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Are you ready for people to see your business stark naked?

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Do you know where your favourite coffee shop sources its beans? What about the fat and sugar content of your breakfast cereal? Or how about the environmental standards of the paper you use in the office?

Well duh, of course you do.

I’m not setting out here to judge your choices, but rather to point out that you probably wouldn’t have had that information 20 years ago. Times have changed and your business is about to be exposed.

Consumers today have greater power

Have you noticed that today’s consumer has more information than ever to make their purchasing decisions?

And yes, you’ll note that I did say ‘information’, not affiliation, gut-feel, or instinctive preference that brand image influences. Consumers are using real, cold-hard information about how a business operates and the breakdown of its products and/or services.

It seems that a shift is taking place and it’s in favour of consumer empowerment. It’s driven in part by the masses of additional information brought to us via the internet, and in part by a new type of consumer: savvy, street-smart and focussed on his/her particular needs.

In the past, the job of marketing was really to package up the products or services the business was trying to sell and present these in the most attractive way possible. But the society we live in now means that that, like it or not, the packaging is unwrapped, revealing the bare, stark-naked bones of the business.

And if this hasn’t hit you yet, it’s likely that the trend will get to your industry and your business soon enough. So, don’t say you weren’t warned.

The consumer of today, and increasingly so of tomorrow, wants (read: ‘demands’) to know a lot more information than ever before. As a business, you’ll either be forced to fess up (through regulation) or be pressured into it less directly from consumers, who will start showing a preference towards those businesses that do open up.

So, what are we really talking about here? One example is the packaged foods industry which, for a long time now, has been required to state the ingredients and nutritional content of the stuff inside. It’s so commonplace that we don’t think about it anymore, but how will your business fare if (read: ‘when’) consumer sentiment forces you to declare other elements such as:

  • the place of manufacture
  • the conditions under which you manufacture
  • the treatment of employees/workers (whether local or offshore – there are already websites in the US that rank businesses by employees satisfaction scores)
  • the treatment of animals involved in making/testing the product (think free-range eggs and expand on that)
  • the environmental standards the business upholds (e.g. water usage star-ratings for washing machines, but imagine a hairdresser having to explain their approach to chemical wastage)
  • the quality/workmanship and customer service reputation of the business (my particular interest and the focus of WOMOW.com.au)
  • executive salaries
  • and much more

Understand how word gets around

It’s no longer good enough to make unsubstantiated claims on these dimensions either.

Today’s customer wants objective, verifiable evidence – but that doesn’t necessarily mean from an official source.

Information shared via tweets, Facebook, forums, comparison sites and a host of other sources is already regarded as a lot more trustworthy than information that comes from the business.

So, the obvious bad news is… you really can’t get away with anything anymore.

But on the flip side, you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be genuine and try your best.

Customers will forgive errors and one hiccup is merely that. It’s the being lied to that people can’t stand.

Make a claim that doesn’t stack up and a disgruntled employee or unsatisfied customer will soon be speaking up, reaching thousands of fellow consumers instantly.

In a transparent environment, businesses need to have real values that they live by (rather than merely talk about in an annual report), integrity and a commitment to their target market. If something is important to a company’s core core customers, it needs to be important to the business.

Learn to embrace transparency

So practically, what do businesses need to do?

Listen. Fix problems. Communicate openly. Simple stuff (although not necessarily easy to implement, and the bigger the organisation, the harder it gets).

The other thing to do is start building a positive online reputation now.

Warranted or not, one day someone will post a ridiculously bad comment about your business on Facebook, Twitter, their blog, or some other online forum.

If that’s the only feedback about your business on the web, it’s going to look bad – whenever someone searches for your business, that’s all they’ll find. But if you’ve already got a great bank of positive feedback, one negative comment is almost irrelevant (of course, you should still address it, but on its own, it’s unlikely to do any real damage).

If your business is proud of its track record and has nothing to hide, the transparent era is great news. Your competitors with the dodgy business practices will be exposed and may fall by the wayside, leaving you to absorb their market share.

Businesses won’t have a choice about embracing transparency — like it or not, transparency will embrace you.

So, if your business does anything you’re not particularly proud of, or anything you’d rather customers didn’t know about, it’s time to change your ways. Personally, the thing I’m most looking forward to is fashion magazines declaring whether their models have been airbrushed or photoshopped – I’d buy that magazine any day!

Fiona Adler is a founder of WOMOW.com.au (Word-Of-Mouth On the Web). She is all about promoting businesses based on merit and holding dodgy businesses accountable. Fiona has an MBA, a degree in marketing and a background in strategic consulting and small business. She is also a mum of two and is the third Australian woman to have climbed Mt. Everest.

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