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The return of common courtesy

Once the manic buildup to the holidays ended, the world seemed to move a bit slower, and the people I interacted with seemed more relaxed and courteous than usual.

Granted, when you’re engaging in activities over the holidays, you are going to be experiencing people in a lot of customer service situations whose job it is to be helpful and friendly, and hopefully your own holiday state of mind is going to be a positive influence on your experience. Yet even with this caveat, I was struck by the difference in my experience with businesses that could be attributed to common courtesy.

In our hyper-connected, electronic device-driven culture, there is not only a desire, but also a need for people to make contact at a personal level. With that comes a business opportunity that is too often blown by a bad experience. We have developed intricate, fast and efficient systems for getting what we want in every niche of consumer markets today. Yet it is our experience with a human being that remains memorable and either builds or destroys brand loyalty.

My wife and I spent four days in Philadelphia over the holidays and had some wonderful interactions with people in museums, galleries, restaurants, stores and at a delightful bed and breakfast. Two of our three dinners out were wonderful surprises and excellent experiences. The third, the most-hyped restaurant on our list, turned out to be a big disappointment. The difference was driven more by the staff than the food. Being in the digital age, all three restaurants immediately got our reviews on Yelp, reaching a large audience of potential customers.

No matter what size your business is, the experience of your customers with your business starts at the top. Whether it is the Netflix credo of having “no brilliant jerks” on the team, or the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, insisting his company hire for fit with his company culture of extraordinary service, the leadership of the business sets the tone for behavior. I’m convinced treating people with courtesy and respect is also an overlooked attribute of great leadership.

Employee climate surveys show that a work environment of mutual trust and respect has the highest correlation with high performance of all variables surveyed. When the boss demonstrates courtesy, the team is more likely to be courteous with each other and with customers, and a climate of innovation and service is likely to occur. With so much impersonal service today, it’s a great time to differentiate your business based on this human factor, which is so often lost.

I’ve sometimes heard business leaders say, “I’d rather be respected than liked.” Not only does leadership research support the hypothesis that leaders who are liked as people get better performance, but this statement also misses a fundamental point: Why can’t you be both?

Eric Gundlach is a Maryland-based consultant who helps individuals and organizations successfully plan and manage strategic transitions. 

About Eric Gundlach