Jack Mitchell, CEO of the clothing stores Mitchells/Richards/Marshs, outlined how to keep customers happy in "Hug Your Customers." In his follow up book, Mitchell repeats turns inward to focus on how to hire and maintain a happy staff, build trust, develop pride in your organization and create a "niceness " culture. Here's an excerpt from "Hug Your People":
Building a Niceness Culture
Years ago I learned about the three levels of knowledge, or the Three K’s, a nifty way of framing your awareness of a subject. Whenever I’m tussling with an important issue, the Three K’s spring to mind.
The three levels of knowledge go like this:• K1: You know what you know.• K2: You know what you don’t know.• K3: You don’t know what you don’t know—the scariest of them all!
Here’s an easy way to understand the paradigm:
You know what you know: I know that penicillin is a miracle antibiotic used to treat common diseases and ward off infections.
You know what you don’t know: I know I don’t know anything about the chemical structure of penicillin or the actual process by which it slays disease or (until I just looked it up) that the best strain of it came from a moldy cantaloupe found in a garbage can.
You don’t know what you don’t know: There are dozens of so-called uncontacted tribes in the world isolated from the rest of civilization that don’t even know that penicillin exists and could prevent them from dying from wounds and ailments—so they don’t know what they don’t know.
The Three K’s hit me like a ton of bricks whenever I contemplate corporate cultures. It’s so often the case, especially in companies that fail to achieve their potential, that you don’t know what you don’t know. And what’s troubling is that this happens with the most critical building block of a business.
Lots of companies seem stuck in the third level of knowledge when it comes to the importance of being nice to their associates. They don’t know that associates are the foundation of success. Instead, they regard them as an expense item, especially if they have a pension fund, like the airlines. A senior flight attendant said to me recently, “I used to feel like an asset, and now I definitely feel like a liability.”
That’s a huge contrast to an organization like Starbucks, which from the very beginning offered part-time associates health benefits! I once heard a barista say, “They give me flexible hours plus health insurance!”
And then there are companies that are trapped in the second level of knowledge. They know the value of their associates but don’t know how to show them they are appreciated. At our company, we know that the most important asset we have is our people, and we aim to demonstrate this on a daily basis through what I think of as a Niceness Culture.
Just the other day, I was at the bottom of what I call the Stairway to Heaven at our Richards store, which leads to the women’s selling floor, and I turned to Rob Rich, a sales associates who has been with us for many, many years and who was having a breakout year, and I simply shook his hand and said, “Great job, Rob! You’re really doing outstanding. Thanks so much!” It was a spontaneous act on my part, one that now seems to come naturally to me, because he is doing a great job, and I know this little acknowledgment made him feel like a million bucks. And his sales are continuing to increase.
We do things like this all the time. I’ve watched Debra Gampel do it, and so many others, because they’ve learned the power of simple, straightforward praise. We all try to be nice.
Now, I don’t know of any company that thinks of itself as being deliberately cruel to its associates, or even chilly to them, but how many companies actually have as part of their corporate strategy the intention to be nice and to routinely acknowledge how valuable their associates are? Not many. As a result, few truly produce a Niceness Culture. Starting at the top, you have to encourage niceness through deliberate and proactive gestures and activities until you produce an environment where people are genuinely and consistently considerate toward one another.
A lot of people get the idea of a Niceness Culture from their mothers or fathers, or maybe from a nursery school teacher or a beloved babysitter, and they recognize its absence in many corporate climates and yearn for it. Over the years, several people have told us our environment is so nice that their colleagues often make them feel even better than they feel at home. That means you might come from a somewhat dysfunctional family and recognize that the store is a place that feels like the functional home environment you’ve always wished for. And if you are from a functional home, you recognize it as an extension of home.
Of course, if you’re used to being beaten up for making mistakes or being ordered around all the time, it can take time to adjust. You’re always thinking you’re going to get fired or the other shoe is going to drop if you admit you’re having a hard time making your targets, because every time you didn’t do it right at home in your sadly dysfunctional family you got smacked or put down.
