Credit: Sharpe + Harrell Photography

In 1975, when my wife and I were living in central Vermont, we stopped at Stanley Morse’s dairy farm once a week on our way home to buy raw milk. Sanitation is the major concern with unpasteurized milk, so the wall of the milkhouse displayed all the required certificates of inspection. They were mostly for the tourists, though, because the whole community knew the Morse’s reputation for keeping a clean operation.

As if to reciprocate our trust, the raw milk transaction was strictly self-service. We brought our own containers and ladled the milk ourselves from a big stainless steel tank. We dropped our payment into a glass jar by the door, and we made our own change if needed. No one was around to check how much milk we took and what we paid for it, and no one was on watch to guard the money jar.

Building a Reputation

If you think that kind of trust could have thrived only in a pastoral setting in an easier, less-complicated time, read Dov Seidman’s best-seller, How. One story he tells is about a New York City street vendor who lets customers make their own change from a scattering of coins and small bills on the counter of his cart. The practice not only builds trust and loyalty among his clientele, it allows him to serve more customers more quickly than vendors selling similar fare at the other end of the street.

Though written in 2007, How is experiencing something of a resurgence in the current business climate. Seidman writes from two key premises. First, in a marketplace in which everything we do can be copied by competitors who can do it faster and more cheaply, what we do matters less to our customers than how we do it. Second, in a world in which anyone with a smartphone can publish an opinion about our performance, our reputation is more important than ever.

Seidman’s prescription is simple: Out-behave your competition by “doing the right thing, in the right way,” even when it is inconvenient or less profitable. As Seidman puts it, “The mission of my company is to help others and we make a living … not help others so as to make a living.” When businesses behave well, Seidman argues, they find success — or, more accurately, success finds them.

It’s tough out there, and it isn’t getting better anytime soon. It’s tempting to take shortcuts and compromise principles to get work. But, as Seidman reminds us, “How we do business is at least as important as how much business we do.”

Stanley Morse’s main business was bulk milk production. But he made his reputation one ladle at a time.

—Sal Alfano, editorial director, REMODELING.