Kindness as Currency: How Good Deeds Can Benefit Your Local Business

Posted by MiriamEllis

“To receive everything, one must open one’s hands and give.” – Taisen Deshimaru, Buddhist philosopher


A woman stands in a busy supermarket checkout line. The shopper in front of her realizes that they don’t have enough money with them to cover their purchase, so she steps in and makes up the balance. Then, when she reaches the checkout, her own receipt totals up higher than she was expecting. She doesn’t have enough left in her purse.

“No problem,” says the young clerk and swipes his own debit card to pay for her groceries.

A bystander snaps a photo and posts the story to Facebook. The story ends up on local radio and TV news. Unstructured citations for the grocery store start crackling like popcorn. National news takes notice. A scholarship foundation presents a check to the clerk. When asked how he felt about it, the clerk said:

“Personally, I think it’s undeserved attention. Because she did something so good … I felt like it was my responsibility to return the favor.”

In the process, if only for a moment in time, an everyday supermarket is transformed into a rescue operation for hope in humanity. Through the lens of local SEO, it’s also a lesson in how good deeds can be rewarded by good mentions.

Studying business kindness can be a rewarding task for any motivated digital marketing agency or local brand owner. I hope this post will be both a pick-me-up for the day, and a rallying cry to begin having deeper conversations about the positive culture businesses can create in the communities they serve.

10+ evocative examples of business kindness

“We should love people and use things, but sadly, we love things and use people,” Roger Johnson, Artisan

As a youngster in the American workforce, I ran into some very peculiar styles of leadership.

For instance, one boss gruffly told me not to waste too much time chatting with the elderly customers who especially loved buying from me…as if customer support doesn’t make or break business reputations.

And then there was the cranky school secretary who reprimanded me for giving ice packs to children because she believed they were only “trying to get attention” … as if schools don’t exist to lavish focus on the kids in their care.

In other words, both individuals would have preferred me to be less kind, less human, than more so.

Perhaps it was these experiences of my superiors taking a miserly approach to workplace human kindness that inspired me to keep a little file of outbreaks of goodwill that earned online renown. These examples beg self-reflective questions of any local business owner:

  1. If you launched your brand in the winter, would you have opened your doors while under construction to shelter and feed housing-insecure neighbors?
  2. If a neighboring business was struggling, would you offer them floor space in your shop to help them survive?
  3. Would your brand’s culture inspire an employee to cut up an elder’s ham for him if he needed help? How awesome would it be if a staffer of yours had a day named after her for her kindness? Would your employees comp a meal for a hungry neighbor or pay a customer’s $ 200 tab because they saw them hold open a door for a differently-abled guest?
  4. What good things might happen in a community you serve if you started mailing out postcards promoting positivity?
  5. What if you gave flowers to strangers, including moms, on Mother’s Day?
  6. How deeply are you delving into the season of giving at the holidays? What if, like one business owner, you opened shop on Thanksgiving just to help a family find a gift for a foster child? You might wake up to international fame on Monday morning.
  7. What if visitors to your community had their bikes stolen on a road trip and your shop gifted them new bikes and ended up on the news?
  8. One business owner was so grateful for his community’s help in overcoming addiction, he’s been washing their signage for free. What has your community done for you and how have you thanked them?
  9. What if all you had to do was something really small, like replacing negative “towed at your own expense” signs by welcoming quick stop parking?
  10. What if you, just for a day, you asked customers to pay for their purchases with kind acts?

I only know about these stories because of the unstructured citations (online references to a local business) they generated. They earned online publicity, radio, and television press. The fame for some was small and local, for others, internationally viral. Some activities were planned, but many others took place on the spur of the moment. Kindness, empathy, and gratitude, flow through them all like a river of hope, inviting every business owner to catch the current in their own way. One easy way for local business owners to keep better track of any positive mentions is by managing and monitoring reviews online with the New Moz Local.

See your online presence

Can kindness be taught in the workplace?

In Demark, schoolchildren learn empathy as a class subject. The country is routinely rated as one of the happiest in the world. At Moz, we have the TAGFEE code, which includes both generosity and empathy, and our company offers internal workshops on things like “How to be TAGFEE when you disagree.” We are noted for the kindness of our customer support, as in the above review.

According to Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, people “catch” cooperation and generosity from others. In his study, the monetary amount donors gave to charity went up or down based on whether they were told their peers gave much or little. They matched the generosity or stinginess they witnessed. In part two of the study, the groups who had seen others donating generously went on to offer greater empathy in writing letters to penpals suffering hard times. In other words, kindness isn’t just contagious — its impact can spread across multiple activities.

