Let the giraffes out

A few years ago, a little girl named Lily Robinson wrote to Sainsbury’s about their bread. This is what her letter said:

Dear Sainssssssssssssbbbbbbbbbbbbbburyyyys,

Why is tiger bread called tiger bread?

It should be called giraffe bread.

Love from Lily Robinson (age 3 ½)

When you look at the product, you can see that she’s got a point. Lots of spots, no stripes: definitely much more like a giraffe than a tiger.

Lily’s letter ended up in the in-tray of a man named Chris King, a manager in Sainsbury’s customer service team. He liked the letter and he wrote one back in a similar style:

Dear Lily

Thanks so much for your letter. I think renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it?

It is called tiger bread because the first baker who made it a loooong time ago thought it looked stripey like a tiger. Maybe they were a bit silly.

I really liked reading your letter so I thought I would send you a little present. I’ve put a £3 gift card in with this letter. If you ask your mum or dad to take you to Sainsbury’s, you could use it to buy some of your own tiger bread (and maybe if mum and dad say it’s OK, you can get some sweeties too!) Please tell an adult to wait 48 hours before using this card.

I’m glad you wrote to us and hope you like spending your gift card. See you in store soon.

Yours sincerely, Chris King (age 27 ½)

Customer Manager

Lily’s mother was so delighted with this charming reply that she posted it on her blog. It quickly went viral, was picked up by the media and earned Sainsbury’s a lot of very positive publicity.

What’s interesting about this story is that Chris King was not acting in line with what was expected of him as a Sainsbury’s customer service manager when he wrote that letter. Quite the opposite.

The customer service team is there to deal with customer concerns and protect Sainsbury’s reputation as efficiently and effectively as possible. Being brutal, it’s about keeping the noise down.

Lily’s letter wasn’t noise: it wasn’t a business risk and it didn’t really require much attention. He could have just written a standard reply along the lines of ‘thank you for your interest in Sainsbury’s – please find enclosed a gift token.’ That would have been the correct thing to do; the efficient, standard, procedurally-compliant thing to do.

But Chris King didn’t do that. He wanted to be more than just efficient and professional. He wanted to respond like a human being. And, by doing that, he made Sainsbury’s seem human and likeable, too.

Not because of their procedures but in spite of them.

Why we should all be feminists

It’s official.

Men are, on average, more systems-oriented than women.

Women, on average, have higher empathy levels than men.

These were the not-very-startling conclusions to emerge, last week, from a Cambridge University report into gender differences, based on a study of over 700,000 people.

The report’s author, Simon Baron-Cohen, is a professor of developmental psychopathology and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

He is also, more intriguingly, the cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose best-known creation, Borat, was funny because of his unreconstructed attitudes to gender, race and sexual orientation.

In Borat’s world view, a woman was for cooking and children and ‘sexy time’ –  and quite specifically not for any position of responsibility, such as presenting a television programme or running a corporation.

The odd thing is that, if you peek inside the boardroom of almost any FTSE 100 business today, you might be forgiven for thinking Borat’s world view isn’t quite so comical after all.

Of the hundred Chief Executives in those companies, only six are women.

Yet, when you look at the trajectory of the businesses, most of them are having to adapt their model rapidly, to survive in a world where customer experience and reputation are becoming the only measures that count.

It’s a world where empathy is an increasingly important skill. Where humanity trumps efficiency. And where agility trumps process.

And yet it’s also a world where the people setting the cultural agenda are men.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to suggest the only way to make a process-driven business more human is to hire a female chief executive. It’s obviously not that binary. There are plenty of male executives whose empathy levels are well above average (and plenty of female executives who are more at home with a spreadsheet than a friendly chat).

I’m also aware that this may sound like virtue-signalling from a middle-aged white man.

So let me get to the point.

The pace of technological change is getting faster and faster. The life-span of businesses is getting shorter and shorter. Customer relationships are getting more and more important. The only way to succeed in the long-term is to have a business that connects with people in a meaningful way. The only way to do that is by building a culture based on empathy. And women are, on average, more empathetic than men.

So you don’t need to be a feminist to think there should be more women setting the agenda at our biggest companies.

You just need to do the maths.