Friday, November 26, 2010

The nature of trust

UPDATE 5/24/11: Kimberly Kupeicki from Edelman just showed a slide at Connectivity Week that points out that for a trusted company, only about 1 person in 10 will believe negative information on the 1st or 2nd hearing.  For an untrusted company around 2/3 will believe the bad news the first or 2nd time they hear it.  The Utility Industry in general and Smart Grid in particular are suffering from a "trust deficit."

You have probably seen the brouhaha early in November over a PG&E exec trying to infiltrate an anti-smart meter forum  (and doing a miserably, nay, pathetically bad job of being sneaky.)  If you haven't, Google "PG&E spy" and read some of the reactions there.  Go ahead, I'll wait.

Had enough?  Okay, now let's talk about what's really going on here.  Why is it that in Southern California the reaction to smart metering has been so radical?  Why are people saying that Smart Meters expose people to "powerful spikes of microwave radiation 24 hours a day through our brains and bodies.

Now, I'm not saying anything here about the safety of cellular phone frequencies, I want us to look at the language.  The same thing could have been said "Having a Smart meter is about the same as talking on a cell phone 24/7, and there are peer-reviewed studies which indicate that is dangerous."  Why "powerful spikes"? Why "through our brains and bodies"?  Why those particular words?

The words are strong, yes.  They are also graphic and visceral.  The image one ends up with (subconsciously) is gruesome and gory, with physical spikes being driven though one's skull and torso.  Again, without unpacking the psychology of the language here, why the level of vitriol?  It takes a lot of anger to use (or respond favourably to) words like that.  That anger, and how to address it, is what I'd like to explore.

Here's a basic fact of humanity:  We naturally want to trust the ones we are dependent on.  As infants, we want to trust our parents.  As schoolchildren, we want to trust our teachers.  That's why we view parents who abuse their children and teachers who abuse their authority as so despicable.  It is a violation of an inherent trust.

Here's another basic fact: People have come to see Utility service as essential, like food and clean water.  Our society has come to believe that it dependent on utility services.  To a great extent it is, but I'm not here to debate that point (at least not in this post) so we'll limit our discussion to beliefs.

Now let's put 2+2 together.  People see themselves as dependent on their Utilities. + People want to trust those they are dependent on. = People want to trust their utility.  That's why the backlash is so strong when that trust is violated, for the same reason that we consider adult child molesters the lowest of the low.

PG&E's mistake was not in seeking the information.  The mistake was in seeking it in a way that risks that trust, rather than building on it.  The reason for that mistake lies in the mindset of the executive doing the "research".  He was seeking intel on the plans and motivations of his opponents.  From a business point of view, there's no real problem there. 

The problem lies in the way I worded the action.  I used military words (intel, opponent).  In plain fact there's another, far more useful, name for this particular class of opponents.  Customers.

Now I'm not talking in the business-buzzword "everyone we interact with is a customer" sense.  I'm pointing out the simple, and it seems oft-forgotten, notion that the people who are becoming advocates against PG&E and the smart metering program are regular, ordinary "we pay you for a product" customers.  In short, the smart meter protesters are simply dissatisfied customers.

Any PR or marketing expert can tell you that the best way to deal with dissatisfied customers where you have or want a long term relationship is simple:
  1. Ask them what they want.
  2. Make an honest effort to figure out how to give them the best approximation of what they want.
  3. If what you can offer isn't exactly what they want, honestly explain why, and find alternatives.
  4. Repeat 1 - 3 until the customer is no longer dissatisfied.
Now somewhere in there one has to sleuth out what the customer really wants (as opposed to what they say they want) but that's been the purview of market researchers since Eve decided that the Apple looked like a good idea.  However, I've already given you a good starting point.  One of the things they want (maybe the only thing they want) is to be able to trust their utility provider.

There is a word for this iterative process towards a satisfied customer: collaboration.  Working together to solve a problem, or series of problems.  Collaborative processes work, and work well.  Admittedly, they are also a lot of work in and of themselves.  In my experience, it is well worth it.  Even when trust isn't established, a grudging acknowledgement that the other guy might have a point goes a long way towards finding better solutions, or at least damping down the pejorative language.

I can say from experience that when a company that has a distrustful relationship with its customer base decides to take the gamble, and open its doors to its "opponents" to deal openly and honestly with them, it's a real game-changer.  For one thing, it redefines "winning".  A "win" becomes finding a workable solution, rather than forcing (or stopping) needed change.  For another, your "opponent" becomes your ally (maybe not right away, but eventually) and the problem you both want to see solved becomes the "opponent".

PG&E has an opportunity here, if they move quickly and correctly.  It may require a massive change in corporate culture, because to do this right, you can't really fake it.  It means taking a different kind of risk.

What do you say, Pacific Gas & Electric?  Treating customers as opponents isn't working all that well.  Anyone else?  Anyone?

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