But once you get accustomed to a Niceness Culture, you feel uplifted—“put up” not “put down”—and believe me, you’ll never want to leave it, ever.
What, then, is a Niceness Culture? It’s a culture where these three things are true:
1. There’s a “pleaser” mentality.2. Relationships are personalized.3. There is humility.
There’s a “pleaser” mentality—by this, we mean that people want to do nice things just to be nice. The mind-set is that everyone in the organization has consistently great manners that are used to please others. When they interact, managers and associates use expressions such as “excuse me,” “please,” and “Can I help you?”—positive phrases that suggest that we all strive to please one another.
With a pleaser mentality, people are always looking to give coworkers a helping hand. Fabio will say to Stephen, “Go home early, I know it’s your son’s birthday, I’ll gladly cover for you,” and the next month Stephen will turn to Fabio and say, “I know you want to play in that softball game, I’ll take that urgent order down to UPS so it gets out to California tonight. Go ahead.” More often than not, a pleasing act comes back to hug you just when you need it.
It’s very important that people are consistently polite to one another, not only when it’s a nice day out. Even when it’s raining or a blizzard is coming down, people who are polite remain polite. Mom used to take politeness to a new level. She would write thank-you notes in response to thank-you notes. We used to kid her, “Mom, they’re thanking you. Why are you thanking them?” And she would say, “I like to.”
What’s also true is that, hopefully, no one ever does something hurtful to another person in a premeditated and manipulative manner. For instance, a nice person would never, ever use the word hate. One day I was describing how I hated to eat fish when Lyle, my oldest grandson, turned to me and said, “Grandpa, hate is a swear word.” I couldn’t agree more; it’s not a polite thing to say. I really dislike fish, though. I far prefer chicken—in fact, I love chicken.
Possibly the greatest pleaser I ever knew was my grandmother on my mother’s side. She always gave so much—whether it was lessons in canasta or a much-needed loan—without ever expecting anything back, other than she loved to hear how we shared her boundless gifts with others. She gave us the “gift of giving,” which Bill and I, with our spouses, have tried to pass on from generation to generation. And now we play gin rummy, poker, or bridge with our families. My grandmother lived to be eighty-nine, and always wore a big smile on her face, even in her later years when she was in a wheelchair. Bill affectionately called her Sunflower.
Relationships are personalized—this means that people engage one another as real people rather than as job responsibilities. They get to know Ralph not as a shoe buyer but as someone who likes to go kayaking and has eight-year-old twin girls. Michael’s not accounts receivables, but a marathoner who loves mango pudding. We think of these as whole relationships rather than partial relationships. In a whole relationship, people forge a personal bond. That’s critical, because we believe that if you don’t have personalization in the professional relationship there can be no effective communication. And without communication, you’ve got a dead organization.
If you’re the head of marketing and I’m the head of sales and we come together only to share great ideas, can we move the company forward? Or do we need to personalize the relationship in some manner? I can’t conceive of working with someone with whom I didn’t take some time to see and know as a whole person.
To a large extent, it comes down to empathy. Early in my business career, I thought you just had to understand someone—but I later learned that empathy is a broader and more meaningful concept than understanding. Feeling empathy results in what I call the Five C’s:
CaringCompassionCooperativenessConsistencyCash (Just kidding! Simply checking to see if you’re still with me on empathy)
Personalizing relationships means you try to figure out what’s important to everyone and how they feel, and to find a unique way to “hug” them that makes them think, Wow, they care about me, they truly care about me, this is such a nice place to work.
You can alter a blue blazer or sell aluminum siding at many places, but in order to be nice to the person in the cubicle next to yours, you need to personalize the relationship by knowing about their aspirations and tribulations, and then to demonstrate that you genuinely care about them.
How well do you know your colleagues, your coworkers? And how many do you really know?
