by Matt Zentz
The often repeated conversation with my daughter goes like this: "When you tell lies you tear down our ability to trust you. And it takes a really long time to rebuild that trust again." Most parents have gone through this and the followup explanations of why we don't believe them when they really are telling the truth. It's a difficult, exhausting road.
In business, there is a tendency to tell little white lies, that obscure your real size, capabilities, financial well-being, or some other facet. Eventually, these lies surface with the truth. And similar to what I tell my daughter about rebuilding trust, the damage lies can do to your agency is long-term and substantial. The difference is I love my daughter and offer lots of forgiveness because she is growning and learning. Tear down the trust with a customer or prospect, however, and you may never earn that trust back.
There are a couple angles here - the duped and the unduped. Customers and prospects fall into one of these categories. Companies hire you because they don't know or understand what you do or how to do it.
For the unduped, there is an initial implied trust because you are the expert and, to some extent, have shown that to be true. For the unduped, it's easier to avoid transparency because they haven't experienced working with someone like you. They don't know the lay of the land and you're making promises you can't possibly keep to just win their business, assigning the future disaster to the "we'll figure it out later" column.
For the duped, they know better because they've already travelled the road and ran smack dab into the wall of lies and half-truths. They're angry they have to use an agency like yours at all. Through no fault of your own, they start the project with a serious chip on their shoulder because some other awful agency duped them.
You can avoid these negative relationships by being transparent and honest. For the unduped, it's easier to avoid transparency because you might be competing against another company overselling themselves. But don't fall for this. If the prospect chooses to conduct business with the other company, just let it go. Chances are, when that relationship falls apart, the candor and transparency you demonstrated will go a long way and the prospect may come to you because of it.
If you're working with a prospect that falls into the duped group, all you can do is be transparent and honest. Their red flags will fly often and the only thing you can do is tell it like it is. They'll know better and if they catch you in a lie or embellishment they will despise you for adding salt to their already open wounds.
Setting proper expectations is related directly to transparency. This is a little different because expectations are not always requested. It's up to you to define the scope and clarify the requirements for the client so when you deliver the final project it matches with what they are expecting.
In 18 years of business I've only raised my voice twice with a client. I'm not proud of it; I'm a pretty patient, level-headed person. Years ago, we had a project that resulted in one of these not-so-proud moments. And, It could have been avoided had I properly set expectations.
Marketpath was tasked with creating a product search feature for an existing website where the products were only found by navigating categories. The scope of the search feature was defined as "Accepts search criteria (e.g. Name, SKU, Partner Name, Cost, etc.) and returns a list of products that match that criteria." If you've ever created proposals you can probably catch the biggest mistake here - "etc." Yeah, whoops. Instead, it should have read something like this:
"Accepts search criteria in the following forms:
Additional search methods or alorgithms are outside the scope of this proposal and will be billed hourly."
This customer started expecting results for "PRT01 PRT02 PRT03" to return multiple products for the partial matches. Or "PRT1" to return the product "PRT01". They weren't familiar with the many different types of search methods and only knew how they searched. Marketpath should have done better discovery, scope definitions, and walked them through the possibilities and potential costs associated with each search method.
Another option is defining the feature as time and materials only. This was one of my biggest learning lessons related to poor expectations. We ended up losing that customer a short time later.
It's easier than ever to be transparent and build trust before you ever start talking with a prospect. Social media through Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook offer ways to not only educate your prospects, but show them who you really are. Blogging is another platform you can use to expose your real self. You'd better believe prospects are going to do some homework and digging before replying or reaching out to you.
Check out Buffer's transparency section on their about us page. This shows everything from revenue to salaries to their equity structure. You may not want to (or need to) go quite this far but you have to admire their attempt to be open.
Review sites also provide a way for you to be transparent. It's good practice to respond to both good and bad reviews. Your comments for good reviews reinforce the loyalty that the reviewer has with your brand. When you receive a bad review, respond quickly and empathize with the reviewer. Be polite and apologize even if they are wrong. Potential customers who read these bad reviews will run for the hills if they see snarky or negative comments from you. Be positive, show that you care, and built trust. Check out The Complete Guide to Negative Reviews and How to Build Trust.
Word travels fast and has greater impact than ever before, so take this moment to reevaulate how transparent and honest you are with your customers and prospects. Your longevity as a highly regarded company may just depend on it.
Matt Zentz launched Marketpath from a small Broad Ripple bungalow in February 2001 with a focus on custom web application development. He built the first, basic version of a hosted CMS called Webtools and shortly afterward expanded his team and created the first version of Marketpath CMS.
Matt has worked for a national consulting firm, taught computer programming to high school juniors and seniors , and led the information technology arm of the auxiliary business units at Indiana University.
Matt graduated from Indiana University in 1999 with a B.S. in Computer Science and has built custom web applications since 1995. Matt is husband to an amazing & supportive wife, has three beautiful children, and supreme master to Archimedes (Archie) the dog. He coaches various kid sports, enjoys building furniture, and plays guitar and piano. Matt is very active within his church community and several area not-for-profits.