I often wonder if a business would be more efficient if it were run by children. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out. Little kids may not be well-versed in complicated business things like accounting practices, inventory control, and supply chains (although I’m not sure these things even have to be complicated, but that’s for a different article!), but the thing that kids have over adults is their ability to be transparent.
Kids, especially when they’re young, have no concept of hiding their true selves or true feelings. They say what is on their minds, and sometimes loudly. I remember having a birthday party when I turned four, and I remember it so clearly because it was the only time I had ever been sent to my room during my birthday party. What did I do? I told the truth, and maybe a little too well.
My friend handed me a gift. I opened it. It was a book. I smiled and hugged her, then shouted, “this is one of my favorites! I can’t wait to put it next to my other copy! Look mom, now I have two!”
My mother explained to me that it’s rude to point out to a gift-giver that you already have what they gave you. My response to her was that I thought it was rude to lie.
That’s how I learned that people sometimes lie to be polite.
Be Honest, Be Genuine
In business, people fudge and obfuscate the truth for all sorts of reasons, not all of which are sinister. Companies go to great lengths to protect their assets, including intellectual property, proprietary business practices, and other things, both tangible and not. It makes sense to be protective of your company’s valuables, and being secretive is not a bad thing in this case.
While I would never suggest that you need to put your business’s proprietary information on public display, I do think that a certain level of transparency—being who you really are and showing your true thoughts and motives—is the key to building trust.
You Don’t Have All the Answers
As business owners, we all want to demonstrate our expertise. We want our customers and clients to trust us and to feel like they’re in good hands. Showing confidence and being able to field tough questions is part of the job. However, there is a fine line between positioning yourself as an expert and being afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
In 2012, I was hit with a scary illness that was not easily identifiable. The symptoms, while severe, were pretty vague, and while any one of a huge range of illnesses could have explained what was going on, no doctor could find a perfect fit. I spent a month in the hospital while doctors tested a few theories and tried a couple different treatment methods. Some interventions seemed to help a little, but most made things worse.
After nearly three weeks, I was hardly better off than when I was first admitted. I was deemed “safe to go home,” but no one could say that I was “well.” The doctors had simply decided that when their handful of theories didn’t pan out, the only reasonable explanation for my continuing symptoms was that I was making them up.
People get angry when they hear about my experience, but the sad truth is that this kind of thing happens all the time. The doctors were trying to demonstrate their expertise by confidently saying, “Look, it’s one of these three things. Anything beyond these three things would be a one-in-a-million situation.” They were trying to build trust with me as their patient, and with my family and friends who were freaked out by my condition and lack of improvement.
Almost two years and five additional specialists later, I got not only the correct diagnosis, but I also got a cure. How? I finally came across a doctor who took a look at me, then my file, and said, “I’m going to be honest with you. I have no idea what’s going on here. All I know is that you shouldn’t be this sick, and somehow, everyone has missed something.”
He was the first person to admit that he didn’t have an answer. He didn’t even have a guess, and I trusted him with my life because of it. This enabled him to go back to the beginning and run tests again. In fact, with his mind open to any possibility, he even tested for things that didn’t make conventional sense—just to make sure all the bases were covered.
One $6 blood test later, I had my answer. I was not just one in a million. I was one in ten million. The culprit was a disease that has been eradicated in the United States, so no one thought to test for it. As a bonus, the treatment for it was extremely simple.
My point is that admitting you don’t know the answer can be very scary. By doing it, you run the risk of calling your expertise into question. The much larger upside is that it shows that you are human and open to creative possibilities, and that’s where some of the best answers lie.
Thinning the Herd
The other big fear that comes up when deciding to be transparent and honest is an understandable one, especially in business. What if by being yourself and by allowing your personality and motivations to shine through, you end up turning people off? What if people don’t like you? No one wants to set out to lose customers!
Being a jerk on purpose probably would cause you to lose customers, and that would be stupid. That’s not what I’m suggesting. I am simply saying that there is no sure-fire way to predict how people will react to certain things and that it is impossible to please everyone all of the time. No matter what you do or how carefully you guard yourself, you will turn some people off.
A lot of experts think that’s actually a good thing. A group of our colleagues who run a successful publishing house calls it “thinning the herd.” They love any gaining of new readers for their fiction titles, but what they are really after is “true fans.” Average readers with an average interest in their books may buy one or two of them, but true fans will buy every edition of every book they produce, all while spreading the word loudly and often.
These authors do some unconventional things in their books: they buck some of the usual genre expectations, they use occasional profanity, and they are forward in asking their readers for feedback and support. Some cannot stand the way these guys write and promote their brand.
That’s the point, though. All of those things that upset some readers are part of these guys’ brand. Their brand includes two weekly podcasts, one of which is basically them hanging out together and having an aimless conversation. Some may view it as unprofessional, but their true fans love it. Their brand includes a whole line of books that is silly and irreverent on purpose. First-time readers often don’t get it, but their true fans sure do.
As writers and businessmen, they shoot from the hip, knowing full well that they may receive occasional bad reviews on their books or snotty emails. Still, they know that their true fans want and expect them to be genuine. If they altered their brand by toning themselves down, their fans would be disappointed and possibly cease their unconditional support.
Depending on your business model and goals, a large quantity of customers may be necessary. It just seems like these days, people are wising up to the antics of businesses that are blandly inoffensive for the sole purpose of creating mass appeal. People are starting to wonder when the other shoe will drop.
A lot of this depends on what you want as a business person, on what kind of people you want to work with. I want people who appreciate and value transparency, those unimpressed and too smart for pretense. I want the same in return. My business occupies a lot of my time and I choose to enjoy it, and deal ideally only with people I can enjoy it with. There are clients I want, and there are clients I want my competition to have.
And if you feel you can’t be transparent, well, maybe it’s time to examine your own motives.
So, take a risk. Show your true colors so that customers don’t have to guess what you might be hiding. The ones who stay will pay you back with respect and a lifetime of loyalty.