A new Wells Fargo Bank television advertisement acknowledges their many recent transgressions and says they’re starting anew in 2018. That’s a pretty gutsy move in trying to recoup customer trust. One must wonder how many people watching TV actually know much about Wells Fargo’s various misdeeds and fines unless they were among those directly affected. Everyone has access to television. Not everyone has a bank account. Not everyone pays any attention to business news. There’s been no run on the bank to make the front page headlines. It’s still a massive organization that protects your money and executes your transactions. It has 269,000 employees, some of whom you probably know and all of whom are grinding away at their jobs. A few bad actors in middle and upper management did all the damage, and they along with the now prior CEO were removed. Hopefully the bank has in fact put these troubles behind it. Will this new TV ad introduce a broader audience to the story and do more harm than good? Will it actually change anyone’s opinion? I wonder.
Facebook’s privacy breaches and poor moderation of ill-intended political posts have made the bold headlines. They even rose to the level of testing the social media knowledge of Congress. But, Facebook still beat its numbers in Q1. It has become a universal utility that serves 1.5B people every day and has proven its ability to deliver ROI to advertisers. I personally find very few people who really care about online privacy. They care about what their cousins and hometown friends are up to. They don’t even mind seeing ads that are relevant to them. Facebook has Metcalfe’s Law on its side and isn’t going to be challenged by a brash startup anytime soon. Facebook’s narrative is pretty simple: we own you and your data, and you depend on us – enjoy!
You as a startup founder do need to pay attention to how your company is perceived by customers, employees, partners, and investors. Chances are you don’t yet have the scale to brush off bad reports about your performance. Not everyone is your friend; you do have competitors that would be happy to see you fail. Yelp, Google, and Amazon reviews are omnipresent, and you have limited ability to counteract misinformation that others place out there. You’ve no doubt noticed that every interaction you personally have with a company where you are a customer is followed by a request for a survey or a request to create a review. I played golf at my Country Club last week, and I got an immediate notification from Google asking for a review of one of our two golf courses. It’s only open to members and their guests, and no member is ever going to publish a poor review. We love that place, and we’re a private club. That one reached a bit too far I thought, but, since in your venture you are eager to sell to anyone who could be a customer in your addressable market, you willingly expose yourself to the rants of the masses. Your stated company purpose is only one portion of your total narrative; the rest you can influence but can’t dictate.
I come from the days when computers and software were often alpha tested by customers. It’s no longer possible to get away with that. If you release something that isn’t up to your promised standards and doesn’t meet customer expectations, you’ll feel the backlash. Your best bet is to react quickly when you’ve committed such a sin and offer to repair, replace, or update whatever slipped through your QC department to end users. You’ll also be well advised to respond online to any bad reviews and to reach out directly to those who submit thoughtful survey responses. You can blast out happy social media all you want, but targeting your efforts to satisfy complainers first is a sound decision.
I took the time to submit a careful critique of a car I bought last year in response to a typical very lengthy survey that you expect to get from independent agencies that manufacturers use to evaluate their products. I enjoy driving this particular car; it fits my needs; and it meets my minimum requirements of supporting Apple Car Play and hauling my bicycles. But, the U/I and U/X of the dashboard make me long for cars of the 1960’s with analog gauges and obvious controls. This one requires reading glasses to decipher many dozens of tiny labels or symbols on the dash and steering wheel controls. And, worse yet, it requires actually perusing the instructions to figure out the not-so-obvious uses of all the things you can manipulate. (No real car guy wants to admit opening an instruction manual. I don’t know how valet attendants keep up with all the controls of modern cars.) The manufacturer responded directly to me, told me my input was unusually valuable, and that they wanted more. My ego was stroked just by the fact that they had actually read my comments and given me some credit for my thoughtfulness in their laborious survey. They’re more likely to keep me as a customer when I next trade, especially if they do in fact act on some of my suggestions.
There is very limited investigative journalism about tech startups. What few print publications that survive are generally only interested in public companies. All the various online services that provide daily or weekly updates about startups publish happy stories about funding events or customer wins or leadership upgrades. Their rare coverage of acquisitions or exits in the private realm doesn’t reveal much about the magnitude of a win or loss. The people directly affected know, but no one else is all that interested. Startup failures occur every day, but the real story is how the entrepreneurs prevail in the long term. Very few bat .1000. One never knows how today’s failure may be setting the stage for tomorrow’s 10X payoff. Like my country club, this is all private information, and no segment, including the investor group, has anything to gain by emphasizing the negative when things don’t work out as planned. There is a certain interdependence in any startup ecosystem where ventures form and reform; key players shift companies and often end up on the same team multiple times; and everyone is generally cheering along their friends on the journey. Investors like Tim Draper in Theranos are still lauding Elizabeth Holmes, who achieved a $9B valuation before crashing under charges of massive fraud uncovered by a pesky investigative reporter from the WSJ. There’s one where the narrative got too glorious and involved a supposed medical breakthrough, so Ms. Holmes became a public figure and a ripe target. Her story is the exception in the startup world. Nearly all of us mortals outside the Valley fly well under that kind of scrutiny.
A reasonable objective as a founder is always to manage your narrative. Despite the title of this essay and as mentioned above, you may not be able fully to control it. Make it your priority to create a dialog with your customer base, whether B2B or B2C, and with all your constituencies. You have plenty of tools at your disposal to assist you in that task. Not all your news will be rosy, and you will surely have to deal with unhappy customers now and then along the way. You can at least shape the narrative by staying in front of the news, making sure your message receives top billing, and dealing swiftly and actively with any complaints that surface. Listen to your audiences when they have valid input; they’ll make you a better company. It’s darn nice when the narrative about your business is exactly as you would like it written.