A gesture of goodwill costs very little – but its true value can be incalculable

A refused good will gesture makes easyJet look foolishly thrifty at best, rude at worst

Rosie Millard
Friday 11 March 2016 19:11
Wing man: Dr Southall came to the aid of an easyJet passenger
Wing man: Dr Southall came to the aid of an easyJet passenger

A gesture of goodwill. It can be weaselly (“We are cancelling this parking fine as a gesture of goodwill, because it appears you were within your time limit”), but often, it’s good.

Goodwill. It’s that fuzzy, warm moment when a faceless institution becomes human and memorably gives you a bit of slack, whether you had inadvertently paid for a year’s worth of Google Play and never used it, or because you had something nasty written about you in a newspaper and it had haunted you online for a decade.

Refunding money, taking down an insulting comment; goodwill is the gift that goes on giving. And you never forget who gave it to you.

As the food blogger Juliet Shield, who used to run the restaurant at Tate Liverpool, once said to me: “I tended to give complaining customers a free cappuccino as a gesture of goodwill. It was hugely valuable because it calmed them down immediately. They came back and so did all their friends.” Not for free coffees – but because they recognised that their value as a customer, and, more crucially, their position as a disgruntled human being, had been respected.

Knowing this, one must wonder what was going through the mind of the steward on easyJet when he asked Edward Southall to pay for a KitKat on a flight to Greece. No ordinary passenger, Dr Southall. Earlier on, he had piped up when the pilot asked if there was a doctor on board. An elderly Greek woman was pale and sweating. Dr Southall took her pulse and blood pressure, listened to her chest, delivered the reassurance that only doctors can truly summon. She calmed down, stopped sweating and relaxed. He advised the pilot that no expensive diversion or emergency landing was necessary, monitored his patient all the way to Thessaloniki, and accompanied her off the flight into the arms of her family.

He got a free coffee from the trolley for his pains, but when he reached for a resuscitator, namely a humble KitKat, he was asked to pay for it. He didn’t even get a discount. “That will be £1.20,” the steward announced to the astonished doctor.

On landing, the story gets even better. When Dr Southall coolly pointed out to easyJet that he had effectively saved the plane thousands of pounds, and yet had been charged for a two-bar piece of confectionery, the PR team came up with a brilliant solution to ease the awkwardness. A free piece of checked luggage on his next easyJet flight, total value £20. As a gesture of goodwill.

“I do not care about free KitKats or hold luggage,” said an exasperated Dr Southall, who from his picture looks like the exactly sort of person you want kneeling beside you in the aisle when you are pale and sweaty and 30,000ft up (silver fox, capable demeanour, groovy linen shirt, blue eyes, tanned – you get the idea). “It is the principle of how much our goodwill saves them.”

One piece of goodwill deserves another. I know that doctors are forever being interrupted on their holiday to deal with babies, panic attacks and wasp stings. It’s part of the gig. But KitKat-gate makes easyJet look foolishly thrifty at best, mindless and rude at worst. Dr Southall clearly didn’t want much of a gesture, but he wanted a gesture. (He has since been offered a free flight on easyJet, which one hopes he takes in peak season to a very far-off and costly destination.)

Goodwill, or its close relation, good manners, never costs the deliverer much but can pay colossal dividends. This week I was involved in a day devoted to Women Achieving Excellence at the University of Hull. “Always be polite and nice to people,” I said. “It helps you get on.” Someone stuck her hand up. “I thought that was the problem with professional women. We are far too nice. We ought to be a bit more ruthless.”

This is a view encouraged by shows such as The Apprentice, where nice is confused with being a doormat. Ruthlessness (with yourself) is great. Being driven and focused, yes. But brusque and rude? Never.

Kindness – or goodwill – is part of the formula, as revealed by the business guru Vala Afshar in his five-item Luck Recipe: “1. Work Hard. 2. Believe in yourself. 3. Be kind to others. 4. Share what you know. 5. Stay hungry.” But possibly not, one surmises, for in-flight KitKats.

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