Digitized voice: "Thank you for reading The Grok newsletter. Your thought particles are very important to us. Please hold the line and the author’s insights on leveraging the power of increased transparency will be with you in approximately…fifteen…minutes.
<Cue elevator version of "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" by Janet Jackson>
To self: "I knew I shouldn’t have opened this email..."
Do you ever get annoyed when a business's online communications are as poor, if not worse, than their offline customer service? One of the most sacred promises of the Internet is that we have the power to chat with total strangers, regardless of how fragmented the information or disproportionately strong the opinion, to piece together the bigger picture about a given experience anytime, anywhere. Access to third-party information is always a good thing for any current or would-be customer; it's the quickest way of saving ourselves the time, money, and opportunity cost of a bad decision. Besides, most customers take information from peers with a grain of salt. So why should business be afraid of online transparency?
Of course, customers have been gossiping, speculating, ranting, and raving about their experiences with all manner of brands on independent message boards and blogs for years. The difference these days is that more businesses are joining in on the conversation, or at least making baby-steps toward participation.
Now that top companies are getting into the transparent waters of message boards and blogs, the initial results are mixed. Although most customers appreciate this change of heart, there is a certain degree of risk involved in appearing to be the emperor's new lifeguard when you’ve only just dipped your toe in the water. "He can't swim!" they'll say. And then, it's believed, sales will plummet and everyone, particularly stockholders, will laugh at you.
Fair enough, but before the prospect of ranting customers shies you away, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind:
Honest feedback beats any focus group in the world. As if having the ability to analyze search terms wasn't great enough, online forums allow for immediate and comprehensive feedback from people with actual (not hypothetical) opinions. Not only will your business likely save money in unforeseen ways, but you'll be easing the customer's frustration.
Showing that your business is willing to address the customer's concerns generates positive word-of-mouth. How much so-called brand integrity does it take to have a one-way conversation, anyway?
Want a great way to get a sense of what your competition is doing better than your business? Give customers a place to sound-off.
You may actually be surprised at all the nice things people say. Yes, it's possible to get glowing testimonials from customers you haven't even asked, let alone paid.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: "You're not a $100 bill. Not everyone's going to like you."
Whether or not it's happening on your home turf, your customers are already comparing notes about you elsewhere online. Why not give them something to talk about?
Let's consider a few "transparency do's and don'ts," shall we?
There's a fine line between joining in on the conversation and trying to dominate it. With blog and/or message board comments, it's important for businesses to avoid censoring their customers whenever possible. Sure, there's no place for personal attacks, derogatory language, or anything potentially libelous, but nothing will send the external blogosphere into a hair-pulling tizzy like negative comments being censored out of corporate self-interest. One of the surest ways to lose credibility is not to take the good with the bad and the ugly.
Another common mistake is what I call the "khaki cool guy" routine. This approach is what happens when an otherwise sane company uses its blog or message board to project an image that doesn't jibe with the customer’s experience with the brand. In this instance, what the company is trying to pass off as increased transparency is really no more than a vain attempt at "branding" itself as the new, hip guy on the "Interweb." Nobody wants read a blog that's essentially just an advertising vehicle. At best, this approach is worthless to the customer; at worst, it's a disingenuous turn-off that can damage brand affinity.
Disgruntled customers can come in from any angle. In fact, a person doesn't even have to be a customer yet to be disgruntled. Have you ever been so frustrated at the lack of information on company's website that you restrain from mentioning it to them just so you don’t unintentionally give them any profitable ideas? Have you ever written in to demand an answer to something that wasn’t made clear on a company’s site after searching around for several minutes? If so, chances are the business’s site is poorly planned, lacks transparency, or both.
But it's all in the response, isn't it? When a business is willing to admit that it hasn’t answered your questions about a product or service thoroughly and adjusts itself accordingly, you're more likely to buy from them—if not now, soon. Rather than giving the frustrated customer a canned apology, don't shy away from providing an answer that's real, even if you suspect it may not be well-received. Businesses should feel free to politely disagree with customers at times. Otherwise, no understanding is reached and the problem continues on both ends.
Indeed, the transparency imperative must apply for both business and customer. Still, it's early yet. Like anything that's meant to build trust between people, online transparency takes time, honestly, and work. This is doubly true for any company with a reputation for ambivalence. For some, transparency is bound to sting a bit more at first. The good news for those who actually listen, though, is they'll get priceless advice from little-known marketing experts worldwide.