Mercedes-Benz CEO, Stephen Cannon, wanted employees to catch the kindness bug because of its profound impact on sales. He invited his workforce to join a “grassroots movement” that resulted in surprising shoppers with birthday cakes, staff rushing to remote locations with spare tires, and other memorable consumer experiences. Cannon noted:

“There is no scientific process, no algorithm, to inspire a salesperson or a service person to do something extraordinary. The only way you get there is to educate people, excite them, incite them. Give them permission to rise to the occasion when the occasion to do something arises. This is not about following instructions. It’s about taking a leap of faith.”

In a 2018 article, I highlighted the reviews of a pharmacy that made it apparent that staff wasn’t empowered to do the simplest self-determined acts, like providing a chair for a sick man who was about to fall down in a long prescription counter line. By contrast, an Inc. book review of Jill Lublin’s The Profits of Kindness states:

“Organizations that trade in kindness allow their employees to give that currency away. If you’re a waitress, can you give someone a free piece of pie because the kid at the next table spilled milk on their foot? If you’re a clerk in a hotel, do you have the authority to give someone a discounted rate because you can tell they’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?”

There may be no formula for teaching kindness, but if Zaki is right, then leadership can be the starting point of demonstrative empathy that can emanate through the staff and to its customers. How do you build for that?

A cared-for workforce for customer service excellence

You can find examples of individual employees behaving with radical kindness despite working for brands that routinely disregard workers’ basic needs. But, this hardly seems ideal. How much better to build a business on empathy and generosity so that cared-for staff can care for customers.

I ran a very quick Twitter poll to ask employees what their very most basic need is:

Unsurprisingly, the majority of respondents cited a living wage as their top requirement. Owners developing a kind workforce must ensure that staff are housing-and-food-secure, and can afford the basic dignities of life. Any brand that can’t pay its staff a living wage isn’t really operational — it’s exploitation.

Beyond the bare minimums, Mercer’s Global Talent Trends 2019 Survey of 7,300 executives, HR experts, and employees highlighted trending worker emphasis on:

  • Flexibility in both hours and location to create a healthy work/life balance
  • Ethics in company technology, practices, and transparency
  • Equity in pay ratios, regardless of gender
  • Empathy in the workplace, both internally and in having a positive societal impact with customers

It’s just not very hard to connect the dots between a workforce that has its basic and aspirational needs met, and one possessing the physical, mental and emotional health to extend those values to consumers. As I found in a recent study of my own, 70 percent of negative review resolution was driven by brands having to overcome bad/rude service with subsequent caring service.

Even at the smallest local business level, caring policies and initiatives that generate kindness are within reach, with Gallup reporting that SMBs have America’s happiest and most engaged workers. Check out Forbes list of the best small companies of 2019 and note the repeated emphasis on employee satisfaction.

Kindness as currency, with limitless growth potential

“I wanted a tangible item that could track acts of kindness. From that, the Butterfly Coin emerged.” Bruce Pedersen, Butterfly Coins

Maybe someday, you’ll be the lucky recipient of a Butterfly Coin, equipped with a unique tracking code, and gifted to you by someone doing a kind act. Then, you’ll do something nice for somebody and pass it on, recording your story amongst thousands of others around the world. People, it seems, are so eager for tokens of kindness that the first mint sold out almost immediately.

The butterfly effect (the inspiration for the name of these coins) in chaos theory holds that a small action can trigger multiple subsequent actions at a remove. In a local business setting, an owner could publicly reward an employee’s contributions, which could cause the employee to spread their extra happiness to twenty customers that day, which could cause those customers to be in a mood to tip waitstaff extra, which could cause the waitstaff to comp meals for hungry neighbors sitting on their doorsteps, and on and on it goes.

There’s an artisan in Gig Harbor, WA who rewards kindnesses via turtle figurines. There are local newspapers that solicit stories of kindness. There are towns that have inaugurated acts-of-kindness weeks. There is even a suburb in Phoenix, AZ that re-dubbed itself Kindness, USA. (I mentioned, I’ve been keeping a file).

The most priceless aspect of kindness is that it’s virtually limitless. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be quantified. The Butterfly Coin idea is attempting to track kindness, and as a local business owner, you have a practical means of parsing it, too. It will turn up in unstructured citations, reviews, and social media, if you originate it at the leadership level, and share it out from employee to customer with an open hand.

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