Transparent Juvenile Octopus, Credit: Fabien Michenet

Radical Transparency and Customer Relationships

Part three is dedicated to my past customers and vendors for whom I’ve been a customer. You are all incredible in your own way and I appreciate all the lessons I have learned, for without those experiences, I would not be where I am today. I am excited to bring us to the end of our short journey through radical transparency, where we will discuss those sacred external business relationships. I most easily equate these as customer/vendor relationships, but this could be someone with whom you interact and isn’t in your regular ecosystem. This includes relationships with the contractor renovating your house, the customer for whom you consult, or even the barista at your local coffee shop. Part three of radical transparency is about these relationships that can make or break a business, under the right circumstances.

You don’t need to look very far to find examples where broken trust destroys business relationships. Only two years ago, former CEO of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn said the company “had broken the trust of our customers and the public.” In January of this year, this breach in trust ended up costing the company $4.3 billion dollars in fines. Productive business relationships easily transition from true partnerships to “us vs. them” scenarios because trust erodes over time or disappears instantaneously. As with personal relationships, trust is equally important in business relationships. From the daycare provider you trust with your children’s safety to the software vendor from whom you just purchased services to manage your most valuable data.

As I’ve demonstrated in Part 1 and Part 2 of the Radical Transparency Series, trust and transparency are paramount. This includes the ugly truths and uncomfortable conversations that could perceivably create a disadvantage. However, if we truly want to become trusted advisers and real partners, there is no other way. There is a lot of merit to the old adage “the truth shall set you free.” In an article posted on Entrepreneur.com by Jayson Demers, Founder and CEO of Audience Bloom agrees and says “if [customers] feel that you aren’t being honest or straightforward, they’ll question your value and withdraw their patronage.” We know this in our core, but often take it for granted when we pass through our office doors, and further evidence why now is always the right time for radical transparency.

I’ve been in Services a long time and on the vendor delivery side for more than half my career. That is a pretty long time to be the one responsible for building trust and creating a trusted adviser relationship. That doesn’t mean customers don’t have ownership in building trust too, but the onus falls on me to start building bridges, because I am the one demonstrating my value across every renewal cycle. My favorite construction tool is radical transparency.

So what does radical transparency look like in the customer/vendor relationship? A few years ago, I had an engagement with a fantastic team. We had a great team dynamic and everyone worked really well together. We had a junior developer on the team that was wonderful to work with and everyone loved him, but he wasn’t terribly experienced. This particular engagement was extremely complex and I found myself at a crossroads when we encountered our biggest hurdle. I knew if I took the time to train my junior developer to solve our most recent challenge, I would run over-budget, miss time lines and run the greater risk of not getting the work done right. According to my Sales team, if I disclosed my concerns, I ran an even greater risk at putting us at a contracting disadvantage and potentially negatively impacting future opportunities. Others would even argue that I owed it to train and and grow my junior developer, in that moment, but I had a choice to make: I could bring in a Senior Developer to complete the project or let the junior developer complete the work and run the risk it would not be done right. I certainly didn’t have the time to do it twice, so I had to do it right. I couldn’t make this decision alone, though. I felt I had started building great relationships with the customer, so I went directly to them with my problem. I explained how much I knew they loved working with “Joe,” but he wasn’t ready for the particular problem we had to solve, and their success was my first priority. I proposed replacing Joe with a more Senior resource to bring the project home. I laid out all the reasons why, including that I felt this was in their best interests, even if it wasn’t ideal. As I expected, they weren’t happy with the entire situation, on top of losing someone with whom they enjoyed working, but they were more appreciative that I was honest with them about the change and why it was necessary. While uncomfortable in the moment, it turned out to be a very good decision and resulted in multiple future service engagements. Even the Sales team couldn’t argue the positive impacts of radical transparency.

Let’s shift to something a little closer to home, but still in the customer/vendor space. I don’t know about you, but I have a built-in distrust for home contractors. Blame it on too many news segments about cheating contractors or reruns of Holmes on Homes, but my expectation of contractors is anything but radical transparency. When my husband and I started shopping for our own home contractor, this was my initial reaction. When we finally selected our contractor, we were radically transparent about our trepidation based on past experiences, and why we wanted everything in writing. To our surprise, he completely understood our perspective and it wasn’t the first time he had heard such things, as he had a long history of cleaning up other contractors’ messes. As our work progressed, he provided regular updates about challenges he faced and timeline risks. He was consistently up-front about potential cost overruns and options, along with frequent dialog about changes we requested. It was through our shared radical transparency, this became our best contractor experience, to date. He may not have been the cheapest, but he was the best, and much of that was due to the mutual radical transparency we shared. We never once regretted paying more and even took him repeat business, as a result of the trust we built. By the way, if you ever need a contractor in the DC Metro area, I got a guy.

No matter what type of business relationship you are in, you can benefit from radical transparency. When we remove obstacles to communication and escape our own assumptions, we free ourselves to build trust and highly productive work relationships. In part 1, we talked about how radical transparency can benefit your personal relationships. In part 2, we talked about how you can improve your at-work relationships and now, it should be clear how to leverage radical transparency to improve your customer relationships, whether you are the customer, or serving your own customers.

Never underestimate the power of radical transparency in every interaction. I wish you all the best in every relationship you encounter, whether it is with your partner or the local yard service provider. Whatever the space, ask yourself if you are being radically transparent and if you would value the interaction, if you were the information receiver. Help me keep the conversation going in the comments and share how you have been radically transparent. If you enjoyed this series, please leave your feedback, so I can keep the content coming.

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