Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Small gestures add up

It is interesting how a few small gestures get remembered. I got a root canal recently. A day after the procedure, the endodontist** herself called me to ask if I was doing fine and if I had any concerns. It only took two minutes of her time, but the fact that she did it mattered a lot. I would certainly recommend her to anyone getting a root canal treatment. (Combined with the fact that her clinic was in a beautiful locale, and the costs were very reasonable, there is a lot to recommend about her.)

Just last weekend, we had lunch at a restaurant where the waiter (also the cook!) was very jovial and hearty. It was a lot of small things: his light-hearted humor and cheerfulness, that will ensure that we go there again.

I recall that there was some research done on whether shoppers can tell whether a salesperson's smile is genuine or not. As it happens, shoppers are very good at telling whether the salesperson is genuinely happy, or is just putting on a show to make a sale. I guess the small gestures are just one way we can detect this, though our intuition is surprisingly good at figuring out flaky humans.

Faking compassion is often much worse than being ambivalent. My favorite example is a company my father used to work for. The company canteen provided lunch to all its employees at a very nominal rate. Over time, the quality of their lunch deteriorated to the point that any talk about the company "caring about its employees" was meaningless. At the very least, care for your employees should translate into a functional cafeteria. My father measured how much the company cared about its employees by how much effort it put in preparing the lunch. And he was not wrong. Towards later years, the company was apathetic towards its employees, and trying hard to show that it cared. Many corporate canteens and cafeterias are so bad that their employees wouldn't eat there if they had a choice.

On an interview trip to a large software company, I once visited a friend of mine. I had coupons to eat at his company cafeteria. He laughed as he trashed the coupons, and took me to a good restaurant instead. That was the point when I knew that this was not a company I should join. When your own employees choose to eat out at their own expense, rather than use free coupons to eat in the company cafeteria, you should probably shut the cafeteria down. Just in case you think that the sample size is too small: the cafeteria was nearly empty at lunch time.

Recently a friend of mine joined a large web-based company. He was offered a nice salary, relocation bonus, and all the other perks that this company offered. But what completely caught him off-guard was when they mailed two gift cards to him, one for an electronics store, and one for a furniture store. These landed completely unannounced, with a small note saying Thanks for joining us. Both gift cards were for a sizable amount, though small in comparison to his monthly wage. It is these small gestures that show that the company really values him, and not the endless pamphlets asserting, "your contribution is valuable to us".

** Thanks ameloblast: Corrected orthodontist to endodontist.