Work: Try a little tenderness: Random acts of kindness in the workplace are not only good for your company's image but also help to keep customers and staff satisfied. Dina Behrman explores the feelgood factor
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) When Paul Warner saw a stranger's comment on Facebook lamenting her nine-year-old daughter's birthday present being lost in the post, he couldn't help but take note. As the owner of traditional children's toy company wheniwasakid.co.uk, he decided to track down the woman and send her daughter a toy, free.
Warner says: "I sent her a bunny with a note saying: 'Sorry Royal Mail let you down, hopefully this will put a smile on your little girl's face.' She was completely bowled over."
It's not the first time Warner has surprised customers, or potential customers, with an unexpected act of kindness. And he's not the only one. According to trend firm, TrendWatching.com, "random acts of kindness" represent a major consumer trend. Henry Mason, its head of research and analytics, says: "For consumers long used to - and annoyed by - distant, inflexible, self-serving corporations, any acts of kindness by brands will be gratefully received. For brands, increasingly open communications, both with and between consumers (especially online), means it's never been easier to surprise and delight audiences; whether sending gifts, responding to publicly-expressed moods or just showing that they care.
"The really new element to this is, that via social networks, brands can now access consumers' moods, intentions, desires or frustrations as they happen, and can therefore address them in a much more personalised and timely fashion."
For Warner, thinking up ways to surprise people with kind acts is half the fun. "Flowers always work well, or I might send someone a chocolate bar because they mentioned on Twitter that they like a certain kind of chocolate," he says.
"On one occasion, I drove down to London to collect a toy that a courier had delivered to the wrong address, and delivered it back up to Luton to make sure it arrived on the day of a little boy's birthday."
Other examples include sending restaurant vouchers to customers picked at random, upgrading to next day free delivery, sending out personalised keyrings and including free gifts with an order.
He says the word-of-mouth effect from this has been huge, and business is booming. Warner's kind work ethic extends across the workforce - he allows his staff the freedom to pick and choose their own acts of kindness to perform, which, he says, helps create a positive working environment. "The staff are at liberty to do whatever they think is right in the situation. We don't have any rules."
The idea of using kindness in business is one that is spreading, thanks in part to the difficult economic situation. A recently-released poll of consumer values by Young & Rubicam showed that among the once-prized brand attributes that had declined in importance over the past couple of years were: "exclusive" (down 60%), "arrogant" (41%), "sensuous" (30%), and "daring" (20%).
Conversely, the brand attributes consumers found more important were: "kindness and empathy" (up 391%), "friendly" (148%), and "socially responsible" (63%).
At Kiel House Stores in the village of Dinas Cross in Pembrokeshire, owners Phil and Meinir Simpson are so well known in their community for their kind ways, they've won awards. The shopkeepers have run the busy convenience store for the past nine years, and have picked up awards including Independent Achievers Academy Top 100, singling them out as one of the best 100 independent shops in the UK.
"Our customers are usually the same people most days," says Simpson, "and, within quite an aged village, if some of the customers don't come in we pop over and see if they're OK, or we phone a neighbour. I've got one lady who lives on her own who is very shortsighted so I deliver her goods and read the paper to her and do her correspondence."
As well as delivering to the elderly at no extra cost, they also advertise local events, support local charities and are first responders who go to the aid of someone if a personal alarm is set off.
The pair often find themselves mowing lawns, walking dogs, and putting up curtains. "We do jobs like that if we can. We just like to be helpful," he says. "It does help the business and makes you part of the community. You get the feelgood factor if you can help someone, it puts you on a bit of a high."
David Jamilly, who runs events company Theme Traders, agrees. He and his colleagues give chocolate bars to every visitor, contractor and courier to spread goodwill. "I used to work as a motorbike courier, so I've seen the difference that kind behaviour can make," he says. "We have 30 or 40 couriers who turn up here and giving them a chocolate bar brings a smile to their faces and we hope they'll go back on the roads and pass the kindness on."
Statistics from recent consumer polls by Edelman, and Young & Rubicam, show that 87% of UK consumers expect companies to consider societal interests equal to business interests, while 71% of people make it a point to buy brands from companies whose values are similar to their own.
At Birmingham-based creative agency Smile, technical director Nathan Monk says he and his colleagues try to include kindness in all their interactions. "One of our core values has always been that 'everything we do should make someone smile'," says Monk.
"With that in mind, we've always been fond of freebies for our clients. Lots of companies give away digital games and microsites, but we thought that was quite impersonal, so, at our launch party, we gave away limited edition prints.
"Once we made little acrylic Christmas trees for existing and prospective clients and another Christmas we created an entire range of decorations that we gave to our database for free."
Similarly, James Watt, co-founder of Scottish brewery, BrewDog, says he and his colleagues endeavour to always be kind, be that complimenting a customer, or giving away free beer to someone picked at random.
"We live by the ethos 'work hard and be nice to people', and the way we run our social media profiles proves this. One day we might give away a box of beer, the next we've given someone pounds 200-worth of shares in the company through our fan investor scheme. We start each day thinking of ways to get people excited and happy."
Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, says that to be effective, it's important to have a strategy. "It's not about just a random act of kindness, it's about an organisation understanding what it's trying to do and what its customer service strategy is and being able to deliver that," she says.
"We need to give our people the skills and confidence to make the right judgment as to when an act of kindess or going the extra mile, is appropriate. When organisations do that it really needs to feel authentic and genuine."
That's something employees at Guernsey-based telecommunications company, Sure, know about. They have a marketing budget dedicated to RAKs and carry out a campaign of kindness throughout the year, with a special focus on "Blue Monday", 21 January.
Employee acts of kindness include randomly giving away bunches of flowers, paying for people's purchases in cafes, hairdressers and shops, giving out coffees in the high street, paying for a bus route for the day, giving muffins and bacon sandwiches to the local police and fire station, and giving out free popcorn at the cinema.
Marketing manager Jessica Bisson says it has helped the company to raise its profile and improved staff morale. "It's great fun for us, as staff - we get given money and we run into restaurants and leave a card saying 'You've been RAK'd' (that's a random act of kindness), and run out again. Because we're a small island, that feelgood factor does really ripple around."
Marketing staff are free to carry out a spontaneous act of kindness at any given moment, she adds.
"We'll do the odd one-off thing, like, recently, a lady who was very ill had mentioned to a friend that she needed a new phone. We went and delivered her a new one, which was a complete surprise to her. Another time a women was stuck over here from a smaller island, about to give birth, so we assisted her husband to come over."
Bisson believes kindness is also an important factor for retaining employees in a difficult economic climate. "The company wants to keep the staff they've got, they're skilled engineers, they don't want them leaving. A happy workforce makes a good workforce. Even small tokens - giving out free mugs, or buying everyone ice-creams on a hot day - can make a real difference."
She adds that while RAKs have worked well for them, many businesses are unaware of their potential. "Sometimes it's not about putting all your money into a big marketing or advertising campaign, but if you can do small things that someone will tell someone about, it gives your brand a good feel, which is great for business. It's nice to feel like you're giving back."
Chuffed: Paul Warner
never tires of thinking up new acts of kindness that are guaranteed to raise a smile. That, he says, is half the fun
Photograph by David Sillitoe for the Guardian
(c) 2012 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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