Listening is the new engagement

How can companies be so deaf?  Why is it so difficult for them to listen to their customers? Do they not know that our unhappiness is not good for their business?  Do they not get that partial truths and obfuscation are not good for business? 

Reebok, owned by Adidas, is the most recent example of corporate deafness.  The company believes that the “toning shoe”, with its trademarked EasyTone technology, “promises better legs and a better behind”. Reebok claims that feedback from thousands of women support the claim that these shoes strengthen legs 11% better than regular shoes, and shapes bottoms 28% better than regular shoes.   The company asserts that the testing they conducted proves these results.  Designed essentially to make walking more challenging, these shoes require the leg muscles to work harder – hence the alleged better results.

Not surprisingly, there are customers who do not believe these claims. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) initiated an investigation, and found the study results insufficient.  In addition, The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus found that “the results that suggest potential toning are clearly insufficient to support unequivocal claims that you tighten and tone with EasyTone.” The financial result is that Reebok is set to pay $25 million in customer refunds to the unhappy customers.

There could have been other ways of dealing with unsatisfied customers. Reebok could have convened the customers who were not convinced of the efficacy of the toning shoes, listened to their concerns and criticisms, brought in their technology experts and athletic trainers to explore the different experiences and concerns.  Armed with this knowledge, Reebok could have then altered the product, shifted the advertising or at minimum set up a “tell us what you think” chat room.  Something to acknowledge that there was at least debate about the shoes’ efficacy.

How else could this have been dealt with: Reebok might have collaborated with the FTC and disgruntled consumers in structuring research.  Instead of battling competing research findings, Reebok could have worked together with other entities so that they could at least agree on the rigor of the research process.  Or Reebok could have altered the brand positioning away from the “evidence-based claim” of leg toning, to something in the zone of “the shoe that makes it just a little easier to get some exercise”. 

Reebok chose the “we will prove to you we are right” route.  There are certainly good, solid legal reasons for taking this, but from an outsider’s perspective It is difficult to understand how those reasons trumped the dire consequences to reputational equity, credibility and ultimately the company’s financial bottom line.  Now the challenge – and threat – to Reebok is not about the credibility of the claim of what the shoe can or cannot do, it is that Reebok has made it clear it does not listen to, or respect, its consumers.  And that is far more damaging than performance credibility issues. 

Companies have been exhorted for many years to get involved in “stakeholder engagement”.  This is not complicated.  It means talking and listening honestly and openly with people – your employees, customers and partners.  Yes, this requires a hefty degree of honesty and trust, and demands that you genuinely respect the people you are talking with – and not to.  Welcome to any good human relationship; welcome to the world of social networking.  Listening is the new “engagement”. 

Speak to us as if you respect us.  Don’t market questionable falsehoods.  Don’t hide behind legal contortions.  Speak a truth.  That is what will win our respect, loyalty and continued purchase – even when you make mistakes. 

How is this complicated?