The Business of “Doing the Right Thing”
We are witnessing the greatest financial meltdown of our lifetime. Many of our friends and neighbors have lost a job, are in the process of losing a home, or are suffering under staggering medical bills. How is that we find ourselves in such a place?
I contemplate these issues at a time when my own small business has just passed its 25th anniversary. I am proud of the fact that I have managed to outlast several economic downturns, moves across the country, health issues, and many other of the vicissitudes of life. I am proud to say that I have several customers who have been with me more than 20 years. Why is this so? Am I cheaper than everyone else? I do not think so. I think it has to do with integrity. I am not writing this to brag about my own integrity. I leave that for my customers, friends and family to judge.
What is painful to watch in this economic downturn is the staggering lack of integrity that corporate America has shown. And now they are reaping the whirlwind. But if it were just some inept CEO’s and their henchman that were suffering as a result of the meltdown, that would perhaps be OK. But so many of us are suffering life threatening (or at least livelihood threatening) consequences for absolutely no reason.
Every day we hear some horror story about cheating in the marketplace. From salmonella peanuts to Credit Default Swaps to Collateralized Debt Obligations . We hear about exorbitant bonuses paid, not for meritorious performance, but just simply to keep the mediocre performer from moving elsewhere to perform in a mediocre fashion.
In addition, whether or not the average consumer is aware of this, there is a war on. We, as consumers of food, health care, insurance, financial services and entertainment are at war with corporate America. Or rather , they are at war with us. We are deluged moment by moment by advertising. We are expected to make important decisions without being given all the information that we need to make good choices. We are expected to believe what their marketing machinery tells us without independently verifying their claims. Many corporations do not want us to make informed choices (it’s bad for the bottom line!). So we must fight to get the data we need to make a good choice. Whether it be a cell phone plan, cable television for our home, a mortgage, a credit card, or a prescription drug.
So what are we to do to fix this?
The answers are not simple. But here are some things both individuals and businesses can do to help.
If you are a consumer:
• Always make your consumer choices based on the best available data. Use Consumer Reports and other objective sources to help in your evaluations.
• Do not support businesses that lie to you. If a company will not tell you what something costs, perhaps you ought to look elsewhere.
• Do not support businesses that engage in predatory competitive practices. Keep informed about the practices of companies with whom you do business.
• Do not accept mediocre customer service. There are many fine web sites, such as “The Consumerist” and “Rip Off Report” that can help you fight back.
• Develop a healthy skepticism about advertising that you read, hear or see on television.
And if you are a business:
• Always do what you say you’re going to do. Always. Period.
• Pay attention. So much of life is about paying attention. Listen to your customers. Listen to your employees. Listen to your suppliers. It is amazing what you do not miss when you listen.
• Provide good value.
• Always fully disclose the terms and conditions you require to do business with you. Never use hidden fees.
• Treat your employees with respect. History shows us that an adversarial relationship between employer and employees is very bad for business.
• Treat your customers with respect.
• If you take care of your employees and your customers, as well as control your costs, the bottom line can usually take care of itself.
• Not all customers are good for your business. There are bad customers as well as bad businesses. If you find yourself with a bad customer, fire them.
There are those who will read this and say that I am some sort of socialist: that I am anti-business. I am not anti-business. When I have received good service from an airline or a bank, I write letters to compliment them. What I am against is mediocrity, poor service, indifference, cynicism and dishonesty. These have no place in running a business. And if, with the government in conjunction with the outrage of ordinary citizens, we have to regulate ourselves back to a healthy business climate, so be it.
The days of “every person for themselves!” are over. We need to start acting like a society.