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The gray area is no place to be, by David S. Allen

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When an organization decides to do things that are not completely above board, it enters a land called the gray area. Here is where things are done the right way most of the time. Or usually.    

The thinking, or at least the excuse, is that the company must sometimes visit the gray area to be successful. If that means fudging a little to make quota, it fudges. But just a little. If it has to cut a few corners to turn a profit, then corners are cut. But only a few. If it has to cross the line and cheat customers once in a while, then customers are cheated. But only once in a while.

After all, if a business didn’t sometimes venture into the gray area, it couldn’t stay in business. Right?

In 1986, a local Honda dealer told me my two-year-old Accord needed a clutch. The estimated repair price: $600. I talked to a friend about where I could take the car to get a second opinion and he recommended Carl’s Car Clinic.

Carl Cannova not only owned this small auto repair shop, he did much of the work. He took my Accord on a test drive to check out the clutch for himself.

“Who told you that car needed a clutch?” he asked after a quick drive around the block.

I named the dealership.

“No. It needs an adjustment. That clutch has another 60,000 miles on it.”

The clutch adjustment was made and I drove the Accord for three more years with no clutch problems and no costly clutch replacement.

That first visit to an auto repair shop in Cahaba Heights, Alabama was a milestone day for our family. For the next 26 years, no one but Carl Cannova or his mechanics touched our cars. Literally everything our automobiles needed for almost three decades—tires, wheel alignment, windshield wipers, timing belts, valves—was purchased at Carl’s Car Clinic.

Friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers heard me often sing the praises of Carl’s Car Clinic. I don’t know how many of them spent money with Carl. But I know precisely how many referrals I made to the Honda dealership.

When business owners and managers truly commit to honesty and integrity, they commit to staying out of the gray area. There is no discussion as to whether a customer should be sold something he doesn’t need. Or charged more than he should pay. Everyone—from owner to employee—knows that doing the right thing day in and day out is the only way it will do business. Period.

Something almost magical occurs when customers experience a company’s commitment to always being honest. They develop trust. Then, they become loyal. They come back time and again to buy more products or more services. They become such fans of the company that they eagerly tell others about it. And those others often become customers. And they tell others.

This is not some new marketing breakthrough. It is a decision to genuinely live the Golden Rule and treat others the way we want to be treated.

It is an unbelievably great business strategy. More importantly, it is just the right thing to do.