Your Reputation in the ‘Age of Transparency’

In the 13 years since Netscape’s first browser made the Internet widely popular, the Web has drastically altered the relationship between consumers and businesses. Consumers now feel both empowered by the amount of information at their fingertips and more skeptical about businesses.

The result is that “trust and reputation are more important in a wired world,” according Dov Seidman, founder and CEO of LRN, a business consulting company. In his book How, Seidman says that we have entered the Age of Transparency, where anyone can find out anything about you, your products and services (accurate or not) 24/7.

Products and services are easily duplicated. “It’s no longer what you do that sets you apart from others, but how you do what you do,” he stresses.

Seidman recalls pre-Internet days when a consumer would shop one, or perhaps two or three, local stores before making a purchase. “But now that they can shop worldwide, and they do, visiting 10 or more Web sites…” he notes.

Consumers are looking for feedback and information on companies and their principals. In the new Age of Transparency, a recall, a service issue, a Better Business Bureau complaint are all stored forever electronically and readily available.

“With the democratization of information, anyone can publish whatever they think,” he notes, while “the standard of information verification has been lowered,” going from a professional class of journalists in the l980s and l990s to anyone with a keyboard.

In fact, a half-hour search on the Internet revealed a range of information on kitchen and bath companies and products, from a variety of sources. It’s word-of-mouth on steroids.

Angie’s List, for example, now has more than 600,000 members across 124 cities. It is billed as “a word-of-mouth network for consumers: a growing collection of homeowners’ real-life experiences with local service companies [including kitchen and bath remodelers]. The people who join Angie’s List are looking for a way to find trustworthy companies that perform high-quality work.” Note the word trustworthy.

On the Franklin Report (New York, LA, Chicago and now Florida), I learned that one New York design firm was “hard to get in touch with,” while another “always returned my phone calls.” On Yelp I learned which plumbers in San Francisco did or did not show up on time.

“As reputation becomes more perishable, its value increases. As it becomes more accessible, it becomes a greater asset – and liability,” Seidman warns.

“There is one area where tremendous variability still exists, one place that cannot be commoditized: the realm of human behavior, or how we do what we do. If you keep promises 99 percent of the time and your competitor keeps promises only 8 out of 10 times, you deliver a better customer experience and you win,” he says.

“It’s not that what you do is no longer important, it’s just that how you do it will get you the greatest leverage,” Seidman points out.

On, I read postings with headlines “So Let’s Avoid Getting Screwed by the Kitchen Contractor” and “Another Kitchen Remodeling Rip-off Explained.”

No wonder fear is a foremost thought for consumers when buying a kitchen or bath; they are expensive projects, bought infrequently and not test drive-able.

Building Trust

Building trust is key. The emerging field of neuroeconomics – combining neuroscience, endocrinology, psychology, economic theory and experimental economics – tells us that trust has a biological basis. Trusting releases a hormone in our brains, oxytocin, which makes us feel good. And people who extend trust make more money than people who don’t.

One study found that buyers were willing to pay 8.1% more to a seller with a good reputation than to a seller without one, for identical merchandise.

Behaviors that generate this chemical reaction include greeting someone warmly, making frequent eye contact and demonstrating real concern about them, their family members and their passions. But you can’t fake it.

Should you put a mission statement on your Web site or in other marketing materials? Yes, providing you use authentic, values-based language with words such as honesty, fairness, integrity. Then you have to “walk the talk.”

Otherwise you could be in the embarrassing situation of one company I found trashed on a blog. An unhappy purchaser of a dishwasher wrote, “While on hold with your representative, I found the message full of irony as the spokesperson stated that ‘customer care is an integral part of business at XYZ Co. That integrity is the backbone of XYZ.’ While the representative was willing to listen to my concerns and stated the next step to be taken (call the service tech, again), there was not much empathy.

“I am 55 years old and have owned several homes, and thus appliances. I must conclude that my [dishwasher] is defective. If, indeed, ‘Integrity is the backbone of your philosophy…,’ these should be replaced at your company’s expense.

“I am looking forward to your reply, anticipating, and hoping, that your own statement regarding integrity holds true.”

In this Age of Transparency, Seidman recommends putting your marketing money where other people’s mouths are. Invest in staying in touch with past customers. Communicate with your mavens – builders, architects, interior designers.
Pay attention to ways of connecting more intimately with consumers such as newsletters or your Web site. He recommends “viral marketing,” which focuses on creating entertaining or informative messages for customers to pass along.

How about a Podcast of one of your kitchens, or your showroom, that customers can share with friends and family? Give people the ability to build an on-line portfolio of ideas they can share. Kitchen and bath decision-making is collaborative:

Clients consult friends and relatives. Give them photos or sketches they can e-mail to friends. Connect by supporting causes they, and you, care about.

Consumers want to trust your Web site, so keep it up to date. Closed or moved a showroom? Get it off the Web site so you don’t send someone to an old address. One dealer just did that inadvertently. The potential customer was angry but the dealer handled it well – the only smart way he could. He apologized loud and clear. Not an easy thing to do, but increasingly important in this age where a blog could be up in a matter of hours.

Fear of exposure, Seidman notes, is a real concern in a transparent world. “To apologize is inherently a dangerous act, but one with latent power,” he notes. “All of us are more accountable today because of the Internet.”

The cabinets came in wrong? Damaged? Late? Admit it and take care of it right away. Genuine and fast responses matter. Not everyone will respond favorably, but it’s better than ignoring it.

“Trust is the currency of the new age,” Seidman emphasizes.

Remember, no one can copy how you do business.