Transparency is a word that has come up in several of my conversations with clients in the past week. I’m also reading Dan Ariely’s book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, so questions of honesty and disclosure are really on the brain right now.
Whenever I’m writing for a company, one of the first things I do is ask: “What makes you stand out in the marketplace?” I’m trying to gather their differentiating factors. Sometimes these things are extremely tangible and quantifiable (oldest/largest/first/most/safest). Other times, they are less tangible or quantifiable with numbers, but every bit as important.
In the past week, I’ve spoken with stakeholders from two organizations that are clients—one a hospital and the other a wellness-related company—and both count transparency among their differentiators. On one hand, it’s striking that the idea of simply being honest can differentiate an organization. On the other hand, honesty is—in the words of Billy Joel—“hardly ever heard.” Plus, transparency is more than just honesty, isn’t it?
Honesty is kind of passive. If you ask me, “Judi, did you buy that bag of pretzels at Kroger?” and I tell you no, when in fact I did buy the bag of pretzels at Kroger, I haven’t been honest with you.
Transparency takes that a step further—as in, I don’t wait to be asked if I bought the bag of pretzels at Kroger because I recognize that in the climate I’m operating in, it will really help people to know upfront that I bought that bag of pretzels at Kroger. So I am going to preemptively tell them. Not only will I tell them, I will make available all of my pretzel-related receipts from the last five years.
Who the hell cares about pretzels, I know! The point is, telling the specific truth when specifically asked isn’t the same as opening the entire book, before anyone even asks you anything.
At the same time, not everything needs to be (or should be) shared. For example, I don’t want to show you all of my text messages (pretzel-related or otherwise). Even if it wasn’t a matter of potentially exposing proprietary information about clients (since I often text with them), I just don’t want you to see that I’m a judgmental louse sometimes.
So when should companies and service providers be transparent? The answer obviously isn’t “always.” But it also shouldn’t be “only when it’s convenient.” For transparency to matter, it can’t just be because you’re exceedingly proud of whatever it is you’re disclosing. You have to have some skin in the game in revealing what you are revealing—to know that what you are saying may cause someone to choose the other vendor, maybe because you have a conflict of interest, or because now that someone knows your price, they can price shop.
It’s not that transparency has to hurt. But I don’t think it should necessarily be painless either. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it.