By Seigyoung Auh, Omar Merlo, and Andreas Eisingerich
In 2012, the global fast food chain McDonald’s launched a website in Canada called “Our Food. Your Questions”. The digital platform allowed consumers to ask the company absolutely anything about its food. As the website increased in popularity and customers asked some very tough questions, the company and its products were not always cast in a positive light. However, McDonald’s was seemingly happy to face both the good and the bad.
Even the toughest critics could vent or probe in the public forum. Immediately after the launch of this initiative, the Internet was awash with claims that McDonald’s had just committed an enormous marketing blunder. Surely shouldn’t a company always strive to present itself positively, minimize public scrutiny and criticism, and carefully filter customer-generated content on its digital platforms? The outcome of the initiative suggests otherwise. The yearly target for questions was exceeded by 400% in only 6 months. The company experienced 10 million interactions online with customer engagement exceeding 4 minutes per visit. Perceptions of the quality of the food, as well as brand attitude measures improved. Most importantly, customers were spending more on the brand, evidenced by an increase of 50% in monthly store visits.
Many companies, however, remain wary of transparency initiatives, as found in our research. This is primarily because the benefits of being transparent are still unclear and poorly documented. We aimed to shed light on this issue. Specifically, we investigated whether transparency has desirable outcomes or if success stories, such as that of McDonald’s, are merely isolated anomalies. The kind of transparency that we studied in our research pertains to activities carried out by businesses to ensure that the information it disseminates about its products and services is comprehensive, objective, accessible, and easily understood by customers. We called this type of transparency performance transparency and developed a transparency scale (a parsimonious 4 item scale) using data from the retailing and banking sectors.
What does being transparent entail?
Organizations may implement transparency through effective website design, analysis of customer data, and testing of customers’ understanding of technical language. They may also strive to provide information that is objective; in other words information, which does not either selectively exaggerate the positives or discount the negatives of a firm’s offering. In this sense, transparency refers to truth, honesty, frankness, and candor.
A growing number of online media facilitate the exchange of information and enable customers to share their reviews on purchase websites, blogs, social networking sites, and online communities. In light of this, providing customers with access to third party information (e.g., reviews by others) is a critical element of performance transparency.
Consider Adidas Boost running shoe, which on its website had customer Twitter feeds and feedback, sharing their experience with the Boost running shoe, giving each other advice, and even pointing out when the running shoes are most effective (dry and cold versus hot and humid). Offering access to reviews by others may also be integrated into a business’s brand community building efforts. Porsche, for example, engaged its GTS drivers community by actively encouraging them to share feedback, information, and the most exhilarating driving routes etc. with one another.
Does transparency pay off?
Our research suggests that transparency has tangible benefits for those organizations that implement it. The benefits mainly arise out of customer-related effects.
First, a company’s transparency efforts tend to act as a signal of goodwill, which can translate into reduced uncertainty and higher customer trust. Customer trust in turn may translate into lower price sensitivity and higher propensity to purchase, and is of course fundamental to the development of valued and lasting relationships. Our research, based on data collected from customers in the airline, hotel, and retail banking industries, confirms a strong link between transparency, reduced price sensitivity, and higher intention to purchase.
Second, when customers are unable to assess a business on a particular dimension (e.g., service quality, reliability, etc.), they may evaluate that dimension less favorably than if the information had been provided to them. For example, in our study we found that customers who read negative customer reviews about a company may feel more assured and confident in their decision-making process and may select that business over one that has no negative feedback. The presence of some negative information tends to make customers feel that the information they have is comprehensive, that any criticisms voiced by other customers has not been filtered, and that their expectations are clear. In other words, when customers see objective information, they tend to feel that they know the whole story and can make an informed decision. In contrast, absence of such information, or overly one-sided information, fails to remove customer uncertainty to the same degree.
Third, contrary to what one might expect, we found that businesses that might be most concerned about being transparent may be the ones that stand to gain the most by signaling efforts in creating quality for their customers. Specifically, we discovered that firms that are viewed as somewhat less capable by consumers benefited even more from being transparent than firms viewed as highly capable. Transparency may thus afford firms with a novel way to differentiate their product offerings and set themselves apart from competition, especially for firms that are perceived to be less competent in delivering high service performance.
Conclusions and Implications
Our research clearly suggests that customers will buy more and spend more when dealing with firms that are transparent. Therefore, companies should consider sharing information with customers that is balanced, objective, easy to access, and easily understood. We would also encourage businesses to rely on their customers as a valuable source of information to aid other potential customers, whether through third-party review sites, open feedback on the company website, or by facilitating customer complaints, etc. Importantly, businesses should not shy away from negative feedback, as it can reduce customer uncertainty and can be a valuable opportunity to establish trust. Managing negative feedback in a public manner can build confidence not only with the customer who voiced the concern, but also potentially with anyone else witnessing how the company handled the situation. Finally, the disclosure of both positive and negative reviews is indicative of a company that cares more about its customers than about its products or services.
Seigyoung Auh is an Associate Professor of Global Marketing at Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU. Seigyoung’s research interests are in the areas of frontline employee’s customer orientation diversity, fit in climate and its impact on frontline employee attitude and performance, service innovation, service leadership, knowledge sharing/transfer in sales teams, sales team learning and conflict. His work has been published in a number of academic journals including Journal of Retailing, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Service Research and others. Seigyoung has worked as a marketing scientist before entering academia and has taught in Australia, Canada, and Korea, before joining Thunderbird. Seigyoung has executive education experience with leading global firms such as Samsung Electronics Company and Hyundai Motors. He also served as the co-director for the CEO franchise program in Korea before joining Thunderbird.
Omar Merlo is Assistant Professor in Marketing at Imperial College Business School. He was awarded his Ph.D. in marketing strategy from the University of Melbourne and his research is primarily in strategic marketing, services marketing, and customer relationship management. His research has appeared in numerous leading practitioners and academic journals, such as MIT Sloan Management Review, Journal of Service Research, European Journal of Marketing, Industrial Marketing Management, Journal of Business Research, Marketing Letters, and others. Dr Merlo consults and teaches for numerous organisations around the world both in the private and public sectors.
Andreas B. Eisingerich works as associate professor in marketing at Imperial College Business School, Imperial College London. He has published on customer-brand relationships, customer engagement, and service management in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Service Research, Journal of Business Research, Harvard Business Review, California Management Review, and MIT Sloan Management Review, among others, and currently services on the editorial review board of the Journal of Service Research.
The article Service Firm Performance Transparency. How, When, and Why Does It Pay Off?, featured in the post, was co-authored by Yeyi Liu (University of Leeds, UK), Andreas B. Eisingerich (Imperial College London, UK), Seigyoung Auh (Thunderbird at ASU), Omar Merlo (Imperial College London, UK) and Hae Eun Helen Chun (Cornell University). It is available ahead of print at Journal of Service Research website. Journal of Service Research is the world’s leading service research journal that features articles by service experts from both academia and business world.
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