The Ins (Clarity) – And Outs (Opacity) – Of Transparency With Customers


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It’s an easy, and very straightforward, statement to make that vendor transparency (and authenticity, sincerity, value creation, and honesty) with customers can build trust and a solid relationship. It’s also a straightforward statement that the absence, deficiency, or removal of transparency can undermine trust, confidence and relationships.

We’ve seen the positive side of transparency with how some of the leading customer experience-providing companies – like Uber, Zipcar, and Airbub – create trust with 18 to 24 year-olds, one of the toughest demographic groups. What these companies are doing can be considered part of what is becoming known as “the sharing economy”, in which customers become active partners in the delivery and communication of value. Younger customers are demanding transparency as a basic experience deliverable.

In the face of a society that has proven signficantly more cynical, and more wary, of corporate initiatives, it is frequently transparency that makes the difference between success and failure. Restaurants, for example, can make it easier for patrons, or potential patrons, by sharing details about things like menu item components. i.e. calories, carbs, and fiber and even simple things like operating hours on their web sites – – but it is surprising how few restaurant chains actually do this. Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, and McDonald’s don’t do it (provide operating hours), but both Outback Steakhouse and Starbucks do.

This small, almost inconsequential, element of value provision thoughtfulness and transparency speaks volumes to customers. It suggests a commitment to positive experience, and having a culture that supports both employees and customers.

The flip side of transparency and trust has also been in evidence, and in multiple industries. Many companies are purposely opaque, non-communicative, or non-inclusive with respect to customer-related plans; and this can cost them. Bank of America’s lack of transparency, openness, and consideration was on public display a few years ago when they decided to enact some stiff ATM fees without ever asking customers, or sharing their rationale for doing so. The result was a true loss of trust – and revenue ( Earlier this year, Intuit’s Quickbooks had to recant its uncommunicated additional tax prep software fees, causing customer loss as many small businesses complained of this lack of disclosure and transparency.

Transparency is one of those elements of value that creates a lasting memory and impacts downstream customer action. It transcends passive, reactive, tangible, and functional components of satisfaction. Because it is so deeply emotional in nature, it also transcends traditional thinking about customer retention and loyalty behavior.

One place that all consumers can see the positives associated with transparency in customer-vendor relationships, and the negatives inherent when it is not being practiced, is online postings, ratings and reviews. Millions and millions of Facebook members post brand-related comments everyday. Customer reviews and ratings cannot (or should not) be bought or incented; and they have the power to reveal where an enterprise has been open, honest, and proactive and where it has not. Companies are unable to hide from the user-driven ratings they get in sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, nor can they control them. Whether ratings are positive, mixed or negative, companies now understand that they are social media mirrors of the transparency involved in customer experience.

Another place where transparency is especially important is service and support – – and customers know it. Service transparency contributes to image and reputation. For instance, Comcast is known for poor, and cloistered, customer service (so much so that they have announced a major initiative to fix it), while Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and Amazon are known for excellent, proactive, and transparent customer service. Most companies, however, have inflexible service processes that don’t facilitate inside or outside transparency. They restrict accessibility and information, often isolating internal groups and having operational silos; and this impedes responsiveness as well as clarity for customers (and employees as well).

To have true stakeholder focus and transparency, enterprises should allow customers (and employees) to know as much about the company (and its plans, processes, products, services etc.) as possible. Just as companies want to know more and more about customer perceptions and behavior, it is reasonable for customers to expect the same of vendors. The reality, however, is that in most organizations there remains a substantial gap between the clarity that stakeholders desire to become advocates and the opacity that is being delivered.


  1. Hello Michael,

    For me, the interesting questions are:

    1. Why is it that almost all companies are not open-honest-transparent with their customers?

    2. Why is it that there is no transparency (where it really matters) within the organisation itself e.g. like not allowing employees to disclose their salaries or pay rises?

    It occurs to me that this is so because Tops and Middles have stuff to hide. Stuff that if it were disclosed may be detrimental like deliberate policies and practices to exploit customers, exploit employees, exploit suppliers / partners. And there may be concerns over competitors getting access to strategic plans.

    Take the latter: access to strategic plans. If someone wanted to get access to strategic plans of a competitor, it is not difficult: bribe someone on the inside, get a ‘spy’ on the payroll, set up a fake recruitment exercise for a senior exec, conduct surveillance….

    So what are we left with? Tops and Middles do not wish to make public that which would disclose real motives and practices: exploit folks for personal motive/profits…

    All the best

  2. Good points, Maz. I call this behavior “cloistering”, holding on to information or not being more inclusive about initiatives and processes in the belief that the content and policies are sacrosanct and financially valuable, and must be protected. This is sort of like the Dark Ages English barons protecting their castles from invading Celts and Vikings.

    Some companies are more progressive. At Levi Strauss, virtually all information about products, the business, and employees (except for salaries, bonuses, etc.) is openly available to all stakeholders.


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