My last two posts I have covered the first two steps in creating deep customer relationships; findability and recommendation. I would now like to turn my attention to the next step which is transparency.

In their groundbreaking work, The Cluetrain Manifesto, Chris Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger proposed that businesses behaving as walled gardens and giving their customers whatever the business wanted, was essentially over. They argue that the customer-business relationship has gotten back to a craftsmanlike relationship with the advent of the Internet and several enabling technologies. Because of these technologies, transparency is accomplished just as it was in the market place in the early part of this of the 20th century. For example, if you wanted to have a pair of shoes made you would meet with the shoemaker and discuss what you wanted to have made. He would ask you questions and then based on your input, would deliver a new pair of shoes exactly as you had ordered them. If there was something wrong you would talk with him to determine what needed to be done to resolve the issue. This type of customer interaction is one of the new expectations online. This does not have to be a corporate forum and it must be in human voice and not corpspeak. In their Book Naked Conversations, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel discuss how Microsoft has an open blogging policy and because of this over the last several years the rhetoric within the online community has diminished considerably. (Not surprisingly Apple and Google do not have open blogging policies.) An open blogging policy means that a company does not deter employees from blogging about work. That does not mean that they are sharing strategic goals or distributing IP. It simply means that they are communicating various aspects of working for their employer. This has over time allowed Microsoft to indirectly reduce criticism. If someone saw something they did not like with the product/service they would communicate with an employee via their blog allowing the Microsoft employee to address the criticism with a human voice. Over time this has helped reduce the perception of the company as an evil empire. Transparency as a business strategy takes a considerable amount of trust/thought and will be difficult for many to master. One person or a group of people could be selected to be the voice of the company and it cannot be the PR department.

This type of unchecked transparency is of course not without issues and to date the rewards seem to outweigh the risk. Even more risky is trying to moderate this platform of open communication as it is on most corporate blogs. These types of blogs do nothing more than fuel people’s distrust of business. Many people want to know the employees of the business they are working with, not the business as an entity. (A great opportunity and powerful brand signal.)

Transparency does not simply mean that you are posting to your blog. It means that you must answer even the staunchest critics. To avoid confrontation is to miss the point that transparency affords. Many times when an author is criticized in his/her blog, other readers will come to their defense and in turn, reinforce that relationship. If not, an author must defend their stance or admit what their post may lack. This is what deep relationships rely upon.

Also, it is important to remember that it is possible to be almost completely transparent as a business online without a primary communication method such as a blog or forum. Progressive Insurance has made transparency their primary differentiator. You can go to their site and they will provide the best insurance rates from multiple insurance companies. Many times the rates from other companies are better and yet Progressive has established themselves as the trusted source for this information.

In my next post I will talk about the next level of customer relationship; collaboration and the rise of the prosumer. The video below is not only funny but also speaks to the need for businesses to listen.