An article this summer in the New York Times Magazine describes the launch by Hyatt Hotels of a customer relations program that CEO Mark Hoplamazian describes as "random acts of generosity." Prompted by years of behavioral science research and months of consumer research, the program charges Hyatt employees with occasionally picking up bar tabs and other obligations of customers free of charge. The point? To generate gratitude. Which ultimately "increases… sales growth," as the Journal of Marketing quite bluntly puts it.
Unlike frequent stay programs with specific qualifications that reward customers with an extra night or an upgrade, these Hyatt freebies are not "earned," and are therefore theoretically more likely to be truly appreciated. Although there is a risk. There is, after all, as the Times article points out, a thin line between promoting gratitude among the favored and creating resentment among those left out.
So is this a viable relationship-building model for us in the legal business? Is there any possibility that some sort of generosity extended to our clients could engender the type of gratitude that would fall to the bottom line? And even if it were possible, how specifically are we supposed to be generous in the context of what sometimes amounts to cut-throat dances with resentful clients who are convinced they are being taken advantage of ?
While a young associate at a big firm, I was charged with the closing of a deal that had been a nightmare from beginning to its not-too-soon end. The client had originally chosen another firm that had been conflicted out, hiring us begrudgingly and making sure we knew through the entire timeline that we were not their first choice. The General Counsel was young–an interim replacement for the GC who had taken a better position–and afraid of losing his job. Aggressive questioning of our strategy and reasoning was a daily event, followed by further questions rechecking the initial explanations, followed by very obviously running past us the reasons unnamed others (lawyers from the favored firm?) thought we were making an error. It wasn’t a major transaction we could boast about, we were certain not to be able to recoup the time we were investing, it was a client we obviously were unlikely to hold onto–we all longed for the closing to put us out of our collective misery.
The closing followed of course, as night the day, the same pattern of dysfunction. Late in the night the GC called to complain about our printing of a report, which was commencing as we spoke, to be distributed with a collection of other documents–an important Senior Vice President had that day located sufficient copies of that very report boxed away in the corporate basement. Had we no concern for expense? Canceling the new run would have involved a lengthy and not inexpensive transition, of course–but. I was looking for some small way to connect with this company. We got the printer, the SVP and the GC on the line and as the most senior lawyer left standing, I negotiated what we all knew would be a cumbersome and more time-consuming but ultimately somewhat less expensive solution using the found reports.
The partner in charge questioned my judgment after I straggled in the next day–primarily on the grounds of throwing more good time after bad. My only defense was that our two main company contacts–the GC and the SVP–really wanted the face-saving, if nothing else, and, with primarily the investment of a few more hours, we could accommodate them.
There is, of course, a happy and relevant ending. The matter closed. The interim GC quickly announced that he was moving to a GC slot at another company. The SVP became the one responsible for approving our bill and recommended that the company use us instead of the other firm as its ongoing counsel. The GC, in his new position, brought us his next major deal, evidently with the intent to use our firm on a consistent basis. The partner called me back into his office and praised the judgment he had earlier found wanting. All because we figured out how to use the reports in the basement.
So sometimes the incidental gesture produces a gratitude that rewards. Particularly in this economy, I would say it is worth the try.