Do the Right Thing

Now for a few Nike-like words on behalf of the right thing: Just do it.

In the wake of Enron, Martha Stewart and revelations that something like 89 percent of those who take out personals ads claim to be better-than-average looking, “doing the right thing” has become a bit of a catch phrase. But we still see too many in the business world focused on growing the bottom line at the expense of providing a real benefit.

Granted, it’s not always easy to do the right thing, especially in the short term. But making an ethically iffy decision for the sake of a short-term advantage never works out over the long haul. And you’re in it for the long haul, aren’t you?

The Warning Signs

How do you know when you’re in danger of doing the wrong thing? One sure sign is a loss of respect for the very people who keep you in business – your customers. Do you refer to them as “data points”? Do boardroom conversations include phrases like “They’ll never notice if…” or “It’s not illegal to…”? Would your mother be embarrassed if she knew how you really treat your customers?

Doing the right thing also means really making good when you make a mistake. People will forgive the mistake – it’s how you respond to it that determines whether you’ll ever see them again. If you truly make good on a mistake, people will go from liking you to loving you. And the episode will become part of your brand story. Of course, that sword swings both ways.

Consider these scenarios:

Getting It Wrong

I just purchased a pair of jeans from the local outpost of a small, newish chain that claims to employ “jeans experts.” I chose to take them up on their “free tailoring” offer – ostensibly a policy meant to enhance the consumer experience. But the tailoring was done improperly, as in three to four inches too long.

When I returned for a re-do, I was offered no apology, no “we’ll put a rush on that,” nothing. The attitude of the store personnel left me with the impression that I had somehow inconvenienced them. It gets better: The tailoring was done incorrectly the second time as well. By the end of this episode, it cost me six trips to the store and a month of waiting to finally get jeans that fit.

I think six trips is plenty, so I’ve pledged never to return to the store. And I’ll gladly re-tell the story to anyone who will listen. That’s just one facet of the pain of not doing the right thing.

Getting It Right

Contrast that to a story a Northern Kentucky realtor relayed about the Union-based Perfection Pest Control. She hired that company’s owner, Tim Leatherman, to do an inspection of a house she was selling on behalf of the buyers. The buyers bought, moved in and, months later, found termites.

The deal was done. Leatherman was not legally obligated to do anything, but he felt obliged nonetheless. He gave the home a complete termite treatment, something that normally would have cost $1,200 for a house its size, and provided the owners with a guarantee.

“That’s how I’d want to be treated,” Leatherman says. “I made a mistake, I corrected it. Those folks are happy, and it was the right thing to do.”

Likewise, a story now circulates about Tim Leatherman’s pest control enterprise – not from him, but from his happy customers. And it’s a story that, over the long run, will almost certainly help grow his business. But even if it there were no chance of that, as Tim says, it was the right thing to do. It is its own reward.

Thankfully, similar examples abound. For instance, two decades ago, when the pharmaceutical company Merck developed a solution to the problem of river blindness in Africa, they found that the people who had river blindness couldn’t afford the medicine. So Merck distributed the remedy, called Mectizan, free of charge, and continues to do so to this day.

And when good old Jerry Springer famously wrote a check to a prostitute, he didn’t back and fill – he admitted it. Conservative Cincinnati loved him for it – so much so that when he ran for city council in the subsequent election, he rolled up one of the biggest vote totals in the city’s history.

Life presents each of us with all kinds of opportunities to do the right thing. Take them, and sleep well. That includes you, Jerry.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on June 15, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.