The Business of Business

Michael Skapinker’s column in today’s Financial Times reminds us of Samuel Johnson’s comment about the purpose of a corporation: “to help a gentlemen decide which debts he has to pay.”  Skapinker concludes by arguing that business needs to recover its core sense of purpose: not just to make profits or reward shareholders but to do things it and its employees can be proud of.  He quotes the chairman of Barclays, approvingly, as saying that banks need to “acknowledg(e) the mistakes they made.”

In our eyes, the disconnect between the average citizen and big business institutions goes far beyond the question of whether banks get it and no amount of press conferences and full page ads apologizing and promising a new dawn will restore the trust that has evaporated.  There is certainly plenty of room for corporate humility at the macro-level, but what will ultimately restore public trust has to happen at the micro-level.  An ordinary customer going into a bank  needs to feel like a customer not a drag on profitability.  The response to a call for clarification of mysterious cellphone charges needs to provide actual help not just data for the company’s customer satisfaction surveys.  The credit card company needs to want our business when we talk to them rather than filling our recycling bins every week.  An old saying in recruitment holds that to find out whether you should hire someone ask the receptionist how the  candidate treated them.  The same principle needs to be restored to the smallest of our daily transactions with customers.  This means giving front line employees the tools, the training and the permission to do the little things to make them proud of the company they work for.  Out of a million daily acts of real service by actual people come respect and trust.

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