Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Be nice to those that serve you

A while ago I was in Germany on a business trip, to strike a deal over licensing a bunch of software that I wrote with a German company that was operating in a related field and that wanted to branch out. We weren’t established in the German market at the time and I figured that it is better to have a chunk of the profits without the work than to have nothing at all.

I flew in to Berlin (one of my favorite cities on the planet), was met at the airport and whisked off by chauffeured car to a fancy restaurant to meet with the CEO of the prospective licensee.

The royal treatment sure feels nice and I wished I could say that I was entirely insensitive to it ;)

Once in the restaurant the man I met with was extremely rude to the people waiting at our table. The restaurant was quite a posh place and the prices matched the decor. Over dinner the guy gave me a thorough primer on his background, basically he came from nothing and was proud to be a self-made man. When dinner was served he sent a plate full of perfectly good food back to the kitchen because it wasn’t done ‘just so’, and a bottle of wine that had been opened to be tasted was deemed to be of insufficient quality for him to consume (I don’t drink, so for all I know there could have been vinegar in the bottle but I highly doubt it was as bad as it seemed).

The next morning I was given a tour of his place of business in a side street of a fairly fancy neighbourhood. I met with a few of his employees (programmers, mostly because they were going to have to become familiar with the code base, and people that were to be involved in the sales and marketing). Without exception the CEO of the company was extremely brusque and rude - while all the while being extremely polite and friendly to me.

Over lunch we had a repeat of the situation at the restaurant yesterday, different setting but the same overall effect.

And that’s when it suddenly clicked: as soon as you’re in this guys pay somehow, if there is any kind of financial relationship this guy changes from overly friendly to an absolute jerk.

I sat through the rest of the meetings slowly making up my mind: whatever the financial possibilities of this deal do I: (a) want this man to become visibly associated with our company? and (b) do I want to implicitly support this kind of person by giving him the fruit of my labor?

By 5 pm that day my mind was made up. I cancelled the rest of the appointments and went back home without a deal that was as good as done when I flew in.

I’ve met some pretty wealthy people in my life and it seems that wealth and modesty as well as wealth and a pleasant character go together quite frequently (ok, there are lots of exceptions but the fact is that in my limited sample the nice people definitely win out).

The reason may be that for every time that someone has the option to do business with you or not they will evaluate not only the business angle, but also the personal one. Lots of business deals are made on something the Dutch call ‘gunnen’, for want of a proper English counterpart, it is that you have multiple parties that you could do business with and you pick some of them for non-monetary or easily explained reasons, mostly because that party makes you feel like they are the one that you will be happiest with doing business over the longer term.

And over time that adds up! Every deal that you lose because you’re perceived as an abrasive person, or that you lose because someone decides that they might end up treated by you the way you treat those around you is adding to the net loss, and it is a cumulative loss. So after a life time of being a jerk you’ll find yourself back more or less where you started, and very lonely to boot.

Better be nice to those that serve you.

Being nasty to people that you have power over or that are in no position to challenge abuse says a lot more about who you are and what kind of a person you are than you can paper over with any amount of sweet talking. Treat others the way you would like to be treated is not just the polite thing to do, it makes very good business sense and it probably will make you feel better.

Kick down-lick up is a bad recipe all around and easily recognized for what it is.