There is an environment of mistrust toward large organisations in the current climate. When big corporates are shown to be handing over wads of consumer data or failing to closely monitor their supply chain, the backlash is fierce and destructive. And while small- to medium-sized enterprises are less commonly the focus of such reprisals, hiding things from the consumer isn’t a great idea, no matter what the size of your company.
As a result, the drive toward transparency has increased exponentially over the past few decades. In part, as with the majority of recent trends, the impetus behind this was sparked by the internet’s effect on consumer behaviours. With the invention of social networking and the more interactive Web 2.0, consumers were becoming increasingly empowered to voice their dissatisfaction. While managing their image had once been relatively straightforward, many companies were beginning to have to accept that their brands were no longer in their hands.
“Previously, they had pretty much been able to control the message that they put out to customers and that customers consumed,” comments Danielle Sheerin, social business consultant at social business pioneers NixonMcInnes. “Suddenly, customers were having conversations about brands that quite often the brands weren’t even aware of.” Essentially, this has introduced an increased level of accountability that not long before wouldn’t have been imaginable. It became obvious that, rather than attempting to close ranks and hide away, enterprises needed to embrace their increased visibility.
Understandably, this hasn’t been popular with everyone. Traditionally, letting something out into the public domain was ranked as practically one of the worst crimes an employee could commit; for some actively committing to do so goes against a lifetime of business instincts. “There’s a massive fear about being transparent because it goes against the grain,” says Sheerin. “It’s that mindset change: ‘If we tell people what we really are, then they’re not going to like it.’”
One of the biggest fears Sheerin has come across is that creating social media accounts will just act as a lightning rod for negative comments and, as a result, tarnishing potential customers’ perceptions. But there is some evidence that these fears are unfounded. “There’s anecdotal evidence that because customers can see other customers’ reviews, even if they’re negative, they still see the company more positively because they can appreciate that not everyone’s perfect,” she says. “I think there’s even a trend around brands having flaws and being seen to be ‘flawsome’, that they’re actually better brands because they allow you to see them.”
Another issue Sheerin has encountered is that enterprises simply do not understand what is required for real transparency and engagement. For example, a mistake that is often made is opening channels such as social networking with aims of connecting with the consumer but still operating under old models. Enterprises still attempt to set the pace of the conversation and push their brand message, rather than, as Sheerin suggests, “asking about the conversations that the customers want to have, being open about genuinely listening to needs and feeding them back into the business.”
This comes close to the nub of the matter. Often, dialogues around transparency focus on informational openness. And this is important; NixonMcInnes, for example, has completely open books and regularly publishes its results. But there’s a lot more to it than that. “There’s an emotional transparency around being able to take on feedback, what people genuinely think and what can genuinely be improved,” comments Sheerin. “A lot of businesses think just by having that option in place, enabling customers to leave comments, they’re being transparent but it goes so much deeper than that.”
Rather than simply being a one-way transfer of information, transparency is a commitment to hosting a genuine exchange. “If you’re being transparent, what you’re really doing is having a dialogue with your customer,” says Sheerin. “By being more transparent, being more open, you’re actually being more open yourselves, understanding customers and developing in line with their needs.” So when a customer sees a brand is actively committed to taking their feedback on board, this can have huge ramifications for how they feel about a company.
And this is changing the way we view brands irrevocably. Rather than closing ranks behind the anonymity of their corporate identity, businesses are being coaxed further and further out of their shells. “It’s a mindset change that we don’t have to keep all of our cards to our chest and we don’t have to be very secretive,” Sheerin explains. “We can actually be open and with that comes lots of different benefits.”
But it’s not just about being open with those on the outside. If you’re having conversations with your customers but there’s no dialogue within your organisation, then the amount that insight can achieve is rather limited. “It’s not just about that interface between the customer and the business but actually deep within the business, how transparent are the leadership with employees?” Sheerin says. “It isn’t until you can be more transparent internally that you can actually create those routes and paths for consumer messages to feed in and actually alter the business.”
There’s no denying that transparency can be an incredibly powerful tool. It has now become essential for businesses to demonstrate to consumers that they have nothing to hide; as soon as a brand begins to act like it’s behind a smokescreen, it will set off alarms for its customers. But being prepared to show your company as it is, warts and all, will ultimately win a lot more loyalty than an airbrushed snapshot.