There is humility—this is a tremendously unappreciated value. Everyone’s heard of companies where the big shots fly business and first class while the underlings fly coach on the same plane. Or where some of the leaders and managers are prima donnas and self-centered, and yet are constantly demanding this or that from their workers without taking time to recognize how hard their employees work. Under that sort of harsh leadership, work becomes just a job, not a career, and there’s little or no loyalty at all to coworkers or to the company.
Our definition of humility is an environment where people, especially leaders and managers, don’t think they know it all and everyone is not only willing but encourages others to succeed. It’s never saying about yourself or your business that you’re “the best,” but behaving as if there is room for new ideas. The leaders have no problem saying, “I don’t know” or “Now that you’ve pointed that out, I’ve changed my mind.” It means standing behind someone, not stealing credit for ideas that weren’t yours, and enabling others to shine rather than always grabbing the spotlight. There’s a sense of togetherness and of putting others’ needs ahead of your own. It means fessing up to mistakes. It means apologizing.
Now, these things aren’t necessarily easy to do, and we’re not always perfect at them—in fact, many times it’s downright difficult to remember to do them unless they come naturally to you. But they really matter.
When there’s humility, everyone is also encouraged to feel as equal as possible. That means thinking of others first, or certainly as equal, regardless of whether you have superiority in rank or position. We’re not big on titles. My brother, Bill, likes to use “Coach” on his business cards, and introduces himself as “your favorite socks salesman.” Using first names is a simple form of humility for us. On occasion, people will call me Mr. Mitchell, and I ask them to please call me Jack. To have to call the boss “Mr.” seems uncomfortable and demeaning. From our standpoint, it’s very important to do everything possible to level the playing field between the boss and others.
We're All Friends
Ultimately, when all three of these ingredients—pleaser mentality, personalized relationships, humility—are present, people often become friends with their coworkers, friends who truly like and root for one another. And that’s why when Debbie Mazza noticed how frenetically busy Angie was at work, staying late and sometimes missing meals at home, Debbie called Angie one evening and said, “Listen, I’m coming over with a meatloaf, so your husband will have something for dinner.” Angie was incredibly touched that Debbie had thought of her and her husband’s stomachs—and the meatloaf was absolutely delicious!
Not a day—or even an hour—goes by that I don’t regard our associates as my friends. And in a true Niceness Culture, this sentiment flows in all directions. Top down (leaders to troops), sideways (peers to peers), and bottom up (troops to leaders). The Niceness Culture must span the entire “bandwidth” of the company.
And it’s the function of leadership to manage this. For instance, if someone is crossing the line and being a dash too nasty or, God forbid, “ugly” (and I realize the vast majority of time people don’t know they are being nasty), it’s time to quietly and privately talk to them about it.
When you achieve a Niceness Culture, it will attract great, positive people who won’t ever leave. And it will improve productivity, because people work their best when they feel great. When people are appreciative of the joyful environment, they reciprocate. And then they hug your customers, the vendors, the mailman, and on and on. We have this great mailman at Richards named Glen, as well as a great UPS driver named Kurt, and a great FedEx driver named Gary. They feel like part of our team, too, because we’re nice to them. It’s amazing how they hug us back when we have an emergency. Somehow they always find that lost package or letter we so dearly need.
It’s always a wonderful, positive comment about our stores when a customer remarks, “You have the nicest people working with you, and everyone seems to get along with everyone so well.” And we agree with them and say, “There’s a lot of hugging going on here! Thanks for noticing!”
That’s why Ed and Norma Mitchell, my parents, who started it all, said of our first tiny store, “It’s a pleasant place to shop.” And why I also say, “It’s a pleasant place to work!”
And later, as we grew, we amended the logo line to “Once a customer, always a friend.” And I like to say, “Once an associate, always a friend!”
How do we find these friends? Coming up next.
Excerpted from "Hug Your People" by Jack Mitchell. Copyright (c) 2008. Reprinted with permission from Hyperion. All Rights Reserved.