Transparency is a word many businesses have latched onto. Companies use the promise of running a transparent operation to present an inviting brand to stakeholders, customers and employees.
There’s just one problem: too many of these companies say one thing but do another, which is the polar opposite of transparency.
WSI Transparency Blog
But let’s back up and clear the air. The notion of operating a business with complete transparency isn’t a pipe dream. There are businesses that have achieved success with a candid and sincere culture, and it’s these brands that have spurred others to follow in their footsteps.
Moz, a marketing software company, has transparency built right into their core values. And Moz’s founder and former CEO, Rand Fishkin, is a zealous supporter of transparency; look no further than this soul-baring post for evidence Rand doesn’t just talk about transparency – he lives it.
McDonald’s Canada’s “Our Food. Yours Questions.” microsite is another great example of a brand taking direct action to become more open and honest with its customers. Creating a forum for customers to ask questions like, “Why are your burgers so high in calories, fat and sodium if they are 100% beef?” is risking the loss of those same customers. But McDonald’s Canada answered the question honestly:
“We’re proud of our food and believe it can be part of a balanced diet. We encourage moderation and are committed to helping Canadians make informed dining choices by providing nutrition information about our products. You can find full nutrition information in our restaurants and by visiting our Nutrition Calculator.
We definitely do use 100% Canadian beef. But calories, fat and sodium can also come from the additional ingredients that make up an entire sandwich. (For example, a Big Mac comes with cheese and Big Mac Sauce.) If you’re concerned about calorie, fat and sodium intake, you can customize your burger by holding the cheese and/or sauce. Also, because we season our hamburger patties with salt and pepper after they’ve been cooked, you can ask the crew to hold the salt.
McDonald’s Canada even answered questions about that “pink slime” chicken nuggets legend (note: the nuggets aren’t made of pink slime but get this – you shouldn’t eat them every day). Risky? Maybe, but it was also a risk having people continually talk about McDonald’s nuggets that are made out of pink slime, so at a certain point addressing it became necessary.

Is Transparency Optional?

When you stop and think about what McDonald’s Canada did by answering questions about their food, it makes you wonder why they deserve credit for it. If I’m going to be eating their food, don’t I have a right to know what I’m putting into my body? You’d think this would be a rule, but true transparency is so rare it feels refreshing when a big brand embraces it.
This notion is just wrong: transparency shouldn’t be optional – it’s something that consumers should demand from the businesses they purchase from. And if transparency becomes the standard, then we’ll no longer be praising companies for simply telling their customers the truth.

How and Why Brands Fail at Being Honest

Ah, finally to the meat and potatoes of this post: the example.
There are two things companies do to their customers and employees that no longer work as well as they did once upon a time. The first way companies fail at being honest is they don’t respect the intelligence of their customers. And the second way companies deceive their audience is when they “spin” anything that might be perceived as negative.
I’ve got news for these old school ideas: customers are smarter than they’ve ever been, and mistakes happen. Why do companies try to spin their mistakes into positives, shirk the blame and responsibility when things go wrong, or tout bad news (such as price increases or extra charges) like they’re good for customers?
I recently had an experience that exemplifies how brands that operate in the digital space fail to be honest and transparent with their customers.

Oh, You Didn’t Read the Small Print?

I want to tell you about an experience I had with a company called Displate, an eCommerce outfit that sells small framed prints perfect for hanging on walls. I visited the site and immediately found some glorious movie prints that would look great in an office or a basement TV room. How can you not love this?
But you know what? I’ll never buy anything from Displate again, because they pulled the old, “Oh yeah, that important information you needed to know is on our terms and conditions page” trick.
In 2016. They told me I should’ve read the fine print. Incredible. I thought that was an ancient Jedi mind-trick or something.
Anyways, here’s what happened. After adding a couple of Displates to my cart, I confirmed my final total plus shipping fees and completed the purchase. I’m thinking, now all I have to do is wait for my framed prints to come and then hang them on my wall. But I was wrong.
When my parcel arrived, I had to pay a $90 fee to accept the package from the shipping company (duty charges, they said). If Displate had been honest about the fact that I might have to pay third party charges to accept their product, I would’ve been fine with it. But they didn’t. Displate blindsided me with fees that were 30% of the total price I paid for my products plus the shipping.
When I contacted Displate to complain about the surprise duty charges, they directed me to their Terms of Use page, where the relevant section reads:
The Products are delivered by courier or to a package machine indicated by the User. Any additional costs, including in particular the costs of delivery will be explicitly indicated at the time of placing an order.
The bolded section is clear, correct? No more charges. Except they then rattle of a list of 41 countries they ship to – probably in hopes you stop reading – before ending the long paragraph with a sentence that contradicts the opening statement:
Depending on the destination, there is a possibility of an additional duty fee. Its amount depends on a specific country’s regulations. Any costs related to customs duties shall be paid by the buyer.
Everybody knows what Displate is doing here: they’re covering their butts. None of the information on the Terms of Use page is present at checkout, nor is there any easy way to navigate to it. You’ll only arrive at the Terms of use page if you complain about something and Displate throws their hands up in there air and says, “But we told you!”
It’s a shame, because Displate has cool products; but they care more about selling these products than they do about being honest with their customers. Displate must be unaware that 75% of people said they would be unlikely or highly unlikely to buy from a digital retailer after a poor customer experience.

The Struggle for Transparency is Real

The struggle for transparency is real, especially in the digital world. I understand the reason Displate chooses not to be forthcoming with the information about duty charges: they believe customers will abandon their purchases if they know about the fees. And while some customers may balk at extra fees, Displate’s feigned ignorance of any such charges is a troubling sign for the future.
Running a company with total transparency is difficult, but I urge business owners, employees and customers to deliver open and honest experiences. There’s a great post over on the Buffer blog that outlines why the best time for transparency is when it’s the hardest – it’s worth the read if transparency is important to you. As for me, I believe an open and honest approach to business is the best way to achieve sustainable success in a world where transparency is becoming more difficult by the day.