A week or so ago some colleagues and I were having a discussion about transparency. No not the transparency associated with clean windows, but more around how corporations interact with their customers.

Not always an easy topic to discuss because most corporations guard their external profile with care to keep a consistent message lest customers get confused and disoriented about the goals of the company. But these days as so many people with a PC have access to reams of information on every available topic, it becomes difficult to separate what the ‘official’ postition of the company is from what is being written about them by customers and others.

A case in point is illustrated by Dell’s struggle to be transparent to customers and the marketplace when confronted with evidence that serveral laptops had caught on fire. Even over a year later, there are parody videos being created on this issue as it enters the public lexicon. As part of a separate initiative Dell had created a website called Dell IdeaStorm just prior to the incidents reaching the public. The site was to gather from the public ideas and commentary around Dell’s products with ratings and reviews on postings by the community. It has a companion site called Direct2Dell which is a blog about “Dell’s Products, Services and customers.”

So about the time this was all happening the company had several options (maybe more!): stay silent on the issue; put out an ‘official’ statement; deny the link; or come out and say they are looking into the issue. Obviously they chose the latter and in this post responded that they were ‘investigating the cause.’ The first comment on the blog states that the customer, “almost never thought I’d see the day” that Dell would join the conversation on this issue.

Even more telling was the case of the ex-Dell employee blogging about his experience buying a Dell (22 Confessions of a Former Dell Sales Manager) and appeared on the blog Consumerist. It came to the attention of Dell as something which contained from their point of view “confidential information” and they wanted that post taken down. Well you can imagine what happened… Some call it the Streisand Effect, where demanding information be removed calls more attention to the original issue than doing nothing, or just correcting the inaccurate information.

So Dell again realized that their position was not tenable given the criticism they were getting not over the original article, but the follow up to ask for it to be removed. To their credit, they posted a ‘mea-culpa’ with their 23 confessions and very bluntly saying, “We blew it.” They (actually Lionel Menchaca, Chief Blogger for Dell) went on to say, “instead of trying to control information that was made public, we should have simply corrected anything that was inaccurate. We didn’t do that, and now we’re paying for it.”

[In fact, something I learned while reading this post is that Dell wants to be the “Greenest Technology Company on the planet,” and provides free recycling for all consumers worldwide.]

So is Transparency difficult? Absolutely, even in a company as committed to it as Dell. You have to have support from the top of the organization as shown by Michael Dell’s support for the Direct2Dell blog. You have to be in it for the long haul because this can’t be a short-term fix for customer service issues. (BTW, Dell mentions that they have noticed a positive swing in the tone of the blogs towards Dell since they started blogging). And most importantly you have to have a culture that supports it and have faith that just because an situation is complex customers have the capacity to understand the issues. Because these days you have to be ‘working for the customer rather than against them.’