Why Giving Thanks Could Be Your Most Cost-Effective Business Strategy

A little gratitude goes a long way in business, making customers and employees happy and boosting your bottom line in return. See how three businesses show their appreciation.
November 25, 2014

Gratitude is all the rage now. Your social media feed is probably overflowing with “daily gratitude” posts, and experts have found that focusing on thankfulness can actually improve your health.

It can also improve your business, according to small-business owners who've found ways to incorporate gratitude into their operations. Expressing thanks to employees, customers, the community and other stakeholders pays off for all parties, boosting both happiness quotients and ROI.

The Results of Happiness Studies

People who express gratitude are 25 percent happier, more optimistic and better sleepers, according to research from Robert Emmons, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. That has obvious benefits for co-workers who spend the bulk of their days together, particularly so because these verbally grateful people are also more likely to offer emotional support to others or to help someone solve a problem.

We can even quantify the effect of gratitude on business: According to a new study, happiness makes employees 12 percent more productive. Another study found that companies with high levels of employee engagement grew year-to-year income by 19 percent, while that of businesses with disengaged workers fell by 33 percent. 

That’s a big return on something that’s essentially free. “The monetary value isn’t what’s significant,” says Lisa Ryan, founder of consulting firm Grategy and author of The Upside of Down Times: Discovering the Power of Gratitude. “With smaller amounts, that puts the focus on the appreciation. In fact, the bigger the monetary value, the more chance people will look at it from a negative perspective because money is a significant part of the appreciation.”

To express their gratitude, several small businesses have found inexpensive but meaningful ways to show thanks to their key business partners, and the stronger relationships that have resulted are improving their bottom line.

A Holiday Party Turnaround

When her law firm hit 800 employees at its two locations, Lynn Greer decided that the firm's annual holiday party had to go. “People want to bring a spouse or significant other,” Greer says. “It was just too hard, both location-wise and logistics-wise.” Greer runs BrownGreer PLC with her business partner, Orran Brown, and because Thanksgiving was their favorite holiday anyway, the two decided to shift the festivities in that direction.

This will be the third year for the firm's annual Thanksgiving Luncheons. They're held at hotels near the firm's two primary offices, one in Richmond, Virginia, and the other in New Orleans, the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving and they're limited to employees (employees in the satellite Gulf office have a budget for their own celebration). In the weeks leading up to the luncheon, employees submit “Gobble Grams” that express peer appreciation, and those are delivered to employees during Thanksgiving week. The luncheon itself runs for several hours, and includes a buffet, speeches from Brown and Greer, and gifts to employees (purchased using loyalty points from office expenses paid with the company credit card).

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“It’s a very different vibe from a holiday party,” Greer notes. “Those seemed a little more awkward and obligatory, especially when you bring non-employees in.”

Instead of self-conscious drinking and dancing, Greer says, the luncheon is a time to give thanks. “It’s the only time we gather as a firm,” she says. “There's a palpable energy that you feel when you walk into the room, it’s the context of gratitude and appreciation. We were a little surprised at how much people love it and look forward to it. People say it’s the most fun thing all year and they don’t want to leave when it’s over.”

The firm has grown so much, Greer says, that she doesn’t know everyone by name anymore, so she takes this opportunity to meet new employees. “With managing people, the biggest risk is that they feel taken for granted. I may not know a specific project someone's working on, but I think it’s important to symbolically let people know we're doing this for them, and without them, we are really nothing.” 

Although the event started out as a simple shifting of an existing budget line item to a different time of year, Greer says, it's grown into a defining company tradition.

“We didn’t go into this thinking, ‘If we do this, people will like us more and work better,’” she says. “But that’s been the end result.”

Millennials Drive Giving

We know that millennials want to change the world, but not every young worker can afford to spend a career volunteering at their favorite nonprofit. Most need to find jobs and pay the bills, but they increasingly look for work that's more meaningful than one that simply generates a paycheck. According to a report from the Case Foundation, 92 percent of millennials want to work at a company that's making a positive impact on the world, and 55 percent are influenced to take a job after learning of a company’s cause work. That cause work is the third most important factor for millennials when considering a job offer.

When given the opportunity, junior staff at any organization can create the change they want to see—that’s what Besler Consulting learned when management created a career development team to help support and develop younger workers in its 52-employee company.

