by Niall Doherty

Back in 2003, from a little apartment in Ireland, I started a fan website about my favorite basketball team, the New Orleans Hornets. By the time I handed the site over to someone else in 2010, I’d been living in New Orleans for a few years, the site was affiliated with the largest sports network in North America, and I’d become a credentialed member of the media, allowing me to attend the games for free and interview players and coaches in the locker room.

I worked hard to make a success. I studied game tape and tried to break down what was really happening out there on the court. I pursued interesting story angles and tried to ask key people smart questions. I brought other writers on board to provide different perspectives.

In spite of all the hard work, it was tough in the beginning to get the word out about H247. Not many Hornets fans knew the website even existed. It didn’t help that another Hornets fan site at the time, one with a much bigger audience than ours, seemed intent on pretending we didn’t exist. Even if we posted an inside scoop or compiled some great information that Hornets fans would appreciate, this other site would never link to us. On occasion a random fan would post a link to H247 over at the other site, but it would be removed as soon as their moderators spotted it.

What this said to me was that the other site didn’t care so much about providing Hornets fans with the best coverage. They cared more about being considered the number one fan site for the team, even if that meant hiding some great, third-party content from their audience. Thanks to this short-sighted thinking, they ended up repeatedly screwing the people they were claiming to serve.

Meanwhile, we at H247 took the opposite approach. From the beginning, we had a section of the site devoted to compiling links to quality, third-party coverage of the team. Our mission was to always help Hornets fans find the best content, regardless of whether that content was hosted on our site or elsewhere.

Over time, despite the best efforts of the other site, H247 became very well known and respected, while the folks running the other site ended up cutting their losses and selling on to my successor.

A couple of years back I read a book called Delivering Happiness. Written by the CEO of online retailer Zappos, it tells the story of the company’s success. If you’ve heard of Zappos before, you’re probably aware of their focus on customer service, which really is remarkable. One policy they have: If a customer calls up a Zappos agent to inquire about a pair of shoes, and the agent finds that they don’t have the shoes in stock, he/she will go check at least three websites of competing retailers and refer the customer to whichever does have the shoes in stock.

This approach by Zappos flies in the face of how most businesses operate. You’d be hard pressed to find a car salesman who’d refer you to a competitor once it dawns on him that none of the vehicles in his showroom are a good match for you. More likely, he’ll go ahead and try convince you to purchase from him anyway, even if he knows you’ll probably regret it later.

Zappos has surely lost out on plenty of small, immediate sales with their referral policy, but the trust they’ve built up because of it is priceless. People feel comfortable shopping with Zappos because the company has repeatedly demonstrated that they’re more interested in serving their customers’ needs than making a fast buck. Ultimately, this results in a lot more business for Zappos.

It was a similar story (albeit on a much smaller scale) with Hornets247. Instead of trying to keep Hornets fans on our site alone, we focused on pushing them to the absolute best coverage of the team, even if that meant sending them off to another fan site that they might like more than ours. We were confident that if we kept serving our visitors’ best interests, they’d come to trust us and H247 would become their go-to hub for everything Hornets-related. And that’s pretty much what happened.

I try to take the same approach in my web design business. This year alone I’ve referred about a dozen potential clients to other designers because I felt I wasn’t a good fit for their projects. Sometimes I’ll even try talk a potential client out of a project entirely, like if I believe there’s a better/faster/cheaper way to achieve the results they’re looking for. (Example: “Do you really need a website? Couldn’t you achieve the same thing with a Facebook page?”)

The essense of this approach is that you’re always considering the best interests of other people, and putting them before your own. Except what you inevitably find is that your own best interests get served as well. As Zig Ziglar once said…

“You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”

For a while now I’ve been trying out this approach with relationships as well. Before I seriously consider getting romantically involved with a woman, I’ll ask myself if it would be in her best interest to get involved with me. If I believe it wouldn’t be, I don’t pursue. (That’s not to say that my beliefs are always accurate; I still mess this up every now and then.)

I write this post in the hopes that you’ll try out similar yourself. I see too many people out to make a fast buck or serve some other self-interest at the expense of others. And it inevitably comes back to burn them. Nobody wins in the long run.

The cable company that hides the real cost of an offer in the small print will probably sell a lot of packages in the short-term, but the customers they dupe are unlikely to recommend their services to friends and family. The guy who tells a girl he loves her so he can get some action may well get lucky that night, but she’ll end up bitter and he’ll end up labeled an asshole. And the website that tries to pretend that they’re the sole source of good information about a topic might fool their visitors initially, but eventually folks will find the other info anyway and start wondering why their once-trusted source was keeping them in the dark.

So, think long-term and consider the best interests of others. It’s the smart play.


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