the art of saying thank you

I’m taking a break from the series on brand value creation for a post on a topic I’ve been reading a lot about lately — saying “thank you.”thank-you

For people in general, service providers specifically, and companies, communicating sincere gratitude, it seems, is a lot more complicated than you might expect.  Here are a few perspectives on the topic:

People. William Safire, the popular verbivore who writes a very insightful and always entertaining column in The New York Times Magazine,  recently mused about how to react to a courteous act of another driver.  He was at a loss for an adequate way to communicate gratitude quickly and visually.

Apparently he was deluged with over 700 suggestions (everything from “thumbs-up” to a yoga-style “namaste”) — the most replies he’s ever received to a single question.   But the problem is, of the 10 recommended approaches he relayed in his column, practically every one had a drawback — different cultural interpretations of the “A-OK” hand signal, for example.

All of this seems to suggest that the desire to say “thank you” is universal (Mr. Safire observed the “global yearning for such a sign”) but the know-how to do it appropriately is not.

Service Providers. Another problem with saying thank you is that it inherently transfers power from you to the person you are thanking, according to Blair Enns.  Blair runs a consulting firm which helps marketing firms “transform from a high cost, low integrity, pitch-based business development strategy to one where the agency commands the high ground in the relationship and shapes how its services are bought and sold.

I’ve been a disciple of Blair’s for awhile now and have learned so much from him, but I found myself really challenged by a recent piece of advice.  He counseled his readers to:

Please relinquish your habit of following-up on a meeting or a phone call with a client-to-be with a note that leads with the words, ‘Thank you for your time.’

Think for a minute of the implications of this ubiquitous practice. What you are really saying is, ‘I’d like to take a minute to acknowledge that the meeting we just had was all about me and my need to sell you something. I understand that there was little real benefit to you, so thank you. I know your time is more valuable than mine, and I appreciate that you gave me a few minutes of it to try to talk you into hiring our firm….’

Blair suggests that saying thank you communicates a devaluing deference to the client and recommends alternatives such as “I enjoyed meeting with you and learning more about your business.” “I’m glad we were able to connect on the phone yesterday.”

So even if you are grateful for something, perhaps expressing it isn’t always such a good idea?

Companies. July’s installment of the Harvard Business Review included a case study entitled, “Do You Thank the Taxpayer for Your Bailout?”  The case described a bank about to receive $5BB in U.S. federal assistance (sound familiar?!)

In response, the CEO wants to deliver a positive message to customers and the market and the company’s Chief Customer Officer recommends running an ad campaign thanking the taxpayers for their “investment.”  The CFO disagrees, saying they should try to focus investors’ and opinion makers’ attention on the bank’s recapitalized balance sheet and future growth potential.

The experts who the HBR asks to weigh in give mixed advice.  One recommends the company keep their gratitude to themselves because it admits wrong-doing; another advises launching a campaign that expresses gratitude along with stewardship and transparency.

Although there is range of suggestions, they all seem to suggest that a “thank you” is a backward-looking message, whereas leaders usually want to focus on the future.

All of this points to the tricky nature of saying “thank you.”   Although I was taught at a young age to always say “please” and “thank you,” I now see that everything I needed to know, I didn’t learn in kindergarten.  Despite our best intentions, our expression of gratitude may end up offending someone or communicating a loaded message.

However there’s so much talk these days about the importance of developing relationships — brand:customer relationships, networking relationships, etc.  It seems to me that saying “thank you” is one way to walk the talk and so that’s why I still highly recommend it — whether you’re doing it as a service provider, a company leader, or just a regular guy or gal.


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