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Is kindness a realistic customer service strategy?

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY My recent post about the importance of empathy in customer service was met with overwhelmingly positive comments and e-mails from readers, reassuring me that most agree that human connection is the most important element of this aspect of doing business. It reinforced my hope that more businesses will re-evaluate the way they handle service and ensure that humanity is always at the core.

Then I read a Harvard Business Review post that made me wonder if the value of kindness is really as much of a no-brainer as I had thought.

The post itself was wonderful. It used an "extreme service" story to reinforce the value of kindness, empathy, and human connection in customer interactions. The piece was about an airline employee taking some creative initiative, and (rather mildly) bending -- perhaps even breaking -- some rules to rescue a customer who was about to miss a flight.

What made me shake my head incredulously were many of the reader comments that followed. At this writing there are 106 comments on the post, and as one should hope most support the employee's willingness to bend the rules on behalf of the customer. But a shocking number of them are actually critical, and even derisive. The criticisms run the gamut from reasonably arguable to completely inane, but the majority fall within one of three contentions, all of which I think miss the point:

The customer put himself in the position of needing to be rescued by not leaving himself enough time. Probably true; I am a frequent flier, and being early is at the top of my list of travel tips. This guy may well have created his own problem, and if he had missed his flight as a result of poor planning, he had only himself to blame. Still, we're all human, we all screw up, and the airline employee chose to help a person in a bind. That his predicament may have been his fault is irrelevant to the real story.

The airline agent was unfairly selective in going out of her way for one particular customer. I think the idea that the employee was "selective" in who she helped misrepresents her intentions. More importantly, so what? The bigger picture is that she demonstrated the spirit and initiative of someone who genuinely just wanted to help someone else. That she realistically can't go to similar extremes for every customer is, again, a moot point. Her actions and attitude demonstrate that she likely would if she could.

The agent broke rules to help the customer. Yes, she did -- and may have been disciplined for it. But again, this argument misses the moral of the story: It's not about what the employee did, who she did it for, how she went about it, or even if her specific actions were technically "wrong." It's about the fact that she put a simple and true, well-intentioned desire to help before everything else. She decided, as the saying goes, that in that instance it was better to ask forgiveness than permission.

The thing is, while some of the critics' points may be factually correct, their comments demonstrate the self-defeating tendency of so many people and businesses to not see the forest for the trees. Even among the commenters who did applaud the story, many qualified their approval by suggesting that kindness is not a realistic, scalable, or sustainable "business strategy." To me this is myopic cluelessness writ large.

As the post author, private equity executive Jeffrey Rayport, made clear:

"Like all case studies, this is but a single data point. But it leaves me wondering what any business might stand to gain if it oriented its associates to look out aggressively for opportunities to perform true acts of kindness for their customers."

Critics of this view completely miss the point. It is not about the specific story Rayport recounted, nor it is it even about business strategy in the literal sense. The post doesn't suggest that corporations publish "how to be kind" training manuals (being truly kind can't be taught any more than can being humorous, or artistic, or tall). What it talks about is the value of building a company culture around a core of simple human decency, and -- while not condoning serious rule-breaking -- encouraging and rewarding people who care enough about others to do whatever they can to make them happy. Putting attitude first.

Given the choice between a by-the-book, "them's the rules" customer service yeoman and an empathetic, creative, human-focused employee who takes some minor off-the-menu liberties to help people, I'll take my chances on the kind rebel every time.

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