To be proactively trustworthy, a company must facilitate customers' sharing their honest opinions with other customers.
The key to life is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made. -W. C. Fields
Here's a kind of "self-assessment" question that we often ask of audiences we address, along with clients and potential clients for our company's consulting services: Do you allow customers to make comments about your products and services on your own website, for other customers and prospective customers to see?
We've now asked this question of enough audiences around the world to know that the overwhelming majority of senior executives still tremble with fear at the very idea. We even put this question to a forward-thinking crowd of several hundred gathered for a "social media" conference, and fewer than a dozen hands went up. At a conference on social media!
Hosting product reviews written by customers on your own website may be one of the most significant steps you can take to demonstrate trustability, and yet only a minority of companies actually do. We predict, however, that in just a few years virtually every legitimate firm in any kind of business anywhere in the world will, as a matter of routine, make customer-authored product reviews widely available for the benefit of other customers and prospects. It will be one of the most essential activities any firm can undertake to build up its stock of trustability in the minds of customers.
To be proactively trustworthy, a company must facilitate customers' sharing their honest opinions with other customers about the problems they are trying to solve or the needs they are meeting, and this honest sharing will include, of necessity, the role that the company's own products and services play.
In the pre-Internet world, of course, customer reviews were rare. Customers had no electronically efficient capability to "talk back" to marketers or share their views with other customers. You couldn't just use your mobile phone to broadcast your customer experience to your tweets (i.e. Twitter followers) or Facebook friends. As a result there was no efficient way to enforce trustworthiness or to punish those who couldn't be trusted. When customers are technologically unable to spread the word about untrustworthy behavior, the control freaks responsible for managing a brand never get punished, never get corrected, never even face serious questioning--at least not by their customers, and not in public view.
This doesn't mean that companies weren't concerned with their reputations, because they were. Companies have always spent money and effort to ensure that their well-crafted brand images spoke of integrity, authenticity, honesty, and respect. But in the final analysis, before customers were empowered with social media, companies' brand images were still largely under their own control. Like W. C. Fields figuring out how to fake sincerity, in the pre-social age traditional marketing didn't have to be trustworthy; it merely had to appear trustworthy.
Executives have lots of perfectly logical reasons to fear making their customers' actual opinions freely available, and we've all heard the excuses. What if a customer has a complaint and goes public with it, right on our own website? Or what if a customer just doesn't like the product? Or what if (gasp!) a competitor masquerades as a customer and runs our product down?
But these are all just excuses, and most of them can be easily dealt with. For one thing, it isn't hard to design your review pages in a manner that effectively filters out competitors, and even if a competitor does actually get through, he is risking his own reputation in the age of transparency. As for complaints from customers, don't you want to be seen listening to problems and helping distressed customers? Wouldn't you like your other customers and prospects to see you honestly addressing any issues with your product or service, to the best of your ability? No one expects any business to be perfectly free of mistakes and errors, and when a brand maintains that it is "perfect in every way" it is actually undermining its own credibility. It's an absurd position to take.
The reality is that truth is more persuasive than spin, and this is one of the secret advantages of allowing customers to be honest in their opinions with other customers. The numbers show that glowing reviews, in isolation, just don't sell as well as mixed reviews. Really. Overall, consumers' online ratings of products and services average around 4.5 on a 5-point scale. However, a negative review on a website actually has a higher correlation to a sale than a positive one!
As intriguing as this statistic is, it isn't actually so hard to understand. Do you remember the last time you went online to evaluate a product or service by scanning its reviews? Maybe you wanted to see what people were saying about a particular hotel or vacation package, or maybe it was a new car, or a video game, or a set of golf clubs. And when you navigate to a site where 100 percent of the reviews are composed of peachy-keen, five-star glowing praises--what's your reaction? Do you really believe these terrific reviews, or doesn't this imbalance create a suspicion in your mind?
If you put yourself in the shoes of a prospect for just a moment, you'll see how powerful the voices of your customers can be. Honest, balanced feedback from other customers can make the difference between a cynical click away to a competitor's site and an engaged click for more information or a purchase on your own site.
Excerpted with permission from Peppers & Rogers' new book, Extreme Trust: Honesty as a Competitive Advantage.