Doubt truth to be a liar: Fake news and customer confidence

October 10, 2019

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Martin Newman

By Martin Newman

The Consumer Champion

Fake news. It’s extraordinary to think, but the phrase has only been around for a few years, yet in that short time it’s become one of the defining characteristics of our age. It began as a political concept, of course, but its tentacles now spread throughout our lives. It’s certainly forced itself on to my watch, casting its pall over retail and marketing.

Here’s the thing. Trust between a customer and the provider of a service is absolutely vital. I’m not misty-eyed or naive I know that people look at the claims of manufacturers and retailers and follow them with a heavy dose of salt, because that’s part of the game, but it’s underlain by a bedrock of basic trust. In the UK, certainly, we take it for granted that what we are told about products or services we purchase or consume is basically true. It might be spun or exaggerated, but we assume that we won’t actually be lied to. I’m worried that that assumption is now under threat, with very serious consequences.

We’re reasonably well served in this country; the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has a robust code to define what you can and can’t say to your consumers. But fake news inevitably chips away at our confidence. It’s not a complicated equation. When you have to regard with suspicion, stories in respected newspapers and the public utterances of various politicians, how are you supposed to put much faith in a line of copy written by an advertising man? Newspapers are meant to be truthful, whereas we expect adverts to polish and shade and glister.

This is just one of the many reasons I’m launching my new website www.customerserviceaction.com, which will make sure that consumers have adequate redress when they get bad or substandard service. Customer rights is an important facet of the broader message of customer centricity that I preach, and consumers need to be able to trust the people they’re giving their money to. You pay for a service and you deserve to receive it, and you should get high-quality service as standard, not as an occasional perk. But the other thing you should get is the truth.

The other aspect of this which interests me is ‘real life’ reviews by customers, similar to the sort of comments you find on Amazon’s website. These are really valuable in that they provide a mechanism by which the consumer and the prospective consumer can feel engaged in the whole retail process. The person who writes an online review or, increasingly, tweets about the service they’ve received or the product they’ve bought does so in the hope that their feedback might reach the provider and might even be taken on board. Equally, other consumers feel that these reviews are a more honest and reliable opinion than that provided by advertisements. It was my fellow Scot David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, who argued that celebrity endorsements were a waste of money, as testimonials from ‘ordinary people’ had a much greater impact on people’s decision to buy this or that product. I think that still holds a lot of water today, which is why online reviews are potentially so powerful. 

Equally manufacturers and retailers need a bond of trust to attract their clients – particularly in a crowded marketplace where they could easily go somewhere else. Get it right, and it’s win-win, a genuinely symbiotic relationship. But if you let that bond erode, fray and, heaven forbid, break, then it’s a very serious problem for the retail sector.

I talk a lot about multi-channel propositions, innovation and disruption. In a way, this is more profound than all of those things. Trust between the vendor and the buyer is the golden thread which runs through everything that retailers and consumers do. We take it for granted, but we shouldn’t. It’s under strain, and we desperately need to make sure it doesn’t break. If it does, everything else might unravel.

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