“Kindness is the social glue
that connects individuals
within a community –
kindness is contagious!”
As I scanned my local paper on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, I was hit by a common story that seemed to dominate the news.  It appeared in various forms in the national, state and local sections and had nothing whatsoever to do with politics, crime, the economy, national security or social media.  In fact I don’t think the White House even issued a “tweet” regarding this story. What was it?  Well it would seem that this past Thursday we witnessed an epidemic of kindness.  All across our nation we witnessed churches, hotels, businesses, civic organizations and countless other groups opening doors, preparing, and serving Thanksgiving dinner to the less fortunate, first-responders and others who serve our communities.  Stanford Psychologist, Jamil Zaki, refers to this phenomena as, “Positive Conformity”, and his research has documented that people who believe others to be generous become more generous themselves.  This suggests that, “kindness is contagious and that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.”

So what occurs when this phenomena is introduced to a business?  What occurs when kindness becomes a core value of your organization?  What occurs when the normal standard of business is to treat each customer and employee with kindness?   To get things started you need to treat kindness like something that is contagious and then create the conditions under which everyone in your organization will be subject to infection.

Joseph A Michelli is a New York Times Best Selling Author and his book, Driven to Delight:  Delivering World Class Customer Experience the Mercedes Benz Way,  chronicles changes made by Steve Canon, President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA who literally made changes at the top to save the company from itself.  Michelli sat down with Knowledge@Wharton to discuss the customer service turnaround at Mercedes.  Click this link to listen to the Podcast.

HBR’s Bill Taylor also examines the Mercedes turnaround brought about by Canon in his post, Making Kindness a Core Tenet of Your Company  Canon, he states, recognized that success was about more than just his vehicles.  It was how much the people who sold and serviced the cars cared and how genuinely they behaved.  “Every encounter with the brand, must be as extraordinary as the machine itself.”  But if you think about it, what do most of our encounters come down to?  People!  A personal encounter with a human being who can make it a memorable experience or one we would rather forget.  So how do we engineer a culture of connection, compassion, and kindness?  You create conditions that treat kindness like a contagion.

Canon’s challenge was to influence the behaviors of 23,000 employees at Mercedes dealerships across the country.  You don’t do that through policy manuals or rules.  You educate, excite and incite!  Per Canon, “You give them permission to rise to the occasion when the occasion to do something arises.  This is not about following directions, it’s about taking a leap of faith.”  And that leap started at the top.  As Canon’s General Manager for Customer Service, Harry Hynecamp, and his team travelled across the country they came to realize that nearly 70% of front line employees (repair technicians, parts department employees, customer service desk reps, and even the cashier) had never driven a car beyond the lot.  They had repaired them, ordered parts for them, been paid for repairs to them, but had never been behind the wheel on the open road.  How can you be proud of something that you had never experienced?  It’s difficult at best, but what if you could provide the experience?  That’s exactly what Mercedes did for all 23,000 employees. They created a program through which all  employees got to drive a brand new Mercedes Benz for 48 hours.  That little bit of kindness cost millions but, “….the reactions were out of this world. The people got to know the cars, but the biggest piece was the pride piece.”

That leap of faith effort has resulted in an internal website that now records everyday acts of kindness that occur at dealerships across the country:

  • The dealer that closed a sale and noticed from the documents that it was the customer’s birthday.  He ordered a cake and when the customer came to pick-up the car, had a celebration.
  • The woman who got a flat tire on her way to her son’s graduation stopped at a dealership and explained the problem.  There were no replacement tires in stock for her car, so the sales manger ran to the sales room, jacked up a new car, removed the tire, had it placed on her car and sent her on her way. 
This “Tenet of Kindness” that now permeates the Mercedes brand has created an emotional outcome for the customer. According to Michelli, “At Mercedes Benz they are trying to delight customers.  They want you to leave talking about how you were delighted (Kindness).  They want you tweeting about it (spreading word of the contagion and where you can get it) and sharing it with your friends.”  Bill Taylor from HBR adds, “This bottom-up, peer-to-peer commitment to customers at Mercedes USA is a powerful case study in service transformation. It’s also a reminder to leaders in all sorts of fields:  You can’t order people to be kind, but you can spark a kindness contagion.”

Embrace the Challenge