Do Values Matter?

Consumers have had a tense relationship with corporations for a long time. We have grown suspicious, we have learned to recognize the signs of the charming cad and we can detect self-serving piousness in a moment. We can, quite literally, smell the absence of authenticity from the proverbial mile away. To paraphrase the true romantic, Charlotte York of Sex and the City fame, we are exhausted – we have been hunting for the perfect mates for years – and where are they? More importantly, who can we trust, whose words are confirmed in actions, and whose values mirror our own? To put it another way, if corporations were human, whom would we date?

Something as seemingly trivial as ablution products, for instance, can be an interesting indicator of value and values. Whether you travel for business or pleasure, you know that there will be some form of ablution product in your hotel room; be they small bottles of non-descript but functional shampoo and conditioner, or Bulgari body cream and shower gel. We count on these items to be there. If you’ve had to discard your shampoo at airport security (is this a conspiracy against women and their ablution products?) or simply forgotten the essentials, you need not worry. Ablution products in hotel rooms are our assumed reality.

But it was not always so. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Four Seasons hotel introduced soaps, shampoos and cotton towels into hotel rooms. At the time a radical, and expensive, concept, the Four Seasons lead quickly became table stakes for the entire industry. Again in the mid-1980s, Four Seasons introduced the Spa and, today, they too are standard for all hotels aspiring to be even moderately luxurious.  These introductions were designed to achieve competitive distinctiveness. And they did. But why was it that the Four Seasons made these radical improvements and additions?

The simple answer is that it was a human value – the Golden Rule (yes, the one that admonishes us to treat others as you would have them treat you). This is the value central to what Four Seasons stands for.

At Four Seasons, corporate values are much more than a programme or a policy – they define who we are and inform the decisions we make. The company’s guiding principle is the Golden Rule – to treat others as you wish to be treated

Notwithstanding that this information is embedded in their website (fourseasons.com) under a small header at the bottom of the opening page entitled “About Us”, we know this is the guiding value of the Four Seasons because that is what we experience. Their actions are their words. Ablutions products, cotton towels, spas were the manifestation of the Golden Rule.

Four Seasons is the premier luxury hotel because of their outstanding customer attentiveness. We experience not just simple pampering with the very best of linens, foods and ablution products; we experience elegant, professional respect and kindness. We experience the Golden Rule.

We experience it because the Four Seasons employees live the Golden Rule. Imbued with this human value, employees deliver not service, but genuine attentiveness.

In his recent book, Four Seasons, The Story of a Business Philosophy, Isadore Sharpe recounts an example of this attentiveness. Four Seasons Chicago, evening event, husband did not know it was black tie, an employee changes out of his tuxedo into his own street clothes, presses the tuxedo and lends it to the guest – complete with a Four Seasons seamstress taking up the hem of the pants.

Closer to home, my stepmother was living in the Four Seasons Chicago with her very large, very adorable poodle who needed to be walked everyday. Because her schedule was frantically busy, the Four Seasons staff arranged to walk the dog, everyday rain or shine. The Golden Rule, seemingly, extends to all creatures.

In standing for a human value, Four Seasons has redefined luxury. True luxury now means pampering plus excellent quality plus human respect.

My question is – is human respect now exclusively in the luxury category? Why is it not just part of the way companies do business?

In reading a recent restaurant review by the always-tasteful Joanne Kates of The Globe and Mail (December 4. 2010), she remarks on the restaurant’s reservation etiquette: in booking a table for 7:00 pm she was told politely (and thoughtfully she notes) that the table was booked again at 9:30pm – so she and her party would have to leave at 9:15pm. Kates then explained that while the request was intelligible and made economic sense, it still “rankled”. Because, this is “not exactly my definition of hospitality” concluded Kates. It is certainly a case of economics trumping a human value.

In the same December 4th edition of The Globe and Mail was another story in support of human values. A portrait of Mike Lazaridis, the CEO of Research in Motion and founder and supporter of The Perimeter Institute, celebrating his vision is to marshall the “great brains” to create dramatic breakthroughs in science and enrich our communities. This dramatic commitment to human thinking and achievement is noteworthy and commendable – and reflects Mr. Lazaridis’ commitment to “giving back” and citizenship. Whatever the debate about the efficacy of the approach, we believe Mr. Lazaridis to be a man of value and values.

But flip to another story in the same section, and we read about the ravages of the telecommunication producers in their extraction and use of coltan. Coltan, because it contains a key ingredient in electronic circuitry, is essential in every electronic product, including mobile devices. Coltan is mined in The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the concerns are that inhumane labour practices are being used in its extraction and, worse yet, the monies exploited are being used to support brutal warlords. Federal Member of Parliament for the NDP party, Paul Dewar, is calling for assurances that electronic products do not support these practices and are, as he terms them, “rape-free”.

There is a complex chain of custody, and various efforts are in place to try to ensure adherence to codes of conduct.

But within this discussion where are the RIMs, Apples, Nokias and Dells of the world? Where is the stand these companies are taking on ensuring that materials required for the production of their devices do not transgress essential human values?

Yes, we appreciate that political considerations are complex; that the essentialness of coltan creates possibly uncomfortable conditions of production; that without a viable alternative substance, the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are held hostage to non-negotiable economic realities. But where are human values in this equation?

In the end, we are left with two very different portraits of the same company. We have the inspired Mr. Lazaridis who commits significant funds to create and support a centre of human intelligence. We have a company of which he is the CEO, which does not publicly explain its use and purchase of coltan. We respect and admire the man; we are curious about the company.

The path to respect, loyalty and love is not complicated. Companies, if you want us to fall in love with you, ensure that your actions reflect real human values.  We may purchase you for your economic value; we will continue to purchase, admire and adore you because of the values you reflect.

And lest is be commented that the real reason The Four Seasons reflects the human value of The Golden Rule is because one pays for that value, then let me comment on my local shoe repair shop. Part of a nation-wide chain, it is not a sole proprietorship. But the man who runs the shop knows me by name, always asks about how I am doing, and always delivers me excellent, prompt, attentive service. Yes, that is because my shoe fetish helps support his business; but I chose to take my business to him first because of convenience and quality, and second and more important, because he treats me with respect and warmth. It is the personal value that is his competitive differentiator.

So while we wait for more companies to understand the true value of human values, let us encourage them and explain that it is how we experience your values that really matter. When they reside only in annual reports and speeches they have no impact. When they come to life in how a business acts, they drive business success because they are why we fall in love.