Besler does Medicare regulatory financial advising primarily for hospitals, many in inner cities that treat patients who can’t afford care anywhere else. “We do a lot from an executive standpoint to support different initiatives related to that, including fundraising events and capital campaigns,” says Jonathan Besler, the company's CEO. “But our career development team wanted to do something different this year.”

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The junior staffers wanted to support something closer to home, something that felt more tangible. So they decided to host a food drive for a nearby food pantry in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where many of Besler’s employees live. “These are all people we pass on the street,” Besler says. “Unbeknownst to us, they might need an extra meal at the holidays.”

Gathering canned goods for a food pantry is a tried-and-true community support initiative. What's different here is that instead of dictating what the company's charitable project would be, Besler gave his most passionate and engaged staffers the freedom to come up with their own idea, one that has the potential to change and/or expand in subsequent years.  

“A career and job are one thing, but many millennials look for higher calling, a higher purpose,” Besler says. “This may be my job, but how can I make it more in line with who I am as a person? How can I personalize this for myself, and enjoy my job and career along with something bigger I'm contributing to? Millennials have helped us realize and actuate that.”   

Shining a Spotlight on Support

In the constant push to win new business, it’s easy to take current customers for granted—after all, they’re already spending with you so they must be happy. But as in any relationship, they want to know you really care, or they’ll bolt. Of those who stop doing business with you, 68 percent of customers say they switch because they feel ignored, unappreciated or taken for granted, according to research from marketing expert and author Dan Kennedy.

Fortunately, social media can help you show your love. At Poshly, a New York City-based data collection company for the beauty industry, a dedicated marketing staffer known as the "community manager" executes a social media strategy based primarily on showing online appreciation for Poshly’s 400,000 members. 

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“It’s about building community and engaging the audience,” says Poshly founder Doreen Bloch. “We aren’t a content site like Refinery29, so this is our way to engage consumers with content, but it’s content about the community. That’s a great engagement tool.”

Poshly’s members sign up to receive free beauty product samples in return for providing detailed data about their behavior and preferences. When they post their opinions on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, Poshly’s social media person makes sure to recognize and share that content.

Poshly also spotlights specific members with Member Mondays and Winner Wednesdays. For example, a recent Member Monday profile of customer “Julie P. in Michigan” showcased her beauty philosophy, how she learned about Poshly and her predictions for hottest beauty trends. Winner Wednesday profiles reveal who won recent giveaway promotions (listing only a first name, last initial and state for privacy reasons). “Then others chime in, saying things like, ‘Great product. Hope you like it,’ so it opens up dialog between members,” says Belinda Chan, the company's chief client officer.

"This is our way of letting our members know we appreciate them,” Bloch says. “We’ve got legacy members who’ve been with Poshly from day one [in 2012]. We’ve done no marketing—they come to us via word-of-mouth, organic search and giveaways on the site. We want to let them know that if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”  

Ways to Say Thanks

It doesn’t cost anything to grab a Post-it note and scribble a succinct note of appreciation to stick on an employee’s computer screen. Or to send a friendly e-card to a vendor. In fact, author Lisa Ryan says the cheaper the reward, the more effective it is.

“Lately, research shows the value of non-monetary gratitude versus giving employees a lot of stuff,” Ryan says. “Say you work hard to win a 72-inch TV, but by the time you get it, you may be saying, ‘My manager is a jerk, the TV isn’t worth it, and I don’t feel appreciated,’ and you leave. So rather than stuff, get back to the principle of expressing true appreciation. And that needs to start at the top.”

Ryan suggests surveying your employees to find out what small rewards are meaningful to them. For example, cash or gift cards? If it’s gift cards, Starbucks or Target?

“The more personal you can make it, particularly in a small business, the more people feel connected,” Ryan says. “We are each wired differently. What I love, someone else doesn’t and it won’t have same impact.”

Ultimately, the focus should be on the appreciation and not the monetary value of that appreciation. A spent gift card disappears, but a handwritten note gets pinned up in a cubicle forever. That kind of good feeling is what keeps a business’s stakeholders coming back for more.

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Photo: Getty Images, BrownGreer, Besler, Poshly