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Are You Feeding Your Customers a Line of Bull?
Ensuring an Authentic Company Voice
from Ivy Sea Online


The CEO says: "Customers won’t stand for it! Or will they?"

The Marketing VP retorts: "It depends on who you consider our top priority customers — the people who purchase our products or our shareholders."

Can you imagine a CEO having this conversation with his leadership team? Maybe not in those exact words, and yet evidence abounds of companies creating authenticity gaps between the words they spew and the actions they do. Being authentic does, after all, mean being real or genuine. Lest you think we’re becoming cynical, consider these real-world scenarios:

There’s a publicized business strategy called the prosumer model — a trend of enlisting consumers as prosumers — wherein a company will intentionally cut costs by delegating to customers work that employees used to do. One example is the company that knowingly sends an imperfect product to market for beta testing — fully intending that their paying-customers will find bugs in the product and alert the company. In the worst-case scenario, the company fixes the bugs and requires customers to buy the product upgrade. Is it a company’s prerogative to practice business this way? Yes. Is it authentic, not to mention ethical, to hide this practice from customers behind a wall of caring rhetoric? No.

In another example of the prosumer model, many technology companies require customers to pay a product maintenance fee, giving the customers access to individualized telephone tech support. However, the industry norm now dictates that customers go online to search a database for generalized tech support. Customers still pay the maintenance fee and have to pay an additional fee to get telephone support. Where’s the break in authenticity? The customer service functions have been renamed Customer Care. Does the type of service offered really demonstrate caring, or is the purpose of the name simply to foster the illusion of care to attract or mollify customers?

How about companies that merge or reorganize, and distribute communications saying that the merger creates new opportunities and that all efforts will be made to avoid layoffs, all while planning employee layoffs to "reduce redundancy"? Again, the company leaders have the right and responsibility to set priorities and make decisions to meet bottom line goals, but can they call themselves and their companies authentic, honest or ethical while their rhetoric and actions are out of sync? No. To be authentic, such companies would have to be open about their true top priorities and intentions.

And what of the large retailer, long-identified with a customer service approach modeled by others, that now routinely has long wait times for telephone customer service while greeting callers with, "Due to an overwhelming response to our recent catalogue, we're experiencing unusually long wait times."? Is the now routinely long wait time consistent with the misleading automated telephone greeting that suggests otherwise? No. So the communication is untrue, and thus not authentic.

These examples are only slivers of a business norm that many people might describe as unethical, fraudulent or inauthentic, given the gaps between public relations spin and behavior. How? The spin doesn't seem to translate to organizational decision-making and behavior, primarily because its purpose is to positively affect stock prices and consumer behavior, even when some individuals in the organization are aware of the gap. Such chasms between the illusions spun and reality experienced mislead customers and increase both customer and employee cynicism. Hardly the behavior of an ethical, mindful, community responsible or authentic business. And since businesses are populated by human beings making and implementing decisions, the people of the organization are neck deep in the ethics and authenticity quagmire.

What perpetuates such gaps? One solidly researched possibility is that a sole focus on maximizing shareholder value requires both ruthless cost-cutting and strong sales and/or profit margins, which in turn require an aggressive marketing and public relations campaign that hits the right psychological buttons in the consumers' (and employees') minds. Successful spin generates consumer and employee behavior that helps make higher investor returns more likely. On many occasions, telling the truth probably wouldn't have the same result, given some companies' intended and actual behavior or post-MBA'd product quality. (Come on, you've noticed products that have gotten smaller, thinner, lesser, etc. while getting more expensive? Just think of toaster tarts, plastic garbage bags or women's hosiery.)

Unfortunately, if a company aims to increase sales, satisfy shareholders, provide the best service in the industry, ensure top-flight quality and treat employees respectfully, its leaders will have to reconcile the fact that shareholders want greater profits and truly outstanding services and products require a greater investment. And that’s just one of the incongruencies to address. As Abe Lincoln said, "You can’t please all of the people all of time." But you can choose to get a little closer to the truth in your communication, and you can opt not to misrepresent what you're selling or why.

To whom does authenticity matter?

Creating an ethical, authentic company has nothing to do with saving the environment, eradicating hunger or sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya. Authenticity stems from an honest assessment of why the business exists, what the priorities of the business are, and communicating that consistently, both within the company and externally. Trying to fit into a perceived social norm or trend (such as the new wave of interest in spirituality in the workplace) is the exact opposite of authenticity, unless your organizational behavior demonstrates the rhetoric. To paraphrase Alfred Adler, it's a lot easier to talk about your principles than it is to live them.

While it’s tough in any arena to go against the grain, and we're far from unsympathetic regarding the difficulties company leaders and employees face, here are a few of the possibilities companies of all sizes can realize from being authentic:

Attracting and retaining employees who agree with and will work toward the organizational mission. With multiple "authentic selves" aligned toward an individual rather than a common mission, a company appeals to an unfocused employee pool, blurring the direction of the company.

