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The Case for Sharing Company Secrets

There's one simple way to make your customers trust you: be open and honest with them from the start.
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My co-founder Bill Haney said recently, "In an age where you can look up the top nearby Indian restaurant on your phone, order at a fixed price, and have your food delivered within a half hour to your doorstep all without even talking to a live person, it's insane that for the largest expenditure most Americans make, our homes, we have so little ability to make the building process transparent." He means transparent in terms of cost (building on a fixed price), customization options, and building schedule.

Admittedly, Indian food is probably not life changing in the way a home purchase is (unless it's the Palak Paneer from Kabana in Berkeley, California). But in this day and age, why shouldn't customers expect the same kind of convenience, transparency—and delight!—when buying a home, which is arguably the most important purchase of their lives?

Today, everything can be looked-up, fact-checked, verified—anywhere, anytime. We're speeding into a world where nothing is hidden, and business will need to keep up. People want and expect as much transparency as possible. More and more, it is the companies that don't provide information up-front who stand out, creating headaches for the customer who is forced to do extensive research on their own to get what they are seeking.

But just as the owners of Kabana may be reluctant to provide the recipe for their Palak Paneer for fear of imitators, the idea of sharing proprietary information, partner pricing, and other sensitive material can understandably make business-owners uneasy. The good news is that even small changes to the amount of information you share with the public can make you feel like a more honest and approachable business, which can lead to big payoffs. Start with developing a friendlier, more accessible, and less corporate-feeling blog or customer conversations on social media channels. Or, on a bigger scale, you might find ways to more deeply involve your customer in the product-development process with online tools or more visible channels for input.

More and more, it is the companies that don't provide information up-front who stand out, creating headaches for the customer who is forced to do extensive research on their own to get what they are seeking.

One of my favorite recent examples of a company using innovative technology to this end, and thereby revolutionizing a traditional industry, is Virgin America. It has totally refreshed customers' flying experience by introducing Red, a new in-flight customer interface. Red lets passengers order whatever they want—food, drinks, movies, TV shows—at straightforward prices, with a "real-time" understanding of what is available, the ability to customize, and therefore the bonus of receiving your order more quickly and with less effort. With this, the company is responding to macro trends toward giving customers more control, transparency, and convenience. But this system also improves back-end operations for Virgin, reducing wasted time and providing a platform for future learning and improvement, thanks to the consumer data that can be collected through this tool.

The end result as a customer? Whenever possible, I choose this airline. I will pay more to fly in an environment where my first thought is: "What will I choose to order and watch via that cool, game-like screen?" (Rather than, say, "How can I fit two suitcases worth of stuff into this tiny carry-on to avoid paying $30 for checked luggage?"). In other words, I am made to feel like I have some element of control in an industry that famously makes the consumer feel powerless. Transparency does not need to mean full disclosure. It should mean giving customers a feeling of involvement.

With home-building (also famously opaque, traditional, and unpredictable), we've tried to take a similar approach. At Blu Homes, we use a consumer interface called the Blu Configurator that aims to make the up-front client experience much more convenient, satisfying, and transparent. But just as with Virgin, what makes this so valuable is that this tool not only functions to give the client control and a feeling of being involved in the process, it also makes that process far more efficient for us. In turn, it results in lower selling costs and a more convenient shopping experience for the customer. We think this is a true win-win.

Make no mistake: this transparency thing can be a little daunting. For us, up-front publishing of fixed costs is particularly scary, as commodity prices are in constant flux. The result: we manage our back-end very carefully. But the rewards far outweigh initial concerns, because customers come to know us—and talk to others about us—as a company that is open and honest from the start. Clients tell us time and again that they are thrilled to see prices right there on the screen. A willingness to be completely forthcoming can establish strong relationships of trust with potential customers, and has proven in many cases to be the key differentiator when they are choosing between companies that offer similar products or services.

For you, bringing transparency to your business might mean starting out with a very small window into the processes or technologies your business uses. It might mean making a little less work for your potential customer by adding more in-depth information to your website. Regardless, at a time when consumers are increasingly looking for more control, and open, easy access to information, it's worth taking the plunge…or at least dipping a toe in.

Last updated: Feb 6, 2012

MAURA MCCARTHY | Columnist | Co-founder, Blu Homes

Maura McCarthy had been a venture capital investor at Ironwood Equity when she co-founded Blu Homes. She is a board member of The Capital Network, and is part of the U.S. Green Building Council and the Renewable Energy Business Network.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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