There’s some spirited debate brewing around the idea of transparency and its benefits to customer service. Is it best to let the customer be ‘blissfully unaware’ of the company’s processes (essentially how it works)? Or is it better to allow them into the kitchen to see how everything is cooked? I argue strongly for the latter. When you share how your organization works on a big picture level, you welcome customers into a deeper relationship. This openness fosters trust and trust creates a solid foundation for long-lasting partnership. Okay, so those are pretty lofty ideals. What are the more down-to-earth benefits of being transparent?
The argument for letting customers be ‘blissfully unaware’ isn’t a bad one. Some customers simply don’t care to know how a company is going to solve a problem or execute on a request. They just want to know that they are being taken care of by the organization. The argument only becomes misguided when you assume that all customers don’t care to know about how things are getting done. Instead, let’s err on the side of giving each customer an invitation to step out of the dining room and into the kitchen. We’re not demanding, we’re allowing them to decide for themselves just how much or how little they care to see and understand. Here’s my hunch: that number of customers who do want to know will be far more than you expect.
The other, older argument has been that if you offer a transparent process to the client you’ll be taking the mystique away from the business. If that has been your unique selling point and competitive advantage, then it’s time to overhaul your service philosophy. The age of instant and voluminous information has disrupted and demolished that model. Like it or not, customers want to know what you are doing to help them solve their problems and add value to their experience. And if we want to continue to think of our relations with customers as partnerships and do it in good faith, then openness is no longer an option, but a necessity.
Benefits to Your Customers
Among the benefits of being transparent with your company’s processes and ways of getting things done is that it creates more knowledgeable customers. In the June issue of the Harvard Business Review, Simon Bell and Andreas Eisingerich report on their research connecting client education to client satisfaction and overall client success in the financial services sector. They recommend creating a more “porous organizational boundary” and give client-facing employees the time and autonomy to explain how the firm does business, gain insight into clients’ own knowledge base, and then help clients acquire firm-specific expertise.
Bell and Eisingerich also note that more knowledgeable clients are more prepared for meetings and other interactions. With a more detailed and nuanced understanding of the firm’s workings, the client is more capable of connecting his or her needs to how it can get done. Again, it cultivates a partnership between client and service provider…one where the relationship is more important than the process itself. If your company works with non-profits, I can’t overemphasize the importance of developing a trusting relationship with the client.
Benefits to Your Internal Staff
Those a couple of the benefits connecting organization to customer. However, these cannot happen until the company’s own internal operations are clarified and ready to be made fully transparent. How many executives quake in their bruno magli wingtips at the thought of having their processes opened to the light of day and client scrutiny? All the reason to do it. If you’re scared silly about exposing how you do business, ask where that fear comes from. Do you have good process or is it a disconnected shambles that manages to hide its ugliness through a mask of ‘just get it done’? Unless you have great process that’s the industry standard, opening your operations to the outside is just the impetus to clarify, streamline, and document it.
Sounds great, but how will employees take to having clients in the kitchen? It’s likely to make them nervous if they’re not accustomed to this way of doing business. However, consider the more recent trend in restaurants of bringing the kitchen out into the dining area (or maybe not so recent…Benihana has been doing it for a while). When I was sketching this idea out in my head last week, I happened to eat at a local Carrabba’s Italian Grill. There the majority of the cooking and grilling is done in an area that’s easily viewable by restaurant patrons. Want to watch them grill your Chicken Marsala? You’re welcome to do it…or not. They leave that choice to you. But by bringing the kitchen to the customer, each chef is now accountable to each other and to their patrons. Can’t get away with dropping a steak on the floor and then putting it back on the grill. Again, here’s my hunch: the number of employees who want to have better processes and more accountability are more than you think.
It’s time to shed the notion that the organization’s processes, systems, and overall operations can be kept in a black box. Transparency isn’t just a buzzword to impress clients, investors, and employees. It’s something that when committed to doing and doing well, will raise your business to another level. With so many other companies out there who choose to maintain their ways of doing business under the cloak of “proprietary knowledge,” being open might just be your unique competitive advantage. In the end, even if others in your industry follow suit and open their own kitchens to the outside, it’s just a better way of doing business
From Bailey WorkPlay, first published July 31, 2007