) I write and speak a lot about how empathy, kindness and even loveare often what distinguish great service and exceptional companies from the rest of the pack. Doing things well, and doing them with personality and humanity, is a one-two punch in business. But all the personality in the world is useless if you don't deliver the goods.

As a customer service fanatic, I've never given much thought to the notion that it can be ineffective, or even pointless, to be nice in business. I talk about the human factor so much that I think only about how much better businesses are when staffed by people who are wonderful with other people. I guess you could say I focus on "service with a smile" so much that the idea of "a smile without service" hasn't really crossed my mind.

Unfortunately, I've been learning through frustrating firsthand experience how quickly "nice" can get old when the business doesn't back it up.

The short version of a long story is that a contractor did some major, costly work on our house, and we've had continuous problems with it since day one. When the problems started to show, though the contractor wasn't always fast to respond to calls and emails, once he did he was unfailingly nice, apologetic and anxious to get it resolved. He'd come over with some guys, work on it, tell us he was sorry, that it was fixed and that would be that. But it happened again. And again. Each time, same thing: took a while to reach him, but he arrived with a genuinely contrite attitude and said they got it fixed.

If you're thinking I got suckered by a good actor with a Cheshire Cat grin, I didn't. This contractor is well-established and of good repute. I'm sure issues like this aren't typical for him, but this was a problem, and it was our problem. There's no question in my mind that he is a truly good guy who sincerely wanted to resolve the issues. If he was a jerk, this would be easier and there'd be no story.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and we're still having the same problems. It's important to note that this particular work is covered by a long-term, comprehensive warranty, and there is no question that the issues are related to the original workmanship, so we are by no means expecting anything that wasn't and isn't part of the deal; we just want the job done right and fixed once and for all. But we are now at a point where the contractor is becoming less and less responsive, presumably backing away from investing any more time or money into it, or just giving up on figuring out how to fix it.

In any other situation, I would have long ago pursued some other recourse -- maybe demanding a partial refund to pay someone else to fix it, making a call to the Attorney General or Better Business Bureau, or even exploring small claims court... who knows. I've never had an experience quite like this. But I have somehow put up with it, because I hate to take such an aggressive approach with such a nice guy. I guess I'm a softie. But a job is a job, we paid a lot of money for it, and it must be made right. So I'm figuring out my next steps, which will unavoidably be more aggressive, while living with the visible evidence of the bad work.

I tell business people one of the many reasons it pays to treat customers exceptionally well all the time is that it makes them much more understanding when there's a problem. Fact is, if it were based on personality alone, I'd call this contractor for everything and recommend him to everyone, even if this situation had taken two or three visits to resolve. He banked a lot of patience and understanding with me with his good attitude. But even maximum nice-guy credits run out at some point if work doesn't get done right and problems don't get fixed.

Now the situation has become the opposite of the "slingshot effect" I've written about in the past, where you turn unhappy customers into rabid fans. I am now resentful toward the contractor -- and annoyed with myself -- that I've put up with this for an outrageous amount of time, just because the contractor was so nice. At some point business is business; the work wasn't done properly (and still isn't fixed), and I let it go on way too long. On top of that, the more time goes by, the harder it is to resolve things like this.

The business lesson to be learned seems obvious, though clearly not to everyone (and I am sure my story is not unique): first and foremost, you must deliver. Being nice and empathetic and people-driven makes a huge difference, and it will buy you goodwill when things go wrong. But if you don't make things right, it's all gravy with no meat under it; and that makes for a very unsatisfying meal -- one that people aren't likely to order again.

Image by Flickr user Miss Rogue

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