Would You Do That to Your Mother?: The "Make Mom Proud" Standard for How to Treat Your Customers
May 11, 2018
Jeanne Bliss provides a single question that will make our businesses better, in every sense of the word "better."
Would You Do That to Your Mother?: The "Make Mom Proud" Standard for How to Treat Your Customers by Jeanne Bliss, Portfolio, 272 pages, Hardcover, May 2018, ISBN 9780735217812
My mama is a tough-as-nails farm girl from southwestern Wisconsin. The youngest of seven kids, she grew up working the farm she was born on until she moved out of her parents' home after high school. They didn’t have running water in the house for most of her early life, so they all only took one bath a week—a fact that probably made her a bit more shy around others as the week progressed and she came to school with the smell of her chores increasingly clinging to her. That reality finally changed when a member of the family fell through the second floor of the house, and they decided it was time to build a new one. My brothers and I were born in the city—Rockford, Illinois, to be exact—and grew up mostly in small, southeastern Wisconsin towns, but we lived on a farm for a few years when I was young. It was just before I entered kindergarten, and when I wasn’t off exploring on my own, I followed her around as she did the chores. I have seen her kicked by a cow while doing the daily milking, and walk away with little more than a wince. I have seen her fall through a second floor hay chute and acknowledge it with no more than a dusting off of her clothes. Once I entered school, in addition to doing very nearly everything for her four boys and husband at home, she took full time work as a secretary at an agricultural co-op. She basically came to run the place over the years, a fact that was acknowledged by the company when they finally relented to employees who had been telling them for years (after a succession of failed location managers) to make her the manager. She was the first female location manager in the company’s history. She is stubborn, doesn’t take guff from nobody, and is fiercely dedicated to the families and community of farmers she serves. She is the salt of the Earth, forever the apple of my eye, and taught me everything I find really important about life.
The person you call mom may not be your biological mother, but almost all of us have a mother figure in our lives—a grandmother, a friend’s mother, an aunt, a teacher, or a mentor—who we can hold out as an example, who taught us our first and most important lessons in life, who we yearn to make proud.
The lessons we learned as kids stick with us. And often they have our mom’s face all over them. Her guidance, her rules, and her sayings are still in our heads. You probably grew up that way, too, with a simple, clear understanding of what to do and what not to do.
We were taught to share, trust each other, play nice in the sandbox, and treat others like we’d want to be treated. Those lessons remain some of the best advice we’ve ever been given.
Far too often, however, we check those lessons—and that “clear understanding of what to do and what not to do”—at the door when we enter the workplace. Businesses tend to put profits first, rather than the best interest of their customers. Jeanne Bliss’s new book, Would You Do That to Your Mother?: The "Make Mom Proud" Standard for How to Treat Your Customers, explains why this is such a profound mistake, not just from a warm-and-fuzzy moral standpoint, but from a hard-and-cold business perspective. Having pioneered the role of the Chief Customer Officer (or CCO) in corporate America in companies like Lands’ End, Microsoft, Coldwell Banker and Allstate, she has come to believe that the best way to take care of business is to take care of your customers. Put another way: “To achieve your goals, you need to help others achieve theirs.” This is especially true today, as the internet gives customers more information and options to consider when shopping, and social media has given them a word-of-mouth cudgel with which to bludgeon the reputation of unscrupulous businesses—or uplift the reputation of those going the extra mile.
Advances in technology have produced another paradox in business:
With the stratospheric increase in high-tech solutions to “take care” of customers, the need for high touch has also escalated.
“Necessity may be the mother of invention,” writes Bliss, “but mothers are an inspiration to virtuous business growth. Their no-strings-attached treatment reminds us of what pulls us toward people who have our best interests at heart.” Does your company have your customers best interests at heart? Are you willing to reorient your company to help your customers meet their goals instead of your own? Are you ready to dedicate yourself to hiring only people who will do that, and empowering those on the frontlines of your business to do that above all else—even above standard operating procedure and company policy, when necessary?
That last piece, finding the right people and empowering them to do what’s right by the customer, is the first lesson Bliss offers in her new book. As human beings, your customers are worthy of dignity and respect, and it is your frontline employees who will either exercise it or exorcise it in their interactions with them. You must make it clear that you want employees to bring their full person, and personal principles, into work, and treat them with the same dignity and respect you’d like to see them extend to customers. As Bliss writes:
This is our grand opportunity to let people know that they matter. Treating customers with dignity and respect starts with treating employees the same way. In order to deliver customer dignity, employees need to feel it, experience it, and receive it themselves.
Putting employees in a position to succeed and enabling them to thrive will help your company succeed and thrive in the long run. Too many business interactions don’t allow for that kind of humanity, that fundamentally helpful humanness, because “processes established for efficiency might not factor … emotions and dignity into the equation.” That is why it is so important when making decisions, in the boardroom with other executives, in the conference room with direct reports, or on the showroom floor with customers, to keep in mind the question that gives the book its title: “Would I do that to my mother?”
