(this is a repost of a post written by me for the MENG Blend.)

We hear about transparency every day. We are told that, in a world where everything is exposed in media (mostly social media), it’s far better to be transparent than to try to hide blemishes, problems and defects in the hope that they’ll go away or, at least, not be discovered until we fix them. Marketing blogs and publications are filled with disaster stories about companies that have chosen not to be transparent, and success stories of companies that have chosen transparency.

But just like in our personal lives, we have to choose the right level of transparency, and we have to choose the topics on which we will be transparent.

Here’s a great example:

In November, I wrote about Buffer, a tech start-up that put transparency on top of their values list. Not only do they talk about nearly everything internally (including personal goals, such as education and weight-loss), but they publish many of their results, such as their customer success metrics, externally for the world to see.

Since then, they have become even more transparent, releasing more and more information publicly. Two of the ways they have done this have produced very different outcomes. Let’s take a closer look.

A Transparency Tempest in a Teapot

In December, Buffer decided to make public all the salaries of all their employees, including the formulas they use to determine these salaries.

This produced a small tempest in social media: Some praised their transparency, and others chided them for releasing personal information about their employees, or for creating potential envy and dissatisfaction in their ranks.

The question I asked was this: How does this disclosure benefit the customer (or any other constituent)? The answer is simple: It doesn’t. Granted, it does no harm, but it adds no benefit either.

This is a case of transparency for transparency’s sake. Some have made the argument that disclosing this information is consistent with Buffer’s culture, so it enhances their reputation and brand. I disagree. Disclosure is a choice, and we can always find something they are not telling us (they can’t possibly think of everything!), and this choice does not add value to the most important audience of all: their customers.

A Slippery Slope

Buffer’s chief happiness officer, Carolyn Kopprasch, also publishes a monthly report on their customer success efforts. One element of this report shows how quickly Buffer responds to customer inquiries, tech-support requests and the like (they state that 85% of requests are answered in less than six hours, though they’re not quite there yet).

This does add some value to their customers (including me) in that it shows what I can expect in terms of response to my requests, as well as how well they are doing with all the issues brought to them.

To be clear, I think this disclosure is useful and valuable. But it also creates a potentially slippery slope.

Not long ago, I sent in a tech-support request and waited four days for a response. This is not typical of Buffer support nor of my experience. It left me asking about the distribution of response times. Specifically, Buffer publishes the percentage of responses in one and six hours, but how often does it take a day? Two day? Four days? Was my response in the bottom 10%? 1%? 0.001%?

Which then led to the logical next question: Since we know not all requests are of equal importance or urgency, and Buffer’s resources are limited, how do they make the triage decisions as to which requests get one-hour response times and which get four-day response times?

You can keep going, asking more and more logical questions until their entire operational plan is public.

Let’s say that Buffer chose to disclose the entire response-time distribution and the triage criteria. Where would that lead?

In our interview, Carolyn noted that most customer service and support organizations train customers to get angry. Customers learn that getting angry leads either to faster resolution or to a supervisor who has the power to resolve an issue. This is a version of gaming the system.

Buffer’s disclosure of the triage criteria most likely would cause its customers to game the system. If I knew the criteria, I would certainly try to adjust my request to get a higher position in the queue and get a faster response.

Clearly this doesn’t help Buffer or its customers; it only adds to animosity and frustration.

Let’s say they only disclosed the distribution of response times. That would create frustration on the part of customers who were in the bottom 10%, or worse, the bottom 1%. My assuming my request fell at the bottom is not nearly as bad for my relationship with Buffer as having them tell me exactly how unimportant they deemed me. We are all better off if I don’t know.

This is, then, a choice Buffer has made about how much information to disclose and where to stop disclosure. I think they have made a good choice, in that what they disclose helps customers understand their efforts better without taking away from the relationship and adding to frustration.

Is this two-faced? Yes. But not in a detrimental way.

Buffer values transparency on one hand and says it will keep increasing transparency. But it also makes choices about just how much disclosure meets their transparency value. Being transparent is an aspiration. We have yet to find out how far Buffer will go.

We expect transparency from companies. But we also expect there are boundaries, just like there are in our personal lives.

How do You Decide?

You make decisions every day on what to disclose to whom. Do we tell our customers this fact? Do we tell the world that policy?

How should you decide?

I propose there is one simple standard, embodied in these two questions: Does the disclosure add value? And if so, to whom? If it adds value for your customer, disclose.

Tell us how you’ve made your difficult disclosure decisions in the comments.

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