George Washington couldn’t lie. Honesty is still the best communication policy with customers.

Feb. 21, 2013 | by Jitendra Gupta
George Washington couldn’t lie. Honesty is still the best communication policy with customers.

Legend has it that when George Washington’s father asked him whether he’d chopped down his cherry tree, young Washington said, “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.” Whether truth or fiction, such rigorous honesty is refreshing because it’s seemingly rare these days, plus it establishes real trust.

 But woes betide anyone who breaks that trust by lying. Be it a cheating spouse, a president involved in a cover-up (even a president lying about being up under the covers with someone with a cheating spouse) or a restaurant brand losing its customers’ confidence in its food or service—any dishonesty stings. We don’t like broken promises, whether large or small, taken under oath or implied in an advertisement because truth in friendship and marketing is an unwritten social expectation.

 Subway broke that trust recently when consumers caught stores selling 11-inch sandwiches billed as “footlongs.” Their outrage showed that size matters to customers, even when it’s just an inch of bread, cheese and meat. It’s my guess, however, that people were most ticked that Subway came up short on integrity, not bread.

 And how about the horsemeat-for-hamburger switcheroo in Europe? Why it’s OK to eat bovines but not broodmares is a matter of discussion, but learning after the fact that your burger once was a beast bridled and beloved is a serious matter of indignation and indigestion to billions of people. William Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University put it best when he told ABC News, "People expected one thing and got another. What they got is culturally inappropriate for a lot of people."

Some time ago I addressed the break in trust between a Papa John’s franchisee and thousands of its customers, whose mobile phone numbers were used to text them unwanted messages. Those customers gave the chain permission to communicate deals about Papa John’s products only, not anything else. The abuse of that trust has resulted in a $250-million lawsuit against the pizza chain and its marketing partner and harmed both companies’ reputations.

And here’s what’s really bad: Unlike in Washington’s day, word of a lie travels fast. Word of mouth travels asymmetrically in that negative talk moves exponentially faster than positive talk.With instant mobile phone access to social media, what happens in Vegas never stays in Vegas. Be it a picture of a paramour or a stubby sub, people put such images on the web faster than a spouse or sandwich maker can begin to apologize for the infraction.

In reality, however, such rapid fire access to social media can be beneficial if you engage your customers in that medium and in a way that builds trust. When people criticize your brand in social media, respond quickly and honestly to convince everyone you take their concerns seriously. Learn where the mistake occurred, act to eliminate that problem in the future and consider sharing your corrective actions with your social media fans.

An additional step is to address the upset customer privately, saying you appreciate his concern and want to offer something to compensate for the error. In the end, the cost of a free appetizer or drink spent on retaining an offended customer is insignificant compared to the investment required to gain a new one.

Technology is a tremendous asset in the battle for public integrity because we have the ability to broadcast instantly what we’re doing to correct our mistakes. Just as Washington admitted his fault and immediately regained his father’s trust, we have the power to do the same and restore our customers’ confidence. This is where social media becomes more a blessing more than a curse.

Three key questions that you should be asking, to help you keep your customers loyal:

1. Have you defined your customer communication policy? Ensure that your communication with customers is a high priority, and that your practices are transparent to them. For specific tips, look at our previous blog, Opt-in is not Optional.

2. What is your Mobile strategy?Mobile is increasingly the most preferred channel for customers. Customers like to be heard and often, they will express their negative feedback through third-party sites like Yelp, Tripadvisor, and Urbanspoon. But with mobile devices, your customers can directly share their feedback with you. And you can communicate with your customers directly, and resolve their satisfaction issues before they see the need to go to third-party sites.

3. Do you have a platform for managing and measuring Word of Mouth? Word of Mouth matters because it drives or turns away traffic into your restaurants. Is your marketing platform allowing you to manage and measure your Word of Mouth? It should allow you to encourage positive WOM and to quickly address negative WOM – across any social media. If you cannot measure the impact of Word of Mouth within your restaurant and at the Point of Sale (POS), you cannot manage it.


Topics: Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Online / Mobile / Social, Operations Management

Jitendra Gupta
Jitendra Gupta is a Co-Founder and Head of Product at Punchh, a mobile engagement and actionable insights platform that includes branded mobile apps for campaigns, games, loyalty, online ordering, payments, referrals, reviews, gift cards, surveys, and integrates with social networks and operators’ POS systems to gather 360° customer insights. Punchh helps restaurants increase same store sales and profitability by driving repeat visits, word of mouth, new customer referrals, and higher returns from marketing campaigns. wwwView Jitendra Gupta's profile on LinkedIn

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