In today’s world, the term “business values” is often perceived as somewhat of an oxymoron. I can understand why. I’ve learned an important lesson in my 30-year career as an entrepreneur and executive in the technology business: the only thing more important than having defined values is making a commitment to consistently deliver them. That’s what builds trust. And trust is the most important value for any business today.
Think about BP. A number of years ago the oil giant engaged in a large campaign that touted its ethics. It spent $200 million rebranding itself “Beyond Petroleum” and changed its logo to look more modern. The
company’s mission statement declared BP would “reinvent itself as an energy company people can have faith in and inspire a campaign that gives voice to people’s concerns.”
So, a few years later, when BP was at the helm of a series of disasters, including a pipeline leak in Alaska, a plant explosion in Texas City that killed 17 people and injured 170 others, and an oil spill in California, the
public fumed that BP hardly lived up to its newly promoted pristine image. Then, most recently with the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history—the public felt utterly violated. It fueled anger, and retaliation. In less than two months, shareholders dumped the stock and BP lost $80 billion in valuation. Customers launched boycotts, driving sales down 20-40 percent
at some stations, according to some reports. A survey by the USA Polling Group found 60 percent of residents who lived near the spill said they had “no trust” in the information that was being distributed by BP. With that, BP lost something more costly than revenues and valuation.
I know a lot about trust, not because I have better morals or am more enlightened, simply because I have to. As a software company that manages customers’ most important asset, their data, and one that does
so through new and constantly evolving technologies, we must earn the customers’ trust or they will never work with us. As a company that delivers its product as a service, we have to deliver on that promise
every day or customers leave us.
I also know a lot about trust because I’ve personally seen what happens when it’s violated. We’ve had our own oil spill. It was ugly and it could have cost us our business.
In 2005, about six years after we started our company, salesforce.com had earned the respect of large and small customers alike. We were growing very fast. Then, not long after our IPO, we started having brief interruptions in our service. It was only very small amounts of time that the service was down, but this was still a major issue. When we asked customers to sign on to our service we were asking them to relinquish control of their software and data center and put their trust in us. These issues violated everything we promoted.
In actuality, the reason for the issues was fairly simple: the number of users, and the amount of data we were managing, far exceeded the capabilities we had established when we started. The system was showing growing pains. We also discovered that a disk on a server had been installed backwards. It’s the kind of mistake that happens with an Ikea bookshelf, not a $4 million server. But that doesn’t matter. Customers find assigning blame elsewhere off-putting. They didn’t want distractions—they wanted gravitas, regret, and humanity.
Initially, our gut instinct was not to talk about the problems. It wasn’t because we were trying to hide it, but more because we didn’t know what to say. Reliability is everything to a service provider and we monitored our service through an internal system that tracked our total system status. Information in green showed that we were on, red meant that we were off. By clicking on the colored icon you could find out what happened as well as the cause.
My team suggested making this system open and publishing the reliability and transaction rates in real time. Initially, I was opposed. How would competitors use this against us? How would the press use it? Who else has done this? (That list was virtually non-existent.)
After a long weekend with some time to consider all of the possibilities, I decided the short-term pain would be worth the long-term gain. Total openness would further drive us to be better. I named the website “Trust.salesforce.com.”
The Trust Site went up, and something amazing happened. The press stories shifted focus from being about the service interruptions, to being about the Trust Site itself. Wrote Phil Wainewright on ZDNet:
“Why would salesforce.com put such sensitive information out there on the Web for all to see? It’s all about reputation and trust. Everyone knows that systems do go down from time to time…The only way to restore confidence is to make sure that, if it does happen, customers have the best possible information about what is going on. By making its systems status page public, Salesforce has gone one better… There is no better way of conveying to customers its commitment to fixing any service interruptions as rapidly as possible.”
The value of Trust was not in the lexicon of business software before. Now, many companies, including Google and Amazon.com, have adopted their own Trust Sites. But you don’t have to be a technology company to follow this pattern. A consumer goods company that touts eco-friendly ingredients could build a trust site about their green initiatives where they show the materials they are using and their environmental
impact. A manufacturer that claims to work with overseas factories responsibly can support a trust site where it shows how it sources labor. A car company could offer its reliability data and customers could navigate the site to also find out everything from fuel efficiency to service bulletins. And, they should.
This is what’s required in a new era where trust and transparency matter more than ever. In the Internet enabled world, power has shifted away from corporations and to consumers. Just ask BP, which rapidly became quite popular on Facebook: “Boycott BP” quickly garnered 839,923 “likes.” Or ask Facebook itself. Users went into an uproar over a change in the terms of service regarding the company’s ownership of users’
content. Users set up several groups protesting the changes and signed up 31,000 members within two days.
But this revolution should not be feared. There’s a real opportunity for companies to leverage this phenomenon and use it to connect with customers to build trusted relationships. It’s the right thing to do, and there is a secondary gain: companies can join conversations about their company, products, and services in places that have previously been out of reach. It ignites a whole new way—a better way—of doing business.