If you go to a dictionary – a paper one that you last saw in the library, or the digital one at our fingertips – and look up the word “transparency,” here’s what you might find: “the condition of being transparent.”
But wait, that isn’t very helpful, so let’s turn to the definition of transparent. Here’s what we find there: “allowing light to pass through so that objects behind can be distinctly seen” and “easy to perceive or detect” or even “having thoughts, feelings, or motives that are easily perceived.” I think of transparency in more simple terms – being straight with people.
Decades ago, businesses had plenty of room to deceive their customers. Perhaps they were run by operators that could sleep well at night no matter the crookedness they perpetrated on their customers during the day. Or maybe the shady business practices were something their predecessors conceived, and they were simply following SOP - standard operating procedure.
Fraudulent business practices are nothing new. The first known fraud was back in 300 B.C. when a Greek merchant named Hegestratos took out a large insurance policy known as bottomry. Since then, every conceivable attempt to perpetrate fraud has been tried - sometimes successfully, sometimes with great failure.
But that’s not really the point today because fraud is, frankly for some, human nature. What does matter today is the notion of transparency and the importance of any leader of an organization – be it a business or a not-for-profit or a local government – to recognize the consequences of deceit.
What We Can Learn from Recent Scandals
Let’s turn our attention for a minute to some of the recent high-profile scandals. Did you own a VW diesel in the past 10 years? Were you a soccer fan? Or did you happen to own some Turing Pharmaceutical stock. Why does it matter?
Well if you bought a VW diesel based on a notion of feeling good about it being a clean burning engine, it probably didn’t feel as comfortable driving around in it once it was known that VW cooked the books, so to speak.
As a soccer fan, you might have felt betrayed by the sports leaders when some at the top were indicted for paying and taking bribes.
And if you were taking the drug Daraprim (pyrimethamine), for the treatment of toxoplasmosis - a parasitic disease - and suddenly, the price went from $13.50 a tablet to $750.00 a tablet, you were probably quickly searching for a door to hit.
In each of these situations, the business leaders figured – eh – the public will never know. Wrong. You can read more about what these scandals can teach us as leaders in this interesting blog.
The key takeaway is that self-deception will lead us astray time and time again. Why? Because we live in a highly transparent world today – our connectivity, our use of social media, and our always “on” life creates an environment where exposure to fraud is only a tap away.
Now, I know you don’t suffer from any self-deception when it comes to your business and your brand, so don’t worry about watching your business blow up from some poor decisions that were made in a hasty moment and threaten to destroy what you’ve been tirelessly building since you started your business.
Examples of Transparency You’ve Experienced Today
Instead, let’s turn this notion of transparency on its head and figure out how being as transparent as possible will build your brand, give you a competitive advantage, and super glue your best customers to your company. So, what do we mean by “being as transparent” as possible? Well in the new world of apps – you know the mobile phone apps we use morning, noon, and night – one of the hallmarks of really good apps is their ability to offer up a sense of transparency.
But, let’s step back for just a minute. If you are old enough or have been in a remodeled vintage building you’ve probably seen something like this above the elevator door.
Why’s it there? To tell you exactly where the elevator is when you’re waiting for it to arrive. In the event you’ve missed that golden age, there’s always this digital elevator information.
So, we’ve seen examples of transparency connected with elevators. When Uber first arrived on the scene, their interface looked a little different than it does today. Below is a screenshot from their earlier app designs. You’ll notice that is was originally called UberCab, but more importantly, you see that two cars are plotted on the map near the red pin drop. This visualization brought the user into the experience. The user now knew where their UberCab was located and perhaps had a sense of how long to expect before the ride arrived.
Apparently, users found this sense of engagement particularly important, and ever since, Uber has improved and improved the experience. Now, of course, many of us stand on street corners staring at our Uber or Lyft app watching the ride make its way to our very location. And Uber has surfaced tons of data along with the map placement of the pending ride. This includes the driver’s name, the color of their vehicle, the license number, and the number of rides the driver has done plus their star rating. This is all data that is sitting on Uber or Lyft’s servers that they believed they should make transparent to their customers.