We need to take how we are treating customers personally. This is what prompts actions that elevate a company and its people. … That’s why I suggest that you imagine her in moments when you’re making decisions or taking personal actions. The image of her, of what she’s meant to you and what you’ve learned from her, can be a powerful and instant reality check. It can make us pause.
There is great power in such a pause. Bliss illuminates this with thirty-two business case studies, ranging from the often-cited Cleveland Clinic to QuikTrip, a company I’ve never encountered in a business book before. Actually, I’ve never even heard of many of the companies Bliss uses as case studies—because they are in a niche or a part of the nation I am not. Wegmans Food Markets, for instance, put people over profit when they “put the break on market expansion until the right people are ready, available, and in place to deliver the Wegmans experience that fuels their growth.” The case study used to explore unconscious bias toward customers is a company called ThirdLove, which established a line of “New Nakeds” that offers “nude-color” bras in a wider variety of skin tones than the standard pinkish-beige existing manufacturers were offering. Explaining why companies should charge what they think is fair rather than the greatest amount possible, she tells the story of why she avoids a certain hotel that had a coffee maker in the room (nice), but put a $7 price tag on the coffee pod near it (not nice). She contrasts that with the story of Virgin Hotels, which has instituted “street pricing” in their minibars—growing business through loyalty and their values rather than “opportunity fees” that most hotels use to nickel and dime their customers.
But one of my favorite stories in the book, probably because I have young children of my own, comes from the author’s time at Lands’ End:
We looked back on our lives as kids playing with the shipping boxes as much as the toys—and got inspired to print the head and tail of a cow, a sheep or a horse on the flaps—so kids could ride their Lands’ End box all over the house! More than thirty years later, people still tell me about those boxes. We started with the life. We yearned to deserve customer love. We started there and worked for it.
Tied, or a close second, is the story of window washers who dress as superheroes to delight sick kids in children’s hospitals as they rappel down the windows of their rooms.
The lessons Bliss offers seem simple, because we learned the fundamentals of them as children. Choose to use empathy and humanity when you interact with others. Give everyone the dignity and respect they deserve. Honor their time. Speak to people clearly and plainly in a language they understand, and then write like you speak. Clarify the purpose of work to give meaning to the people doing it on the ground. Make it easy for people to get to know you, cutting out barriers wherever possible. Probe for any unconscious bias that might exclude, leave out, or diminish others. Make interactions with you memorable. Act with empathy and care, and value following the golden rule over following procedure. Transform “gotcha” moments into “we’ve got your back” moments.
Put simply: “Honor the human right in front of you.” The best business decision is often one that makes you less money, or even costs you some in the short term. Patagonia demonstrates this on their Worn Wear College Tour, travelling to college campuses to repair clothing free of charge, and showing students how to do so themselves—even if the item in question isn’t from Patagonia. REI does this when they close on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, which the CEO explains as an investment to get people outside with family and friends rather than in the aisles of a store. As Bliss explains:
We all know that love is irrational. Customer love is a reward for what some consider irrational business behavior.
We learned so much from our mothers. Isn’t it time to live those lessons in our business lives, as well? I can’t help but wonder if the reason they aren’t more interwoven into business culture already is because, traditionally, women—especially mothers—haven’t been very welcome in business. Even today, when women constitute a slight majority of professionals in the workplace, their representation in corporate leadership is woefully inadequate. But even if that suspicion is correct, it is not the topic of Jeanne Bliss’s new book. Her focus is right where every company’s needs to be if it wants to be successful over the long term: caring for its customers.
I know for a fact that many of the farmers who do business with my mother’s co-op would find somewhere else to go if she were to leave tomorrow. They have told her as much as she mentions her intentions to retire soon. They could care less what the name of the company is on the truck she shows up in. They want to do business with her, because they feel confident that she knows them as people, that she cares about them and their family, that she has their best interests at heart, and that she’ll find a way to take care of them and their concerns even if she has to work around the standard procedures and policies of the company she works for to do that. They can get the modern farming technology elsewhere, but they can’t get her personal care, attention, and dedication to them as people. That is what keeps them customers. She does the same for her employees, and she is still the first one to throw herself physically into any job that needs doing.
Bliss writes: “You hold the power to improve customers’ lives.” Be proud of who you are at work, and allow employees to act in a way that makes them proud of who they are at work, by doing just that. Improving customers’ lives is, after all, the best way to engender loyalty and improve your bottom line in the long run. And, in the long-run, you’ll be proud not of the profits you earned for a company, but of the way you have treated people, something that would make your mother proud, as well.
(This is where I'd say Happy Mother's Day to my own mother, but it's finally Spring here in Wisconsin, and I know she's too busy to read this. She knows all this stuff anyway. But, if you ever do read this: I love you, mama, and I hope I'm making you proud.)