Jason, a Queens resident, has been a patron of a hardware store since 1977, despite the fact that he had left the neighborhood in 1991. He travels more than a dozen miles whenever he needs a hardware item to the small family-owned store instead of shopping in one of the large chains just down the road from where he lives. You see, on a summer day in 1977 New York City was in the midst of a blackout and Jason badly needed a large flashlight to care for his ailing father. While most of the stores in the area were closed, the hardware store was open for just an hour or so, working under candlelight. Earlier in the day there had been a run on the flashlights and the store owner wisely put two aside for his own family.
When Jason walked in, he learned that the store had sold out its flashlights, but when he told the owner why he needed the flashlight, the owner handed him one of the two large flashlights without hesitation, refusing to take any money. “Just go ahead and take care of your father.”
A Staten Island police officer still frequents a downtown café after the owner shared some food with him while on duty in the aftermath of 9/11. You probably can relate your own story of a benevolent act that you will never forget. Sure, this might be ascribed to human kindness but marketers say that it is this kind of benevolence that leaves a lasting impression on customers who enthusiastically share these acts of kindness with hundreds and even thousands of others.
There were many examples of this during the recent volcanic ash episode which shut down more than 100,000 flights. JFK became an instant shelter for the thousands of stranded travelers. Saveria, which owns many stores at the airport donated hundreds of bottles of water and soda. Some f the restaurants even offered free food. These are all acts of kindness that will no doubt be remembered for a long time.
Customers, however, were not so kind to Jet Blue when it stranded travelers on a tarmac for eight hours on a cold day in February, without a bit of information on the cause for the delay (which turned out to be weather related). It took the airline many weeks to recover from what was the airline’s worst PR fiasco.
While travelers were appreciative of the water and the cots that were provided by the Port Authority during the volcanic ash shutdown, they were not as forgiving when it came to the airlines. It appears that while some airlines had their staff cut and run, others were there to lend a sympathetic ear. Others went well beyond the call of duty: Wrote Ad Age: “At Terminal Seven at JFK, British Airways’ concourse was virtually empty because the airline had paid for hotel accommodations for all its passengers, and had handed out food vouchers.”
Ad Age also noted: “And, to its credit, the hotel industry in the U.S. for the most part did not try to take advantage of the situation with price gouging. A group of almost 40 hotels in New York banded together to offer stranded passengers a 15% discount on room rates, although the Associated Press reported that a Hong Kong hotel raised its rate from 250 euros to 800 within the same day.”
Writing in a business column, a noted marketing consultant, actually urged businesses to seek out “situations of despair” to demonstrate “that it’s not all about the money.” He pointed to a linen store in the Midwest that was quick to donate a new set of linen to a family of six that had been displaced by a fire.
He and other marketing consultants have always argued that customers have a long memory. Just as they remember the good deeds, they are also likely to recall when a business simply does not rise to the occasion. Some of these deeds might even sound petty. A woman staying in a Midtown Manhattan hotel could not get over the fact that the hotel had “given” her an oversized umbrella to protect her from a rainstorm as she was heading to an interview. She wrote to a local newspaper “You better believe that I will never stay in any other hotel when I am in New York.”
A restaurateur I know well says he trained his waiters to observe customers who appear less than thrilled with the dish they ordered. As soon as the waiters “guess” that the customer is unhappy, they immediately offer to replace the dish. “I will do the same for customers who appear to leave over most of the dish. It’s a small cost for customer satisfaction.”
While you might say that this column has more to do with human decency and good behavior, it is to a great extent just that, but it is also marketing at its best. The ability to recognize that a deed is a small cost for “satisfaction” for whatever reason is not as widespread as it should be. Imagine a marketing program that actually kills two birds with one stone: Indifference and bad marketing.