And the Truth Shall Make You Rich!

Tom Peters

I’m inching along in traffic on a winding road, on a hot day, heading toward Half Moon Bay, CA. I’ve got that hopeless feeling, though my gut tells me I’m a mile away at most. Then I spot a highway marker: 2.53 miles to go. Then another, 2.50. Then 2.42, 2.28 … 0.91 … Funny how dramatically my spirits improve once I start eyeing the little signs. Fact: When I saw the first sign, I was almost three times farther from my objective than I’d imagined. Reality: Though tracking the little signs with their accurate, diminishing numbers did nothing to untangle the traffic snarl, it gave me a real sense of control.

Translation into the world of organizations: Three hearty cheers for the Radiology Department team at San Francisco’s St Francis Memorial Hospital. Of course, I don’t have the technical ability to judge their clinical skills. Moreover, my wife, there for a CAT-scan, was badly delayed. Yet, I repeat: three cheers! Why?

Simple: They swamped us with information. Each little delay was promptly explained—an emergency understandably upsets the schedule; or there’s trouble getting a clear radiographic image of another patient. When I wandered off for a few minutes, then returned to the waiting room, someone popped out from behind the desk to let me know Kate was late and why. The radiologist was also informative, providing my wife with a running commentary about what he was up to, what he was seeing, helping her to see what he was seeing—thence diffusing her incipient terror.

It makes all the difference!

In contrast, the flight from Albany, New York, to San Francisco the day before was all too typical of airline practice. Several minutes after our scheduled departure, we were told about a “little” engine problem that “will take about five minutes” to fix. About 15 minutes later, “It’ll be another five minutes.” Yes, we made our connection. But the usual combination of lies and silence took its totally unnecessary toll.

In Chicago for our change of planes, well, forget it. We were bluntly told that the Albany ticket agent had made a mistake. That’s that: Passenger pays the piper. “I can’t explain why he did what he did,” I was coldly “informed,” by way of complete explanation for an altered fare and seating. My recourse: none.

No exaggeration: The most powerful force on earth is man’s need for a sense of control. It led Richard Nixon, with a yawning lead in the polls, to bug the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. It led historically paranoid Russia to annex Eastern Europe after the war, to create a buffer between itself and the rest of us. And it leads you and me to suffer ceaselessly when radiologists, lab techs, ticket agents, and pilots fail to keep us informed, especially in situations where the perception of self-control is automatically low—putting on the hospital gown; being launched in a cigar tube on a 650-mile-per-hour, 2000-mile race across country at 37,000 feet.

Research shows that keeping patients informed can substantially shorten hospital stays. And Walt Disney’s signs letting you know how long a wait to expect help us feel relatively OK waiting in lines that are seldom shorter than anybody else’s. Such evidence and hundreds of studies of what psychologists call “locus of control” all point to one conclusion: Process beats substance.

That is, the way you are handled (informed, misinformed, belatedly informed, not informed) explains more about how you react to a service or product than the result itself—e.g., whether or not the flight arrives on time. Engineers, accountants, and doctors will bridle at this: But I dare them to find contrary evidence.

I’m hardly suggesting that we accept sloppy radiology or piloting in return for accurate, timely information. The point is to urge service-delivery managers to pay strategic attention to the process of keeping people constantly in the know. Hey, it doesn’t take a million bucks—or a Ph.D.—to tell someone you’re going to be late and here’s why. Or that it’s going to hurt, and for how long.

Why do you suppose that mum is most service providers’ favorite word? Pride? Fear? Most likely, ignorance: Technically or administratively trained execs simply don’t grasp swiftly shared information’s enormous power to ameliorate, and frequently eliminate, even the most grievous problems.

The good news is that the cure is simple and inexpensive. Truth. Detailed truth. Timely truth. In fact, perversely enough, the worse the news the better! Just ask Carl Sewell. The matchless auto dealer figures he loses 1 percent of would-be service customers by purposely inflating his service-cost quotes by 10 percent. But he goes a long way toward making the 99 percent who stick with him friends for life by invariably beating his estimates and charging less than expected.

Is this a saga about “managing” customer expectations? Sure. Doesn’t it even border on “manipulating” expectations? Uh huh. But mostly it’s testimony to the power of telling the oft raggedy truth to important “stakeholders” (e.g., customers) who are in perpetual, desperate pursuit of even a modicum of perceived control over their wobbly destinies.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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