Another genius application of this notion of transparency was the introduction by Dominos – yes, the pizza chain - of their pizza tracker. This seemingly simple idea - with lots of complexity behind it – was one reason Dominos has been among the most well-performing stocks in the last five years, moving $74 to $234 per share - a 233% increase. Offering their customers a means of seeing the progress of the pizza they ordered was a profound change in the customer experience. And it is yet another example of a company looking at their data and information assets and figuring out what they can surface to their customers that enhances the customer experience.
Here are a couple of other interesting examples. As a frequent flyer these days, I have become very reliant on United Airlines and their mobile app. Recently, I was making a connection at United’s Washington Dulles hub, and just as I was landing, United sent me a text saying:
Say what you will about the airlines (and United in particular), but they’re working to improve the customer experience. Based on the text, I knew that I had time to stop at Potbelly’s and grab a sub and still make it to gate D30 in plenty of time. Again, United is doing what others are doing – examining their data and information assets to find ways to enhance their customer’s experience.
There are dozens and dozens of examples I could cite here where companies are exposing their data – being transparent with their data – to better engage the customer. And speaking of airlines – it is hard not to mention in a post about transparency Southwest Airlines most recent tagline – Transfarency. Launched in October 2015, the campaign is about messaging that there are no hidden fees or charges – e.g. bags, beverages, seats etc. – when booking on Southwest. Southwest understood then that consumers are all about knowing what the honest and clear prices are - not prices that hide or obfuscate the final cost.
One more note on the notion of transparency of pricing. Earlier this year, a large oil company suffered the indignation of having to pay out over $400 million to their customers in Oregon for not being transparent. David Sugerman, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said it wasn't until customers had filled up their tanks and walked up to the register to pay that they were notified of the 35-cent debit card fee. "The gas was already in your car, you would go inside, and congratulations, your $10 of gas is now $10.35," Sugerman said. Small change, sure, but $400 million dollars is $400 million dollars.
On a much smaller scale – yes one you can relate to – I spoke to a fellow who runs a long haul moving and storage company in Greenville, South Carolina. We were discussing this notion of transparency, and he said, “I get 25 calls a day from my customers asking me where their stuff is.” He went on to tell me he knew within 500 feet where everyone’s stuff was – I presume he has sensors in the trucks. So I said to him “what if instead of waiting for your customers to call you every day, you sent each of them a quick email or text saying something like ‘hi Sally, just to let you know your stuff is in Memphis on its way to Little Rock.’ You’ll blow their minds by being proactive, and then you’ll have more time find new customers to grow your business instead of answering calls all day long.” He really loved the idea, and I do hope to check back in with him to find out if he’s executed on it and how it is going.
How Your Business can be More Transparent
So, I ask – what data or information do you have in your business that you could surface and share to better engage and connect with your customers? Perhaps you’re a medical practitioner - (I know there are HIPPA issues) and you are treating someone over a period of time – say for pain management. They came to you experiencing pain at level seven and now three months later they’re at pain level three. Maybe you can offer them a chart that shows how their pain level has declined over the three months. Simple, reinforces the treatment you’re providing, and brings their knowledge forward.
Or maybe you’re like the guy I met in Phoenix one evening doing a ThinkLikeAnApp presentation. He ran an auto spa business. Doubt he does facials or massages, but he does do make overs. So, when he’s doing a car make over - which takes the better part of a day - he takes pictures of the progress and texts them to the customer. This little effort pays big dividends and brings the customer into the process, which makes for a more connected, more engaged experience.
Here are three questions you might consider answering to bring about more transparency to your operating model.
- Are you making your pricing as transparent as possible, and if there are any “hidden” charges can you consider baking them into the overall price?
- Are you examining your customer information to identify data points that you could share with your customers, clients, or patients that would provide them with a great sense of engagement and commitment on your part?
- Are you revealing information about the industry you operate in that you could share with your customers, clients, patients that would expand their knowledge and make them smarter buyers of your service or product?
Bringing more transparency to your business can help you connect with consumers and bridge the gap between them and your business.