Reducing the media back-pedaling common among company leaders caught saying one thing and doing another. 

Streamlining the business, with all members focused on the same goal (like a school of fish), rather than competing against each other for the same piece of the ocean.

A healthier allotment of resources — leading to reduced spending — because there’s minimal, if any, need to split resources between various initiatives to please multiple audiences.

Scoring high on the authenticity meter

Eradicating inauthentic behavior isn’t possible in one article, through one person or business, or perhaps in a single year or decade. However, when executed mindfully, and from a genuine desire to be authentic, each person can contribute to a critical mass that does ultimately effect change. Just think of the effect of the public's desire that companies not decimate the environment or communities. (A few positive results: a whole slew of products that are more environmentally safe and greater community investment efforts.) Here are some starting points for you to use and share with others to examine how authentic your company is, and why you might consider upping the ante on the benefits you’ll reap from leading an increasingly authentic organization. Remember, you can start small, but do start somewhere!

Things you can do as a business

Conduct sincere visioning — Escape from visioning exercises that result in distilled, uninspiring mission statements whose sole purpose is wall decoration. Dig deep within to discuss, design and agree upon a company vision that is authentic to your business and consistent with behavior for  which you're willing to invest, demonstrate and reap (or suffer) the consequences. If your business priority is to increase shareholder return, ensure that the vision doesn’t mask this intention with statements that are perceived to be more touchy-feely or socially responsible. Just say it like it is: "Shareholder profit is our top priority, and we'll do whatever it takes, including laying people off and finding ways to make our products more cheaply, to ensure that end." Harsh, no doubt, but accurate if  that's truly your priority. We'll tackle the Karma or "reap what you sow" issue in another article.

Question existing practices — Think of this as a company judgement day. When all is said and done, what current practices don’t mesh with the company’s authentic vision or purpose? (Be honest, we won’t tell anyone.) After assessing mismatched actions, ensure you develop a plan that eradicates the incongruencies. Additionally, require project leaders to show how their initiative is aligned with the company’s authentic voice and reality.

Communicate it — Your company is only as authentic as its members. If your employees aren’t aware of the company’s authentic self, you’ll never be fully authentic. Share it with them, and ensure they know exactly what it means and how to act in a manner consistent with it. If you know that the company's priorities, intentions and reality differ from what you communicate, then you shouldn't be surprised at results such as cynicism, complaints, reduced morale and productivity, or defection.

Involve employee and customer input and feedback — Who better to examine and comment on the company’s authenticity than the people who interact with it every day? Leaders and middle managers often have more of a bird’s-eye view of the company, because they're not on the front lines of consumer interaction, which can hinder them from seeing the details of the landscape (which are the interactions that define the company). So getting a good dose of feedback can provide an excellent reality (and sometimes morality) check. Once you know how you're experienced, you can assess your options and make decisions to continue as is or modify your behavior, as appropriate.

Things you can do as a customer 

Question incongruencies — Customers are what keep companies in business, period. Without customers, and employees, most if not all businesses wouldn't exist. A business exists because of its customers. Use this influence to discover why your vendor is saying one thing and doing another. If you don't get satisfaction from the person with whom you're speaking, keep asking for the person's supervisor, even if you end up talking to the chief executive of the company. After all, if it wasn't for you and your fellow consumers, he wouldn't be getting that hefty paycheck.

Realize the power of selecting another vendor — If you find conflicting messages from your vendor unaligned with your company’s (or your) authentic self, switch vendors. If you feel there's no other vendor, explore whether the product is really necessary enough to your happiness to suffer the disrespect inherent in the shoddy service or quality. Vote with your decisions and your wallet.

Voice your opinion — Let your vendor know how you perceive their marketing jargon in relation to their action, and what you’ll do about it. Many will continue cutting corners unless there’s an adverse, and more expensive, reaction. If you don't have success, investigate consumer advocacy or regulatory organizations, such as the Better Business Bureau, Department of Commerce or special issue associations, and share your experience with them. See how joining forces with others might give you the power that greater numbers provide. Even if you can't change your immediate experience, you might be able to prevent such things from happening to others (and yourself) again.

Be mindful of your own role — If working with an authentic, or ethical, company is important to you, you’ll spell out mutual conditions and expectations before entering the relationship. You'll also reflect on whether there's a gap between the company's public relations messages and its actions, and understand that your work helps foster this gap. If that's not something you feel good about, find other employment.

Make it a policy in your company — Grant all employees the flexibility to choose a vendor that displays the authentic behavior you expect. (Of course, training and communicating how to do this is key!) 

Remember, this information is food-for-thought, not customized counsel. The most  effective interpersonal and organizational communication program is one that's been  tailored to meet the unique needs of your group. If you have questions, connect with a communication advisor or e-mail us at info@Ivy Sea Online for suggestions.


The Author


This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission. Ivy Sea Online is an outstanding source of insightful and inspiring articles on leadership and communications - "visionary resources for mindful business." (ed.)

Many more articles in Authenticity in The CEO Refresher Archives
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